Saturday, May 17, 2008

Trouble in Taiohae

Pelagic swung to her anchor among the thirty-odd yachts in Baie Taiohae. I threw the last of the jerry cans into the dinghy and started rowing in towards land. Alisa held a tear-stained Eli in the cockpit and watched me row away. As the distance between dinghy and sailboat grew I called back to her.

“Dad went out for twenty gallons of water,” I said, “and we never saw him again.”

“Don’t make that joke too many times,” Alisa said.

Ever since we left Alaska, we have been prone to let-downs after completing passages. When places like Eureka and San Diego were our landfalls, it was easy to blame the destination. But there is also an effect of stepping away from the simplicity and purity of life at sea, and back into the complications of life ashore, however tangential, that tends to bring the group vibe crashing.

Sighting Ua Huka in its glorious tropical repose after twenty one days at sea was such a distinctive experience. On our last night at sea we ate fresh tuna as the sun set behind towering squall clouds. Alisa made her nightly call to the Pacific Seafarers’ Net. We observed the ritual of putting Eli to bed, going through the commonplace steps of brushing teeth and reading books and giving goodnight kisses, all in the exotic setting of a tiny ship pitching and rolling her way down the southern trades. Alisa went to sleep and I took the first watch, slowing Pelagic down and conning a route between Ua Huku and Nuku Hiva. These young volcanic islands reared up thousands of feet into the sky on either side of Pelagic, blocking out the stars with elementally black silhouettes unmarred by any electric lights. When the squall clouds caught up with us and it started to rain I took off my clothes and sailed the boat naked beneath my deck harness. To Alaskan sailors, nothing says “somewhere far far away” like naked sailing. As many landfalls as we may ever make as a family, I trust that there will be nothing quite like this end to our first long passage.

We spent a raucous night hove to off of Nuku Hiva and in the morning sailed into Baie Taiohae, thus in a moment transitioning from one world into another. Yachts clustered at anchor at the far end of the bay, all recently arrived after three or four weeks at sea just as we were. Waves crashed on the beach and pickup trucks drove along the beachfront road. Heavy green trees clustered over tin-roofed buildings. Houses and gardens clung to the incredibly steep hills over the bay. The town and bay were ringed by the walls of an old caldera, a vertical wall of lava that made the little town look like a stage setting.

Three hundred years ago raiding parties from neighboring valleys paused on that ridge top to whoop victoriously as they carried away the body of an unfortunate local to serve as the main dish for a chief’s funeral feast.

After our three weeks of blue skies and blue seas and the constant, illimitable horizon, we found ourselves in a place that was close and green. The water nearshore was brown with the soil washed off the mountainside by the rain. We could smell the earth, our natural home that we were returning to after our journey through the vastness of the eastern tropical Pacific, a place that we could transit but where we could never come to rest. We smelled the earth, and its familiarity, but the specifics were all new – smells of the vibrating growth and quick rot of the tropics. It was like we were coming home to a place where the language was universal but spoken in a strong accent that we couldn’t place. This, I imagine, is the dissonance that seafarers have always experienced when making landfall on distant coasts. Everything before us promised a new world – new culture, new foods, new languages, a new adventure. Alisa and I grinned at each other with excitement, brimming with the accomplishment of having reached this little corner of the oceanic world.

This first look was very nearly the peak of our experience in Taiohae. And, as is usual in these situations, we brought the seeds of our own misfortune with us.

After we had set the anchor and shut down the engine, we looked over the side to see Pelagic surrounded by an oil slick.

When things electrical or mechanical go bad on board Pelagic, our first recourse is to reach for Nigel Calder. His Boatowner’s Mechanical and Electrical Manual has steered us through many a dark and tortuous crisis of boat maintenance, and really no English-speaking sailboat crew should be without it. For the current situation, though, the big guns were called for, and I reached for the same author’s Marine Diesel Engines. A quick read identified the oil cooler as the likely cause. Oil from the engine passes through 36 little tubes in the cooler which surround a big tube of cooling water drawn from the sea. As hot salt water passes through cooler the walls between the little tubes slowly corrode and voilá, oil is suddenly free to pass into the cooling water and leave a big slick on the ocean after it exits the exhaust. Perhaps even more chillingly, Nigel also advised that there was the possibility that water could siphon into the engine through the corroded cooler.

“Water in the engine” is one of those phrases of boat ownership that I do everything in my power to avoid using.

