Category Archives: sailing
Despite still living on the boat, we were now moored up in Papeete in Tahiti Nui and I was making that sea-to-land transition without too much bother. After weeks without crowds and flashy lights and shop windows full of unnecessary lures, I had been looking forward – a little – to some built up bustle and human life.
But postcard pictures of Tahiti, with their promises of a tropical paradise, didn’t deliver. I half expected Robinson Crusoe emptiness and fallen coconuts scattered on wide, white sand beaches, and maybe a little bar built out of wooden slats tinkling out upbeat songs to paddling and sunbathing holidaymakers. I thought back to my time in Mompiche in Ecuador and predicted something along those lines, only lit by a warmer sun and dropping off to a vibrant, turquoise horizon. I knew that as the main hub of Tahiti, Papeete would be a bit more of a regular, developed city but again previous adventures channelled my expectations and I anticipated something closer to the carless charm of Ilha Grande in Brazil.
Needless to say, with a head full of romanticised candyfloss, my first impressions of being back in civilisation weren’t great.
The sail in to Papeete should have given me some idea of what to expect. Perfectly planted palms and trimmed, irrigated parks did little to set my excitement alight.
And yet, I was excited as we approached Papeete, and I caught myself holding my breath as I stood on deck and watched glaring shopping centre signs and double lane road running alongside the marina moorings get closer and closer.
In the town itself my eyes zoomed into the duality of the place, to lazy grafitti tags and rubbish thrown on the floor, to pristine lawns and carefully constructed window dressings full of jewellery and pictures of airbrushed women draped in pearls and handsome men.
I searched for free WiFi, but found only gifts and food that cost a small fortune. The famous fast-food joint, which in other countries is known to lure in travellers with the promise of internet access, had only the usual glossy wall pictures and a predominantly obese clientele.
In a side road I saw a woman lean over and onto a bin, dirtied white pants reaching high above her rolling waistline, no other clothes, whilst a group of well-dressed friends sat in a trendy cafe on the next street across.
On the edge of a little shopping centre a middle-aged man held out his hand to a passing woman, man and boy, who instead dropped coins into the hands of a sweetie vendor.
But really, none of this is that unusual. Although Papeete suffers the same ailments as many a built up town, my disappointment was my own fault, possibly influenced by tourism advertising, inflated expectations and island dreams, but ultimately the result of a hopeful imagination. And, maybe, because the slick side of the town – the ‘better’ side – was so not my thing, frustrations with society and consumerism and all those bigger issues were brought back to the forefront. And the irony? I’d just sailed in on a million plus catamaran. Sure, it wasn’t my boat or the boat of the boys onboard (we were on a delivery) but without this world and these extravagant lifestyles, the privilege of sailing the South Pacific Seas would never have occurred.
My mind had a bit of a wrestle about and after a few weeks of living in a dream world of the Pacific Ocean sail, reality wasn’t just giving me a nibble. She was biting hard, locking down her jaw and thrashing her head about.
And so, I couldn’t help but feel a bit deflated. Where was this paradise that people spoke of? Was it equated to expensive purchases and monotone restaurants dishing up small servings on large plates?
I definitely needed to do some more exploring.
It was never a guaranteed that I’d stay on board all the way to Australia, and with space for only one of us, either Matt or me had to make a move to a different boat or a different whatever. The rules of the world dictate, first on last off. I had no problems with that.
It was only as we got closer to Tahiti that we finally broached the subject and thrashed out the reality of the situation. As it turned out, Matt wanted to stay on board, so I was off. It gave me a few days thinking time. As far as I was concerned, I had three, no four, options:
1) Find another boat to crew for. The positives are that I might even find paid work, the negatives that most boats would want to do some exploring of the islands. Bora Bora? I heard it’s amazing, so why a negative? I wanted to get back to Oz sooner than August. I needed to go earn some money, catch up with friends and family.
2) Find a stout Tahitian man and get stuck into island life. A beautiful place, who wouldn’t want to settle in tropical paradise? Nah, my ideals say that something like this, should it happen, would be spontaneous and emotionally driven, and not a calculated decision. And honestly, my heart was a little too distracted to really consider this option.
3) Find a cheap flight to Oz. After nearly a year of being transient, I was ready to put down roots for at least a few months. My bank account suggested that it was a necessity to get some paid work quickly, particularly if I hoped to finally return to my family in the UK for Christmas.
