To my loving family and great friends around the world, thanks for your care and support! We are safe, we are well, and we are underway again. It seemed for a while that we were stationary, tangled in a Sargasso Sea of endless repairs and fruitless struggles, but perhaps we were ‘underway’ all along. As one thoughtful friend noted, you can’t really have an adventure if nothing ever happens to you! Words to live by. So now our transmission is transmitting, our refrigeration is refrigerating and the myriad of other odds & ends projects like rebuilding the head (toilet) patching the spinakker, stitching the mainsail and many, many others have finally been ended. The immigration service, known to me only as ‘Monsieur le Haute Commissaire,’ has been mollified with numerous letters and reams of documentation so we have a brief time to experience the Society Islands before our twice-modified visa extensions expire. Ultimately, we spent seven weeks at the dock in Tahiti.
Since leaving Papeete we’ve had several days exploring the lush, tropical islands of Moorea, Huahine and now Tahaa. There’s been incredible snorkeling with myriads of colorful fish and spotted eagle rays (in one instance, thirteen of them!) flying in formation. In Haapiti (West Moorea) we had a couple days of surfing in hollow waves breaking on treacherous coral reef. Forever etched on my brain is a moment of terrifying beauty and clarity as I looked down the glassy barrel of ‘my wave’. Yesterday we sailed into the lagoon in Tahaa and had just enough time for an evening kiteboarding session; turquoise water below, an artist’s rendition of a colorful sunset sky above. We saw pods of whales fishing and breaching up-close. We even caught a couple fish during our inter-island sails: a nice Bonita and a Wahoo small enough to receive our gratitude and be released on good behavior (my cousin Sal will be thrilled). The kids are finding a good balance of school and fun. Sarah is avidly focused on marine biology and learning Japanese. Sean, interested in nautical engineering, is focused intently on math, physics and beginning French. I am deeply in love with my beautiful wife and, unlikely as it may seem, she loves me too. Life is good.
Although there’s no sense in dwelling on the negative, the analyst in me wants to better understand how we became tangled in that Sargasso Sea in the first place, and how we got out. The details are specific to our voyaging lifestyle, but the basics are applicable to life. What happens when you are presented with a fairly long string of bummers? What can you do when, despite all efforts to avoid and resolve them, more bummers just keep coming? I still don’t know, but here are a few thoughts on the matter.
We humans are naturally inclined toward pattern recognition. It’s in our genetic code. Therefore, it’s easy to understand how we come to perceive and focus on naturally occurring patterns in our lives, like a series of negative events for example. Once we recognize a pattern it often becomes what we see. Our minds work to resolve the pattern amidst the chaos of other events in our lives. There are likely other patterns happening simultaneously, but they exist in periphery because our minds work so hard to identify the primary threat. This is the classic example of perception becomming reality, and I believe it is partly what pulled my adventuring spirits down during our difficult time in Papeete.
During this time I had the pleasure of meeting a uniquely positive person, the visiting parent of a young cruising friend. She wasn’t any more or less fortunate than anyone else, she was simply more positive. She seemed naturally inclined to identify the positive, hopeful patterns in life just a bit more than the average bear. Although our interaction was brief, it was for me a timely occurrence that helped me to ‘flip the switch,’ allowing our own series of negative events to slip into periphery while I chose to identify a more positive pattern. What I saw was a loving, caring network of amazing people in my life whom I am honored to know and love in return. I think it’s pretty incredible that we have the power to choose what patterns we see in our lives, and that those perceptions become our reality.
Around the same time I had another paradigm-shifting thought. It’s heavy, so hang tough. The Buddha, said “life is suffering; the key is attachment.” I wasn’t there, but that’s what they tell me. During our difficult time in Papeete this quote kept coming to mind. Life is suffering, I am struggling, what a bummer! But what I love about this initially depressing phrase is the beauty and simplicity of the hopeful message it contains. One could argue, perhaps, that the human condition is to suffer, to stress, to fear and to struggle. We certainly do a fair bit of these things in pursuit of our petty lives. However, the thought that we alone hold the key to release ourselves from the bonds of suffering by identifying and releasing our attachments is powerfully human, and ultimately empowering. In this case I was attached to the ideas that I should be completely in control of my life, that I should be able to prevent all negative events, and that it’s unfair to have such a long and costly string of problems. Once I was able to see how desperately I was clinging to these points and let them go, there was no more struggle, only forward steps.
At the moment, our forward steps take us farther westward, toward the Cook Islands, Tonga and ultimately New Zealand, where we plan to spend about five months exploring and waiting-out the Southern Hemisphere cyclone season. Looking ahead to a more-or-less stationary voyaging environment, and contemplating what our subsequent plans will be brings up plenty of questions about our next career steps and how (and if) we might return, someday, to lives ashore. For the moment, all we can do is have faith and trust that everything will work out as it should. We are living today, and life is good.
Like it or not, extended voyaging on a sailboat is an excellent way to discover all sorts of things about yourself. On the basis of full disclosure I should probably mention that I’ve reached something of an emotional low point. I realize it’s difficult to fathom given that we are currently in, of all picturesque vacation spots, Tahiti, but it’s true nonetheless. Yes, the sun is shining. Yes, the water is actually that miraculous blue and turquoise seen in the travel brochures. These posts are about our perspectives while living the voyaging life, so please, allow me to explain.
After about a month exploring the Marquesas, s/v Batu moved on to Fakarava atoll in the Tuamotus, where we met up with Karen’s Mom, spending almost three weeks resolving some of our long-standing engine issues and enjoying life in, and on, the water. Our next stop, Tahiti, was to be a short one. For all visitors to French Polynesia a check-in/ check-out with the main immigration office in Papeete, Tahiti is mandatory. We had hoped to pick up a few key supplies and replacement parts while in the city of Papeete and move on quickly to the less populated, more scenic leeward islands of Raitea, Tahaa, Huahine and Bora Bora.
We arrived in Papeete after a decent two-day sail from Fakarava – Granny’s first-ever ocean passage. We had decent winds in the 15 – 25 knot range and all went more or less as planned. The Stugeron we gave Granny as a prophylactic for seasickness knocked her out for almost a full 24 hours. Once recovered Granny enjoyed the remainder of the smooth passage with the rest of us and synced flawlessly with our shipboard ways. Despite being a crew of 5 people aboard a 40 foot monohull (perhaps 350sq ft of living/ storage space), we have gotten on incredibly well in terms of living arrangements.