Especially in some place like Nuku Hiva, so remote that it makes Dutch Harbor, Alaska, look like the fifth arrondissement.

Especially when my wife and one year old son and I are living on our boat with all of our household goods, and we are completely dependent on that boat to get us the next four thousand miles or so to Australia.

Nigel offered me a ray of hope: “The engine can still be run until you find a replacement cooler, if fittings can be found to bypass the oil and water sides of a failed cooler.” The italics are my own, and they describe the quest that burnt up a week or more of our first stop in “paradise”.

I figure that nobody knows everything, and when we have a problem on the boat that stumps me my approach is to chat up everyone I can, in the hopes of learning enough to find a solution. Providentially, Tilicum, a boat that we knew from Mexico that carried a real, live diesel mechanic on board, pulled in the same day. I rowed over and introduced myself to Robert, then threw myself on the mercy of whatever useful guidance he could give me. He supported the bypass idea. John on Gingi suggested finding a tractor oil cooler to get us to Pape’ete, the capital of Tahiti, where we could get a proper cooler shipped to us. Pierre on Ke’a and his friend Maurice, both hugely experienced yachties, suggested that I pull the cooler apart, find which tubes were leaking, and block them off.

Robert’s advice, backed up as it was by the gold-standard advice of Nigel Calder, led me down the road of just bypassing the darn thing until we got to Pape’ete. It was also the simplest solution.

Except for the problem of finding suitable hardware to link together the 15 milimeter banjo fittings that take oil to and from the cooler. Whatever I came up with would have to hold up to the pressure of the hot circulating oil, as a sudden failure of the bypass would result in the complete loss of engine oil pressure. Between us and Tahiti lie the Tuomotus, a vast archipelago of atolls that are entered and exited through narrow, highly tidal passes through the coral. A sudden loss of the engine in one of those passes could make for a really bad day. Touch wood.

All of this weighed on my mind as I made the rounds of the local hardware store and various boats, looking for the raw ingredients for a skookum jury rig. Alisa, meanwhile, was stuck watching Elias in a boat that was half torn up to provide engine access. Elias seemed to be in a terrible mood half the time, banging his forehead against the bulkhead in anger and frustration and screaming his fierce little wild animal screams that make our teeth vibrate in our skulls. I was spending most of my time on board crammed into our tiny engine room, sweat pouring off of me as I struggled to pry various pieces free from the engine. Spirits on board plummeted.

Every attempt to come up with suitable fittings failed. Finally Robert helped me pry the damn oil pipes completely free from the engine. We took them to the vice on his boat and hacksawed the ends off, then triple hose clamped and epoxied 5/8 inch fuel hose over each sawn off piece, thus joining the two together. I spent another few hours getting the patched-together pipes back onto the engine, and then had massive second thoughts. What if the patch didn’t hold? I checked in with Moe Tai, who runs Polynesian Yacht Services in Taiohae, about getting a cooler sent out from the Yanmar dealer in Pape’ete. When we finally left Taiohae five days later, he was still waiting for an answer.

So I finally fired up the engine, and the patch held. Touch wood again. When I changed the oil before firing it up, two thirds of a liter of seawater came out of the crankcase in addition to some heavily emulsified oil. I then got nervous about our engine oil pressure. It read low when we bought the boat, but the mechanic who we hired to survey the engine told us that was typical of our engine model. I had taken that as sound advice and gotten used to running at lower oil pressure than our owner’s manual called for. Leafing through Nigel, I came across his section on low oil pressure: “Many people, confronted with low oil pressure, assume that the gauge is malfunctioning…and ignore the warning. Given the massive amount of damage that can be caused…this is the height of foolishness.” I suddenly didn’t feel like taking our low oil pressure for granted anymore. And when we ran the engine at idle and saw the gauge plummet to an astonishingly low fifteen pounds of pressure, I was complete spooked.

