Thursday, September 29, 2011

Vomit Comet

Well, a sort of rough-and-tumble start for the 800-mile passage to Pago Pago. We had a great sail across the lagoon of Penryhn, and exited the narrow pass with a distinct feeling of travelling downhill with the outgoing current. We found boisterous conditions outside. Steep waves and maybe twenty knots of wind after our placid week at anchor off Tetautua. Even after a warning bit of spray down below I foolishly left the hatch over the saloon open to give us some breeze against the heavy tropical heat. We got the breeze, and also a bucketload of water when a wave came on deck. And then poor Eric got spectacularly seasick twice in the first twenty-four hours. One-year-olds can't tell you that they're about to throw up.

In spite of all that it's been a great sail - even with steep waves on the port quarter throwing us continually off course, we made 178 miles, noon-to-noon, on our first day. Midday on our second day out saw us sailing through clouds of boobies foraging upwind of Manihiki, and then by the island itself, close enough to see details in the buildings of the village. Manihiki gets even fewer yacht visits then Penryhn, and we'd love to go there some time, but we resolutely sailed right by this time out, conscious of how far we still have to go in the next month.

The windvane allowed us to gybe accidentally three times in a row this morning, turning me into a very loud and rude captain as I went through the rigmarole of lowering the backwinded main and then hoisting it again once we were back on course each time. "Why all the bad words?" Elias asked when I came below after the second gybe.

And so that's us. Alisa and I are settling into the routine of keeping watch around the clock. The winds are forecast to come down over the next few days, and have begun to do so, so we should get some gentler conditions. Showers planned for all hands tomorrow!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Leaving Penrhyn

That's what we're doing - the plan is to pull the hook tomorrow morning (by hand), catch the morning tide out of the pass, and start off on the 800 mile sail to Pago Pago, American Samoa.

Hopefully the passage will give me some time to process our stay here on Penrhyn. What a remarkable, remarkable place. Being here has been very much what I pictured long-distance sailing as before we set out: visiting a place that is too remote to reach except by private boat, being the only travellers on the scene, and interacting with the very friendly locals.

Penrhyn has internet, so people skype with their family members overseas, and almost everyone here has spent time in either New Zealand or Australia. So it's very much a place of the modern world. But the scale of remoteness about the place also sets it apart from everything else. Two ship visits a year are all the chance that Penrhyn Islanders have to supply themselves with the essentials of life. And right now the supply ship is overdue, so flour, rice and gasoline are all in very short supply. And those items will stay in short supply for another four or five weeks, when the ship is expected to arrive.

There is no scheduled air service here, and we were the fourth boat this year to sign the logbook for the village of Tetautua, where we spent most of our visit. So in a way we were real emissaries from the outside world. And we were emissaries from the outside world in a Polynesian culture where gift-giving and hospitality to strangers are reflexive.

So, quite an experience. But more about that later! The deck awning is down, the two dinghies are securely lashed on deck, the tradewinds are blowing hard, and the night is getting late. Time for me to sleep, since tomorrow we look forward, and set in motion another leg of this voyage...


September 22nd was our tenth anniversary.

We celebrated at anchor in the atoll of Penrhyn, on the calm windward side, by the little village of Tetautua.

Elias had ended the day horribly. After coming back to the boat he discovered that he had lost a necklace that local eminence Seitu had given him. This sent him into a two-hour tantrum. First there were real tears at the loss, then forced tears, and then an escalation into screaming and moaning worthy of a mortally-wounded animal in the bush. Adult tempers were severely tested by it all, and we didn't necessarily pass the test with perfect marks...

When he had finally fallen asleep Alisa and I regained our equanimity in the cockpit over a dinner of chicken and fish that had also been given to us by Seitu. Our fridge has been down since Tahaa, so this gift of animal protein made our celebratory meal into a real routine-breaking treat. Alisa rounded out the meal with a bottle of Côtes du Rhône that she had bought in Tahiti. The surf boomed on the outside of the reef and the village generator clattered away in a nattering, conversational tone. A fringe of stars hung low around the cockpit awning.

So Alisa, I said.


You know that hypothetical dog musher who would have married you if I hadn't come along?

I think I remember you saying something about that.

