Saturday, October 25, 2008

Pelagic Attacked by Shark

Here we are, in Australia. Our arrival was quite a momentous event. It took lots of dreaming, planning and doing to get us here on Pelagic. A full report will follow, and there’s still New Caledonia to catch up on. All that is coming soon, and in the meanwhile I’ll leave you with this tidbit from our equal-parts-trying-and-magical passage from New Caledonia.


On the fifth day out of New Caledonia, Alisa and I were talking about the upcoming Litzow family reunion in Australia. “You know,” I was saying, “we’re going to have to come up with some good stories from this trip. My Australian relatives are natural story tellers, the kind of people who come up with hilarious adventures to relate whenever they do so much as go grocery shopping. When they really branch out and come to the States to see us, they end up with all kinds of great stories about the funny things that happen to them. Stories that they tell each other for years. I’ll feel so lame if we sail all the way from Alaska to Australia and all I can come up with is, ‘The sunsets were really beautiful.’”

Ask, and be careful what you ask for.

That same night the three of us were relaxing down below after dinner while the windvane steered Pelagic. I was wearing headphones in an attempt to ignore my son (spend a week at sea with a two year old and then you can judge me), so the first time I heard the sound it didn’t make much of an impression. It was a loud “wham!” that, with the headphones on, sounded a lot like the jib backwinding and then filling. A lot like, but not exactly like. The second “wham!” was unmistakably the sound of something going suddenly very wrong, and Alisa and I both dashed into the cockpit to investigate.

When you’re in the middle of the ocean on a small boat, sudden noises like this get your attention in an absolute way.

As soon as we reached the cockpit there was a third “wham!” and we saw the windvane jumping on its mounts. I moved aft and saw something big splashing in the water just behind the boat. My first thought was that we’d hooked a fish that was way too big and that it had somehow gotten wrapped around the windvane.

But both fishing lines were slack. My sleepy brain tried to figure out what the big thrashing presence in the water might be, and how we might get it away from the delicate and oh-so-important windvane. But then whatever it was left.

The windvane hung limp in the water, no longer steering us. With no one at the helm Pelagic gybed and the preventer held the main backwinded, slowly pushing us back to New Caledonia. Alisa took the wheel and got us back on course. After a little struggle against the force of our wake I pulled up the windvane rudder. And then things started to make sense.

We were about 170 miles from the nearest point on the Queensland coast, which means we had just entered Australian territorial waters. We were moving through the water at six and a half or seven knots. The moon wasn’t up yet, so the night was dark. There was a little bioluminescence in our wake.

The rudder was criss-crossed with bite marks. Something, we figure a shark for lack of any better candidate, came across Pelagic out on the dark ocean and took a fancy to the shiny stainless rudder that was swinging provocatively back and forth behind the stern. Enough of a fancy not to give up until it had hit it three times.

A central linkage on the wind vane had blown out under the load. This was a pretty serious deal, since our electronic autopilot has been out since Mexico. No windvane meant we’d have to hand steer the last 220 miles of the trip. Handsteering around the clock is no joke for a two-adult crew with a two year old, especially with the conditions we had – a broad reach in about twenty knots of wind. It was work and concentration to handsteer a course with the rig we were traveling under (full main, full jib), and it renewed our respect for the windvane to remember how well it had been steering us in those conditions, hour after hour.

We took a reef to make the steering easier and after Alisa put Elias to sleep I managed to fix the windvane with a few spare parts we had on board. And that’s the real joy of the windvane compared to the more modern electronic gear that infests yachts these days – if something goes wrong with the windvane, you can actually fix it at sea.

So that was our welcome to Oz. Hopefully things will look up from there.


Elias pointing out shark damage to the bottom of the windvane rudder.

The teeth left deep grooves in the stainless steel of the rudder. There are three sets of teeth marks at different angles, corresponding to the three hits.

