Sunday, April 20, 2008

Nuku Hiva

We're here. It took twenty-one days almost to the hour from sailing past the lights of Cabo San Lucas to landfall in Nuku Hiva. Yes, with a one-year-old cooped up in the boat for every one of those twenty-one days. But Elias actually did great, and the passage was a steller event for all of us.

Our internet access here is not good. There won't be many emails coming from us over the next few weeks, but hopefully the blog will allow us to share some of the experience effectively. We have some great pictures, but I'm not going to try to upload them via this bad connection from the boat, so for now you'll have to settle for some notes that I wrote up at sea. More to follow soon.



To the Trades

April 7, 2008
5° 20′ N, 129° 41′ W
Day 13

Time blends into itself and flows away unbidden. I try to get in the habit of entering our location, course and speed in the log every four hours, but in this lazy era of constant updates from the GPS I find that entire afternoons melt away unchronicled.

Mixed sea salt, dried sweat and old sunscreen covers us all. The settees are sticky with it. My harness bears a big grease stain from rubbing up on my neck. My shirt is inexplicably falling to pieces, giant rents opening up in the back.

We are as alone on the face of the planet as we could be, barring a trip to the Southern Ocean, or the heart of Antarctica, or something silly like that. It’s been a week since we laid eyes on a ship, and of the 25 or so Marquesas-bound yachts that we are keeping in touch with via ham radio, the nearest are more than 150 miles away.

Every day we are surrounded by a heaving expanse of ocean. When the sun is shining, the water is a mythical blue, the color of the earth as seen from space. Under cloudy skies the water is a gray that makes me think of the Bering Sea. But I know that if I had a picture of the Bering Sea in hand I would drop that comparison. We are intimate with the three or four waves that are always right behind us, always just about to sweep under our stern and make us grab onto something as the barky rolls under our feet. The long series of other waves and whitecaps that reach to the horizon and will never touch us are abstract, they have nothing immediate to do with us. I stand up on the bow and watch them for half an hour at a time, mesmerized.

At night, if the wind and waves are low, the three of us in our little boat cabin could be anywhere. The motion is gentle, and I have to remind myself of the indifferent vastness outside. While we eat our dinner and get Elias ready for bed, Pelagic does the work of hurrying us along to Australia. That’s one of the great qualities of our boat, and of any capable cruising boat, the ability to cover miles efficiently without constant attention from us. For 24 hours after we left the lights of Cabo San Lucas behind us, I was sick, barely able to get up from my bunk. That left Alisa looking after both Elias and the boat. She was able to do it, going on deck now and again to reef the main or shake a reef out. Otherwise the windvane steered and the boat sailed and everything was fine.

We had light winds on the way down to Cabo San Lucas from La Paz, but as soon as we rounded the tip of the Baja peninsula we picked up a stiff northwest breeze that blew for days and spit us out far into the open ocean. It was a surprise that first night out of Cabo to be rolling gunwhale to gunwhale in a beam sea and putting a second reef in the main. The first days out of sight of land were blue and clear with occasional ships. The northwest breeze carried us all the way out to the northeast trades. (The tradewinds north of the equator blow from the northeast, those in the southern hemisphere from the southeast.)

Neither Alisa nor I had ever sailed in the tradewinds before. It was something we had often daydreamed about, the first-hand reports that we had heard painting visions of languor, sunshine and speed, the sheets eased and never adjusted for weeks at a time as the trusty little cruising boat reels off mile after mile. The reality is, as always, a little different. We have been fighting a contrary current for much of our time in the northeast trades. In addition to slowing us down, the force of this current against the tradewinds has produced a steep swell that has the boat constantly swinging back and forth and occasionally tripping down the face of a particularly big wave, landing in a roar of whitewater.

During past passages on Pelagic we have kept a constant lookout, but the outer limit of our endurance for trading off watches during the night and then keeping up with an energetic one year old during the day is about one week. After that the fatigue becomes too much. We can only sleep when Eli sleeps, and if one of us is always on watch that leaves us splitting eight or nine hours of sleep at night and an hour or so during his nap time. We just couldn’t maintain that schedule for the entire three or four weeks of a passage to the Marquesas.

