Monday, June 30, 2008

We'll Always Have Tahanea

After a week in Makemo we shoved off for the next stop on our Tuamotu itinerary, the uninhabited atoll of Tahanea.

Traveling constantly, as we are, there is plenty of opportunity for surprises in our lives. Back in our routine in Kodiak, snuggled into our offices for forty hours a week and sleeping every night in a house that was permanently affixed to a foundation and never moved anywhere, Life had to really put in an effort to throw us a curve ball. But now whenever we pull the hook and point the bow to some other place where we’ve never been before, we have no idea exactly what might be in store for us.

Normally, when we tell stories and say things like, “we had no idea what might be in store for us”, and we talk about life’s surprises, we’re signposting the imminence of something gruesome, or sorrowful, or at least unpleasant. Something momentous, but bad, that will make for a good tale. Human nature being what it is, it’s rare that anything happy and pleasant can hold much narrative power, so it’s an infrequent moment indeed when we can say, “we had no idea…” as an introduction to one of the happier occurrences of life.

Pulling the hook in Makemo, it turned out, was one of these rare moments. And, so. As we prepared to shoot the pass at slack water and sail to Tahanea, we had no idea what lay in store for us.

The fun began as soon as we left the pass on the morning tide and got our sails up. The wind was blowing a steady twenty knots gusting to twenty five and when we made sail our boat speed shot up to seven and a half knots. In land units that’s nine miles an hour, which, for people who are taking a year and a half to get from Alaska to Australia, might as well be Mach 1. The pass on Tahanea was forty nine miles away and we had seven hours until the afternoon slack.

“Damn me,” I said to Alisa, “but we just might make it in one day.”

We put up more sail than we normally would and our speed stayed well above seven knots, at times even hitting eight. I watched the GPS count down the distance to the pass and when each hour had passed we had made exactly seven nautical miles good towards our destination. I got a great feeling of suspense from seeing that we were just on the cusp of making it, and we were excited by the possibility of a night of deep slumber at anchor instead of being hove to off of the atoll, each of us up half the night to watch our location, waiting for the morning slack.

We sailed fast and the waves were big and two of them even broke right over our quarter one after the other, splashing about a foot of water into the cockpit, the first water that we have ever taken there. Elias was strapped into his car seat at the time. “Mess!” he yelled, pointing at the warm saltwater that was slowly draining away.

We made it to the pass just in time to catch the tide and just before the sun was too low in the sky for responsible navigation among the coral. When the sun is low in the sky its light reflects off the water into your eyes and you can’t see coral lurking beneath the surface. After we came through the pass I climbed into the rigging to get the best view down into the water in the bad flat afternoon light. We anchored right next to the pass, feeling like we had pulled something off.

We spent a day in that anchorage. There were three or four other boats and we met a stereotypically jovial French couple and a stereotypically dour Swedish couple. “It’s funny how those national stereotypes can hold”, I said to ‘Lis. The Swedish couple had been to Antarctica in the last Austral summer on their fiberglass boat, no bigger than ours. This brought all kinds of ideas into my head which I am doing my very very best to forget. Then after a day we moved to the southeast corner of the atoll.

Friends, brace yourselves for what you’re about to see.

First, we had a spectacular sail across the flat water of the lagoon, without any chart at all, just navigating around the coral patches by eye:

And after an hour or so of this great sail we found ourselves in a landscape (seascape, skyscape) that looked like this:

And this:
And this:
Alisa came up with the perfect metaphor that allowed us to capture the beauty of the moment.

“Damn me,” she said. “This is just like the screen savers that people use on their computers at work.”

To give you a little perspective, here’s a composite photo of Tahanea that I found on the web.

