Monday, November 24, 2008

Living the Dream (and the Dream Lives)

I lounge under the dodger, out of the occasional spray. Every twelve minutes my watch alarm beeps and I rouse myself to scan the horizon for ships. Duty done, I reset the watch and slouch back full length on the cockpit seat. I doze, not even doing the work of entertaining any thoughts.

When my brain does flicker to life, it is to reflect on what a talent I have for bringing indolence to active adventures like ocean sailing. During my climbing career there were few who enjoyed a good storm day as much as me: long tent-bound days with nothing on the agenda but cups of tea and a paperback and endless naps in my muggy sleeping bag. I taste some of that old magic on the first few days of our passage to Australia, as I keep a lookout for hour after hour. This trip is starting off under overcast skies and with rough seas, just like all of our trips in the western tropical Pacific. Pelagic rolls and pitches. Water comes sweeping over the windward rail and goes streaming out of the low side scuppers. It’s a good day to keep my ambition firmly in check, to doze in twelve minute intervals and just let the time pass by.

Let others wonder how they might do something like this sail from Alaska to Australia. I do do it, as often as possible, resting on one elbow and stretched out full length in the cockpit. It seems to work for me.

Later in the day I stand on the coaming aft of the cockpit, one hand grasping the security of the stern rail, scanning the endless waves around us, seeing how big the world really is. There is some little job I should be doing on deck – shaking out a reef, or untangling the weather jib sheet from the anchor windlass. But first I’ll stand here for a few more minutes, looking at eternity.


We left Passe de Dumbea at dusk, wondering if we would get away with just one more passage without any of the “bad day at the office” type experiences that some of our friends have run into, like an hour of reported 60 knot winds in a squall on the way to New Caledonia.

The wind models from the Australian meteorological service had shown light and variable winds parallel to the coast of Grande Terre, the main island of New Caledonia, and then a sharp shift into the 25 knot southeasterlies that stretched all the way to Australia. Exhausted from our hard push to get out of Noumea, and deflated after the exhilaration of departure, I skipped the production of rigging ourselves wing-and-wing and let the ship find her way under jib alone. I set up the windvane to steer us on a course to the south of where we wanted to go. That kept the wind a little forward of the stern, enough for us to maintain speed and self-steer. When the wind is this light and right on the stern we move slowly, the windvane begins to have problems, and I stay up half the night adjusting things. Getting a little farther to the south would also put the southeasterlies aft of our beam when they came, guaranteeing us a fast and comfortable ride.

The next day we did reach the trades, but found they were south-southeasterlies instead of southeasterlies. This meant that we had the wind forward of our beam, just as we did on the sail from Fiji to New Caledonia. And, just like the sail from Fiji to New Cal, the decks were awash and the cabin got soaked forward and to starboard by our old friend the leaking caprails. My band aid caulk job in Noumea evidently hadn’t done the trick. And, just like the trip from Fiji to New Cal, I found myself with the numb feeling in my face that is my first symptom of seasickness, and then I was on my knees in the cockpit, spewing downwind like a good sailor spews.

“Oof,” I said to Alisa after regaining my equanimity. “I think the lesson may be that we shouldn’t be so cavalier about setting off into 25 knot winds.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “We knew it would be like this. It really isn’t that big a deal.”

Even though we had had a fairly miserable time on the passage from Fiji, with a soaked interior and sea conditions that required constant vigilance over Elias’ safety, Alisa had been completely unfazed by the imminent passage to Australia, bringing to bear the “get ‘er done” attitude to seafaring that she picked up from her time on commercial fishing boats in Alaska. It had been Alisa who had been the main driver for overcoming port inertia in Noumea and getting us back to sea quickly. We know of a lot of boats that are finishing their cruise across the Pacific with the wife flying ahead to New Zealand and the husband making the passage from Fiji or Tonga with friends or casual crew. It’s hard to overstate how different this is from our approach on Pelagic. Different things work for different people, but we can’t imagine setting out on a trip that we know in advance won’t be sailed by both of us. Pelagic only goes with both of us, where both of us want to go. With the boat being so much our home, and this adventure so much the current version of our shared lives, there is no other way.

Which brings me to the answer that I’ve imagined for anyone who might ask for advice on sailing the world on a small boat. You could do it without my wife on board, I would say. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

Later we reflected on an acquaintance boat that had gone on the reef in Fiji and, according to the grapevine, suffered fairly substantial damage to their rudder. The wife had flown home while the husband had stayed behind to organize repairs. “I’ll tell you his first mistake,” I said to Alisa. “If you’re going to sail the world with your wife, make sure you sell your house so there’s nowhere for her to fly back to.”


After a couple days of uncomfortable sailing the wind backed from south-southeast to southeast, and everything changed for the better. With the wind further behind us, Pelagic was able to stand up and sail on her feet. We picked up a westbound current that boosted our speed by as much as a knot, and found ourselves back in the effortless passagemaking that we first experienced sailing from Mexico to the Marquesas. Pelagic danced over the seas. The waves, tamed by the following current, gave the boat just enough back and forth motion to lull us, ease us, sooth us. Storm petrels fluttered off the stern. The GPS showed our speed as anything between 6.6 knots and an otherworldly 8.5. Elias went down for his nap and Alisa and I enjoyed the rare freedom of relaxing in the cockpit without worrying over his safety. Everything was sunny and blue, the world was perfect and it was ours.

