Thursday, September 25, 2014



I'll explain.

We don't navel-gaze too much about whether we adults are doing the right thing by buggering off on a sailboat for years or decades.  We've largely given up on the idea of the "right" thing to do, after all.  A well-led life, to my generation, means having an adequately funded retirement.

Ahh – but the kids.  When it comes to the kids, there is a little room for introspection.  Is this right for the kids? 

A lot of the ideas about the enriching aspects of life as little voyagers – all that stuff about meeting people from different cultures, being exposed to different places and ideas.  That's true to an extent.  But our kids spend a lot more time cooped up with parents who are grumpy and a little over-tasked than they do being enriched by travel experiences.

So, is that "good" for them?  Or should they be off with their cousins from the contiguous United States who are apparently being enriched day after day, week after week, year after year?  You know – all that stuff about learning to play the violin/piano/guitar or playing hockey/softball/lacrosse or going to Thespian Camp/Auteur Camp/Exotic Financial Instruments Camp?

Or how about friends.  Should our kids have them?  Is this an important part of life?  Will there be a friend quiz at some point that our kids will bomb?

Actually, we on Galactic don't navel-gaze too far in this direction, as the answers that we come up with tend to be negative.

Into the introspective breach strides Jared Diamond, that colossus of Easily Digested Big Ideas for our time.

(I was so happy to finally meet an academic geographer a few years back – shout out to you Ben – and to ask his opinion on Diamond.  I knew it would be negative.  Just like the evolutionary biologists of my acquaintance and Stephen Jay Gould.  The popularizers are popular with everyone but their own tribe.  But I for one unabashedly love Guns, Germs and Steel.)

I'm thinking of Diamond's The World Until Yesterday, his book about the lessons that traditional
societies might offer us – specifically, about his chapter on childhood.

Our kids have been playing this fishing game lately.  If "game" is all-encompassing enough of a word.

Basically they carefully draw various fish from our field guide to reef fish – peacock grouper!  bluefin trevally!  Almaco jack!  They cut them out.  And they catch them.

They catch them with nets (old bits of hammock).  They catch them with rod and reel (generally drinking-straw based).  They catch them with spear guns (ditto).  They test them with their ciguatera testers. 

Odd things happen – piranhas get in their net and Wolfie the stuffed timber wolf is called in to deal with them.  There are exhortations.  There are boat journeys.  There is an orgy of fish clubbing and fish bleeding and fish gutting.  The boys have their chant for hauling the nets, just like the chants that sailors and fishermen have always used when working under muscle power – heave-and-haul-and-heave-and-haul-and.  There is a whole side game that seems to involve fish smuggling.  It goes on for much of the day (not without a steady backbeat of sibling conflict) and continues into the night.  Elias has been complaining that Eric's exuberant invitations to post-bedtime story "night fishing" are too tempting to forego and have been depriving him of sleep.

We have one ream of paper on board, which is serving for my various science and writing needs, as well as for Alisa's production of school materials.  When the boys get a twice-printed-upon sheet of paper for their use they are ecstatic.  It is treasure.  Every horizontal space in the yacht collects drifts of realistically depicted paper fish.

And – we have never had anything to do with it.  No adult has ever suggested the game, encouraged the game, or helped with the game.  I limit my involvement to occasionally yelling at them when there are too many fish and hooks and nets lying around the very limited sole in the saloon.

Without a copy of The World Until Yesterday at hand, I cannot refresh myself on Diamond's argument about children's play in Western and traditional societies.  But my memory is that he sees the "educational" toys of the West as creativity-stifling lessons in following directions, while he sees the elaborate toys that kids from traditional societies make from scrap materials, without any adult involvement, as opportunities to play at being human in the world. 

So, it's not much, but that's what our kids seem to have going for them lately.  I would crow about how all of this opportunity for an old-fashioned childhood that is time-rich and free of adult-directed play might give our kids some "advantage" relative to their cohort back in the U.S.  Except that I can see the fad, just over the horizon, as land-bound parents attempt to give their kids the only advantage that we seem to be giving ours - Unstructured Time Camp!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


What we left behind
One of the things that life on a traveling boat does very well is transitions.

You get used to atolls, say, but then the season is turning and it's time to light out for the mountainous islands to the south.  And the four days that it takes to sail to the next place give you all the time that you need to reflect on what you've seen, and to let the anticipation for the next place build.

The pass, and the village, astern

The passage to Raivavae was a mixed bag.  A booming run with the jib poled out for the first time in months.  Headwinds.  Calms.  Squalls and blue skies.

Passagemaking.  The ineffable peace of the sea.  Really, it's always just like this
Landfall at Raivavae

And then, this place, so different from anywhere we've ever been.