The pass that we entered is the central of the three gaps at the top of the picture. Our anchorage at the southeastern end is under the big clouds on the right. What looks like a continuous ring of land in the photo is actually in many places a coral reef awash, separating individual motus. Motu means “island” in eastern Polynesian, and Tuamotu means “many islands”. Tahanea, and all the rest of the Tuamotus, used to be high volcanic islands like the Marquesas are today. Over time the central island has eroded away to nothing, leaving behind only the continually-renewed coral reef that used to circle the land mass. Seeing first the Marquesas and then the Tuamotus on this trip has given me my best insight to how long geological time scales really are. It was nothing but time that turned this:

into this:
Nothing but time enough to strain the bounds of my imagination. I got a strong post-apocalyptic feeling from the Marquesas, where we visited valleys that used to support thousands of people and now support a dozen. But the Tuamotus are post-apocalyptic on a whole other scale: the land is gone, the plant and bird communities are gone, the rivers flow no more to the sea, and only the passes through the motus mark the places where their mouths once were.

This is the kind of insight that gives you a dangerously realistic perspective on centrally important questions of natural history that should do a lot more to frame our worldview than they actually do. Questions like the age of the earth, and the amount of change that landscapes and living communities continually undergo, and the novelty of our tenancy here.

We settled in and spent the next ten days in that miracle of an anchorage. The diversions that we found for ourselves were many. First of all, there were three endemic landbirds on the motus near the anchorage. We spent our shore time for the first few days getting pictures of these birds, first the atoll fruit dove (Ptilinopus coralensis):

And then the Tuamotu sandpiper (Prosobonia cancellatus). This is a critically endangered bird with, according to what Wikipedia has to say about it, less than a thousand individuals extant. The culprits are introduced predators, rats and cats, and habitat destruction for the creation of coconut plantations. Polynesian islands have lost an average of 50-90% of the species of landbirds that were present when the Polynesians first arrived. This is part of a larger pattern, wherein more than 90% of historical extinctions have been of island endemic species, mostly due to the introduction of exotic animals like rats and pigs and cats and goats. I guess there’s a lot that I could say about anthropogenic mass extinction, and the world that my son will inherit when he reaches his majority, and the chance that that world will not include Tuamotu sandpipers. But for now I’ll just share these pictures and note that we had four separate sightings of Tuamotu sandpipers, two of light morph individuals and two of dark morph individuals, including this one here:

We also saw the endemic Tuamotu reed warbler (Acrocephalus atypha), but we never got great pictures of that one.

The beaches were sandy in places instead of the rough coral beaches that dominate over much of the archipelago, and they were safe and endlessly entertaining for Eli. It was a huge relief for Alisa and me to find a place where we didn’t have to be constantly ready to grab him if he was about to stray into some danger. Each of his hands was occupied with a piece of dead coral or plastic trash as soon as he hit the beach (if you’re familiar with the oceans you know that there is plastic trash everywhere, on every beach), and he loved throwing coral chunks into the water.

After we had been taking pictures of birds for a few days we started thinking about the little coral reef next to the beach nearest to Pelagic. The first day that we rowed by it we remarked that it was probably great snorkeling. Then we forgot all about it for a few days. I finally gave it a try at the end of an afternoon of snorkeling on the scattered coral heads in deeper water. What I found blew my mind. The reef was only in waist-deep water. It was high tide, with about a foot of water over the coral, and there were fish everywhere. I slowly drifted around the edges of the reef and looked out over the top of the coral where feeding drifting darting fish receded into the blue green distance. Alisa and I came back the next day. It was ideal – we could take turns in the water and watching Eli, who was completely content on the beach.

We brought our field guide to Pacific reef fishes to the beach and we got way into IDing what we saw. The diversity was fantastic – I once saw five different species of butterflyfish in one view. At first we both had a hard time remembering enough distinguishing features to ID anything. We’d come out of the water and look up the white and black striped damsel fish that we had seen and find a dozen possible species in the book. But after a while we got a feel for the bigger taxonomic groups and important diagnostic features and we were able to ID handfuls of new species every time we got wet. It was a great mental game to train ourselves to remember sets of details from particular fish well enough to look them up in the book and not let our impressions get muddled by all the pattern and color, the diversity and similarity of the fish constantly parading before us.

Having an appreciation for biology is a huge plus in a place like this, as it gives you a bit of perspective on what’s really going on in front of your eyes, the taxonomy and ecology and evolution. Over and over I’d say things to Alisa like, “Damn, don’t you just want to live four lives so you can fit everything in? Wouldn’t it be great to do some kind of coral reef ecology study using all these coral patches as replicates? And come to think of it, what was I doing studying cod-shrimp interactions in the Gulf of Alaska, anyway?”

