Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Nov 5
We’re sandwiched between 2 low pressure systems, one chasing us out of the tropics, and one preparing to welcome us to New Zealand. The ride is getting rougher. We’re heeled over now and leaping through the waves, trying to hold onto our SW course as the wind veers slowly against us.

We set off November 3rd from Tongatapu, among the last of a flotilla of cruisers headed for New Zealand. According to Bob McDavitt, New Zealand weather guru, those of us leaving now should just miss the worst of it.

It’s an infamous, dangerous thing from a distance. Whatever it is, the New Zealand crossing included. As you approach the challenge, you find more folks who’ve done it before and survived. Then you come to the edge yourself, get a running start for nerve, and jump. You find yourself swimming among peers. Suddenly it’s not a big scary thing looming ahead, but daily challenges you rise to meet.

That is half. The other half is that we are more resilient than we think.

The traditional canoe Hine Moana set out a couple hours after we did, but we haven’t seen her. She can move at more than twice our speed and may have passed in the night. At times I thought I saw the crab claw sails cutting through the darkness, but those were just phantoms of sleepiness in the wee hours of my watch.

Rafts of floating pumice part as Misty plows through. Henrick scoops them up in a bucket. Other cruisers have them piling up on the deck. Lightweight and white, some have tiny barnacles riding on them. Several are bigger than softballs. Somebody on the radio mentioned a volcanic event a few months ago in the Kermadecs, a group of islands east of New Zealand.

I am sitting on deck lubing strap buckles and working them and looking at swells when a big white bird catches my eye. ”Albatross!” I cry out mistakenly. It’s a masked booby or a gannet at a distance. Henrick has already seen one for real, and I’m trying hard to catch up.

East and SE swells cross each other at tight angles, breaking the swell in to segments. Like shadows at night from two cabin lights overlapping on the wall, swells both pass through and affect each other. Light is waves, too, after all.

We pound and rise obliquely into the swell, moving along with the flock of southward cruisers. Astarte, some 18nm ahead of us tonight, is the closest neighbor who checks into the Drifters Net. How fun it would be to see the whole white-winged migration from space. Some, like us, use wind-steering, and our courses curve with the wind changes. Others on autopilot follow a straight bearing.

Nov 6
25 degrees 03 minutes south. 179 degrees 42 minutes east. The sea gets rougher. There is no sleep.

In rough seas I comfort myself with thoughts of home. The flat, solid green of field, The predictable rows of garden. But the backlog of farm work and business that awaits my return looms over my mental wanderings like a wave about to crash, and I find no refuge in those thoughts. There is no backlog of work, I tell myself. There is only now. I return seek refuge in the gale. In acceptance of the present. The hiss of water past the bow. Wind moans in the rigging. Waves slam and shush over the deck.

Tension grips my neck and back from trying to hold the wind-steering together from sheer willpower. Occasionally the windsteering arm disconnects and the boat goes astray. I anticipate the pregnant, peaceful pause. Then the shudder of sails, the unwanted jibe, and violent careening of the boat. A couple of times we go so far over that water gushes up the sink and flows into the galley shelves. Illogically, I try to shove it back down with my hands.

But willpower won’t help. I try to relax and accept the risk. There is no tension except what I hold onto. There is no backlog but what I create.

The whole boat shudders as a wave slams the hull and showers the cockpit. Slowly I learn to listen and accept. Over the sounds of wind and water, something clunks in the cupboard, and rain drills on the hatch. The anchor chain rattles in its metal tube. I listen, amazed at the punishment a sailboat can take. Ridiculously overpriced hardware seems worth every penny now. I roll with the boat in my berth, relax, and try to grasp that we are actually moving towards New Zealand through this messy, heartless expanse of sea and sky.

On the morning Drifter’s Net, the people around us estimate the wind at 40knots. We don’t have a gauge, but it gets uncomfortable enough that we decide to pull over at the next hotel. Clean linens, a warm shower, room service, and a good night’s sleep sound so tempting. There will be a painting over the bed, a red sailboat on a lake with the sun shining on it. I fixate on that painting.

The Pacific Drifters Net becomes family. The voices, the boat names, the single-digit reading of coordinates. We follow positions and snippets of story.

The Rose. Her captain broke his leg stepping onto the dock in Nuku’alofa, and he flew home. His wife’s father flew in, losing his luggage along the way, to help her sail the boat to NZ. They were joined by Falcon, an energetic young man raised on his parents boat. He had paddled up to Misty in Vava’u in his Marquesan outrigger and wanted to learn to sea kayak, so we swapped for an hour or so, chasing boat wakes and rolling about in the harbor. Now Falcon’s parents wait on their boat in Tonga, listening for The Rose’s progress and Falcon’s eager voice. He checks in one morning with a chuckle in his voice and reports their sea conditions as ”bigger than every one else’s!”

The flock moves along, blind dots on a grid. Some faster, some slower, some easting, some westing, some nearing each other. A boat within 10nm we can’t see from the deck. Curve of the earth, cloudy horizon, rain. They don’t show on the radar either as the seas create too much interference. We grope along, reading coordinates and bearings off to each other over the VHF radio when we’re close. We discuss forecasts, complain of the rough seas. Of course we complain of the calm winds when those come, too, but that is not now. Among the boats nearby, at least one crew member from each one is down with the queasies, which puts me in good company. It’s comforting to hear others complain, somehow. We don’t feel so alone or so wimpy.

My favorite complainer is Michael on Astarte. ”Welcome to the southern ocean,” someone tells him, and he replies with petulance and enthusiasm, ”I don’t LIKE the Southern Ocean!” He complains with such wry gusto that I actually enjoy suffering with him.

Nov 7
Our standard night watch on board Misty consists of one person checking the GPS and looking outside every 15-30 minutes, depending on the situation. It’s so rough tonight that we latch down the companionway hatch so we can’t go out. We’ll take our chances. Everything is sealed, but still water manages to force its way in. Tonight our routine is lying awake and listening, and hourly scooping out the bilge.

We get pushed hard over several times. Once, some clothes on one berth leap the isle to land on the opposite berth, just in time for a gallon of water to weasel its way through the dorado vent and douse the clothes, pillow, berth, and me. I flip the pillow over, push the clothes away, slide a little further down in the berth, and close my eyes again.

Not content with hurling water at us, the sea pelts us with rocks. Floating pumice rocks that we thought were so cute bobbing along like marshmallows in the calm seas now hammer like hail on the cabin top as waves break over. Under just a reefed staysail we drift along at 2.5 knots, except when gusts lay us over then suddenly scoot us along at 6 knots or so.

Sometime in the night the VHF radio comes to life. With its close range, nobody is usually within talking distance, but we leave it on just in case. The New Zealand Air Force is calling a boat called Adventure Bound to change course in response to a mayday call some 50nm away from them. I recognize Adventure Bound’s name as the vessel closest to our stern at the last Drifter’s Net. We clearly hear the Air Force, but nothing from Adventure Bound, so they must be over 20nm away. Evidently they are responding, judging from half of the conversation.

A sailboat called Windigo either rolled or took a knockdown. Interesting terminology, ”took a knockdown.” As if it were something you might order in a restaurant. ”I’ll take a knockdown please, with a side of fries.”

The cool, clear voice of the Air Force radio man says that Windigo’s crew had sustained injuries, and a plane had dropped a life raft. My throat tightens with the thought of the injured crew riding out the night in these seas in a raft.