The shortwave carried news of a worldwide financial crisis. It sounded impossibly abstract – toxic debt, bailouts, credit lockup. Somewhere, on some computer, we had investment accounts that were suffering. But that was all part of a pretend world, a parallel universe for people who don’t get outside much.

Night found us only three hundred miles away from our landfall in Bundaberg. Our previous noon to noon run had been 160 miles, a stellar pace. I began doing the arithmetic in my head to calculate what it would take to get us into port in time to clear in during business hours in two days’ time. Liking the answer I got, I began tweaking sails in search of an extra quarter knot to give us a cushion against dying wind. Throughout the trip I have been cautious about speaking my greatest fear aloud, that Elias might be injured when we were far from help. Now I found myself counting down the hours until the passage would be over and I wouldn’t need to live with that one particular worry.
Sharing the last coconut of the Pacific crossing.

The next day the trades failed. The wind speed dropped and the wind came right onto our stern, where it did us little good. We left the favorable current and sailed into a giant eddy that gave us a contrary current. We were making four and a half knots through the water, and a dismal four over the ground. We began motorsailing, picking up an extra couple of knots. For a while the windvane was able to steer us, but then the wind became too light and I started to handsteer. Elias went down for his nap and Alisa gave me a spell.

After she got the feel for the motion and the rhythm of responding to the waves with the wheel she looked at me and said, apropos of nothing in particular, and everything in general, “You know, I’m not ready to stop sailing. We’ve got to keep going for a few more years.”

On this blog I have tried to tell the story of our trip as truly as possible, without either overselling the good or dwelling too much on the bad. It’s been interesting to watch the relationship between the story that I have wanted to tell, and thought I was telling, and the story that the blog’s readers have come away with. Throughout the trip, and especially early on, we were getting supporting emails, both from people we knew well and from strangers, telling us to keep up the fight, to see it through, to trust that a better day was coming. “Hmm, that’s very nice,” I would always think. “But things haven’t been that tough.”

There have of course been the inevitable challenges of an abrupt overhaul in lifestyle. But we remind ourselves that we would have also faced real problems, real challenges, if we had decided to keep living in our house and working our two jobs while we raised Elias. Those problems are mundane and they don’t make for riveting reading on a blog. But the problems of staying at home are real, especially for someone like me who always has to see the other side of the mountain, or the next bay along the coast, or the tropical islands five thousand miles away.

This is all to say that while sailing across the Pacific took a hell of a lot of work, and some serious readjusting to new realities, our life afloat hasn’t necessarily been harder than life ashore would have been. But at the same time I have always been conscious of the fact that it was my dream we were following. Alisa has bought into the dream completely, and has thrived in her life aboard. But I have always been aware that she gave up a lot to go to sea.

Which is why it was so great to hear Alisa, unprompted, say that she wants our family life to continue afloat.

In the last months of our Pacific crossing we talked more and more about other possible trips we might make. Having Australia as our firm goal on this trip has freed us from the tyranny of endless choice between equally wonderful destinations that has caught other crews we know. If we are to keep sailing, we’ll need a new goal. Continuing right around the world is an obvious choice, but where’s the adventure in that? Pretty much any dunderhead can circumnavigate. Alisa and I both love high latitude places, and for months now we’ve talked over the idea of sailing to Patagonia.

But of course a hundred things play into the choice of our next cruise, or even if there will be another one. We’ll be operating under the constraints of sailing with a small child for years to come, there’s the eternal question of finances, we both want to get back to Alaska while we still have a few good ski trips left in us, etc., etc. It’s complicated. A few times I’ve tried to get Alisa to shake hands on the idea of sailing to Patagonia, but she always refuses. To her, committing to a trip like that means that she’ll do everything she can to make it work, bring everything to bear to make the trip succeed. She’s not ready to give that kind of commitment yet. And neither am I. I suppose.


The sun set on our last day at sea. It fell over the vastness of Australia, still out of our sight to the west, and silhouetted the tankers that were paraded up and down the shipping lanes along the eastern seaboard of Oz. I got out the camera and started snapping away like a tourist. After watching the sun set out of sight of land a hundred times, I’m suddenly not sure when I’ll see this simple miracle again. For the last sixteen months we’ve always lived in the company of our next passage: talking to other sailors about it, plotting it out on the chart, considering patterns of wind and weather, making lists of tasks that must be completed before leaving, working away to get half of them actually done, reading about our destination, considering what the people might be like, how expensive it might be to live, what the history and natural history have to offer us; everything involved in making another relocation on our endless shift from here to there. And now, we have no idea when our next passage might be.