And the diversity of fish communities is only going to increase as we head west in the tropical Pacific.

We had some really unsettled weather, too, days when incredibly forbidding tall black clouds drifted all around us and waterspouts appeared here and there in the distance, snaking from the lagoon surface up into the clouds, and it rained so hard that we just stayed on the boat. But we were glad of the water that we collected from the rain. So we just hung out on the boat and in between showers we let Eli play in the cockpit.

We also had as many as fifteen remoras (Echeneidae) hanging out on the bottom of the boat at this point, the same fish that attach themselves to big sharks. Eli loved it when we fed them table scraps.

When the rain was over we got some much-needed laundry done, and it was a great indication of how much we had slowed things down that laundry was an event for us, something we were really excited to get done. There was so much rainwater in the skiff that I was able to wash clothes in it, the division between bow and stern serving nicely for separate wash and rinse cycles.
At this point we said, collectively, “What could be better than this?”, and ripped up the list of other atolls that we had planned on visiting.

There were still new motus to walk around.

And we found a colony of nesting red-footed boobies (Sula sula).
Finally we left this heavenly place and moved to an anchorage near Passe D’Otao, the easternmost pass into the lagoon. There is an old village site there, now occupied only seasonally by people cutting copra, and we used water from one of the cisterns to do another round of laundry and get ourselves ready for the big city of Pape’ete.

I went snorkeling in the pass on a flood tide, rowing up into the pass and then jumping in and keeping the dinghy painter around my wrist so that the dinghy drifted with me. And wow. There was at least an order of magnitude more fish than there had been at the little reef at the last anchorage, and also more diversity. I identified three new species of butterfly fish from the dinghy on the way to the pass, before I even got into the water. Actually dropping into the pass was a bit like something from Aldous Huxley. I felt the biological doors of perception swinging open. I was suddenly in a whole universe of life and adaptation and predation and coexistence that was entirely foreign and novel. One of the neat things about coral reef fish is the way they are such poor receptacles to human empathy. There’s nothing cute about them, they’re just very serious and going about their business. So it seems natural that for those of us who, unlike the Polynesians, don’t make a living by eating from the reef, the only way we might understand a coral reef ecosystem is through the mathematical tools of ecology. When you dive on a reef you are suffused with the joy of the living world as it is, in all its complexity and counterintuitive twists of adaptation, but you don’t (or I don’t) feel any temptation to understand what I see in mythical terms, the way some people like to understand, say, bears or wolves.

All that, plus the fish were pretty.

Our visa in French Polynesia was going to last only so long, plus we have several thousand miles still to go before hurricane season begins in November, so we set a day to leave for the two-day sail to Tahiti. Luckily the wind died completely so we got an extra day to spend in Tahanea. A day when we might look out of the portlight and see this:

A day when the water was so clear that I got vertigo walking around on deck and looking at the bottom forty five feet below. Check it out – you can see the shadows cast by the coral heads and the drag marks of our anchor chain in the sand in the upper left. The floats are to keep most of our chain off the bottom so that it doesn’t snag the coral. When parrotfish swam along we could watch the shadows of their pectoral fins on the bottom.

It was a day like this:
The next day we did leave. The world is very big and, practically speaking, we will have to sail around it, or at least all the way around the Pacific, to see Tahanea again. This is the sort of thing that we were thinking of when we named the blog. We might sail for the rest of our lives, but this first year of setting out with a baby and learning the ropes is something rich and vivid that we can only do once. And an experience like the one that we had in Tahanea, when we didn’t know quite what we had in store for us, is something that would be very difficult to replicate.

We shot the pass the next morning under a blustery sky, getting through a little late so that the ebb had built into a race out on the ocean swell that we had to steer to one side to avoid. We turned to the west and unrolled the jib and let it do the work of pulling the boat along, wind and sea behind us. Alisa and I held hands and watched the pass get small behind us, and the seaward sides of the motus spool by.

“You know,” I said, “we’ll always have Tahanea.”