You know how I also say that I saved you from a lifetime of shovelling dog sh*t from a dog yard in some village in Alaska?

I think I remember you mentioning that too.

Well. What do you think - would you rather be shovelling dog sh*t or doing this?

I could see her smiling in the half-light.

Does it matter that my answer would have been different a couple hours ago?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Our 20th Anniversary

Well. There are bound to be days like that.

With the anchor windlass refusing all offers of resurrection yesterday morning, Alisa and I set to the business of hauling the anchor by hand.

The route to our success was not obvious. We were anchored in 50 feet of water, with 250 feet of chain out. The tradewinds were having their way with the seven miles of open lagoon upwind of us, so that Galactic was rearing back against the chain in a steep chop. And the windlass doesn't have a manual backup.

We rigged up a system by tying our spare chain hook to the old main halyard and leading it from the bow back to the primary winch in the cockpit. And then I got into the business of cranking the winch, and cranking and cranking, to pull all 20 tons of Galactic up to the anchor. Alisa spun the windlass gypsy by hand to send the chain down the hawse hole. And every twenty feet or so, when the chain hook on the halyard had made it back to the windlass, which sits next to the mast on this boat, Alisa took the load on the chain with another line and moved the line I was grinding back to the bow, ready for another 20 feet to be brought in.

It was going reasonably well until we managed to haul the chain bar-tight under a coral obstruction. We weren't paying attention and didn't realize what we were doing until the chain was so tight that it was pulling the bow down into the water. So now we had a chain under a couple thousand pounds of load that had to somehow be cast off so that we could get some slack to try to drive off the coral.

That took a little thinking. A little somewhat panicky thinking, since the bow roller was in the process of disintegrating under the load.

Meanwhile, were the two boys going to pieces below decks?

They were.

Eventually we got the load off the chain and managed to put fifty hard-won feet back into the water. And, in a development that we were not expecting, given our past experiences with being fouled on coral that we couldn't see, we managed to drive off the obstruction in one try.

Finally, after three hours of work, the anchor broke the surface, and came to rest on the mangled bow roller. We motored across the lagoon to the village of Tautua, on the windward side of the atoll, the fabled Finest Anchorage in All the Cook Islands.

The boys mollified below, Alisa came up to the cockpit to enjoy a few minutes of the trip with me. We talked about our wedding anniversary, which we'll celebrate in a few days.

So that's cool, I said. Our tenth anniversary in Penrhyn.

I know, said Alisa. For a while I thought we'd have our twentieth here, too.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011


That's the acronym that I've come up with to describe what we're looking for in tropical anchorages at this point - N.O.D.Y., pronounced "noddy", as in the seabird.

It stands for No Other Damn Yachts.

I don't want to come off as any kind of misanthrope, which I'm surely not. And I hasten to add that some of my very best friends are other yachties, and we've gotten to know some really remarkable people who are out sailing the world.

But in the Society Islands, which we just left, there are so many yachts that all the anchorages begin to look like RV campgrounds ("caravan parks", I think, for the Antipodeans). After a month there, sailing felt like RVing for people with lots of money who don't mind being seasick.

So in Penrhyn we were looking for N.O.D.Y. And that's what we've found - we're the eighth yacht to visit this year, and the last one was here two weeks ago.

So that's all good. It's really an incredibly isolated place - we're anchored off Omoka, the larger of the two villages, a cluster of houses built a meter above sea level and a hundred and ninety miles from the nearest neighboring island.

The Customs, Health and Quarantine officers who came on board this morning told us that the island gets only two visits by a supply ship each year. Right now petrol is perilously scarce, and it will remain so until the next resupply.

Our plan was to clear in with the officials and then head over to the smaller village on the windward side of the atoll. Omoka is on the leeward side, which means that seven miles of open water lies upwind of us, which makes for quite a choppy anchorage when the trades are booming.

First we fought to get our 250 feet of chain up as an approaching squall had the bow forever swinging away from where we wanted to go. But when we almost had the anchor up the squall line was nearly on top of us, which meant it was no time to be picking a route through the coral bommies of the atoll lagoon. So we left the anchor where it was, and once again put out 250 of chain.