At dawn land was still out of sight. But rays of light seemed to spring upwards from the western horizon, through a scurze of purple-brown atmospheric haze, giving us an indication of the vast landmass ahead. As if the huge desert landscape of this continent were a jewel floating in the ocean and casting its own light heavenwards. What would a lookout at the masthead of Captain Cook’s ship make of the sight? Would he have hesitated before hailing the deck, trying to make sense of what he saw? Or would he have sung out with joy and certainty?

Excitement at our arrival animated every brief conversation between Alisa and me, enlivened every routine task. For years we dreamed of the day when we would set out from home on a small boat to sail to Australia. It seemed that day would never arrive, would never be as real as all the sleepy, half-pointless days that came along with such regularity in our life of routine. And then it did come, and we left. Then we had a new day to dream about, the day we would make landfall in Oz. That day, too, seemed unlikely to ever arrive. As we traveled onwards and onwards it stayed stuck in the unknowable future. And now that day was here, it was today, we were living in the midst of it. But we still couldn’t see Australia, and without that all-important visual, our arrival seemed hypothetical and uncertain. We tried to convince ourselves that we really were reaching the end of the trip, that we really had sailed the boat almost all the way from Alaska to Australia. Neither of us quite believed it.

Nineteen miles from Australia and we still had no sight of that low continent. I raised the courtesy and quarantine flags and went below to catch up on sleep lost the night before when we conned our way around the northern end of Fraser Island. While I slept Alisa saw Australia and called out a sotto voce “Land ho!” to let me rest. When I woke we went through a mad dash to shower ourselves and clean up the boat for our arrival. Before we knew it we were motoring up the Burnett River to Port Bundaberg.

Raising the Australian courtesy flag and the yellow quarantine flag.

My Uncle Ken and Auntie Marge had been haunting the marina for a couple of days, looking for us. And right after we tied up at the quarantine dock, there they were on the other side of the locked gate, waving at us. How nice to be greeted by family.

Since Alisa holds a resident visa and I am an Australian citizen, there was some chance that Customs would require us to pay import duties on Pelagic, at a stinging 17% of assessed value. There was also some chance that the Quarantine folks could require us to haul out and repaint the bottom within a week of arrival – good for preventing the introduction of exotics into Australian ecosystems, terribly inconvenient for us.

So we were a little more nervous than usual when the three officials (two customs agents, one quarantine) came aboard. Rebecca, the “good cop” customs agent, sat down with me in the saloon to go over our various forms while Rory, the “bad cop” customs agent (all shaved head and biceps) asked, “Mind if I have a look around?” and started poking through the boat.

Rory spent most of his time up forward, where Elias sleeps at sea and Alisa and I sleep at port. It’s a personal space, a place where normally no one has any right to go. Although we had nothing to hide, it made me incredibly nervous to watch this stranger go through our clothes lockers and rifle through the storage space beneath our mattress. I tried to keep an eye on whatever he was examining, but at the same time I was trying to make eye contact with Rebecca, especially when she started asking about the criteria that would determine if we were liable for import duties. Meanwhile the quarantine agent was asking Alisa about our inventory of dried foods, I was trying to fill out the rest of our small craft arrival form, and Elias was running around in the tiny space, now filled with five adults, imitating the shark that had attacked our windvane two nights before.

In the midst of all this madness I noticed that Rory had found something up forward. His back was towards me, so I couldn’t see what he was holding, but he was studying whatever it was closely.

“So, what’s the story, Michael?” Rebecca asked. “How long will you be in Australia?”

Don’t look nervous, I said to myself. Make eye contact. Remember that they are trained to hone in on unease. But what the hell did Rory find?

“Oh, a year. Then we’re off to New Zealand”

“That’s OK then. Don’t worry about the serial numbers on those forms.”

I risked another glance at Rory. He turned towards me slightly, just enough for me to see what he was holding.

He had found one of Elias’ favorite books: Hippos Go Berserk. And he was reading through it, page by page, all the way to the end.

At that point I figured that we had nothing to fear from Australian officialdom.

As soon as we were cleared in we went through the quarantine gate and had a great chat with Ken and Marge. They soon had to run back home. We were spending the night at the customs dock and didn’t have to worry about moving the boat, so we decided to take a walk before dark and stretch out our legs after six days on board.

A few hundred yards down the road we came to a meadow that had been surveyed for new development. We walked past the no trespassing sign erected by the Bundaberg Port Authority. And there, fifty meters or so away, was a mob of eight kangaroos, probably eastern gray kangaroos, Macropus giganteus.

The sugar cane fields to the west were burning, their smoke spiraling upwards in purple plumes against the setting sun. The low light picked the kangaroos out against the field as they stood erect, staring at us. Alisa looked back at them through binoculars. Elias rested in my arms and pointed at the mob. “Kangaroos!” he said. “One two three five eight nine ten!” He looked back at me and finished with, “Wow!”.

Alisa and Elias of course had never seen wild kangaroos before, or any kangaroos. We had been ashore less than an hour.

“What a welcome to Australia,” Alisa said.

Poppin’ the Dom. Trip’s end, Port Bundaberg customs dock.