We carry on. Henrick snoozes in exhaustion. I lie awake listening, rolling, thinking of Windigo, and believing in the sturdiness of the boat around us. Wondering what else there is to believe in right now. And trying to relax enough to keep my insides inside.

The AIS alarm beeps, alerting us to the approach of Aquamante, a sailboat we saw at an anchorage in Tonga. I hail them on the VHF before the AIS loses track of them. In response, a brilliant white strobe catches my eye in the ever-moving dark sea. It’s the captain on deck waving a powerful spotlight. After spotting them, I turn on Misty’s spreader lights, illuminating our deck and lower rigging. Aquamante responds via radio a few minutes later to see they have a visual on us as well.

After that, if I look steadily in the right direction, I can occasionally make out the green of their tricolor through the moving mountains of water. They pass in front of us towards the west. We keep in contact for a couple days, as far as the VHF signal stretches, and swap weather information.

Santa Paz passes behind us later in the night, headed west as well. By morning we’ve closed in on Astarte, who hove-to through the night.

Nov 8
Wind drops into the 30s overnight, but gusts still make us wary of raising more sail. That, and the thought of Windigo. We’re still under just a reefed staysail. During the morning check-in, one cruiser wishes he could take a road grader to the waves and flatten a path to New Zealand. I believe he would have some traffic behind him if he succeeded.

Henrick is sicker than I have ever seen him. He’s throwing up stuff he ate back in 5th grade. We engage in the team-building exercise of bailing the forepeak bilge. I stick my head down into the sloshing confinement to dredge up a bowl full of bilge water and pour it into the toilet, balancing the movements of the boat with the tilt of the bowl. Henrick stands over me in a better position to pump out the manual toilet. Holy water. Bended knee. We take turns hourly in each position.

Miles pass tortuously below our hull as waves crash over the deck. We wait for time to pass, seas to subside, the green tide of stomach bile to recede. Miraculously there are still 2 kayaks on our deck. Two wash buckets went missing from the cockpit. If that’s all that goes missing, I’ll be thankful. I feel more guilty for polluting the ocean than sorry for their loss.

The struggles bring us closer to people we hardly know. The Drifters Net is an emotional and informational lifeline. A congregation of believers. The ritual of coordinates and sea conditions. Peppered with occasional humor. There is news of staysails ripped, autopilots broken, propane tanks washed overboard, floats lost, injuries, the rescue underway.

Adventure Bound is still pounding upwind, making less than 2 knots, with 30nm still to go to the 2-person crew of Windigo, thought to be in the life raft, and expected to still be there for at least 15 more hours. Seas in the area are still building, with winds clocked steady in the mid 40s, gusting into the 50s. New Zealand keeps an Air Force presence, circling overhead until needing to return for refueling and being replaced by another flight.

My emotions are worn thing and I find tears running down my cheeks as I listen to the captain of Adventure Bound, sounding exhausted and frustrated. Emotions must be high there, too.

More news on the net: Obama reelected. Pot legalized in Colorado and Washington. That feels so far away.

Normally when cruising, like many others, we seek solitude. But on this passage, the camaraderie that began as entertainment has become elemental.

Beyond the Drifter’s Net, there are groups of friends who have schedules of checking in with each other. Astarte invites us to listen when they check in with Victory, whom we’d met in Tonga, and Superted, who was already far ahead in their sleek 50-something foot boat that was named by one of their kids after a teddy bear. Victory took 20cm of water in their bilge through their engine air intake because they were heeled so far over. Before discovering and stemming the flow, the captain had asked his wife to gather their ditch kit and be prepared. I could picture her face from the one time we’d met. She was getting a haircut on the back deck of their boat from Astarte’s Barbara, and laughing at the joyful, rustic luxury of an open-air haircut. Again, those thin emotions almost get the better of me.

The washing machine continues its agitate cycle on the other side of our brass-rimmed portals. Water, bubbles, water, bubbles. A swell lifts us with that weightless tilting feeling, then shoves us hard to starboard. I don’t lie in the berth so much as I lie on the side of the hull. Henrick has the floor this time, with mattress and blankets wedged between the berth and the seats. He can’t fall off the floor, not even heeled over.

Sometimes we think we hear voices beyond the hull. A chipper Australian woman chatters from the bookshelf, perhaps a ghost of Misty Past, or the working of a line in a block on deck. I can almost make out her words. Children chatter in the gurgling of a wave.

Electric blue swells with frothing crests look like so many houses with frilly latticework eaves. We could drive Misty into the garage like a car, park her there in the still darkness, and rest. But she just keeps bobbing, or sometimes tripping, over them, and going on.

Electric blue swells with foam-streaked flanks are great running beasts. Nature in breathless stampede. Slow motion captures the quiver of flesh, the flex of muscles, the height of withers. Only the spray of breath is in real time as it takes to the air and shoots several meters forward. The immense, ponderous blue herd in the sunlight is utterly beautiful.

In the night I peek out the portal at the dark beasts galloping drunkenly past my nose, and they glowed blue fire. A storm-tossed mane, a lathered neck, a snort of breath, all bright with life-fire of bioluminescence.

The secret is not to resist. When the beasts ram and pounce and claw at Misty, and throw her on her side, don’t resist. Just accept. Sideways is the new down. Lie down if possible, and let the energy flow through you like silken seaweed in the stream. Let it knead you, slow and elastic, like dough, against the walls and hull. Let go the control you don’t have anyway. I search for tension and let my mind massage those places into acceptance. Face, shoulders, belly. Life is a ride on waves of energy, some days more literally so.

In the night, we, Astarte, and Marungaru all come within a couple miles of each other. Henrick is out of commission, very sick. Pale with red cheeks, unable to keep water down, or stand up for long. The radar, distracted by the big seas, doesn’t pick up either of the other boats. Thankfully, Marungaru has a crew of 4 and a constant watch, and Astarte has a policy of constant watches on deck too. They agree to keep a lookout and VHF radio contact. I peek, listen, and catnap, and can let Henrick sleep.

Marungaru calls about midnight to say they have us in sight. Between then and about 2am, all 3 of us share some intimate sea space. We turn Misty two clicks downwind on the wind steering to alleviate the crunch. Marungaru passes ahead, a green dot occasionally appearing above the crests of black monsters.

I have a hard time getting Misty back on course, so Henrick goes out to tweak the wind steering. He comes back in, slides the three companionway boards down into their slot, pulls the top hatch shut, and latches it. Seconds later a wave crashes over from the stern quarter and forces a few gallons in around the companionway hatch. Salt water washes down the wall over the electrical panels and baptizes the navigation computer, which dies. That was an expensive wave, but could have been a whole lot worse if Henrick had still been out there, and the companionway open.

We eventually resume our course, and Astarte crosses in front of us towards the west. I don’t see them, but we keep in radio contact with our coordinates.

Nov 9
Morning and the sun is out. Great shining swells still roll by, a little further apart, and a little less steep. Spray is no longer strewn from every wavelet. Twenty-five knots and 3 meters of swell, roughly. Henrick’s feeling better. He puts up the mainsail, triple reefed. In raising it, a number of pumice rocks fall out of the folds. The waves had lodged them up there when they broke over Misty’s cabin top. Now we’re leaping along at 5-6 knots, occasionally more in the gusts.

I start to clean up the saltwater and scum that has found its way into unlikely places. The galley shelves are first.