While many of our pending engine issues like the heat exchanger, transmission oil cooler, v-drive cooling seals and raw water strainer cap have been resolved by recent parts infusions, we have new problems we’re managing now, most notably the leaking transmission seals. This was underscored on arrival in Papeete when, after carefully topping up the transmission fluid and sailing right up to the pass entrance, our very short 20 minute motor through the pass and directly to the most central marina left us with just barely enough transmission fluid to drop into reverse and stop the boat. It took me several days to acknowledge that this confirmed the looming transmission seal issue we were wrestling with upon departure from Mexico.
Grudgingly, I ordered a transmission rebuild kit and main oil seal kit for our 1977 4.108 and Paragon hydraulic transmission. These parts were so unlikely to be found in Tahiti that, after asking around a bit and receiving laughter in response, I didn’t waste much time trying. So this is what “overnight” shipping looks like from the US to Tahiti:
Transmission Rebuild Kit $189
Overnight Shipping (US address) $128
FedEx International (US to Tahiti) $134
Agent’s fee to clear “duty free” $70
Dinghy fuel (25 miles traveled) $30
Total time to “in hand” 11 days
Calls to arrange (@ 3am local) 5
Emails to arrange (various) 12
Total Cost Best not to think about it
This is for one of the three shipments ultimately needed. Suffice it to say, these things are complicated. To be expected I suppose.
Add to this, me removing the shaft coupling, v-drive, reduction and transmission for the first time on my own and with the boat in the water (where a mistake means we sink). Daunting, for sure.
Next, the refrigeration system begins to act crazy and, in a moment of weakness, we call in an expensive specialist who KILLS the system without apology or remuneration. This forces us to order a new electronic control module from the US (repeat list of extended costs and hassles above).
Naturally, once he has our transmission in hand, the mechanic won’t return my calls, so I focus on smaller tasks around the boat which take ridiculous hours and numerous excursions to find the most basic of parts. Despite our best efforts to solve the transmission problem quickly, while we wait, our 90-Day tourist visas expire, forcing us to gather reams of documentation to prove our situation and apply for an extension with the Haute Commissaire. None of the required letters or interviews are in English.
Because of the transmission issues, we stay in Marina Papeete, which is pleasant because of the beautiful city park wrapped around it and ideal because of it’s central location. Marinas, however, aren’t cheap. Like any city, Papeete has beauty such as the park, the grand market and the municipal pool we use regularly, but there’s also real ugliness like the poverty, homelessness and pollution that are plainly visible. The Marina and nearby park are clean and well-kept, so we were surprised when we found evidence of rats on board after leaving a trash bag in the cockpit overnight. We fought them off mercilessly, and appear to have won, but we still remain vigilant in case the nasty critters get the idea to return.
I must admit, this – all of this – stacked atop months of relentless, self-applied pressure to keep our family safe and keep us going; this has gotten to me. I need a break. We came for freedom, but nonetheless we are trapped here, at least for the moment.
My reaction is frustrating and disappointing to me, but it’s real and it’s human. Once I stop railing against it and simply accept, then I can move on. The movement comes slowly, and in increments so small they are hardly noticeable. We’re not out of the woods yet, but if we keep working at it, we might be eventually, or perhaps we’ll just move into different woods. To struggle and fail is only human. To fail and keep trying takes a real bonehead, but it’s also the only way forward. Perhaps part of my therapy is to start a club for other boneheads. We can sit in a sharing circle and discuss stationary boat life. I’m quite sure the officials will forceably remove us from French Polynesia when our visa extensions (and cash) run out, so forward ho, on we go! I’m feeling better already.
Have you ever found yourself wondering what heaven looks like? Sometimes I imagine a tropical paradise where the white sand seems to exist solely to anchor waving palm trees and to separate the blue of sky from the blue of water. Is it really possible for the sea to be crystal clear as well as turquoise, azure, and cerulean at the same moment? I can tell you now that such places do exist, but it’s not exactly what I thought.
We are now at a small anchorage called Hirifa in South Fakarava. There’s no doubt, this place is special. Sheltered from the strong prevailing trade winds, the anchorage at Hirifa tucks in behind the reef and behind a small boomerang-shaped spit of sand and palm trees at the SE corner of the atoll. Batu lies placidly in 25 feet of extremely calm, clear water over white sand and coral. Every day we dinghy, swim or paddle a few hundred yards to shore to snorkel, SUP, kiteboard, or just walk along the shallow waters of the lagoon. With a perfect combination of white sand and coral bommies, this is a very relaxed place to see an astounding array of corals, and to watch the tropical fish, turtles and reef sharks do their thing. The flat water kiteboarding here is an incredible experience, riding just inches above the coral. What an amazing thrill it is to gaze at all the life beneath while gliding effortlessly above it. I have grown almost accustomed to dodging corals and startling 4 to 6 foot black-tip reef sharks as I skim along the surface on a kiteboard. For jumping, learning or simply more forgiving riding, we head for the deeper water so as not to be raked over (or damage) the jagged corals. Both Sean and Sarah have quickly taken to kiteboarding in this stunning setting. It certainly helps to have warm, steady winds and luxurious, clear waters. It is like heaven, and we soak it up.
This perfection is real, but it’s only part of the story. Beneath this heavenly tropical backdrop is an undercurrent of stress, pressure and isolation. Since just before leaving Mexico we’ve had a fairly constant stream of mechanical concerns with the boat. First we needed to replace our fresh water pump, then it was the heat exchanger. Since it was not possible to find or import the proper heat exchanger in Mexico, we jury-rigged the best temporary one we could find. This, however, created continual stress by significantly limiting our RPM’s for fear of overheating. On top of this, we had a blockage in the raw water cooling line which blew up an impeller causing chunks in the cooling system and subsequent taking-apart, back-flushing, reassembly and repeated priming of the entire cooling system (while underway). We also experienced repeated leaks at the strainer cap which had to be continually managed until we could find the proper O-ring to seal them. Next, the transmission oil cooler began to develop a leak, followed closely by the raw water seals on the V-drive, necessitating continual oil changes and very active management.