Elias demonstrating how the shark bit the rudder. He asks us to retell the story of the how the shark attacked Pelagic, oh, two hundred times a day.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Nearly There

Well, if everything comes together in the next few hours we will be shoving off from Noumea, New Caledonia, bound for Australia. Will have to catch up on New Cal doings when we reach Oz, in about a week. Meanwhile, here's a post from Alisa.


I am doing an experiment to see if eating a hazelnut chocolate bar eases a sore back. So far so good, although an increased sample size might be needed. My back hurts from bending over a sewing machine for 2 hours this afternoon while stitching long patches on another boat’s mainsail. They were unlucky and got caught in a squall between Fiji and here that brought sustained winds of 60 kt for an hour. Stories like this give me the creeps and I find I have to remind myself that no one was injured and their boat is fine – therein telling myself that if it had been us, Pelagic also would have faired as well. Being in a crowded anchorage like this one in Noumea, New Caledonia, we are subjected to frequent electrified conversations regarding the weather and passage to Australia; along with this is the need for people to retell and elaborate on the misfortunes of the previous passage.

This next passage to Bundaberg will be our final passage on this trip and it is nearly 800 miles of offshore sailing, which I mostly enjoy. Today Mike made a point of telling me how glad he is that I am looking forward to our upcoming passage. Then he made some offhand comment about the large number of wives that we’ve met that fly from port to port and let their husbands sail the boat. True, our last passage between Fiji and New Caledonia was a challenge. The winds ranged from southeast 20 – 30 kt with steep seas that were on our beam. One night on the Pacific Seafarers Net I reported seas of 8 – 15 feet. Imagine trying to keep a 2-year old on his toilet seat that keeps sliding around as the boat pitches and heels. Every cabinet on the port side would spill its contents when opened; a quick reach for a screwdriver would lead to an avalanche of glue, varnish cans, tools on the cabin sole. I took my trusty seasickness pills that I discovered in Mexico – Stugeron – and managed down below with Elias. But due to the violent motion it was pretty much impossible to allow Elias to walk unaided. I had to strap him into his chair whenever I needed two hands for myself. He did not go into the cockpit for 3 days, poor kid. On top of it all, the deck leaks returned and we had a soaked v-berth and an unusable starboard settee. And did I mention that after lunch on the second day of our passage Mike got sick, vomited, and then passed out for the rest of the night. It was blowing 26 – 30 kt at the time but thankfully the boat was well tuned and the monitor was doing its job so I just had to watch for traffic and do minor sail adjustments while I tended to Elias and to Mike. As you can imagine, there were a few times during the passage when I thought longingly of that sweet little house on Kodiak that we sold.

Yarrr, but the ocean is a marvel, and to venture out on an 11 meter sailboat you have to accept that you will occasionally be reminded how very small you are. While I can do without the nausea, exhaustion and squalls, the salty night breeze and limitless sea-scape await. And at the end of the passage my tendency is to remember the bright moments and not dwell on discomfort. Each day progresses with amazing speed, and all the days of this voyage have zipped by. Have we really been gone for over a year? I miss my family and friends a great deal. My first purchase in Oz will be a cell phone. I am eager to return to yoga (cures a sore back better than chocolate) and fitness and be near a library for Elias who devours his books – and heck, maybe even a laundromat. But before we get there, we have a week of sailing to do. Onward and onward.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fiji, almost

We arrived in Fiji on September 17th and found ourselves for the first time facing the strict math of getting out of the tropics before the start of cyclone season. In order to be conservative we have long been planning on being in Australia by November 1. But Bundaberg, where we aim to enter Oz, is 1,500 miles from Suva, and we also had to plan on spending some time in New Caledonia on the way. What this all boiled down to is that we only had two weeks in Fiji. After months and months of wandering through the South Pacific mostly at our own pace, we were suddenly on a schedule.