News on the net in the morning is that Windigo, battered and taking on water, is in the company of a merchant ship, and 7 New Zealand air force flights took turns monitoring the situation through the night. We often heard them over our VHF. The Windigo crew had not used the life raft, but stayed in their boat. Adventure Bound’s 2-person crew were exhausted from pounding for a couple of days into conditions reported as 40-55kts of wind and 10 meter seas. They were requested to stand by, too. They are anxious to get on their way and a bit frustrated at how much resource has been required to remedy Windigo’s folly of having too much sail up in a gale. A New Zealand warship is also racing to the scene at 30kts, as reported by sailing vessel Aka at 30kts, whom they passed in the night.

On a happier note, traditional sailing canoe Hine Moana weathered the storm, moved up in the pack, and is especially enjoying the sunshine, since they have to hand-steer on deck with no shelter, day and night.

There are lies, damn lies, and forecasts. We listen to Gulf Harbor Radio in the mornings, occasionally catch Russell Radio in the evenings, as well as snippets of weather fill during the Drifters’ Net. Michael lets us know what’s on Astarte’s grib files. No matter how much we all discuss it, the weather does its own thing in the end.

Today I learn that Astarte is a Phoenecian goddess of passion & love. Michael and Barbara renamed the boat years ago in Florida in a great ceremony. Bit by bit we get to know our passage neighbors as this whole migration bounces and glides south. Michael faithfully relays our reports to the Drifters Net because our SSB signal isn’t strong enough, probably because of a corroded ground connection. Henrick doesn’t want to disconnect it and run the chance of fouling it up worse while we’re out here. As it is, we’re having fun with Astarte, promising a cold beer for every relay. They get a giggle out of it, too.

Bits of humor--somebody reporting calm and sunny in the midst of the gale. Frustration shared--Catharpin Blue can’t hold the course they want, but neither can the rest of us. Expectations--Superted is disappointed with their 7 knots of speed. He takes a good teasing for saying that (most of us would be thrilled!). Helpfulness-- people relay information from neighboring boats whose SSB radios have failed.

When boats reach port, it’s like they fall off the end of the earth. Names we heard twice a day never get mentioned again. Slowly, the community dissolves. Perhaps we’ll meet someone on the dock or pub or in the marine store when we get there. But lives will go separate ways, each carrying a piece of memory of the NZ migration of 2012. The Windigo rescue.

Henrick and I enjoy a dinner date once we feel like eating again. We share the slip-sliding adventure of cooking hash browns and eggs, both wearing socks now to stay warm. Socks don’t grip the floor at all. Now we grope for toe-holds and places to wedge the feet as we move about. We put on some music and enjoy the companionship. No showers in a week. Separate berths. Not the most sexy dinner date, to be sure. But a nice, close feeling that runs much deeper.

How to cover the leftovers? The plastic lids have escaped. I recall hearing them leap from their cubby one night and scuttle across the floor. ”Huh,” I grunted, deciding that at least they wouldn’t fall off the floor, and with that, fell back asleep and forgot about them. Henrick recalls seeing some errant lids and shoving them somewhere, but can’t remember where. So it goes. A good cleanup will reveal a lot, I’m sure.

The rough weather hit before I could cook the soaked garbanzo beans, resulting in an accidental sprouting. I’m not sure I like sprouted flavor better, but it was an interesting experiment. It makes the incorrigible gardener in me want to soak all kinds of beans to see how they sprout.

Nov 11
Adventure Bound wants to change their name. Suggestions? Wimpy. Chickadee, Lilly Pad, Light Airs, Three Stooges, Inept, The Flea, Frayed Knot. Henrick suggests his longtime favorite boat name ”Slacker”. For now they remain Adventure Bound, and are at last free to head for Opua.

The Windigo crew remained on board their boat until the New Zealand warship arrived and hoisted them in a sling aboard for warm showers, good food, and medical care. They left the boat adrift, which concerned the next fleet of cruisers who were making the New Zealand migration.

Tints and solvents in the paint locker swim about in 4” of salt water. Cleaning that is this morning’s project. Gentle seas, a purring motor, and a pile of rusty cans and plastic bottles. The bag full of rags is hung to dry like a gypsy caravan in the wind. Latex gloves flutter on the line like so many energetic musicians playing a blue piano sky. It’s not a project you hope to repeat often, but the doing of it is a pleasant activity together in the sun and cool air of 30 degrees south latitude in the middle of a wide, gently rolling sea.

Nov 12
The wind dies. Then blasts again. Like a car, zero to 20 in 60 seconds or less. From every direction on the left side of the compass. Black squalls lay us over on our ear. Petrels cartwheel by. Gigantic rainbows smile upside down over us. Our course looks drunken. A western detour. Southing. Then back to the east, the line on the GPS wavers every few miles. It looks like we’re trying to carve a pretty scalloped pattern on the sea. Last night in the calm, we drifted in a nice hook back towards Tonga. Then caught some wind and started a SE run in the actual direction of our destination.

Life is pleasant on board if you’re not fixated on getting somewhere. Sunset dinner in the cockpit. Homemade biscuits. Watching the sun set repeatedly as the swells make and remake the horizon. Two green flashes in one night. Clear as a bright green crayon as it sets, rises, and re-sets.

Nov 13
The race is on! The race for who can come in last from our fleet of Tonga-to-Opua cruisers. There are 3 of us straggling about 150nm from Opua, all with engine issues. Ours slowly lost power, and now won’t exceed 1900rpms even when the throttle is all the way down, so Henrick prefers not to use is until we can solve the issue. The competition is Morning Cloud, who runs on 2 out of 3 cylinders, and Astarte, who has a long list. Neither of them wants to go by engine either, until absolutely necessary.

Morning Cloud is a 36’ 50-year old wood boat with Selwin and Joanne aboard, and centuries of sailing experience. Astarte is 42’ of fiberglass, cruising continuously for the past 2 years. Misty of course is 36’ of red-hot steel, almost 50 years herself. Michael puts his money on Morning Cloud for first in. Morning Cloud may win the award for most congenial for calling to ask if we need a tow as we approach land. I believe their engine is in worse shape than ours.

Nov 14
Less than 50nm to go to Opua under the anemic light of a partial solar eclipse. We take turns looking through Henrick’s welding helmet. First a nibble from the top left corner. Eventually a yellow crescent. The wind bites cold in the lack of sun.

”I see New Zealand!” calls Henrick. Just as I pop my head over the torn dodger cover, a great white spray launches up from the bow. I duck back down but Henrick, too involved with the distant smudge of land, gets soaked. We laugh. Somehow, the trio of solar eclipse, sighting of land, and dousing of sea seem a perfect welcome.

Meanwhile, inside the cabin, long droplets of water stream from the center hatch onto Henrick’s berth. Good thing we’re arriving soon. We stave the leak as best we can and put a towel on the bed to absorb the rest. Our speed is good, and we’re too thankful to be arriving to care about a little water now.

The luck of our position, further west of Morning Cloud and Astarte, allows Misty to make a straight shot into the Bay of Islands, while our neighbors have to tack. We make it to ”Q”, the quarantine dock as dusk falls. Morning Cloud comes in shortly after. Astarte pounds along into short, brutal seas, making 2 knots for another day before her steering cable disconnects itself in protest. Michael reconnects it, and eventually they, too, enjoy a long awaited arrival at Q dock.

Adventure Bound makes it in some days later. They receive a hero’s welcome for their part in the rescue, which they downplay. Some big-hearted cruisers arrange a free marina berth for them to rest and recuperate, and a number of donations from related businesses.

