Monday, July 7, 2014

Notes From the Far Side of the World

There's always a further place to go.

The first of July saw us at the seasonally-occupied village site of Otao, on one of the three passes into the Tahanea lagoon. I spent a few hours hauling 350 liters of delicious, top-quality water from one of the two giant cisterns ashore to the tanks of Galactic.

When you're looking for water, the crew of other yachts are likely to mention that they have watermakers on board. My heart always goes out to these people - slavishly worshipping at the altar of Expensive Gizmo just so they can disengage from the world around them.

When it rains in the night, do these people scramble up into the cockpit to shine a light on the transparent hoses of their raincatcher, better to watch the miraculous fluid running down into their tanks? They do not. Do they enjoy the interaction around various communal spigots at villages across the Pacific as they gather with the locals to go about the business of satisfying one of the universal requirements of life? They do not. Do they strengthen their moral fiber when times are not plentiful, knowing the restraint of self-discipline and stretching resources, taking saltwater showers and washing dishes on deck in a bucket? They do not.

What they do instead of these things is anyone's guess. I think that it has to do with watching a bunch of movies on their laptops, measuring an ocean crossing in units of amp-hour, and generally doing everything possible to elevate the means of travel above the ends.

I never tell these people how deep my sympathy runs. Don't let on if you talk to them.

The anchorage across the pass from Otao was quite a scene after the evenly-scattered boats on the windward side of Tahanea. The winds were light and northeasterly, good conditions for anchoring at Passe d'Otao, and we joined five other boats in a tight cluster around the anchorage waypoint that is mentioned in the popular DIY cruising guide that circulates on the web.

We waved at the other boats, and Elias and I stopped to chat with the American/Canadian crew of a yacht built in the 1950s for the Sydney-Hobart race. They were just in from Makemo that morning, and we took their boy, a couple years older than Elias, ashore for a play while I filled jugs. I made four trips ashore, Alisa and the boys swam around the boat and threw popcorn to the bignose unicornfish, and then there was just enough light to see Galactic back across the lagoon.

Our remaining business in Tahanea was an anchorage on the south side of the atoll. We had the beta from our good mates on Thélème, charter members of the Let's-Spend-Months-And-Months-And-Months-at-Tahanea Club. We motored across the lagoon with good light, the wind too demure to make the sails very useful. It was blisteringly hot without the trades, and Elias had the good idea, quickly acted upon, that we let the boat drift and all jump in for a post-lunch dip.

And then the anchorage made itself known. It appears that a sand spit grew up inside the lagoon and then was colonized by coral to make a spur of reef 500 meters long that juts out into the lagoon and provides protection from either easterly or westerly winds. At first the anchoring looked a little uncertain - water 16 or 17 meters deep, mixed sand and coral. We're very wary about chucking our anchor into corally waters at depths that are beyond my modest free diving abilities, especially in a place like this where we could expect no outside assistance. There was a moment of concern as we considered the state of the light and the distance to alternate anchorages if we could not make this place work. (In this miraculous Age of Shareware it is quite reasonable to navigate a place like Tahanea Lagoon with no visibility at all, even on a moonless night, but we're not quite there on Galactic.)

But a quick look around found us a good spot - a nice patch of sand in ten or eleven meters of water tucked right up in the innermost crook of the reef. Fifteen meters of chain to our "ain't it heavy now" Rocna, 40 kilos of grade-A galvanized Kiwi beef, and another two meters of chain beyond that to the featherlight Fortress saw Galactic firmly in place with *just* enough room to swing off the reef in the unlikely situation of a westerly change. When the tide and wind came up that evening and the waves swept over the reef the place began to feel exposed, even vulnerable, after the super-protected anchorages of the windward side. But we quickly got used to the feeling, and another dive on the anchors on our second day found everything skookum, the Rocna lying dociley on the sand, swinging gently back and forth under the spell of Galactic's moving bow, the Fortress buried to the hilt. We probably could have gotten away without the fancy anchoring technique, but it makes the place feel earned somehow, and I'm enjoying the rare feeling of having the barky in comfortable blue depths with the reef just off the bow and the sand spit leading to the nearest motu just to starboard.

And what a spot that motu is - a Galactic version of Paradise.

The motus of the windward side are teeming with the cute little species of rat that the Polynesians thoughtfully carried everywhere they went in the Pacific. Ex-seabird biologist, ex-island ecologist that I am, I've always wondered what the pre-rat Pacific must have looked like, how teeming with bird life the motus must have been. This place gives us a little idea. I'm quite certain there are no rats here, as there are brown booby nests on the ground of the two motus we have visited. The brown boobies are still incubating eggs, but the red boobies nesting up in the trees already have quite large chicks. There are also a few masked boobies around, though we haven't yet confirmed any nests, and frigatebirds noddies and great crested terns and spectacled terns and the miraculous little fairy terns everywhere about. All these birds swoop and hover silently over the mixed coconut palms and pandanus and scaevola(?) and beach heliotrope(?), giving the motus the feeling of exuberant life common to seabird colonies everywhere. The on-its-way-off-the-Ark Tuamotu sandpiper is here as well, and is it my imagination, or is it giving aerial displays consistent with breeding that are absent from sightings of the birds on rat-occupied motus?

There is that long sand spit that leads from the nearest motu towards Galactic, and gives the boys plenty of room to play on the beach where they won't bother the birds. And there are little blue holes in the mixed sand and coral terrain of the space between and seaward of the motus, fantastic spots for snorkeling with a seven year old that are improbably thick with grouper and snapper and a bluefin trevally that wouldn't leave us alone. Poor Elias is driven to distraction with all these fish about and parents who inexplicably forbid fishing, and he is mad keen to get some lobster in compensation.

I counted fifteen yachts in Tahanea the day we went to Otao for water. From this spot we can see none of them. No other anchor lights shine under the bowl of stars above us at night. We hear the other boats on the radio, and wonder about their stories, and note how friendly everyone sounds. We'll soon be off to the more social surrounds of Fakarava, but for now we're happy in this illusion we have gained, of having one of the very best places in the world more or less all to ourselves.

It's a loaded business, though, this paradise-to-yourself caper. Left to your own devices, you are free to paint the scene outside with whatever joys or angst you've been carrying around in your heart. Being alone like this puts you close in touch with whatever you hope for from life, or fear from it. It's a heady experience, this solitude business, a complex varietal that keeps us coming back again and again. But it's not the pure nectar of the lotus eaters that is painted in the popular imagination.

For me in particular during the last few days, I've been running up against the old story of sharing a tight space with a four year old as I work away at my idea-transcribing device - writing more than I have in recent years, putting the finishing touches on the thesis, knocking together a magazine piece with an eye towards our finances, tattered after New Zealand. The days fly away.


  1. "It's a loaded business, though, this paradise-to-yourself caper." Yes it is, and probably a bit better than a Myers-Briggs test for figuring out who you are.

  2. P.S. Some of us with watermakers get up in the middle of the night and collect water in buckets and containers that way we don't have to listen to the engine the next day...but maybe I shouldn't be telling you all our secrets.

  3. I eagerly await, and am transfixed by each installment of Galactic's journey... One question though, will your next book (of the return journey) be easier to write than SFA?