Friday, August 29, 2014


Every marriage, I imagine, has its own version of the nuclear option - some threat which one spouse or another may resort to in extremis.

In our particular marriage, this nuclear option might be called Playing The Antipodean Card.

Alisa does this now and again to let me know that the double-double demands of playing breadwinning scientist, far-ranging adventurer, loving father and husband and mediocre marine engineer have made me a total pain in the ass to be around.

As in yesterday, when the inanity of trying to make Microsoft Word behave itself while formatting the figures and tables in a five-chapter PhD thesis, coupled with the limits of uploading said thesis (10mb) and pictures for a Cruising World story (25mb) via the donkey-fast internet of Hao, combined with our long stay at the darse de Hao, which would get ever longer until I had everything finished, made me a sullen and grumpy hubby indeed.

So Alisa Played The Card.
"Mebbe we should go back to New Zealand," she said, seeming all innocent and helpful.  "Or Iluka.  Somewhere where it's easy for you to get things done."

Ha!  As if!  Living on a boat that's going nowhere seems much much worse to me than living on no boat at all.  So I'll redouble my efforts to keep all the balls in the air with my normal smile in its normal position, plastered on my face.

It's the old conundrum - it's a challenge at times to work on the boat, and working keeps me from immersing myself in travel.  But it's also the compromise that has kept us going for all these years.  And hey - it won't last forever.

In the meantime, I'm able to produce some reasonable contributions to science, even if they do take longer than they would in an office.  And the travel has its compensations, like the view of the endless horizon beyond the quai here in Hao, where I am sitting to do my internet.

But enough of all that.  This is a post about lunettes.

Lunettes, of course, are eyeglasses in the French-speaking world.  In this case, used reading glasses that are collected by the Lion's Club in New Zealand, cleaned, graded, and given to yachties to distribute in out-of-the-way corners of the South Pacific.

Alisa knew a good thing when she heard about it, and we shipped four hundred pairs of reading glasses when we left Whangarei.

She's given "clinics" in Fakarava and here in Hao.  The response has been big, as you can see from these pictures (inside the mairie, or town hall in Hao).  Eye doctors visit the villages once a year, not everyone can get an appointment, and glasses are super-expensive.  She gave away 100 pairs here in Hao - in a village of 1,200 people.

Polynesian culture very readily accepts the idea of gift giving, so it has been (more or less) easy for her to explain what she's about in spite of the language barrier.  And reciprocation is a big part of the culture.  Flowers enough for leis don't grow in the poor soil of the Tuamotus, so she and her helper, Elias, have returned from these session bedraped in shell necklaces.  And people have stopped by the boat later with gifts of coconuts or fish.

As you might expect, these sessions have given us instant entree into the village scene.  Alisa meets the mayor, and a bunch of less notable locals, and we have a bit of context for understanding the village during the rest of our stay.

And these lunette sessions super-charge the travel experience.  People stop by the boat at odd hours for glasses, and stay for a long visit afterwards, even if we had had other thoughts for the day.  It can be annoying - people ask Alisa to come by their homes when she's trying to care for the kids and it seems they could just come to the boat, or they ask her to replace scratched glasses, or she isn't sure that they really need them at all, and it seems that people are being acquisitive at her expense.

But then she sees someone's face light up when the smudges on a book are suddenly revealed as words, and none of the little annoyances matter a bit.

Or we meet a particularly sympathetic old fella who comes by the boat for a pair, and he miraculously brings forth the most beautiful Polynesian music from our boys' ukulele, which had remained mute whenever one of us had picked it up.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hao Not

  Galactic tied up in the old military harbor at Hao.  The other boat, Momo, is just from a season in Patagonia, having completed a 44-day passage from Valparaiso, Chile.
Village d'Otepa, as seen from the quai.

There's how you might think you're supposed to travel, and how you actually do do it.

Or, since travel is really just interacting with people, there are the times on Galactic when we'd rather not travel at all.

Can you say you're not traveling if you're this far from any place that you're familiar with?

The boys and I end most days with a bike ride.

We came into the atoll of Hao with the idea that if it grabbed us we might want to stay a while.  We still have months to spend  in French Poly, I need to stay put somewhere to get some science work done, and I'd like to get the boys some more social interaction so that they (especially Elias) can pick up some French.

We had heard that Hao was friendly, so we figured that it might be the place for all that.
Eric's new trick.

Well, ok, a little travel.

Hao is unusual.  It was the logistical base for the French nuclear testing program in the Tuamotus, and until not too long ago was part of a large area forbidden to visiting yachts.  The testing program is history now, and the base is closed.  So today there's the village and a small detachment of French soldiers doing clean-up work and a lot of abandoned infrastructure.  Parts of the atoll have something of the post-apocalytptic feel that you would expect from the combination of a remote settlement and a large,  abandoned military installation.

The people are super-friendly, as advertised, though our utter lack of French has proved more of an obstacle than it has in other places in the Tuamotus and Marquesas.

