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Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Memorable Passage

We arrived in Pape'ete, the capitol of Tahiti yesterday, and so have internet access for the first time in a month or so. Here's the first installment of what we've been doing during that time, the story of our passage from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus...

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After finishing our business in Taiohae we made one last stop in Nuku Hiva and the Marquesas Islands, sailing over to Daniel’s Bay to fill our water tanks and stock up on fruit. We didn’t see Tonga again, but we met a woman named Celina who gave us literally as much fruit as Alisa and I could carry – our last experience of the tremendous generosity of the Marquesans.

Alisa with a stalk of bananas on her back, a pack full of papayas, and a sack of limes.
After getting the fruit and water aboard we figured that a day or (probably) two would be adequate to address the usual list of tasks before we put to sea. But then Alisa, bless her, realized that it was Wednesday afternoon, which meant that by the universal conventions of both sea and land the next day would be Thursday, and the day after that Friday. And Pelagic doesn’t start any long trip on a Friday. When we tell other cruisers that, we often hear responses like, “Oh, you’re superstitious.” Alisa and I don’t think of it that way. Knocking on wood three times when we talk about something bad happening is superstition. Not leaving port on Friday is more of a maritime tradition, one that is very strong on many of the Alaskan commercial fishing boats that we have been aboard. We both have tremendous respect for the fishermen of the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea (if those knuckleheads can keep themselves out of trouble on the water they must be doing something right), and one of the ways that we show it is by observing the ban on Friday departures. The Friday tradition is also of long standing - there’s a great story that I read somewhere about the British Admiralty trying to put the inconvenient tradition to rest during the Napoleonic wars. They ordered that the keel of a new ship to be laid on a Friday, launched the ship on a Friday, gave the command of the vessel to a Captain Friday, and sent her out on her maiden voyage on a Friday.

The darn thing sank. On a Friday.

So all of that is why we don’t begin any long trips on a Friday if we can help it. Plus, it’s fun to have a few little rules to organize your life around when you’re out on a sailboat, immersed in Personal Freedom. Otherwise you might as well be back in the office, saying “oooh, TGIF!” to the poor slob in the next cubicle.

Alessandro on Adaro told me that for Italian sailors it’s Fridays and Tuesdays. I think there may be a world of cultural difference in that extra day.

So anyway, we just got the dang barky ready and put to sea on Thursday, rather than cooling our heels until Saturday. It was just as well, too, as the list of pre-departure jobs is invariably padded with wish items that are fit tasks for someone’s dream yacht, but don’t have much to do with a boat that is actually sailing places.

Daniel’s Bay is an incredibly satisfying place to set off from. It’s such a process to set off from most continental ports – first you monkey around with getting out of some polluted estuary and under a bunch of bridges and then you weave through the local yokel recreational fleet and then the local yokel commercial fishing fleet, then you try to figure out which was worse to deal with, and then you spend a day or two getting off the continental shelf before you’re on the deep ocean. Nuku Hiva on the other hand is such a tiny landmass that it has no chance of changing winds and currents much in all that oceanic vastness, so the big-ocean sailing begins as soon as you clear the lava cliffs guarding whatever little bay you’re leaving from. One hour we were anchored up in Daniel’s Bay, and the next we were back on passage, sailing down the trades, eighteen knots of wind in the sails and boisterous seas on the port quarter. We set a course for Makemo Atoll, 450 miles away.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were in for a Memorable Passage.

Events began to unfold as we were leaving the lights of Ua Pou to port, when the pump on the head quit working. That is, the pump that takes whatever is in the head and pumps it out into the sea. I maintain, and there are few who will argue, that opening up the head pump is the worst job on any boat. We had just spent forty-two consecutive nights comfortably at anchor in the Marquesas, when I woud have at least had the convenience of an even keel for tackling the awful job. So the pump waited until our first evening offshore to go down.

