The crew of s/v Pamela is alive and well in Fiji! After an 11-day journey from New Zealand, hounded by tropical storms with winds up to 45 knots, we arrived soggy and grinning in Savusavu. A video capturing our epic adventures in New Zealand is in the works. Meanwhile, here are some scenes of happiness in Fiji:
All The Way To New Zealand (December 2014) From Mexico to New Zealand, all the highlights: Gauguin’s Marquesas, glorious Bora Bora, solitude in Suwarrow, swimming with whales in Tonga, the tranquility of Minerva Reef.
Tahiti! (November 2014) Yow! Tahiti, Mo’orea, Huahine, Raiatea, Taha’a, Bora Bora!
When you’re sailing you don’t want to have a deadline. It’s hard to make the boat go faster, and especially hard to sail it straight into the wind. And when the weather turns nasty you have to find a sheltered place and wait it out. But as Tonga drifted out of sight I knew we’d need to get to New Zealand in a hurry so Pam could fly to Boston to sit with Julian through his long convalescence. We made our way to Minerva Reef in good time, sailing fast on the wind.
Minerva Reef is only three hundred miles south of Tonga, but it’s like another universe. What happened to the tropical weather? The air was chilly and the sky a brooding gray as we sailed into the big lagoon. But what a marvel to behold! For few people ever get to this place where there is no land, just a submerged coral reef in the shape of a perfect circle, providing protection from waves in the very center of the ocean. At low tide the hidden reef exposes itself for a moment and one can walk across it to behold the colors of the rainbow encapsulated in the plentiful coral shapes and tide pools. On a moonlit night you can catch lobsters using a flashlight as they crawl from the pounding surf across the reef to the tranquil lagoon.
Slowly the other boats began to arrive from Tonga. A low-pressure trough was building north of New Zealand and all the talk was about weather windows. Each morning we listened to the various radio nets to hear the forecast and make hypothetical plans to sail the eight hundred miles to New Zealand. The weather chatter from the “Minerva Reef Yacht Club” finally came to a head and we decided that the anchor must come up, ready or not. We crowded on all sail as Pamela skated through the pass and into the blue Pacific, followed by twelve other boats in a flotilla to the Land of the Long White Cloud. This was it! Finally, the long-anticipated, much feared, voyage to New Zealand was on, and no turning back!
Six days later we were still two hundred miles from North Island. At latitude thirty south, where the frontal systems scallop past in an endless parade, we encountered strong headwinds that forced us to make long tacks far outside the straight rhumb line to Opua. Meanwhile Pam was suffering a slow death of a thousand cuts. She yearned to be with her baby, now home from the hospital and in intense pain. Aunt Kay had flown from North Carolina to assist Julian from the hospital, spending a week in his college room to watch over him day and night, and now Yvonne was doing the same, having flown from California to relieve Aunt Kay. Pam needed to get there by November 10, yet on November 7 we were still ploughing our way through big seas and headwinds, angling slowly toward the New Zealand coast. Finally we couldn’t take the long tacks any longer. We fired up the engine and motored headlong into the pounding seas, with Pamela’s bow rocking and rolling like a pony on a merry-go-round, groaning with each heavy swell, while the contents of the food lockers banged loudly and reverberated throughout the saloon.
About fifty miles off the coast the seas began to lose their restless energy, and on day eight we were motoring in a flat calm in the lee of the island. “Land ho!” I bellowed as North Cape came into view, framed by a bright orange sunset. Could this really be New Zealand? Had we actually sailed all the way to New Zealand from San Francisco? We had told everyone that this was our plan, but had we actually accomplished it? I shook the mist from my head and tried hard to believe it. A school of dolphins came hurtling and spinning, similar to the times when we were approaching the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, and Tahiti. How sweetly these beautiful mammals come to say hello to the weary sailor! With their daring leaps and grinning faces they are the perfect welcoming committee. They cavorted in Pamela’s bow wave for several minutes, then rushed off to look for the next sailor.
I couldn’t imagine better conditions for our approach into the Bay of Islands. The moon rose full and pregnant with the setting of the sun and the sea became as smooth as soup. The Tikitiki rocks were visible in the soft moonlight.
The chart plotter was of little use, however, for I’d failed to purchase the electronic chart showing New Zealand—what as I thinking, was I planning to wing it into the unfamiliar bay in the dead of night? Without a chart showing aids to navigation such as lights or channel markers I would have to observe and figure it out. A light flashing white every six seconds was visible off the Russell headlands and soon the channel markers toward Paihia began to wink hello. I went below for a moment to check my guidebook and came up on deck just in time to throw the wheel hard to starboard to prevent T-boning the green channel marker in the very center of the bay. We threaded our way down the estuary and between the unlit moored boats in Opua harbor and tied up alongside the quarantine dock at 04:00. With a smile of satisfaction I gave Pam a high-five and a sloppy kiss, then lay down on the port settee in my salty clothes and fell into a deep slumber.
Robyn and Mark from Mintaka were there to greet us when we cleared customs and immigration the next morning. What a homecoming! They knew Pam would need transportation to the airport at Kerikeri so they rented a car for us. As we drove through the verdant green countryside I discovered all the places I have ever lived: the forested hills of North Carolina; the San Francisco peninsula where the winter rains turn the golden hills into ripe grasslands; the foothills of the Swiss Alps; the English Midlands. Around every bend there was another spectacular view of a headland surrounded by green water in the island-studded bay.
I kissed Pam and we said our goodbyes at the airport. I didn’t know when I’d see her again. My beautiful sweet pumpkin who had sailed with me across an ocean was going far away from me.
I spent a few days exploring Opua, hiking the hills, biking the trails, and playing music with my buddies as they arrived from Tonga. I started on my long list of boat projects.
We had planned to have the boys fly to New Zealand for Christmas, but now all our plans were up in the air. How long would Pam need to stay in Boston? Would Julian would be able to travel? I wasn’t sure I’d be able to go back to California as planned. How I missed Lindsay and Julian! I hadn’t seen my boys in a year. Would I have to wait another six months before seeing my beautiful boys? I couldn’t imagine it.
Would Little Bear still remember me? I was having dreams about returning to Palo Alto and finding Little Bear completely unaware of who I was. Where had his master gone for all this time, and who was this new person who called him now with his special whistle?
As a young man I had often suffered from frightening dreams about returning to the farm and finding Sarah tied up, abandoned, and starving to death. When I returned to the empty farm after the family had split up and each gone their separate ways, I found that the dreams were better than what really happened. As if a young man’s heart already broken into a million pieces could break down even further.
Seeing the friendly dogs of Opua brought back the memories of Sarah and Little Bear. I began to ache for home. Each day I sent email to Pam. I posted a few upbeat messages on Facebook, then stopped posting. Passing the Opua post office I decided to write a letter to my Uncle John.
My dear Uncle John has followed my Pacific odyssey, not by viewing my Facebook posts or visiting my blog site, but by reading my hand-written letters. For Uncle John is in prison and has been there all of his adult life. Now in his mid-seventies, he knows nothing of the Internet, or email, or text messaging. I send him two-page letters from Mexico, the Marquesas, and Tonga, and he writes back with six pages in a beautiful cursive hand describing to me what is going on in the world at large. I don’t know the details of why he’s in prison. That does not matter anymore. We speak together of more important things. In his letters he calls me “Chipper”, a nickname I had when I was four years old and one that only Uncle John would remember.
There was a story from Dad about Uncle John that I’ll never forget. Dad had just turned sixteen, old enough to drive, and he was driving the family car to the west coast of Florida, taking John to a detention center away from the family. John had been pilfering, then stealing, and one thing had led to another, and the decision had been made to move John away. Dad was proud to be driving, yet ashamed to be taking his younger brother away from home to a place where he would forever remain beyond the love of his family.
My first letter to Uncle John was wondrously expressed yet never mailed. I was high over Switzerland, and with the wine from Mont Sur Rolle stirring the rusted strings of my heart I began to put my thoughts into words for my forgotten uncle. The paragraphs came in coughs, confused, beginning then ending without any apparent direction, struggling to form into cohesion. The folded paper found its way into my inner brief case pocket, discovered several years later in the confusion of yet another business trip to Japan or China, seemingly random in its re-discovery, out of its moment, before its proper time.
