Thursday, August 23, 2012


“Shells sink, dreams float…”
-Jimmy Buffet

I used to think there were 2 separate circles: Possible and Impossible.

Just out of college, I worked at Fred Meyer for pennies over minimum wage. Clipping coupons, living cheap, and barely having the money for a tank of gas to go hike the mountains on the weekend, I hated the slavery of money. Hated being stuck. Then I met Dan. In a year, we quit work, got married, and started bicycling across the country. We took 11 months, and stopped to work along the way. That trip was the beginning of my change of mind about “impossible”.

What if Possible and Impossible overlapped? Or, more radically, what if they are the same circle? What if all that is impossible is possible, depending on mindset?

It’s been said that even the longest journey begins with one step. Just sticking out one foot, and trusting the weight to it. How often is that step left untaken because it is believed impossible?

Impossible: I can’t because ______ . Job, family, home, debts, distance, gravity.
Possible: How? Sell this, restructure that. Where do I start? How much time to allow? How much helium does it take to loft a dream?

With Henrick on Misty, we were never completely ready to start our voyage. Always one more project to tackle, one more webpage to update. After pushing the departure date back several times, we just left.

Strip “I can’t” to the bare naked fear underneath, look at it bravely, tenderly, in the eye. You can choose your priorities. Or let fear do it for you.

There have been nights on all my intrepid wanderings when I would have traded adventure for a place to call home, a secure roof. Even a steady job. But I’ve made choices, and they have their rewards, too.

“Forgive the moment,” say some philosophies. Accept what is. Change what you choose to and embrace the rest. All other options involve resentment.

On our present voyage, I can hate the sea for bouncing us around. Grumble at Misty for being such a cork. Resent my stomach for its pathetic sensitivity. Or breathe and look for a horizon, in the distance or within. The down times are opportunities for regeneration.

When Misty was in the boatyard, we had written on the wall, “Anything is Possible”. Below that, “No matter what happens, it’s OK.” Life without fear. Is it possible?

Possible is a pool. You can dive in. Move your limbs in all directions. Leap like a dolphin. Float on your back and make snow angels in pure liquid. Once you get the feel for the water, once you trust it, it supports you. Movement is refreshing. Possibilities, invigorating.

Impossible is the sinking pool. Weight belts of fear. Flailing of ineffective movements, vertical clawing at the air for salvation.

Often I wake up and dive into the wrong pool. The Polynesian internet connection for which I paid $70 for 20 hours is counting down but not working. There’s so much piled up computer work that I can’t breathe, let alone go for a paddle. This morning a migraine fells me, and I can’t even look at a computer screen.

OK, recalibrate. I can breathe. I can breathe deeply, with awareness. I can feel the knotted muscles of my face, and untie them. Feel the tension in shoulders and relax it. The squint around my eyes. The fist in my belly. Breathe. Unwind. Feel the light Tahitian breeze coming in through the hatch. Hear the surf on the outer reef, a passing siren, and Henrick working on his blog.

Forgive the moment. Accept what is. And find the buoyancy again. The journey of a lifetime begins with one step. This one.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I started photographing birds on our crossing from Mexico to the South Pacific because looking for them gave me an excuse to stand in the cockpit and stare at the horizon for hours, which was a good antidote to seasickness. Then I realized that photos were great aids for identification. One could zoom in closer with the camera than with the eye. The photo would hold still long enough to study markings against the Seabirds book. The challenges of taking clear photos of a flying bird from a moving boat, with the dynamic background of the sea, kept me trying.

On anchor in the Marquesas I fell in love with the flocks of little white terns and their aerial maneuvers. Sun caught them dancing against a dark background of verdant hillside or grey full-bellied cloud. But I couldn’t get a satisfactory photo.

With the mission of capturing their carefree spirit in pixels, I went ashore with the camera on the atoll of Makemo. That started a tradition of wandering about on scraps of land in the South Pacific and photographing birds, and other things that caught my eye.

The following posts are vignettes about some of the birds photographed. For more photos, please see the bird post on Henrick’s blog (link on left)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Bent-Nosed Reef Poker

Curlew? Or, On Naming Versus Knowing

“Koewee!” that’s how the bent-nosed reef poker announces himself. He swoops down to land on the crunchy landscape of old reef, then struts to the edge of the water and looks about for something to poke with his downturned beak. He wears racing stripes on his head and horizontal bands on his tail.

The downturned bill and general coloration remind me of a curlew, but I have no references on what shorebirds live here. It could be curlew, or curlew’s cousin, or someone who happens to look like curlew.

