On Wednesday, I’ll be setting sail from Ventura, California, and if everything goes according to plan, I’ll sail past Santa Cruz Island and I won’t glimpse land again until arriving at Hiva Oa in French Polynesia some four weeks later. I’ll be making this journey on Nepenthe, a 43 foot ketch, along with Henry (my pal), John (Henry’s friend’s dad), and Ralph (John’s roommate circa 1975). A ragtag crew of adventurers, to be sure.
We’ve spent the past few weeks fixing up the boat, loading it down with a seemingly impossible volume of food, and, in my particular case, learning to sail. I will concede that it is perhaps insane to make one’s first substantial sailing voyage a “Trans-Pac” (in the incomprehensible dialect of seafarers), but then, it wouldn’t be half the adventure if I knew what I was getting myself into, would it?
I’ve received a great deal of advice (both sound and otherwise) from veteran sailors and ocean-folk. With the days before departure dwindling I’m mulling one bit of wisdom shared by my good friend Lieutenant Livy M. Coe IV– who himself crewed an ill-fated sail from the Azores into the Mediterranean before joining up with the U.S. Navy. As Livy urged me to consider before committing to the voyage: Remember, Sam, you cannot get off the boat. Obvious, perhaps, but also hard to really understand until you’re out there. I’m a bit apprehensive, particularly about the first four days, which is when we’ll be in our gustiest wind, and which is about how long every old sea dog says it takes to adjust– physically and psychologically– to life at sea. I have no doubt there will be moments when I will really want to get off the boat, but, well, you know.
After that four-week crossing comes the fun stuff: six more weeks to cruise the Marquesas Islands and the Tuamotu Archipelago before washing up on the beaches of Tahiti. I don’t know exactly what to expect, but, well, if it’s good enough for Paul Gauguin, it’s good enough for me.
Not surprisingly, everyone I talk to about this trip has a host of questions: Will you see other boats? Do you have a motor? What will you eat? What is Nepenthe? Do you get seasick? (In brief: Probably not; you bet we do; lots of pasta, lots of beans; an ancient Greek drug of forgetfulness; as a matter of fact I do, but Non-Drowsy Dramamine works great and most people get over it after a few days). And everyone seems particularly interested in the level of danger involved. We’re setting sail at the one time of year we’re guaranteed not to hit any major storms, and though we’ll surely hit a squall or two, it won’t be anything Nepenthe can’t handle. Once we get off the coast, we should be able to set our sails and cruise for days. And if the shit, for whatever reason, were to really hit the fan, we’ve got a cool little device that, when immersed in water, sends out an SOS signal via satellite and the U.S. Coast Guard will send someone to come pluck us out of our life raft. But that shan’t be necessary.
We’ll be hopelessly beyond the reach of most modern communications, but I have been learning the dark art of high-frequency radio, which will give me access to (agonizingly slow) email over a range of about 7,000 miles. It’s really, really cool, and it will (hopefully) allow me to publish the occasional blog post here over the coming months. Don’t touch that dial.