What I would give to find that letter again.
Pam sent word about a change of plan. Julian would not be well enough to come to New Zealand. She and he would fly to California in a couple of weeks, then Lindsay would come down from Tacoma to meet them. I would fly to San Francisco in time to meet my family for Christmas! I would play guitar with Lindsay and Julian and have long talks with them late into the evening, about growing up, about life, and about sailing across oceans.
And Little Bear! I would be able to take Little Bear on long walks to the Arastradero Preserve, let him swim in the pond, and scratch behind his fuzzy ears.
Since we wouldn’t be sailing in the Bay of Islands for Christmas I decided to take the boat down to Whangarei. I planned to spend a week of solitude in the islands around Opua, then sail around Cape Brett and back out into the Pacific, past the magnificent cliffs of places like Whangamumu, Whangaruru, and Tutukaka. As much as I was looking forward to solitude in the Bay of Islands, I was apprehensive about the weather, for the low-pressure troughs came marching through with regularity bringing frequent rain and gusts up to forty knots.
I sent a despondent email to Pam:
Hi my beautiful sweet pumpkin, I was looking through my photos today and nearly cried when I saw a picture of you. I wish things were better for you in Boston. I can imagine you’re having a difficult time there with nothing fun to do, and lousy weather to boot.
Some good news—the shepherd’s pie is finally gone. I found it was actually edible if you add coconut cream.
I’ll be casting off my lines in an hour or so and heading out to the islands. I’ll have email access, so we can continue to write to each other every day.
Are you coming home today?
It was time to slip my lines once more and head out into the Bay of Islands, where Lieutenant James Cook, before he was Captain Cook, once anchored in a lee cove of Motuarohia Island, climbed to the top of the hill, and counted one hundred forty-four islands, giving the beautiful seascape its modern name. I filled my backpack with wine and lamb chops, hoisted the dinghy up on the davits, and pushed Pamela’s bow away from the breakwater. What exhilaration to be sailing once more!
I sailed to Motuarohia Island and dropped anchor, went below to drink all the wine, and woke up with a splitting headache. I needed to write but I didn’t have the energy or the inspiration. I was feeling lonesome and homesick. I strummed my guitar a while and tried to meditate. The island outside was beautiful but the wind was up and the water was choppy. I stayed in the cabin and bundled up in warm clothes.
I posted another email to Pam. She was having a rough time with Julian in Boston, trying hard to adjust to the cold weather—for we had spent the past fourteen months in the tropics—and whiling away the time in his college room, patiently enduring his wide mood swings as his painkillers wore off every few hours.
Hi pumpkin, let me tell you what I had for lunch. I think you’ll want to come back and have some of this with me:
- half pot of salt water that rags are soaking in because I’m too damn lazy to draw a fresh pail from over the side
- one box of stale tortellini with something mysterious inside
- some old cheese from Tonga I found floating in refrigerator water
- one can of sweetened, condensed milk
You boil the tortellini in the salt water for about an hour to soften them up. Then you pour out the extra water into a cup to make tea later, then add the cheese and the condensed milk. It’s like eating a pair of salty socks with sugar on top.
Tonight I think I’ll fast.
Got up and did some yoga and meditation, then played guitar. I’m going ashore to hike up the trail to the overlook. Been here three days and haven’t gone ashore yet, just moping around. It’s starting to blow hard so I’ll probably get wet and cold in the attempt.
We’re going to need a new camera. The Canon doesn’t grip so well when you’re taking a video, and it fell into the water. I know, I should have had the strap around my neck, but how can I remember this if you’re not here to warn me? I dove in to get it; yes, dove in with all my clothes on into the cold, black New Zealand water. I snagged it before it sank and managed to recover the memory card, but I’m afraid the camera is ruined. We’re going to need a new one.
Four weeks until California, what are we going to do in the meantime? I’m not sure I can sit here on my butt for four weeks, but I’ll try.
I love you and miss you. Are you coming home today?
Finally I got up and decided it was time to stop sulking and go ashore. The gray windy morning had turned into a warm, sunny afternoon. On the beach I discovered a million oysters clinging to the rocks of a tide pool. The first one I touched opened up and yielded a perfect oyster, tasty and succulent. The beach was full of shells and pebbles and felt good on my naked feet. I hadn’t gone barefoot since Tonga!
Beyond the beach was a meadow of tall green grass. A swath had been mowed to make a soft path. I stepped gingerly onto the fresh lawn, fearful of stickers, and then eased up as I felt the softness below my feet. How good it felt! It reminded me of the fresh grass of the Great Smoky Mountains, always soft underfoot. The trail led past the meadow and up a hill thickly wooded in tall pines. I continued to walk barefoot up the wooded slope, for the ground below was soft and even, with no stickers, no garbage, just a pristine carpet for my soft feet.
At the top of the hill was a wooden bench and a lookout. The view was magnificent! I could see the Tikitiki rocks about five miles away marking the entrance to the large bay. Toward Cape Brett were scores of islands, some low-lying, some tall, and all with dramatic rocky coastlines punctuated with soft sandy beaches. There were very few traces of modern civilization, no buildings, phone lines, or towers. The occasional white sail stood breathless in the blue expanse. An old schooner sailed before the breeze, while below me the blue waters churned beneath the steep cliff.
I sat on the bench and pondered. In the small bay below me Pamela rested at her anchor in the soft afternoon breeze. From my lookout I could see far out into the Pacific Ocean. I imagined the distance I had sailed to get to this place, over ten thousand nautical miles. I could see California a hemisphere away. I saw Little Bear with his fuzzy ears in Palo Alto, Lindsay impoverished in Tacoma, and Pam and Julian shivering in Boston.
A sea bird sang in my ear while the waves pounded the rocks below. In its cheerful chirrup the bird was speaking to me. He was speaking in tongues, of all things, reminding me that life is truly wonderful.
The little brown hand grips mine softy, without intent or expectations. I glance down into smiling eyes, devoid of any self-consciousness or embarrassment. The child’s face is happy, ringed by a broad white smile. Eight-year-old David escorts me into the tiny church, stopping briefly to help me remove my shoes at the open door, then leads me to the second pew, center, and snuggles close beside me.
Between me and Pam sits his little sister, Laufa. Her features are striking, a Tongan beauty with long black hair and huge brown eyes. In a few years she will break many hearts on Lape Island and Vaka’eitu. From my position in front and center, I feel all the eyes in the church on the back of my head, then slowly relax and wait for the service to begin.
The church is roughly built, unadorned, with a homey feel. Windows on all four sides allow the soft Pacific breeze to flow through and reveal a vista of breadfruit and papaya trees. Bird-of-paradise and other colorful island flowers are placed around the alter in discarded vegetable cans. The pulpit is a wooden box with simple inlaid carvings.
A woman behind me begins to hum. The small congregation, about a dozen adults and five kids, slowly join in, warming up. Two dozen Tongans live on Lape Island, and about half the village is present. A large woman in a formal red jacket enters the church and takes her position in the pulpit. She looks very serious and does not look up to see the small congregation. The red jacket seems curiously out of place in this tropical heat. There is a brief pause, and then a sudden explosion of voices as the congregation bursts into five-part harmony. Without piano or organ, or even a pitch pipe or choir director, the voices embrace in agreement with tempo and pitch.
The woman in the red jacket begins to read from a Tongan Bible. Her face is stern, her features strong. I recognize her from our visit to the village yesterday. Kulio, the village chief, had arranged a village tour followed by a wonderful Tongan feast. The woman had showed us how to make tapa cloth. She was stripping the bark from a mulberry branch with a tiny curly-haired girl in her lap. The child watched the woman working with a long knife, then picked up another knife and began to imitate. I gasped and held back the urge to take the knife out of the little girl’s hands, while the woman continued her work smiling softly at the little girl’s earnest efforts to peel back the mulberry bark. With her face full of concentration, the girl worked away with the knife, practicing the traditional art form that would be forever preserved only by allowing the young ones to participate in this fashion.