Their arrival completes the passage of the fleet that left Tonga just before the first big gale of the 2012 New Zealand passage season. A number of us caught the corner of that gale, but Adventure Bound and Windigo got the brunt. Unless you count those who stayed in Tongatapu. They recorded winds of 65 knots, plus gusts, in the anchorages. Boats pulled anchor, dinghies flew through the air. It was never a named cyclone because of a technicality. It formed its strength from winds aloft instead of from convection, according to Bob McDavitt, New Zealand weather guru who was in Opua for the All Points Rally, welcoming cruisers to New Zealand.

All in all, we’re glad we left when we did, and thankful to be in sheltered waters now.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Kayaking Tonga

Tonga is like space. It’s hard to find a good map or nautical chart of Tonga for the same reason it’s impossible to sketch the galaxy in its proper scale, see it, and still have it fit in a book. Or even a room. There is more distance than substance.

The Tongan universe is organized into solar systems of island groups. Vava’u, Ha’apai, Tongatapu, which we visit in that order. During a 19-mile paddle among the Ha’apai group, the simile of space ccurs to me. I leave our anchorage and head toward the longest island on the horizon, which I believe is the final destination, Ha’afeva.

Navigation for the day is pencilled on my kayak deck in degrees and nautical miles:
270 8
217 11

I scour the horizon and nearby sea for Lofanga Island, which should be smaller and closer. I hope to stop there for a break, about halfway. It should be slightly north of Ha’afeva. But my compass seems to be a little off, and my eyes blind.

About a mile out from the anchorage, I crawl forward on my deck and open the front hatch to be sure the repair kit has not slid forward under the compass. Nope. But it does sit at a slight tilt towards the south, a southern hemisphere phenomenon. Then I turn on the hand-held GPS that I carry for emergencies. If I need Henrick’s help, I can tell him my coordinates. It’s virtually impossible to see a kayak on the open sea. I’ve been within a quarter mile of him, told him my bearing from him, and still been invisible. I can see his sail clearly at 2 miles in most conditions, and up to 8 miles in calm seas with clear air or a solid dark background. This GPS has no chart of the area. Last night I entered the two waypoints of Lofanga and Ha’afeva. The two dots and the triangle that is me sit in a blank screen. But it’s enough info to confirm that my compass is not wrong; I was.

Blame it on the vagueries of our shipboard GPS, the dearth of detailed printed charts aboard, and the 8-16 degree discrepency between the ship’s compass and the GPS, but the fact remains that I was mistaken. The island I’m seeing is Lofanga, and Ha’afeva is far beyond the hazy horizon. I actually cannot see it until 3 miles after I leave Lofanga. It’s a small feeling, paddling fervently on a compass bearing towards an imaginary dot beyond a blank horizon, but we’ll get to that later.

Islets and reefs glide along my horizon, appear, rearrange themselves, and disappear. They are nameless mysteries. Behind me a vertical white smudge moves along the dark line of horizon which is Uoleva Island. A sailboat heads out. It’s not Henrick since he won’t go until after I reach Lofanga. He calls me every hour on the VHF to check each other’s progress.

The east and south sides of Lofanga are cliffy, according to the shipboard GPS. I choose to head around the north side of the island, a longer route, but more likely to find a landing. Sneaking through the reef between breakers of slightly less than a meter, I cruise along the shore until I see a small dugout canoe with an outrigger tucked under the branches of a tree. Elation! I beach the kayak next to it. Light blue paint, red paint, just small patches left, and those peeling off. A stick rests in the canoe with a plywood oval held to one end with a bent nail. The paddle. A 2x6 board rests across the narrow dugout opening. One must sit above the canoe since the width would not even permit a child’s hips. Legs only fit one in front of the other. Various colors of string bind the outrigger to the canoe.

I follow a footpath inland to a clearing planted with banana trees and taro. A kettle and a shirt hang in a tree branch, but I see no people. I paddle further around the coastline of craggy volcanic rock etched by the sea, topped with grass brilliant green in the sunlight. Palms and jungle trees beyond. Tiny inlets, pocket beaches of tan sand. I nose into one and hear a chirpy squeaking. The trees hang dense with ripe fruit bats. Gigantic brown pears with golden faces. They fuss at each other until one drops from its grip and flaps away with thick hawk-like wings.

Another dugout outrigger on another beach. Bare wood, with just a hint of black paint in spots. The paddle is an old plastic blade, cracked in the middle, bound to its crooked branch with black rubber. The trails here lead to a clearing moguled with unmarked mounds of white sand. The graveyard. One grave at the base of a red-flowering tropical tree is covered with plastic flowers and has an engraved headstone.

AHO 24, 10, 98.
(arrow pointing right) 1998

With this, I no longer wonder if there is a permanent population on the island. Around one more rocky headland, I see a moored motorboat, plus two on the beach, apparently pulled up for repairs. A girl runs up a grassy clearing towards a village. Eaves and corners of roofs peek out of the foliage. I don’t think the girl saw me. There are no signs of anyone else at the waterfront. I am torn--it’s time to move on if I will keep to our planned schedule of meeting up at Ha’afeva while we still have good light for anchoring. Besides, I’m alone, carrying an obscene amount of expensive borrowed equipment, compared to the local standards.

Historically, Tongans were notorious raiders of other islands and passing ships. Not to mention their cannibalistic tendencies. The ”Friendly Islands” were misnamed by Captain Cook when he was invited to a feast, without realizing that the feast was supposed to be a trick to capture and eat him. It failed due to internal disagreements among the planners.

I linger a few moments, see nobody, and reluctantly raise my sail and paddle away, still feeling torn. Next time I might have the chance to visit a village, I promise myself, I will carry something as a gift. Food, or something I can part with. To that I am faithful.

But first, I must get to the rendezvous with Henrick, 11 miles towards a perfectly empty horizon. Oh, the faith that ocean travel requires. Conditions are ideal for paddling, if not for visibility. Complete overcast with a light drizzle. Quartering tailwind of 8-12kts. Ocean swell from the NE about 2’, and wind waves E about a foot. Just a mellow day’s cruise. I swim every hour to cool off, just before turning on my radio to listen for Henrick. I can see him most of the time, over my left shoulder. Sometimes I have to stare at the pale horizon for a few minutes before picking out the sail some 3 miles away and closing. It’s reassuring to see him out there, heading towards the same featureless haze. Is this somehow like life? We set a course we hope will intersect and work our ways expectantly towards a future we can only imagine?

Suddenly we’re there. I study the reef as I approach, and decide to shoot what looks like a gap in the worst breakers. It saves me almost a mile, and provides the needed adrenaline to bring me home. Henrick takes the long way and meets me at the anchorage, just minutes apart.

It’s an odd phenomenon. Going there and ending up here. But it happens every time. The distant, mysterious unknown becomes the present. The unnoticed. The boring. So we plan the next adventure. Do we even have to go, or is planning the real satisfaction? Oh, we must go, or we are but dreamers. Or worse. Failures. Or.... Is the enduring quest, the biggest challenge, the lifelong goal simply to notice the present? Would we still go adventuring?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Quick Visit to a Freckle

The sea was building up an uncomfortable multi-directional chop that required a lot of effort to keep the kayak moving in the direction I wanted to go. So I decided to stick with Plan A, and let Henrick pick me up beside Tokulu Island instead of paddle the last 10nm to Nomuka Island. I had already paddled about 10nm and visited a couple small Tongan islands.

Tokulu is just a freckle on the chart with a 39’ navigational tower on it and a reef completely encircling it. I arrived some 30 minutes before Henrick would, and thought I’d go ashore just for kicks. Pattern-less breakers on the reef kept my anxious attention until I reached the lagoon. I’d come in with the wind behind me, and knew that unless there was an escape on the other side, my exit would be challenging.