The one bird book we have on board is Seabirds: An Identification Guide by Peter Harrison. It doesn’t cover shorebirds, but for seabirds, it’s an excellent reference for determining the name of a bird, where it lives, and how it looks. I feel the lack of a shorebird identification guide, but am not terribly disappointed. Even if I did know the name, I don’t really know anything about the creature I’ve just seen, other than what it’s called. Naming and classifying things is a noble cause. The structure of science. The basis for sharing and furthering knowledge.

But identifying is not knowing. Matching pictures with what one has seen gives a small thrill of common language, but it is no substitute for experience with the creature itself. Observing. Listening. Spending time.

Observing gives time to think, and thinking reveals ones ignorance. Often the thing I learn when observing is how little I really know. I’m not out for science; I don’t know the complete body of our understanding of the bent nosed reef poker, or what questions to ask to further that knowledge. This frees me to just observe. To be in the moment, in the presence of the poker, or of whatever noddy, tern, or crab happens by. It’s more of a meditation than a scientific endeavor.

Every behavior I observe is new to me. Is fresh. Renews that reverence for nature, that feeling of discovery. Connects me with the great body of life and spirit that is beyond human construct.

Photography is both a distraction and a tool. I’m looking for the perfect lighting, angle, and composition, instead of just taking in the moment. But it also gives me an excuse to be there, to wait, to watch. It’s a way to look closer than my eye can see. A way to share something of the experience with others later.

I stand in the shadows of palm trees and take some photos of the bent-nosed reef poker. He, too, is in the shadows, and the bright sea is behind. I bend down for a different angle, and he looks curiously in my direction. The sunlight slowly creeps towards us both. I lie down on my back on the hard, bumpy moonscape of old reef, and lift my head with the camera to watch my feathered subject.

He exhibits great curiosity, stretching his neck and tilting his striped head. He wanders my way obliquely, pausing and looking. His strut is comical, extending a long leg in front before planting it and shifting weight to it. Curiosity meets caution some 5 meters away, and he wanders back towards the waters edge to poke about for food in the sunlight.

Days later I hear the call again, “Keowee!” coming over the water. I look out and there is the familiar figure of the bend-nosed reef poker winging his way towards the palms of another island.

Great Frigate (Fregata minorj) and Lesser Frigate (Fregata ariel)

Frigates are the ballerinas and the thieves of the sea. They glide for hours on a wingspan that, relative to body size, is greater than any other bird. I’ve watched them harass terns and boobies until they drop their fish, then swoop to catch the falling fish before it hits the water. Still, they are graceful enough to forgive their criminal streak and enjoy watching them.

Among the atolls, there are both great and lesser frigates. Sometimes they soar in mixed flocks of several dozen birds. Males, females, and juveniles of various plumage stages, of both species. To the person who wants to identify them, one flavor from the other, they present a fine challenge. Like the boobies, there seem to be individuals that partially fit the descriptions of one brand and partially the other.

I wonder if they’ve been cross-dressing when nobody’s looking. Swapping feathers. Maybe they’re soaring up there teasing each other. “Hey, you lesser frigate.”

On Makemo, I watched a small group of great frigates looping about the sky. Males, females, and pink-headed juveniles. Some sort of squabble ensued between a female and a youngster. Photos slow them down and catch their balet. At some stages the young one appears to be begging for food, then the female turns, chases, and actually chomps on the juvenile’s tail feathers.

Red-footed Booby Sula sula

At sea, and on Tahanea atoll
The curiosity of boobies makes them fun birds to be around. While I’ve been kayaking in Mexico, boobies will often circle overhead, peering down. Blue-footed and brown boobies inhabit those waters. On my very first kayak journey in the Marquesas, a booby almost landed on my kayak. In a frantic last minute tangle of wings, it seemed to notice that the kayak was already occupied.

Boobies in the South Pacific can be difficult to tell apart because they have so many variations of plumage and “morphs”. Red-footed (sula sula), masked (sula dactylatra) and brown (sula leucogaster) boobies are the options, according to Seabirds by Peter Harrison.

About a week before reaching the Marquesas we saw a black and white mottled booby which was nowhere in the book. It was seen nearby an adult masked booby. By similar size and circumstantial evidence, we decided it must be some molt in between immature and juvenile masked booby.

According to some texts, boobies are indicative of nearby islands, but it turns out those are the nesting adults and the newly fledged. The islanders have a term for the “carefree teenagers” who range far from islands in their exploration of the world before settling down to raise a family. The mystery booby in its awkward wardrobe several hundred miles east of the Marquesas must have been one of those. Henrick and I decided we must also be carefree teenagers, perhaps permanently stuck in that stage.

A completely brown booby with grey legs landed on the bowsprit railing on our passage from Makemo to Fakarava. Perhaps an immature red-footed booby, it was quite content to hitch a bouncy ride.