Now, as the woman intones the words from the Tongan text, I listen to the Polynesian vowels for a moment and allow my mind to wander back to the feast the night before. What a delicious spread of Lape Island treats! There had been red snapper fillets fried in round medallions with a tangy dab of red sauce on top. Crispy taro chips complemented the potato salad, with several other kinds of salads made from fruits such as green papaya. Chicken was stewed in coconut milk, and a succulent suckling piglet was roasted on a spit.
Kulio has implemented several innovations on Lape Island, such as a greenhouse for growing tobacco, a source of income for the tiny island. A number of young mango trees fringes the village next to ancient giants planted over a hundred years ago, and show that these people are not simply harvesting the bounty from the generations before them, but are planting for the generations that will come. The islanders have built a small wharf for visitors and put in moorings to attract the sailing community to their Saturday evening Tongan feasts.
“The grass here is brown because there has been no rain for several months,” Kulio explained. “But when it rains the grass is soft under your feet. When I came to this island twenty years ago, the pigs wandered through the village and turned everything into mud. We moved all of our pigs to the other side of the island so the grass would grow throughout the village.”
He was especially proud of a new privy that was in the final stage of construction. “For the cruisers who visit us,” Kulio winked.
The woman in the red jacket stops her Bible reading and David’s older brother seated in the pew in front of us bolts to his feet. The congregation rises a moment later, and a man’s sharp tenor stings the air, followed by baritones, altos, contraltos, and sopranos. The little church lacks the adornment of the bigger churches we’d visited in Apia and Neiafu. There are no paintings of Christ being tortured, no bleeding corpus hanging above the pulpit, no musical instruments, no choir. But the dozen Lape Islanders in this church fairly raise the roof with their enthusiastic singing. One of the hymns I recognize from my Southern Baptist days. I hum along while David looks up and shows me his broad smile with teeth as white as the coral sand fringing Lape Island.
The service continues for an hour or so, the big woman in red reading from her text, David’s brother jumping to his feet, the congregation bursting into a riot of sound. Suddenly everyone rises and begins chatting and shaking hands. David grips my hand once more and leads me out the open door and down the path through the village.
A week later I am walking down the dusty main road of Neiafu past the bank carrying a load of fresh vegetables from the market and a couple bottles of wine in my backpack. I pass a parked car when a small explosion of cries jerks my head to the side. It is the kids from Lape Island, David, Laufa, and their two brothers, waving excitedly and grinning at me from the back seat. We are happy to see each other, and we haven’t forgotten.
The Vava’u group of Tongan islands are truly a Tongan feast. There are thirty or more good anchorages throughout the group, many secluded, all beautiful, and all a short sail away from Neiafu town, where cold beer, fresh vegetables, and wifi await. And like the kids of Lape islands, everyone is friendly and apparently happy. Life moves at a crawl and there is no such thing as a hurry. We snorkel in crystal clear turquoise water over healthy, colorful coral. We observe the migrating humpback whales, mother and calves breaching together in the warm water. We join a group of cruising friends and hire a whale-watching boat for the day, seeing perhaps twenty different whales and jumping into the water to swim with them. We jam with musicians in the evening, playing guitar at the bars in town. On barely-inhabited Tapana Island we experience the most savory Spanish tapas and paella imaginable, then play guitar and sing long into the evening with classically-trained Flamenco guitarists.
Six weeks fly by like the snap of a finger, and now it is time to study the weather patterns that will take us south to New Zealand. It is mid-October and the cyclone season is coming soon to the tropics. Everyone is talking about the weather. A handful of cruisers will take their boats to Fiji to wait out the cyclone season, a few more are on their way to Australia, but most will migrate like the whales down to New Zealand. I read everything I can find that describes the weather and spend hours listening to radio broadcasts and poring over “SailMail” weather bulletins. I am looking for weather patterns. Everyone is saying the pattern is basically a high pressure system followed by a low pressure system, and so forth, on and on. But the weather variations I see after weeks of study look like fractals, as complex and individual as snowflakes. The high pressure systems veer to the north or south and sometimes lay in one place for several days, defying heuristics. A really strong high will disturb everything in the area, and if you sail into the middle of it you will sit for days bobbing around like a corked bottle with a hand-written message by a hand long dead. A low will bring squalls of rain, and can peter out in a day or deepen into a week of perfect storms. Fluky winds can clock through all points of the compass with the passing of a front and can easily soar into the 30-knot range with gusts of 50 knots.
The pattern of highs and lows seems to repeat every nine days or so. In the ten or twelve days it will take to reach New Zealand, we will have the choice of “two highs and a low” or “two lows and a high”. Weather forecasts are typically good for only three or four days, so a good weather window at the beginning of the trip can easily turn into a hell ride midway through. New Zealand is 1200 miles away, and save for a few more Tongan islands to the south, there is no place to stop and rest. The boat and crew had better be in top shape and ready to take on any kind of weather or deep-sea emergency.
It is a nerve-wracking time.
We make our plan: we will sail 400 miles to Minerva Reef, then wait there for a good weather window for the next 800 miles.
We decide to leave Vava’u for the Ha’apai group of islands about fifty miles south, a little closer to Minerva. Not so many cruisers go there, but a few have gone and they tell us that these islands are wonderful. The overnight sail is bumpy. We’re back on the open ocean after six weeks and I’m feeling like an alcoholic on a Sunday morning.
The Ha’apai islands are like the Tuamotus, lots of uninhabited low-lying islands with lovely beaches fringed by coral reefs. But the main village, Pangai, was hit hard by a cyclone last January. The town is a sad collection of flimsy buildings without roofs, trash strewn about, skinny pigs foraging in the trash, the banana and papaya trees destroyed. There is a low pressure system approaching and the sky is black with clouds that the people of Pangai hope will turn into rain, for the island is brown and parched. Even the coconut trees, typically green and shiny, seem gray and dull. We check in at Pangai, then officially check out of the Kingdom of Tonga.
There is a pretty island a few miles to the south, Uoleva, with a good anchorage and superb white beach, so we decide to go there and wait for our weather window to Minerva. There is a lean-to bar on the beach, and it is my plan to get an ice-cold beer there. I picture a scene from Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands — Ivan’s Stress-Free Bar, a lean-to in the sand, just down from the Soggy Dollar. Uoleva is pretty, but the wind is howling, the sky is gray, and the anchorage is rolly. It is too rough to go snorkeling so we wait a day and then decide to swim ashore and check out the lean-to bar.
Bad luck — the bar is out of provisions, no beer, no rum, a grim-faced young man from New Zealand tells me. But there is wifi! Unbelievable, for the lean-to is nothing but a roof and one wall. I decide to go back to Pamela and return in the kayak with a couple of beers, one for me and one for the grim-faced young man.
While we sip our beers, Pam reads her email. There she finds devastating news: Julian has fallen from a climbing wall and he’s in the intensive care unit of a Boston hospital. He may have a broken back. The news is very brief and there are no further details.
Pam and I are in anguish. These Ha’apai islands are the remotest we’ve been in so far, miles from an airport, and sailing to New Zealand will take two or three weeks depending on the weather and a rest stop at Minerva Reef. Luckily Pam is wise and brought back a satellite phone when she visited the States in May. She calls Yvonne and the hospital and learns that Julian has a broken pelvis and his L1 vertebra might also be damaged. He can’t move one of his arms. His pain is so intense he can barely move his toes to signal to the doctors that he is not paralyzed. Tomorrow the doctors will test to see if surgery is needed. I hug Pam forlornly on the little beach while she cries in my arms.
My beautiful boy has broken his back, and my pretty wife is falling to pieces on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The tropical night brings a torrent of despair as we wait for further news. Will Julian be able to walk again? We imagine all sorts of horrors. In the morning we learn that his condition is stable, the pelvis has a fracture that will heal without surgery, and there is no damage to his spine. He can move his legs and arms. Yvonne is an angel and provides more details as she confers with the doctors and notifies the Dean of Boston College. Aunt Kay is prepared to fly to Boston from North Carolina if necessary to assist Julian when he is released from the hospital in a week or so.