Raivavae is in the Australs, the southernmost archipelago in French Polynesia.  They are well off the beaten path for yachts, and thus offer the promise of a certain degree of time travel - the chance to go back to a time before locals' expectations had been colored by  hundreds and hundreds of boat visits each year.

The physical contrasts with the Tuamotus are everywhere.
First look

The wind sets up a profound silence here that you don't get in the Tuamotus, where the boom of surf on the reef colors every moment, day and night.  Here the wind whispers and sighs in the trees, familiar sounds that are the backdrop for a profound silence.  So different from the endless slatting of atoll coconut fronds in the tradewinds.

Mountain and mist
Here the rain just drops from the sky, miraculous gentle rain released from the mountain slopes without all the sturm-und-drang of squalls in the Tuamotus.

And, here there are mountains.

The boys, sighting a pig.   Poor fellows, we put them
into a lot of unfamiliar situations
A mountain gives the landscape some mystery, a suggestion of some place that can't be immediately known.

And mountains give people a place to run to, in times of need.  The Tuamotus, by contrast, are so exposed, such naked and vulnerable little bits of land.  Very foreign terrain for those of us who come from landmasses that cannot be seen across.

Revitalized, we find ourselves re-engaging with the travel life.  We are consciously putting ourselves forward.  The whole family sets out to hitch-hike to a village where dance might or might not be going on.  We ask permission to view the tiki in a stranger's backyard.  Alisa has met with the mayor, just as she meets with the mayor in every village where she will distribute lunettes.

There have been moments when finally arriving at this place that I have dreamed of for so many years has me thinking of the big picture.

Is there something important going on, something obvious that we are missing because our days are so full of the mundane details of keeping everything going?

Is there some song that all these people and all these places are singing, a song we could start to hear if we just stood still to listen?

It's always a dangerous moment when travelers start to seek something larger from their travels, when they start to look for the information that only wandering could reveal, the lesson that their stay-at-home friends will find invaluable upon their return.

It's not a mistake that one of the finest travel books of all time, The Songlines, was a novel.

You don't give up looking, of course.  Or at least being curious.  But the lessons are contingent.  They are personal.  We are who we are.  The world is what it is.  We go to sleep without the big questions being answered.

Meanwhile, we have this place to explore.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


The ocean is calm enough this morning, and I am short enough on sleep, that I can feel my inner mediocre writer wanting to commit a prose poem:

"Mother earth, father ocean, spirit sky... Boat of our dreams, cast out upon the lonely ocean, bearing us across the bitter waters of today to the distant shores of our longing..."

Or some such rubbish. It might be a lot funnier when it runs through your very sleepy brain while rigging up a new lure at your 8-year-old's request and topping up the oil in the donk, all before the first cup of coffee.

The fact remains, though, that this is a very beautiful morning. Some of the finest days at sea are mostly useless for actual sailing. Expanses of miracle-blue water barely ruffled by the breeze. The long swell like the body of some vast animal breathing in its sleep. And as far as the horizon, nothing but the ocean, and the clouds, and our little boat, miraculously at the middle of it all.

It's so wonderful to be out here, alone alone alone, independent and (touch wood) capable, that you wonder why the marinas of the world aren't ghost towns. This is the thing, right here, the golden chalice of going where you will, as you will, through the magnificent world that is the blue surface of our aqueous globe. You wonder why everyone with a boat doesn't drink of it. But there it is - buying a boat is one thing, setting sail something altogether different. Life has a way of getting in the way.

Each passage really is a journey into the unknown. The calms of last night and today are a contrast to the sloppy headwinds we had while crossing a front on our second night out. We've used these fronts a lot this season as tools to get us conveniently from one place to another - the winds blow in opposite directions on either side of the front, which can be very helpful to a sailboat. Each time we've had nothing more threatening than some overcast skies as we crossed the front, but this time I wondered if we were going to finally pay for our insouciance. You can cop awful weather.

But our good fortune held yet again and the worst we had was us cooking along in the middle of the night, hard on the wind with a reef in the main, making 8-9 knots into the drizzle. Actually kind of awesome.

And then, if we had been relying on the copy of C-map on this laptop that is our primary chart, we would have gone splat in the middle of the night.

The atolls of Nukutepipi, Anuanurunga and Anuanuraro aren't on C-map. Unluckily our friend Tim on Candine learned that lesson for all of us about six years ago when he plowed up on a reef en route from New Zealand to the Australs. (All unharmed and Candine reached Tahiti for repairs.)

So we navigated through the night and the drizzle and the atolls with our 1:3.5 million paper chart. The radar, which we installed for its watchkeeping abilities at night while on passage, and for its help in the higher-latitude realm of our in-a-year-or-two dreams, was very reassuring. Good to know that the pencil mark between the two little dots on the xeroxed chart corresponds to a safe course in the real world.

