Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Will Do Just Fine

You couldn't get these days down in a blog - you wouldn't want to. Each one endless then suddenly done. Each one full of all the little moments of family life immersed in the tradewind tropics, that one zone where the planet seems to achieve its potential.

We caught a fish today, between spells of sailing between reefs with tradewind breakers stacked up over them and then looking dubiously at the little anchorages on the southeastern islets where we might spend an uncomfortable night while the trades continue to boom. The boys didn't notice when I was having trouble falling off to slot between two reefs with the swell on our beam and 20 feet of water under our keel. They didn't notice when I nearly choked on my chewing gum while I was in the midst of the anaerobic winch grinding session that is singlehanding Galactic in a breeze. But oh, my, they noticed the fish. Once it was aboard Elias even identified it unassisted from our guide book to the tropical reef fish of the Indo-Pacific: a double-lined mackerel. Which was a good effort on his part, since, as he noted, the picture in the book isn't all that great.

Then there were the humpbacks we saw after we had given up on the remote and rugged southeastern anchorages and resigned ourselves to heading back to the crowded anchorages near Neiafu. A few blows (from the whales), a couple sightings of whale backs, a massive tail lob, then me saying (inappropriately enough, since the whole family was in the cockpit), "Oh, fuck. Tacking." While I was busy staring at whales, the depthsounder had gone from 200 feet under the keel to 16 - the light for seeing coral had gone completely to custard, and I was sailing half-blind, just me and my chart from a British survey in 1898.

The funny thing about this long day of working hard to get nowhere near where we were hoping to end up is that it began in the delightful anchorage of Kenutu - "one of the outstanding anchorages of the South Pacific" according to Warwick Clay, who wrote the invaluable "South Pacific Anchorages" and is therefore in a position to give an informed opinion on the matter. Kenutu had the turqoise water, it had the 24-7 sound and spectacle of breakers dashing themselves into ephemeral mountains of spray against the windward cliffs, it had the thickets of staghorn coral, obviously and vigorously alive in a world of degraded coral reef ecosystems. And it even had a little spit of shoal water between us and the four boats that arrived via a different access route through the reefs. So we had a smidgin of privacy, which we all like very much.

I was the super-tiniest bit sour on the idea of heading back to the heaving flesh pots of Vaka'eitu after we failed to double down on the Kenutu experience with a night and day and night at Mananita. But - lo! There were 13 yachts when we last spent a night here, and not a single one when we pulled in this afternoon. So we've got the joint to ourselves, and there are rumors of umu cooking and roast pig flesh to be had on Lape in a few days.

During our time on the eastern side of Vava'u Alisa kept saying to Elias, "I think this life agrees with you." What she was noticing was that when we're in town he's often a little dissatisfied with this or that, especially if there aren't other kids around. But when we're out on our own somewhere, he settles down into himself, and is content.

Meanwhile, Alisa and I are well settled in, too. We're happy swimming with the kids off the jupe every day and eating every meal under the flapping white deck awning. Tonga will do just fine for us.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Livin' It

I don't have any of the big answers for all of us, collectively - why we're here, what we're meant to be doing, that sort of thing.

I suppose I'm doing my best just to figure out those answers for a smaller audience - just me and the boys and Alisa.

And for now, I'm glad to just be here, living day to day on the boat, all very much in it together.

And I'm so glad that we got away from home, that we cast off the lines all those years ago...

That's a yellow-spotted trevally.  And an over-the-moon fisherman.  More details to follow, when (if!) internet access improves...

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Where's Aratika? Where's Pacific Bliss?

Where are Macy Boat and Six Pack? Where are Free Spirit and Nomad and Enki and Triddar?

For that matter, where are Miles and Melissa - people so wonderful that they don't even have to live on a boat for us to imagine them here?

That's been our occasional litany as we look out on the heaving anchorages of Vava'u.

Tonga is awash in anglophone yachts (the francophone are presumably all up in Wallis). But we don't know any of them. So we sometimes look out at all the floating evidence of other peoples' dreams come to life and long for some of our good friends from seasons gone by to be in the anchorage with us. That's just part of the sailing life - you're forever going out and making new friends. Elias is feeling it particularly hard - he was ready to devour the 13-year-old Kiwi kid that we met a few days ago.