The solution was suggested to us by our friend Elie, who with his Gallic certitude says, “If I cannot sleep, I WILL NOT CRUISE. We set the radar alarm at night and both of us sleep. For us it is the ONLY way.”

There is a strong taboo in the American cruising community, or at least that part of it that expresses itself in sailing magazines, against not keeping a 24 hour lookout. And there is no doubt that it is proper seamanship to keep a constant lookout. But what I like about Elie’s approach to sailing the expanses of the world is that he is not afraid to find his own solutions to the various problems that come up. Alisa and I talked it over and decided that sailing with Elias in a sense makes us quasi-singlehanders, since he demands nearly constant attention from one of us, leaving only one person to mind the ship. Singlehanders of course cannot keep a constant watch, yet most of them seem to make it where they’re going. And so, while we stayed up during that first rolly night looking out for coastal traffic while the lights of Cabo faded from view over the stern, every night since then we’ve turned the radar alarm on and both gone to bed.

We both wake often during the night in response to changes in the barky’s motion or flapping of the sails, and sometimes I spend half the night in the cockpit, adjusting sails and the windvane or keeping an eye on passing squalls or ships. Those might be the most impressive moments of the trip. I jump out of my snug sea-berth and clamber up the companionway steps, half asleep and wondering what is going on. Out in the cockpit there is only the faint glow from the compass, the wind and speed instruments and the masthead light. Everything above me is stars and the negative space of clouds. On both sides of the boat invisible water is rushing by with a hiss. One of the really neat things about the low freeboard and narrow stern of Pelagic is times like this, when the ocean is so immediate. I always experience a brief shudder of realization when I step out into the cockpit at night, especially if we’re heeled over so that the water is below me. The water is death, pure and simple. If I fell in I’d never be found. It’s sort of the same feeling that you get from looking down from some ghastly height. Freudians argue that dizzying heights and black waters swirling past your cockpit on moonless tropical nights are both horrible to behold because they offer the immediate contemplation of death and the potential for suicide. But all this is a bit macabre, and I’m not aware that anyone takes Freudians seriously anymore, anyhow. I just make sure that my grip on the steering pedestal is extra firm as I walk along the cockpit seat to reach the helm.

Alisa and I both have the high-latitude biologists’ contempt for tropical oceans as biologically barren outside of coral reefs. So we’ve been surprised at the amount of bioluminescence in our wake at night – a solid river of green-gold snaking after us as we sail down wave after wave. It sure looks like there’s a lot of plankton in these waters.

I sit behind the wheel on these starry, moonless nights, keeping an eye on the compass and occasionally tweaking the windvane, the wake behind me the color of starlight and stretching unbroken all the way to Mexico, and I begin to feel the scale of this ocean, and of our trip. The world may be shrinking culturally; we’re likely to find Michael Jordan t-shirts in the Marquesas, and our position is being updated on the web throughout the passage for people back home to track. But there is also an irreducible mass to the earth’s geography. This ocean, mile for mile, is as big for us as it was for Magellan, or Cook, or the Polynesian navigators.


Another thing that we have in common with the Polynesian seafarers, but that Magellan and Cook never thought of during their voyages of discovery, is toilet training. We’ve made the switch from disposable to cloth diapers for the duration of our crossing of the Pacific, and our sudden inability to throw away diaper bombs and forget about them has made us keenly anticipate the day when Elias will be diaper free. The how-to guide for child rearing that we have on board suggests that the first step is to build your child’s awareness of bodily functions, with an eye towards reaching the point when he can tell you that he’s gotta go. So “pee” and “poop” are suddenly leading members of our lexicon. Sometimes, as we undertake this bold crossing of one of the great expanses of open water on our planet, as we follow the trade wind paths that sailors have used ever since the dawn of navigation on the Pacific, as we aim for the tiny isolated gems of islands that have stood in for our culture’s notion of an earthly paradise ever since the eighteenth century, it seems that all we talk about is pee and poop.