And that's us. The boys have very enthusiastically been dedicating the morning to crafts, and are now dedicating themselves to the coconut Alisa pulled from the fridge. These days at sea are giving us time to transition - the Tuamotus are very fond memories, and Raivavae is an anticipation. I picture something like the Marquesas, but without the hundreds (thousands?) of yachts passing through. The Marquesas though have their cultural resurgence, which is one of the very attractive things about that loveliest of archipelagos. Raivavae may have gone through an even more apocalyptic post-contact period than the Marquesas, and I've read that the cultural loss was even more severe there. We will see.

And fruit...After the sandy soil of the Tuamotus, we're all looking forward to lots and lots of fruit.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


"Can you believe there are places like this, with nobody around?" asked Alisa. "Look at it. Back in Alaska we'd never believe that you could just have a place like this to yourself."

The sun had returned to Amanu after days of rain and wind. The sun in turn brought alive the turquoise of the water. That unworldly color is the special effect that everything aesthetic hinges on in the Tuamotus. The palm trees blowing in the trades and the incessant boom of the surf on the outer reef do their part. But it's that turquoise water that sells the whole package.

There was a progression in the number of traveling boats at the various atolls we've visited: 15 in Tahanea, 30 in Fakarava, five in Makemo, two in Hao, and just us at Amanu.

We spoke to only two people outside the family during our eleven days there - the couple who warned us about sharks. We saw them driving around in their skiff for a day or two after that, and then they apparently went back to the village, out of sight at the other end of the atoll.

The village has the reputation of poor anchoring possibilities, and after our weeks at the darse in Hao we were a bit over trying to bridge the language divide. So we never visited the village at Amanu.

On our first visit to French Polynesia, in 2008, I put a lot of effort into learning some French, and I was rewarded with some great interactions that were sieved through my hundred-word vocabulary.

But I haven't put any effort into the language on this visit. Am I getting old? Are the distractions of work and writing and maintaining family life afloat interfering with the travel?

Or perhaps it's just that I sense it's time for Elias to take on the language duties...

We're good at being off on our own. As a matter of fact, we kinda like it. Our society of four is company enough for large stretches, especially in wild places. Solitude is the heart and soul of a certain kind of travel experience that we very much relish. In this hyper-connected era of 7(?) billion living people, time and solitude may be the rarest wealth - and we've had plenty of both lately.

Well, yes - plenty. After three months in the Tuamotus, we find the more social side of our nature eager for a run. We've met some interesting locals, but moved on too quickly to make friends. And we've met some fantastic yachties, but every single boat we've met has been going the other way, WITH the tradewinds.

I blame a general failure of imagination.

Gambier is our planned departure point for Chile, and in Gambier we expect to finally meet some boats heading in our direction. Alisa has been making noises for a few days now that she's ready to meet some people whom we might know for a longer than a single anchorage.

But first - the Australs. I have a very powerful itch to see the Australs, especially Rapa.

So this afternoon we left the pass at Amanu, bound for Raivavae in the Australs - reputedly one of the most beautiful islands in the South Pacific.

We drove Galactic right along the waterfront of the village, which borders the pass. It felt odd to be leaving in such a public way without having ever stopped to say hi. Sort of as if we had spent 11 days in someone's house without ever introducing ourselves.

Once out of the (very rapidly ebbing) pass we pointed it downwind. I poled out the jib. We haven't sailed dead downwind since we were a thousand miles from Tahanea.

The boys were generally crazy, as they generally are at the start of a passage.

Alisa and I were a little dopey, as we generally are at the start of a passage.

And I was a little grim and grumpy, as I generally am at the start of a passage. The responsibility doesn't always ride lightly.

In four days, or five if the wind is as light as forecast, we hope to find ourselves in Raivavae.

New places ever await.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Local Advice

Myself, returning from the bow after another successful anchoring mission: Alright! Who wants to go to the beach?!

Both Boys: Meeee!

Alisa: First, Eric, do your time out. That's going to happen every time. A four-minute time out every time you jab your brother in the penis.


Herself, going down the companionway to mete justice: I'm livin' the dream!


Of course we always solicit local advice - wherever we are, every chance we get.

A local couple, living at their camp on an out-motu while harvesting copra, stopped by Galactic in their pirogue the first day we were here. Elias whispered in my ear that I should ask about ciguatera. None at Amanu, they replied. I asked a couple times, in different ways. Yes, they confirmed, all the fish are safe to eat.

It was left to me to explain to Elias later how we take that first report as nothing but an encouraging sign. In Makemo, our ludicrous French will get us the response that there is no ciguatera. Someone who speaks French, and knows what to ask, will be told that there are two species of fish that the locals never touch. So the more informative answer is something along the lines of, "All the fish are safe. Except those two species that aren't."