No problem, we thought. We’ll just take care of a few chores in Suva and then identify a completely fantastic locale to visit for a week or so before we start thinking about heading west. We chose Kandavu Island, about fifty miles southeast of Suva. Our Lonely Guide said that Kandavu would be a great place to visit if only you could get there, and even better if only there were anywhere for a tourist to stay once there. For much of this trip we’ve used the Lonely Guide as a tool for deciding where not to go. If a place has a big write-up in the guidebook, with restaurant and accommodation choices organized by price, we figure that’s a place to leave to the unwashed masses who aren’t traveling the South Pacific by yacht. So Kandavu passed that test. Another yacht crew that had visited said it was great. Our bird guide listed tons of interesting species as resident there. And just north of Kandavu is the Great Astrolabe Reef. Just look at that name – Great Astrolabe Reef. Doesn’t that sound like the perfect place to park the yacht, mix up the rum punches, and catch up on your snorkeling?

We thought, Fiji in two weeks? No problem.

What actually happened reminded me of what happened to my mountain climbing career after I got a real job and began trying to squeeze Alaska Range climbs into two week vacations.

We left Suva with a forecast of northeast winds coming around to the southeast the following day. All well and good – since Kandavu is to the southeast of Suva, we would coast down on the northeasterlies and be safely snorkeling the Great Astrolabe Reef before the southeast headwinds came up.

But by the time we motored out of Suva Harbor, the winds were already blowing from the southeast. Blowing hard. Directly from Kandavu.

We were not going to tack back and forth into a near-gale, getting soaked and trying to feed, maintain and entertain a two year old in a world that was tilted over twenty degrees and bashing up and down ten feet every ten seconds.

So we eased the sheets and fell off for our back-up choice, Bengga Island. We figured we’d spend
a few days there and then head down to Kandavu once the weather was better.

This is the view from our anchorage at Bengga:

There was a village a little ways down the coast, and we rowed ashore to present sevusevu, the gift of kava root that outsiders traditionally present to a village chief when requesting permission to visit the surrounding area. We were met at the beach by a woman named Elizabeth. She told us the name of the village, and if I could find my notebook I would tell you, too. Everyone was very friendly. I found the chief and presented the sevusevu. Alisa and I then explained to Elizabeth that we were hoping to walk around and look at birds. Our expressed desire was clearly outside of Elizabeth’s experience of visitors to the village. “What kind of birds do you want to see?” she asked. “We have chickens. And pigs.”

We ended up trooping around the village with Elizabeth and her little kids, Alisa and I occasionally pointing our binoculars at birds in the trees. Houses in the village were really just shacks, but they did have the galvanized roofs and cement floors that are the defense against really absolute poverty in a rainforest environment like this one. The houses were clustered around a cement walkway, and as we passed people waved from whatever they were doing inside. The houses were open enough and close enough that people could talk from one to another in a normal voice. Elizabeth’s kids all had thick strings of mucous running from nose to mouth, and they of course all wanted to touch Elias and play with him. It was a very poor place, and gave the sense of being a real backwater, true or not I don’t know, but it felt like a place where people might go their lives without seeing the next village over. We walked around the village with our binoculars and we got a tour of the poverty of the place as much as we saw the local avifauna. And then we got back in the rowboat and retreated to Pelagic.

Elizabeth and Alisa and kids.

Birding Bengga Island.

After our visit to the village we stayed on Pelagic for a few days, blowing in circles around the anchor and listening to the rain fall. Elias got sick, his little lungs barking a cough during the night and snot running from his nose. Just as in Uiha, Tonga, where we couldn’t keep Eli from picking up pig turds in the street, we felt that we had crossed over our comfort threshold for travel with a two year old. The clouds fell low enough to be called mist and the days were gray and if I squinted my eyes our surroundings could almost look like some steep-sided lush glacial valley in southeast Alaska. Almost.