Sunday, June 29, 2008


This is our view of Makemo atoll as we’re approaching the pass. We’ve got the main and jib furled and are jogging along under staysail alone towards the entrance, waiting for slack water. The passes into the Tuamotu lagoons have bad reputations. The lagoons are big and the passes are narrow, so the tides create strong, turbulent currents. If you hit slack water, though, everything is fine.

The notable thing about our arrival in Makemo was how badly we screwed up the anchoring. After we made the pass and pulled up in front of the village of Pouheva we dropped the hook and found that the anchor chain had fouled itself during the passage. The anchor dropped until it was just touching the bottom and then the chain stuck below decks. By the time Alisa and I had freed the chain we had dragged and were way too close to a big catamaran that was already anchored. We tried to pull the anchor to move away from the cat and found that our anchor had hooked their chain. Bad feeling. We tried pulling our chain as tight as we could with the windlass, until Pelagic shuddered with the strain and our anchor was holding the cat’s chain up off the bottom. Then we let go of our chain all at once, hoping that our anchor would swim out from under their chain as it fell to the bottom. We tried this a couple times without success, and each time the wind pushed us down closer to the cat’s bows.

Meanwhile, Elias was hollering his head off in his car seat in the cockpit. We were tired from being up most of the night before. And, well, everything generally sucked. But on the third try our anchor swung free.

It must sometimes seem to the casual reader of this blog that Alisa and I are lurching our way from minor crisis to minor crisis as we cross the Pacific. Let me assure you that it rarely seems that way to us. But things aboard were tense enough at this point that when we finally had our anchor back Alisa looked up at me and said, “Maybe the Tuamotus aren’t for us. Maybe we should just go back out the pass and keep going.”

Luckily Alisa took Elias below to try to get him to nap and I took the opportunity to throw the anchor in again, this time a long long way upwind of the cat. But the anchor just dragged across the bottom without setting, even though the chain ran free this time, and we ended up dragging down on the cat again. So we pulled the anchor once more, with Elias going through a total meltdown in his bunk.

The bottom was sprinkled with coral heads that had the potential to snag our chain, and we had been trying to anchor in relatively shallow water so that we had a chance to dive down and free the chain if we did get stuck. “Screw it,” I said to Alisa. “I’m just going out to ten fathoms and dropping it. If we do get stuck, at least we’re next to a village where half the men can probably dive to sixty feet.”

Prophetic words, as it turned out.

We went ashore in Pouheva the next afternoon. It probably wasn’t a representative visit, since the Marquesas are very much a morning place, and the Tuamotus are likely the same. But the village felt deserted, even though there were lots of kids in the schools that we walked by, suggesting that there must be a corresponding adult population somewhere. Jared Diamond included an interesting comparison of the geography and social development of various Polynesian islands in Guns, Germs and Steel. He concluded that high volcanic islands suh as the Marquesas, which provide raw materials like basalt for tools and land suitable for irrigation, fostered the growth of hierarchical societies with entire classes of people who did not produce food, like chiefs and priests and artisans, while low atolls like the Tuamotus, without many raw materials or the rain or soil for intensive agriculture, produced more loosely organized societies with less distinction between commoner and noble, where everyone worked at producing food. Seeing somnolent Pouheva, and remembering the vibrancy of a small Marquesan village like Haukehetau, it was easy to imagine that strong cultural differences persist between the two archipelagos, despite their close proximity and recently derived ancestry.

But we didn’t stick around long enough to get to know Pouheva. We smiled at a few people and bought a juice at a little store that sat off the road next to a tiny cut through the motu, or island, that the village rested on, the cut tidal and clean blue and full of interesting fish, with a bridge over it that little kids apparently jumped off of for the better part of the day. And how many generations has it been since little kids jumped off bridges into creeks in the towns of Ohio, where Alisa and I come from? When we were ready to return to Pelagic a squall was blowing across the atoll and cutting up a little surf across the reef entrance that we would have to row through to regain the lagoon where Pelagic was anchored. We decided to wait until the squall was past and went back to the store porch to get out of the rain that began to fall from the black black cloud that was suddenly overhead. The friendly clerk came out to see what we wanted and told us it was fine to wait on the porch. And fifteen minutes later when the squall was dying down and I walked out to the shore to look at the reef and the lagoon to see if we could row back, the clerk followed me out and asked if we wanted a ride back to Pelagic. Some friends of his had just returned to town in their motor boat and they would be glad to give us a lift, he would just go and tell them.

