Saturday, August 31, 2013

Better and Better

Tension, of course, is at the heart of any storytelling.  That's something that I had in the front of my mind when I was writing South From Alaska - so many sailing stories devolve into mushy travelogues of the "then we picked up the anchor and moved to another spot" sort just because they lack tension.

Well, be on notice - I have, for the nonce, given up all thoughts of tension, and by extension I suppose, storytelling.  (For this post, at least.  Our family life afloat is just normal life at this point, so we have the normal ration of tensions, though we're certainly safe from the Walter Mitty tension.  But more on all that some other time.)

For now, some pics to go with an earlier story, posted with the text-only services of the ham radio when we were out of internet range.

This is the scene on the windward side of Taunga Island, and our evening ashore at the Best Beach In the World (as long as you're not after surf!).

First, there was Elias rowing ashore on his own.  Check out the little form in the boat, bravely setting out without any qualms at all - what parent's heart wouldn't sing?

Then there was a family game of footy on the beach.  This mostly devolves into chasing Dad around.

And then the main event - the fire and dinner.  That's the Best Beach in the background - a perfect causeway of sand reaching out to a little islet whose name I can't produce without my chart in front of me.

"This is why we're here!" 

And, then, perfection capped - a raucous sunset breaks out as the sun transits the few degrees of clear sky between cloud ceiling and horizon.

 Alisa, giving herself up to the moment.

And, at the risk of repeating myself, there were no other boats there, which is something in a crowded destination like Vava'u.  The herding capacity of yachties never ceases to amaze...

The End.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Travel Breaks Out

I don't like to use the word "cruising" to describe what we've been doing with ourselves over recent years. There are a few reasons, I guess, and one of them is that "cruising" seems to imply a very self-centered, pursuit-of-one's-own-happiness approach to being out in the world. It's a word that aspires to hedonism. Travel, on the other hand, implies an outward-focused approach to being away from home - the whole point is to extend yourself in order to engage with people who come from someplace very different and don't share your basic assumptions about the world.

So normally we stay away from "cruising". But in Tonga that's just what we've been doing. We knew that Vava'u would offer us the opportunity to stay disengaged from the local scene while I finished up my PhD, which is why we came here instead of going to the more engagement-demanding nation of Vanuatu. We've been very happy to treat Vava'u as a playground of the tropics, to flit from anchorage to anchorage for bouts of swimming and snorkeling and playing on the beach, to socialize with other sailors and to limit our interaction with Tongans to waves at passing boats and occasional chats with people at the market.

On Saturday night, though, Alisa was inspired to change that.

"We should go to church tomorrow," she said. "It's our chance to go to church in Tonga in a small village."

So the family dutifully scrubbed and dressed and trooped ashore the next morning, looking more or less civilized. We parked the dinghy on the brilliant white beach and followed the track across the narrow isthmus, past the sharpened stick set in the ground where someone had been husking coconuts, to the leeward side of the island where the track led along the shore, in the shade of the trees, to the village of Taunga.

And, suddenly, we were traveling - walking into a rural village where we knew no one, during the sleepy hours of Sunday morning when no one was stirring, confident enough that we would be welcome, but also a little unsure of how the interaction would go.

After one false start, when we learned that church didn't start until 11 (which gave us time to retreat to the boat, swim off the jupe, reshower and re-dress), we again repeated the bit about walking into a village where we knew no one. We soon found the church, with a few people already in the pews. We stood on the verandah, smiling, waiting for someone to invite us in. That's our usual approach in a situation like this, to hold back for a minute and wait to be invited to join in, rather than to assume. In this case it was Amelia, a bent old woman with a smile that conceded nothing to age, who came out and greeted us and invited us in.

The singing is always a highlight of church in Polynesia - the unapologetic volume, the well-segregated parts and the correct harmonies, just strident enough to excite your heart. And then the vowel-rich preaching by the minister, the perfect chance to look out the open windows at the shade and beach and blazing light on the sea, and to let the mind wander. To think about this bit of western culture that is now completely on autopilot and self-sustaining, and firmly part of the Tongan identity, here on the little island of Taunga. To imagine the scene here, in the same shade on the same beach, when missionaries arrived, what, only 150 years ago?

After the service a few people welcomed us and shook our hands, and Amelia chatted a bit, her smile still conceding nothing to age. Then, on the track out of the village, we came upon Violane, sitting in the shade of a tree with her grandchildren. She soon invited us to lunch, which appeared out of a wheelbarrow, the various dishes wrapped in the banana leaves they had been cooked in - octupus, and chicken stewed in tarot leaf and coconut milk, and roasted manioc, and a special dish of uncooked clams in coconut milk very similar to ceviche and just for us.

For all the "cultural events" for pay that dominate yachtie interactions with Polynesians these days (more on that some other time), this is still what I look for - a chance encounter with locals who aren't demonstrating their "culture" in set events, but who are gracious enough to share a bit of their everyday life with you...


Meanwhile, the season is moving along. A slew of familiar yacht names announced their plans to depart for Fiji on the net this morning. Last night Alisa and I had rum drinks in the cockpit after the boys were asleep and looked at distances and timing for the various passages that we might want to make during the remainder of the year. We're well into that phase where off-the-wall ideas are winnowed down, most of them forgotten, but some being planned for, perhaps to be acted upon.