After Granny arrived in Fakarava with our new heat exchanger and oil cooler, we were looking forward to having some these uncomfortable issues resolved so we could relax, just a bit. While the replacement parts did solve several of these points, we pulled into an anchorage to discover that we had no gears – either forward or reverse. This was caused by failing transmission oil seals. Keeping transmission fluid actively topped up is gives us some mobility. However, attempting to raise anchor one day we again found no gears. This time a shift cable support had aged-out, necessitating a day’s worth of custom fabrication and repairs inside an impossibly tight space.
The Marquesas and the Tuamotus are incredibly beautiful, but also incredibly isolated. Parts and mechanical help are simply not available, or would come at a ridiculous premium in terms of time, money and effort. While sitting comfortably in a marina these issues would be an annoyance. But when they affect our ability to safely move the boat through the reefs and passes we have to navigate to find replacements, it creates continual stress and relentless pressure.
Is it just us? No. Nearly every other cruising boat we know is experiencing something like this. For some it’s radar, for others, alternator, auto-pilot, generator, or even rigging (a few boats without masts). They say that cruising means fixing your boat in exotic locations. I thought I was well-prepared for this pressure, but perhaps not. I expected there would be occasional relief. I expected our proactive approach to mean that the pressure would be less serious – like needing to replace worn lines at the next major port. In fact, our proactive approach has meant we haven’t been stranded or washed onto the reef somewhere. For this, and the heavenly places we get to be stranded in while making repairs, I am thankful.
Perhaps heaven really is a balance of chaos and harmony. I reflect on all of this as I sit on deck watching the sun set and sipping a cold cervesa – the last of our stash from Mexico. I imagine the scene making a beautiful cover shot for the cruising magazines. I visualize the caption “By the time you get here, you’re really going to need this.” While I don’t think the magazines will like it, that’s truth in advertising. At the moment, my heaven is a 50/50 affair. It’s heaven after all, but there’s a twist-ending.
We departed Fatu Hiva on a beautiful, sunny day with warm, moderate trade winds filling our sails from astern. What could be more perfect? The weather forecast was looking great, with steady trades and mostly stable conditions forecast for the estimated 5 day passage. We settled in for a nice, easy broad reach to the Tuamotus. But with sailing and with life, you get what you get and you make the best of it.
As one might infer from the above foreboding, a low pressure trough forecast to pass West of us, saw it’s opportunity and swung overhead giving us generally adverse conditions for the majority of the passage. The trough came with strong squalls, rain, shifty winds and contrary swell that slapped us around, filling the cockpit several times during one white-knuckle, midnight to 4am watch. Karen is amazingly robust, but everyone has limits and this watch approached her’s. After the wind passed, we were left with exceedingly light conditions making progress difficult, at best. In fact, we were bobbing like a cork on glassy, rolling seas. We ultimately resorted to motoring slowly, a difficult decision given that we were nursing the boat through several mechanical issues including a jury-rigged heat exchanger, a corroded oil cooler and newly leaking v-drive seal.
The Tuamotus are a group of doughnut-shaped coral atolls that surround the place where ancient volcanos used to exist. The original volcanic islands have been worn away by many millennia of pounding seas so that only the fringing reefs remain around beautiful coral lagoons. Some of the Tuamotus are closed, while others have reef passes allowing boats to access the lagoon. With strong currents and hidden coral obstacles, reef passes can be dangerous and challenging even to a vessel in strong mechanical health. Because of this we choose to visit Fakarava, a large, beautiful atoll with an airport and relatively easy reef pass. The airport was necessary so that we could meet up with Karen’s Mom for a long-awaited visit. Even with an easy pass, it’s imperative to properly time an atoll entry with the tides, which effect and amplify the already powerful movement of water in and out of the lagoon. If not timed properly, one can easily be swept into coral heads, large breaking waves, or be unable to maintain enough speed to enter or exit the lagoon.
Based on the original weather forecast, we had hoped to make the 550nm passage from Fatu Hiva to Fakarava in 4 or 5 days, but as time marched on it appeared clear that we were not going to make the afternoon slack tide through the North Pass. The updated GRIB file and forecasts predicted continued light winds. This meant another night at sea, going slow and standing-off at the entrance to await the next day’s slack tide. Knowing that Granny was waiting for us in Fakarava made this a difficult point to accept, but as the light evening air freshened we were thrilled and grateful to finally turn off the motor and ghost along at a similar speed under sail.
During the wee hours of the morning a surprising thing happened. Ever so gradually the light air filled in to a zephyr and increased to a breeze, continuing to freshen so that, as we sailed between our first atolls into relatively smooth, sheltered water, Batu was happily churning along at 7 knots or more. My brain was telling me we’d never be able to sustain this speed through the coming hours. The responsible thing to do would be to reduce sail and slow the boat down. At least that way we’d have fewer hours to stand-off at the entrance. My heart, however, said Batu was too well-balanced, too perfect, too joyous to slow down. She was doing what she was built to do. So, I threw reason astern and let her run on our miracle breeze. Godspeed, I think.
Impossibly, we pulled into the North Pass of Fakarava 15 minutes early for the afternoon slack, and just as another squall was darkening the skies, bearing ominously down on us. Despite the rain, the heavy chop and several miles of excruciatingly slow progress into 25 knot winds, we pulled into Lagoon de Fakarava, laid our anchor down, and celebrated togetherness with Granny just as darkness slid over the last of passage day 5. It’s a small thing, but for us it was magical to feel as if miracles really do happen.
Tonight I stand in the cockpit with the towering confines of Hanavavae Bay surrounding and enclosing me. I am still deciding if it feels protective or foreboding. The wind moans through our rigging and this curious song entwines with the rhythms and tones of tribal drumming which whip, with the strong and gusty winds, out from shore. I also hear the crash and swoosh of swell mixing and tumbling on the rock walls of the bay just a boat length away. It raises in me a curious mix of interest, apprehension and concern. I imagine what it must have been like for the first explorers, little more than 100 years ago, to have heard the same sounds. I’m certain they would have been filled with dread and foreboding in this wild place. The deep thrumming of those drums awakening primal emotions, the chorus and coordination of them suggesting a well-organized military precision and almost certain, grizzly death as someone else’s dinner.