I grimly set to work. The head door was closed to deny Eli access, and the sweet-sick odor of the pump filled the little compartment. I had the head fan blasting down on my head but I was still saturated with sweat. Sweat pooled in the hollows of my clavicles and my feet left little sweat puddles on the shower grate. Meanwhile the boat was heeling 15 or 20 degrees and rolling along at seven and a half knots. After more than an hour I gave up for the night. I joined Alisa in the cockpit, a little seasick from working in the closed compartment, chilled from the drying sweat, and grossed out by the mess.

The next morning I was back at it, determined to get the head working. The various flaps and valves inside the pump were so covered with scale that I was surprised it had worked as long as it had. When I finally emerged victorious from the head after three hours or so, I was dehydrated and cross-eyed with frustration.

Alisa had coached Elias to clap his hands and say, “Yeah, Daddy!”

“It says a lot that you haven’t even had a cup of coffee yet,” Alisa said. “I was ready for you to just decide that we would have to wait until the Tuamotus to get it working.”

I ate a victory lunch of eggs and bread and coffee.

An hour later I puked it all into the ocean. I was suddenly very sick, sick enough that I wanted nothing more than to just lie on the cockpit seat and let the world go by.

I rallied enough to go down to the cabin and lie down. A few minutes later I took a sip of water. That sent me scrambling back to the cockpit, as the sip of water came back up, immediately and painfully. I dry-heaved over the lifelines until there was nothing in my stomach whatsoever.

I went back down below and lay down. Alisa was getting concerned. I just wanted to go to sleep. She got out a liter of pedialyte, the oral rehydration mix that we carry for Eli (knock on wood). Alisa held a teaspoon of the stuff up to my lips and let me slowly slip it down. It came back up so violently that I gave up on trying to reach the cockpit and just sprinted for the head sink.

When I had rinsed my mouth out and retreated to the bunk Alisa sat down next to me.

“I’m worried about you,” she said.

“I can’t stop sweating,” I said. The pillow under my head was nearly squishy with my accumulated sweat. I was conscious of how much it was asking of Alisa to handle both boat and baby while I remained on my back, but I realized it in a fairly abstract way. My more immediate concerns were to stop sweating and to stop feeling like I just wanted to disappear into the cushions beneath me.

“I’m going to call your sister,” Alisa said. My sis is a doctor.
Alisa went up to the cockpit with the sat phone. Elias started screaming for her, screaming “Mommy, mommy, mommy,” in a one year old’s unadulterated outpouring of grief and longing, while he was standing about eighteen inches from my head. I had him hold my hand, but that didn’t stop him from screaming for Alisa. The best measure of how rotten I was feeling by this point is that Elias was in full tantrum that close to me, and I basically didn’t care.

Alisa relayed a few questions about my symptoms and then ended the call. When she came down she picked up Elias and said to me, “Jenny says you should start taking anti-nausea meds.”

“But those are rectal suppositories.”

“That’s right.”

“Am I that sick?”

“You’re that sick. I’ll get them out for you.”

I must admit that they did the trick. Even if they had melted in the tropical heat. After twenty minutes I was able to get an antibiotic down. The kicker is that the anti-nausea meds are also tranquilizers, so I went from listless to catatonic. For the next few hours Alisa woke me up every five minutes to give me two teaspoons of pedialyte, per my sister’s instructions, until I had a whole liter down. Meanwhile the wind had built to twenty five knots and Pelagic was beginning to round up and fall off, as the Monitor had less and less success keeping us on course.

Alisa and I talked over the steps to take. “First thing is to put another reef in the main,” I said.

Alisa clipped Elias into his eating chair and set his dinner in front of him – a bowl of grape nuts. After feeding me another two teaspoons of pedialyte and putting on her deck harness, she was ready. The whole scene seemed distant to me – after I got down my ration of pedialyte I just collapsed back onto my stinking pillow and retreated into myself. It was only when I saw Alisa taking a deep breath at the bottom of the companionway steps and saying out loud, “Come on, you can do this, ‘Lis,” that I realized how deep she was digging to simultaneously care for me, Elias and Pelagic.

