Archive for May 2013

Strange Visions of Outlandish Things

30 May 2013

The Marquesas! What strange visions of outlandish things does the very name spirit up! Naked houris – cannibal banquets – groves of cocoa-nut – coral reefs – tattooed chiefs – and bamboo temples; sunny valleys planted with breadfruit-trees – carved canoes dancing on the flashing blue waters – savage woodlands guarded by horrible idols – heathenish rites and human sacrifices.

-Herman Melville, Typee

The six Marquesas Islands jut abruptly up out of the sea at the far eastern edge of Polynesia, about 300 miles from the closest rock. Steep, rugged black cliffs clothed in lush green might make a forbidding sight to a fat man in a Hawaiian shirt cruising in aboard the (trés chic) SS Paul Gauguin, but for generations of sailors they have offered welcome shelter from the Pacific seas– for Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson in the 19th century, for Captain Cook and his crew in the 18th, for the first bedraggled Spaniards in the 16th, and, surely, for the hardy Polynesians who floated here in kitted-out canoes a thousand years ago.

Here in the 21st century, the landfall of Nepenthe on the isle of Hiva Oa was equally momentous for her crew, if not for mankind. Inherent danger and difficulty notwithstanding, a trans-Pacific sail is a rather common leisure activity these days– about 300 boats made the “puddle jump” this year, and in the Bay of Atuona, which we shared with perhaps a dozen other yachts, we were introduced to the peculiar subculture of ocean cruisers. While our trip has the proportions of, say, a protracted vacation, many of the couples, families and solo graybeards sharing our harbor have traded in the comforts of solid ground altogether, in favor of a life adrift. Not exactly the sailors of popular imagination in Nantucket red pants adorned with tiny anchors, these folk have more in common with the RV crowd: itinerant, independent, living in a mobile efficiency apartment. It’s a lifestyle I can scarcely imagine– so disconnected, so peripatetic– but for the friendly couples living aboard Nakia, Red, and the other boats we met, it seemed to suit them fine.

And why not? Upon checking in with the gendarmes in the Marquesas,foreigners are issued a visa, gratis, granting the freedom to cruise for 90 days through idyllic French Polynesia– the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti, Bora Bora, and the rest of the Society Islands. I will surely discuss the latter groups in future pontifications, but for now, I can attest that that these Marquesas are islands where precipitous volcanic peaks are whorled in misty clouds, where luscious ripe mangoes literally fall at your feet, and where a rainbow arcing over a calm blue bay is, no shit, a daily occurrence. There is not much snorkeling or diving to be done here– no reefs, cloudy water– rather, the islands are best enjoyed by foot: Henry and I have enjoyed hikes on trails winding up from coconut palm groves surrounding the bays, through thick stands of mango and breadfruit trees and up into heights of grassy scrub brush and unexpected pine forests.

If you had saved your cash, bought yourself a boat, and wanted nothing more than to check out from the pace of Western life, you could scarcely do better than to come cruise the Marquesas, where a leisurely pace of life is strictly enforced. We arrived in our first port of call in the early afternoon, and after 26 days asea, were eager to check in and begin enjoying everything that solid ground had to offer. Three PM, it turned out, was much too late in the day for such activity– the gendarmes prefer to take care of business between 10 and 11:30, enjoy their siesta until about 2 PM, and then not do any work for the rest of the afternoon. Most businesses seem to operate on a similar schedule– we have had to vigorously lobby restaurant proprietors to prepare food during hours their establishment is ostensibly open.

All in all, the economy here is a bit of a mystery to me. Without much tourism on either the budget- or high-end (the islands are just too dang far from anywhere else) and not a lot in the way of industry, most of these islands’ economy seems to center around small-time fishing and copra production: the middle step between a coconut and coconut oil. Despite all this, everything here is extravagantly expensive– a can of local lager is $6, a restaurant dinner cannot be had for less than $25. This is also a magnificently disconnected place: television broadcasts only arrived in the 1980s, internet access is scarce outside Taioha’e, the islands’ largest town (population 2,000), and while SIM cards are available for purchase, I have yet to see anyone talking on a cell phone. I, for one, have made my telephone calls from bayside phone booths, which is a rather amusing throwback novelty.

The local languor, however, belies a vibrant past. Two centuries ago, close to 100,000 people inhabited these few islands, and when Melville visited, every valley was full of life. After the usual combination of European violence and disease did its work, the population was reduced to less than 10,000, where it remains. The valleys of these islands feel like ghost towns, with seemingly ancient stone foundations on terraced hillsides, carved petroglyphs and imposing tikis (a.k.a. horrible idols) as testament to the civilization that thrived here not long ago. But the culture survives, and a few nights past we were treated to group of teenagers preparing for la fête des meres (a.k.a. mothers’ day) with energetic drumming and traditional dancing, while down by the shore of Taioha’e Bay, fisherman gutted and cleaned the day’s catch, wives waited to bring home dinner, and children ran about, torturing tiny baitfish lying helpless on the quay.