We’ve been in the country almost a month now. Our first days were a whirlwind of family visits and the silly housekeeping tasks that are always one of the main pursuits of life. It didn’t of course quite feel real to be here. Surely there was something more momentous waiting for us at the end of all that sailing?

Now, a month later, it still isn’t real. Aside from a delightful week-long cruise with my Dad, we have been spending our time in soul-less, overdeveloped coastal towns where it’s possible to dock Pelagic at a marina or anchor in a river. We’re having fun visiting family, and are having an especially great time now that my immediate family from the States has come down for two weeks. But I can’t shake the feeling that this first month in Australia has been like the first semester at college, when you hang out with people who you never see again after you make good friends. Whatever place we do settle in will presumably be very different from anything that we’ve seen so far. To really find our place here we’ll have to do some serious exploring of the continent. We’re hoping to do a Christmas cruise on Pelagic and a whole series of car-camping trips inland. We have everything to learn about this place, and natural history is such an important part of our worldview, so we’ll have to figure out the snakes and the birds and the marsupials and the platypuses and the major habitat types and the good swimming holes and so on and so on. We can already feel what a treat it will be to be biologists in the midst of the independent evolutionary experiment that is Australia, where everything is new and strange. And we’ll have to meet our people, find like-minded friends among the undifferentiated mass of Australians that passes before us every day.

And while we visit with family and think about exploring the continent, we’re also going through the nuts and bolts process of getting settled. I applied for a job already, although I hadn’t even started looking for one, and we’ve all gotten the Medicare cards that get us into the national health system. We’ll look up one day and find that life has moved forward on us and that Australia is, if not exactly home, then a place where we know how we fit in, however imperfectly we might understand it as a whole.

Pelagic in the bosom of family – Uncle Darryll, my dad, and Uncle Ken in the cockpit.

We look back at the life we left behind in Kodiak and marvel – it feels like a life that was led by somebody else, in a distant time.

I remember going to Yosemite Valley years ago to meet up with good friends who had biked there all the way from Fairbanks, and were continuing on to South America. Hanging out with them in Camp 4, the famous climbers’ campground, I marveled at how travel-hardened they had become from living on the road for months, camping all the way.

That’s us now. We talk about visiting Lord Howe Island, three hundred miles or so off the Australian coast, and think nothing at all about the sailing involved. Right now, in the middle of visiting with my family, we could be ready to put to sea for three days if you gave us an hour to prepare. If you gave us a day to get ready, we could put to sea for a month. It’s hard to explain how much this trip has changed us in part because it’s hard to remember what it was like to be back home, dreaming about sailing the world and wondering what it would be like to travel far from the beaten track with a two year old. Just as we can’t recognize our old lives, our old selves back in Kodiak wouldn’t quite recognize the people we have become.

Now that we have served this year and a half apprenticeship, sailing to any one place would be as easy, and possible, as sailing to any other – Ecuador or Europe, South Africa or Singapore. We have worked the trick of reclaiming the feeling of endless possibility that hasn’t been part of our lives since we moved to Alaska in our early twenties.

A year and a half ago we walked away from two good jobs and a cozy house and the condition of being known quantities among a community of friends. For a year and a half we lived by our wits, keeping one step ahead of a toddler and the deep blue sea. And now we look back on that departure a year and a half ago and realize that we gave up all the security in the world.

We gave up all the security in the world and received, in return, something far better.

The world.

Friday, November 14, 2008


“It’s October 14th. My Dad’s and brother’s birthday is the 16th. I was just saying to myself, wow, it’s October 1st. And now all of a sudden it’s two weeks later. It’s crazy.”
“It would go faster if we’d stayed at home.”
“You think?”
“Sure. If we’d stayed home we’d be sixty by now.”


Until 2006, the only port of entry for New Caledonia was Noumea, the capitol, which is on the western side of Grande Terre, the main island. So boats making the tradewind passage from Fiji or Vanuatu had to sail past the Loyalty Islands and the Isle of Pines, two of the premier cruising areas, to go check into the country, and then were faced with an upwind trip to get back to those places. So it is a change for the better that we could check into Lifou, in the Loyalties. But the rules required us to make our final clearance at Noumea within a week, so we weren’t completely at liberty. While we spent a couple days in Lifou drying out Pelagic after the passage from Fiji, we talked about going up to Ouvea, an atoll in the Loyalty group, for one last hit of the atoll living that we had loved so much in the Tuamotus.

A quick look at the distances on the charts, and reflection on how a strong southeasterly would make it so hard to get from the Loyalties to Noumea, put that plan to rest. With Ouvea out of reach, we realized that atolls were suddenly a thing of the past for us, at least until our next set of tropical passages comes along. Dear reader, let that be a metaphor for everything that you find beautiful or worthwhile in life: for a while there, in the misty recesses of time (you know, back in June 2008), we were living an atoll to atoll existence. The Pacific stretched out endlessly before us. We had plenty of time to learn about harvesting coconuts, and there would be lots more times when we would sit on the beach and look through the reef fish field guide with Elias to identify the multicolored-wonder we had just seen. And then, suddenly, it was all over.