4) See what turns up. This approach has worked well for me over the last year. I’ve freed myself of the need to plan and be overly prepared. It’s liberating. Only occasionally has it fallen flat, like when I turned up to New Zealand not having booked a hostel after taking three flights. Of course, everywhere was fully booked because the Foo Fighters were playing that night. But generally, adventures and interesting experiences have presented themselves when I’ve just been open to seeing what turns up.
So here in Tahiti, I started to pack up my bags and prepare for pastures new.
What would life have in store for me?
The logical thing as a free-spirited, solo traveller would be to continue the sailing adventure through French Polynesia. But something else was pulling me in a different direction, no, not just the one thing, some things.
As I sat in the sunshine sipping a fresh fruit juice, gazing out at a fleet of yachts, Pride told me to find another boat, to do the full Pacific crossing. What’s another two months? he asked, you’ve come so far, why give up now? Because, I replied, I’m actually quite ready to stop for a while. Tropical islands are all well and beautiful but I want to be with friends again, be part of a little community that doesn’t dissipate in a few days, get somewhere where I can talk to doctors in English and get these tropical sores treated.
I recalled a friend’s wise words about there always being more opportunities to do things in the future. If I want to sail around French Polynesia, if it’s really, really important to me, I’ll find a way to come back. I wouldn’t be giving up, I decided. None of my adventures had had definite start and end points so why force this one? No Pride, you don’t present a strong enough argument.
Adventure perked up. You like Tahiti, right? Imagine more of this, more remote, more beautiful, more Bora Bora. People would sell their souls to get to Bora Bora. And then there are the Cook Islands and Tonga and maybe Fiji. You could spend months sailing, not spending much money, maybe even earning some, months enjoying waters perfect for snorkelling and diving and splashing about. You would be in paradise, away from the responsibilities of real life, putting off your return to rent and taxes and all things boring.
In many respects, it sounded appealing. Adventure talked my language, romanticised escapism, abhorred conventionality. But how realistic was Adventure? Did she not realise the power that denial and stresses played on the mind? No, life in its conventional sense of salaries and so forth needed to be addressed.
Responsibility smiled. Finally! he said, you’re starting to be a bit more level headed. Level-headed? I cringed. Maybe you don’t want to return to teaching, but drifting along will soon become tired. Know that you have lots of options. If you really want to be a little less responsible, if you really want to be a writer, he paused and raised an eyebrow, then you’ll still need to find some other work to cover your living costs. You may actually feel quite good earning money again, – you’ll be able to treat people and be independent and, if you must, save for further travels.
I thought about it. Responsibility was right. My return to Australia could just be a stop-gap. If it happened to extend into something more long-term then fine, but if I approached it as just another step in my adventure it would panic me less, and be less of a reason to run for the hills. Or the sea, in this case.
Finally, when I was ready, Love added her two pence worth and told me what I already knew. You have a friend in Australia who is soon moving on to pastures new, you have a cousin arriving into the country before too long and you have someone there who is so looking forward to your return.
Pride tried to butt in but Love was having none of it. She continued. Your family would be so, so happy to see you at Christmas, and I know how much you want to catch up with friends back in the UK. So lightly listen to Responsibility – he makes a few good points – and realise that the journey is never over. To continue your adventure in a meaningful way, you know what you need to do. And the stout Tahitian man that you mentioned? He’s not for you, dear. Leave him be.
Three hours later I had a flight booked to land in Brisbane, Australia. But first, another two weeks in paradise.
It’s the morning of 5thJune 2012. Dawn light teases the horizon, hinting at the possibility of land mass. It could be clouds, though. I squint. I relax my eyes. It’s the same.
I take a short, quick breath and exhale slowly. Over 3,000nm. We’ve done it. We have all but arrived.
Less than a day and half ago I was coming off of my night watch when the lights of Fakarava came into view, the first hint of civilisation. Early ideas had been to drop anchor in the lagoon and explore and snorkel and splash about for a few hours. It might have been a good, small-scale reintroduction to other people, to social niceties and some geographical normality, albeit in the form of a coral atoll. But a midnight stop-off would be wasting time, so on we sailed, Tahiti bound.
Accompanied by a speeding beat in my chest, we pushed through a burst of grey downpours into our twenty second day at sea, into a day of still oceans, glorious sunshine and puffy cumulus clouds above a horizon that felt even farther away than usual. I checked the catamaran’s computers regularly. We were well inside French Polynesia and the Galapagos islands felt like a lifetime ago.
And now, here, pushing on into Day 23 of our voyage, we’re sailing towards Tahiti. There’s a ship off our starboard quarter – a trading vessel – and I sense that the hustle and bustle of real life and people and interaction can only be a few hours away. I’ve got mixed feelings and all sorts of chemical reactions surging through my body. I feel a little sick, but I’m smiling.