Aboard Nepenthe, we’re surely enjoying the Marquesas, while also enduring our just penance for such delights. Keeping a boat like this afloat is constant work– swapping lines, tinkering with the refrigeration, checking fittings for wear– meanwhile, we arrived just in time for the early beginning of this year’s rainy season. Having four crew aboard certainly made our crossing easier, but four is now rather a crowd in our little cabin, and the overall effect is one of four large, rather pungent, not entirely tidy men living in an efficiency apartment where absolutely everything is always wet. And hopping between these islands is no mean feat, either: the passage from Fatu Hiva to Nuku Hiva was a full 24 hours, during which we endured the gustiest gusts of our voyage so far, clocking up to 40 knots of wind in patchy rain.

Last week, after a jouncy sail, we arrived in Fatu Hiva shortly before sunset, and dropped our anchor in the rather crowded and rather gorgeous Bay of Virgins before succumbing to slumber. We awoke with a jolt in the dead of night to find that our anchor had dragged out of the sandy bottom and we had drifted halfway out to sea, coming to a stop courtesy of a boat belonging to a grouchy Frenchman. We scrambled to get clear of the other boats, while multiple grouchy Frenchmen on multiple boats blasted airhorns in our general direction. Real damage was gladly averted, but we rode out the night drifting at sea, and spent the next few days hiding out next door, where we had the anchorage to ourselves and the locals seemed happier to see us, anyway.

The past few days, we have been anchored in the friendlier confines of Anaho Bay and Hatiheu Bay on the north side of Nuku Hiva. Perhaps a dozen homes abut Anaho, with a tiny chapel and nary a road, paved or otherwise, besmirching the landscape. Blue water laps at white sand, fish of myriad colors course through the coral, and falling coconuts present mortal danger. Over the pass is Hatiheu, where higher civilization prevails, with a post office, a store, and a small clinic to boast of. Up the hill lie ruins and petroglyphs, and down by the shore is Chez Yvonne, the finest restaurant we’ve discovered here. In two days, we have dined there thrice, and to my knowledge we have been their only customers. A shame, as Yvonne served up magnificent roast pork in a sweet ginger glaze, rich and succulent goat in coconut-marrow sauce, and a very fine poisson cru, the local delicacy: a wahoo ceviche in coconut milk. So we are well-fed and properly nourished as we look forward to the beginning of our next passage tomorrow: 500 miles to the Tuamotus Archipelago.

Sunset at SeaSawing the Pork RoastRegarding the HorizonCaptain John and Leftennant RalphLand Ho!At Port in Atuona BayHatiheu BayRugged PeaksAtuona BayFirst Mate and Cabin BoyHorrible Idols
Sunset at Sea

Setting Sail

Nepenthe02

Sawing the Pork Roast

Regarding the Horizon
Captain John and Leftennant Ralph
Land Ho!
At Port in Atuona Bay
Hatiheu Bay
Rugged Peaks
Atuona Bay
First Mate and Cabin Boy
Horrible Idols


Land, Ho!

19 May 2013

The captain, darting on deck from the cabin, bawled lustily for his spyglass; the mate in still louder accents hailed the mast-head with a tremendous ‘where-away?’ The black cook thrust his woolly head from the galley, and Boatswain, the dog, leaped up between the knight-heads, and barked most furiously. Land ho! Aye, there it was. A hardly perceptible blue irregular outline, indicating the bold contour of the lofty heights of Nukuheva.

- Herman Melville, Typee

On the morning of May 14th, our 26th day at sea, I awoke to a grey blob in the distance: darker than a cloud, suspiciously situated right on the horizon. By early afternoon, we were in the shadow of Hiva Oa, a towering green volcanic mass that was once home to Paul Gaugin and Jacques Brell, and is now home to about 2,000 hardy Polynesians living on the far edge of humanity.

The final week of our sail was a roaring success. With trade winds from the east, Nepenthe hurtled through the last thousand miles of sea in hardly a week. In our final days, we finally discovered the lure that spoke to the fishes, and we hauled in not one but two hardy Skipjack Tuna, each one easily exceeding twenty pounds. Henry and I reeled, gaffed, brained, bled, gutted, cleaned and filleted the fish, referring gratefully to our handy manual Fishing for Cruisers, and then feasted for days on sushi, sashimi, ceviche and thick tuna steaks. They were delicious.