But for now, at least, we are happy in a little anchorage all by ourself, tucked between two islets that go by the impressive names of Lautala and Nukulahanga. Sometimes it's nice to step out of a crowded room where you don't know anyone and just look up at the full moon with the person you brought to the party...

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Note on Passages

Alisa and I don't get many photos of each other when we're swapping out the watch in the middle of the night, one of us about to resume the battle against fatigue, the other about to give up the fight for a few hours.

Actually, we don't get any photos at those times.  So this is the best that I can do for a pictorial representation of fatigue on passage - me at dawn, after a night of two hours' sleep, and a long morning ahead of me until we tie up at the customs dock in Neiafu.

Another dawn, this one just outside of North Minerva.

Burning off energy at Minerva.

Very long-term followers of this blog will remember that, back in the Pelagic days, Alisa and I imitated singlehanders on passage.  We slept.  And we trusted the radar alarm to keep an eye out for other vessels.

But then, soon after we bought Galactic, the geriatric radar went the way of all expensive boat gadgets.  Without its electronic eye to sweep the seas for us, Alisa and I kept watch and watch, all the musty-eyed way across the Pacific.

And we've done the same since we left Tasmania - watch and watch across the Tasman, and down to the Aucklands, and now up to Tonga.

And we did it, not quite easily, since we have Elias and (especially) Eric to care for during the day, but easily enough.

But then this last passage came along - a fairly rough start, with a northerly swell working against the rowdy southeast wind on the back of a low.

I started off the passage tired from the typical rigmarole of getting the barky to sea, and I stayed up the majority of the first night.  And that pushed it too far.  I got a migraine, and spent the next 24 (?) hours alternately puking and collapsing in the fetal position.

Let me tell you, there's nothing like a migraine at sea.

And the thing is - having me down with a migraine just isn't cool, as Alaska Range mountain climbers used to say about situations that are unacceptably risky.  With me that incapacitated, we lose the ability to react adroitly to any time-critical situation that might come along.

And the conditions on this passage really were benign - what if we'd had the gale-force conditions that we'll expect on the trip back to En Zed?

And, you guessed it - for all that time that we stayed awake, for eight or nine nights, or whatever it was, we didn't see a single vessel at sea - neither by eye nor on the AIS screen.  That doesn't mean it's safe, necessarily, to fail to keep watch.  But it does give you an idea of how untrafficked big stretches of the ocean can be.

So all this, of course, got us wondering about the much bigger passages that we've thought of doing, and whether we might need to moderate our ambitions.  One thing is obvious - I have to manage migraines much better, and can't let myself succumb like that again.  And we've thought about getting another radar, and how that and the AIS might give us a fairly reasonable back-up if we decide to imitate singlehanders again, and sleep at sea.

But right now, I'm glad to report, the nitty-gritty of the passage has faded, as they do, and we're enjoying being in Tonga again.

Once more into the breach - heading out from Minerva.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Wonder Of (At) the World

Above - jigging off the jupe under the arch lights.  Being six knows no greater delight.

Well, we're in Tonga now; very glad to be here, and in that initial part of our stay in a new country where I frantically try to catch up with science commitments using inconvenient internet access.  So not a lot of detail here, but some images from our stop at Minerva Reef, a completely submerged atoll between New Zealand and Tonga.

We almost didn't visit because we're so shy about sailing to windward with the boys, but we heard enough glowing reports about the place just before we left New Zealand, and got a good enough forecast for fair winds onward to Vava'u, that we decided to head straight there.

We spent three days at the reef, catching up on sleep and having a look around.  And what a treat - the place is surely one of the wonders of the world.

Not bad pics for a cloudy day.

A visit to the reef at low tide to stretch our legs - what an unreal landscape.  There's water continually flowing over the reef from the breakers crashing on the windward side.

Sea cucumber.  And boy.

A very tired sailor, back on the Mothership.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Moms Are Like That

The other day, when the two sportfishing boats were leaving, one of them pulled up next to us and tossed over a bag full of great slabs of tuna meat, well chilled.

That prompted Alisa to forgive them for anchoring right behind us when we were the only three boats in this vast lagoon.

