Sailing the Sonrisa

For three years, the 38-foot yacht was Cindy Finley's home as she sailed around the Pacific Rim.
Story Jenny McCleery

“Tie that line up. Pull the bow in.” Cindy and Morgan snap to their father’s command. They clamber off the boat and secure it to the dock. The family has just arrived at the Tokyo Wan Marina after circumnavigating the South Pacific. After selling the family smoke-house business, renting out the house, and provisioning the boat, they set out for what was to be a unique adventure. Now, 20 offshore crossings later, they are weatherworn and well accustomed to life at sea.

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The 38-foot yacht Sonrisa had been Cindy Finley’s home for the last three years. She was 11 when she left Vancouver with her two brothers and parents to set sail around the South Pacific. Throughout the voyage, she kept a journal recording her experiences.

One entry describes how she followed a Fijian villager, “Crab Man,” to a burial cave. She climbed carefully up the mountain over sharp rocks as Crab Man glided up in his bare feet. Following him into the cave, Cindy saw the outline of hundreds of skulls. She reached out to feel the smooth forehead of the one at her foot. Crab Man explained that the burial cave was filled 100 years earlier, after a battle with the Tongans.

From Fiji the family sailed towards New Zealand. They somehow managed to get along reasonably well, despite cramped living quarters. During night sailings, Cindy, Morgan and their parents would take shifts watching for ships in their path or dangerous driftwood floating in the water. Weather was a constant concern. To wait out the hurricane season, the family decided to live in New Zealand for six months. During this time, Cindy acquired her kitten, Tigger, who quickly became accustomed to life on the boat.

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Once the threat of hurricanes had passed, the Finleys headed to the Solomon Islands. On Santa Anna Island, they encountered friendly, curious villagers. Cindy’s dad, William, set up their battery-powered TV on the chief’s front porch to play the movie Willow for the villagers. By the end of the video, the entire population of three villages had gathered, forming a massive crowd around the ten-inch TV.

After visiting several Pacific Islands, the family headed to Japan. Cindy’s excitement to get home began after arriving in Tokyo. Sonrisa was soon filled to the brim with provisions and the Finleys set off. Hopes were high despite the 4,200 miles of North Pacific Sea stretching before them.

Almost immediately, their luck took a turn for the worse. Tigger fell overboard the first day, leaving everyone upset. After four days, they had covered only 45 kilometres. First, the boat was caught in a counter-current. Next, there were only infrequent winds. And with little fuel, the boat would drift calmly at half a knot. William dropped an orange peel beside the boat. Twenty-four hours later, they hadn’t moved. The orange peel was in the same spot.

July 29, 1991
Mum’s not feeling too happy because if we keep on making the progress we’re making then we’ll run out of provisions. I CAN’T WAIT TILL WE GET HOME!

Several days later, the noon sky turned black. A torrential storm rolled in. Before long, the boat was being hurled by 40-foot waves. The family watched in horror as a big panel ripped out of the main sail and flew away. Morgan and William struggled to pull the sail in and secure a storm jib to ride out the storm. The next day, Sue repaired the sail using a hand-cranked Singer sewing machine and fabric from the cockpit seat cushions.

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While taking refuge from a tropical storm, the Finleys met these villagers in the Caroline Islands.

On August 10, Cindy was on watch and spotted a Yugoslavian ship in the near distance. After they made radio contact, the captain offered fresh provisions. Cindy and her family cheered in acceptance. The captain radioed back, “We’re coming over to you.” But it was dark with a swelling sea, and the Sonrisa was the size of a mere bird compared to the immense freighter. With intricate maneuvering and two attempts, William managed to hold the boat steady 35 feet away. A line was thrown down which Morgan fastened tautly to the bow. A series of four garbage bags slid down, each filled with food, drinks, and even fresh vegetables. For the family, tearing open the bags was like Christmas at sea. After loud thanks, the Finleys set off cheering.

August 10, 1991
We opened the bags. This is what we found: 25 kg or more of flour, five dozen eggs, 15 lemons, ten grapefruit, ten oranges, two lovely white loaves of bread, rice, one packet of cookies, two chocolate bars, salt, yeast, one case of milk, and three cases of orange pop. Now, not every sailing boat has this happen to them after being at sea for four weeks!

The next couple of weeks were long and draining. Only two weeks from Canada, Sue fell ill. Over the radio, William corresponded with doctors in San Francisco, but they had no diagnosis. William figured it was malaria and administered the cure, an overdose of anti-malarial pills. The doctors wanted to fly her out but Sue and William thought it was too dangerous. The cure took effect and she improved. As time passed, the family became frustrated with the lack of wind, but they loved the occasional powerful gales driving them toward landfall. After 52 days at sea, they spotted Vancouver Island. As they approached their homeland, the family were skinny and dirty, but very happy.

Over the next couple of years, the family settled back into home and city life. Some time after returning, Cindy looked through her journal. She read an entry from the last crossing. In it she described a pod of dolphins performing a spectacular show off the bow of the boat. It was their way of thanking the Sonrisa for leading them through deadly drift nets for two days. The shape of the hull pushed the nets below, allowing clearance. The dolphins swam alongside the bow to safety. Only a child at the time of the trip, Cindy thought the dolphins had lead them. Perhaps one day she will be back on the open sea looking through the eyes of an adult.