By the next day I was better. Simple as that. We have no idea what incapacitated me so severely, though the hypothesis that I got sick from exposure to the inside of the head pump enjoys favor. I sat in the cockpit for much of the next day, eating a little and drinking a lot of water and regaining my strength. The whole episode reminded me of what a challlenging proposition it is to sail our little ship across the Pacific. I’ll let out a huge sigh of relief when we reach Oz, but I suspect that I will also feel a huge let down.

Getting better meant that I was able to enjoy some of the sweetest sailing that we’ve ever had on Pelagic. The Tuamotu archipelago, our destination, is a vast swath of coral atolls scattered in a southeast-northwest direction between the Marquesas and the Society Islands. They are low atolls that cannot be seen from a great distance, with strong and unmeasured tidal currents among them. In the pre-GPS era, when yachts navigated by dead reckoning and imprecise celestial navigation, the Tuamotus were a deadly place, known as the “Dangerous Archipelago”. From what I gather, most yachts back then just sailed by. Now, with the everyday miracle of GPS, the Tuamotus are open to the run of the mill yachtie, and the treasures of this incredible place are available for all to sample. But there are seventy-odd atolls in the chain, about forty of which have passes that allow yachts to enter the central lagoon, so the game becomes choosing which atolls to visit.

We were aiming to get just a little further south in the archipelago than was absolutely convenient from the Marquesas given the prevailing southeasterly winds, reasoning that putting up with a little windward sailing on the passage would reward us with time in some lesser-visited spots. So we had the wind on the beam or forward of it for the whole trip, which kept Pelagic heeling over. This made life a little inconvenient for Elias, and kept Alisa and I worried and vigilant on his part. But it also made the trip more exciting, as we could feel Pelagic working gracefully to carry us into wind and sea, straining her fibers to do what she was designed for, instead of just drifting downwind with the trades like a log raft.

And so we carried along for three days and change, keeping an eye on our course to make sure we didn’t sag down to leeward. The wind kept up in the lower 20s the whole way, which is plenty. Waves crashed across the bow and water poured out of the starboard scupper and if you stood in the back half of the cockpit where you could watch the sails and look ahead for the traffic that never appeared, you never knew when spray might kick up high in the air and douse you. But if you did get wet it didn’t matter, since we were in the heart of the tropics and the wind and sun would have you dry in ten minutes. The hammock under the solar panels was full of pampamouse and we had two stalks of bananas lashed to the overturned dinghy, one green and one yellow, and the sunset every night was as fine as anything you could ask for. At night the stars were revealed in their true intensity, without the interference of any artificial light anywhere, and we beheld the heavens illuminated as they were for Copernicus. Once I was well the trip became something that I would not shuffle off this mortal coil without having experienced, a memory that will be my consolation in old age. There is nothing like being alone with your family in a small boat far out to sea for showing you just how vast the world is, and how magnificent. You might think I tend towards hyperbole, but if you had been there you would not.

Just before sunset on the third day we sighted Taenga, our first of the Tuamotus. We first saw it on radar and then by eye, only a few palm tree barely visible on the horizon from ten miles away. This was very satisfying. Even with the GPS telling you where you are within the proverbial gnat’s ass, seeing is still very much believing. We hove to for the night so that we could catch the morning slack water through the pass into Makemo. And everything that happened there is part of another story.


Horsey rides in the cockpit after I’m feeling better.


We caught this sailfish on the passage. We would normally let such a big fish go, but it was very deeply hooked and almost dead by the time we got him up to the boat. We ate two dinners and two lunches from him right away, and Alisa canned up the rest of the meat for later. Delicious, and surprisingly easy to fillet.

1 comment:

Hillary Dickman said...

What a great description of the passage.

I don't think it's hyperbole...I know that feeling. I've had that feeling, except I was in the middle of the Atlantic. Like a tiny spec in the middle of a seemingly bottomless and unending ocean. Like you're something insignificant, except you must not be because if you didn't matter, you wouldn't be there.

Glad you're well again. And happy to hear the head works.