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.

Thoughts?

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