Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lobster Walking

Cruisers mention “lobster walking” on the reef at night, and it sounded as easy as picking coconuts. After one extensive reef prowl and several subsequent observations, we decided that lobsters are actually fictitious creatures, conjured by experienced cruisers to sent the rookies wandering in a harsh landscape at night while they sip their rum and giggle, snug in their yachts. Like a snipe hunt.

We did not yet know this, so one night we kayaked into the lagoon through the broken light of moon on the water; through the waves that had kept Misty pitching on anchor all day. Noddies croaked and terns sounded their high note of alarm as we pulled our kayaks up on the edge of the motu and organized ourselves for the trek. Perhaps they knew the joke.

We trekked out through a strange world of crunchy dead reef and shallow pools of water. Henrick armed himself with a 4-pronged spear that he made with his angle grinder. I carried a net I’d constructed that afternoon on the motu of black netting, cordage, and palm frond. Of course we saw neither claw nor tail of a lobster, but we did observe several small eels.

The eels prowl shallow pools. They are light grey with a darker pattern, as if somebody decorated them with a miniature sponge. One slithered its way from one pool over the sharp crags, and into another pool. It poked its streamlined head into tiny hiding places, sometimes with an open-mouthed lunge. Terrified little fish darted away. Some of them wiggled over land as well, coiling and springing themselves like frogs. A strange world indeed.

Way out, where the relentless ocean swells trip over the reef and pours itself through fissures that become channels that fill the lagoon, I netted a small grouper in my palm frond net, and we killed and gutted it on one of the few patches of ground that was not under water.

On our way back to the kayaks, I spied some strange creature and clomped the net over it. “What is it?” I asked Henrick.

“I think it’s a coconut crab,” he said.

It did fit the description. Something like a giant hermit crab without the shell. We plopped it into Henrick’s bucket, which was barely big enough to contain it. It rode in his front hatch back to the sailboat, and we had it for lunch the next day. The meat was good, tender, almost sweet. A layer of “crab butter” lined its shell and was soft enough to spread on bread.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Tahanea Coconut Expedition

Best of all, there were coconuts on the palm trees in Tahanea! Henrick sharpened his machete and brought a long-handled gaff to hook the coconuts down from their roosts. The nuts were tougher than they looked. One short palm bent itself picturesquely out over the white coral sand towards the water.

Henrick shimmied up as far as possible, and reached out with the hook. He tugged. And tugged. And swung. Finally he threw down the gaff and asked for the machete, which I handed up. He whacked at the stem, and again. The angle was difficult, while gripping the trunk. He hit the husk of the coconut, and tried to twist it from the tree. Said something in Swedish that I’m not supposed to understand.

Eventually, with a lot of sweat and thumping around up there, a coconut plunged into the water. I grabbed it. He repeated the process on another three coconuts and we headed back to Misty delighted with our success.

Sunday, July 29, 2012


We rode the wave train out Fakarava pass about midday on July 28, and set the sails for Tahiti. 255 nm. We were making five knots with a tailwind. Keep that up and the trip should take 51 hours. Estimated arrival: afternoon 2 days out.

Within minutes, the wind dropped. Our speed decreased to three knots. Estimated time: 85 hours, or 3.5 days. Then it died. Estimated arrival: never.

A front of dark clouds sat over our heads. Decision time. We didn’t want to bob around for days, longing for Tahiti. Fakarava was still close enough to see individual palm trees. Henrick didn’t want to go back there, and besides, we had slid out on the beginning of the ebb current and we’d have to wait to the tide change to reenter.

Then the wind changed 180 degrees and blew from the west. Tahanea, an uninhabited atoll to the east we had considered but passed by, was no longer upwind from us. It was our second chance, and that’s all the excuse we needed to point our bow east for the first time in months.

Rain poured down. Waves jumped, colliding from different directions. Looking towards a storm-darkened horizon, I saw a wave leap up, grow, bend itself to a 45-degree angle, then splash down, all in slow motion. That was no wave; that was a whale! A flurry of sea birds carouselled about above the spot. I shouted to Henrick and we both stared at the horizon for a while, but it didn’t repeat the performance.

