Monday, July 21, 2008

Societies adieu

Well, we’re still here, three days after we checked out of the country with customs and immigration. (Don’t tell NOBODY.) We’ve been delayed while I finished revisions to the very very last paper to come out of my old job as a biologist for National Marine Fisheries Service.

We used our time in the Societies well, and we feel ready for the next leg of our trip. Most notably, the new oil cooler is on the engine, so we’re no longer running with a lube oil system held together with fuel hose and hose clamps. Tomorrow we’re setting out on the 700-odd mile sail to Suwarrow atoll, which in the fifties and sixties was one of the very loneliest places on earth and right now, from what we hear on the ham radio, may have as many as a dozen yachts at anchor. Oh well. Alaska really did spoil us rotten.

As I noted in our last post, we pretty much just put our noses down and took care of business here in the Societies. These islands still offer a lot to a traveler, good people to meet and beautiful places. But you have to pick and choose when you’re crossing as much ground as we are in our one cyclone-free season jaunt across the Pacific. And I think there’s great value in holding out for places like Hakahetau and Tahanea, places that retain some innocence in the way they greet outsiders. If you’re lucky enough to be traveling just for the hell of it, it’s good to have a standard for what you find to be really valuable. A standard that explains why one place makes you wish for a moment or a day or a week to be absolutely nowhere else on the whole spherical globe. Better to have the frustration of not meeting that standard over and over, and then valuing those rare instances when the standard is met, and reinforced, than to just be vaguely satisfied with every place that doesn’t actively piss you off. In other words, I would rather once stumble on a red-footed booby colony that I had no idea existed than a hundred times follow the directions in the cruising guide to the place where the tour guides feed the sting rays so that you can pet them.

All that being said, we did manage to work ourselves up to a little fun while we were here. A highlight was the Bastille Day celebrations in Patio, the largest village on the island of Tahaa, just north of Raiataea. Here’s our view of the village from our anchorage. The word that I want you to think of is “bucolic”.

I got these images at the day’s copra-cutting contest. Teams of three race to be the first to chop open a pile of coconuts, extract all the meat, and bag it up in a burlap sack. Imagine a Polynesian version of the log-rolling contest at an Alaskan fourth of July celebration.

And Alisa got these pics of the canoe races.

And then, of course, there is Elias. He is now just a few weeks shy of two, and filling our hearts variously with love, wonder, and toxic levels of frustration. I’ve got a lot to say about the daily renewed miracle of watching him blossom under our care. But what Alisa and I are really really excited about is that he crapped into the toilet today and yesterday! Love is one thing, being finished with diapers something else.

Here’s a series of pics of him playing with his little fishing set. The kid is mad for playing at fishing, and he is actually much more interested in processing the fish (“knife! cut!") than in catching them.

And so, faithful readers, another Once in a Lifetime sabbatical looms. It’s seven hundred miles to Suwarrow, which we expect to be blissfully deprived of digital communication, and then perhaps another seven hundred miles onward to Tonga, where we will again be In Touch. So a few weeks until the next posting. I trust that we’ll have something worthwhile to share…

Thursday, July 17, 2008

A Year in the Life

We were in Tahanea when June 23rd rolled around – the first anniversary of our departure from Kodiak. We of course had a party. Alisa baked a cake and dug out the little black dress that I gave her for her birthday last year. When we packed the boat to sail across the Pacific we figured that we should each have one outfit for sophisticated evening affairs. Alas, the slice of the world that we have spent the last twelve months transiting turns out to be painfully provincial in this regard. Not once on our trip have we been invited to a dress-up dinner where each guest is expected to bring a both a course and a poem to share with the assembled company.

There was a time in our lives on Kodiak when such events occurred with reasonable frequency, and we were lucky enough to know a set of people living in that desperately out-of-it fishing town who could make an evening like that actually feel sophisticated and fun, and not like a kid’s dress-up party, which is hard. Those events had faded away by the time we left town, and they don’t seem to be catching on in the other coastal towns that we’ve visited. So this was the first chance that Alisa got to wear the dress. But I digress.

While I was out snorkeling, Alisa had taught Elias to say, “Dad, let’s party!” and decorated the salon with crepe paper and ribbons. Eli and I dressed up in necklaces, and he learned to say “necklace”, too. Here we are, in the midst of our revelry:

And, just for the heck of it, here are pictures of us one year ago:

When Alisa saw that last photo she immediately noticed that her eyes were puffy from crying – the picture was taken one day after our tear-washed exit from Kodiak. The difference between the puffy-eyed picture and her exuberant picture does a lot to encapsulate our experience in this year. Leaving Kodiak might have been the most difficult thing that either of us have ever done. And there were a lot of gut-wrenching moments in the following year as we made the fits-and-starts transition away from the Alaskan life that we loved so much. And yet, here we are, thoroughly engaged in this incredible new way of living that might be just as hard to give up when the time comes. I am overcome with the sense of how little time any of us have. Over and over I say to Alisa, “Don’t you want to live three or four lives so we could spend one just being total homebodies in a place like Kodiak and another sailing the world and still have one or two left over to figure out what to do with?”


I am writing this at anchor in Raiataea. We spent eight days in Pape’ete, Tahiti and left yesterday, arriving in Raiataea today. Pape’ete is infamous among yachties, but we had a good time there.

Here’s our first view of Tahiti, at dawn after the 48 hour sail from the Tuamotus:

Here’s Elias the same morning, fresh from bed and still wearing his PJs. I was tired from being up half the night as we closed the island, but I found my consolation in holding his warm little body and listening to his explanation of how we had lost a fishing lure two days before. In the picture he’s pantomiming a shark biting the lure. The kid is a morning person.

We spent most of our time in Pape’ete taking care of various logistical tasks. This involved lots of family trips downtown in le truck:

But we also took time for a few fun outings, including a trip to watch the canoe races:

And every day without fail we were regaled by the spectacle of the sun setting over the neighboring island of Moorea:

You’ll notice the other yachts cluttering up the view in this picture. During the cyclone-free season there are hundreds and hundreds of yachts in the Society Islands. Tahiti, Moorea and Bora Bora are the places where the South Pacific dream first came to life, but today the anchorages are so crowded, and the islands are so tourist-jaded, and the prices are soooo high, that Alisa and I have decided to hit fast forward on this part of the trip. We’re just using the Societies as a chance to get some boat work done, and once it’s done we’re out of here.

Every visiting boat has to check in at Pape’ete, which is why that town is particularly heaving with yachts. We enjoyed the crowds during our stay there, though, as we weren’t in any way looking for an experience beyond the Yachtie Scrum. We saw lots and lots of boats that we had seen previously in French Polynesia, and we got into the excitement of all these people embarked upon the same very rewarding though ultimately self-involved dream trip that we are engaged upon.

We also enjoyed some of the benefits of having, if I may say so, one of the coolest hailing ports possible emblazoned on our stern. We were lucky enough to meet Richard and Michelle of Thélème, who came over one day to say hi because they spent the winter in Kodiak on their boat ten years ago. These two are the last in a short list of really interesting long-term voyaging sailors whom we have met in French Polynesia, people who have been sailing the world for decades, and who have a twinkle in the their eyes announcing that they are still enjoying it. Richard and Michelle are currently refitting Thélème for a two-year stint in Patagonia. I learned two interesting things from Richard: that it is impossible to count on having any tropical anchorages to yourself outside of hurricane season, and that French sailors say about boats like ours, “It’s so American, if it were any more American, it would be dead.”