Hanavavae Bay, on the island of Fatu Hiva, is a special place. Named originally for the distinctively shaped rocky pillars which surround it, it feels spiritual, almost mystical, and possibly a touch magical. Like many places in the Marquesas, the rocky walls are improbably tall and impossibly steep – near vertical for almost 2500 feet, enclosing the bay. Here and there the rocky walls are dotted with overhanging rock formations which look for all the world like huge carved tiki faces watching the bay and the narrow gateway to the deeply cut valley beyond. To be truthful, not all the rocks look like tikis. Several in this valley look exactly like giant phalli dotting the valley like so many erect,…er, spires. Apparently, this place was originally named Baie des Verges (Bay of Penises), but since early Christian missionaries felt the name inappropriate, with what one might consider healthy irony, they renamed it Baie des Vierges (Bay of Virgins) to protect the locals from the obscene reference. Surveying the immediate landscape, I’m not sure if anyone was much fooled.
During our first approach of Hanavavae Bay we did something we said we’d never do; we entered an unfamiliar anchorage at night. Having just completed a very rough passage beating upwind into 20 – 25kts (true), we were knackered. The passage from Hiva Oa to Fatu Hiva took almost 14 hours, and was made even more exhausting by choppy 12 foot seas and occasional rain squalls. Karen was stuck below with a nasty infection and the cockpit was a wet, splashy affair, so I was basically single handing for the duration. When we arrived around 9:30 pm, we hoped there would be room in the small anchorage for us to drop the hook. We crept the boat in slowly using HD radar plus a sliver of moon to shed some light. After one brief, nerve-wracking pass through the anchorage we determined that seven boats (only 3 with mast lights!) in this particular space makes the anchorage tight – claustrophobic actually. There was no way we were going to try setting anchor in the dark. In fact, just creeping out of the anchorage put us extremely close to the other boats and the rocky edges of the bay. Once out of the bay we hove-to in the lee of the island, the thundering sound of waves smashing into Fatu Hiva’s nearly vertical face echoing eerily for the rest of the night. In daylight we returned to Hanavavae and saw just how tight the anchorage was. The bottom contour is so steep that the depth changes from 150 ft to 50ft in one boat length. The sides of the bay go from 50 ft depth directly to vertical to rock walls. The six boats already anchored were packed in like sardines, and we would need at least 400 ft of chain, 120 ft more than we carry, to anchor safely in the deeper water. After three unsuccessful attempts to set the anchor well with suitable room, we were relieved when one boat cleared out, making our fourth attempt a successful one. Finally we were well-set in 50 ft depth, although we still swung to within a boat length of the precipitous side walls.
Despite the ominous nighttime drumming, our daytime explorations proved the locals to be quite friendly. One afternoon, as kids and I explored the valley, we spotted several bee hives and heard beautiful music coming from a small home nestled near a stream. We turned to go, but an older woman came out of the home and gestured repeatedly for us to come visit. Josephine and her husband spoke no English, but they welcomed us graciously into their modest home, just happy to meet and talk with us as we passed by. They showed us their simple home, which had no furniture at all, only a mattress and a large freezer chest on the floor. The walls were filled with family photos and achievements. Fortunately, we were able to make my rusty French work well enough to find out about this couple, their grown children and grandchildren. The most-used area of their home was the back porch, nothing more than a handmade shed roof over an earthen floor, with several large picnic tables and piles of fruit. They gave us delicious honey that tasted of mango blossoms, and a potent home-brewed honey-wine that, although tasty, echoed through my gastro intestinal system for the next 24 hours. Josephine’s husband played music for us on his hand-crafted Polynesian banjo, an 8-stringed affair that sounded just right for this rustic setting. We shared stories and when we finally left, we did so with arms filled with fruit and faces filled with smiles, having made new friends in what initially seemed like a very strange and ominous place.
The Marquesas are governed by France and, as such, French language and culture are predominant. After spending 6 months in Mexico, the transition from Spanish to French is still a little awkward for me, despite the fact that my French used to be fairly passable. Although the language is no surprise, some of the other aspects of French culture still catch me off guard. Mornings start early – really early. If you don’t make it to the market by 4:30 – 5am you can forget about fresh veggies. The fish sellers close down by 8am. Fresh bread? The baguettes are cheap and fantastic, but you’d better get there before 9am or you’re not likely to find any. Nearly all stores close for lunch from 11:00am until 2pm, and some reopen from 2 or 2:30 to 5 or 5:30pm.
As one might expect, the prices for imported provisions in these remote and sparsely-populated islands are quite high. Restaurant prices are like the US, plus 30% or more. After Mexico, where food is ridiculously cheap, the prices seem especially steep. But the economy is subsidized by the French government, so some grocery items are staggering, while others are strangely reasonable (red-tagged items are subsidized). We gear our provisioning to the subsidized items and have done alright. Sadly, French wines don’t appear to be on the red-tag list, but we have found some staple foods at decent prices including Brie & Gruyere cheese! We’re also enjoying local fruits, such as papaya, and pomplemousse (sweet Polynesian grapefruit). There’s also fresh-caught fish like tuna and wahoo that are cheap, plentiful and seriously delicious. One of the few restaurant meals we enjoyed was “poisson avec sauce vanille” (fish with vanilla sauce), a shockingly scrumptious combination!
In most of the Marquesas, pigs, goats and chickens roam freely, not just in town, but also in the mountainous wilderness. It makes driving fairly exciting, but I suspect it makes putting food on the table a simple affair for most Marquesans. Between this, the bountiful fish and the unbelievable plenty of fruit available everywhere (literally falling off the trees), most Marquesans don’t really need much from the “grocery store.” Therefore, all that’s offered through the Marquesas and Tuamotus are simple convenience stores called magazines (pronounced maga-zhan).
This plentiful bounty affects many things, even (I think) the culture. Polynesian culture has a strong respect for the past, and focus on the present, but there’s no such thing as planning for the future. In fact, we’re told that Polynesian languages have no words for “future.” Why would you, after all, with only minor seasonal variations in weather and harvest? This creates very subtle, but profound cultural differences that can puzzle and surprise visitors like us.
Unfortunately, the clock is ticking on our time in French Polynesia. The standard visa only allows US citizens a visit of 3 months. So we’ve moved on from Nuku Hiva to the Marquesan islands of Oa Pou and Tahuata. We found one of the loveliest anchorages in Hanamoenoa Bay, Tahuata; the water is crystal clear with white sand bottom and fringing coral all around. The underwater visibility is amazing, and there are loads of happy reef fish to enjoy it with us. The kids are now regularly free diving to 30 – 35 feet, much easier to consider when you’re swimming through turquoise glass than in the dark murky depths we’ve been previously accustomed to. It has been a real joy. As we contemplate a rendezvous with Granny in the Tuamotus the time is growing tight; we consider skipping our visit to Fatu Hiva, the last Marquesan Island we’d hoped to visit. All is well. We are together, exploring and learning about ourselves and our world as we go; you can’t ask for much more than that!