And then, when the squall was gone and the winds were calm, the windlass refused to retrieve the anchor. This is the fourth time that the windlass motor has failed to heed the call of duty. And this time I think it's for good. And this is where I should mention that we don't really have a manual backup on the windlass. So tomorrow we'll get to figure out how to retrieve the 250 feet of chain and the 88 pound anchor against the tradewinds, which are again booming. Should call for a bit of seamanship!

Meanwhile, I was all for a visit ashore to Omoka this afternoon, until Alisa reminded me that the Health officer had told us that all the kids in the village have the flu. And we don't particularly fancy the 810 mile passage to Pago Pago with two sick kids. So here we sit, off one of the most isolated villages that we'll ever visit, in self-imposed quarantine, all too securely anchored to the bottom.

Clearly, we're living the dream.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


I'm so sleepy. So so sleepy.

It's three in the morning and we're jogging in the lee of Penrhyn, making about two and a half knots under triple-reefed main.

For some reason we always seem to finish our passages at night. Penrhyn was no different, as we were sailing by the southernmost motus of the atoll at the end of the day, just a couple hours too late to reach the anchorage outside the pass for the night. So we hove to, and then when we'd gotten too far away from the island, tacked and started working our way back. Alisa and I have been taking turns staying up around the clock for the four and a half days since we left Tahaa. And now, with all the monkeying around to heave to in Galactic for the first time (a technique for parking the boat at sea, by the way, with the sails working against each other to more or less keep you in place), I'm working on two hours of sleep, and can only expect another hour and a half before dawn.

Two well-rested kids are going to be hell to keep up with tomorrow.

At the start we paid the price for leaving with a forecast of no wind, as we motored for a day and a half, burning through the diesel we bought in Tahiti and making everyone's ears ring with the noise.

Then we had a day under the red and white spinnaker, then a day of rowdy sailing with strong-ish winds on the beam, and then a day of just normal sailing.

We've missed the fishing rod that was stolen in Moorea, as our handlines have been breaking with every bite.

And the whole time we've traversed an empty ocean, seeing no other vessels and few birds. But then today, just before we sighted Penrhyn, we saw Cuvier's beaked whales breaching behind us, a consummate treat for marine biologists since beaked whales are such mysterious beasts.

Tomorrow, then, we transit the pass, and figure out the unpromising anchorage off the village where we have to first check in with officialdom.

After that, we don't know quite what to expect.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

To Penrhyn

We left Tahaa this morning. The plan was to sail the twenty miles to Bora Bora and anchor there to wait out a forecast period of very light winds. But the sailing was so nice, and we really weren't excited about the idea of spending a couple days in Bora Bora. So, light winds be damned, we decided to press on.

We sailed north of Maupiti, the rarely-visited island in the Societies, as the sun set. Elias was the first to see the moon rise, orange and distended on the horizon. At first he thought it was a volcano. But then it became obvious that it was the moon and he said, "That's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."

After dark the wind failed. So we're motoring. We're bound for Penrhyn, in the northern Cook Islands.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Escape Artist

Caring for the boys while we try to run the boat and get prepped for our upcoming passages has been particularly too-much lately.  And it hasn't helped that Eric has suddenly demonstrated the ability to get out of, or over, the various restraints that we have on the boat for keeping him safe.

That's him today, climbing over the barricade that was meant to keep him from climbing up on the settees around the galley table, which present an unacceptably long fall back to the cabin sole.  He just started climbing up there a few days ago.  So I made a gate to block access.  And he climbed over it.
So I made a higher gate.  And he climbed over that as well.

And so on.  This picture shows the sixth iteration of the gate.  It's a spare sheet hung ridiculously high - I can barely get into the table for meals.  And he climbed right over it.  Sigh.

And yesterday, when Alisa and I were on the bow, messing around with a mooring buoy we were picking up, Elias suddenly shouted, "My brother's under the dodger!"

While we were all forward, Eric had climbed under the lap belt that had him "secured" to his seat in the cockpit, and was happily sitting on the companionway hatch.

Alisa ran back to grab him before he could fall down the six foot-plus drop down the companionway.  Later I counted - she now has five new gray hairs.

So the child-rearing dynamic continues to develop new challenges.  And meanwhile the old challenges of screaming and temper tantrums haven't gone away.