Our consolation would be the Isle of Pines, which was conveniently on the way from Lifou to Noumea, and is meant to be one of the jewels of New Caledonia.

We had a great overnight sail to get there, close reaching into a whisper-smooth twelve knot breeze. In the morning we woke up in the company of old friends – flocks of thousands of either short-tailed or sooty shearwaters (I never learned to tell them apart). These two species are the most abundant birds in Alaska, and, according to something I read somewhere, sometime, may be the most numerous wild birds in the whole world. In the Austral winter they migrate to the Bering Sea, where there are contemporary, reliable accounts of flocks so big that they take days to fly past. Then they return to Tasmania and New Zealand for their breeding season, where they feed their chicks in the nest with a strategy of alternate short local foraging trips and massive, 1500 km foraging trips to Antarctica. Very cool birds. They were congregating over the turbulent water in the reef passes between Grande Terre and the Isle of Pines, looking for a meal after the ordeal of their migration all the way from Alaska. They follow a soutwards path similar to our own, first down the west coast of North America before striking out to the west. I was surprised at how touched I was to see these little seabirds that are also dual residents of Alaska and Australia, and who were also approaching their final leg of their trip. We used to see shearwaters at the end of the summer during the five years Alisa and I worked in Kachemak Bay, and I used to watch the endless string of their passing flocks through binoculars from the hilltop vantage point of the UCSC campus when I was in grad school. Seeing these familiar birds from the decks of Pelagic was a great confirmation of life lived at a global scale.


Our goals for the Isle of Pines were simple: a beach for Elias and a coral reef for us. We ended up with just the beach. We found the anchorages in our cruising guide full of yachts, so settled for a spot off of a little deserted island with no other boats at anchor and a nice beach for the family, but no coral. So suddenly snorkeling was a thing of the past for us, too.

We settled into a lazy routine, going ashore every morning with Elias, getting him back in time for lunch and a nap, and spending the rest of the day on the boat. “It’s embarrassing how quickly these days go past,” Alisa said. We reveled in the slow pace, knowing that we’d get busy again once we hit Noumea and started preparing for our last passage of the trip.

Preferred beach activities for 2 year olds and 40 year olds.
And there were some natural history delights to keep us entertained. We saw our first sea snake, swimming along next to the hull as we were dropping the anchor. Didn’t get a picture then, but did see several more ashore on the island, and got this picture of at least two of them entwined in a crevice in the upraised limestone that ran behind the beach.
Sea snakes on the beach. One head is just visible in the upper left-hand corner. Check out the tick that has attached itself to the eye of the snake on the right. This is one of those times when it would be really useful for a snake to have hands.
And there was great birding on the island, reflecting the presence of the large landmass of Grande Terre island just a few miles away, as well as the east-west gradient of land bird diversity in the tropical Pacific. I was very happy with this photo of what we think is a silvereye, Zosterops lateralis.

We moved on to Noumea, making the trip in two easy days. The earth of southern Grande Terre was red and the brush was silver-grey, reminding us of the vast Australian landmass ahead of us. We found the harbor at Noumea thick with yachts, many of which were joining a scheduled cruising rally to Bundaberg. These events are becoming more and more popular – pre-scheduled, group passages ranging from a single leg, like this one, to complete round-the-world voyages. What the allure might be I cannot begin to guess.

We talked to some boats we knew and started hearing things like, “The wind’s supposed to peak at 24 knots in five days, but that’ll probably be 30”, or, “There’s going to be a westerly swell, and the period is supposed to drop to six seconds four days from now, so it’s a bad time to leave.” How they could know the weather in such detail so many days out, we hadn’t a clue.

We could feel a big group grope coming along as all the Bundaberg-bound boats in the rally started trying to choose the very best time to leave on the 790 mile crossing. There’s something about leaving a safe harbor that gets very difficult once people start trading weather rumors. And at this point in the trip across the Pacific everyone knows a boat or two that has run into weather bad enough to break rigging or rip sails, and it was only natural for people to feel a bit of suspense over this last passage before the cyclone season hiatus, wondering if they’d get away with an easy trip just one more time.

We wanted to avoid that scene, mostly because we know we’re as susceptible to the psychology as anyone else. And we didn’t want to be trying to check into Bundaberg while all the rally boats were arriving. And the harbor in Noumea stank of sewage and the local Melanesians, the kanaks, gave us the same greasy eyeball that they give to the French. The racial tension and urban dislocation of traditional culture were palpable. While tension between Melanesians and Indo-Fijians in Suva was obvious, it didn’t have anything to do with us. But in Noumea being white was enough to get us involved – nothing overt, just that unspoken tension and a very noticeable reluctance for any Melanesian to make eye contact.

So we availed ourselves of the sailor’s great prerogative when things aren’t quite to liking on shore, the prerogative to just put up the sails and bugger off. Let other boats go through the indecision of “should we go or shouldn’t we?”. Let other people stare at weather faxes and GRIB files and worry about squalls and lows and squash zones. Let the tourists pay the high prices for the dubious honor of staying in this colonial city. We were going sailing.