That afternoon, they came back, and anchored even closer to us. The next day Elias and I stopped by on the way to our snorkeling spot to have a chat with them, and they mentioned throwing offal into the water to attract tiger sharks.

That put them, permanently I think, back in Alisa's bad graces. Something about rocking up on our solitude and then bringing tiger sharks into the area where we were taking our six-year-old snorkeling really colored her opinion. Moms are like that.

Nice blokes to talk to, though.
At 7/9/2013 1:48 PM (utc) our position was 24°06.71'S 179°02.26'W

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

This Is Why

How good a cup of coffee tastes when it's your second in five days.

How good, by extension, the first beer will taste when you reach Minerva.

The value of a little abstinence, and also a little ordeal (preferably quite a little ordeal), every now and then, to keep you close to the quick of things.

How bloody big, and wonderful, the ocean is.

How empty - not a single other boat, in view or on the AIS, since the Opua-Russel ferry that we crossed paths with on the first five minutes of the trip.

The ineffable peace of the sea...well, that one might be for crews who aren't evenly divided between antsy children and over-tired adults.


We reached Minerva at dawn today, and entered the pass as soon as the light was reasonable. After days of crossing the heaving expanse of the sea, the pass with its wind-blown breakers on either side felt ridiculously constrained and smelled a bit like a trap.

But, once through the pass, we were suddenly in the tropics. Our eyes were beguiled by those twelve colors that exist in nature only in the shallows of an atoll lagoon. The tradewind swell beat itself to nothing on all sides, and we were in a thousand acres of perfectly protected water in the middle of the ocean. After the hook was down and Galactic had come to rest, we pulled off our warm passage-making clothes and relaxed. Oh right, Alisa and I said to each other. This is why we sail to the tropics. A French research boat that had been anchored for the night pulled out of the pass and we suddenly had this marvel of a place all to ourselves.

And then, inevitably, two sportfishing boats pulled in and, in this vast expanse of a reef-protected lagoon three nautical miles in diameter, decided to anchor ten boat lengths away from us.
At 7/9/2013 1:48 PM (utc) our position was 24°06.71'S 179°02.26'W

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

east to west longitude

When I came on watch at 0300 I noticed two things: First, the motion has increased so that I imagine the swell is up over 2 m(can't see a bloody thing outside to verify). Muscles I didn't know I had in my lower back are now jolted awake and working hard to keep me in this seat at the nav. table. The second thing is that we crossed the 180 meridian. It's not like crossing the equator or anything, but it is a notable event to cross the date line. Especially in this particular passage which has been a bit lackluster in regards to sea birds and marine mammals.

Things with the crew have stabilized. It was a hectic start. We still have random bowls wedged into corners and bookshelves throughout the salon in case someone needs a quick container in which to vomit. Tonight while I was cooking dinner, Eric leaned over the counter to watch and asked if he was allowed to eat dinner tonight, "since I didn't throw up today, Mommy" and when I said "yes" he squealed "horrah, I am so excited!". That boy wants a house so badly. Thankfully Elias, who Eric adores, is very much a sailor and spent the entire afternoon planning the kind of sailboat he's going to captain when he's 19 to sail to the Falkland Islands. He told me he wants me to come too, as the cook. Priceless.

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Sunday, July 7, 2013

(no subject)

We're in the routine now - Alisa spent a long sunny morning in the cockpit, reading to the boys, while I made up for the sleep that I missed while standing watch last night. I don't know if it has anything to do with the timing with which I was interrupted through the night, but I awoke with vivid memories of my dreams.

Elias tells us this morning that he would like to continue sailing until he's 16. And he would like to sail to Antarctica. Me too, says Eric. I want to sail to An-arcica.

For the record, no adult on Galactic is entertaining ideas of sailing to Antarctica. During times like the start of this passage, when nothing was smooth, it was easy to imagine that we might give up this peripatetic life. Why Tonga, after all? It's not like we're going anywhere in particular, we're not at all on a voyage around the world or anything like that. So when the sailing gets hard, it's easy to second-guess all of the effort and resources we pour into living this way. We can decide to end our sailing days any time we choose.

But the problem, of course, is imagining an alternative on land that would appeal as much. I've worked hard to keep my employment options from withering during these years away - I'm finally doing a PhD, I'm publishing in my field and collaborating with colleagues back in North America and going to occasional conferences. So when the time does come, I am hopeful that I'll be able to slot into a role as a productive member of society without too much drama.