Luckily, the anchor windlass went down a few days ago, and the windlass motor has become my new pastime for whiling away the idle hours.  Just a few days ago I had never fixed an electric motor - now I've fixed the same one three times!  Which is great - when the kids get to be too much, I can go to the engine room to get my hands greasy in peace.

We Lose the Plot, or, Uturoa Lets Us Down

Being robbed in Moorea didn't really bother me that much.  Of course it was a bummer when it happened, and then it was a bit of a hassle to return to Tahiti for a new outboard.  But I mostly just saw it as the inevitable sort of thing that happens now and then when you're travelling.

What really got me down was accepting our bond back in New Zealand dollars when the bank at Uturoa was out of other foreign currencies.

I was picking up the thousands of dollars that we posted when we first entered French Polynesia three months ago.  And I got so steamed that the bank was out of both U.S. and Australian currency, and could only offer me Kiwi dollars, that I forgot that the same thing happened three years ago.  That time I merely took my Pacific Francs from the bank that held our bond and walked across the street to another bank to change them into Australian dollars.  But this time we'll end up exchanging our bond money three times - from US dollars to Pacific Francs when we posted the bond, from Pacific Francs to New Zealand dollars when we got the bond back, and then, once we reach Oz, finally from Kiwi to Australian dollars.  And of course each step of the way you lose hundreds of dollars in poor exchange rates...

So much of extended travel revolves around being frugal, and being savvy about staying away from the various spending traps that present themselves, that I felt really lame to have made this goof, and it took me a couple days to shake it off.


And that, it turns out, was a bit of a harbinger for how Uturoa, the "big city" of Raiatea, would treat us.  The Shell station that used to offer water at the dock has locked its spigot, and wouldn't open it when we asked.  My polite "Parlez-vous anglais?" was met with sneers by the clerks at the hardware store.

After two or three negative experiences like this you start to feel like the whole town is against you.

There is an ebb and flow to really long travel - you hit the rough patches that make it feel like you're paying for the fantastic bits.  And, not surprisingly given that this great chapter in French Polynesia is drawing to a close, we've hit a strong ebb here in the leeward Societies, and spirits on board have been low in recent days.

Huahine, our first stop in the leeward Societies, was nice enough.  But I noticed that we weren't taking many pictures, which I think was a sign that we weren't really engaging with the place.  A French acquaintances told us how much he and his wife liked the island, and that they were planning on staying for a few months.  But our attention was already on the passage that was awaiting us after we took care of final errands in Raiatea, and we didn't really give Huahine a chance.

And Alisa, bless her, hadn't taken the robbery so well, and she was spending much of each night on deck, shining the spotlight towards suspicious sounds on shore, while I snored away in bed.

Then we got to Raiatea, and found that Uturoa wasn't as convenient a spot for taking care of final errands as we had remembered, and we hit a stretch of days where it was all we could do to take care of the boys and keep the boat going, so that we ended each day exhausted without having completed any of our pre-departure tasks, and then we really started to lose the plot on this whole exercise.  Why, we each wondered to ourselves, are we sailing across the Pacific with these two little boys?

Part of the trouble is the fragile, ad hoc nature of the communities that we inhabit.  During our three months in French Polynesia we got to know a lot of boats, and met some wonderful people.  But when we got to Raiatea, we were suddenly alone.  There weren't many travelling boats around so late in the season, and we didn't recognize anyone we knew.  The dock in Uturoa was deserted, and I couldn't help looking at it and remembering how vibrant it had been three years ago, with our friends on Macy and Hannah tied up next to us, and that great guy from New Jersey who was sailing an ancient 35-footer from Mexico to New Zealand as part of his plan of travelling around the world without getting on an airplane.  Now it was just us, and our envelope containing four thousand New Zealand dollars, and the sneering clerks at the magasins, and our two needy boys.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Thieving Locals

So, long story short, we were robbed in Moorea.

At one in the morning at least two people paddled up to Galactic in outrigger canoes.  They took Eric's swim diaper, rashy and board shorts from the lifeline where they were drying.  They took our fishing rod and they cut the American flag off of our stern rail.

And they took our outboard right off the inflatable, which had been hanging out of the water on the spinnaker halyard.