The morning brings more news: the weather window from Tonga to Minerva Reef looks good. A low-pressure trough will hit Tonga in a couple of days and if we leave now we can get in front of it. It is time to say goodbye to the Kingdom of Tonga, time to finally begin the long journey to New Zealand. The Tongan feast is over.
My last sight of Tonga is the high uninhabited island of Tofua. This is where the infamous mutiny of HMS Bounty took place. The sky is black and the seas are beginning to get rough as I gaze upon the steep-sided shores of Tofua. Just off of Tofua island in April 1789, Fletcher Christian and his mutineers lowered a longboat and forced Captain William Bligh to row to the island. Bligh didn’t stay long, and had to run for his life, for the island was inhabited by fierce Tongans who attacked the longboat and killed one of his men. The island is a volcano that blew its top 20,000 years ago, forming a massive fresh water lake in its crater. But Bligh did not know about the lake, and had to make his incredible 4,000 mile open boat journey with very little water. What he lacked in people skills he made up for in ocean navigation. In the famous movie with Errol Flynn and Charles Laughton, Bligh (Laughton) whips a man with a cat-o’-nine-tails. The crewmen are forced to watch, and one of them gets sick at the sight, for the poor man is dead before the lashing begins and Laughton decides to whip him anyway.
The Tongan feast is over. Like Hemingway’s Paris, it is a moveable feast and we are on the move once again.
We sail past Tofua at seven and a half knots, a speed record for Pamela. She is happy to be racing finally to New Zealand, like a horse tossing its bit and pounding furiously down a country lane and back to the barn. I’m happy too. Very soon the dream of sailing from San Francisco to New Zealand will be realized. It feels great to be once again on the endless sea.
Follow s/v Pamela from the Marquesas Islands to the Tuamotus in French Polynesia for fabulous snorkeling in crystal-clear aquamarine lagoons.
Follow our adventures through the Marquesas Islands in this new video update.
Finally! It’s here: the movie of our “Pacific Puddle Jump” crossing from Banderas Bay, Mexico, to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. Check it out!
A day out from Apia, Samoa, Pamela was floating in a calm, glassy sea with her engine driving her at a leisurely 4 knots. Next stop, Niuatopotapu, a remote island in the Kingdom of Tonga called “the Sacred Coconut” in Tongan and referred to by cruisers as “New Potatoes”, lay about 180 miles to the south west. With wind predicted in the mid-teens from the east-southeast, I was looking forward to an easy sail, beam reaching, two nights and one day of easy sailing. After two weeks in the heat of Apia harbor, dirty with the grit of construction around the bustling commercial port, I was ready for a fresh sea breeze and blue water.
The first night had been quite calm. We had motored quietly out of Apia harbor at sunset, then hoisted all the sails to catch a faint seven knots of breeze that eased Pamela ever so slowly along the northern shore of the island along a black coastline punctuated by a string of lights, the last lights we would see for many weeks. A northwest squall had suddenly pounced as we were traversing between Samoa’s two main islands, ‘Upolu and Savai’i, but the squall had lasted only a few minutes, with full main and jib pushing Pamela over hard and me holding the wheel with knuckles that shone white in the moonless night.
Now in the daylight, I felt the wind slowing to six knots, five knots, four knots, steadily decreasing and causing the main sail to flap like a half dead fish. If only we could get seven knots of wind! With that magic number we could fill our sails and glide through these smooth seas making good progress to Tonga. I would trade four knots of wind for a gale, I thought, then hastily rapped my knuckles against the teak combing.
We lowered the forlorn sails and ran the engine throughout the morning. I knew a rugged marine diesel engine could take it, running for days on end. Looking out at the endless ocean, however, and imagining the miles ahead, the horizon that never changes, the soft lines of waves resembling the time-worn blue ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains, the water flowing by with the leisure of country folks strolling home from church, and the little stream of wake behind gurgling like a spring emerging from a rock in a hollow of those mountains, watching this slow-moving scene for hour upon hour, and knowing that it will proceed like this for mile upon mile, you begin to doubt the longevity of the diesel engine, you place your trust in the sails and you long for the coming of the wind.
I listened to the tunka-tunka-tunka of the engine for hours, then ducked below for a few hours rest while Pam took over. I came back up into the cockpit in the early afternoon and stared again at the wind instruments, willing the wind to push the needle from four to seven. No use. I sat back down against the combing and continued reading. What was I reading now? I was losing track — four different e-books about London in the Middle Ages, the recent wars in Afghanistan, Tom Neale’s account of living alone on the island of Suwarrow, and a Louis L’Amour western about men with fists of steel; a couple of paper books including the complete short stories of Robert Louis Stevenson and the history of the Beaufort Scale; and audiobooks about the Mayflower, the history of Greece, and an interesting account of how LSD swept like wild fire through the 60’s. So many subjects, some would say an eclectic collection, but none I wanted to read this afternoon. I just wanted some wind.
The wind generator mounted above my head began to turn, slowly at first, and then steadily. Eight knots! I hoisted all sails and watched them begin to fill, happily shutting down the engine. Ah, the sound of the wind and waves once again, no more tunka-tunka-tunka. Six-foot waves began to form from the south-east, pushing against Pamela as she attempted to leap over them like a puppy chasing a butterfly.
The sky was beginning to fade into a mass of leaden gray, a few blotches grayer than the others, and the wind continued to rise, soon into the high-teens. It seemed as soon as the sails were hoisted it was time to reef them again, first one reef then two, giving me a late-afternoon aerobic workout. The waves were steeper now and coming from two different directions. Suddenly there was a blast of spray, warm and salty, across the dodger and over the combing, drenching my head and washing away the Apia grime, baptizing me in the name of Poseidon, brother of Zeus, with trident in hand.
I put on my foul weather gear, a little late perhaps, then pulled down the hood over my soggy head and snuggled under the dodger in a vain attempt to stay dry or less wet. The waves were now hitting us hard as if Poseidon was exchanging his trident for a hammer. Every minute or so another steep one crashed with sudden intensity against the beam, sending Pamela far over on her starboard side, forming whitewater down her port railing, and spraying the cockpit with a furious blast. The wind generator shrieked in pain as the twenty-five-knot gusts spun its blades in a tortured frenzy, then stopped altogether as the winds reached Force 7, switching on a mode called “hysteresis braking” to protect the turbine. I wished I could apply hysteresis braking to Poseidon’s wind generator. “You wanted wind!” he shrieked, then jabbed Pamela once more with his trident to send her tumbling down into a trough.
The sullen remains of daylight began to peter out, giving way to a sodden blackness, and I clipped on the safety harness and settled my mind to endure a long night of bumper cars on the high seas. The rain came off and on, indistinguishable from the flying salt spray, and the entire universe was a swamp of wet darkness. My foul weather clothing could not keep out this universe and became as sodden as all the rest.
I dozed off and on, sometimes listening to the crash of waves, sometimes the story of LSD or the Mayflower, shivering as I lie on the soaked cushions pushed hard against the low side of the cockpit. With Pamela’s low freeboard, the whitewater rushed just a few inches past my head. A pale moon struggled to emerge through the black clouds and managed to illuminate the whitecaps from time to time. The sea was a roaring, swirling washing machine, and the long night wore on.
Daybreak came timidly across the blank horizon, no sun, just a gradual lightening of the solid gray. I rose to awaken my creaking bones and stiffened ligaments, surveying the scene. The seas were still pounding, the wind still in the twenties. The self-steering windvane was holding up its end, keeping Pamela on a straight course. The main sail kept its aerodynamic curve without signs of strain. The jib showed a bit of dacron cloth beginning to come loose, but otherwise held tight in the onslaught of wind and waves. The dinghy folded in its bag was still securely lashed to the cabin top. The four diesel jugs were holding tight even though whitewater foamed past their bottom ends. The staysail in its cover looked soaked and dejected, but held firm with its hanks around the staysail stay. The spinnaker in its “box bag” was … wait, where was the spinnaker? I saw the tattered remains of the bag dangling helplessly over the side and knew at once the fate of the spinnaker. That beautiful white, red, and green sail with its wind sock and collar, costing several thousand dollars, was floating miles downwind on its way to Fiji like a giant ameba extending fingers of protoplasm, a writhing undersea umbrella for small sea creatures to hide under.