And, well - the place just hasn't grabbed us.  We've been here more than a week, and consciously tried to be open to the place, but sometimes it just doesn't happen, for whatever reason.

And, if we're not captivated by the scene at some village we're visiting, we'd just as soon be off by ourselves.  We have enough going on with taking care of the boys and ourselves that we don't always want the spontaneity and surprises that come with interacting with a different culture.  Sometimes we just want to have meals and bedtimes on schedule for the boys, and time for Alisa and myself to tend our own gardens, and the delights of an empty beach near at hand  when we need one.  Perhaps we're a bit square, but there it is.

So our plan now is to go to the neighboring atoll of Amanu sometime early next week.  French sailors we've spoken to hold the place in high regard as somewhere where you can go off and be alone with a bit of paradise.  Places that offer that sort of experience, most notably Tahanea, have been the blissful highlights of our various stays in the Tuamotus.  So we figure that before we head off for the Australs, we'll give ourselves one more taste of that Tuamotu magic...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Wrong Way

If you can put to sea in your own boat and get where you want to go in reasonable comfort - well, I reckon that you could do most anything.  The sea is the sea, after all, and the challenges are immense and varied.

So when things go right, you will be immensely pleased with yourself.  But, if you have either imagination or experience, you will also know that there was some element of luck in your success and you will cultivate a deep sense of humility having to do with everything concerning water and boats.

I mean - all this travelin' from place to place on Galactic is generally a hoot.  But you do have to keep an eye on things.
Some things get better.  Readers of South From Alaska may remember
what an epic we had anchoring on our first visit to Makemo in 2008 - our
first coral anchorage ever.  Since then this wharf has been built, and if
the supply boat isn't due you can tie up in complete protection from
the prevailing winds.

We've been going the wrong way through the Tuamotus - west to east, against the prevailing winds.
The route so far.
But, armed with onboard access to weather models, we have been able to pick the right time to make our two big legs to the east  - from Fakarava to Makemo, and then onwards to Hao.  We were on the wind both times - heeled over and all that.  But both times the wind was gentle, the seas were still, and Galactic made good progress with no fuss.

If it hadn't been for Eric getting seasick, they would have been the perfect passages.

A Spanish mackerel - four meals fresh, and
Alisa canned up another 8 meals from it.

So even though picking our weather did just boil down to looking at the little wind arrows on our computer, I was very pleased both times with how enjoyable it was to travel upwind.

But if I was tempted to get too pleased with myself, there was the experience of some acquaintances at Makemo to bring me down to earth.

They were a very nice family on a catamaran who anchored at the village of Pouheva a day or two before we moved on.  The adults were fun and they had three kids who played nicely with our own - sometimes it's effortless to spend time with someone you've just met.

They ended up leaving the anchorage the same day we did - we were heading out of the pass for the two-night sail to Hao, and they were heading down the Makemo lagoon towards the western pass.

The tooth fairy always seems to visit at sea. 

An hour after we left the pass, just after we had enjoyed a great view of a small group of cetaceans (tentatively southern bottlenose whales) we heard a pan pan call on channel 16 - that's one step down from calling mayday.

It turned out to be these new friends of ours.  They had gone up on the reef and could not get themselves off.

My birthday

The drama was short-lived.  We stopped our progress to Hao against the possibility that we would need to return to Makemo to give them a hand (no other boats in Makemo had their radios on).  But the rising tide freed them, and inspection revealed that though they'd chewed up a keel quite badly, they were taking no water and had not damaged props or rudders.  They expect to be able to make it to Tahiti or Apataki for repairs.


Later on the passage to Hao.  We saw two green flashes that day - first one
as we were down in a wave trough, and then another a second later as the
next crest lifted us up for a higher view of the horizon.  That's happened to
us a couple times before. 

We don't know exactly what happened to put them on the reef, but it was a good reminder of how easily the combination of a mistake (or two or three) and some poor luck can put you in a bad way.  So we try to be forever vigilant.  And I guess that's what makes this life afloat so bloody fierce and immediate.  We're in the arena, day after day.

Standing waves in the pass.

And the skipper, less than pleased with our transit a short time later.
Just as we were in the arena, for instance, when we entered the pass at Hao.

The passes are one of the big things about the Tuamotus.  The water screams through them, and, as Pierre on Kea told us before our first visit, "You must respect the tide!"

We arrived at Hao just before low tide to find the water ripping out of the pass.  Two hours after low, the pass was still pumping.

I looked at it long enough to convince myself that it would be alright to go through.

And it was alright - just.  The water was still coming out at six knots or more.  We cut around the race on the outside and then positioned ourselves right in the pass.  We were committed - and the GPS showed us making 0.4 knots, at full throttle and with the main catching some wind.  I had to look at the sides of the pass to reassure myself that we were making 0.4 knots forwards, and not backwards.

It was fine - we motored through, slowly, and then made the turn for the village.  But we prize the condition of having things under control on Galactic, and we were a little too close to not in control there.

I don't think I'll try that again...