To the Line

April 11, 2008
0° 19′ N, 131° 23′ W
Day 16

Nineteen miles north of the equator. It’s one in the morning local time, and we’ll cross the line some time before dawn, after Alisa has taken over the watch. We have been motoring for long stretches through the doldrums – thirteen hours and more at a whack. And, more predictably than I would care to admit, the autopilot is down. As near as I can figure, the problem is a spike in voltage from the alternator through the full batteries. Beyond my level of understanding, and the solution certainly beyond us here in the middle of the watery world. The wind vane works great when we sail, so no problems when we have wind. On the way down the west coast of North America we used a small autotiller in combination with the windvane to serve as an autopilot when we motored, but the vibration of the propwash and the action of the autotiller’s electric motor shook the poor windvane so badly that all of its welds began to fail. So that’s out of the question now, and we’re back to hand steering, just like we did on that endurance fest of a seven-day passage from Coronation Island, Alaska to Neah Bay, Washington, when the various autopilots were not working and we motored for days against very light headwinds, bleary-eyed and semi-rational behind the wheel.

That trip was seven months ago. Before Elias could walk, and while we were still in the very difficult transition from land life to life afloat. Seven months ago, but enough has happened since then to fill a decade or so, it seems, of our old life.

The steering isn’t very demanding, we just look at the compass every couple of minutes and make a little correction if it’s needed. We can read, or write in our journals. But we’re also chained up here, in the cockpit, through the day and through the night. Until the wind returns.


The equator, at sea.

These four words bring to mind a picture of a painted ship on a painted sea. Blinding light, merciless heat, a stifling atmosphere forever devoid of profitable wind. Our experience, as ever, has diverged from expectation.

Crossing the equator, as we are, to get from the northeast trades to the southeast trades, involves crossing the intertropical convergence zone, or, in our era that is so short on poetry and so long on acronyms, the ITCZ. The ITCZ is dominated by convection cells that have the potential to produce really rotten localized weather, interspersed by the flat calms of the doldrums. We sailed a southwesterly course in the northeast trades to 130° W, where the ITCZ is at its narrowest north-south extent. Then, at about 5° N, the northern limit of the ITCZ, we changed course to due south in order to cross the ITCZ at right angles and spend as little time as possible in the area of disturbed weather. The convection cells form and dissipate too rapidly for a slow-moving vessel such as ourselves to steer a planned course through them. So at 5° N, 130° W we turned south and touched wood for a good crossing. Alisa called a west coast sailing weather guru named Don Anderson on the ham radio the morning that we changed course south, asking for current information about the extent of the ITCZ. He told her that boats crossing in our longitude in recent days had experienced 35 knot winds, torrential rain and zero visibility in a 200-mile diameter convection cell. (Thirty five knot winds are officially Like Fun, But Different.) He figured our chances were fifty-fifty of hitting the same weather.

Which brings me back to my old vision of the equator as flat calm and brutally sun-drenched. What we find as we sail and motor south is a zone of flux and disturbance, random seas and towering clouds. We’re at the heart of the world, the center of things. Long lazy swells roll in from both hemispheres and meet here in an undulating sea, like the breathing of the world. This is also the earth’s furnace: huge volumes of hot air go rising up and spread north and south at incredible altitudes to drive the weather over a vast swath of the planet. It’s a furnace, but not a basement furnace; an airy, ethereal furnace as befits this planet of ocean and atmosphere. Enormous stacks of cloud rest on the horizon all around us.

On our first night in the ITCZ we sailed through the first squalls of the trip. The radar alarm went off and when I got up to look I saw tight little weather targets clustered in front of us, soft on the edges unlike ship targets, but black and impenetrable in the center. I sat at the chart table for twenty minutes, stupid with sleep, wondering if we would get past them or not. Then I stirred and put a second reef in the main, insurance against any sudden increase in wind strength.