I've been hoping to get a pesky science paper that I've been re-writing to the point where I can send it off to the journal and have a clear conscience and uncluttered mental landscape before we sail off for Niuatoputapu, but the day is soon coming when we'll be sailing away, whether or no.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Start Of a New Era / The Beach At the End Of the World

A brave new era opened up before us today.

We had a picnic dinner and fire on the beach tonight. Alisa and Eric and I went ashore in Smooches, our inflatable. And Elias rowed ashore by himself in the Little Dipper, our hard dinghy.

It was no short distance - I'd make it a third of a mile each way. It was his first time ever operating a boat without an adult on board, and he was well on his own. He set out before us, and after we had zoomed by with the outboard he finished after us - for most of the time he was hundreds of meters away from the rest of the fam. He handled the moment with complete aplomb, and had no need to be coached or reassured.

The day when he's routinely operating a dinghy on his own is suddenly not so far away.

Meanwhile, the two other boats that anchored up here at Ngau Island during the day had the poor sense, or good manners, to bugger off to somewhere else before nightfall. So we got the treat of sunset at the beach all to ourselves.

This might not be the finest beach in the world. But then again, it might be. Either way, it'll do for us.

The beach is a causeway of white sand between two palm-infested islands, 200 meters long and a dozen or so wide. The turquoise water on either side had gone mirror-smooth with the coming of dusk, and all around us were open vistas of islets and reefs and towering clouds. And just us four and our family game of footy running up and down the causeway and then dinner sitting in the sand before the crackling driftwood. And then the sun dropped below the layer of cloud and the whole world illuminated around us, glowing purple and magenta of the dying day, with a double rainbow hoisted above us all and dropping down right over our anchored boat. Alisa ran up and down the causeway, swooping her arms over her head, with the pure joy of the moment...

The Company of Tasmanians

Two days ago I rowed back to Galactic from a frustrating session of trying to handle work and other various chores on a slow internet cafe connection to find a familiar face in an unexpected place - our Tasmanian friend Karen Westwood grinning at me from the cockpit and wearing a very un-Tasmanian sarong over her swimmers. Karen and her friend Annette are on a Tongan holiday and, knowing that we were somewhere in the kingdom, took a chance and had their whale-watching boat hail us on the VHF. And, it just happened that it was our day in Neiafu for internet and beer and mailing homeschool materials back to Tasmania, and we were only a couple hundred meters away in the harbor.

So our plans to zoom out back to an anchorage out of town turned into a fun night of hanging out and having dinner on board Galactic with Karen and Annette and the delightful crew of Wooshie, whom we had just met a few days before and had fortuitously anchored next to us. Neiafu is one of the great harbors of the South Pacific, and we had a feed and a chat and a couple of drinks under the deck awning with the low lights of the waterfront fringed around us, the flying foxes flapping overhead, and the nearly-full moon poking out through the heavy tropical clouds...

We're Anchored Off Ngau...

..and Taunga Islands, which are joined to each other by a narrow isthmus of beach and bush. Off our bow is Tauta, to the starboard is Leke Leka, and Pau, which is joined to Ngau by a miraculous causeway of fine tropical sand at half tide and below, is just behind us. All these islands are pin cushions of limestone festooned with coconut palms. We're anchored in a shallow sand flat and the water around us will turn green and turquoise in the full daylight.

It rained last night, hard enough that the deck awning collected enough water to fill the twenty liter jug in the cockpit. I usually wake up at the first drops of rain and close the various hatches, but I was so lost in sleep last night that I didn't stir, so there was a bit of mopping up to do this morning.

All around us clouds tower into the sky, speaking of great volumes of heated air streaming up into the atmosphere, the scale and drama of tropical weather. We have every chance of putting more water into the tanks today.

This is one of the more beautiful spots that we've seen in Vava'u, and, strangely enough in this island group of heaving anchorages, there isn't another boat in sight. And, while the Vava'u gets a visit from nearly every trans-Pacific yacht, just a day to the south is the entire Ha'apai group, mostly empty of yachts, and not too far to the north and east is Penrhyn, which is likely to end the season with fewer than ten yacht visits.

So the herd instinct remains dominant for traveling boats. We're happy to flee the group to find these idyllic spots for ourselves. But there are also a lot of very remarkable people in this mass of traveling boats, people with fantastic stories to tell. And of course we are always on the lookout for other kids to play with.

So we dip in and out of the social mix, alternately retreating to life on our own and branching out to meet like-minded people. One of my long-standing grievances about these crowded sailing scenes is the way that boats tend to aggregate by nationality when they're socializing. There is of course a commonality of outlook that makes it particularly easy to hang out with others of your own nationality - "but where does that leave us?" I half-joke to Alisa - "Hanging out with all the Americans while they talk about their watermakers!" More seriously, though, it always seemed like a shame to leave home to travel the world and then socialize with your fellow-countrypersons while doing so...

