Tag 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’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?
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?
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.
I’m sitting up at the helm, rocking and rolling around on a slightly choppy sea and studying the spinnaker – the big front sail – for the two holes that I spotted yesterday. They seem to have disappeared. Fair weather clouds clutter the sky, moments of beautiful sunshine breaking through and warming my bare feet.
We’re heading towards a dark lined horizon, maintaining a steady speed of between 6 to 7 knots but it feels slow after a great yesterday averaging 8.4kts. Tahiti is still over 2,500nm away, at least another two weeks on this empty ocean. It seems both a short while and an eternity.
Occasionally I contemplate how vulnerable we are: four somebodies floating along in a carbon fibre frame, trying to employ and mix ancient sailing wisdom with modern technology.
My skipper is relaxed and knowledgeable. I wonder if he ever wonders just how he ended up crossing the Pacific with three newbies. Too late to switch things up now. What we lack in experience and knowledge, we make up for in interest and enthusiasm. He keeps the lads busy changing sheets on the genoa and unfurling the spinnaker. Other than watch duty, I’ve put myself forward as cook. I’m keeping busy.
With four of us on board, we can develop a routine. Every six hours, for two hours it’s my watch time, during which I look out for potential collisions or obstructions, keep an eye on wind direction and speed, check the sails, make minor adjustments to our course and, where necessary, trim the sails (or rather, I help to trim the sails, because although I have a good idea of what needs doing I lack the experience and therefore the confidence to make any bigger decisions).
And I try not to hit the track button on the captain’s main computer. It resets everything. But then someone does hit the track button and our whole mapped course disappears. Uh oh.
Honestly, it wasn’t me.
Far out in the South Pacific and unsure of where we’re going or where we’ve been? Nah, it isn’t quite that drastic. A tech savvy captain and we are back on track with only a little gap in the mapped route to show for the mistake.
And I am reassured that even in the event of a full on technological failure, night sky navigation isn’t something unfamiliar to my skipper, Alan . I put my trust in him and my crewmate Matt, who starts to read up on celestial navigation.
- But now, back to my watch and that oncoming moody horizon.
It was Day 9 of my sail across the South Pacific and finally, – finally! – I saw some dolphins.
I ran from a conversation, grabbed my camera and raced to the bow of the boat, sitting myself down and hugging the guard rails as I watched a private wildlife show close-up.
The rest of the crew soon tired of the dolphin dance but other than a single, bigger dolphin that I’d seen briefly on a boat ride over from Santa Cruz to Isabella in the Galapagos Islands, these were the first dolphins I’d seen out here.
I don’t know what it is, but there is something about these beautiful, majestic and intelligent creatures… Something gentle yet strong, graceful yet powerful. And social all the way.
For ten minutes or so I observed these slippery grey beauties lead the boat; dancing in and out of the water as a group, dashing ahead, falling a bit behind, but dancing, dancing all the way.
And as suddenly as they arrived, dolphins started to leave the party. For a few precious moments a pair stayed and danced close to my dangling feet and I felt my gaze get lost in the royal blue playground of the sea.
And finally they too turned around. Off they swam, leaving us to sail unaccompanied once again.
- Dolphins stay awake for 15 days (telegraph.co.uk)
- Dolphins can sleep one-half of their brain at a time say researchers (slashgear.com)
- Communicating With Dolphins (timzimmermann.com)
- How Dolphins Stay Awake for Two Weeks (news.discovery.com)
My home is currently a fifty foot carbon fibre box rigged up with sails that are helping me and a crew of three to cross the mass of the South Pacific Ocean from Galapagos to Tahiti.
What I’ve come to realise is that long distance cruising is as much about adapting to life at sea as it is about the sailing itself. Compared to coastal sailing where you’re frequently making quick decisions and pulling ropes and following carefully constructed sail plans that take into account regular waypoints, out on the great ocean the same awareness of weather systems and sail trim and all that stuff still needs to be in place, but everything is at a different pace. Our first waypoint was over 3,o00nm away. When I’d done coastal sailing back in the UK, waypoints were usually plotted every few miles.
So how does an average day pan out? What does one actually do without going crazy inside this confined space on a vast ocean of no escape? Although different for everyone, here are extracts from a day in my life at sea.
I finally get to bed after a two hour watch and hand over to Matt, one of the other crew members. Brush teeth and all that stuff. Then sleep, delicious sleep.
My alarm goes off. I push snooze. Twice. But it’s time to pull on some clothes and splash my face with water. My next watch is coming right up.
It takes a few minutes to get into it. I catch up with Alan, the skipper, who is on watch before me and I check over the log book. I notice one of the guys has made an entry about a great dinner the previous night. Always nice to know that my cooking hits the spot.
In amongst all the usual watch stuff, I grab some breakfast and a cup of tea and go to sit up top to watch the sunrise. How did I land this shift?! Mornings are difficult for me but I love this time of the day. Other than the sunrise, there’s nothing to report; no dodgy sounds, no boats on the horizon, no shifty winds.
I go back to bed for another two hours sleep. I drop back off fairly easily. It’s taken a while to adjust to these strange sleeping patterns but by having set watches, it’s possible to have some sort of a structured day that your body clock can understand.
Up and about. Time to do any small jobs on board, plan the evening meal, take meat/food out of freezer, or read/write/watch movies/listen to music if there are no chores to do. If I’ve had a rough night, I might just grab a few more zeds.