I normally hate to write about boat maintenance, a topic that vies with wallpaper hanging for minimal reading interest. But in this case, that’s the point. We were finally in the Marquesas, and sweaty bouts of engine maintenance dominated each day. Elias was being, well, a typical one year old, and not the little sailor angel who had accompanied us on the passage. Alisa and I fell, one after the other, into the funk that often visits us when we reach port after a period at sea. I gravitated towards the worst possible interpretation of our low oil pressure and bad oil cooler, and the drawbacks of a twenty-thousand dollar engine replacement were freely discussed. When we looked on the bright side we reminded each other that we could just sail to Tahiti or all the way to Oz if the engine conked out. But with the engine problems, and the difficulties of getting anything done with Eli, and his hourly screaming temper tantrums, the wheels of our collective vibe really started coming off. People who wonder about sailing with such a young baby always ask about diapers, or him getting seasick, but it really is boat maintenance that we find to be the hardest part of having Eli on board. Our space is so limited to begin with, and then we tear up half of it to get at some project, and suddenly there are all these things around that Eli isn’t allowed to touch, and we can only get him off the boat for so many hours before it’s time for him to come back and eat or nap, and he gets frustrated and starts venting as only a one year old can, and Alisa and I one after the other descend into Neolithic rages at the heat and the confinement and the constant baby care and Eli’s high-pitched screams. And well. You really don’t want to hear any more.

There were, of course, bright moments mixed in with all this. We went ashore that first day after the passage and found a group of Marquesans taking shelter from the rain under a covered section of the wharf. They had an instantly recognizable look, something very Polynesian with a hint of eighteenth century English sailor mixed in; broad hips, flowered shorts, flip flops, tattoos and top knots. We made our number at the gendarmerie, and the gendarme who checked us in was friendly. Ethereal Gygis alba (wonderfully called Common Fairy Terns in our one field guide, more prosaically White Terns in the other) fluttered in the trees lining the sodden main street along the beachfront. Young men with striking facial tattoos riding bareback galloped by on horses. Out on the water, Brown Boobies (Sula leucogaster) and frigate birds (either Greater, strangely enough Fregata minor or Lesser, F. ariel) made a steady commerce preying on the little fish that aggregated around the anchored yachts. From Pelagic we looked down on blacktip reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) cruising around us in their endless motion. Occasional feeding frenzies broke out beneath the barky as two species of bigger fish mercilessly worked the schools of baitfish around us. One memorable dawn we all sat on the side decks and watched three manta rays (Manta birostris?), each of them four feet across, filter feeding in graceful arcs around the boat.

But Taiohae offered an indifferent welcome. Alisa bought a watermelon at the store for 1,000 Cour de Franc Pacifique, or CFP. She did the conversion as we were walking back to the boat and announced, “That’s a fourteen dollar melon!” And then there was the remoteness we felt from the locals. The people that we came across on the first day that we rowed in to the wharf were reluctant to make eye contact with us as we huddled under the same little shelter to let a downpour pass, although big smiles on our part and Eli’s presence did earn us a slight thaw. That experience proved to be representative, as we found evasive eye contact and restrained smiles to be the rule.

Meanwhile we were meeting some of the boats we had heard on the ham radio on the crossing from Mexico, and hearing rhapsodical stories about the smaller villages they had visited where the Polynesian warmth was almost overwhelming and the superabundance of fruit was enough to keep Marquesans and yachties satiated. And we were stuck in Taiohae, trying to figure out the engine. Cloudy skies and high temperatures were keeping our solar panels just barely ticking over, and we couldn’t charge the batteries with the engine. We cut down to run the fridge for two hours or so a day, and our boxed milk started going off.

It must sound a bit self-pitying. But sailing huge distances from our familiar Alaskan haunts with a completely dependent one year old keeps us working with a small enough margin that the typical ups and downs of traveling become ups and disasters.

In addition to the various engine woes, we also dealt with a range of chores that I came to think of as events in the Yachtie Decathlon: Haul forty gallons of diesel in five gallon jerry jugs after tying the dingy up to a wave-swept concrete wharf. Post bond at the Banque Socredo. (Four thousand dollars U.S. for the three of us, including fees, and we get to pay the exchange commission twice: once to change all that into CFP when we check into French Polynesia and again to change back to dollars when we check out.) Borrow a hookah from another yacht and dive forty feet in abysmal visibility to unwrap your anchor chain from the wreckage of a steel boat. And so on.

After nine days we seem to have the engine worked out, but we spend another day in Taiohae to talk to Pierre, who has lived in French Polynesia for sixteen years. He’s sailing to Alaska, and we’re heading to his stomping grounds of the Tuomotus and Societies, and we spent a delightful few hours trading local knowledge. All, or nearly all, of the yachts currently in the Marquesas are next heading through the Tuomotus, a vast expanse of coral atolls. Known as the “Dangerous Archipelago” in the pre-GPS era, these islands still offer a very challenging mix of tricky passes, submerged reefs, mandatory night time passages, and strong currents. There are also more than forty atolls that can be entered by a cruising yacht, and which of the islands to visit is one of the most-discussed topics among yachties in Nuku Hiva.