Up ahead I see the peaks of Mt. Orohena and Mt. Aorai start to push through a morning cloud blanket, high, spiky crests with more solidity than I’ve seen for some time. They are the identifiable markers of Tahiti Nui, markers that have guided in many a sailor towards the port of Papeete.
The sun starts to touch the volcanic ridges and peaks and melts the cloud cover to reveal steep, emerald rock faces. We’re seeing it from the same angle that Captain Cook would have back in 1769, sailing on north-west past Venus Point towards the inhabited parts of this green island full of sharp ridges and dramatic peaks. Coincidentally, we arrive the day before the 2012 Transit of Venus, and the magic of turning up to this tropical paradise of the Society Islands after such a lengthy voyage is accentuated.
And then reality hits. We make contact with the port captain and secure a berth in the midst of town. A boy trails our boat, riding the wake in his kayak. We motor in towards exaggerated, colourful signs on the sides of blocky buildings and into a channel lined by bright green, mown lawns and palms planted at equal distances.
We pull up beside a super vessel – a boat bigger than many a house and hungrier than most trucks. Three uniformed, small framed guys with similarly styled crew cuts help to dismount some jet skis from off the side of the big boat.
It’s mid-morning of June 5th 2012 when I jump off the catamaran, switching carbon fibre and bright, white plastic for hard, hard concrete. I could kiss the ground, but I don’t. Instead, I run, arms out.
And then I turn around and run back to our boat.
- Tahiti 100 years ago & today [PICs] (matadornetwork.com)
It’s all whizzing by so fast now! I’m watching the miles tick by and it’s making me a bit nervous. I’ve mixed feelings, of elation and apprehension. Some excitement too. How do people go back to real life after sailing the seas?
Our ration of sweet things ran out over a week ago. Alan, the captain, disappears into his cabin and returns with a Toblerone bar. I make a mental note to remember to have my own secret stash on future voyages. Surprising the rest of the crew is priceless. We each break off a piece – dessert for the evening – and leave the rest in its packet in the middle of the table.
We’ve eaten well on board, a little too well and I know I’ve definitely put on some weight. The lack of ability to exercise has been frustrating, but I’ve resisted keeping up with the boys’ daily press-ups and sit-ups in favour of lounging in the hammocks and watching sunlight speckle the ocean surface with a million diamond fragments. Between losing myself in Paulo Coelho books and reflections brought on by the Ya Ya Sisterhood, I’ve been listening to Keith Richards on my MP3 player. Stories. People. Life. I can’t get enough.
And I’m writing like a woman possessed, articles and diaries full of thoughts about past and future, about opportunity. Out of nowhere come contemplations on life and philosophies that reveal some growth and the start of a connection with something a bit bigger. And hope and confidence. For the world and everything in it, including little me. Cabin fever has got to me, it would seem, in a crazy, creative sense.
Two days later and we glimpse land for the first time since leaving the Galapagos. With no deep-rooted earthiness, in some respects this coral collective is a bit of a cheat claim to sighting land, but the tree-lined strip of the atoll nonetheless breaks up a constant flat horizon and reminds us of a different view, of a world we were part of not too long ago.
Later I wrote in my diary that it
‘was so exciting to see something other than ocean! Birds were flocking towards it, around it. Signs of life. Wonderful.’
Suddenly the excitement of a piece of chocolate is put into perspective. It was important, for sure, but this sighting? Something else.
20th Century American writer, Henry Beston, once said that ‘the three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.’
But what about getting away from the beach and actually being out in the outer ocean? Maybe he never had the opportunity to check out the sounds associated with sailing across the vast South Pacific Sea. During my three-week journey from Galapagos to Tahiti I certainly had the time to get familiar with the noises of the middle of nowhere.
Back sometime in the reign of the Romans, poet Virgil uttered that ‘every sound alarms’. Totatlly out of context, I hear him on a literal level, because although this quote is more usually linked to discussions of guilty conscience and such like, sounds – and unknown sounds in particular – seem to put me on high alert.
The creaks and thuds and squeaks of the boom as the wind grabs the mainsail and rattles her about were initially unsettling, but now I tune out, to some extent. Below deck clunks and bashes as waves whack the bottom of the boat are sometimes so strong that they physically jump me in my bed and send a shock through my body. These sounds, in forte, are so linked to motion that their impact is accentuated. I feel each thing that I hear. Their sound is fully imprinted.