There may be nicer people out there than Polynesians, though I would have to meet them to believe it. But we didn’t even try to get down with the people in Pouheva, we spent just that one afternoon ashore and the next day we shoved off for the uninhabited western part of the atoll.

Alisa ashore in Pouheva village, Makemo atoll. Is it my imagination, or is she starting to look a little French?

The word that we hear other sailors using to describe Tuamotu villages over and over is “sleepy”. A fitting adjective while the family was ashore in Pouheva, though that was only for a few hours one afternoon.

Or at least that was our intention. We knew that our anchor chain had been grinding on some coral heads. On the morning we tried to pull the anchor I dove on it and found the chain completely wrapped around a head. We tried driving the boat around in a circle to free the chain while we pulled with the windlass. After an hour of trying this we were as stuck as ever. The water was more than sixty feet deep. I had to dive pretty deep to even be able to see the chain, and what I could see wasn’t good – after all our effort, the chain was more tangled than when we had started. A big chop was blowing into the anchorage from across the atoll and Pelagic was rearing and snorting at the chain and we could hear the chain grinding against the coral and we were stuck there, unable to move – a very bad feeling in a boat, which owes everything to its abilities for motion.

So I rowed into the village looking for help. And in an odd way that turned out to be a good thing. I went to the little store by the side of the cut, looking for the friendly clerk who spoke English. I found out that his name was Augustin, and as soon as he heard my story he locked the store and took me in his truck to go find a diver. He might have been about to close the store for lunch time anyway, but it still made a strong impression on me. We drove around with another guy named Prospero and looked first at the school where the diver taught and then at the diver’s home. In a small village where you are utterly a stranger and don’t speak either language in currency, there are few things that are more satisfying then riding around in the car of a local. Suddenly the veiled glances and restrained smiles with which humanity greets an outsider are replaced by the warm grins of friendship from the people who shout out to the car as you drive by, and you see the villagers revealed as they see each other. Good fun.

We found Ludo, a curly-haired, lithe Frenchman who has lived on Makemo for seven years and who runs a little tourist dive operation in Pouheva. His day job is as a sports teacher at the professional school in Pouheva. After Phillipe on Ua Pou, Ludo was the second expat sports teacher in French Polynesia to befriend us. Both of them made excuses for their poor English, but both were conversant in the language. This impressed monoglot Alisa and me to no end – gym teachers who speak foreign languages! I have decided that many of the problems of our own country would solve themselves if the majority of American gym teachers could speak a second language.

Anyway, Ludo was available to come out and free us an hour later. When I asked if we could pay him for his time he said, no, I am doing this to help you. He ended up being under water for quite a while, and when he came up he reported that our chain had been wrapped two times around the same head. So much for our efforts to free ourselves. I was so so happy to see our anchor finally come out of the water and onto our bow, and I told Ludo so. He rode with us to another spot closer in where we would be able to free ourselves if we got stuck again and then dove after we were reanchored to make sure that the anchor was set and the chain was free of obstructions. He wouldn’t even have a beer with us when he was done, but we did send him home with some of our Marquesan fruit, well appreciated.

All this grinding on coral is bad for the barky, and really bad for the coral. We’ve since mastered a few tricks that greatly reduce our incidence of coral tangling.

By the time we were reanchored and I had rowed Ludo back ashore it was too late in the day to leave – you need the sun high in the sky, preferably behind you, when sailing in an atoll lagoon so that you can see the shallow reefs before you hit them. So we finally got going the next day and sailed just a few miles down to the other end of the atoll.

When we started reading up about the Tuamotus before our arrival, we decided that while the Marquesas were about the people that we met, the Tuamotus would be a chance for us to reduce the size of our social universe and tend our own gardens. To get down with ourselves, and the reefs and the birds, as it were, and not with the people. To live for a few weeks in one of the more spectacular places on the planet, as a family, self sufficient, on our little boat. And on the west end of Makemo, that vision began to come to life.