Bengga Island is home to a tradition of firewalking, a tradition that is now restricted to performances at a resort on the other side of the island. We have managed to avoid resort demonstrations of “traditional culture” all the way across the South Pacific. But when Monday rolled around, which was firewalking day at the resort, it was also our seventh wedding anniversary. So who could resist? We prepared to pick the hook and head over for a cook’s night out.

But then someone (the cook) had a Human Moment while trying to switch the battery from battery #2 to battery #1 and switched through OFF instead of through BOTH. This is a feature of our electrical system that British sailing magazines call “fail dangerous”; if you switch to OFF while the engine is running, even for a teeny moment, the alternator blows up.

So the alternator blew up.

And we spent the next hour swapping out alternators, and we had noodles and white wine on board Pelagic for our anniversary meal. And we listened to the rain fall. And the next day we gave up waiting for the weather to improve and sailed back to Suva.

In Suva we checked out of the country. Then we sailed overnight to the Mamanutha Islands, in western Fiji. Here there is a resort on every small island and several resorts on every big island. We anchored in front of a sleepy little resort where there were six paying guests and we were the only yacht. The staff was preparing for the arrival of three hundred guests from New Zealand in a few weeks but in the mean time they had plenty of time for us. Every man with a paintbrush in hand, sprucing things up for the big influx, had time to say hello and ask where we were from. This was a big change from Tonga, where we found people to be much more cautiously friendly. It gave us our one little insight into what a great place Fiji might be to visit, and how much more time we could profitably spend there. For a few days we looked at birds on the beach and snorkeled among great fish schools in bad visibility, and the weather continued to be stormy and gray and rainy. And then we left for New Caledonia.

The resort on Malolo Island.

For months we approached the South Pacific with ease and languor – 42 days to visit two islands in the Marquesas, three weeks to visit two islands in the Tuamotus. Arriving without any immediate plans to leave, we found the islands and people and reefs opening before us, taking us in and showing us more and more of this distant part of the world. Fiji was our first taste of a different kind of cruising, the kind that is often the fate of those people who are sailing all the way around the world in two or three years or who are sailing the world in a pre-scheduled group, as has become popular. We had time to see the capitol city, and to take care of the chores that had to be taken care of, and no time to wait out a spell of bad weather that kept us from experiencing the tropical ease of the country. So from Fiji we remember a particular smile at that last resort, and a cab ride to a curry house in Suva, and little else.

But who knows – we may be back.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008


We arrived in We, a delightfully named village in the Loyalty Islands, New Caledonia, yesterday. That puts the blog two countries out of date, further behind then we've ever been. I'll pick up the action as we're sailing from Tonga to Fiji. More in a week or so when we reach Noumea.


On the last day of our passage from Tonga to Fiji the butane bottle that we had been using since Tahiti finally gave out. We had been amazed at how long it had lasted – two months, twice as long as bottles normally last. We still had a nearly full bottle in reserve that, at the rate we seemed to be going through the butane, would last us all the way to Australia. “I guess that butane must just last longer than propane,” I said to Alisa.

Well, guess again: if something seems to be to good to be true… When the never-ending bottle finally ran out I went back to the gas locker in the lazarette to switch over to the second bottle and found that both bottles had been open, so we’d been drawing them down simultaneously. It was four in the afternoon, we couldn’t expect to reach Suva until the next morning, and we had no gas for cooking. Oops.

Alisa made Elias a fine repast of crackers, canned olives, canned corn and uncooked tofu. We luckily still had half a mahi mahi in the fridge, and so Alisa and I got the impetus that we have been needing to try sashimi. Luckily we have lots of wasabi and soy sauce and pickled ginger on board. Not bad at all.

We each stayed up half the night as we coasted in towards Suva, keeping our speed as low as possible with heavily reefed sails. We still arrived outside the harbor in the wee hours, and Alisa tacked us back and forth in the company of freighters and fishing boats that were also waiting for dawn to enter the harbor while I enjoyed a coma-like three hours’ sleep.

