Ship's Log s/v Uliad
Our first few days out of San Cristobal have been pretty uneventful. We left with nearly 20 knots of wind and choppy seas around the Galapagos, so everybody immediately got nauseated. It takes a few days to get our sea legs back when going offshore. In the mean time, we laze about in the cockpit, read books, and snack on whatever seems appetizing.
The immensity of a 3000 nautical mile passage is still hard for me to grasp. While entering our waypoint into our chartplotter, it occurred to me: it would be closer for us to go to California. Heck, as the crow flies, it would be a shorter trip to go all the way back to Delaware where we started a year and a half ago than it is to sail 3000 miles west to the Marqeusas.
We expect the trip to take about 3 weeks, and so far we're on schedule for that. We started by going southwest until we hit good steady trade winds around 3 degrees south. Now we've turned more westward and it should be a straight downwind sail with steady winds the rest of the way. The only real work involved is keeping an eye out for rain squalls and for ships. Neither are very common out here, so it's easy to get lax about watch keeping. Just imagine if you and your spouse agreed that one of you would glance out the window to check for prowlers in the back yard every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day, for the next three weeks. That gives you some idea of what our days and nights are like.
Of course, there probably aren't any prowlers--just like there aren't any ships in this barren part of the Pacific. We're far from any major shipping lanes. So after the first hundred times we've scanned 360 degrees around the horizon and seen nothing, the temptation is always there to just skip it. Which is exactly what the guy on watch on that big supertanker out there is doing, I tell myself.
Most of the time in this blog, I wax poetically about this marvelous sailing life, but I have to be careful. We have our bad days, too. Ones that leave us scratching our heads and asking, "now why in the hell are we out here? Why are we not sitting in our family room after a perfectly banal day watching TV?" Today was one of those days.
Just as the persistent nausea was going away at the start of our passage, Kathleen then came down with a migraine headache yesterday. Then overnight the weather turned bad. Although this passage is long, it tends to be blessed with perfect sunny trade wind sailing conditions. I had been reassuring Kathleen about that for months. But oh no. At dawn I awoke to see rain clouds gathering ominously on all sides. By the time the first sprinkles hit, the winds had picked up to over 20 knots. "Time to get the big headsail down," I thought to myself, "or maybe this squall will pass quickly if I just hang on a bit longer."
Just then, as if to make the decision for me, the webbing on the top of that sail tore and Kath and I spent the next half hour on the foredeck trying to wrestle the giant sail down and into its bag. We started yelling in all the excitement, the wind picked up, the boat started pitching around in the confused seas, Emmett started crying and wanting to go home. By now the wind was up to 25 and everyone was starting to feel that familiar queasiness coming back again.
Then the generator was acting up. It turned out to be an easy issue to correct, but it was enough to get me stressing about how miserable we'd be if the generator quit working now. Then the computer started acting weird-- rebooting fixed it but once again I have heartburn wondering what will be the next shoe to drop. We had 2 or 3 fish strikes in the afternoon, but we never got a good hook up to reel anything in. This was the kind of day to make you wonder why we bother to do all this. A day when doubts begin to fester. "What if it's this rough for two more weeks?" "What if we get there and hate Polynesia?" "What if we look around and say to ourselves, this is no better than where we were...same nice beaches, only more expensive...We went through hell for this?"
By evening, Emmett finally pulled in a nice 6 pound dorado to go in the freezer. The wind calmed down to 15 knots, and the skies started to clear. So maybe our luck is starting to change. But the seas are still knocking us around and Kath is sure that I'm a big fat liar about this gentle downwind sail to paradise. I downloaded the latest weather charts, which say we should've had a delightful 12 knots all day.
This is the sailing life, the highest of highs, and sometimes the lowest of lows. Sometimes on the same day. But not today. I'd be willing to settle for bouncing back up to "high" tomorrow, though.
All those offerings to King Neptune back at the equator must have done some good. No sooner had I finished complaining about the rough seas when the winds died, the seas flattened, and by yesterday morning we were drifting along with only a gentle swell to flop the sails annoyingly back and forth. Guess we have to be careful what we ask for, because now we were moving at about two knots. With 1800 miles still to go, I didn't dare do the math to find out how long that would take. Having flip-flopped to both extremes of unusual weather, we're still waiting for "normal" conditions.