I tried getting angry, then sad, then laconically pensive, but after a night of shivering in the wet cockpit I didn’t have the energy for a proper kaniption fit. Oh well, what’s the use of having a spinnaker if you’re too lazy to fly it?
The wind howled stiffly from the south-southeast all day. Pamela bashed into the pounding waves with her chin held high, but with the wind in the south quadrant we were moving progressively fifteen degrees off our course to Niuatopotapu. We tacked back to our rhumb line but the starboard tack carried us to the northeast, well away from our target, and at no better than three knots. Starboard tack proved to be rather wet, with leaks around the port chainplates, enough to cause a salty puddle on the saloon floor.
A few days later we fetched up in Niuatopotapu harbor, cold, wet, and miserable. The wind was still howling. Our broken transmission cable made the anchoring procedure a nerve-racking trial, but our friends on Southern Cross put their dinghy in position and shouted, “Drop it here!”
What a relief it was to be floating in flat water inside the reef of Niuatopotapu! We spent the following day drying out our clothing and the insides of the boat, catching up on sleep. I’d spent 60 hours straight in the cockpit the last few days of the passage, and I slept like fallen coconut tree.
The kids on shore were cute, asking if we’f brought them candy in English they were learning in the village school.
“Where’s my lolly?” asked a boy about eight years old.
“My lolly!” repeated his younger sister, about six.
“Lolly,” came the high-pitched song of her sister, about four.
Meanwhile I counted the pigs in the village. Including the four that were rooting through the coral several yards out on the exposed low-tide reef, I counted nineteen. The sows hurried across the road as we approached, with their tiny spotted piglets galloping in zig-zags behind them.
After meandering through the village and exploring the coconut groves I was returning to the dinghy landing when I met a young man who had just come ashore. From a distance I saw him land, tie up his boat, then hop up onto the landing. He was putting on his knapsack as I approached, and something about his movements seemed asymmetrical.
“I’m Dustin,” he introduced himself. He had just arrived from Hawaii by way of Pago Pago and appeared to be going solo.
“Singlehanding?” I asked.
“Literally,” he replied.
It was then I noticed he didn’t have a left arm. Nor a left leg, for that matter. The leg was a steel-rod prosthetic with a weather-beaten tennis shoe attached. The missing arm was a stump attached to a shoulder, pointing up and down in gesticulatory agreement when he waved his right hand. He was in his late-thirties, solo-sailing his 35-foot sailboat Rutus.
“What does ‘Rutus’ mean,” I asked him later when we were having dinner on board Pamela, sitting down to enjoy a hearty Oaxacan chicken mole with a warm loaf of whole wheat bread that Pam pulled from the oven.
“A rutus is a wooden sword that the ancient gladiators used to train with,” Dustin explained.
I tried to imagine how I could sail Pamela with only one arm. Each time I reached for a line or a winch handle I thought what it would be like without two hands. There is a nautical expression, “one hand for the ship and one for yourself”; meaning, when operating the boat you always need to be holding on tight. But in Dustin’s case the hand for the ship took priority.
But Dustin was completely content with his situation. He was putting in more effort than any other sailor, and perhaps putting his life on the line. But, he said, if it weren’t for his unfortunate motorcycle accident, hit by a drunk in a truck, he probably wouldn’t be out here sailing. Dustin struck me as the most well-adjusted young sailor I’d met.
A few days later he and I were free-diving with Jack from Iguana. I’d never been spearfishing before, so Jack was showing me the basic moves. Jack, about twenty-eight, was quite a fisherman and kept Iguana’s freezer full of ahi, mahi mahi, and wahoo. He’d been at Niuatopotapu for two weeks when we’d arrived, and he’d been out spearfishing every day. Several times he’d spotted humpback whales swimming lazily off the reef.
“Let your body go completely slack,” he said. “Minimal movement, feel your heart rate go down. Take a few deep breaths then point straight down and kick.”
I went down about fifteen feet then came back up a moment later slurping air. I still had the unpleasant memory of diving twenty-five feet in Suwarrow to release my tangled anchor chain, not properly clearing the pressure from my ears.
“That’s going to be pretty hard with those fins of yours. They’re short and they’re also flexing 90-degrees.”
I stared at my sadly flexing swim fins. Compared to Jack’s and Dustin’s long fins mine seemed like stumps. One was about to break in half.
“There’s a couple giant clams down there,” said Jack. “See them? Dustin’s looking for a giant clam, so I’m going to go down and lay the speargun beside them.” Then down he went like a slow-motion torpedo moving gracefully with his long fins. He laid his speargun down in a sandy patch beside a coral shelf about twenty-five feet down, then resurfaced slowly a minute later. He motioned for Dustin to swim over to the spot. How could Dustin possibly swim down that far with only one leg and one arm? With my stubby fins I had kicked my hardest and only made it halfway.
“It might take a few dives to pry it off the coral,” Jack remarked. Then with a long screwdriver in his hand Dustin descended. From the surface I could see his body jerking at the giant clam down below. He was down there a minute or so before he began to resurface. With a grin he presented the huge clamshell, about a foot wide, in his good hand. A moment later he was down again, this time prying away at the second clam.
Jack showed me how to load his spare speargun, then swam off to hunt. I floated along the reef gazing at hundreds of tropical aquarium fish, none of which I could properly identify, with the exception of the turquoise-colored parrotfish with its goofy grin. I pointed the speargun at a brown-colored fish but decided not to shoot. I didn’t want to eat a brown fish with all these multicolored rainbows swimming about.
Finally, after several minutes of drifting I took aim at a parrotfish in a shallow area of the reef. Thwack went the speargun, sending the spear deep into a chunk of coral where the parrotfish had been a moment before. I swam down to pull out the spear but it was wedged tight. Several times I dove down and tugged on it. Multitudes of tropical fish swam by to watch, now that the spear was safely lodged in the rock. Finally the spear came out with a thunk. This spearfishing was turning out to be harder than it looked.
I tried to recall how Jack had showed me how to reload the spear, examining the strong rubber bands, impossibly short. I couldn’t pull them even halfway back to the trigger point, and even if I could there didn’t seem to be any way to latch them in place. Surely there must be something missing; maybe a special piece had fallen off when the spear was wedged into the coral. What would Jack say if I screwed up his speargun? I had to find that missing piece. I swam back to the edge of the reef to find the spot where I’d fired the speargun. Through canyons of coral and ravines of ridges I paddled hard against the surge, my stubby fins pumping hard. It all looked the same. If there in fact was a missing piece to the speargun I’d never find it. I swam back to the dinghy and waited.
After a long while Jack returned. I showed him the speargun. “It’s perfectly fine,” he said. A moment later he had it loaded. Damn, I need to figure this out.
“Did you get any fish?” I asked him.
“A couple. Inside the boat.”
I looked in the dinghy and found several large parrotfish and an enormous fish with a head the size of a tire. Jack was particularly proud of it, called an uloua in Hawaiian, a large trevally. He was not satisfied that I’d come up empty-handed on my first spearfishing odyssey and he insisted that I go down again and shoot something.
I found an unsuspecting parrotfish and fired, again burying the spear tip into a coral bank, but this time about fifteen feet down. I pulled on the spear a moment, then floated up a few feet and pulled on the tether, then floated up a few feet more until I was upside down and nowhere near the surface of the water. I floated there a moment gazing up at the rich oxygen above the surface and wishing I could get some but reluctant to let go of the speargun’s tether. I finally had to let go of the gun, popping up the surface with a mighty gasp. Jack dove down without a word and quietly retrieved the abandoned speargun.
I was feeling rather ridiculous at this point.
