Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Rubbish

The ocean is calm enough this morning, and I am short enough on sleep, that I can feel my inner mediocre writer wanting to commit a prose poem:

"Mother earth, father ocean, spirit sky... Boat of our dreams, cast out upon the lonely ocean, bearing us across the bitter waters of today to the distant shores of our longing..."

Or some such rubbish. It might be a lot funnier when it runs through your very sleepy brain while rigging up a new lure at your 8-year-old's request and topping up the oil in the donk, all before the first cup of coffee.

The fact remains, though, that this is a very beautiful morning. Some of the finest days at sea are mostly useless for actual sailing. Expanses of miracle-blue water barely ruffled by the breeze. The long swell like the body of some vast animal breathing in its sleep. And as far as the horizon, nothing but the ocean, and the clouds, and our little boat, miraculously at the middle of it all.

It's so wonderful to be out here, alone alone alone, independent and (touch wood) capable, that you wonder why the marinas of the world aren't ghost towns. This is the thing, right here, the golden chalice of going where you will, as you will, through the magnificent world that is the blue surface of our aqueous globe. You wonder why everyone with a boat doesn't drink of it. But there it is - buying a boat is one thing, setting sail something altogether different. Life has a way of getting in the way.

Each passage really is a journey into the unknown. The calms of last night and today are a contrast to the sloppy headwinds we had while crossing a front on our second night out. We've used these fronts a lot this season as tools to get us conveniently from one place to another - the winds blow in opposite directions on either side of the front, which can be very helpful to a sailboat. Each time we've had nothing more threatening than some overcast skies as we crossed the front, but this time I wondered if we were going to finally pay for our insouciance. You can cop awful weather.

But our good fortune held yet again and the worst we had was us cooking along in the middle of the night, hard on the wind with a reef in the main, making 8-9 knots into the drizzle. Actually kind of awesome.

And then, if we had been relying on the copy of C-map on this laptop that is our primary chart, we would have gone splat in the middle of the night.

The atolls of Nukutepipi, Anuanurunga and Anuanuraro aren't on C-map. Unluckily our friend Tim on Candine learned that lesson for all of us about six years ago when he plowed up on a reef en route from New Zealand to the Australs. (All unharmed and Candine reached Tahiti for repairs.)

So we navigated through the night and the drizzle and the atolls with our 1:3.5 million paper chart. The radar, which we installed for its watchkeeping abilities at night while on passage, and for its help in the higher-latitude realm of our in-a-year-or-two dreams, was very reassuring. Good to know that the pencil mark between the two little dots on the xeroxed chart corresponds to a safe course in the real world.

And that's us. The boys have very enthusiastically been dedicating the morning to crafts, and are now dedicating themselves to the coconut Alisa pulled from the fridge. These days at sea are giving us time to transition - the Tuamotus are very fond memories, and Raivavae is an anticipation. I picture something like the Marquesas, but without the hundreds (thousands?) of yachts passing through. The Marquesas though have their cultural resurgence, which is one of the very attractive things about that loveliest of archipelagos. Raivavae may have gone through an even more apocalyptic post-contact period than the Marquesas, and I've read that the cultural loss was even more severe there. We will see.

And fruit...After the sandy soil of the Tuamotus, we're all looking forward to lots and lots of fruit.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Solitude

"Can you believe there are places like this, with nobody around?" asked Alisa. "Look at it. Back in Alaska we'd never believe that you could just have a place like this to yourself."

The sun had returned to Amanu after days of rain and wind. The sun in turn brought alive the turquoise of the water. That unworldly color is the special effect that everything aesthetic hinges on in the Tuamotus. The palm trees blowing in the trades and the incessant boom of the surf on the outer reef do their part. But it's that turquoise water that sells the whole package.

There was a progression in the number of traveling boats at the various atolls we've visited: 15 in Tahanea, 30 in Fakarava, five in Makemo, two in Hao, and just us at Amanu.

We spoke to only two people outside the family during our eleven days there - the couple who warned us about sharks. We saw them driving around in their skiff for a day or two after that, and then they apparently went back to the village, out of sight at the other end of the atoll.

The village has the reputation of poor anchoring possibilities, and after our weeks at the darse in Hao we were a bit over trying to bridge the language divide. So we never visited the village at Amanu.

On our first visit to French Polynesia, in 2008, I put a lot of effort into learning some French, and I was rewarded with some great interactions that were sieved through my hundred-word vocabulary.

But I haven't put any effort into the language on this visit. Am I getting old? Are the distractions of work and writing and maintaining family life afloat interfering with the travel?

Or perhaps it's just that I sense it's time for Elias to take on the language duties...