I don't expect the calm to last, but I was worried enough to decide to get right to work on repairing our light air sail. In the 20 knot gusts a piece of webbing at the head of the Code Zero sail had worn through, so it was a fairly simple matter of replacing it with some extra-strong tubular nylon webbing that my brother had delivered back in the Galapagos.
The only part that wasn't so simple was trying to sew through about 8 layers of heavy sail cloth and webbing. That chore requires either a heavy industrial sewing machine. Unfortunately, my wife has a feminism-inspired phobia of ironing and sewing so neither appliance is allowed on board. (Well, that and an unfortunate incident in junior high Home Economics where her sewing machine nearly set the classroom on fire...but that's another story.) The alternative is hand sewing with an ice pick sized needle and a very nautical device called a sailmaker's palm. These I had tucked away in my tool cabinet for just this occasion.
A sailmakers palm is kind of like a thimble you strap across the palm of your hand. Made of sturdy leather and metal, it allows you to push with all your might against the back end of a needle without ending your project looking like you have just received the stigmata of Christ. It's crude, slow, and as I learned, only partially effective at preventing pain when you have to sew through some really thick stuff.
But hey, it wasn't like I had anything else to do all afternoon. With a cold drink and some nice music coming from the cockpit speakers, I spent half the afternoon muscling the needle and thread back and forth until I once again had the top of the sail attached to it's halyard ring.
The other downside to having the wind disappear is that it seems to have taken the fish with it. We were getting several strikes a day when trolling our lures at 7 knots, but nary a nibble now. We weren't always able to land all those fish, but it did provide a few amusing moments of distraction every time the reel started screeching. Twice now we've hooked fish so big that I just couldn't turn the drag up high enough to reel them in. Both times the line eventually snapped. Which was both a disappointment and a relief. I really don't want a 500 pound fish thrashing around in our cockpit.
The second time this happened (on Emmett's pole), the snap of the line was accompanied by the jump of what I assume was a big marlin about 150 yards behind the boat. I can only assume, because 150 yards is a long way, but it was a pretty awesome sight to see something that big explode out of the water. Both times the line snapped near to the leader, so we haven't lost much fishing line, but we're starting to run short on our big fish lures that have the hooks nearly as big as your hand. Perhaps its just as well we stick to the little hooks.
This morning we have the code zero flying again and 4 knots of boat speed. The forecast is for it to build back up to normal trade winds throughout the day, so at some point, our trolling lures should start wiggling and looking tasty again. Until then, we'll return to reading books and watching DVDs.
There is a spot in the southern ocean several thousand miles south of us which geographers call the "oceanic pole of inaccessibility". It is the spot on the planet furthest away from any dry land and it is 1451 nautical miles from both Easter Island and Antarctica. The reason I know this is that I started wondering the other day if it was possible to be any farther from land than we are now.
With much anticipation, we reached the midpoint of our passage today, some 1500 nautical miles between the Galapagos and the Marquesas Islands. The reason we are not at the Oceanic Pole of Inaccessibility is Clipperton Island--a tiny speck of rock 600 miles off the coast of Southern Mexico and about 1000 miles directly north of us. It is an uninhabited atoll claimed by France of all things. I read once that the French Navy sends a patrol boat by every so often to check for castaways or invaders. In any event, it is possible to be farther from land than we are today, thanks to tiny Clipperton.
The good news is that each moment now brings us closer to Hiva Oa rather than farther away from San Cristobal. The mood aboard Uliad has notably improved because of it. Yesterday we were again pasted with 20 knot winds all day and short steep seas, making it impossible to do much of anything but curl up with a book all day. Today it has calmed down to more manageable trade wind conditions. We baked some chocolate chip bars and took a day off of school to celebrate the halfway point. The fish continue to snap our lines far more often than we can reel them in. The sun keep rising behind our stern and setting off the starboard bow. The sea continues to go on endlessly in all directions...