Meanwhile, Dustin appeared with his third giant clam.
Jack urged me to try once more. I was freezing cold by this time, furious with my retarded swim fins, and wanted to go home. I fired again at a parrotfish and this time got lucky. I pulled the little guy up to the surface and felt like the Great White Hunter. Next to the trevally with the tire-sized head my parrot fish was nearly invisible.
“Your first kill,” Jack intoned. “Not bad.” He paused and then pointed. “Look down here. See that grouper?”
I looked into the depths where Jack was pointing. I saw a few angelfish and triggerfish but no grouper. Besides, I didn’t quite know what a grouper looked like.
Jack continued to point. I looked again and saw nothing. He pointed again. It was beginning to feel like a bad comedy. I decided to dive down once more and have a closer look.
About fifteen feet down I came upon a beautifully fat purple fish covered with plump black dots. It was love at first site.
I fired at the grouper and then pulled on the tether to see if there was anything like a grouper attached to it. Miraculously the spear did not go into a coral bed. It went right through the head of my cartilaginous prey.
“Great shot!” exclaimed Jack. “Way to go! Let’s call it a day.” With chattering teeth I agreed and clambered aboard the dinghy. The dark-purple grouper was the second largest fish in the dinghy, next to the big trevally. Ah, sweet redemption for an ex-trout farmer.
That evening we enjoyed a fantastic feast aboard Pamela. Dustin marinated his clams in a Hawaiian poke sauce and served them with great panache. Jack provided a grouper and a couple parrotfish which Pam sautéed alongside my grouper in a coconut-cream sauce. Pam topped it all off with a loaf of fresh-baked bread made from olives and herbes de Provence.
As I lightly strummed my guitar and sipped white wine I reflected on the spearfishing that Dustin, Jack, and I had done and the bounty of fresh fish we had provided for our table, feeling perfect contentment. The winds died down to a whisper, the sky turned pink, and the developed world seemed like a million miles away.
How curious. In The Cruise of The Snark, Jack London writes almost nothing about the most famous island of all — Tahiti. All of the other significant landfalls of his 1907 sailing journey receive their fair share of discourse, but Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, he dismisses with a hand wave, and decides instead to turn his attention to a lengthy description of “the Nature Man,” a vagabond who lives in the jungle above Papeete.
Jack London meets the Nature Man some years before his epic sail, in San Francisco. The reader can’t tell whether he’s a charlatan or a sage. Living like a hermit in a shack in a grove high atop one of San Francisco’s famous hills (this is before the infamous 1906 earthquake), the Nature Man resembles a kind of John the Baptist. He wears rough homespun clothing, eats only vegetables, sports a shaggy beard and an uncombed mane, speaks in parables, and turns handsprings when he comes out to meet the famous writer. You can easily picture the Nature Man in modern-day Berkeley, lurking behind a tree in the People’s Park. But in the early 1900’s he is quite an anomaly.
Imagine Jack London’s surprise when he meets the Nature Man again in Tahiti. The Nature Man is there to meet the Snark as she sails into Papeete harbor, then invites Jack London on a bush-whacking trek up the densely forested mountain to a space he has partially cleared and planted with hundreds of mangoes, bananas, and breadfruit trees. He tells his fascinating story: some years earlier he lay lingering on his deathbed while all sorts of doctors investigated, probed, and prescribed. Convinced it was simply fresh air that he needed, he escaped the hospital and began living alone in the outdoors, abandoning red meat. He ends up in Tahiti, hacking a rough subsistence farm out of the mountainside, and seems very happy.
I think of the Nature Man as Pamela sails to Tahiti. What is happiness? What does it take to be truly happy? On a mission to find peace, time, and space, one pursues the dream of learning to sail, acquiring a boat, and sailing across an endless ocean to cultivate a quiet mind.
Reaching Papeete on a black, squally night, I dropped Pamela’s jib, flattened the double-reefed mainsail, and set her up to heave-to quietly in the oncoming waves, barely moving as the rain squalls passed overhead, laying just offshore to wait for the dawn. The jagged outline of Tahiti began to form as the sky lightened to a dull gray, with dramatic Moorea about a dozen miles to the north west. I was alert and watching for traffic as the ferry boats and fishermen began their morning run. Meanwhile, the sky dissolved into a gray-black blob and the fiercest squall of the journey so far hit Pamela hard. The wind meter soared above 30 knots and the rain flattened into a horizontal sheet of cold bullets. Pamela endured the squall easily with her bow 50-degrees to the big rollers that formed in the onslaught of the gale. Her mainsail held firmly in the onrush of wind and her rigging sang a rollicking shanty. She sat so well in the waves that Pam read a book below, obliquely aware that there was a spot of weather outside. I stood comfortably enough in the cockpit, dry in my foul weather gear, enjoying the storm and grateful that I was not trying to enter the harbor at that moment.
In the anchorage we found several boats we’d met previously in the Marquesas. We found a good landing dock next to a cafe with cold beer and good wifi, and an enormous shopping mart a short distance down a busy highway. Trekking down the highway put me in a dull mood, with cars and trucks spewing exhaust, scooters without mufflers breaking the sound barrier, and plastic Coca Cola bottles strewn alongside. I tried to mentally prepare myself for the mega-store. I hadn’t seen one in the past 4000 miles, and I knew it would contain any kind of grocery item I could think of. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the onslaught of consumerism. Vast columns of soft drinks! Rows of sweet breakfast cereal! Islanders well over 300 pounds waiting at the checkout station dragging shopping carts heaping over with every sort of sweet carbohydrate in plastic packaging. I picked out some wine and bacon then waited for Pam at the checkout, settling into a seriously dismal funk. The highway, the superstore, the plastic, all introduced in the past twenty years, totally foreign, unnatural to these islands, and now an integral component of city life in a lost paradise. I had to move on to Moorea, to Huahine, to Tahaa, to escape. I felt an overpowering urge to return to the primitive existence I’d found in the Marquesas.
At the marina by the anchorage we met young Fynn, son of Bruce from the catamaran Skabenga, who we’d met in Hiva Oa, Fatu Hiva, and Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas. Fynn is a happy-go-lucky nineteen-year-old with dreadlocks, tattoos, and a handsome face with a perennially sweet expression that reminds me somewhat of our son Lindsay. His face lost its happy features when we asked him where he was headed next. Apparently he was going no further with Bruce and was looking for a ride to New Zealand. But he needed to get his passport renewed first and needed a work permit, and he was frustrated with the bureaucracy in Papeete. Meanwhile, he had no place to sleep. “I have my hammock,” he smiled wanly. “I found a place under some trees.” When we left Papeete the following day he was sitting by the wharf looking pensively into the water.
On we sailed to Moorea with her silhouetted extinct volcanos. I hiked high into her mountains to escape from the city scene of Papeete, climbing over the ruins of maraes and temples overgrown by ancient banyan trees in steep canyons where mosquitos thrived in the forested gloom. We swam with black-tipped sharks and tame stingrays in Moorea’s famous lagoon, then sailed overnight to Huahine, where we rented bicycles and pedaled off across the island to visit a pearl farm, then rented a car to retrace the route we’d already covered on the bicycles. Then off to Raiatea and Tahaa, two volcanic islands that share one huge lagoon, and where we’d been before, in 2009, on a chartered sailboat getting our first taste of the cruising life. Raiatea is a cruiser’s haven, with charter boats and various yacht services available. As we sailed past its main town, I recall thinking, “You really should get those navigation and anchor lights installed at the top of the mast. It’s a long way to New Zealand ….” My anchor light had gone from dim to dead, and the navigation light had been knocked off the boat by a wayward spinnaker sheet back in Mexico. I was seriously procrastinating on getting these fixed, yet I knew I would probably have no more opportunities to fix them until New Zealand.