Gentler overtones include the flutter and ripple of the sail when the wind blows a different directional gust, whilst the whoosh of water rushing out of the back of the boat gives a sense of momentum and is the constant soundtrack to our voyage. It’s too light a sound to be the baseline but it’s there, always; a practised concerto with a limited melody.
Bursts of laughter and conversation colour the piece and add a choral element, whilst the daily generator eruption provides some guttural oomph. Indoor fans and the random hum of the sumps in action add some sound fuzz and grate and purr to the score. We need some electronics in there. Let’s make this rich and big and keep it real. This isn’t a fairytale with a twinkly, tinkly track list.
In some respects our boat and time at sea are part of an expressionist orchestral piece, dissonant yet full of life. And we’re not talking vivace here, please, this is a sailing overture created by the universe, our great conductor, our maestro, and the tempo is far more lento than we’d like at times. Lento yet full of awkward dissonance; gentle with some heart tightening explosions.
As I conclude this post, I think back to Beston’s comments and realise that the sounds I’ve experienced out at sea are the result of interactions between humankind and nature, and not just elemental forces working alone. In terms of elemental forces out at sea, the sound of night-time silence has to be the strongest, a loud sound accompanied by a full, sparkling sky.
But no! Of course, that silence isn’t true! I’ve obviously tuned out the gentle water rush as we slice through the sea, onwards to French Polynesia and the upcoming reality of real life. The tricks of sound and of the mind. Who knows any more what is actual or imagined out here. Does it even matter?
Somehow I got lucky and landed the sunrise watch.
Me and early mornings have a love-hate relationship but in this situation, where I had to be up anyway to do my boat duty as we crossed the South Pacific Ocean, I just had to get on with it. Getting to sit in on sunrise every morning was incentive enough for me to crawl out of bed without too heavy a head.
I looked forward to my watch.
There is something so quiet and magical about watching the sky shift from total darkness to a soft, peachy hue as the sun rises and pushes through horizon morning mist. On some days, lines of light – God lights – streak out from behind a cloud glowing bright golden; other times her appearance is more gradual and gentle, a soft glow building in luminosity until the sky is aflame with pinks and oranges and a ball of warmth.
How often do you get to sit in an empty ocean completely by yourself watching day break whilst other souls sleep below deck? I decided to photograph my sunrise moments and share them with you.
On Day 1 I was given time to adjust to life on the boat so I hadn’t yet started my watches. Day 2 I sat in on and observed other people’s watches, so it was only on Day 3 that I started this little project. Enjoy.
It’s Day 5 and we’re flying along a calm ocean, slicing through the chop without too much clunking and smashing about. It’s not long before the South Equatorial Current gives us an extra 2knts, and then we hit the trade winds – the South East Trades. We’re being treated to a great start averaging between 7.5 and 8.5 knots. If only we knew what was coming up.
Day 8 and we’ve nearly covered half of the 3,650nm between Galapagos and Tahiti. I haven’t seen land since we left, or another vessel in nearly a week. Other than sea creatures – the suicidal squid, the dolphins and the – we’re now truly alone in the great South Pacific Ocean.
Day 11 and the Trade Winds are not working their magic. We slow significantly. Speeds of 6.04 knots feels crippling slow. There’s worse to come.
On Day 12 we have a bit of a slow struggle and thrash about in changeable winds. We have to do something but with over 1300 miles to go, it’s definitely not the time to start up the engines. A change of course makes the most sense. It’s a case of weighing up wind direction and speed against what ground we would cover (or sea). Joel and Matt do the math (it’s something to do; keeps the grey matter active) and Alan makes the call to gybe, heading significantly away from our waypoint bearing. It’s a bit of excitement, our first gybe of the whole trip. Within nine hours we switch back to a port gybe and it’s back to familiar boat wobbles and what we know.
Day 13 turns out to be a beautiful day for cruising. Everything feels unhurried. Time takes on a different dimension and we all relax into the sunshine and super slow speeds of 3 to 4 knots. If we weren’t on a delivery, maybe it would have been even more enjoyable. ‘Today would be the day for a swim in the sea’ says our skipper, Alan, but none of us take him up on it, not even Matt, who is proving to be the waterboy of the boat with daily bucket dunks and sea water washes out on the back landing deck. Instead, we consider resorting to a stint on the engines.
Day 16 is the actual day we stop for a swim and snorkel. Flat seas, not much wind to get excited about and enough of the noise, we switch off whirring motors and jump into 4,000m of clear blue water, sunlight sending slithers of light deep, deep below. It rejuvenates us. A nice change after more than two weeks of routine.