Handling garbage on such a long passage requires a different mindset. Few yachts are large enough to store three weeks of smelly, rotting garbage in the equatorial sun. Or would want to. But after a lifetime of believing that nice people don't litter, it's a bit difficult to just throw it into the sea.
The first part of our garbage plan for this voyage took place weeks ago. Whenever possible, we bought food in biodegradable packaging, and we removed as much extraneous packaging as possible. But that still leaves a certain number of tin cans, boxes, plastic wrappers and such every time we eat. What to do with that?
Fortunately, an international treaty has already been established about what is appropriate for ocean going vessels in this regard. In fact, every US registered ship is required by law to display a placard with the basics of "Annex V of the MARPOL Treaty". Uliad's sits above the galley sink and reminds us that it's generally illegal to throw trash into the sea, with the exception that, the farther you get from land, the more and more exceptions there are. And by the time you're more than 25 miles offshore, everything is an exception except plastic and oil.
There's probably good science behind these rules. Most organic material will quickly decompose. Metals will rust and corrode, paper products will disintegrate, and glass will sink to the bottom where it is inert to the environment anyway. Not much washes up on shore or is a threat to marine life except plastic. And Lord knows we've seen plenty of plastic befouling otherwise pristine beaches around the world. It's pretty rare, however, to find much of anything else besides plastic washing up on shore. (Are flip-flop soles plastic?)
So our garbage management strategy on this passage has been that anything plastic goes in the garbage bin and will be disposed of once we reach land again. Pretty much anything else gets tossed overboard. We leave the lids off bottles and crush cans to encourage them to sink, but that's about it. The strategy seems to be working as far as we're concerned; after 10 days at sea we have just filled our first garbage bag. That will get stored in the dinghy on the back of the boat.
At first I felt a bit guilty about leaving a trail of litter as we cross the Pacific, but I think I've become a bit more pragmatic as the days grind on. There is nothing...and I mean nothing out here. Not a single sign that humankind exists floating 1500 miles offshore. I have no doubt that it's well within the capacity of this vast ocean to absorb the small amounts of tin, aluminum, and paper that we feed it. And the more I think about it, "composting" waste by letting it naturally rot is probably the best thing possible for the environment compared with landfills, incinerators, etc. In fact, after a while it's almost a pleasantly naughty little indulgence to drain a beer bottle and simply toss it over my left shoulder on a hot afternoon. How often can an environmentalist do that guilt free?
Now that our GPS reads less than 1000 miles to go, it's starting to feel like we're in the home stretch. The weather has been absolutely perfect the past few days. I haven't adjusted a sheet for a week now and the auto pilot just steers a course 125 degrees off the wind day and night.
Our horizon scanning actually yielded a sighting of another yacht the other day. The catamaran Beach House passed us about 5 miles to the north, also heading to the Marquesas. It was rather fun to turn on the VHF and actually have a new person to talk to for a few minutes. Then yesterday we were visited by a pod of 20 or so dolphins who put on a nice jumping show for us for a while. And every morning one or two flying fish are on deck who came to visit in the night and never made it back into the ocean. These get put on our hooks as bait and we usually find the baited lines to be more likely to catch a mahi-mahi later than one with just a plain lure.
Here's one other interesting thing I've discovered from my careful study of the horizon every 15 minutes... The air is so clear out here that many of the brighter stars actually "set". That is, you can follow them right down to the horizon as the earth turns until they disappear below the sea. Everywhere else in the world it seems, there is at least a little bit of haze as you approach the horizon so that the starlight dwindles away before they get to the horizon but not here.
Now this makes it a bit of a challenge when you're scanning the horizon for ship's lights. More than once I've been alarmed by a bright light behind us that looks like maybe a ship is coming up behind us. But then it keeps rising and rising over the next few hours up into the sky.
In other news, our freezer is now so full of mahi-mahi that I had to take the fishing lines in. We wouldn't know what to do with the next one we caught anyway. Yesterday we made sushi rolls with about the freshest fish possible...delicious. But I think the crew will start to rebel if I keep serving too many meals of fresh fish. Today I took chicken breast out of the freezer to thaw. Come to think of it--now I have room in the freezer again! Which is good because catching, cleaning, and cooking fish are all items on a short list of stuff to do all day out here.