Squalls came and went. Raindrops pounded the waves in to a soft texture. Orange curtains of rain hung from the low cloud ceiling and bracketed a setting sun. A gibbous moon flirted with our rigging. When the stars came out, the southern cross was on the starboard side, opposite of where it had been since April.

Eventually we sailed ourselves out of the storm front, and back into SE winds. So we started the motor and motor-sailed and tacked to get around an intervening atoll. With the daylight and a cooperative breeze, we glided into the atoll’s middle pass under sail. Henrick looked out from the ratlines and I guided the tiller.

To our surprise, 5 boats anchored just inside the pass to the north, and another one to the south. We headed south, and anchored a respectable distance from the boat, just to catch a nap and let the sun come up to a good angle for seeing the coral heads inside the lagoon before continuing on to another recommended anchorage.

By the time we awoke at 10, two other boats had joined us. I dropped the kayak in the water to check out a promising lagoon. The lagoon was a bust--couldn’t even get in it, so I followed the coastline to the southern pass. My kayak perked its ears up when it saw the wave train from the flooding current, so we went to surf the mini tide race.

I rode the ratlines to watch for coral heads and Henrick steered our way across the atoll later in the morning. Neville on Dreamtime (whom we met in Fakarava) was right that each boat gets their own motu on Tahanea. We saw three vessels in the eastern end, spread out at least a mile apart. We picked a long motu that looked like it had a nice beach for running, and dropped our anchor. Paradise. How could it have gotten prettier than Fakarava? Is it the nature of each place to look even better than the previous? Or did we really save the best atoll for last?

Friday, July 27, 2012

Fakarava Dive

From July 27
Fakarava’s south pass is famous for its congregation of sharks. People often drift through the pass to see them. There are even a couple of dive centers located there to assist in the feeding of divers to the sharks.

It’s been about 13 years for me and over 20 for Henrick since we last dove with SCUBA gear. We thought we’d check out the pass before committing to the depths. The first day I paddled through the pass on a mellow incoming tide and onshore wind. I paddled out into the swell, and sail/surfed back through. Exhilerating!

Even more exhilarating was the third trip out the pass. I was windmilling my way into the blue swells when I felt my kayak move in a strange way. Then again, the stern did a funny little twitch. I looked back to see 3 sharks, all less than 2 meters, but still curious. They were bumping the kayak. One swam up beside me when I stopped paddling and I poked it with the paddle blade, just a little tap to encourage it to depart. It’s a strange feeling to be within petting distance from a shark. I didn’t have the guts to reach my hand out.

The sharks moved on after I lost momentum, and I sailed back in a little subdued.

The next day we kayaked to the pass together. With our masks and snorkels, we leaned over on each other’s kayaks and dipped our noses in. Sharks seemed to keep their distances when we did see them, and the reef was bursting with life! Soon we were hanging comfortably under the kayaks for long drifts. Never have I seen such a place. Every crevice was alive. Colorful coral, little fish darting in and out of it, needle-nosed fish surrounding us on the surface. Groupers, triggers, butterfly fish, wrasses, damsels… every color of the rainbow.

A few days later we signed up for the big dive. Down we went, up the bubbles went, and I reminded myself to relax and trust the tank. A flock of rays met us as we descended, winging their ways off to sea. Henrick and I followed our guide Fannie through valleys of coral busy with life. A black tip reef shark lay on the sand ahead. Reluctantly it moved away as we approached.

Remoras look like something between an eel and a shark, and are equipped to attach themselves by the back of their heads to other floating or swimming objects, like sharks or whales or boats. Or divers. One knew Fannie by name and danced around her as if trying to give her a fishy hug. They are harmless and curious. On Makemo atoll, 8 remoras called Misty their home for a week, eating our scraps and watching us head out to snorkel without alarm.