And then there was Hao. The first person we asked, Ipo, told us that all the fish there are safe. The second person we spoke to, Anglophone Tony ("Why do you want your kids to learn French? It's an awful language.") told us, in his fluent English, that there was LOTS of ciguatera, and it was complicated, telling what was safe.

Then this couple at Amanu dropped another tidbit on us. Careful with that little one of yours, they said. Dangerous sharks here.

The family had already seen a handful of sickle-fin lemon sharks on their first trip ashore, and we had been wondering what the scene was.

In a lot of ways, we're pretty conservative when we travel. Having been warned by locals, we made the very easy decision to stay out of the water. We'll probably venture in at some point for a last Tuamotu snorkel. But all the endless jumping off the stern and the laps around the boat at anchor - such huge parts of our routine in the tropics - all that is on hold.

Which is a decided blow against our experience of Amanu.

In Hao, I had, in spite of myself, started to entertain an image of Tuamotu villages as jails. Of course, anyone's home place is paradise to them. But The motus are just so small, the villages so packed in, the poverty, at times, quite severe. To a continental visitor on an extended tour, possibility can begin to look scarce.

And then, if you aren't swimming... You can start to forget the point of the Tuamotus. This place, after all, is all about the water.

The boys began to devour our wildlife guide to Chile, hungering after continental levels of terrestrial biodiversity.

Luckily, our latest move to a new anchorage revealed the best walking, barring a road, that we have found in the Dangerous Archipelago. The outer reef on the northeast corner of the atoll has long berms of coral debris, almost level, left behind by cyclones of the past.

You can walk and walk there. And Elias found a glass ball - one of the hand-blown fishing floats that are the prized beachcomber's find in Alaska.

It's the first whole one we've ever seen in the South Pacific. And that inconsequential little delight - Elias was so happy to bring it back to his mom as a gift - will give us a moment to anchor Amanu in our memory.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


It's easier to count the ways that sailing and mountain climbing are different than the ways that they're similar.

Mountain climbers, for instance, might eventually grow fat and lazy, but they don't do it while they're actually climbing.

But their are some similarities. In particular, there's the "go or no-go" question.

Do you leave the relatively palatial tent on the glacier for the uncertainties of the climb? Are the conditions good enough? Is this the time?

Do you leave the security of a harbor for the uncertainty of navigating among unfamiliar hazards? Are the conditions good enough? Is this the time?

They're much the same question. And if you do make the decision to wait for better conditions, there's the corrosive inactivity that follows, allowing you to second-guess and rue your identity as one of those adventurers manque who are not seizing the day.

But then again, there's no point in going when the conditions are poor. (Almost) anything is easy on the right day.


After months of mostly settled weather, a long strip of inclement conditions extended from doldrums to horse latitudes, and parked itself over the southern Tuamotus.

We have thus far been some combination of lucky enough and smart enough to avoid much drama in this archipelago of our dreams. (Touch massive wood.) Based on an informal survey of hard-luck stories, there are four ways for a sailboat to get into trouble in the Tuamotus: you can fail to get your anchor back from the corally depths, you can screw up a pass transit, you can get caught on a lee shore in the middle of the night by a wind shift, and you can fail to see a bommie while moving around inside a lagoon.

The first one is mostly a matter of skill, the second a matter of patience, but numbers three and four are more condition-dependent. Unsettled weather brings wind shifts and rainy days without good visibility for seeing coral. So when the weather model started to forecast squalls and downpours, we figured we'd just as soon wait to make the transit from Hao to Amanu. No sense in having a drama.

The darse d'Hao - the old military harbor where we were tied up - was getting a bit stale, so we elected to investigate the report in the American DIY sailing guide of a good anchorage near the pass. That turned out to be much too corally for us (see way to get into trouble #1), and a couple hours of searching resulted in no place that we cared to drop the hook on the north side of the atoll. The south side looked to offer great anchoring, but it was also more than 25 miles away, and the squalls were gathering on the horizon. The guaranteed security of the darse was looking pretty inviting.

So we returned there to wait out the unsettled conditions. Day after day the weather model promised shifting wind and null visibility, and day after day turned out to be mostly fine. I worked, Alisa held school for the boys, we took long bike rides, we chatted with our neighbors on Momo.

Finally, we had enough of paying attention to the weather model. So even though yesterday dawned with less promise than most, weather-wise, we cast off the lines. We were spat out by the pass and covered the 15 miles of open water to Amanu in little more than two hours. That pass was narrow and pumping against us, but we managed not to fall under two knots over the ground while steaming in, and navigating around the obstructions in the lagoon was no drama. We quickly left the village of 120 people behind, and found an anchorage on the northeast corner of the atoll.

There are no other yachts here, and last night we saw no lights of any kind. Amanu has the reputation of offering the same combination of tropical paradise and relative solitude that we enjoyed so much in Tahanea. This is very likely to be our last stop ever in the Tuamotus - let the delights begin.