It wasn’t until Tahanea atoll, our last one, that I saw the first red leg on one of the mystery boobies, and positively identified one. They hide their feet well inside their feathers in flight. The many color morphs of the red booby can put the fledgling booby birder into a tailspin. There are the 3 different forms of white morph, the brown morph, the white-tailed brown morph, the white-headed white-tailed brown morph, and the brownish juveniles who don’t have red legs when they do show them. As if that weren’t enough, there’s also the “intermediate” category, which is without definite pattern, and may or may not have red legs. Of course these descriptions also overlap a bit with various phases of both masked and brown boobies. It’s a puzzle that keeps me engaged in the discovery.

Red-footed boobies nest on Tahanea atoll, and I was lucky enough to find one large fuzzy chick still in the nest. It watched from its shelf of haphazard sticks each bird that passed its view. Noddies, terns, and boobies all captured its attention. All color morphs of the red-footed booby wheel about the sky over Tahanea.

One evening Henrick and I rowed in to the beach for a modest bonfire. On both sides of us at some distance, were large-leafed trees that boobies like to roost in. Occasionally another bird would fly in to claim a perch, and grumpy croaking conversations ensued from the treetops.

White Tern (Fairy tern) Gygis alba

Makemo, Fakarava, and Tahanea atolls
Early morning sun gilds their white wings as they cavort after each other above the palms. Fairy terns, they are sometimes called. It’s easy to believe one is in the company of playful angels, or fairies, watching their synchronized antics in the wind, and the sun shining through their primaries.

Pure white and inquisitive, with big eyes, they follow as you walk or jog along the beach. Lie down to stretch or relax, and a pair of them may hover close over you peeping at each other. They almost always fly in pairs, doing formation aerobatics.

The camera reveals that the white terns in flight often glance at each other with their black marble eyes. Good close-ups also show that the beak, which looks black from even a close distance, actually has a base of bright blue.

It’s not enough to merely document them, or even just appreciate them; I find myself giving in to the temptation to romanticize them. With their playful, spirited flight, white terns embody the perfect romance. Their companionship, the tightness of their maneuvers, their glances, and their quiet vocalizations in flight suggest a mutual awareness and affection. Each acrobatic twist and swoop is matched by a partner just a wingbeat away.

To a land-bound human, flight itself is freedom. Our metaphors reflect this: my heart flies with them. Joy is a freedom of the heart. Inspiration, a freedom of imagination. The terns are two little feathered beings just being. Carving their essence in white against a dream blue sky with their merry formation acrobatics. Free from gravity. Free from worry.

Viewed from the boat, they are just white specks flitting about over the palms or the sea. Their whiteness catches the eye. White is light. Is pure. Is carefree. The terns wear innocence on their feathers. Then they turn edge on and disappear into the firmament.

The dark shine in the planet of their big eyes suggests some spiritual wisdom. It’s a wisdom tempered with humor and lightheartedness, written in their looping cursive letters against the tropical sky. On the base of their black upturned beak, they wear a snip of blue, a piece of that tropical sky. As if the tern’s lance had pierced the heavens. The little white bird with the big heart won the joust with the sky and carried home a piece of its azure robe.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Watching Outriggers

They collapse their backs almost caterpillar-like. A forward fold at the hips, then the lower back, mid-back, upper back in a wave. Bowing to power with each stroke. This is the most striking part of the movement when an outrigger glides by. Six bodies folding in unison to a primal rhythm. Not missing a beat even to switch paddles to the other side.

The extended lower arm also catches my eye. As paddle enters water, the arm is not just straight. There is hunger in that reach. Joints of elbow, shoulder, and wrist almost appear to separate bone from bone in a grasp for another inch of water. It is just that difference that will win the race. It’s reaching not only from the shoulder. The body reaches too, from the hips, with the upper torso rotated.

Then the caterpillar power-wave. The strongest paddlers finish with the top hand still shoulder high, and driving straight forward in a salute to the finish line. Lower elbow bends, pointed straight astern, to power the blade out of the water still perfectly parallel with the keel.

From the back of a 6-person team, you see torsos leaning out on both sides, like a colorful, muscled fan. The lower shoulder stays out there, joined by the top hand to make the paddle shaft vertical through the stroke.

The 6th person steers, as there is no other steering mechanism. Some steer with power strokes. Some pry. I saw one team with an exceptionally large steersman enjoying his ride while occasionally dipping in a rudder stroke here and there. Perhaps an outrigger version of weight training.

I know that when I kayak long distances and begin to tire, the finer awareness of direction begins to suffer. Subtle strategies for taking best advantage of conditions give way to slogging. Stubbornness takes over from technique. The brain is the first to go, while the body can continue on autopilot for a long time. In the 6-person outrigger, the steering brain is literally separate from the power body. I can see advantages in this. In competition I’d think you want a lightweight one with enough strength and experience to give the power bodies a course to their advantage.