Looking back on the trip from dry land, I must admit that we were lucky. Our wind, more or less, was steady without being overpowering. Other boats made similar passages at similar times, and spend days bobbing about in a sea becalmed, or were blown wildly off course by breezes from unexpected quarters. And we managed to avoid any major natural or manmade mishaps, save the odd ropeburn– no gales, no violent squalls, no crewman tossed overboard– my gravest injury came while slicing an onion. So, for our good fortune, we thank King Poseiden, and commit a glass of rum to the sea for his enjoyment.

Likewise, the isolation of being at sea was not, for me, as psychologically taxing as one might suspect. A group of my more dubious friends evidently had a  sizable pool going as to when and whether I would lose my mind, but I’m happy to report that the doubters never came very close to winning their bets. As I mentioned in my previous post, given the limits of human perception, it wasn’t hard to engage in a little self-delusion over just how isolated we really were.

In a pre-departure post on this blog, I quoted the words of warning offered by my friend Lieutennant Livy Coe, who advised me to consider the fact that once you’re out at sea, “you can’t get off the boat.” Livy hit the nail on the head. Sailing is not a comfortable experience. The boat is constantly– constantly– pitching and rolling and yawing, sometimes violently, sometimes mildly, always unpredictably. Moving about the boat requires three points of contact, just sitting in the cockpit often requires holding on. And when the day is done, as Livy succinctly put, you can’t get off the boat. At best, you can stretch out in your bunk, brace yourself against the hull, and try to sleep; at worst, you’re up much of the night adjusting the sails in the wind, closing portholes against the rain, and eyeing the radar for oncoming squalls.

Tasks that require more than one hand tend to fall by the wayside. Bathing, for instance, becomes more of a weekly adventure than a daily routine. Taking a whiz, I found, required bracing my head against the wall; not once in four weeks did I succeed in zipping my fly within a respectable time frame. Cooking, in particular, I found to be an impossibility: as soon as you crack an egg into a bowl, the boat rolls, the bowl slides, and your egg is on the floor. The closest I came to truly losing my mind at sea was watching, ravenous, as an entire pot of freshly boiled pasta dumped all over the galley. Luckily for me and the rest of the crew, we had a talented and stalwart chef in Henry, who prepared most of our dinners with extraordinary panache. Which reminds me that I have yet to properly introduce my fellow sailors.

Henry is a friend and sometime roommate of mine, originally from Los Angeles, where he will soon return to wed his bride (Hi, Liz!) and matriculate at UCLA Law School. He is a very fine chef on both land and sea, and he brought the majority of the passion (and equipment) to our fishing operation. He has also an interesting proclivity for the extreme: he likes the bimini twist, because it is the strongest knot, bleach, because it kills absolutely everything, and Spectra, because it is the most unbreakable line.

John is our captain and the proud owner of Nepenthe. His eldest son, Keegan, is one of Henry’s closest friends. John is a lifelong sailor, and doing this trip has been a dream of his for years. He has spent much of his free time over the past three years rebuilding all the systems on the boat, so whenever anything has needed a fix, John, helpfully, has been able to identify and address the problem with remarkable technical facility. He is an actor by trade, and enjoys some degree of celebrity, I am told, for his role on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Ralph is an actor, computer guy, and Marxian economist from New York; he was John’s roommate about forty years ago. He seems to possess an inexhaustible repository of tales from past adventures: motorcycling across America, riding the roofs of jeepneys in the Philippines, doing battle with The Man in the late 1960s. Almost immediately upon our arrival on Hiva Oa, Ralph tumbled off a cliff, but managed to avoid injury except for a scrape on his hand. Make of that what you will.

And so with this crew I and sailed Nepenthe from California to Hiva Oa in 26 days. We arrived in Tahauku Bay in the early afternoon, and dropped our anchor among a dozen or so other yachts, which had all made similar passages. Around us, the island slopes up steep and green on all sides to a summit whorled in clouds. We stepped ashore, weaving and stumbling with legs of rubber, and wandered into this tropical island country, eyes agape and mouths hanging in awe.



Tropical Convergence

7 May 2013

5/06/2013 09:29 AM (utc) – 5°45′N 128°39′W

Since leaving Los Angeles, we have sailed over 1,700 miles south and west, with a mere(?) 1,000 miles to go before we can kick up our feet on dry land and glimpse another human in the Marquesas Islands. It is, I must admit, rather hard to comprehend the scope of this trip. From where I’m sitting, I can look around and see that we have a little circle of ocean to ourselves, and it looks rather like the little circle we were occupying two weeks ago. I feel isolated, sure, but I don’t feel nearly as isolated as I actually am; it seems the closest ship should be just beyond the horizon and the nearest land is surely no more than a day’s sail away– but in all likelihood, neither is within 800 miles of our little boat. Actually appreciating the hugeness of this ocean, or how far we’ve sailed, or, for that matter, how far we have yet to go is a tricky thing.