The anchorage on the west end.

Elias abandoned himself to the delights of picking up stray coconuts on the beach.
I knew that the islands forming an atoll were made from coral, but it was something else to get to one and look under my feet and see nothing but raw hunks of dead coral. On many of the motus we visited, that’s about all there was, in unimaginable quantities when you think about the little colonial symbionts that make the stuff.

The seaward side of the atoll.
Looking towards the seaward side. In the background is a HUGE storm berm of dead coral. I figure waves big enough to pile up so much coral must only come from hurricanes, and that thought made me realize how those infrequent storms have real implications for the landscape on such low islands.

A blacktip reef shark, Carcharhinus melanopterus, cruising the shore.

A highlight of Makemo was hanging out with Macy who we had met briefly in Nuku Hiva. Making quick friendships in remote places is one of the great part of this new life of ours; losing track of those friends just as quickly one of the great drawbacks.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Memorable Passage

We arrived in Pape'ete, the capitol of Tahiti yesterday, and so have internet access for the first time in a month or so. Here's the first installment of what we've been doing during that time, the story of our passage from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus...


After finishing our business in Taiohae we made one last stop in Nuku Hiva and the Marquesas Islands, sailing over to Daniel’s Bay to fill our water tanks and stock up on fruit. We didn’t see Tonga again, but we met a woman named Celina who gave us literally as much fruit as Alisa and I could carry – our last experience of the tremendous generosity of the Marquesans.

Alisa with a stalk of bananas on her back, a pack full of papayas, and a sack of limes.
After getting the fruit and water aboard we figured that a day or (probably) two would be adequate to address the usual list of tasks before we put to sea. But then Alisa, bless her, realized that it was Wednesday afternoon, which meant that by the universal conventions of both sea and land the next day would be Thursday, and the day after that Friday. And Pelagic doesn’t start any long trip on a Friday. When we tell other cruisers that, we often hear responses like, “Oh, you’re superstitious.” Alisa and I don’t think of it that way. Knocking on wood three times when we talk about something bad happening is superstition. Not leaving port on Friday is more of a maritime tradition, one that is very strong on many of the Alaskan commercial fishing boats that we have been aboard. We both have tremendous respect for the fishermen of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea (if those knuckleheads can keep themselves out of trouble on the water they must be doing something right), and one of the ways that we show it is by observing the ban on Friday departures. The Friday tradition is also of long standing - there’s a great story that I read somewhere about the British Admiralty trying to put the inconvenient tradition to rest during the Napoleonic wars. They ordered that the keel of a new ship to be laid on a Friday, launched the ship on a Friday, gave the command of the vessel to a Captain Friday, and sent her out on her maiden voyage on a Friday.

The darn thing sank. On a Friday.

So all of that is why we don’t begin any long trips on a Friday if we can help it. Plus, it’s fun to have a few little rules to organize your life around when you’re out on a sailboat, immersed in Personal Freedom. Otherwise you might as well be back in the office, saying “oooh, TGIF!” to the poor slob in the next cubicle.

Alessandro on Adaro told me that for Italian sailors it’s Fridays and Tuesdays. I think there may be a world of cultural difference in that extra day.

So anyway, we just got the dang barky ready and put to sea on Thursday, rather than cooling our heels until Saturday. It was just as well, too, as the list of pre-departure jobs is invariably padded with wish items that are fit tasks for someone’s dream yacht, but don’t have much to do with a boat that is actually sailing places.

Daniel’s Bay is an incredibly satisfying place to set off from. It’s such a process to set off from most continental ports – first you monkey around with getting out of some polluted estuary and under a bunch of bridges and then you weave through the local yokel recreational fleet and then the local yokel commercial fishing fleet, then you try to figure out which was worse to deal with, and then you spend a day or two getting off the continental shelf before you’re on the deep ocean. Nuku Hiva on the other hand is such a tiny landmass that it has no chance of changing winds and currents much in all that oceanic vastness, so the big-ocean sailing begins as soon as you clear the lava cliffs guarding whatever little bay you’re leaving from. One hour we were anchored up in Daniel’s Bay, and the next we were back on passage, sailing down the trades, eighteen knots of wind in the sails and boisterous seas on the port quarter. We set a course for Makemo Atoll, 450 miles away.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were in for a Memorable Passage.