Emmett has been industrious in his homeschool work on this passage. I guess it helps to have so little else to do. Anyway, he has his final exams for third grade all set for tomorrow morning. The other thing he's taken up has been Cub Scouts. The scouting program has a designation called a "Lone Scout" where young men like Emmett who are unable to join a scout pack can work on the requirements independently for his cub scout badges. Recently he finished all the requirements for his Wolf Scout badge, so we did our best to have a little ceremony on board to promote him to that rank.
I had brought along his patches and neckerchief, but somewhere in the rush of our last trip home, Kath and I forgot to get him his Cub Scout uniform shirt. (We're such terrible parents.) I don't think he's put on a shirt for about a month anyway...so we ended up having him put on his neckerchief, recite the Cub Scout oath and then I just slapped the badges right on his bare chest and gave him my best scout salute.
Yesterday we struggled with rain squalls all day. Each wave of clouds seemed to bring wind from a different direction and between midnight and dawn I had changed headsails 3 times and gybed twice, followed by calms where we actually ran the motor for a while. But that was followed by some good strong southerly winds that pushed us along at 8 knots all day over relatively calm seas. After never having to make a single sail adjustment for about a week straight, that seemed like a lot of work! But the good news is that with all that wind, we've made great progress and should be there in only a few more days. Hard to believe we're actually almost there. And hard to believe that 400 miles seems like "almost there".
Despite days and days of anticipation, the end of the voyage came rather suddenly. One morning the sun came up and there was our island, rising up over the horizon. The Marquesas are very high, volcanic islands that are visible from quite a way off. They have no surrounding reefs or hidden navigational hazards, which make them perfect for a landfall. Over several hours, Hiva Oa kept getting bigger and bigger until finally we pulled into a deep canyon of a bay where a half dozen other sailboats lay at anchor near the main village. The island rose up on three sides around us in nearly vertical, green cliffs. The jagged ridge of an ancient volcano formed a new horizon now--thousands of feet above us scraping the clouds. But before we could admire the sheer beauty of this place, we had to drop our anchor. 20 days and 19 hours after leaving the Galapagos Islands, we turned off the autopilot and GPS and the rest of our electronics for a well deserved rest.
Suddenly, a roaring silence descended over the whole boat--no more swaying back and forth with the swells, no more noise of the water sloshing by or the wind in the rigging. It was over. We have done it!
Nobody appreciated this more than Kathleen. She has always been the most reluctant cruiser on board and she had always made it clear that she was not entirely sure if she could stand being out of sight of land for three weeks straight. But in the end--much to her credit--she decided that she was willing to give it a try. About a week into our voyage I think she wished she hadn't...and she struggled the whole rest of the way with the constant motion, the isolation, the fear of bad things happening...
Setting sail for the Marquesas is, however, a bit like jumping off a cliff. Once we set out, there was no turning back and no chance to say you've changed your mind. So Kath struggled with some real emotional lows through the long days at sea. In the end, she survived. We're here in the South Pacific--earth's last paradise, they say. Now we'll find out if it all was worth it.
Hiva Oa is known as the island where the French impressionist painter Paul Gauguin lived out his days. After selling some paintings to finance his trip, he moved here and set up a hut on the beach which he named "The House of Pleasure". He hooked up with a couple of Polynesian teenaged girls and twittered away his days in the most hedonistic ways possible. Hiva Oa does that to people. It's majestic spires of rock peer down at you begging to be admired. Tropical fruits and flowers spring up everywhere, ripe for the picking. Cool, clean fresh water streams run down the mountainsides into deep valleys. Life is both exotic and easy here.
Plump Polynesian women really do walk around with flowers in their hair (behind the right ear if married, the left if available!), men's beefy arms are decorated with traditional tattoos. Tiki carvings appear around various corners. It all combines to make for the most beguiling place.