At dawn I ran the Fijian courtesy flag up to the starboard spreader and ran Pelagic in through the opening of the reef that guards Suva harbor. First light showed a thick layer of smoke hovering low over the waterfront. Suva has enough big buildings at its center to make it look like more of a city than anything we have seen since San Diego. Shipping dominated the waterfront. Modern foreign-flagged freighters unloaded at the king’s wharf downtown and a line of smaller ferries and local trading boats crowded the shipyard docks that stretched north. The hammering of steel hulls undergoing repairs was constant. The harbor water was covered with a rainbow, the thick scum of spilled petrochemicals.

We checked in with port control on the radio and proceeded to the quarantine anchorage. We raised the yellow quarantine flag and waited for our visit from the health inspector. I collapsed into a nap and woke to find the morning mists replaced by a blinding tropical day. Elias was antsy in the way that a two year old who is trapped on a 37 foot boat with two parents who can barely keep their eyes open is antsy. Lunchtime came and Alisa bravely produced another cold meal. Our stores were low, though, since we were planning on a big provisioning in Suva, and we were quickly running out of no-cook options. And we couldn’t make coffee or tea, a real blow to the person (me) who had been in the cockpit approximately twenty of the last twenty four hours, conning Pelagic in to shore, and to the person (Alisa) who had been conning Elias through the reefs and shoals of a two year old’s day during the same hours.

Since we had checked in with port control at seven in the morning we figured it would be no problem for us to clear into the country and still have time to get ashore and refill our butane tanks. But we had been waiting in the quarantine anchorage for five hours without any sign of official notice. I called port control on the radio and got the health inspectors’ phone number and began making a series of expensive sat phone calls, politely asking for clearance. The health and agriculture inspectors finally showed up on their big orange launch seven hours after we had arrived. We promised the agriculture inspector that we would not land our coconuts and limes from Tonga. For the health inspector, I filled out a wonderfully anachronistic form that appeared to be left over from the age of clipper ships. Among the questions I had to answer were: “Has there been on board during the voyage any case or suspected case of plague, cholera, yellow fever, smallpox?” and “Has plague occurred or been suspected among the rats or mice on board or has there been an unusual mortality among them?”. On the back of the form was a Declaration for the “particulars of every case of illness or death occurring on board”, including a space to note the Disposal for each case (“State whether still on board; landed at [give name of port]; buried at sea”).

More to the point, the health inspector, a smiling woman in her thirties, said, “I must tell you that there is an outbreak of dengue fever in Fiji.”

“Oh,” I said. “Where is that happening?”

She gave me a diffident look. “Mostly in the west and central regions.” Suva is in the east. No worries, I thought.

Our health clearance granted, we reanchored outside of the quarantine area and rowed in to the Royal Suva Yacht Club. Even though we reached the shore after four PM, I still managed to hop in a cab and get both butane bottles filled before Fiji Gas closed at four thirty. Any place where cooking gas is so quickly available wins very high marks from the cruising sailor, and this was an early plus for Suva to counter all the negative things we had heard.

Most east-bound yachts clear into Fiji in Savusavu, but we had to stop in Suva to collect some engine parts that had been shipped via DHL. It seems like everyone we met in our last weeks in Tonga was ready to tell us what a festering hole Suva was. Our cruising guides noted that thefts from anchored yachts were a real problem, and that the number of yachts visiting Suva was down markedly following the violence that attended coups in 2000 and 2006. And an online search for more information on dengue in Fiji revealed that the outbreak included Suva (something that will concern any parent traveling with a two year old) and that the Australian embassy had evacuated dependent personnel because of the continuing potential for political violence and a decline in law and order that had seen a rise in violent crime aimed at foreigners. Our Lonely Guide noted that for fear of crime locals always take cabs after dark, even for trips of 300 meters. Ugh.