I’ve never had any interest in getting a tattoo. But strangely, in this confluence of time, place and circumstance, it seems oddly right to have someone I’ve never met draw painful and permanent marks on my body. Go figure. There’s something extremely meaningful to me about the month-long passage we’ve just completed; it represents a significant overcoming. After years of struggling to free ourselves from the cultural gravity of our lives in the US, it’s as if we’ve finally burst through and cleared the atmosphere to reach a certain orbit. The fact that we worked together as a team to reach our goal, and that we completed the passage despite having to turn back to Mexico once makes it even more special. This is a rite of passage.
Polynesian designs have always intrigued me, the graceful yet primitive symbols represent clear concepts and are arranged to tell a story as much as to create a beautiful design. While it’s unclear where tattooing was originally developed, it has certainly been a significant part of Polynesian culture for thousands of years, as it is today. All through French Polynesia having a tattoo is not counter-culture, but culture. Nearly everyone here wears a tattoo. It’s a way of celebrating one’s life and family as well as an individual expression.
After studying the meanings of various design elements and seeing some work done by a local artist named Moana, we take the big step and make an appointment. Tuesday is tattoo day. We’re all psyched up (it takes some oomph to overcome the fear) and come at the appointed hour to find out what they mean by “island time.” The island time translation for “Tuesday at 10am” is actually Wednesday at around 1pm, with several hours of standby time in between. That’s OK, we can do island time. At the end of the day (Wednesday) we have authentic Polynesian tattoos. Karen’s wraps around her ankle. Mine is a Polynesian band around my upper arm. I’m here to tell you the soft skin on the inner arm is pretty darned sensitive! In traditional fashion, the design elements tell a detailed story about this time in our lives, our passage, the courage and determination it took to get here and the fact that we did it together. It is intensely personal and I’ll wear mine proudly for the rest of my life.
During our first few weeks in the Marquesas we’re starting to grow accustomed to some of the local wildlife. Regular rainfall creates many steep streams here in the Marquesas, and also in the Society Islands, and most of the these streams support large, freshwater eels – apparently not dangerous but very large and (my opinion) really ugly. Hiking in the Taioa valley with our Marquesan friend Paul, we encountered a pair of eels in the stream we were crossing. I can handle plenty of creepy-crawlies, but snakey things really freak me out. So, as we hiked through the 4 foot deep water, I was just a bit taken aback to see two fanged heads, each almost as big as a person peering out from under a large rock. When Paul went to “pet” one of the eels, it slid out from under it’s rock and past our legs to reveal it’s full 6 foot length, 10 inch diameter, and large anterior and posterior fins running from head to tail. OK, YUK! I’m assured these things are totally harmless, but I’m still warming up to the idea that they’re in most of the streams around here.
With decent rainfall, streams and lush jungly growth you might expect a decent population of mosquito’s & no-no’s (no see-um’s) and you’d be spot-on. Like authentic tourists, we’ve gone through several cans of bug spray, and we’re still covered in bites. Sarah seems to be particularly susceptible. She’s a human pin-cushion, the poor kid! All of us have been well covered in bites from just brief lapses in bug-spray coverage, and we’re getting used to the idea that the spray doesn’t prevent bites, just reduces the number of them. Although there is Dengue fever around, we’ve seen no symptoms yet – fingers crossed! Of course, somehow most of the locals casually brush the bugs off and seem virtually unaffected.
One type of creature we’ve had no trouble getting used to are the Manta rays which frequently comb the surface of protected bays to feed. Distinctively marked in black and white, most of the rays we’ve seen are small (for Manta) but still impressive with 5 – 7 foot wingspans. They are magical to watch, cruising gracefully along the surface of the water, often just a few feet from our boat or dinghy. Their wing tips move slowly up and down, occasionally poking up from the surface, while they funnel huge amounts of water into their mouths. Likewise, we occasionally see green and brown sea turtles swimming on the surface, popping their heads up for a look around.
No matter where you are, it’s easy to get caught up in hype. When we arrived in Nuku Hiva most cruisers told us how sharky the water was. We had daily rains so the water was quite murky and it was easy to imagine sharky shapes drifting through the murk. In fact, they were not imagined. There are plenty of sharks here; black tips, lemon sharks and hammerheads mostly. We were understandably a bit spooked and stayed clear of the water, something that’s hard to do in South Pacific heat. The locals say “no problem, we swim there all the time!” The truth is, the sharks are very well fed here – there are fish aplenty, and people are not their natural food source. Locals suggest that, as long as you don’t tie yourself to a fish, you’ll be fine. It makes a certain amount of sense, but involves a paradigm shift for us. One needs to be ready to swim with sharks.
So once the water cleared up we began to whittle away at our fears, taking quick dips for bathing, cooling and boat maintenance. Although dark below, on clear days we can look down the anchor chain to a depth of 30 – 40 feet, or more. One late afternoon around 5pm I pushed myself to dive beneath the boat for an extended time and clean the through hulls. The cleaning went well and the 85 degree water felt heavenly! I swam around the boat and gave her a good scrub along the waterline. A few minutes after I got out of the water Karen gulped a subdued squeal. I saw turbulence swirling against the side of the boat and a hammerhead shark crossing back along the port side, moving quickly. From what I understand, this is no big deal. This guy was only 5 or 6 feet long, so probably not a threat to me, but still, it takes some getting used to. Apparently the worrisome sharks are the ones large enough to require large marine mammals (like seals) in their diet. “Large enough” apparently means a shark of 15 feet long or more. We have plenty of these in Oregon, but I’ve always tried not to think about them, and have never seen one. This experience did little to enhance my paradigm shift. Experienced divers and surfers are used to sharing the water with sharks, but I’m still growing accustomed to it.