We made one final pre-departure push, much like the pre-departure pushes that have kept us up late in every port we’ve left since Kodiak. Alisa provisioned the boat and I dealt with the bureaucrats and laid a new bead of caulk inside and outside the cap rail, hoping to staunch our recurring indoor Niagara Falls if we ended up in sloppy weather. Alisa took Elias on his long-promised visit to the aquarium and he ran around outside the shark tank, holding his hand over his head like a dorsal fin and doing his “dun-dun-dun-duh” imitation of the theme from Jaws and scaring the little girls. I pulled the dinghy around the perimeter of Pelagic and gave the waterline one last scrub, mindful that the Australian quarantine authorities can require fouled boats to haul out and repaint to limit the introduction of exotic organisms. I watched other skippers in the stinking harbor water, scrub brush in hand, and enjoyed my moment of smugness over having cleaned off the bottom in the clean waters of the Isle of Pines.

Friday was coming, and we still don’t leave port on a Friday, so one final push on Thursday saw Alisa grabbing some final food items for the crossing and me speed-walking the rounds of officialdom in the punishing tropical humidity, and then both of us winching the dinghy onto deck while Elias took his after-lunch nap.

“I’m exhausted,” I told Alisa. “Maybe we’ll just get out of town and anchor up somewhere.”

“Fine with me,” she said. “That counts as starting the trip on Thursday.”

The harbor patrol came by and made outlying yachts squeeze into the already-crowded anchorage outside the marina. We picked the hook and gave thanks that Elias didn’t wake up, then steered through the anchored fleet, waving to boats we knew.

And then the excitement hit us.

“I can’t believe we’re sailing to Australia!” Alisa said.

Elias came up into the cockpit and watched Noumea disappearing over the stern. We would have just enough time to get out through the reef pass before dark. We were energized, all thoughts of anchoring for the night forgotten. I cracked a beer and picked our way around the shoals between Noumea and the open ocean.

We pulled through the pass. A sport fishing boat went the other way, hurrying to be back in town by nightfall. The water was grey beneath the western Pacific overcast that had been following us since Fiji. Shearwaters swarmed over prey schools in the current. I put up the main and Alisa went below to feed Elias his dinner. The sun set in front of us. I set the windvane and Pelagic ventured out on the nighttime ocean. We were sailing to Australia.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

New Caledonia. Already?

We’re deep in our earliest experiences as Australian immigrants of sorts. Things have been especially picaresque for Alisa, who has little or no context to go on. So, for instance, the already-famous misunderstanding over the word “thong” that arose on our second day here. Tonight we had some family over to the boat for dinner (“tea”), and my uncle Slim greeted Alisa with a big hug and an enthusiastic, “You’re a good-lookin’ Sheila!” After the night was over Alisa said, “That was the first time I was ever called ‘Sheila’ to my face. How sweet.”

All the goings on have slowed up the writing, but here’s some fresh product: the action commences with Pelagic leaving Fiji, bound for New Caledonia.


I’ll start with this picture, from a different passage than the one that I’m about to describe. A mahi mahi has just come aboard, the captain is smiling, the wind is behind us and we’re sailing on an even keel. We are completely divorced from the larger world, all we know is what we see within the horizon that encircles us, and all is well.

Our trip from Fiji to New Caledonia turned out to be the other kind of passage.

As we motored from our anchorage off the resort on the Fijian island of Malolo Leilei, it was blowing hard enough to send sheets of spray over the dodger and into the cockpit, soaking me. The passage to New Caledonia would be almost seven hundred miles long. We had an initial forecast of 25 knot winds out of the southeast. Twenty five knots of wind on the open ocean makes for rowdy conditions on a 37 foot boat. But, travel-hardened as we’ve become by this point, we didn’t mind. The wind would be behind us, and it had been blowing 25 for most of the two weeks that we had been in Fiji. We figured that if we wanted to wait for perfect conditions we would likely never leave.

When we reached the reef pass that gave access to the ocean, a critical flaw in our reasoning asserted itself. I pointed the bow towards New Caledonia, and the wind wasn’t behind us. There was just enough south in the wind direction to be a little forward of the beam – in non-sailor talk, we would be sailing into the wind just a little bit.

This would mean that the ride would be significantly less comfortable. We’d be heeling over and traveling into the waves instead of with them, which would make the ups and downs of the sea harder to bear. We’d have to be super-careful with Eli to guard against the chance of him hurting himself in a fall as Pelagic charged up and down wave after wave, day after day.