We sailed into Apu Bay on the southwest corner of Tahaa. The Taravana Yacht Club, the little bar and restaurant where we’d stayed during Christmas 2009, was all closed up. It felt wonderful coming back to Apu Bay. This time, the lagoon felt familiar and we no longer feared sailing through a pass in a coral reef. But what would we do here without a base like the tiny Taravana Yacht Club? What had happened to it, and to Richard, the American we’d met here in 2009? We enquired about Richard at the adjacent pearl farm, and the proprietress there told us that he was still living in Apu Bay, a little distance down the one-lane road around the bay. So we set off to find him on a bright warm morning. On the way we found a little shack with a sign advertising fresh crêpes at any hour of the day, which we certainly couldn’t pass up. A tall man came walking down the street with a pretty young girl. “Is your name Richard?” I asked self-consciously. “Yes, why?” he answered, and I explained that we’d met him four years earlier. He was on his way to the pearl farm to visit a friend, and the young girl was his daughter from France. He invited us to his house to watch the Worlds Cup soccer match, and there we met Randy, a flat-picking guitar and banjo player, who I jammed with several times while we stayed in Tahaa. Randy had just sailed his trimaran down from Hawaii and planned to leave it on a mooring in front of Richard’s place for a few years or so. They had met in Rangiroa as young men over thirty years ago, each pursuing the dream of sailing a boat to the South Pacific.
Finally I decided to tackle the anchor and navigation lights. I had a new masthead light and plenty of wire, but I’d have to run the wire down from the top of the mast and through the boat to the DC electrical panel, and that seemed like a major job. Richard knew a marine electrician in Raiatea who could help, so we contacted him and made plans to take the boat over to Raiatea’s town wharf in a few days. Meanwhile, we sailed to the north end of Tahaa to a quiet anchorage with a stunning view of Bora Bora, a fabulous coral garden for snorkeling, and an upscale hotel on the motu where we could get a foo-foo island drink.
A few days later we sailed out of the Tahaa lagoon to Bora Bora, feeling the satisfaction of having finally installed the new anchor and navigation lights. However, the navigation light had a flaw in its LED circuitry and only the port-side and rear lights worked. Oh well, two out of three, but I’d have to order a replacement and pick it up somewhere down the line, probably New Zealand, and of course go back up to the top of the mast to re-install it. The marine electrician had recommended an external voltage regulator that he believed would help to charge the batteries much faster and more efficiently, so I felt satisfaction in having had this new electrical device installed. Hooray! I had gotten off my lazy butt and had some significant boat work done.
But I still felt some apprehension. What was it? Was it the weather systems west of Bora Bora that had me somewhat anxious? We would be crossing the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ) and the trade winds we had enjoyed for the past four thousand miles would soon be interrupted by the high and low pressure systems coming across from New Zealand, bringing rain squalls at times, calms at other times, and reinforced trade winds on top of the highs. And not likely any place to buy spare parts until New Zealand, a couple thousand miles away. Besides, we didn’t even know where we were going — maybe south to Aitutaki, but its entrance was notoriously shallow; maybe to Rarotonga, but its harbor was small and crowded; maybe north to Suwarrow (formerly called Suvarov), but reportedly the national park ranger there would spray the boat for bugs and Pam can’t stand the thought of pesticides.
Bora Bora is the last opportunity to turn right and sail up to Hawaii, back to the States. Or to call it quits and sell the boat outright. That’s what Starshine was doing. “We realized our dream,” said Dave of Starshine. “We sailed to Polynesia. Now we’re putting Starshine up for sale in Raiatea.” He had had a lot of trouble on the passage from Mexico — loosing his engine about three days out, then sailing back upwind to Banderas Bay, then continuing the journey back to the Marquesas, but alone, without Gail his wife. Now he was having trouble with both of his alternators. Had he and Gail simply had it, fed up with the boat repairs, the frayed nerves from the anxiety of wondering what critical component would fail next?
A similar fate for Moshulu. Jerry had practically built her himself, but now he was at the end of his odyssey, having sailed here from Mexico, and was planning to leave her in Raiatea, for sale.
After a week playing in Bora Bora, it was time to sail on to the Cook Islands. Our 90-day visas for French Polynesia had expired, and the weather looked good for heading down to Aitutaki, 700 miles away.
The seas were rough outside of the Bora Bora lagoon, although the winds were too light to sail. We bobbed around for a while listening to the limp sails banging against the rigging, then started up the engine and chug-chugged our way toward Maupiti. The washing machine seas suppressed any appetite, and the day turned into a miserable episode. Then, going below, I glanced at my instruments and gasped in horror — the voltage of the batteries was over sixteen volts!
For a twelve-volt battery system, thirteen and a half volts is normal during a charging cycle. You can take the batteries up to a little over fourteen volts for a brief period, causing unwanted deposits to boil away off the cells. But sixteen volts is unheard of. My batteries were basically frying. The new voltage regulator was telling the alternator to give the batteries all you’ve got.
Immediately I switched off the engine to stop the overcharging. Pamela bobbed like a cork in the waves while I wondered what to do. With the satellite phone I managed to reach the man who had installed the new voltage regulator in Raiatea a week earlier. He suggested that I take the fuse out of the circuit between the regulator and the alternator, effectively switching off the regulator, then motor back to Raiatea, about 60 miles away, to replace the regulator.
The thought of backtracking 60 miles upwind was appalling, but I had little choice. A day and a half later we were sailing past Maupiti for the second time, but this time we were headed for Suwarrow instead of Aitutaki. Amazingly, the replacement regulator was no better and the voltage problem persisted. It didn’t make any sense to go back to Raiatea a third time. I learned to watch the battery voltage very closely when running the engine and to disconnect the regulator as soon as the voltage reached fourteen.
Meanwhile, across the southern route through the Cook Islands, a few hundred miles south of us, the winds were raging. We were glad to be headed to Suwarrow in the northern Cooks rather than Aitutaki, Rarotonga, Beveridge Reef, and Niue. Our wind and seas were heavy, though not as strong as the weather system to the south. The wind angle was good but we couldn’t sail straight to our target. Instead, we swung the boat in long gybes across our rhumb line, sailing several hundred miles out of the way and turning the five-day trip into a seven-day meditation session.
About midway through the trip I turned on the engine for a bit to recharge the batteries, keeping a close eye on the voltage problem. When I shut down the engine, I heard the propeller shaft spinning down in the engine room and asked Pam to put the transmission in reverse briefly to stop the spinning. When she tried pushing down on the lever to move back into neutral, she complained that she couldn’t get it into neutral. Pam often complained that the gear shift lever was hard to engage.
“It takes finesse, not strength,” was my typical irritated reply.
“Well I can’t do it,” she resigned.
I signed heavily. “Here, let me do it.” I tried to gingerly prod the lever downward from reverse into neutral. It was stuck, as usual, but I knew it would disengage the stuck gears with … one … good … push — and then — SNAP! The lever became lifeless in my hand as the end of the transmission cable sheared its threads.
I cursed vainly, defiling Neptune, the Holy Trinity, and all the apostles in a solid round of sailorly oaths. How would we get to Suwarrow with a busted transmission?
After some thought it occurred to me that I could manually shift the transmission by jumping down into the engine room and pulling up and down on the small lever attached directly to the transmission. So I could put the engine into neutral to charge the batteries, and crank it down into forward gear when we needed to motor through the pass into Suwarrow. I wouldn’t be able to handle the boat easily in tight quarters but I should be able to get into an anchorage and drop the anchor.
A day or so later the jib started showing a tear. I hoped it would last until Suwarrow. A day later the radar reflector came crashing down. The line that suspended it from the port-side spreader had chafed through. Late that night, while half-dozing in the cockpit I heard a strange metallic sound by the steering wheel, grabbed my flashlight, and discovered that the Monitor self-steering drum had fallen off the wheel. Pamela bounded over the seas like a horse without a bridle. Of all the systems on board, the self-steering was the Number One Most Important. Two hose clamps that held the drum to the steering wheel had shorn off, their stainless steel bands finally giving way to the constant tension of turning the wheel left and right. I found a couple of spare clamps in my tool locker and managed to secure the drum back to the wheel, resume self-steering, and went back to dozing. Getting to Suwarrow was starting to feel like running through a gauntlet. Back in Bora Bora, was I having a premonition of this unpleasant passage?