Getting rested from our month-long passage and previous months of preparations took a bit of time. After a week, we started venturing out from Taiohae Bay (pronounced Tai-o-hi-ay) to explore more of the island of Nuku Hiva. We hiked and dingied around Taiohae at first, slowly adapting to the language and the culture. We rented a car for a day and enjoyed incredible scenic vistas, archaeological ruins and the bliss of air conditioning. While we saw some wonderful sights, certainly one of the highlights of our exploration was the week we spent anchored in Daniel’s Bay, known locally as Taioa Bay (pronounced Tai-o-ah).
Daniel’s Bay is at the foot of a deep-cut valley protected by dizzyingly tall 2000 foot walls, jagged and rough, with massive rockfalls and chutes that turn to rushing whitewater the instant rain begins to fall. This incredible valley was carved by the Hakatea Stream which courses through it’s depths and which makes the 2000-foot tall Hakatea Falls, the world’s third highest waterfall. We were lucky and honored to become friends with Paul, a local Marquesan, who is one of 10 people still living in this valley. Paul led us on a slippery, muddy, rocky 6-hour hike and swim to the foot of the falls. During the hike Paul told us how his family used to rule this valley, and the island of Nuku Hiva, as the royal family. When westerners arrived, Paul’s family was forced to give up their claim to the monarchy, but they continue to live in the Taioa valley. Of the valley’s 30,000 original inhabitants, the population has dwindled to just a few members of the original family. We were able to see stone carved tikis and impressive architectural ruins of the former inhabitants. The hike was an unforgettable experience, the swim challenging and exhilarating, but perhaps the most delightful part was connecting with the beautiful people of this valley and understanding, albeit briefly, how they live.
After the hike we had dinner with Paul’s great-aunt and uncle, Monette and Mattias. Despite what must be a steady stream of cruising sailors hiking through their valley, these people invited us into their lives, sharing warmly and freely as if we were a long-lost part of their family. Monette laid out a spread of barbecued chicken, coconut poison cru, fried bananas, green papaya salad, Marquesan gnocchi, star fruit and iced lime-aid, all made from produce of the valley. The meal was delicious, made even more scrumptious by the exercise of our arduous hike.
Monette and Mattias’ home is extremely modest. Beautifully kept, it consists of nothing more than a simple shed roof supported by posts sunk into concrete slab. They use electricity sparingly, supplied only by a gasoline-powered generator for occasional power to a fridge box and a couple bare light bulbs. Their daily work is harvesting coconuts (copra) and the copious fruits which are (quite literally) falling from the trees all around them. They have what they need, so money has very little importance in their lives. Consequently, they live in a vastly different way than the hurried, quasi-panic we’ve come to accept in western culture. They are delightfully peaceful people who truly value personal interactions over material acquisitions. What a refreshing outlook; something to consider as we continue our journey.
We were fortunate to enjoy two meals with this family and are touched to feel like we’ve made new friends. It was in hopes of genuine experiences like this that we chose to live the voyaging life.
As I peer apprehensively into the inky darkness, the clock reads 04:07; still two or three hours from daybreak. It has been 26 days since we’ve seen land. Looking to windward, my eyes struggle to define a slightly darker shape rising from the ocean-sky darkness. I notice a familiar scent. After several minutes of sniffing at the air, I finally make out what it reminds me of; it’s the loamy, spicy-sweet smell of western red cedar bark, fresh and moist. This, and other earthy smells, trail from the shape; it is the island of Ua Huka, skulking 7 miles upwind of us but it feels so much closer, almost ominous and spooky, in the darkness. We spent the night hove-to, parked basically, near her shores but not wanting to make a dangerous landfall at night.
We are sailing past Ua Huka now and onward to make our landfall on Nuku Hiva, where uncertainty awaits. Dawn is not yet at hand, but the darkness is beginning to seep from the sky. The already chaotic sea is mixed and warped and pitching with the refracted echoes of waves bouncing off a multitude of shorelines, all precipitously steep and angled like jagged teeth. The water is a washing machine. Having sailed from Barra de Navidad, Mexico, we are, apparently, on final-rinse cycle as we approach landfall in the Marquesas. I am alone on watch and apprehensive about the coming changes. The ocean, the wind, the simplicity of sailing – these are things we know. I wonder if we’re really ready for strange lands, different languages, unknown cultures and people. I begin to question what we have done to ourselves.
As purple island shades begin to clarify and resolve into the verdant greens and craggy browns of Nuku Hiva a thought crystallizes in my mind. It is the mantra the sea has washed upon us for the last month; we are not in control of what life throws at us, only of what we do with it. This mantra certainly applies to our passage, and as the sky grows pink and orange, I use it to buoy my apprehensive thoughts.
I tried to have no expectations for the passage, but perhaps expectations are only human. I planned to pick the right weather window so everything would come together perfectly. I had great plans, but as in life, no matter your plans, you get what you get and you make the best of it. 2016 has been a difficult season for this passage. The lingering effects of El Niño are still being felt in the Pacific basin. This means light trade winds and increased squall activity. Generally, we had settled weather and very light winds mostly between 3 – 8 knots with occasional freshets to 10 or 12 knots. Despite expectations, we had 15 – 20 knot trade wind sailing for only 3 days. The light winds made it tough to keep the boat moving and required additional steering input to help the wind vane steer the boat. When our speed fell below 1.8 – 2.0 knots sustained, we’d motor-sail at a fast idle around 1400 RPMs. This meant a boat speed of 3.8 – 4.4 knots, depending on the wind. As soon as wind increased to 5 or 6 knots, we’d shut down the engine. In some cases, we sailed extra miles to keep the light winds at a useable angle – much better ahead of the beam than behind! We covered 2940 nautical miles at an average speed of 4.9 knots. Of that, 680 nm (23%) were covered motor-sailing and 2260 nm (77%) pure sailing. To my sailor’s mind that’s a difficult ratio to accept, but I know we would have spent at least another 10 – 14 days (or more!) bobbing on the ocean if we had only run the engine for charging. So it is. In any case, we are here in the Marquesas now. We feel very fortunate to have had settled conditions for our passage. Most of the fleet left Mexico 2 weeks earlier, close to our original departure date, and had exhausting, extremely rough and squally conditions for the majority of the passage.
With so many hours spent motoring one might assume that we put all our engine troubles behind us. Not so. Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. Had we known, during our hurried departure from Barra de Navidad, that our engine troubles were not resolved, would we still have pulled out? Yes, most likely.