And then finally, on Day 18 the wind picks up. Averaging 7-8knts, we do what we want to do: sail west. Even the shifty winds of later in the evening don’t dampen our spirits. We are sailing again! The trade winds are back doing their thing.
On Day 19, after a few hours of wind drop I suggest that we switch on the engines momentarily. The rest of the crew pretend not to hear, so we continue on, switching between genoa and spinnaker, trying to harness the wind as best we can. And all is well. Because by Day 20 we are firmly into the islands of French Polynesia. The waypoint countdown suddenly feels all too quick and close.
Are we really ready to re-enter society?
The winds were down, the ocean ocean was calm and the moment had arrived. Over two weeks at sea and we wanted to switch things up a bit, freshen up and reignite some excitement after some slow sailing days.
Diving into 4,000m deep waters did the trick. (I say dive, but I bottled it. Maybe I was scared that I’d just keep plunging down, deeper and deeper, and not find my way back up in time? Maybe it was the unknown? Maybe it was the fact that I’m rubbish at diving and I didn’t want the indignity and pain of a belly flop? All three guys did beautiful, smooth dives, I must add. Ah well.)
Later we added snorkel and masks to the mix, finning around by the catamaran. One person always remained on board, keeping an eye out for drift and sharks.
We only just pierced the surface of the sea, and she seemed sparsely populated with salpy forms floating around in sunlight streaked water. Any other ocean life was way, way down there, beyond our grasp and lung capacity.
And then we clambered back on board, refreshed, reinvigorated and ready for the final 1,000nm. Onwards to Tahiti!
In my South Pacific sailing adventure there was no getting away from it: hundreds of miles from anywhere and anyone, we were in the middle of a big blue ocean, and for three weeks that ocean was our world.
Crewing on a boat from Galapagos to Tahiti with three strangers, this was an adventure in learning to live at sea, a reminder of routine, and a privileged opportunity to totally remove myself from civilisation and see what long distance sailing was really about.
And, I realised, it was largely about being alone.
The first sense of aloneness was that of looking out at a vast ocean brimming with blue-grey choppy waves and not much else. After a tuna catch on the second day, the only sea life that seemed to still show itself to us were flying fish and little, squidgy squid. Initially both littered the deck, but even they started to desert us as we sailed on, passing the 1,000nm and then the 2,000nm mark. Dolphins made a brief appearance, playing and ducking and diving at the bow of the boat, and a still-day swim and snorkel allowed me to see salps and sunlight streaking the clear, 4,000m deep water. But human life? Nothing to be seen.
For most of the voyage, all we had were 360° views of water leading to a drop-off some 8nm away. Sometimes choppy, sometimes eerily still, there were no indications that anything else existed out there. Instead of being scary, it was strangely calming. The heavens reached horizon to horizon over the top of our world, day times presenting Simpson skyscapes and night times a brilliant blanket of dense starriness and Venus brightly guiding us on to the West.
For twenty days, I didn’t see another boat, another sign of human life. My world was me and these three new friends. Supposedly, whilst I slept, we passed by a Japanese sailing ship that the others made contact with, but who knows that they didn’t dream it up after weeks with no interaction. No, unfair, I did later hear some chatter on the radio, an unfamiliar language. I scanned the horizon. Where were they? But nothing.
There was also the mental and emotional test of being disconnected from the ones we love. My skipper had a satellite phone from which he sent regular updates, but beyond that, no one knew where we were or how we were all really doing. Surprisingly, this wasn’t too much of a problem. Despite only meeting my crew a day before I boarded the boat, we all got on fine; good chats, interesting views, plenty of learning points. Maybe I’ve just got so used now to not being surrounded by my usual friends and family that I easily adapt?
It was only after two weeks that I realised if something big went wrong, we were fully alone. Sure, the EPIRB would fire off and let the main guys around the world know that we were having problems, but the best that they could do would be to find a boat close to us, which could be hundreds of miles, and direct it to our rescue. ‘What if my appendix ruptured?’ asked Joel. ‘Surely they’d send a helicopter or a rescue plane?’ I asked. ‘The best they could probably do would be to get us to a bigger ship with better first aid provisions’, said the captain. Death at sea, then, was a possibility. ‘I give you guys permission to operate on me’, said Joel.
So here we were, four strangers sailing in the middle of a big blue ocean, and for three weeks that ocean was our world.
And, at least in terms of humankind, we were very much alone in that world.