Maybe I should have put the boat up for sale in Raiatea? Nonsense! Maybe I should sell her in New Zealand? Maybe I should quit whining and take it on the chin like a proper sailor. After all the years of planning, saving, and preparing — and here I was, finally sailing my own boat through the South Seas, wondering how fast I could get rid of her. That wouldn’t do. What would Slocum and Moitessier think?
A few days later we were safely anchored in Suwarrow’s crystal-clear lagoon. I took the binnacle apart to have a look at the transmission cable. The stainless steel bolted end had broken off, so I would need a new cable. Four screws holding down the compass would have to be removed before I could reach the end of the cable, and these screws refused to budge. After copious blasts of WD-40 and another round of sailorly swearing and blaspheming of all the world’s major religions, I managed to strip the heads of all four screws. With my electric drill and Dremel tool I reduced one of the screw heads to a mound of powdery metal filings, then decided to suspend further destruction until I was in Apia, Samoa. Destroying the compass in mid-ocean on a deserted island seemed like a bad idea.
I pulled down the jib and had a turn with my needle and thread. The jib did not have a tear as I had feared, only a bit of dacron coming off one of the edges of the clew. A few hours with my needle and rigger’s palm produced a handy repair, albeit somewhat like the scar on Frankenstein’s forehead. I snapped a needle in half at one point and stuck it right through my finger. It felt satisfying to be paying my dues.
Midway through the jib repair the wind began to rise. Bursts from the south caused wind waves to emerge from the far side of the lagoon. By the time the waves reached Pamela they were four or five feet high. I looked up from my sewing and watched her bow rising and falling, submerging on each frenetic plunge. The lagoon, typically calm and peaceful, was boiling like a witch’s caldron. I was glad I had buoyed my anchor chain — tying a float to the chain fifty feet from the bow to keep the chain closest to the boat from dragging across the bottom and fouling itself on the numerous coral heads. If the chain were to snag on a coral head below the boat, the shortened scope could cause the chain to break or the deck cleat to wrench loose. As the wind grew stronger and the waves steeper, I stared back at the reef a few hundred yards downwind and imagined the horror of breaking free and fetching up on that razor-sharp edge. More boats are lost on submerged reefs than to storms out at sea. A moving boat can hit coral with such force that its fiberglass hull will crack open like a porcelain dish. With the wind pinning the boat hard to the coral, it is often impossible to get the boat off the reef, and only a short while before she fills with water and founders. Little did I know that this gruesome scene would play out in about a week’s time.
In a place like Suwarrow, such a boat would be completely and hopelessly lost.
In a place like Suwarow, a man could also be completely lost. But not hopelessly.
In the late 1930’s Tom Neale, a New Zealander living in Moorea, discovered the writings of Robert Dean Frisbie, who had lived a while on Suwarrow. Indeed, during the great hurricane of 1942, Frisbie had tied his four young children to a tamanu tree to prevent them from blowing away, as the wild ocean swells raked Anchorage Island and completely carried away sixteen of the twenty-two islands of the Suwarrow lagoon. Neale began to dream of living on Suwarrow, and after meeting Frisbie in 1943 he made up his mind to somehow get to the isolated atoll. Situated well away from the trade routes where a ship rarely passed, the atoll lay over 500 miles north of Rarotonga and 200 miles south of Manihiki, its closest neighbor in the Cook Island group.
“Tom Neale,” said Frisbie, “Suvarov is the most beautiful place on earth, and no man has really lived until he has lived there.” If this were true, then very few men had ever really lived, for only a handful of men had ever spent any amount of time in this beautiful, empty Eden. Two years later, Neale visited Suwarrow for the first time as crew aboard a schooner bound for Manihiki. He fell in love with the forlorn group of islets surrounding fifteen miles of lagoon, and seven years later, when the next vessel from Rarotonga passed near the atoll, he jumped at the chance to visit again. With a thoughtful collection of tools and kitchen supplies, a fifty-pound sack of flour, a seventy-pound bag of sugar, and forty pounds of coffee, Tom Neale found himself back on Suwarrow. He woud live alone on the island until — who knows when?
As you stand on the beach of your isolated island, completely alone, watching your ship sail out of the lagoon and away, what thoughts go through your head? Tom Neale describes his feelings in his book An Island To Oneself:
Over the years I had imagined this moment dozens of times, often wondering what sort of emotions I would experience at the actual moment of severing my last contact with the outside world. I had imagined I might be a little despondent and had thought, too, there might be a sudden surge of almost frightening loneliness. But now the schooner was leaving I felt nothing but impatience that the ship took so long to get under way.
How does he keep from becoming incredibly lonely on this half-mile long island? Basically, he works himself each day to exhaustion. Fishing for his food, hauling topsoil to create a garden, repairing an old coral-stone jetty, just to watch it disintegrate in the next storm, then repair it again, over and over, he keeps himself occupied with hundreds of chores and projects. He may be alone in his Garden of Eden, but he is certainly not idle. He even cuts his hair and shaves regularly.
Looking into my mirror on Pamela I see a spurious fur-ball staring back at me. I shave once every six weeks. I brush my hair only when it rains. It stands up like Einstein experimenting with static electricity. I might consider cutting my hair sometime but I don’t want to clean up the mess when it falls into the bilge. If I were to live alone on Suwarrow I would become so lazy I’d turn into a tree.
It takes about ten minutes to explore the island. As Pam and I walked from the small beach on the lagoon to the old hut where Tom Neale lived, we smell the nutty fragrance of the Tamanu tree, probably the same one where Frisbie tied his children in the hurricane of ’42. A few steps later we are on the other side of the island gazing at the crushing waves of the Pacific Ocean.
Suwarrow’s lagoon is aquamarine, incredibly clear, and full of fish. A short distance from Pamela we found a huge bommie (underwater coral head) to explore, over 100 feet across. Its coral was vibrant and phosphorescent, with purples, greens, and blues that an artist would struggle to recreate. Teeming with all kinds of tropical fish and squirming eels, it fascinated us as we circled it in our snorkel gear.
That same bommie would claim the life of a sailboat in a few days.
Suwarrow’s coral bommies make for difficult anchoring. You can easily drop your anchor into soft sand, but in a few days your boat will drag its chain through an endless array of coral heads around the avenues of sand. In the week that we were there, Pamela swung through all the points of the compass as the winds shifted from east to north to northwest, wrapping her anchor chain around a complex circuit of bommies. From the surface twenty-five feet over the anchor I surveyed the chain in the clear depths below. Near the anchor, the chain was wrapped three-quarters of the way around a big bommie, and around another one a boat-length from the bow. With Pamela’s broken transmission cable I didn’t think I’d be able to forward and reverse my way around the bommies. Rather, I had to dive on the anchor and attempt to lift the chain up and around each coral head using my bare hands. I’d never dived down as far as twenty-five feet, but it seemed like a necessary thing to do.
When it was finally time to leave Suwarrow, I put on my mask and fins to survey the underwater scene. About fifteen feet down I tried to clear the air pressure from my ears, then kicked hard to get down to the chain on the bottom. At twenty feet my ears were exploding and my lungs were soon to follow, but I was determined to get the chain off that coral. I grabbed the chain and heaved it upwards, unwrapping it from the first bommie, then slowly floated myself back to the surface. A few deep breaths later I was kicking back down to the bottom. The bommie near the anchor had overhanging sides and held the chain in place while I attempted to lift and shake it loose. It took two or three dives to unhook the chain from the overhangs. After clearing the chain, I came back on board with pride and satisfaction, although with somewhat of a hearing loss, then waved goodbye to Suwarrow.
Three days later we were halfway to Apia, Samoa when we heard the news on the morning radio net: the sailboat Amiable, who we often heard on the radio net, had come into Suwarrow the day we left. When a storm whipped into the lagoon a few days later, Amiable’s anchor chain malfunctioned. As her crew attempted to navigate through the anchorage to the pass, she was blown hard onto the huge bommie that we had snorkled around a few days earlier.
The bommie tore a hole in Amiable’s hull, she filled with water and was destroyed.