Here are some notes from the passage:
Our first departure from La Cruz was just after sunset. As we tacked out of Banderas Bay in the shifty evening winds we discovered the first of many issues on our Puddle Jump Passage. Our masthead-mounted wind transducer was not functioning. The transducer senses the wind speed and exact direction and displays that info in the cockpit, where it helps to sail the boat. During our stay in La Cruz we grew accustomed to the many ways cruisers try (and generally fail) to keep birds off their boat. It’s almost comical to survey the various, haphazard strings of tin cans, spider’s webs of line and upturned lawn rakes designed to discourage loitering birds. The birds are many; boobies, pelicans, and frigate birds being the largest and most offensive. The problem is not just the cement-like, fish-smelling guano they leave behind, but also the damage these hefty birds can do to sensitive electronic equipment such as our wind transducer. Frigate birds, in particular, are so aggressive and combative that they often attack each other, battling over territory, fish, or a coveted perch on the masthead. So it was, 10 minutes into our passage, that I determined in a fit of swear words how “Frigate” birds were actually named. One benefit of returning to Barra for repairs was that we were able to send Sarah up the mast and (very fortunately) were able repair the transducer for the remainder of the passage.
Two days out of La Cruz, we had to reel in and release an angry Boobie who managed to get tangled in our fishing line while going after the lure. He was OK in the end, but not very thrilled with us. Nor was the Shearwater who, despite much discouragement from our side, was determined to land on our (rapidly spinning) wind generator – ouch. He flew away, apparently still intact, but was no longer so enthusiastic about our relationship. Many, many other birds did various interpretations of the same “splat & slide” maneuver as the fellow who flew, feet first, into the side of our wind vane and slid awkwardly to the water. It’s hard to say what they were thinking, exactly, but they were certainly curious about us.
We didn’t have too many expectations about fishing, but had hoped to catch up with some tasty Pacific fishies during the passage. What we experienced was some serious fish-attitude. While we managed to bring in a couple small fish, we took some pretty serious losses. End of passage tally:
Batu Crew – with Notes
1 Bonita Super-yummy appetizer for 4
1 Yellowfin Tasty pre-dinner snack for family
Fish – with Notes
4 spendy Sumo lures Eaten & stripped from line
2 small squid replica lures Unceremoniously removed
400ft Spectra line (100lb test) Parted at rod
We managed to get one very large, colorful (we think Mahi Mahi) close to the boat before the hook pulled out, or he put the moves on – can’t quite tell. The “BIG” one must have been massive, possibly a Marlin. He took the lure and ran. Within seconds we’d put out almost 350 ft of line and smoked the reel, the clutch on full lock-down. Even with both Sean & I clutching the line with gloves we lost another 50 ft of Spectra line before it (wisely) parted, ending the struggle. With our arsenal severely depleted, we took to making lures out of trash. Reports and losses from other boats were similar; these fish are not to be trifled with. Now in the Marquesas, we are changing our 120 lb test monofilament over to wire leader lines ASAP, hopefully that will help.
One thing we can say for sure is that flying fish are NOT likely to be on the endangered species list anytime soon. The ocean is filled with them, and they are crazy. Flying VOR, they do fairly well for themselves during daytime, launching off the wave crests and flying easily for several hundred yards, occasionally making multiple turns and re-launching, or pulling wave face touch & go’s. At nighttime, however, the flying fish launch blindly, and frequently land on our decks, or other unlikely places on the boat. One came through the galley hatch and landed on the stove. Several have landed in the cockpit and every morning during passage we need to do the AM sweep to clean the decks which are typically strewn with the recently deceased. *GRAPHIC CONTENT ADVISORY* One poor guy must have been a fast flyer, REALLY fast. He t-boned the coachroof with such force that he blasted both eyes out, one to each end of our 40 foot boat. He never saw it coming.
Once underway, our first priority is to keep the boat moving toward our destination, and we go until we arrive…somewhere. Different crews use different schedules, but we prefer to keep it simple and stay consistent. Therefore, Batu watches are 4 hours long, and each person stands the same watch schedule each day. Watch-standing is very serious business, as the watch is responsible for the safety & security of the vessel as well as everyone aboard. This passage was the first time for Sean and Sarah to stand full, scheduled watches, and it was a huge help. Karen & I handle the nighttime hours while Sean & Sarah take the lion’s share of the daytime so that we can get enough rest and keep meals, repairs, cleaning, washing & vessel maintenance going while underway.
Watch Standing Schedule:
Noon – 16:00. Karen
16:00 – 20:00. Sarah
20:00 – Midnight Peter
Midnight – 04:00 Karen
04:00 – 08:00 Peter
08:00 – Noon Sean
As one might imagine, a good cup of coffee can be a spiritual experience at 3:48 in the morning. Sadly, there are many, many things that can (and do) go wrong with coffee on a boat at such an hour.
French Press Boat Points (any hour):
1. ALWAYS be sure to wash & rinse travel mug carefully with FRESH water before using. We carry 150 gallons of fresh water and no water maker, so while at sea we wash & rinse all dishes in salt water and use a small spray bottle of fresh water for final rinsing. This works amazingly well for water conservation, but (if the final rinse is forgotten by the bleary-eyed watch) it has some pitfalls. Trust me – salty coffee is NOT tasty. We arrived in Nuku Hiva still on our first 75 gallon tank of fresh water, leaving at least 100 gallons to spare. Nice.
2. Be sure to use FRESH cream. I’m a bit of a sucker for half & half in my coffee. Sadly, I don’t much care for that powdery stuff. So while at sea we mix up UHT (ultra heat-treated) milk & cream, which will keep, un-opened, for up to a year but needs to be used quickly once opened. DO NOT tempt fate to see just how long this is. Keep the cream fresh, within 48 hours at least. Don’t ask how I know.
3. ALWAYS brace or hold the coffee pot and mug and cream for as long as you wish it to remain upright and not flying, sliding, tipping, pouring or otherwise getting ALL over the boat at 3:48am. DO NOT assume that the sink alone is a safe place to brace without tipping. You must use several stable items to brace the pot and mug and cream in the sink or there will be nothing but a very disappointing puddle remaining after the difficult (patiently waiting) brew-phase.