I beached quickly. Wearing all my kayaking gear, I ran up the sand into the edge of the forest. I happened into the long unused entrance to a trail, or more like a tunnel through the tangled growth, curtained by spiders. I raised my arm in front of my face, and plowed on to the base of the aluminum tower, then up.

I saw Henrick approaching, and a few other sailboats skimming the horizon. Wind tousled the tops of palm trees below the tower. A reddish reef encircled the little island. Hollow breakers dumped hard on the fortress of shallow coral. To the NW, where I’d snuck in, there was more randomness to the break, revealing a deeper, more broken section of reef. From the tower I could see a dog-leg channel barely wider than a kayak. If I could find it from water level, it would provide enough depth for my paddle to get a full bite with each upwind stroke.

Down I climbed as fast as I dared, and hurried to get back on the water. I was halfway out the channel, fighting hard against the wind and waves when the radio crackled with Henrick’s voice. He was approaching the island and couldn’t see me yet. I asked him to hang on until I got clear of the breakers.

As I neared the boat, Henrick turned the engine on and pointed Misty upwind. I paddled alongside, tied the kayak on a line, and scrambled up over the railing. We hoisted the kayak on board. I tied it down, and off we sailed, swapping stories of our brief solo journeys.


It was a mission to turn New Zealand contraband into some tropical fun.

I landed my kayak through wind-driven breakers at the foot of a row of palm trees. Just beyond the palms, the Tongan island village of Ha’avefa collected concrete houses with corrugated metal roofs. A small flatbed truck with a young family inside drove across the grass to park overlooking the sea. Though the island was only half a mile wide, there were some vehicles. I pulled 3 one-gallon ziploc bags out of my hatches and carried them into town.

Our South Pacific voyage, which had started in Mexico 6 months earlier, was about to head for New Zealand, land of strict biosecurity regulations. Much of the well-planned long-storing food we carried on board would be confiscated on arrival, so I was on a mission to trade the offending food items for something we could use up before arriving in New Zealand. In the bags were dried beans, dates, whole cumin and coriander seeds, textured vegetable protein, nuts.

Fences of corrugated tin roofing and crooked posts protected small yards from roaming pigs. A few skinny papaya trees grew in corners, and an anemic mango or two. A stunted breadfruit tree waved its lobed leaves like giant green hands. Down one road I saw promise: a cluster of healthy banana trees in a garden of bounty, canopied by a majestic breadfruit tree. A man in a button-down shirt, ankle-length skirt, and flip-flops tinkered with a small motor in the shade of the banana trees.

”Malo e’lelei”, I said over the decorative concrete fence. He turned off the motor and eased himself closer to the fence. Most Tongans speak some English. He listened patiently as I explained that I had some foreign foodstuff to trade if he could spare a few bananas and perhaps a papaya.

It was only later that I realized that the garden belonged with the most well-kept house in town. He was the minister of Ha’afeva and the surrounding islands. His wife Maria was away in Nuku’alofa, the capital, visiting one of their children in boarding school and doing some errands. Nuku’alofa is a full day trip by local motorboat, a low wooden and fiberglass contraption with partial cabin top not high enough to stand up under, and wooden benches along the side. The trip must be a penance of sorts, in the choppy seas that can blow up around here.

His garden didn’t lie. Vilitonu, the large and soft-spoken minister, was a tender of plants as well as parishioners. He loved the idea of planting the beans to see if they might grow, and the coriander. ”Thank you for bringing more flavor to our kitchen,” he said slowly as we sat in the living room among upholstered couches draped with bright lengths of fabric. I sat comfortably on the wood floor since I was still wet from kayaking in the wind.

After a chat, I followed him back to his happy garden, his wide feet slapping softly in their rubber flip-flops. He cut a bunch of green bananas with a machete and handed them to me, still dripping white sap from the cut. A tall, hearty papaya tree got a good poking from a long stick until a football-sized fruit dropped to the ground. The papaya was just starting to blush yellow through its green skin. Finally, he led me to a row of shoulder-high shrubs that had been regularly trimmed of their pointy-lobed leaves. Like Saint Peter on judgment day, he tenderly chose this leaf, that leaf, and not that one, thoughtful yet decisive. He handed me a fist full. Like spinach, or kale, or Swiss chard, they were to be lightly steamed until just wilted before eating.

There have been moments when I keenly miss the communion of plants in my home garden. The foray into Vilitonu’s tropical oasis was tonic to the spirit as well as nourishment to the belly.

The next day I returned with Henrick to visit with Vilitonu. We walked across the island from the protected anchorage on the other side carrying another delivery of foreign food and things that might grow.

The day after that, I set out early in the kayak to explore some nearby islands on the way to Nomuka, the next anchorage some 20nm away, with the last New Zealand contraband in my hatches. Many little islands along the way are too small to have protected anchorages, so kayaking is the perfect way to explore. A few islands have villages, satellites to the central Ha’afeva.

I stopped at an uninhabited one, in a pocket of sand between sharply eroded limestone formations. A sandpiper of some sort poked among the crags. It climbed and hopped within a couple meters of me, unbothered. In the rocky holes hid crabs, scratching and clambering back from the advancing camera. The hillside behind rose too steeply to climb, too tangled with jungle growth.

I left the island and crossed over the protective reef. Just as the water began turning to deep-water blue, a sea turtle sniffed the air. It saw me trying to sneak past and dove, flying down, down below the kayak. A pair of white terns looped over the palms of the little island. Icons of freedom and playfulness.

From there I headed another couple miles southeast to an island called Tongua, according to the shipboard GPS. The locals call it Tomua. I approached over a long shallow reef. Two figures waded, then bent over, straightened, put something in a bag. The first, a teen whose gender I could not determine, stared, but hardly responded to my greeting or smile. The second, perhaps the mother, beamed a most welcoming smile. There are moments when the universe feels in balance and nothing else matters. Such was the warmth in her face at that moment. I smiled back from the depths of my heart.

”Malo e’lelei”, we exchanged greetings. Then we had no more words in common until ”Bye.” No matter. They were picking urchins. They were just beginning, or it was tough going, judging from the emptiness of their bags. I wished them well, whether they understood the words it or not, and paddled on.

Around a curve in the coastline, a village came into sight. Green fields were crossed by the occasional dark pig or white goat. A few low-profile motor boats moored in shallow water. Wood and corrugated tin houses. Footpaths.

In Tonga, as in the rest of Oceania, boats have always been the way to get around. Exploration, settlement, trading, raiding. Outriggers, double hulls, sails for distance, paddles for day trips. This British sea kayak, though its roots anchor in the cold northern reaches of the planet, fits the tradition of human- and sail-powered boat travel for visit and trade.

Motors power the modern Tongan inter-island vessels. Not everyone has a boat, but everyone who leaves the village must travel in somebody’s boat.

Here the boat isn’t peripheral or recreational. For those who operate their own, there is a common understanding, a language of the sea. It is something one will always have to share with the newly arrived visitor. Freddy met me on the beach in front of a huge tree. In very good English, he introduced himself as the captain of the sea cucumber fleet.

”How is the sea today?” he said as if he were asking about the health of a relative.

Sea cucumbers processed for the orient are the basis of their international economy, and a wide-leafed grassy plant softened by soaking in salt water was sold locally for bedding and matting. Of course he knew Vilitonu, the minister. Right there was the church, across the field.