The government is apparently aware of these islands ability to lure misfits and dreamers...and regulations have been put in place to prevent us from creating any more houses of pleasure. We reported to the local Gendarmes and after filling out some forms, were instructed to go to the bank to pay our "repatriation bond". This bond is equivalent to the cost of three airplane tickets back to the USA (nearly $4000!) and if we are at some point deemed undesirables here, it will assure that we can be deported at no cost to the people of French Polynesia. But if we behave, we get the money back when we leave.
With the immigration formalities completed, we are now free to wander about the islands. The Marquesans no longer live in huts, homes are modern, and the French have built impressive infrastructure. Electricity and water run reliably, garbage is picked up, and fresh baguettes are delivered to the markets each morning. After the languid attitudes of Central America, everyone seems industrious and punctual here.
Shortly after arriving back at Uliad, the local supply boat pulled into the harbor. Once moored, it began offloading pallet after pallet of foodstuffs, machinery, and construction materials. It appears there is money to be spent here. Indeed, prices for many things are astronomical. At lunch, Kathleen's bowl of soup: $14, Emmett's Cheeseburger: $8 The local beer: $5 Dad's ham sandwich: $3 (We'll ALL be eating the ham sandwich from now on!) On the other hand, those yummy loaves of French bread can be had for 65 cents each. And by filling out some more forms, foreign yachts can buy diesel duty free for only about $2.50 per gallon. So it looks like we're definitely going to have to watch prices here and only buy what the government is subsidizing. And if we can't limit ourselves to the baguettes then we at least have to mind our manners enough to get that repatriation bond back.
Back in Wisconsin when I was working as a family doctor, I remember when one day, a patient of mine came in and informed me that she wouldn't be needing her arthritis pills or her blood pressure medicine much longer, because she had just started drinking noni juice. Asking for details, I learned that Tahitian Noni juice was an amazing elixir that could cure most anything. Soon I started noticing the black and white signs stapled to telephone poles around town advertising the stuff.
Apparently some sort of pyramid marketing scheme was underway, recruiting housewives across the country to sell this miracle fruit that came from the exotic Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific. I asked around and sure enough, there is a noni fruit tree, and the islanders here enjoyed a bit of extra income for a while picking noni fruit and shipping it off to Tahiti. By the time it got there, I'm told, the fruit fermented into a smelly glop which was pressed and mixed with more palatable fruit juices and sold to those pyramid scheme people.
The noni fruit is a lumpy, pale green thing that nobody here considers edible. I can't imagine it tastes much better fermented. The locals tell me that the whole market has pretty much dried up in the past year or two and nobody bothers to pick the fruit anymore. Which leads me to consider that perhaps it never worked all that well at curing my patient's arthritis and high blood pressure after all!
Today we took a tour of the island with the crew of Giselle and Beach House. We sailed across the ocean within a few hundred miles of these two boats and got to know each other chatting on the radio each day. Since then we've gotten together for cocktails a few times. Hiva Oa has some of the best preserved Polynesian archeological sites in the Pacific, but to get to them requires a two hour drive over dizzyingly steep and tooth rattling rough roads. It was worth hiring a guide.
After a few stops at various scenic overlooks, we arrived at the far end of the island in the village of Puamou. Up the hill from town sat a collection of Tikis, which are Polynesian carved figures. Large stones were laid to form various platforms and altars. There was a place for everything. Our guide pointed out, for example, where amongst these carefully laid stones the tattoo artist would work, where human sacrifices were performed, and where the chief would sit.
The whole place is slowly crumbling away now. Useful as a tourist attraction, perhaps; but the Marquesans seem happy with the Christian faith practiced in the village church rather than any revival of the old ways. It seemed almost sad until you think about it and realize that ceremonies of cannibalism or human sacrifices are probably not a great thing to preserve after all. Nice carvings, though.
As for my wife, Polynesia becomes her. After our big sail to get here, I was expecting Kathleen to want a few quiet days in the harbor to relax and unwind. But soon after arriving, she was cleaning the whole boat and scheduling social engagements with friends on other boats. She organized the whole excursion to see the tikis around the island, and then the following day, we were hiking back to town to see the Gauguin museum there.