But we ended up having a fine time. First of all, the taxis were plentiful and cheap. While this was a problem for the cabbies, who drove for thirteen or fourteen hours a day to make a go of it on a series of two and three dollar fares, it made Suva a logistical breeze for us. Usually we spend a lot of time getting to know our way around new towns, but in Suva we just jumped in and said, “King’s wharf, please!”, or “Fijian Affairs Board, please!”, or even, “Can you take us to a good curry restaurant?” From the perspective of the cabs we watched the pageant of the city reel by. We drove past the Suva market where shoeshines and cobblers and peddlers of pirated DVDs jostled for trade. We drove past the bus station, where threadbare porters sprinted with their wheelbarrows to claim a place by one of the baggage compartments of each arriving bus. Pedestrians waded out into the traffic, alternately stepping into the way and holding back, scowling, in obeisance to a complex of implicit rules of the road that I did not understand. And it all happened with the disorientation that came from sitting on the left-hand side, where the driver should have been, and observing the continuing string of surprises and violations of good sense that is city traffic in a drive-on-the-left country. I became concerned for our chances when we begin driving in Australia.

I had great chats with cabbies. My enthusiasm for a new place was obvious, and a series of drivers roused from the waking dream of their endless days behind the wheel as I asked questions about Suva and answered their own about Alaska. A Melanesian driver in sunglasses bemoaned the loss of ethnic Indians from Fiji. “If it goes like this for three years or five years my friend, there will be no Indians left in Fiji. This is a very big problem.” The Indians in Fiji are the descendants of laborers imported in the early days of the twentieth century who, generations later, have generally made a success of themselves in their new country, but are still called “Indians” instead of “Fijians”, are prohibited from owning land, and have been the victims of political persecution following the coups. An Indo-Fijian driver with eyes red-rimmed for want of sleep told me, “All you can do is go with the flow. If they want to charge you two more cents, you cannot fight over this two cents or you will go crazy. Go with the flow, that is all you can do. If you eat two meals a day instead of three, go with the flow.”

The Melanesian and Indian populations give Suva a feel of the east, a feel of Africa and Asia. The view of the other side of the harbor from the Suva waterfront is incredibly beautiful, high silhouetted mountains disappearing one after the other into the mists of distance. The constant traffic on the harbor is mirrored by the struggle and fury of the crowds on shore. And over it all hangs the stench of unstable politics and possible violence.

I made the rounds of officialdom, visiting immigration twice, customs three times, the Fijian Affairs Board and the Health Department once each. A sign positioned directly across the street from the Health Department, so that it was the first thing you saw upon walking out the door, advertised “Federated Funeral Directors. All sizes coffins. Hearses for hire.” At the waterfront I watched the container ships being unloaded, and the fleet of rusty, once-were-white Chinese fishing boats that were locally flagged – “Winning no. 6”, home port Suva; “Jui Der no. 36”, Vanuatu flag.

Alisa and Elias and I made the rounds of the local markets, provisioning the barky. The Royal Suva Yacht Club was our refuge and our home base, a faded relic of British Colonial days, now making a living on its bar and its facilities for various functions and events, the grounds gone tatty and the gleaming yachts maintained by cheap Native labor gone forever. We met a great South African family, mom and dad and sons four and six, circumnavigating from their adopted home on the U.S. East Coast, instant good friends who we enjoyed a fine meal with aboard Pelagic and then waved goodbye to forever the next day as they set off for Vanuatu. And Elias got mosquito-bitten, stunning Alisa and me with our failure to keep him safe from the threat of dengue. And then, after a failed bid to see the southern island of Kandavu that saw us weather-bound in the middle of nowhere for a few days, we decided that it was time to leave, and we returned to Suva for a last go at the markets and a last go at Singh’s Curry House and we cleared ourselves out of Fiji and sailed west.

The Suva waterfront.

The Royal Suva Yacht Club, our refugium.

Two side of provisioning in Suva – the supermarket…

… and the Suva Market.

The other side of Suva Harbor.