Freddy gave me a walking tour of the village. Like many homes, most of these had a sheet hung in the front doorway, and no door. The breeze blew through to the back doorway opposite. Inner walls and doors hardly existed. Many people smiled and waved from their places in the shade, and some kids ran up to the fence to look and smile. The most striking thing that shaped this community was the complete lack of motor vehicles. Footpaths wove unstraight lines through the grass, People and animals walked about or lounged in the shade. Things were done or moved by hand.

Freddy, like Vilitonu, was well traveled, having been to the US, Australia, Asia. His cell phone chirped almost constantly in his pocket. He answered usually with a few sentences in Tongan and hung up.

Two women sat beside a fire under a sprawling tree and worked at making some food. Tan piles of long soaked bedding leaves sat along a fence to be prepared for sale. Two young men lounged in the shade on a backyard trampoline and greeted me in good English. Pigs sprawled in dusty hollows under the eves of an abandoned shack.

The village, said Freddy, was growing. It had some 300 people, if I remember the figure right. We returned to the beach. Before I pushed off for the next island, I pulled out the last 2 Ziplock bags with the remaining contraband. Dehydrated vegetables, soy protein, cous-cous, and a few other bits. Appreciation for a fine tour. He seemed genuinely interested in it, and I left feeling satisfied with my first two village trading efforts in this remote Tongan island group.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bora Bora

They say the best kept secret of French Polynesia is the lousy weather. It can certainly be exciting! Last night we got some of the hardest rain I’ve ever seen this side of northern Australia. Wind gusted over 30kts, heeling Misty over on her side at anchor and straining the anchor line snubber. Blue lightening seared the sky.

It’s been 4 months and a day since we arrived in the Marquesas, and we’ll be heading out of French Polynesia in a few more days. The hurricane season is at our heels and we have 2,500nm to go to New Zealand.

The last week at Bora Bora has been one of those slow, uneventful weeks that you look back on and are surprised at all that happened.

We ran aground inside the lagoon, within meters of a channel marker (on the proper side). We were headed into the sun and there was no other side mark. Just a reef. The GPS was utterly worthless inside the Bora Bora lagoon. Worse, actually. It inspired false confidence. But Misty’s steel hull proved its mettle here as we rested, embarrassed but unhurt, until a helpful local with a big motorboat pulled us back off. We weren’t the first.

In various excursions, I paddled almost completely around the main island of Bora Bora, and around some motus within the lagoon. We pulled our kayaks up on an old, sharp reef and drift-snorkeled through a waterscape of fantastic formations and colorful fish. We hung under our kayaks with masks on to look about at other reefs and at the hulls of some boats. Henrick is designing his next boat, and is perpetually on a mission to study hulls he likes.

I’ve concocted several uses for a stubby cooking banana. Our garden tour guide in Raiatea gave us a stalk of these, which we hung under the solar panels off the stern of Misty. They ripen at a rate of about 10 a day. The progression looks cool, but keeps the chef hopping. Breakfast smoothies, happy hour banana coladas, banana-coconut-chocolate cake. They must be cooked first, so I slice them lengthwise and fry them, then blend them with a little milk for smoothies, or oil for cake.

According to our tourist literature, Bora Bora is supposed to have a mini maritime museum of model boats. Its location differs on our various guide maps. We’ve asked nearby residents, fishermen, and outrigger paddlers. Only one paddler had even heard of it, and said it was somewhere between this point and that one. We looked about twice from our kayaks along the shore, which is where the road and the buildings are because the rest of the island is so steep, but saw no sign of a museum. Almost all yards have a collection of old boats. Fishing skiffs, solo outriggers, 6-person outriggers, open canoe outriggers. So we’ve experienced a museum of sorts anyway.

We did catch another performance of the sailing acrobats we’ve been playing tag with since Mexico. They are professional performers who now support themselves by doing shows wherever they go and passing around collection tins. The couple does two shows on board their yellow boat in an evening. One is a comedy. They are rookie sailors knocking each other overboard -almost- or ending up dangling on a boom out over the water, or stringing each other up by the rigging lines. Ignorantly working against each other to make everything go wrong. Very Tom & Jerry. Done to cartoon music and quite funny.

The second show is a romance, with breathtaking acrobatics done hanging from 2 thin sheets of fabric strung up from the backstay, among other stunts. In Raiatea, the shows drew cruisers, charter yacht renters, local families, and their energetic children. We happened to be tied at the dock on the far side of the island when we saw their poster up in the grocery store. For a couple of days we hunted around for a bicycle or scooter rental or bus schedule to get us there for the show since we were headed the other way with our boat and didn’t want to go back around. No rentals anywhere. No public bus system. Asking at a local hotel for nonexistent bicycles, we ended up carpooling with the owner, who was going to see the show anyway. We were thankful since we’d missed their show in Loreto, the Marquesas, and Tahiti.

On Bora Bora, we finally tasted the famous local Poisson Cru, or raw fish and veggies in coconut milk . Very tasty. We picked up more baguettes at the local grocery store. I wanted one of the outriggers for sale there too, but Henrick vetoed that. Baguettes and outriggers at the grocery store. I like this place more and more.

One of the reasons I like French Polynesia is also one of the reasons we MUST go. The French influence. Baguettes, brie, and red wine. Never mind visa limits and impending hurricane season, I’ll need a new, wider kayak if we stay too long.

Boat chores must be done before we head out. We cleaned the hull with a green kitchen scrubby to remove the mini ecosystem of slime and crusty things and restore a hydrodynamic surface. Little fish take great interest in the particles we set free in the water. We dive repeatedly and try to swim close enough to the hull against the current to get some good scrubbing leverage. One day when I jumped in for a scrubbing session, the visibility was less than 6ft. A cool current moved through, and within half an hour, the water was crystal clear. I could see the anchor and its chain coming off the bow when I swam behind the 36’ boat.

We don’t mind the occasional “lousy” weather. When it’s windy and rainy, we call it good “cozing in” weather, and enjoy the excuse to curl up with a writing project or a boat model to work on.

Henrick has some great photos of our Bora Bora adventures at

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bora Bora Crossing

Puzzle: How can you launch and land in the same place and paddle in just one direction in between, other than around the north or south pole?

I think Taha’a to Bora Bora was the longest open water crossing I’ve done without stepping stones, 20nm from reef pass to reef pass, but 25nm from launch to land. I set out at 7am, stepping off Misty’s deck down into my Romany.

The forecast was mellow. It had to be or Henrick would disown me. “You’ll have to find another ride to New Zealand if it’s rough and you paddle anyway.” He was worried about not being able to help if something did go wrong.

The hairiest moment came within the first 2nm, before I was out of the Taha’a lagoon. I glided lazily around a point in flat calm water to see the orange freighter headed my way. Since I was already in the channel, I pressed onward, but with more focus. Little did I know that freighter and I would meet again.

White breakers curled over the reef on both sides as I paddled out the pass. A grey form caught my eye in the clear water. A 5’ black tip reef shark ghosted up along the kayak, then undulated away. Brown and red-footed boobies picked off fish that the dolphins drove to the surface along the outside of the reef. I caught a good view of one leaping dolphin, and it had 2 pink patches on the side of its belly.

The faintest breath of wind patterned the water, moving with me, offering no relief from the heat. I paddled slowly and deliberately. Even so, my body temperature rose until I felt sluggish. Bora Bora’s volcanic peak beckoned in the distance. Sun lit the neon blue water all around. The skirt lay bunched up in my lap. I unzipped my PFD but left it clipped. Dipped my arms, my hat. Drank water. At 16 degrees south of the equator, the tropical sun can be brutal. Air temperatures were somewhere in the high 90s.