I haven’t watched solo outrigger paddlers with such raw interest, mostly out of shyness. Do they get their shoulder out over the water on the side opposite the outrigger? It must shift back on the recovery part of the stroke at least.

Today I got my chance to try. In my sea kayak, playing on the shoulder of a reef break full of Tahitians enjoying their Saturday, I met a couple outrigger paddlers. One eventually offered to trade boats for a try, in the calmer water. No matter that we hardly had a few words in common. We had paddles in common, and sign language.

I demonstrated a kayak roll. He pointed to his green outrigger and shook his head. I promised to try not to flip it. Fine when you’re paddling on the left, the side with the nearly weightless outrigger. Twice on the right, at the end of a stroke, the outrigger lifted from the water. Twice an instinctive low brace and a shift of the hips brought it back into submission.

He said I was doing well. “Good! Maitai roa!” He had to work to keep up in my Romany. His learning curve was equally fun to watch. From twitchy hips to playing with edges in 10 minutes. Straight arms were a natural. Rotation initially less so, but his pace got to be more of a challenge to match once his rotation became fluid, about 15 minutes. The Romany had a distinct lift to the bow as he tried to exceed hull speed. Velocity really is a key ingredient to paddling around here.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Historic Polynesian Canoes

Polynesia is the birthplace of the broadest-reaching paddling culture on the planet. The last habitable dots of land to be populated by humans were done so over vast stretches of sea on multi-hulled sailing canoes. So why can’t I find a sailing canoe anywhere in French Polynesia today?

Technically the birthplace wasn’t just Polynesia, but Micronesia and Melanesia as well, together known as Oceania. The movement originated in Taiwan, and eventually populated Madagascar to Hawaii to Easter Island to New Zealand. There is strong evidence that they made it to the Americas in their thorough exploration of the Pacific. Finding it already inhabited, they settled for adopting the sweet potato.

Technically, the exploration and migration was done by sail power, not paddle power, as was theorized at one point. Two experiments, one with Hawaiian paddlers and one with Tahitian paddlers, proved that the human engine is such a hungry machine that not enough food can be carried on board to fuel a month-long journey on muscle-power.

However, today, muscle power is all you see. The strong paddling and racing culture is evidenced by the vast numbers of solo outriggers, 6-person outriggers, and surf skis beating the waters with their paddles. Every waterfront house has some form of watercraft in the yard. Paddling clubs decorate the NW shore of Tahiti with long, slender hulls of every color. Every kilometer less is another club. Even on remote Makemo atoll, there were outrigger races, with what must have been all the young men on the island out to compete.

The other offspring of the canoe culture is the local fishing outrigger. Sometimes cobbled together of tree branches and rebar, these are practical, hard-working craft.

The sight of another small sail caught my eye in Tahiti so I paddled over to investigate. Hobie, read the side of the red plastic craft. It used to be a trimaran, explained the local owner, until a powerboat trimmed it to a single outrigger. It was foot-pedal powered, no paddle in sight. He said there was one other such craft on the whole of Tahiti, and knew nothing about the renaissance of traditional canoe voyaging. So the only sail-equipped paddle vessel I’ve found so far in Polynesia is an American-made import powered by foot pedals. The ironies of history.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Kayak Sailing

Living on a sailboat without a kayak would be like being on land without legs. I slip the paddle into the water and am free. Flip up the sail and I’m dancing with the elements! Sometimes to a beach, to explore a coastline, or just to feel muscles flex and air fill my lungs. Kayaking is more than an activity. It’s a way of being. And kayak sailing is a way of celebrating!

Sailing rowdy downwind, spray flying. Then the long paddle back through heaven-blue water, among coral heads of the Makemo atoll. A mellow black-tip shark cruises the reef. Crested terns hover overhead. Palms bow before the relentless trade winds. I’m lost for a moment in the color of the wave that’s about to break onto my kayak. Translucent turquoise. Or was I imagining it had a color at all, being just a brief shimmer and a splash? Salt spray refreshes, and I paddle on into the next one.

On Fakarava atoll, Henrick sailed my kayak and I paddled his downwind to a little island with a cabin and a sky full of seabirds. I had to work for my surf rides, but he just cruised along, surfing anything he wanted to with the push of the sail. The grin on his face was worth every paddle stroke it took to keep up!

A kayak is freedom in a water world. Sometimes I forget to mention it in the stories, but it’s like forgetting to mention that I’m breathing. Do I have to say it? A kayak and sail in the atolls of Polynesia: I have died and gone to heaven.
Flat Earth Kayak Sails