And after that, brazen scoundrels that they were, they paddled over to Pacific Bliss, anchored behind us, and took a camera and the family's shoes and snorkelling gear from the cockpit.  Then they tried to jimmy the lock on Pacific Bliss's outboard and woke Colin in the process.  Nonplussed to find two men with t-shirts wrapped around their heads in the process of robbing him, Colin screamed loud enough to wake us up.

He and I gave sleepy chase, but the rascals got away.

So a trip back to Papeete to buy a new outboard was in the cards.  We returned to the crowded anchorage at Maeva beach.

I started the hot and dusty work of venturing into town to check out prices at the various outboard shops, and researching the mysterious procedure for claiming back the tax on the purchase, our right as a yacht in transit, and then entering the bureaucratic maze to actually get the tax back.

We really weren't all that keen to be back in Tahiti.  But, as always, there were compensations to make up for the shortcomings of the place.  For one thing, we were anchored right next to Silver Lining, the only other Noble 451 ever built.  She's the staysail schooner on the right, and that's Galactic on the left.

We had a great time meeting her convivial crew and comparing notes on the boat.  Frank and Margo have gotten a lot of Pacific miles out of Silver Lining over the last 18 months, including two visits to the Austral Islands, and it was great to see that our sister ship had been such an able travelling boat for them.

And we had the company of our good mates on Pacific Bliss, who came to Tahiti to take care of various chores before they head back east to the Tuamotus and Marquesas.

Who wouldn't enjoy the company of this lot?

Elias loved playing with their kids.  He had his first-ever sleep over on their boat, and in return played host for a sleepover for the first time himself.

We ended up visiting with these guys for weeks - in Tahanea, Moorea and Tahiti.  When we finally said goodbye to them, Elias cried and cried and cried.  Sigh - this is a new dynamic for our travelling life, watching our growing boy coming to grips with the transience of friendship.  He got over it quickly, but the poor little guy doesn't have the ability to hold himself back the way we adults do.  Towards the end of our visit, Cosmo and Zinnia were his best mates in the whole world, which makes for quite a difficult farewell.

So now Alisa has cried when saying goodbye to Yolene in Nuku Hiva, and Elias has cried when saying goodbye to Pacific Bliss in Tahiti.  I guess my turn is next.

The overnight passage to Huahine, in the leeward Society Islands, gave us the traveller's great gift of a change of scene.

This is the view of Huahine that greeted us at sunrise.

And that's where we are now.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The 100-Franc View

Well, there's French Polynesia.

And then there's Tahiti.

Tahiti felt a little grimier to us this time around, a bit more concrete jungle than we remembered.  Everywhere you looked was the scowling embodiment of urban dislocation in a formerly rural people.

But we just concentrated on getting our business done, on running our errands that are only possible in a city and then moving on.

We celebrated a birthday in Tahiti.

And had lunch at the market.

And we provisioned the barky.

And every day ended with the sun setting behind Moorea.

We realized that we weren't really giving Tahiti a chance.  We were just hanging out at the Maeva Beach anchorage with the full yachtie scrum, and running our errands in Papeete.  But who has time to explore the delightful corners of Tahiti that so rarely get visited by yachts?  We've still got an ocean to cross!

After we had all of our business done for keeping Galactic going, we started looking for a spot where I could complete some more science work.  We needed wi-fi, a beach, and a bucolic setting, roughly in that order.

Based on the recommendation of some French yachties who have been here for a while, we went to Opunohu Bay in Moorea.

Not bad, we figured!  It even featured the view from the 100-franc coin.  Compare the mountain in the two pics...

Now, Moorea is firmly not a Galactic kind of place.  Too many resorts, not a lot of delight and innocence for the casual traveller, that kind of thing.  But for a spell of work, and for keeping the boys happy, it would do just fine.

It helped that our good mates on Pacific Bliss arrived to keep us company.

We could appreciate Moorea a bit more through the eyes of Elias and the kids on Pac. Bliss.  For instance, we have always mentally rolled our eyes when yachties tell us about the great spot in Moorea where the resort staff feeds the rays and sharks so you can pet them.  But the kids loved it - that's Elias in the foreground below, and a passel of black-tipped reef sharks in the background.

So we settled in for a good productive stay, enlivened by the company of friends.  Once my work was accomplished, we'd push off for the leeward Societies, as we continued to march west, west, forever west.

But then, one night, everything changed!