Pierre shares our passion for getting off the beaten track, and he styled us with what sounds like a very sweet four-atoll itinerary. I was satisfied to see that his recommendations began with two islands we had tentatively identified to visit. The accounts that he painted of those islands, full of phrases like “this is very very very nice!” and “it is magnificent!” made me realize what a once-in-a-world spectacle we have before us. “It is very important,” he said to me. “You must respect the tide when entering the pass. And you must spend at least a week in each place! Otherwise it is too much hurry, there is no point!”

And no, I’m not going to put his suggested itinerary on the blog.

We had dinner with Pierre and two French cruising couples on board Compay, the boat of a Swiss singlehander named Eric who is planning on leaving the Marquesas in mid-May for a non-stop passage to Kodiak, of all places. Alisa and I dropped our jaws to think of a boat simply sailing strait back to our home port after we took ten months on the roundabout route. The dinner was a blast – the French sailors all looked to be in their fifties or sixties but they had an openness about them, especially the men, a quick willingness to smile that really contrasted with the cynicism and bitterness and just plain tiredness that we find in so many U.S. and Canadian cruisers of the same age. Part of that impression might come from their simplified self-expression as they spoke English. But I think there was a fundamental difference in evidence, too. Not to judge a nation based on five individuals, but Alisa and I came away from the meal with our Francophilia confirmed.

Elias had been acting up so badly before that dinner that we thought that one of us would have to just stay home on Pelagic to watch him. But we rallied, and he sat on our laps for most of the dinner with a stunned look on his face. He’s so verbal right now, and so quick to assimilate language, that I think all the strange conversational noises left his head spinning. We made our excuses early to get him back to Pelagic before he got too tired, and we heard the laughter and vigorous conversation floating over the anchorage from Compay far into the night.

Alisa had baked bread and chocolate-chip cookies earlier in the day, and we had brought the cookies over as a contribution to dinner. “God,” she said once we got back to Pelagic, “as soon as I saw that scene, I wished I had brought the bread.” In Kodiak, we felt that our cuisine of game and fish could hold its own with the food eaten anywhere in the world. But on the barky, our diet of grains and legumes and other hardy fare, including the occasional chocolate chip cookie, while it keeps us as happy as can be, might also lend itself to a little Anglo-Saxon gastronomic inferiority complex.

Finally, finally, we were ready to leave Taiohae. I used up our last minutes of internet time ordering engine parts to be shipped to Pape’ete, and found that the two foot-long oil pipes that I had sawed off would cost $320 to replace. We were only sailing about ten miles to our next stop, so we got a late start after packing the boat up all morning. Elias was screaming and adult tempers were at an all-time low. It was hot and we were sick of always being on top of each other with no possibility or expectation of privacy and a little peace and quiet and we were exhausted by the big push of getting the boat back out to sea and it was all of it, the whole trip, suddenly not seeming at all worth the constant headaches. More than once in the previous days each of us had wondered aloud if we would make it. We kept up our smiles for strangers on other boats and then in the privacy of Pelagic wondered aloud if our old happiness was gone forever.

We finally got the hook up and moved out of the bay, motoring slowly on our patched-up engine. We got into wind in the mouth of the bay and I started making sail while Alisa steered. Elias started fussing in his car seat in the cockpit. Not bad, but too much for me, and I screamed at him to pipe it down. “This isn’t working,” I said to Alisa as Pelagic started feeling the tradewind swell. “Let’s just sail straight to Australia and get this kid into daycare.”
The bad: big dude, small engine room.

The good: quality time on the beach in Taiohae where we landed the dinghy...

...taking the squirt fishing...

...and swimming...

...and giving him a shower in the cockpit afterwards.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I've been keeping up with your blog for a few months and this post is my favorite. As a mom of two preschoolers, I have been reading in awe, trying to imagine what it would be like sailing halfway around the world with just one of my kids. My dad is a cruiser in Mexico and when I have my kids out on his boat, I'm freaked the whole time. Being confined to that small of a space with one of my kids would drive me nuts, I'm sure.

    This post is so well written that the reader feels as if he is actually involved in figuring out the engine problems, taking care of a kid bent on terror, and translating the locals' nonverbal cues. It's better than sitting in your cockpit and watching it all happen...I actually felt like I was witnessing it from inside your head.

    When you're done with this adventure, some of these posts need to be published. On paper. They're captivating.