But again, we weren’t too concerned. So we’d be going a bit to windward. That’s life on the big blue Pacific. As the sun sank to the west and we cleared the breakers on the reef I made sail. First task was to unroll the jib, which is easily done from the cockpit and allows us to get underway and set up the windvane to steer the boat. As soon as the jib was out Pelagic heeled away from the wind and threw up a bow wave. We started making time towards our destination. Alisa was down below, getting Elias his dinner, immersed again in the hundred provocations and frustrations that routine tasks of cooking and cleaning and getting a two year old to use a toilet become on a sailing yacht in a seaway. I clipped in my deck harness and went up to the mast to get the main ready to go up. I wedged myself into the low side granny bars, a secure spot where you can work on the lines coming off the mast with both hands. And then I did nothing for a few minutes, just felt the sloping deck move beneath me and the occasional shot of spray across my face and looked at the tropical dusk falling over the wild ocean that would be our home for the next six days. One of my favorite parts of ocean sailing is hypnotic moments like this one, when I become effortlessly mesmerized by the interacting pattern and chaos of the ocean’s movements. I think it must be the kind of feeling that people are looking for from meditation.

In the midst of this reverie I saw a big torpedo shape moving down the inside of a wave, heading for the windward side of Pelagic’s bows. It was a cetacean too big to be a dolphin, the color of pewter beneath the black water of almost-night. It swam under Pelagic and a few minutes later I saw two of the animals on our downwind side, swimming back towards us, big black melon heads and falcate dorsal fins revealed each time they came up to breath. Pilot whales, I thought. Something I’ve never seen before.

I wanted to tell Alisa to come up and look, but figured they’d be gone before I could get to the cockpit. But then she did come up to the cockpit to check on me. I told her about the whales and she just missed seeing one of them breach behind us, its long kettle-black body suspended almost completely out of the water, hanging for a perfect moment above the spray and worry of the tossing sea surface. And then they were gone. The breach gave me the perfect look that is so often missing when you’re trying to identify an unfamiliar marine mammal. Elias and I checked the field guide after dinner and the animals turned out to be false killer whales, Pseudorca crassidens.

So that was nice.

With main and jib up we plowed through the night time ocean, dodging the occasional fishing boat out of Suva. It was a wet ride. Pelagic sent sheets of spray up into the air each time we crashed into a wave and the wind carried them horizontally across our decks. Every surface forward - jib, rigging, anchor windlass, lifelines and stanchions - ran with flowing seawater. The deck drains on the low side of the boat gurgled with gallons of clear water that were constantly flowing through them. And when the wind and waves came together to put all their force at once onto Pelagic she reacted with an animal’s instinct of the proper time to bow before superior force, rolling away from the inanimate, clawing sea and dipping her low side rail deep beneath the waves until the moment passed and she could swim upright again. This went on, hour after hour, all through the night, and all through the days and nights that followed, without any reprieve.

And then the problem revealed itself – the fly in the ointment, the worm at the bottom of the bottle. Faithful “Once In a Lifetime” readers will remember that our first significant passage of this trip, from southeast Alaska to Washington state, which incidentally feels about two lifetimes ago at this point, was plagued (PLAGUED!) by deck leaks. We had had a long section of caprail replaced before leaving Kodiak, it wasn’t properly sealed, and as a result she leaked like a screen door when going to windward. I put a bead of caulk on both sides of the new rail in Port Townsend, and that took care of the leaks for a year or more. Well, caulk sticks to oily teak for only so long, it appears, and those leaks under the caprail were back. But we’ve been sailing down the tradewinds, so the wind has been almost constantly behind us, the decks have stayed dry as a result, and we were happy in our ignorance of how big the problem had become.

Then this windward passage came along. The double bunk forward where Elias sleeps at sea became soaked and unusable. The starboard bunk in the saloon where Alisa sleeps at sea became soaked and unusable. My clothes locker got soaked, and, since I couldn’t leave the door to the locker open without all its contents spilling out, the door stayed shut so that my soaked clothes could mildew in peace.

Just as we had on the passage to Washington, we retreated to the half of the boat that was usable. Being more travel-hardened now than we were then, we were able to shrug the situation off to a certain degree and just get on with it. I was reminded at one point of the terminology of my mountain climbing days. Back then we were in the habit of setting off into unvisited corners of the Alaska Range in groups of two, with no communication with the outside world and no more gear and supplies than we could easily carry. Thus dubiously positioned for success in a notoriously inimical environment, we would attempt to climb some mountain or another that no one had ever heard of, by a route that no one had ever tried before. Sometimes this was a lot of fun, and other times things went well wrong. Being crazy enough to get ourselves into these situations in the first place, we had a name for these “other times” that reflected the devil-may-care bravado that we hoped to bring to the whole affair. We called them “suckfests”, and we brought a certain connoisseur’s enjoyment to them, particularly when they happened to someone else.

Our passage from Fiji to New Caledonia would have been a routine trip, but the deck leaks turned it into a suckfest. A suckfest with a two year old. A suckfest with a two year old that was happening to us, not to someone else.

There is a timelessness to these passages. Things cease to happen one after the other in a linear, forty hour workweek kind of way. Time just becomes another ocean that we are sailing across. We’re somewhere in it, we were at the beginning of it at some other time, and likewise we’ll be at the end of it, sometime. But for the right now, we just find ourselves afloat on the shifting surface of an ocean of time, with the shores of beginning and end out of sight. When things are going well, this is one of the most rewarding and sublime aspects of our whole sailing life, as close as a skeptic might ever get to something like a spiritual existence.