Eventually I developed a routine. Six minutes before the hour, give or take, I slipped into the warm water and floated, holding onto the kayak. It cooled my temperature down, let me stretch, and have a pee break if necessary. Back on the kayak, I had a snack and turned on my radio to listen for Henrick’s hourly call.

I did finally take off my PFD and set it between my knees or clipped it on the front deck, depending what I was doing. I understand the risks, and hesitate to provide rationalization, because it’s not something I recommend. Solo paddling a 25nm crossing eliminates many safety nets. On one hand, solo crossings, like many indigenous paddling traditions, relies heavily on personal skill and the judgment of whether or not to go. Gizmos to prolong life may just prolong suffering, and the outside help you call in has a good chance of never finding you. This encourages one to manage risk with heavy emphasis on prevention.

I know personal skill and judgment have limitations and can both fail. It is with humility and awareness that I set out. I did carry a VHF and have a regular communication plan with Henrick. Not that I relied on this as a safety net. More of a comfort and a way to revise the meet-up plan on the other side. Why not a safety net? It has many weaknesses. It was nearly impossible for him to see me at any distance, especially without my sail up. I could see him from perhaps 4 or 5 miles away in the calm seas. I started with about a 7nm lead, so we did not have visual contact at the start, and later there were several sailboats on my horizon. Even if I told him I was in trouble, and my compass bearing to the sail I thought was his, he was not guaranteed to find me. He certainly couldn’t find me if I couldn’t guide him to me.

Another weakness was that my VHF was clipped into my PFD. This is not a weakness when my PFD is clipped to my person. When it’s clipped to my boat, losing them both was my thin veil between here and the next realm.

Body temperature wasn’t just about comfort. It was safety too. In 6 or 7 hours of steady physical work, one can dehydrate, sweat a lot, lose electrolytes, and make it difficult for the body, to complete its mission, or the mind to make good judgments. Hence the hourly swim and snacks as well as frequent drinks and easy pace.

A couple hours into the paddle, a swell reached around the north end of Taha’a and crossed the south swell I’d been feeling since the pass, making combined seas a gently undulating 1.5 meters. After three hours, the SE wind tried a little harder. The texture on the blue, blue surface lumped up and almost made whitecaps. The sail held its shape when I put it up. Barely. Extremely slowly, the wind increased to about 10kts with lazy whitecaps. I took every advantage of it.

I couldn’t see a sail behind me on the horizon yet, but a cream-colored blob seemed to be approaching.

“I don’t see you, but do I see a freighter?” I asked Henrick the next time we talked.

“Yes, there’s a freighter in front of me and headed your way,” he affirmed.

Not again! The freighter grew an orange hull beneath the cream-colored bridge as it neared. I kept an eye over my shoulder, and it passed uneventfully about a half mile to the south.

I saw a faint white smudge on the horizon back in the direction of Raiatea and Taha’a. Then I saw 2. Henrick reported that he was motor sailing and gaining on the boat in front. It’s bad form to motor sail past a boat that’s just under sail when there is enough wind to sail. So he cut the motor and took it as a sailing challenge. Besides, the motor is loud, while sailing is peaceful.

Bora Bora’s peak got closer, and the hills of Taha’a faded away behind. The white breakers on Bora Bora’s reef appeared when I was on top of a swell. Then they were visible all the time. From the SW corner of the reef, it was still another 3.5nm to the only pass, in the middle of the west side. A post marked the reef’s SW extension. Some current compressed itself around that point, against the wind and my traveling direction. This made conditions lumpy but delightfully surfable.

Several motorboats patrolled the outside edge of the reef, fishing. One red boat motored over, approaching cautiously. I slowed down to talk. A lone Polynesian fisherman greeted me in Tahitian and asked in English if I just paddled over from Taha’a.

“Yes,” I replied. Counting on my fingers, I added, “5 hours.” I still had another hour to the entrance through the reef. Any respectable outrigger would have beat me to that point by at least an hour.

The fisherman smiled broadly and said, “Congratulation! Welcome. Do you want water?” He held up a bottle.

I reached behind my seat and brought forth my own bottle, my third one. “No. Mauruuru. I have water.” I pointed to his boat and asked, “Good fishing?”

“Oh, yes!” he replied. We took our leave. I caught a little swell to ride, and looked back to wave goodbye. He flashed his broad white smile and raised a hand.

At one point I contemplated surfing over the reef into Bora Bora’s lagoon for a short cut. There was a section where the breakers were less than 2’, while all around they broke at 4 or 5’. I dropped the sail, sealed the skirt around the coaming, and zipped up my PFD. I eased closer to watch. What I couldn’t tell from the outside was whether there was enough water over the reef to float once I was inside the waves. Sometimes I just saw a rust-colored berm after a breaker passed.

Chances? Seventy percent says no problem. Just ride over with the swell. Twenty percent says I lose significant gel coat on the reef, or crack the kayak between the force of the breaker and the resistance of the reef, probably on the second breaker if I don’t make it completely through on the first. Five percent says I lose some blood in the process. My home is still an hour and a half behind. I’m meeting him near the pass. Inside the lagoon will be no swells to ride. And I still have time to kill.

In the end I decided the thrill of conquering the reef wasn’t worth the risk, and that the subsequent paddling would be boring, negating the thrill anyway. So I continued to the pass.

Once inside Bora Bora’s lagoon, I dawdled downwind for half an hour to explore the motus (outer islands along the reef), then tacked back and forth up to our meeting spot at the old yacht club, in a cove on the main island. I tied the little Romany up to a mooring ball, went for a celebratory swim, then sat sideways in the cockpit with my feet in the water to have a snack and watch Henrick expertly negotiate the pass under sail.

I released the mooring ball so he could tie up. I climbed onto Misty and we pulled the Romany up, landing on the very same sailboat I had launched from in the morning. Thus answering the puzzle.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

More Birds!

Since I posted the bird stories, a kind Tahitian contacted me to let me know the more common name of the bent-nosed reef poker is Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis), teu'e in Tahitian. It breeds in Alaska and winters on tropical Pacific islands.

He also identified some other birds I’d photographed but not written about. The Tuamotu Reed-warbler (Acrocephalus atyphus) is pictured to the right. It lives only in French Polynesia and was photographed on Tahanea atoll. Thanks Yvan.

If you would like to comment on any entries, or edumacate me on any factual errors you’ve caught me at, my email is

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Tahiti to Moorea

This is how most nautical disaster stories begin—it wasn’t quite the weather we wanted, but we had to go anyway.

When we sail I often watch the sea and imagine paddling in it. However, 2,500nm crossings are more than I want to tackle in a kayak. The Tahiti to Moorea crossing, at 17nm, was finally within reach.

In an area of SE trade winds, it was an odd forecast: winds ENE up to 20kts. Swell east, turning south and building to 3 meters. The following days forecasted bigger swell and more wind, plus we’d checked out from Tahiti and needed to leave by Sunday. The forecast really wasn’t THAT bad, we reasoned, and the day dawned calm.

I started out at 9:30 and Henrick was to follow an hour later in Misty. If I kept a 3.5 knot pace with breaks, and he 4.5 to 5 he should catch me about 3 hours into what, for me, should be a 5 hour crossing and him around 4 hours. We could adjust to each other for the last hour, or pull the kayak on board.