We drifted into the lagoon and slowly upwards as the coral got shallower. The current increased. A huge barracuda watched us go by as it held its place. They don’t eat them here, because of the ciguatera poisoning that accumulates in predatory fish. Two bright triggerfish chased each other around a little pocket in the coral. The occasional peek underwater reminds me how little I know about all that goes on down there, and how much there is to know. Ah, another lifetime for that study. For now I’m content to watch and wonder at the great colorful mystery of it all.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fakarava Coconut Expedition

From July 25
After a lazy day in the boat, reorganizing our computers, we went for a short exploratory mission to the nearby motus, islets, and water mazes. We pulled the kayaks up into a coconut grove and went walking. Henrick kept a sharp lookout in the trees for the wild coconut of his dreams. I pointed out a dried-out looking one I’d seen on an earlier jog. It didn’t look promising, but it was low, so I suggested he throw a coral “rock” at it and see if he couldn’t dislodge it.

It only took him 3 throws, and the desiccated nut tumbled to the ground. It was too lightweight to have anything in it, but we carried it around for a while as a show of success.

Soon he spotted a green coconut high in another tree. “Try, try!” I encouraged, and snapped photos of his limbs in tangles of impassioned effort. He did come remarkably close to nailing that coconut, but in the end, it stayed where it was. Reviewing the photos in the camera’s viewfinder doubled us over in laughter, so we ended up satisfied anyway.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Piecing the Great Sky Puzzle

From July 22.
The upside down cupcake of a moon wears the thinnest cap of frosting on its downward dome. The bowsprit reaches up to gobble it, but the moon remains just out of reach, even on the biggest waves. A town glows to the right, from an invisible atoll, the only human-made light around other than the faint red speck atop our mast. Overhead, Scorpius curves his majestic tail into the Milky Way.

I clip my harness into the safety line and install myself atop the hard-topped dodger. Lying on my back, I can fully appreciate the heavens. The mast with its double-reefed sail does a windshield wiper action across Corvus, Spica, and Saturn, and reaches longingly for Arcturus.

The Southern Cross and Alpha Centuari lie roughly between Scorpius and Corvus. I’m trying to figure out how that works with the celestial movements I know from the Baja sky, but the puzzle pieces are 3-dimentional, or 4 if you consider the involvement of time. My insufficient brain is in a quandary, albeit a pleasant one. The Southern Cross is now roughly two spread-hand widths above the southern horizon, a testament to our southern progress as we meander through the south Pacific Islands.

What are those stars in the Milky Way below Crux? I’ll have to look them up. Above Crux, another group with many pairs of stars just a finger-width apart.

The Leaps of the Gazelle, they call similar pairs of stars near the Big Dipper, who is now so deeply plunged into its great vat of ice cream to the north, that only the last 2 stars of the handle show above the cloudy horizon. But those gazelles came south, it appears. A whole heard of them is frolicking about above Crux tonight.

It’s easy to get caught up in surviving, even on the cruise of your dreams. Eat, clean, navigate, set anchor, repair things, sleep, take photos, process them into the computer. As anywhere, a routine can take the consciousness out of living. It’s easy to take the special for granted. I don’t want to, but I find myself doing it anyway. Looking back at photos I’m processing after we’ve left a place, I feel the specialness of that time and place, but sometimes not during the time there. It’s a good lesson that specialness is in each moment. The trick is in not being too distracted to see it. To be present.

The cupcake moon disappears into the great cupboard below the horizon, frosting first, then the darker, unlit portion, clearly visible in the deep Pacific darkness.

The Dramamine begins to wear off and the windshield wiper motion of the mast loses its appeal. I crawl inside for the 30-min catnap portion of my watch. At 30-minute intervals I check the stars for progress. Up come Cygnus and playful little Delphinus, a diamond with a tail that hints at a leaping dolphin. Eventually, Aries.

Once, I start heading back inside without remembering to check the horizon for boats or other hazards, as if the star progress were my only reason for coming on deck. My only impetus for climbing out of the comfortable floor-bed. When it’s rough, it’s the only place I won’t fall out of. Henrick is in the sea-berth, which is like a cradle.