Log book round up where we find out the miles and average speed for the last 24 hours. Anything below 180nm and a speed of 7.5 feels disappointing because we’ve had some great days doing way above that. Need to keep it all in perspective. It’s funny how little moments become such a focus in this environment.
One of the guys puts together something to eat for lunch, a concoction of yesterday’s leftovers. We’re eating well at sea, even if the chocolates and sweeties have all but run out.
It’s my second watch of the day. In between checking out the numbers on the captain’s computer below deck, I head up to the helm and chill there for a while, watching the sails and the clouds in relation to the numbers on the instruments. I love standing on the upper deck, holding on to the rails of the helm cover and letting the wind mess my hair as I scan the horizon and cloud patterns. I feel invincible and in control of my own destiny: me, a sailing boat and a world of blue. Anything is possible. Maybe a pirate ship of olden times will appear? Maybe a giant whale will rise from the depths and swallow us whole? Maybe I’m having some quality time to let my imagination run free. Yes. Definitely.
I make an entry in the log book and start to get ingredients out of the fridge for dinner. Right now we’re still eating fresh vegetables but within a couple of days it will be on to frozen and finally tinned. At least we’re not going hungry. I’m so excited to be cooking again after months on the road where few hostels had a kitchen. Here we have spices and utensils and all the things I need to cook up some loveliness. I can enjoy getting food creative again.
We all sit down to eat together and catch up. Because everyone is on different watches there is usually always someone sleeping or having some time out, so its great when twice a day we all gather together. After food I get to sit back and relax whilst the guys sort out the washing up.
And then I try to sleep for an hour or two, although often I’m not tired enough until 21:30, which is just about when my alarm goes off for my final watch.
Final watch of the day. To start with I’m usually pretty groggy and tired. I check in with Alan, look over the previous log entries to see how we’re going followed by a natter about everything and anything, night time reflections on life. Often I head up top for a while where it’s easier to feel in tune with the boat as she glides through a night-time ocean.
Regularly there’s a change in wind around this time so I might help to reef in the mainsail or collapse the spinnaker, depending on what the weather is doing and promising. In all fairness though, the boys seem to do most the laborious stuff. How this sail has ended up being gendered is anyone’s guess! They’re going easy on me, for sure.
Once again it’s a clear night. I love looking out at the blanket of stars that reaches horizon to horizon, a density of sparkling spots in an immense sky. I search for streaks of light, hoping to spot a dying star in its swan song fall towards the earth.
And so the days roll by – sail by – each day not so different to the previous. In a strange way, the monotony is a welcome change from constant on the road movement and daily exposure to new sensory experiences that I’ve become accustomed to in the last year of travel.
I realise I am a bit tired. This time at sea is healthy for me. It’s giving me routine again, space to catch-up on writing and reading. And a chance to rest. I don’t have to plan my next day, my next couple of weeks. My body and mind can relax into this different way of life.
Who knows what will happen when I get to Tahiti. For another two weeks, I won’t find out whether I’m staying on board this boat to Tonga and then Australia, whether I can and should find a new boat to crew on, whether I decide to settle in Tahiti with a stocky, local lad. Or whether I just want to find the cheapest, quickest flight out of there, back to Australia.
For now I have no choice but to stick with this schedule. And you know what? I’m enjoying it.
Before I left Puerto Ayora in Galapagos, I’d had a goodbye chat with my parents. At least three weeks without contact was going to be a real challenge for them but they knew that once I set my mind on something, there was little point in trying to persuade otherwise.
I’d been gone nearly a year during which time I’d backpacked solo through parts of New Zealand, Australia, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Bolivia, coming in contact with some challenging situations but always having some sensibility and a lot of luck on my side. As a result, my family were somewhat assured that I wouldn’t do something totally stupid, even if they struggled to understand why I had to sail across a vast ocean with a some strangers instead of choosing a more regular, safe option and route.
My mother, however, refused to let her worries burden me.
‘Wow. It’s so exciting!’, she said, ‘Such an adventure! You’ll see flying fish, won’t you?’
‘Erm… I guess so.’
I hadn’t really considered what sea life might make an appearance during the 3,ooo mile voyage, although I hoped we’d sail with some dolphins and maybe some sharks. And flying fish? Did they really exist? I racked my brains trying to recall any of the ocean nature programmes I might have watched over the years. Nah. Nothing.
As it turns out, flying fish do exist. On my second day at sea I stood out on deck and watched a shoal fly through the air, a flash of unified silver splintering off as each little fishy particle dived into oncoming waves. Another school jumped out of the water and soared across the sea surface before pelting back into the depths. I ran inside.
‘I’ve just seen a load of flying fish!’ I told Alan, my skipper, ‘Loads of them’.
He looked up from his book. ‘Yeah? There have been a lot about’. My novice excitement contrasted with his nonchalant response. This world was his world – his familiarity – where flying fish were part of a more routine picture.
For me, though, this new world of ocean and rocking, of starry nights and short sleeps, of flying fish and squelchy squid visitors, it was enough to flick a childhood switch inside my brain and set alight some intrigue.
Over the next few days I didn’t just marvel at the sychronised schools of flying fish, but I got up close and personal with all sorts of slippery, salty and strange creatures. I was fascinated by their alien forms, their determination to get on board our catamaran and their night-time pranks (not all so wonderful, I must add).
So during some downtime I got creative and wrote a few articles, one of which is soon to be published and another that I will share here. Enjoy.
You can also access the article Sea life suicide and the squid who would be captain through the Articles tab on the main menu.