I carried a VHF radio and a GPS so I could know my speed and read Henrick my coordinates so he could find me if we didn’t see each other. I didn’t expect him to see me, but I should see his tall sail. However, it’s a big sea out there.

Leaving from the western side of Tahiti, we’d be sheltered for a little while. But this wasn’t just shelter; there was NO wind. A long 4ft south swell crossed a shorter, steeper 3’ NE swell, making for gentle, non-rhythmic lumps.

When I called Henrick on the radio at 10:30 to tell him the conditions and my progress, it was a pleasant morning leisure paddle, full of daydreams and watching for seabirds and occasional motorboats. When I called him the next hour, he could barely hear me. He’d gotten a late start and I a 5nm lead. There was marginally enough wind to put up my Flat Earth Kayak Sail. South, the wind was, not even creating whitecaps. It soon turned west in my face, light enough to just be refreshing.

I took down the sail, and entertained my self by surfing the NE swell, which had gotten steeper. Warning sign, but still no wind line in sight. Speaking of sight, there wasn’t much but water and sky in sight much of the time because the combined swells were bigger out of the lee of Tahiti, and obscured all but the tops of the mountainous islands. I heard three motor boats coming up behind me long before I could see them. I remember thinking that, while these big seas were fun now, a strong wind could raise the excitement factor exponentially, perhaps too much.

As long as the sea conditions allowed, I ate the food and drank from the water bottle stashed in my day hatch, leaving the snacks and hydrator in my PFD for when I could no longer access the hatch without risk of flooding it or capsizing. I had just climbed back into my kayak from a refreshing dip when the sea got splashy. Little chop. I looked up from getting myself situated, and there wasn’t just a wind line to the NE, there was a mean whitecap texture to it, and it was approaching fast. Just enough time to seal myself up and hoist the sail. Now I was cruising--5 to 6 knots. The wind built fast, achieved all of the forecasted 20kts in a belated rush, and soon I was catching uninitiated surf rides of 9 knots. Henrick wouldn’t catch me at this rate.

The third time we talked by radio, I was bracing with one hand and keying the radio with the other when I could, still flying along. New plan: I would continue ahead and we’d talk at 1pm. I could already see the streaming spindrift from the giant breakers on the Moorea reef about a mile ahead, when I was on top of the swell enough to see anything.

Ten minutes later I almost surfed into a motorboat I hadn’t seen over the swells. Three Polynesian fishermen wore surprised looks as I zoomed by under my little kayak sail, and waved. Whenever I rose to the top of the swells, I’d check the line of reef break to my right and search to the left for Henrick’s sail. I thought I saw a thin vertical line of white. How I wanted that to be Henrick’s sail! Flying along was fun, but I wanted the company, and the security. And photos!

I turned upwind and dropped the sail. Ate a bite of snack and had a sip of water. It’s essential to keep the engine fueled before it runs low in these conditions, this far out. From the near corner of the Moorea reef, we had 6nm to go to the pass, and then probably another half mile into the lagoon to anchor. With this wind direction, the final push would be upwind, after potentially 2 more hours of paddling.

I felt great. Energized by surf. I thought if I can keep that pace, I could match Henrick, even have to slow down for him sometimes. I could paddle back to meet him and enjoy the rough stuff together, before we rounded the reef and maybe lost the surfable waves.

I paddled back towards the fishermen, which was also in the direction of Tahiti and where I thought I saw Henrick. Io ora na, I greeted them in Tahitian. They spoke no English, so I mimed to ask if they see a bateaux in the direction of Tahiti. Three necks craned from a higher vantage point than I had, and one man cried out and pointed. They agreed. Bateaux. French is the trade language of these parts. Thankfully, “boat” is among my limited vocabulary. Maitai roa! I exclaimed. Good! And thanked them in Tahitian. The smiled and waved, looking a little concerned.

I paddled back in the direction of a pointy mountain on Tahiti, since I only rarely saw the thin white line of the sail. Ten minutes later, the wind died. I could see it to the north, sparkling the water. But here just swell and wind chop. I took the excuse to jump in again. It gets hot when the wind isn’t blowing. And I rethought my impulse to paddle back to Henrick. If the wind died and he motored, I’d never keep up with him by just paddling. Sailing my kayak was my only chance. So I conserved energy by waiting. Stretching. Looking about. The strong wind returned and I paddled slowly into it and the big swells to hold position.

The fishermen motored by to see if everything was OK. I gave them thumbs up and a big smile. One pointed at the sailboat, and mimed a question if it was coming here. I nodded enthusiastically. Then they motored away towards Misty, passed close enough to see Henrick wave, waved back and motored away. This Henrick told me later.

One pm and the radio crackled. “I see you!” I replied. Over one swell, I actually saw the red hull below the sail. Relieved that it was the right sailboat I was looking at.

“I don’t see you” came the reply. No surprise there, since I’m a lot smaller. I looked at my compass and pointed my kayak at the boat. 90 degrees.

“I’m 270 degrees from you, less than half a mile out.” I said. “I’ll put up my sail.”

I snapped photos of him coming closer, then turned and surfed along, taking photos with one hand and bracing with the other. He snapped photos of me too. When even one swell came between us, I couldn’t see him at all, just the sail. Directional control for both of us was challenging enough not to want to get closer. Misty’s mast swung in all directions in the crazy swell. Waves would pivot the boat and the wind-steering would slowly bring it back. The kayak sometimes took off in a direction not completely of my choosing, and once at speed, capsizing was my only option to stop quickly.

Now I had a speed to match. Henrick still had full sail up on Misty and was doing almost 7 knots. The wind dropped slightly and I had to paddle full out between surf rides, and sometimes during the surf. After a half an hour or so of the intensity, he pulled ahead and I could feel my energy waning. I took up my radio to call him and ask if he could reef the sail or turn upwind to let me gain a little on him. In the moment of releasing the paddle with one hand and glancing down, a wave knocked me over. Under water. Tired, not wanting to get left behind. Wit’s end. Time to exit. I reached for the loop on my skirt.

I did what?! Stop the music!

Suddenly my mind turned back on and talked reason to me. “Bailing out of your kayak will make a bigger mess. Don’t exit, just roll up. You have plenty of air. Be calm and do it.” So I did.

The sail flopped to the side, the radio dangled from its tether, Misty pulled ahead. I gathered the sail and bungeed it. Picked up the radio and heard it crackling. Henrick asked if I was OK.

“I’m fine,” I panted, still out of breath from the long sprint.

“Do you want me to wait?”

“Yes, please!”

From here my world got calmer but Henrick’s went a little wonky. Motor on, turn upwind to reef, crazy lumpy sea. He took 2 reefs in the sail and went back on course. Somewhat protected by Moorea’s coral reef, we could travel near enough to shout to each other over the engine which he left running so he could help me if needed. At one point the preventer line from the mainsail flopped into the water and caught in the propeller.

We paused so I could clear the line from Misty’s propeller, a good excuse for another swim and a little break. For Misty, a critical repair before she could go by engine again.

So it wasn’t really a disaster story, just moments of excitement. Both nearing our limits of skill and coping, both pulling through in the end.

We cruised along in the slowly calming sea and dropping wind. I could keep up, even maneuver about and take photos of Misty with the verdant spires of Moorea in the background. Eventually, the wind died altogether and my sail flapped. I took it down. Henrick motored along at 4 knots for the last mile and I focused on paddling technique and breathing. Mantra: one more mile.

We entered the pass together, snapping photos of each other in front of perfect , peeling Polynesian waves.

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.