We're good at being off on our own. As a matter of fact, we kinda like it. Our society of four is company enough for large stretches, especially in wild places. Solitude is the heart and soul of a certain kind of travel experience that we very much relish. In this hyper-connected era of 7(?) billion living people, time and solitude may be the rarest wealth - and we've had plenty of both lately.

Well, yes - plenty. After three months in the Tuamotus, we find the more social side of our nature eager for a run. We've met some interesting locals, but moved on too quickly to make friends. And we've met some fantastic yachties, but every single boat we've met has been going the other way, WITH the tradewinds.

I blame a general failure of imagination.

Gambier is our planned departure point for Chile, and in Gambier we expect to finally meet some boats heading in our direction. Alisa has been making noises for a few days now that she's ready to meet some people whom we might know for a longer than a single anchorage.

But first - the Australs. I have a very powerful itch to see the Australs, especially Rapa.

So this afternoon we left the pass at Amanu, bound for Raivavae in the Australs - reputedly one of the most beautiful islands in the South Pacific.

We drove Galactic right along the waterfront of the village, which borders the pass. It felt odd to be leaving in such a public way without having ever stopped to say hi. Sort of as if we had spent 11 days in someone's house without ever introducing ourselves.

Once out of the (very rapidly ebbing) pass we pointed it downwind. I poled out the jib. We haven't sailed dead downwind since we were a thousand miles from Tahanea.

The boys were generally crazy, as they generally are at the start of a passage.

Alisa and I were a little dopey, as we generally are at the start of a passage.

And I was a little grim and grumpy, as I generally am at the start of a passage. The responsibility doesn't always ride lightly.

In four days, or five if the wind is as light as forecast, we hope to find ourselves in Raivavae.

New places ever await.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Local Advice

Myself, returning from the bow after another successful anchoring mission: Alright! Who wants to go to the beach?!

Both Boys: Meeee!

Alisa: First, Eric, do your time out. That's going to happen every time. A four-minute time out every time you jab your brother in the penis.

(Tears.)

Herself, going down the companionway to mete justice: I'm livin' the dream!

~~~~

Of course we always solicit local advice - wherever we are, every chance we get.

A local couple, living at their camp on an out-motu while harvesting copra, stopped by Galactic in their pirogue the first day we were here. Elias whispered in my ear that I should ask about ciguatera. None at Amanu, they replied. I asked a couple times, in different ways. Yes, they confirmed, all the fish are safe to eat.

It was left to me to explain to Elias later how we take that first report as nothing but an encouraging sign. In Makemo, our ludicrous French will get us the response that there is no ciguatera. Someone who speaks French, and knows what to ask, will be told that there are two species of fish that the locals never touch. So the more informative answer is something along the lines of, "All the fish are safe. Except those two species that aren't."

And then there was Hao. The first person we asked, Ipo, told us that all the fish there are safe. The second person we spoke to, Anglophone Tony ("Why do you want your kids to learn French? It's an awful language.") told us, in his fluent English, that there was LOTS of ciguatera, and it was complicated, telling what was safe.

Then this couple at Amanu dropped another tidbit on us. Careful with that little one of yours, they said. Dangerous sharks here.

The family had already seen a handful of sickle-fin lemon sharks on their first trip ashore, and we had been wondering what the scene was.

In a lot of ways, we're pretty conservative when we travel. Having been warned by locals, we made the very easy decision to stay out of the water. We'll probably venture in at some point for a last Tuamotu snorkel. But all the endless jumping off the stern and the laps around the boat at anchor - such huge parts of our routine in the tropics - all that is on hold.

Which is a decided blow against our experience of Amanu.

In Hao, I had, in spite of myself, started to entertain an image of Tuamotu villages as jails. Of course, anyone's home place is paradise to them. But The motus are just so small, the villages so packed in, the poverty, at times, quite severe. To a continental visitor on an extended tour, possibility can begin to look scarce.

And then, if you aren't swimming... You can start to forget the point of the Tuamotus. This place, after all, is all about the water.

The boys began to devour our wildlife guide to Chile, hungering after continental levels of terrestrial biodiversity.

Luckily, our latest move to a new anchorage revealed the best walking, barring a road, that we have found in the Dangerous Archipelago. The outer reef on the northeast corner of the atoll has long berms of coral debris, almost level, left behind by cyclones of the past.

You can walk and walk there. And Elias found a glass ball - one of the hand-blown fishing floats that are the prized beachcomber's find in Alaska.

It's the first whole one we've ever seen in the South Pacific. And that inconsequential little delight - Elias was so happy to bring it back to his mom as a gift - will give us a moment to anchor Amanu in our memory.