Events began to unfold as we were leaving the lights of Ua Pou to port, when the pump on the head quit working. That is, the pump that takes whatever is in the head and pumps it out into the sea. I maintain, and there are few who will argue, that opening up the head pump is the worst job on any boat. We had just spent forty-two consecutive nights comfortably at anchor in the Marquesas, when I woud have at least had the convenience of an even keel for tackling the awful job. So the pump waited until our first evening offshore to go down.

I grimly set to work. The head door was closed to deny Eli access, and the sweet-sick odor of the pump filled the little compartment. I had the head fan blasting down on my head but I was still saturated with sweat. Sweat pooled in the hollows of my clavicles and my feet left little sweat puddles on the shower grate. Meanwhile the boat was heeling 15 or 20 degrees and rolling along at seven and a half knots. After more than an hour I gave up for the night. I joined Alisa in the cockpit, a little seasick from working in the closed compartment, chilled from the drying sweat, and grossed out by the mess.

The next morning I was back at it, determined to get the head working. The various flaps and valves inside the pump were so covered with scale that I was surprised it had worked as long as it had. When I finally emerged victorious from the head after three hours or so, I was dehydrated and cross-eyed with frustration.

Alisa had coached Elias to clap his hands and say, “Yeah, Daddy!”

“It says a lot that you haven’t even had a cup of coffee yet,” Alisa said. “I was ready for you to just decide that we would have to wait until the Tuamotus to get it working.”

I ate a victory lunch of eggs and bread and coffee.

An hour later I puked it all into the ocean. I was suddenly very sick, sick enough that I wanted nothing more than to just lie on the cockpit seat and let the world go by.

I rallied enough to go down to the cabin and lie down. A few minutes later I took a sip of water. That sent me scrambling back to the cockpit, as the sip of water came back up, immediately and painfully. I dry-heaved over the lifelines until there was nothing in my stomach whatsoever.

I went back down below and lay down. Alisa was getting concerned. I just wanted to go to sleep. She got out a liter of pedialyte, the oral rehydration mix that we carry for Eli (knock on wood). Alisa held a teaspoon of the stuff up to my lips and let me slowly slip it down. It came back up so violently that I gave up on trying to reach the cockpit and just sprinted for the head sink.

When I had rinsed my mouth out and retreated to the bunk Alisa sat down next to me.

“I’m worried about you,” she said.

“I can’t stop sweating,” I said. The pillow under my head was nearly squishy with my accumulated sweat. I was conscious of how much it was asking of Alisa to handle both boat and baby while I remained on my back, but I realized it in a fairly abstract way. My more immediate concerns were to stop sweating and to stop feeling like I just wanted to disappear into the cushions beneath me.

“I’m going to call your sister,” Alisa said. My sis is a doctor.
Alisa went up to the cockpit with the sat phone. Elias started screaming for her, screaming “Mommy, mommy, mommy,” in a one year old’s unadulterated outpouring of grief and longing, while he was standing about eighteen inches from my head. I had him hold my hand, but that didn’t stop him from screaming for Alisa. The best measure of how rotten I was feeling by this point is that Elias was in full tantrum that close to me, and I basically didn’t care.

Alisa relayed a few questions about my symptoms and then ended the call. When she came down she picked up Elias and said to me, “Jenny says you should start taking anti-nausea meds.”

“But those are rectal suppositories.”

“That’s right.”

“Am I that sick?”

“You’re that sick. I’ll get them out for you.”

I must admit that they did the trick. Even if they had melted in the tropical heat. After twenty minutes I was able to get an antibiotic down. The kicker is that the anti-nausea meds are also tranquilizers, so I went from listless to catatonic. For the next few hours Alisa woke me up every five minutes to give me two teaspoons of pedialyte, per my sister’s instructions, until I had a whole liter down. Meanwhile the wind had built to twenty five knots and Pelagic was beginning to round up and fall off, as the Monitor had less and less success keeping us on course.

Alisa and I talked over the steps to take. “First thing is to put another reef in the main,” I said.