Venus and Aldebaran herald the coming of morning, and Henrick’s watch. We trade beds and I dump myself into the sea berth and into childlike slumber, rocked on the sea, dreaming of stars and glowing galaxies.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Exploring the Motu

From July 20
From our private anchorage in Makemo atoll, we explored the palm forest and paddled into mini-lagoons between the motus. I jogged along the beach in the morning and took long picture-taking walks. We snorkeled together. Henrick repainted some rusty bits on the boat and I scrubbed the galley until it shone. We walked to the ocean side of the motus to scavenge among wave-tossed trash from the world over. Garbage lines the craggy beach, a stunning amount of it.

Plastic bits and bottles, intact light bulbs, a TV set, a metal cooler rusted almost beyond recognition, scientific equipment, fishing equipment, a truck tire, rope. Deodorant from Equador. Laundry soap from Japan. Shampoo from someplace with curly Sanskrit-looking letters. Something round from Spain. Rum bottles, empty of contents or messages.

Hermit crabs rule the motu. Fist-sized crabs with red legs, covered in bumps with short yellow hairs sprouting from the bumps. They inhabit every shell. They claw round holes in fallen coconuts and dig out the innards. They climb up into trees and young palms and wave their little antennae at the world.

We walk through their domain in the shadow of the palm forest. Fallen palm fronds crunch underfoot. Mounds of split coconuts attest to the copra trade of the area. Natives harvest the coconuts, split them, shuck out the meat, and send it out by the burlap bag on the supply ships that periodically pass. Copra is their main economic mainstay, along with tourism. The pearling industry has essentially collapsed.

Palm forest is maintained by burning. Charred trunks and patches of ground tell the tale. When we reach the ocean side of the grove, the wind picks up and we think we hear coconuts falling. Repeated thumps vibrate the ground. I put my hands over my head and look up. Not a coconut in sight. They have all been harvested. Two palm trunks colliding in the wind are making the ground vibrate. Still, we gingerly make haste through the maze of coconut husks and fallen branches back to the lagoon. Henrick wants to harvest a wild coconut, and becomes disillusioned by all the empty trees. It isn’t until the next atoll we visit that we find any coconuts still in the trees, but that’s another tale.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Sailing the Lagoon

On July 11, we sailed down the inside of the Makemo atoll, about 16NM with a brisk tailwind. We took turns climbing up the new ratlines Henrick installed so we could look out for the coral heads. In fifteen knots of wind, whitecaps broke all around, imitating the waves on a coral head, so the lookout needed to keep scanning with a discerning eye.

A couple hours into the exercise, I ducked inside to slap together some sandwiches. Henrick looked out and steered. I ate on the run, a few bites, and another scramble up the ratlines. Henrick gobbled his sandwich with one hand on the tiller. I don’t know how he can ingest food so quickly, but it was lucky he exercised that talent on this day. Just as the last bite went into his mouth, a fish hit the line we were trolling. I took over lookout and steering as he went into fish-slayer mode. We didn’t recognize the fish so he took photos so we could look it up later. Then he filleted it and I skinned it.

I was bagging the fillets as we approached our target anchorage. Henrick jibed to avoid a long reef, and the solar shower flew off the dodger and into the sea. It’s normally tied on, but this time that detail had been overlooked in our departure preparations. Henrick uttered something expressive of the situation, and I offered to swim after it if he would turn upwind. The coral heads would just permit the operation.

In a fine show of teamwork, he cranked the motor on, turned upwind, and approached the bag as nearly as possible. I stood on deck and pointed at the copper-colored bag so we wouldn’t lose sight of it. We couldn’t reach it from the boat, so we agreed that I swim for it. In I went, retrieved it, and headed back through the waves towards Misty, who was moving ahead just enough to hold position in the wind. To swim better, I set the bag on my back, and held the shower tube in my teeth. I felt like such the retriever dog, which was more amusing to think about than the freshly killed fish smell on my hands and all the hungry sharks about, a thought that only occurred to me once I was in the water.