4. Be aware that ANY OPEN CONTAINER is subject to sloshing, spilling, pitching, splashing and/or flying. Despite this fact, one somehow has to transfer all ingredients to the mug, while controlling pot, pitcher, mug and self in a rocking, rolling, pitching, heaving galley. For extra credit, try it in the dark (so as not to wake sleeping crew) and add an intermittently failing headlamp. All I can say here is it’s amazing how much a boat moves while at sea.
Clearly, there are many more ways to screw up a good cup of joe, but the more mundane points have been eliminated in the interest of space.
Despite the difficult hours, night watch is often one of my favorite times. Clear, starry nights are a miracle – almost indescribable if you’ve never been away from the backwash of manmade light. On this passage the constellations have become regular friends. Hello Orion, you are looking brilliant tonight! I so admire the belt and sword. Is that a great bear, Ursus Major, you’re aiming at with your bow? Oh, yes, I see him, making up one of the two dippers. There’s the North star, and a new friend, Cruz (the Southern Cross), only visible near and below the equator. There are many others that I wonder about and hope to get to know. Not all nights are like this, of course. Some are pitch black, almost zero visibility. These are the times when the bioluminescence can knock your socks off (assuming you’d be silly enough to wear socks here). Sometimes, the moon can be a warm friend, other times she seems cool and completely indifferent to our joy and struggles. On cloudy nights the nearly full moon shines it’s bluish beam through the clouds with such focused intensity that it looks like a searchlight, endlessly combing the ocean, moving in and out with the movement of the clouds. One night I freeze like an escaping prisoner under intense scrutiny as it combs over me crisp and bright, but in a moment it is gone, moving off elsewhere; I’m off the hook for the time being anyways.
IN “THE ZONE”
Because of our engine trouble and return to Barra, by the time we left for good (April 13), Batu was one of the last boats to leave Mexico for the Marquesas. Along with us were Michael & Melissa Harlow on their boat, Harlow Hut who had also been delayed for family reasons. We left a day or two and a hundred miles apart, but kept in touch via InReach and HF radio during the passage. It was a comforting thought to have another vessel within a couple hundred miles as we made the crossing.
One of the trickiest parts of this passage is the need to cross the ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) which separates weather systems from the Northern & Southern Hemispheres. The ITCZ, also known as the “doldrums” is an area of variable winds and intense convection, meaning storm cells and squalls. You would think that the ocean is just the ocean, but each area clearly has it’s own personality and the ITCZ is a bit like a watchdog. He can be pretty snappy, but you just might get lucky enough to catch him napping, as we did. For us the ITCZ was characterized by 60 hours of very light, shifty winds, clouds, and dark rain cells popping up everywhere – often forming right in front of the boat. Running through this mix of rain and variable winds were wave trains from the Northwest, Northeast, the South and Southeast, leaving a wet washing machine mix of chop and chaos. What we didn’t have were intense squalls with strong winds (several boats reported 50 knots or more) or nearby electrical storms (several boats were disconnecting radios and other electronics).
Once we emerged from the ITCZ we were very happy to get clear of it and cautiously monitored the weather to make sure it was not re-forming in front of us, as can easily happen. Just a day or two behind us, Harlow Hut had only a slightly rougher crossing through the Zone. We were skirting below the squall area, but could see the lightning at night in the distance and knew our new friends were “in there”.
THE ENGINE GUY
I’m not naturally an engine guy. I’ve never much liked, or trusted them (engines that is, not engine guys). I’ve always had better luck and more fun getting were I wanted to go under sail. But, there’s no doubt that a happy engine is a must on a cruising boat. Well aware of my bias, I’ve worked hard to learn and be proactive about taking care of our engine, a 39 year old Westerbeke 4.108 diesel. Before leaving La Cruz we had issues with the fresh water cooling system, scrambling to replace our fresh water pump and heat exchanger that were on their way out.
Because of shipping difficulties and tight timing, we left with a temporary heat exchanger, planning to catch up with the proper replacement in French Polynesia. All seemed fine, so we departed. One reason we turned back to Barra was an unrelated blockage in the raw water cooling; the other side of the cooling system. The blockage turned out to be quite a gremlin, clearing and popping-up intermittently. During the passages I figure that I spent 40 – 60 long, hot, pitching, hours stuffed into the engine room analyzing, disassembling, back flushing, replacing and reassembling the various parts of both ends of the cooling system – numerous times – to clear blockage(s) in the intake line and a subsequently destroyed impeller. After replacing most of the hose and re-plumbing the raw water intake to a different through-hull fitting (all while underway) we felt the issue was finally resolved. However, even after motoring without much drama for 160-some hours, we still arrived at the entrance of Taiohae Bay in the Marquesas, started the engine and found we had the very same problem again – no raw water. What this means is that you can’t run the engine for more than a minute or it will melt down to a steaming pile of scrap metal. We promptly shut down, turned the boat around and hove-to, resolved to figure out the issue. To be clear, I’m all about a good challenge, but this was a fairly trying moment for me. Another half hour in the engine room proved the issue had a completely new cause: a ciphon-break at the cap of the raw water strainer. Fortunately, this was easily fixed, and in less than an hour we turned around and sailed right up into Tahiohae Bay. We fired up the engine, picked our way through the Bay and dropped anchor at 11:30am local time on May 9, 2016.
THANK GOODNESS FOR FRIENDS
The remainder of May 9 was something of a blur. We were warmly welcomed by a parade of friendly dinghies stopping by to greet us. All our friends from Mexico were encouraging and celebrated our overcoming the gravity of Mexico after having to turn back. We contacted the local agent and made a plan to officially check into the Marquesas the following morning.
We were exhausted, never even leaving the boat. Our friends on s/v Sarita were especially kind and dropped off a care package of fresh veggies, papaya and Brie cheese. We grabbed a bottle of wine, a knife & cutting board, and sliced up one of the better meals I’ve ever enjoyed before slipping into a very long sleep. My pleasant dreams were interrupted only a few times by the sudden, adrenaline-packed realization that nobody was on watch with land nearby!
So now we begin exploring the Marquesas, starting with the island of Nuku Hiva and tacking gradually Southward to Oa Pou (pronounced Wa Poo), Hiva Oa, Tahuata and Fatu Hiva. From what we have seen, these islands are extremely rural and rugged. The language, primarily French, is mixed with Polynesian phrases and names. The people are friendly and attitudes reflect the laid back undercurrent of the Polynesian culture. It is so surreal to be here that we’re still pinching ourselves to see if it’s all just a dream.