Shortly after I reefed, at two in the morning, it started pouring rain – the first rain that we’ve had on deck since San Diego, in December. I huddled in the companionway in a jacket, the hatch boards up to keep the rain out of the cabin. It was suddenly cold, only a couple hundred miles north of the equator. I looked at the compass and tried, with my sleepy brain, to understand a fifty degree windshift. The windvane steers a course relative to the direction of the wind, so when the wind changes direction, so do we. I began an endless round of adjusting sails, reefing, easing, sheeting, shaking out, as the wind blew from five knots to twenty and half the way around the compass. I worked the sails and tweaked the windvane, trying to bring the boat’s disparate parts together to channel this incoherent wind into a steady course south. Finally, the wind settled into fifteen to twenty knots on the beam, the ingredients for a heroic sail. The rain eased to a drizzle and I stood at the helm in my jacket, watching the illuminated compass dial for evidence of the windvane’s ability to keep us going where we want to go.

The world is froth and low light. Our wake shakes the bioluminescent plankton to life so that each wave crest glows back at me in the exact same ghostly green as the compass light. The motion is exquisite. I, who am forever resistant against metaphors of sailboats as living things, am enmeshed in the dance that Pelagic dances, picking us from trough to crest as waves come at us from three or four different directions at once, legacy of both the recent wind shifts and the opposing prevailing winds in the two hemispheres of the globe, hundreds of miles on either side of us. Sometimes our motion is gentle, the boat rising buoyant at just the moment to let a whitecap slide through. Other times we put our shoulder down and push through ten thousand pounds of water coming at us at ten knots. Spray leaps into the cockpit and is washed clean by the rain. I hold onto the pedestal and swing back and forth with each roll, now on a flat deck, now suspended out over the rushing ocean. Jellyfish come sliding by, their big saucer-shape bioluminescent signatures as monuments in the green lawn of the plankton’s background glow. The clouds overhead thin. Stars shine through. A flying fish hits me in the back of the leg and rattles around in the well of the cockpit, scaly and crisp from the ocean. I’m no longer needed, the wind is steady and Pelagic is well on course. But I stay at the helm, watching this display of the world as it is, this verity that I have not once seen.

Finally I put a reef in the main to give myself even odds of sleeping the rest of the night through and retire, reluctantly, to my damp bunk. I wake a few hours later to hear Alisa saying, “Shhh, Daddy’s sleeping.” The cabin is alive with a thousand suns’ light. Our motion is gentle, the wind almost gone. Elias is peering over the lee cloth to my bunk, finger to his lips, saying “Thhhhh!” in his one-year-old’s imitation of a shush.

Eli is, not incidentally, doing very well with the passage. He is covered by sweat night and day, leaving great salty puddles on his pillow at night, his hair plastered to his skull all day. Poor little Alaskan boy in the tropics. But he is also suddenly starting to imagine, and to act out his imaginations. He pretends to catch fish with a short line dangled from the settee to the cabin floor: “Boom, fish!” he yells over and over. He pretends that his stuffed dog and puppy eat the birds off the page of our guide to the birds of the tropical Pacific. When we heel over with the spinnaker making the most of a light breeze before the beam he leans forward to walk up to the high side of the salon, like a man walking into a gale, then jumps in the air and goes running downhill into his mom’s lap.

And he suddenly picks words out of our sentences to repeat. “Bonk!” he says. “Grease!”


  1. Thank you so much for the heart-warming stories of your "trip of a lifetime". I hope the Internet Cafe in Nuku Hiva is back on line. Please keep posting your wonderful visions and have a restful stay.
    My brother and his wife have just arrived in your bay - so glad you're all safe.

  2. Thank you so much for the heart-warming stories of your travels. I hope the Internet Cafe in Nuku Hiva is back on line for you to see that you haven't missed anything better. Please keep posting your wonderful visions and have a restful stay. My brother and his wife have just arrived in your bay - so glad you're all SAFE!