WORDS by Leticia Nguyen
PHOTOGRAPHY by Dylan Gill-Vallance
&  Gary Parker

At some stage in many people’s lives, many will entertain the idea about sailing across the seas in a boat and ‘living the dream’. For most people, these pipe dreams never make it further than conversations with mates, but Dylan Gill-Vallance turned whimsy into reality when he purchased a 34-foot mono hull from the states and sailed her back to Oz.

He picks me up for the interview in his cherry red 1965 Ford Coupe, with a beefed-up engine that is one of her customisations and it\’s truly a beauty to behold. He tells me he worked on her over a few years, which already gives me an indication of an admirable degree of patience and dedication he must possess. As we drive to see his boat, Bali Hai, I can’t help but be enthralled by his stories from the sea. Having done the same trip twice now, he\’s become accustomed to people asking him about his voyages, but Dylan has a casual demeanour and is somewhat blasé about his achievements. He\’s genuinely humbled by people’s interest, because to him it’s not that big a deal and in fact says to him it is quite “normal”. What he neglects to realise is that while most people only dream of doing such a thing, he single-handedly brought his dream to fruition.

Dylan grew up in the cosy seaside hamlet of Breamlea, which is tucked away off the Surfcoast Highway, about 28 kilometres from Geelong, Victoria. His childhood was inevitably spent in the water, surfing, fishing and playing in an old dinghy with his mates. While his dad has always been into sailing and Dylan says, “I guess he sort of gave me the spark”, his seafaring experience prior to his first journey was limited to the times he spent taking the dinghy out in the surf with mates. Having broken it repeatedly and having to repair it himself under the guidance of his old man, Dylan learnt how to fix things at a young age. “We would take it out in the surf pretty much and a couple of times we kinda rolled it surfing it to the beach. We use to sail from Bancoora to Torquay quite often and then sail back and a couple of times the swell actually picked up”. He never had childhood dreams of one day setting sail across the sea and admits that he purchased the boat on a whim after some internet browsing where he spotted her at an irresistible price. He was even hastier about sailing her back home and it was only before he left that he did some pre-travel reading in a last-ditch to prepare him for the unknown. Unlike many travellers who get their information from Lonely Planet guides, Dylan sifted through maritime textbooks, charter maps and other technical resources that remain part of his on-deck library. When asked if he felt prepared for the trip that lay ahead, he has a bit of a chuckle as he recalls his leap of faith. “Looking back, it’s pretty shaky how I got started, to be honest. To jump in there and do it, looking back, I kinda cringe a little bit at some of the things I did”.

Dylan picked up his boat from L.A. and then headed to Morrow Bay where he spent 9 months working two jobs and fixing his boat before he embarked on his journey. For the 18 months that he was out at sea, there were times when he was accompanied by mates and his brother, but for the most part, he was solo in his voyage. Although he is someone who enjoys his solitude and comments how it’s pretty cool to be a lone passenger out at sea, there were times when the isolation got the better of him. “When you’re living out on your own in isolation for over a year, it gets a bit old”. I jokingly make a reference to Jack Torrance from The Shining, who went loony while living in isolation and Dylan is glad to say his experiences were not that extreme, but at times he felt himself “wigging out”.

Dylan’s library of books. Not only his teachers, but also his best friends when alone at sea for months on end…

“After awhile, you start to trip out. It’s pretty hard to explain, but you do kinda go into a weird state of mind”. When I ask him to elaborate he says, “I can’t even put a finger on it”, and continues to explain that the strong sense of community with the people you meet in the anchorages is what keeps you sane. “There are always other boats around. It’s like a big family where everybody’s there for each other” “I’ve still got friends from my trips. I’ll meet someone for a couple of days or a week and still be in touch. Everyone is pretty like-minded. To be out there in the first place, you gotta be a certain someone”. His face lights up like Vegas when he talks about his favourite destination, Polynesia. He talks about surfing with locals and how welcoming they are in the surf. “They’re awesome. We need to learn something from them, in the way that their attitude is in the water when they’re surfing. Out there, you paddle out surfing, or somebody paddles into the line up and it’s just the done thing that you touch fists and say g’day”.

From the smiling locals to the wonderful marine life, Dylan was never alone for too long.

Hearing the stories and seeing his photos of the pristine and deserted pieces of paradise where he anchored along the way, I’m in absolute awe of his experiences. From free-diving in Tonga with the sound of humpback whales singing, to surfing perfect and uncrowded waves and catching 4-foot mahi-mahi with ease, he effortlessly makes the voyage sound picture perfect. While he was no doubt living the dream during these magical moments, the journey was not always as idyllic as what these times suggest. “There’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes to keep it working and keeping it safe”. There were times when Mother Nature threw some challenges his way to test the novice sailor. But Dylan welcomes hiccups like these as they only serve as lessons for future reference and says, “They’re the only way that you can learn”. “I’ve had a close call with lightning that was pretty scary. That cut off the electronics and it all shut down, but I was able to reboot them”. The valuable lesson from this encounter was that he needed to be 100% self-sufficient at all times, such as when techno gadgets break down. This got him fired up to learn the ways of ye olde celestial navigation. “If you’ve got a watch and a book, you can do it without anything. I taught myself and spoke to old-timers and picked up little bits here and there. It’s an art that’s dying and it was actually hard to try and track down people who knew what they’re doing”. He says it’s really satisfying to do, although the calculations take up a couple hours out of the day, simply to know where you’re going and this is something you can easily take for granted. “The old guys, I take my hats off to them because they have done it for years without using modern technology”.

Mishaps with nature weren’t the only times Dylan was placed in dodgy situations. While he hasn’t come into contact with pirates, like all good travel stories that involve some sort of run-in with the law, he recalls one incident that he can laugh at in hindsight, although it was quite an ordeal at the time. “One time I left America ‘cos I had no time left on my Visa, so I just cleared out and ran down to Mexico”. “But…my radio wasn’t working, so without checking into Mexico, I turned around and went back to America”. He explains that whenever approaching a port, you have to radio the port captain to let them know you are entering, and this was the small detail that aroused suspicion as he pulled back into port. “They thought that was a little bit dark and that’s when the border security and the feds got interested in me and jumped on board”. “They were all pretty heavily armed and they had a poke around on my boat and escorted me back to the dock”. When they were satisfied that Dylan was not a drug mule as they\’d suspected, he was free to go and this hiccup left Dylan with an indelible note to self: keep radio in working order at all times. When I ask him what would be the most valuable lesson that he has learnt about himself by being out at sea, his response is simply, “You find out that you can deal with anything yourself. Yeah, you deal with everything just yourself. You know you’ve done it, in any situation and you just work through with it and give it a go”.

Dylan’s favourite wave which he often surfed alone.

Dylan is enjoying being back on land for the time being, but is currently working on some restorations to Bali Hai, before he can get her back out into the water. Again, he’s quite modest about his sailing journey and says that the Pacific route is the ‘milk run’ of the ocean and if you’re prepared to make some sacrifices, “Anyone can do it. In saying so, you still get tested every so often”. “Being on the water, knowing the waves and the weather from surfing, I studied marine and fresh water science at university, so I understand the physics of water and marine biology and everything. And just getting on the boat ties absolutely everything I knew altogether. The mechanics, the lifestyle, everything”. Having been convinced by his ‘can-do’ attitude, I feel inspired to pursue my dream of sailing, which is something that I have dreamed about for years. I thank him for his time, say goodbye and promptly make my way to the library where I head straight to the maritime section.