But...there's something about the way that we've been living for these last six years, this absolutely-everyday but dream-like way that this massive chunk of the peak years of our life has unspooled, that encourages us to continue to dream. When we talk of going back to Alaska, we talk about the places we might visit in that Great Land, the berry picking and camping and skiing that we might do with the boys - we have some vague notion of a life that involves hard work, but on our own terms and with plenty of time spent outside. In other words, we look at our old life in Alaska through the prism of a wouldn't-it-be-nice fantasy.

Meanwhile, in a much more quotidian vein, our Perkins engine has mysteriously stopped leaking oil. We're now motoring through light winds. I shut down every six hours to check the oil, and instead of finding that I have to gurgle in a big slug to replace what's collected in the engine pan, the dipstick reads the same full level every time. It's a funny thing - if this were a Japanese diesel I'd be worried if it leaked oil, but since it's an English engine I worry when it stops leaking oil. But I'm also an old master at engine monitoring, and so am not too concerned. Either the replaced, re-torqued head gasket did the trick, or the Lucas oil stabilizer actually lives up to the claims on the label about stopping leaks...

So that's the state of things on board. We're giving up a chance to make easting early in order to head for Minerva Reef, counting on a long-range forecast that tells us it will be easy to get to the east later on in the trip, in the trade wind zone. The only problem is that the forecast is changing every day - first it promised westerlies late in the week, then southerlies. So we're keeping an eye on it...
At 7/7/2013 12:53 AM (utc) our position was 29°40.15'S 177°50.48'E

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Saturday, July 6, 2013

Second Night Out

Left Opua after dark, knowing that the conditions would be sloppy, but that weather would also be improving.

Turns out that sloppy conditions are one thing to discuss in port, and another to experience live and in person.

We had 3m of swell directly in our face, with large wind waves on the quarter. We ended up with two reefs and 100% jib just to keep the speed under 9 knots. Then we held on and said our thanks that the boys were asleep.

The next day wasn't as calm as we had hoped for, and the family hunkered down in the saloon for the day. Eric dozed with his mom and Elias did a champion job of entertaining himself. Crackers for breakfast and a PB&J (fixed by himself) for lunch and I'm not sure what was on the dinner menu.

"Ah, the romance of it all!" said Alisa.

Eric got through most of the day with his chin up but then in the afternoon puked all over the port settee - on my sleeping bag, between cushions, under floorboards and into the lockers beneath. I held him in the cockpit while Alisa cleaned up. "I want a house", Eric said to me. "I throw up when we're sailing and I DON'T LIKE throwing up!"

I, meanwhile, passed the day with a crippling migraine, the longest and most severe I can remember. Which means that I kept neither food nor water down and was generally useless for working the boat. All I could manage when the wind dropped was to roll out the jib, and we greeted the world with two reefs in the main all the day long. Looks like I haven't gotten the hang of managing migraines on passage.

In the afternoon, Elias had his first experience at keeping watch - upon Alisa's request, he would stick his head out of the companionway, report our course and speed, and scan the horizon for traffic.

So, that was one way to start a passage!

It's now 0200 local. I'm done with the migraine, and therefore able to write this. The wind has died and we're motoring, albeit with two reefs in the main. We wonder if we'll head for Minerva reef - we've heard things like "our favorite place in the world" from a few people, but stopping there would likely set us up for windward sailing into the trades on the final leg.

More soon, and we'll see in retrospect if instant sharing of the gory details is a good idea!

All well on board.

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Thursday, July 4, 2013


Our friend Robb says that it happens with research trips to Antarctica. Everyone rushes to get ready, and then, if the departure is delayed for some reason, they find themselves rushing to get ready all over again - even though they had been ready to go the first time.

And so it is with us - it's always a bit of a circus getting ready to put to sea, even if we were ready to go a week ago.

There are just so many details to look after with a boat, and so many of them are vitally important for the safety of the crew.  Starting a passage gives you a natural deadline for taking care of things that you've been meaning to get to - so the list of jobs grows in proportion to (and slightly faster than) the amount of time you have to prepare.  Even if you're six years into the sailing life, aboard your second live-aboard boat.