But as we’ve traversed the Pacific, certain things have changed to indicate our progress: most prominently, the heat. When we left LA, it was chilly. Actually, forget chilly, it was cold. Spending a night out on watch required two sweatshirts and a bulky rubber rain jacket, just to keep from freezing. Now, a scant six degrees north of the equator, the night breezes are impossibly pleasant in short sleeves, the water around is is about 85 degrees, and the days, well, the days are rather hot.

We haven’t sighted any dolphins since leaving coastal waters, but their presence (if not their personality) has been replaced by a wild abundance of flying fish, who buzz like overgrown dragonflies above the waves, executing sharp u-turns and other nimble maneuvers before splashing back down. The sea is so thick with them, in fact, that they can’t seem to keep from martyring themselves on our vessel; every morning now begins with a walk around the boat, peeling up six, eight, twelve flying fish that have executed kamikaze missions onto our deck overnight.

Hungrily following these fish are a surprising assortment of seabirds patrolling the air, looking for lunch. I have watched them with some envy as they float effortlessly on the breeze, swooping down into the swell and banking around one wave before dipping into the trough of another. I was less envious on a recent rainy, moonless night as a flock seemed to rally around the running lights atop our mast, calling out and trying to stay together in the inky blackness. I, meanwhile, was comfortably bundled in my raingear below, letting our wind vane steer us through the night, and admiring their white-lit bellies in the darkness.

We, I’m afraid, have had less luck than our avian breatheren in the fishing department. In the past week, we’ve had three bites on the squid-esque lure that we’re trailing behind the boat, and twice we’ve even reeled them in close enough to get our mouths watering, but all three times the fish have spit the hook and swum away, pierced but wiser. Before you critique our skills (not to say we have any expert fishermen aboard), it is worth pointing out that there are not, in fact, many big fish out here in the middle of the sea. Most ocean life congregates along the coasts, and while three nibbles in two weeks may seem to confirm the hopelessness of the situation, we’re still optimistic about hauling in a handsome dorado, a fierce wahoo or a majestic tuna before this trip is done.

Friday evening, after a week of smooth sailing in the northern trade winds, we passed into the infamous Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (alternatively known by its forbidding acronym ICTZ, or, more colloquially, as <i>the doldrums</i>). Encircling the earth at the equator, this band of uniform low pressure has been feared by generations of sailors for its torpid, shifty winds and violent, unpredictable squalls. Saturday we spent the day idling in this languid air, moving painfully slowly, and never, it seemed, in quite the right direction. We started our engine, and watched with dismay as the boat bounced ineffectually over the oncoming swell at a meager three knots– far too slow to rely on our diesel power to carry us out of the doldrums.

After night falls on this ghastly region, as the air cools and rises, squalls develop rapidly and can hit with little warning, thrashing boats with gale-force winds and blinding rain. Each of our two nights has been spent in tense vigilance, checking our radar for signs of oncoming storms and eyeing the dark sky, lit fitfully by sheet lightning, for the even darker bulks of silhouetted thunderheads. With enough warning and fortunate positioning, we can sometimes dodge an oncoming squall– and we have, depowering our sails and changing course to let them pass across our bow. Other times, they’re too big to dodge, and all we can do is shorten our sails, turn into the swell and ride them out, as the winds howl and rain pounds our deck. And just before sunrise, as the air begins to warm, the squalls die and the sun comes up on another becalmed day.

Today, Sunday, these volatile winds have moved, fortuitously, out of the east, and we’re back under sail, moving south and west again. If these winds hold (an optimistic assumption) we will be out of the doldrums by Monday evening, and then onto the wings of the southern trades, which should carry us to the islands in ten days or less.

Before we left, an experienced sailor told me that on a long passage like this one, there is no present, only the past and the future, rather glibly suggesting the monotony of weeks at sea. Perhaps when it’s all over, the long days and nights of this sail will blend together and fade. But now that we’re out here, I find it quite the opposite of the sailor’s projection: the present is all there is. California feels like a lifetime ago, and our arrival in the South Pacific islands an unimaginably distant future. This trip is a test of endurance, and with two-thirds of it behind us, we’re doing well. Between our daily tasks and routines, our days and nights are made rich by the small and large wonders of the sea and the sky, the wind and the waves. We watch the ocean change its many colors, from brilliant indigo in the sunshine, to lavender at sunset, to an ominous slate as a dark storm approaches. After night falls, bringing a cloudy, moonless night, threatening to storm, we look down and see the water luminescent with life, the waves glowing brilliantly, and our wake lit up like diamonds and dust splashed across the black velvet surface of the sea.