Alisa clipped Elias into his eating chair and set his dinner in front of him – a bowl of grape nuts. After feeding me another two teaspoons of pedialyte and putting on her deck harness, she was ready. The whole scene seemed distant to me – after I got down my ration of pedialyte I just collapsed back onto my stinking pillow and retreated into myself. It was only when I saw Alisa taking a deep breath at the bottom of the companionway steps and saying out loud, “Come on, you can do this, ‘Lis,” that I realized how deep she was digging to simultaneously care for me, Elias and Pelagic.

By the next day I was better. Simple as that. We have no idea what incapacitated me so severely, though the hypothesis that I got sick from exposure to the inside of the head pump enjoys favor. I sat in the cockpit for much of the next day, eating a little and drinking a lot of water and regaining my strength. The whole episode reminded me of what a challlenging proposition it is to sail our little ship across the Pacific. I’ll let out a huge sigh of relief when we reach Oz, but I suspect that I will also feel a huge let down.

Getting better meant that I was able to enjoy some of the sweetest sailing that we’ve ever had on Pelagic. The Tuamotu archipelago, our destination, is a vast swath of coral atolls scattered in a southeast-northwest direction between the Marquesas and the Society Islands. They are low atolls that cannot be seen from a great distance, with strong and unmeasured tidal currents among them. In the pre-GPS era, when yachts navigated by dead reckoning and imprecise celestial navigation, the Tuamotus were a deadly place, known as the “Dangerous Archipelago”. From what I gather, most yachts back then just sailed by. Now, with the everyday miracle of GPS, the Tuamotus are open to the run of the mill yachtie, and the treasures of this incredible place are available for all to sample. But there are seventy-odd atolls in the chain, about forty of which have passes that allow yachts to enter the central lagoon, so the game becomes choosing which atolls to visit.

We were aiming to get just a little further south in the archipelago than was absolutely convenient from the Marquesas given the prevailing southeasterly winds, reasoning that putting up with a little windward sailing on the passage would reward us with time in some lesser-visited spots. So we had the wind on the beam or forward of it for the whole trip, which kept Pelagic heeling over. This made life a little inconvenient for Elias, and kept Alisa and I worried and vigilant on his part. But it also made the trip more exciting, as we could feel Pelagic working gracefully to carry us into wind and sea, straining her fibers to do what she was designed for, instead of just drifting downwind with the trades like a log raft.

And so we carried along for three days and change, keeping an eye on our course to make sure we didn’t sag down to leeward. The wind kept up in the lower 20s the whole way, which is plenty. Waves crashed across the bow and water poured out of the starboard scupper and if you stood in the back half of the cockpit where you could watch the sails and look ahead for the traffic that never appeared, you never knew when spray might kick up high in the air and douse you. But if you did get wet it didn’t matter, since we were in the heart of the tropics and the wind and sun would have you dry in ten minutes. The hammock under the solar panels was full of pampamouse and we had two stalks of bananas lashed to the overturned dinghy, one green and one yellow, and the sunset every night was as fine as anything you could ask for. At night the stars were revealed in their true intensity, without the interference of any artificial light anywhere, and we beheld the heavens illuminated as they were for Copernicus. Once I was well the trip became something that I would not shuffle off this mortal coil without having experienced, a memory that will be my consolation in old age. There is nothing like being alone with your family in a small boat far out to sea for showing you just how vast the world is, and how magnificent. You might think I tend towards hyperbole, but if you had been there you would not.

Just before sunset on the third day we sighted Taenga, our first of the Tuamotus. We first saw it on radar and then by eye, only a few palm tree barely visible on the horizon from ten miles away. This was very satisfying. Even with the GPS telling you where you are within the proverbial gnat’s ass, seeing is still very much believing. We hove to for the night so that we could catch the morning slack water through the pass into Makemo. And everything that happened there is part of another story.

Horsey rides in the cockpit after I’m feeling better.

We caught this sailfish on the passage. We would normally let such a big fish go, but it was very deeply hooked and almost dead by the time we got him up to the boat. We ate two dinners and two lunches from him right away, and Alisa canned up the rest of the meat for later. Delicious, and surprisingly easy to fillet.