Land, Ho!

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

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.

Aquatic Mammals

4/25/2013 1:06 AM (utc) – 23°01.48’N 123°21.53’W

A week ago, Nepenthe sailed out of Ventura Marina on a cool, clear day, a steady breeze filing her sails.  As the sun set on that first day, we were beyond sight of land and, well, that should be about it until we hit Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands. Today we’re about a quarter of the way there– 700 miles of 2,833 total. From our current position, you could head 731 miles due east and hit the southern tip of Baja California, or about 1,800 miles west and run into Hawaii. Or, if the fancy struck you, you could head due south and the first land you would hit, 5,700 miles later, would be Antarctica. Yesterday, we were surprised to cross paths with a Singaporean container ship by the name of Orchard Bulker on her way to Guangzhou (6,400 miles), but in all likelihood, we won’t see another ship until we’re within shouting distance of the Pacific islands.

Our little boat is comfortable enough for our crew of four: two tiny cabins in the stern, and a third in the bow. I’m relegated to the berth amidships (which is to say, in the middle of the boat), short on privacy as it’s in the living room/galley/salon below decks. I sleep on a sort of shelf up against the wall, and I must go fully horizontal before I am able to enter it. When we’re underway, I can hear the water gurgling and rushing by on the outside of the hull, and the overall sensation is something like sleeping in a three-sided coffin that’s being flushed down a giant toilet. But with the seas rocking my cradle every night, I’ve actually been sleeping pretty well.

Though I will say the rocking took some getting used to. Our second day on the water was, for me, a blur of violent illness and long naps. Every salty old sea dog I talked to before the trip assured me that I would almost certainly be seasick for a few days, and then I would almost certainly get over it. Not one to take such chances, I’m traveling with a veritable salad bar of seasickness medications, including one that isn’t, strictly speaking, FDA-approved, though it’s apparently what NASA gives to queasy astronauts, and another that is alternatively employed as a truth serum and a facilitator of kidnappings.

Courtesy of this floating pharmacy, I awoke on the third day feeling greatly reinvigorated, and I was welcomed back into the world by a pod of dolphins bounding over the horizon. The ocean has a way of keeping you going, even as she torments you (so say, anyhow, the aforementioned salty old sea dogs), and these dozen dolphins stayed with us all day, playing in our wake and seeming to encourage us on, surfacing for air together and darting under and around the boat in pairs and threes.

Our primary daily task, of course, is to sail this boat. On our first few breezy days, this was, well, a breeze.  We’d set our sails in the morning, and hardly touch them as we sliced through the ocean all day before setting a more modest arrangement for the night. Much of this week, however, we’ve been becalmed, bobbing like a cork in a bathtub. Our only wind has come in gusts from the north– half an hour of calm, fifteen minutes of breeze, then another still period– like the steady exhale of slumbering arctic giant. In these winds, we’ve been sailing with our spinnaker, a technicolor parachute that balloons out before our boat as we cruise downwind. It’s been an interesting challenge to harness and finesse it– Henry described the process as like “flying a kite the size of a tennis court,” which is not far off the mark.

Being at sea narrows the world considerably, and also, I have found, narrows the range of things one might think about: wind, food, fellow crew, clouds, waves, vengeful whales, etcetera. And so beyond our sailorly activities, we go about our days methodically, circumscribed by this forty-three foot tub, constantly in motion, always listing fifteen degrees to starboard. Simple tasks, as you might imagine, become rather difficult. In the old sailor adage: “one hand for yourself and one for the ship,” and when that fails, you go ahead and strap yourself in.  Meals are cooked with the help of a gimbaled stove that swings with the swell, and dishes are washed by quite literally binding yourself to the sink (an innovation that might find another application in dealing with chore-shirking teenagers). Even taking a whiz comes with risk of high comedy every time you unzip– one hand for the ship and one on yourself, to be sure, lest you befoul the head and get clobbered against the rocking hull.

Our weather is forecast to improve in the morning, and then we’ll be off and away again, south and west in the trade winds. Before then, I’ll be enjoying the graveyard shift at the helm– 2am to 5am, looking out for commercial traffic, oncoming squalls, rogue waves and shifty winds. The moon will be full, and if this night is anything like the past few, the ocean will stretch out from our hull, endless in all directions, glinting glassy and metallic in the glow, and above me our sails will be silhouetted black against a bright, starry sky.

Setting Sail

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.

nepentheWe’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.