I shouldn't be too surprised...the whole island is like a big botanical garden. Exotic flowers rain down from the greenery wherever you go. Hibiscus plants that we knew as potted bushes back home grow to enormous trees here. Frangipani spews its beguiling scent shamelessly. Bougainvillea forms dense hedges down curling roads. For a woman who loves to hike and loves to garden, this is indeed paradise. (Have I told you that she also loves a good crusty loaf of French bread?)
But alas, the sailor's life is filled with both highs and lows. Today it began with news of the death of Michael Jackson AND Farah Fawcett--as a girl, Kath had posters of both of them on her wall! She also started coming down with a cold. And then we sailed out of our harbor in Hiva Oa to go to a new spot on the other side of this island. We were immediately greeted by 9 foot seas and high winds knocking us around. We only had to suffer through it for about an hour until we rounded a point of land and could run downwind, but it was the last straw for an already bad day!
Did I mention the highs and lows? Another hour later and we were gently gliding along in a calm sea--now sheltered from the wind by the tall mountain ridges of Hiva Oa. A pod of dolphins came by to cheer my wife up with a few jumps and tail slaps. And a few hours later we are snug in a secluded quiet bay with clear water and, of all things, a brilliant rainbow to greet us.
Life onboard Uliad is a smorgasbord. Not all of the dishes taste good, but the variety is amazing!
Our anchorage on the north side of Hiva Oa was tremendous. A well protected bay surrounded by soaring cliffs and filled with clear water. Em and I went for a snorkel and soon found a group of manta rays with 6 foot wingspans gently gliding around us. On shore was a small river and a few homes scattered up the valley--interspersed with ancient stone platforms where ancient rituals and ceremonies were once held. As in other places, flowers and fruit trees were everywhere, beneath them sat well shaded chickens and goats to add a little protein to the islander's ample diets. The people were friendly and waving wherever we wandered.
We would have loved to stay longer, but the day's weather forecast left us with a difficult decision: It called for steadily increasing winds and deteriorating sea conditions for the next 6 days. If we wanted to go anywhere in the next week, we'd have to do it right away. So early this morning, we decided we'd make a run for Nuku Hiva. There is a well sheltered bay there with a village and a fuel dock. Since we need to buy fuel soon, it seemed like the perfect spot to wait out the coming weather.
To arrive there in daylight called for a 5am departure...ouch! Some paradise having to get up that early. But our industriousness was rewarded with a fast downwind sail and we arrived ahead of schedule at about 4:30 in the afternoon. On the way, I reeled in yet another Mahi-Mahi. This one was pretty big--about 3 1/2 feet long. They continue to be delicious, but after about 6 of them, I'm starting to look forward to catching a tuna or a wahoo or something. Then again, if all I have to complain about is catching too many mahi-mahi, then life must be pretty good.
For Emmett's birthday last month, we got him a knee-board. If you don't know, kneeboarding is sort of like water skiing, only you kneel on this floating sled-like board rather than standing on skis. Much to Emmett's chagrin, we left the Galapagos Islands immediately after his birthday--before he got a chance to ever use his kneeboard. Then we arrived in Hiva Oa, where we were warned about sharks in the bay...
Finally, a month after receiving the gift, Emmett finally got to go kneeboarding when we moved to the north side of the island. Since then, he's been badgering me every day to take him out kneeboarding again. But now that predicted bad weather has arrived, making our bay in Nuku Hiva too rough for kneeboarding. I thought I'd have some quiet afternoons. But the rough weather has brought nice curling surf and Em soon saw all the local boys out surfing and boogie-boarding on shore.
So now he's pestering me every afternoon to take him to shore to go boogie-boarding. The Polynesian boys have been giving him some help. The first day's help was mostly pulling him out of the surf and helping him paddle out against it...but he's starting to get the hang of it now. Em tells me his nickname out there is now "petit". So I guess he must be one of the smaller kids out there.
Kathleen frets that the waves are too high and there are too many rocks near shore. We roll our eyes and say "Oh Mom!" and go off to the beach. I walk across the road for a snack at the grocery store and watch Emmett and the other kids try to catch the perfect wave. I worry a bit about hidden rocks in the surf, too. But I still think it's a better alternative to sitting on the boat and watching DVDs all afternoon. He got enough of that on the crossing.
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