With the solar shower secure, fish fillets in the cooler, and my lunch finally finished, we wove our way between coral heads to an anchorage off an uninhabited, palm-studded motu, or strip of land along the atoll’s perimeter. A motu is the part of an atoll with any elevation at all. An atoll is mostly a ring of coral reef, which breaks up the ocean swell and protects a lagoon on the inside. Like a necklace of pearls with some missing, the motus string themselves incompletely along the atoll’s circumference.

Here we spent over a week in fun, work, and worry over navigating the passes in 20kts of wind, which wouldn’t let up. So we just stayed put. The longer we stayed, the more we liked it, which is a lot because we liked it from the moment we arrived.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Rejoining the Voyage

On July 8, I rejoined Henrick on Makemo atoll, in the Tuamotu group. He had sailed on from the Marquesas while I flew back to work in the states for a few weeks.

From Tahiti, my flight to Makemo passed over several atolls, which look like hollow islands with the thinnest strip of green and white land around the perimeter, or sometimes just a line of reddish coral breaking the sea. Inside the atoll, coral heads polka-dot a blue lagoon. Some atolls have inlets permitting passage from sea to lagoon. Many of the passes show a long stream of whitewater through and beyond them. Around some ends of islands, impressive tidal races are also visible from the air. The Tuamotus are called the Dangerous Archipelago partly for that reason.

The landing strip on Makemo was almost as wide as the land itself. Henrick met me in the one-room thatch roofed hut that functions an airport and showed me the new tattoo on his forearm. He had arranged a ride with the owners of the grocery store in the village, who were going to the airport anyway to pick up a box of mostly green tomatoes.

We spent a few days anchored by the village, and passed those in snorkeling among the coral heads, kayaking the lagoon, and visiting the store to purchase tomatoes and marvel at just how far some of the goods had come to end up on a shelf in the South Pacific. Danish ham. New Zealand milk. French cheese.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

A Few Days at Home

I awake in the loft beneath the Great Circle Sailing Chart of the North Pacific Ocean, which actually extends to 30 degrees south latitude. Its freckles of islands were abstract dreams last I slept here in October. The hollow dot of Makemo, in the Tuamotus, is where Henrick waits with the boat now, and I have actually set foot on the steep wet green speck of Nuku Hiva and paddled along the rocky coast of the unlabeled Ua Huka pinprick with its startlingly blue water, slanting light, and curious sea birds.

The constellations of Societies, Cooks, Samoas, and Tongas await our interstellar exploration capsule, Misty. I return to her and Henrick in a couple of days.

After the 25-day crossing from Mexico to the Marquesas, it took some time to fathom what we’d done. To develop a framework for understanding it. That framework still feels rickety at best. It gets reduced to a few sentences to answer “How was your trip?” or “What have you been up to?” If I can’t understand it myself, it becomes that much harder to convey in any depth to someone without even that rickety framework.

Back on the islands, when we met other cruisers, at first it seemed amazing to share that background with other people. The long, solitary journey. But of course, we all had to get our boats there somehow. Conversation would turn to swapping details: winds and calms, fish caught, things broken and how we fixed them or got by without.

I returned to the farm about 3 weeks ago and had one afternoon to get ready for a series of kayaking courses. One afternoon to walk among the tall grass, look over my tenants’ pastures, and feel the farm’s changes of directions without me. Feel my own changes of directions without it. Lament the loss of the dream that guided me here in the first place: hosting kayaking events. Wonder where to go from here.

There’s nothing like a stint of intense work to focus the mind. How easily I fall back into the groove of hyper-busy! How quickly the instinct to care for plants grabs me again. Thin raspberries, prune apple trees, mow. Sun passes by. Showers come and go. The plants look cared for, and I feel more settled.

The perspective of absence deepens the heart’s nest for home, and lines it with new soft feathers. Yet the flight continues, as the fresh breeze will always bring with it the temptation to explore.

photo by Freya Fennwood fenwoodphotography.com