Alisa just read the boys a chapter of The Horse and His Boy for their bedtime story, and the boat is feeling quite shipshape.  We have a load of duty-free fuel on board, and a bit of duty-free booze to go with it, and we're cleared out for Neiafu, Vava'u, Tonga.

Here we go!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Waiting Isn't Hard

No story here - just noting that passing on a high pressure system for getting to Tonga means that you get to hang out and enjoy the sunny weather of the high in situ.

Today the winds between New Zealand and Tonga are northerly at 25 knots - the forecast for headwinds is what led us to take a pass on the last weather window, and it was pleasant to see that we called it right.  Getting to Tonga means getting a fair ways to the east, which is upwind in the trades.  So we're being picky with the weather, looking for the pattern with a lower-than-average preponderance of easterlies to help us get there without too much carrying-on.

So instead of sailing to Tonga last Friday we just picked the hook and sailed out to the Bay of Islands.

Moturua Island (above and below) is one of many anchorages we've shared with James Cook here and there through the Pacific.  And now it's got a great walking track - just right for the ambitious six-year-old, and just a little too much for a three-year-old, no matter how ambitious.

And this is enough for me to take back everything luke-warm that I ever said about En Zed.  The Department of Conservation mows little lawns by the ocean to make picnic spots along the track.  Love it.

How do you know where the dolphins are in the Bay of Islands?  Easy - just look for the fleet of boats following them around:

There's that terrible stage when they're too young to walk all the way up to the lookout, but too heavy to be carried. 

 "We want a house."

Eric imitating a Kiwi kid, who are famously inured to the cold.  It didn't quite work out for him.

In between bouts of outdoor family fun, I did all the analysis for a new paper and solved a few boat problems that I hadn't known I had.  Now we're back in Opua, about to go through the last-minute prep for a second time.  A nasty low is supposed to blow in tomorrow and make everything miserable for a day, and after the low passes the southerly winds are meant to blow towards palm-fringed anchorages...

Monday, July 1, 2013

Boy to Man

One of the spoils of our trip back to North America was a stack of back issues of the New Yorker from my mom.  Once piece, in particular, caught my attention - in the house style, it was a review of several books treating the same topic.  In this case, the topic was why American children (to generalize) grow up without learning to do anything useful for themselves or their parents, and then go through a protracted period of immaturity in their 20s and sometimes (god forbid) beyond.

The piece struck a chord with me - particularly because it opened with a description of how self-possessed, able, and mature a particular six-year-old from a particular traditional society (the Matsigenka of Amazonian Peru) might be.  This is something that I've noticed many times while traveling - how the  children of some societies are so much more capable and mature than the children of our own.  And when I (figuratively) looked up from the magazine, I saw our own six-year-old, who was apparently not able to pour himself a bowl of cereal.  And the piece resonated even more when I thought of my own back story.  I was raised by wonderful, loving parents (shout-out!) in a suburban American setting where kids did little meaningful work.  And I went through a spectacular period of aimlessness in my early 20s - guess who's hitchhiked the Alaska Highway three times?

So we're on a kick to change that part of child-rearing on Galactic that has to do with how much work is expected from six-year-olds.  No more paying Elias to do little tasks.  And being six, we (I) have decided, means being old enough to take some of the load of daily tasks - none of the typical American BS family choreography about kids tasks - "chore lists" that are monitored and rewarded by the parents, and the like.  Our attitude is that a kid should just help, and getting that help shouldn't mean more work for the adults.

I'm happy to report that, if nothing else, Elias can now fix himself a bowl of cereal.

We'll see how this experiment in parenting goes.  We have, if nothing else, plenty of work to share around in the family.  And it would really be a delight if Elias could, for instance, cook breakfast for the family, or run to the beach in the dinghy to pick someone up.  And it would be even more of a delight if he could do these things within the next year, while he's seven.  But I'm also, as always, cognizant of how difficult it is to escape the constraints and expectations of your own culture.  We had been thinking about the right way to start getting Elias to help out for quite a while before I read this particular magazine piece.  But that's just the point - in a traditional society, we wouldn't think about that at all - our role in teaching a kid to work, and the kid's role in learning to work, would be ingrained in the daily lives of everyone around us.

Stay tuned.