When things are going poorly, the timelessness just stretches out towards a horizon where continuity and the reassuring flow of events will re-establish itself. You can imagine that horizon you must reach before time will start flowing again, but you can’t see it. You hope for it, but despair of ever reaching it. And meanwhile you’re stuck in the eternal now.

So things happened as we went about the rote activities of our days and nights, timeless day after timeless day. Once I watched Elias, who was reading books on the cabin sole up forward while Alisa made our daily call to the Pacific Seafarers’ ham net. The boat was closed and airless. The bow was an anti-gravity chamber. Elias read. I got sick. After Alisa was done with the net I went upstairs and vomited. A convenient thing to do under these conditions, as it turns out. No need to actually lean over the lifelines and hurl into the ocean – I just slumped on the cockpit seat, comfortable in my misery, leaned over the coaming, and got sick on the side deck. The waves that washed over the deck every fifteen seconds had things cleaned up four times over by the time I was through, all evidence of my infirmity efficiently removed by sparkling saltwater.

The next day on our timeless round of days I spent collapsed in the saloon bunk that was still dry. I didn’t quite feel seasick – no nausea, none of the relief that I usually find from seasickness when I hit the refuge of the rack. I just lay there, big strong dude that I am, arm over eyes, bereft of all strength, content to be ill and useless. I listlessly thought back to my one experience of commercial fishing, which, as it happens, was Bering Sea crabbing in Force 10 conditions. Boats one hundred and forty feet long were rolling violently enough to show us the view down their stacks at one moment and the bottom of their keels the next. I had been seasick on the trip from Kodiak out to the Aleutians before the season, but once the crabbing began there was nothing, either in force or in evidence, that would keep me from doing my part to work through the season with the rest of the crew. I wasn’t sick for one second of the five day season.

I thought back to that time and wondered, did I rise above myself for the five other men on that boat in a way that I am not doing now for my own wife and son in this boat? Alisa looked at me with concern and then got onto the business of managing boat and toddler, alone, far from land.

I stayed sick, and started to think of all the times I’ve been laid out on passage since we left Mexico, some of them in conjunction with the symptoms of seasickness, others clearly not. Something seems to be going on, Alisa and I later agreed. Something that we’ll have to figure out before that passage from New Zealand to Patagonia.

The day came when nightfall found us only forty miles or so out of Lifou Island, where we could make our preliminary clearance formalities into New Caledonia. I shortened sail and went to sleep in the quarterberth. Two hours later I woke up, just before my watch alarm was set to go off, also just before the radar alarm would have warned me that we were ten miles from land. If you sail the open ocean you start to feel the danger and approach of land keenly enough that your unconscious mind can wake you at precisely the right moment in a situation like this. I crawled out of the catacomb slot of the quarterberth and climbed into the cockpit, completely befuddled by sleep. I looked automatically at the sails, then snapped awake when I looked at the horizon and saw the light on the southern end of Lifou Island winking away on the beam, well back from where our bow was pointing. The east side of Lifou is a large bay, and sailing within ten miles of shore meant that land was surrounding us on three sides, and we were sailing directly away from the safety of open water. Alone while Alisa and Elias slept trustingly below, I marveled at the new sea sense that had me awake at precisely the right moment and simultaneously felt the dread at realizing how much depended on the combination of my internal clock, the radar alarm and my watch alarm to wake me on time. Otherwise Pelagic was sailing, surely and blindly, towards her destruction at the base of some wave-washed cliff.

I turned the boat around and hove to. We crept away from the island at a knot or so, waiting for the sunrise before making landfall. I stayed up to watch our progress, making sure that sails were balanced with helm and we were moving away from land. I then slept for two more hours. I woke as the eastern sky was just turning gray and turned us around us back towards Lifou. One hard part of passagemaking that I find getting easier and easier is the sleep deprivation. When squalls or landfalls allow me only four or three or two hours of sleep in a night, I find that I do OK the next day.


The marina in Lifou turned out to be the best marina in the world. The harbormaster was named Lulu, to start with, and the local village was named “We”. All good so far. The water was turquoise and clean enough that coral was growing inside the marina and we could watch reef fish right from the dock with Elias. Pretty cool. And there was a great mix of traveling yachts who were checking in, like us, and local French yachts. So we chatted with the visitors and walked the docks looking at the very cool aluminum and steel French sloops. We washed everything that had gotten wet on the crossing, taking full advantage of our first dockside hose since Mexico. We made brief forays into We and availed ourselves of the cheap baguettes. But, theme that this is becoming, we only had one week to get to Noumea and present ourselves for the formal check-in with immigration, and we had less than three weeks before we wanted to be in Oz. So, after getting Pelagic washed up and enjoying a 40 dollar pizza, we left.


The best marina in the world. Note the small size, turquoise water and the track on the right, with lots of sticks for little boys to pick up, and lots of bushes to be hit with the sticks.

Pelagic in dry-out mode, We.