Friday, August 16, 2013

To Lose a Tooth

For a seven-year-old, Elias has a lot of baby teeth - until the other day, he had only lost two. 

Then, on that other day, the whole family was on the bow, watching whales from the anchored boat.  Elias was taunting his brother and was therefore banished to the stern by the captain. 

The next thing we heard from him was a howl of pain - while he was meant to be meditating on his evil ways in the solitude of the back deck, he somehow managed to slip on the swim ladder and smash face-first into something hard and metallic - we're not sure what. 

There was blood, there were lots of tears.  And when we had everything cleaned up, it was apparent that Elias was on his way to losing tooth #3 - one of his front teeth.  It hadn't been loose before the fall, but was now hanging by a thread:

He suffered through lunch like that, making do with a meal of pineapple juice and soft coconut meat, before he got brave and asked me to yank the tooth out.

He was of course very excited by the prospect of a visit from the Tooth Fairy - how easy it is for kids to believe!  And he made this sign for his door, perhaps out of lingering concern over the ability of the Tooth Fairy to find our boat.  Similar questions often arise during Santa and Easter Bunny season.

It says, "Please come Tooth Fairy... I have just lost my 3rd tooth".

The Tooth Fairy came, and left two pa'anga.  Elias was well pleased, and quickly blew the windfall in the Neiafu fishing store.

The scene at breakfast the next day.

And the view from the breakfast table.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Month? We'll Take Two

The business of extending our visas so we can stay in Tonga for another month brings us to the big town of Neiafu, and back to internet range.

Discordantly enough, I've been reading We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.  Perhaps because I'm in the middle of that story, opening the Times at the internet cafe just now and seeing the news from Egypt took my breath away.

We are so unreasonably fortunate..touch what we find ourselves doing.

In the last week or so since we were in town our story has slowed down to the point of not being a story.  We meet some other yachties, we school and feed and hug and clean and instruct and scold the boys.  We watch the stalk of bananas on the stern arch slowly dwindle, and the basket of papayas disappear two and three at a time.  And!  If any of my work colleagues stumble on this, I assure you that I am working on my science work for long hours every day.  But that is the limit of our ambition just now.  And on a boat there is always a distraction...

Our latest milestone is that we find ourselves suddenly able to go snorkeling together as a family.

Who's cuter?

This works because Eric is happy to ride around on my back.  He doesn't have a lot of staying power, but he's completely happy and at ease while it lasts.

And now, instead of trying to take pictures of fish, I find myself taking pictures of my family underwater - especially, of course, Elias.

He is, as I've noted before, completely at ease in the water.  And of course he finds it completely unremarkable that he is so at ease - the water is just another place to be, much less overwhelming than town, in some ways...

Alisa and I, meanwhile, find ourselves looking at the bigger picture, the scope and direction of our lives together, and we start to mutter the Galactic incantation:  Don't wanna stop don't wanna stop don't wanna stop don't wanna...

Saturday, August 10, 2013


Jumping off the stern arch is all the rage on Galactic.

I thought we'd never see Alisa doing the jump.  But then Elias' 7th birthday rolled around, and she figured it would be the perfect way to kick off the celebration.

Of course, the day also included some more traditional celebrations.

Alisa made him a new stuffed horse  (on the left) which our still-so-innocent oldest boy was thrilled to get.
There was a birthday cake in the shape of a cheetah.

And we finished the day with a beach fire.
It was a family-only celebration, as we hadn't yet hooked up with any other kid boats to share the day.  And it was a simple celebration - the same decorations we put up in the cabin for every birthday on Galactic, some gifts, some cake, an early-morning birthday snorkel and the various other outdoor fun.  

The real treat for me was seeing how adequate that was for Elias - he told us a few times that it was the best birthday he could imagine. 

Friday, August 9, 2013

Any Excuse for a Party/Paje Unchained

This doesn't look like a reason for a party.

The yacht Paje went hard aground on a reef here in Vava'u in the early hours of the morning a couple days ago, at the end of a tough upwind passage from Fiji.

You really wouldn't want to hit a reef anywhere.  But if you did have to pick a South Pacific reef to hit, the one between Langitau and Vaka'eitu islands would be a pretty good choice.  There were likely 20 yachts anchored within one nautical mile of Paje when she went aground.  The response from locals and visiting sailors was more than you could hope for, but also just what you might expect.

People came out in droves to offer their assistance.  Initial efforts to free Paje at first light after the grounding proved unsuccessful, even when the super-yacht Dorothea III, in the background above, came to her aid.  A succession of tow lines parted, the tide fell, and Paje was driven higher and higher by the waves.

Another attempt was made yesterday, more than 48 hours after she'd come aground.  More volunteer labor than could be used was on hand for the job of getting Dorothea's 2 1/2 inch braided nylon hawser  around the keel of Paje and led off the reef to an anchored dinghy where it could be attached to Dorothea's spectra tow line.

And this was the scene yesterday morning as Dorothea made another attempt to pull Paje free.

From heeled over and helpless to floating free again.  Paje is now tied to a dock in Neiafu and apparently in pretty good shape, all things considered.

And so tonight there was a little get-together at the Aquarium Cafe to celebrate the happy ending to the story.