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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Passage to Suwarrow

Well, here we are in Neiafu, Vava'u, Kingdom of Tonga. Lots has been happening, of course. Elias had his second birthday since our last blog post, and I tried, but failed, to have my 40th. Tonga seems to be very much our kind of place, and we were lucky enough to arrive in time for the celebration of the coronation of the new king, a truly Once In a Lifetime event, as the last coronation was 48 years ago or so. More on all that later. For now I'll pick up the thread as Pelagic is about to set out from the Societies.


Almost every yacht traversing the South Pacific finishes their cruise of French Polynesia in the western Society Islands, either Bora Bora or Raiataea. The next stop on the westward route is the Cook Islands, a self-governing Polynesian nation that is in close association with New Zealand. The Cooks are composed of northern and southern archipelagos that are separated by about five hundred miles of open ocean, and many of the islands are without good anchorages, which makes the nation more of a place to pass through than a real cruising destination. The main cruising route from the Societies goes through Rarotonga, the administrative center in the southern group, and then on to the nations of Niue and Tonga. A smaller number of boats go to the northern group, and thence typically to the Samoan Islands (half a US dependency, half an independent nation).

With the cyclone-free season rapidly waning, we weren’t interested in giving up time in Tonga and Fiji in order to visit Samoa. But there is an island in the northern Cooks that we were very keen to see. So we chose to make the 700 mile passage from Raiataea to the northern Cooks and then another 700 miles onwards to Tonga, an increase of several hundred miles over the standard southern route to Tonga.

The draw for this extra traveling was the island of Suwarrow, an atoll that is now a Cook Islands National Park and inhabited outside the cyclone season by two caretakers and their kids, and during the cyclone season by nobody at all. Suwarrow was uninhabited for most of the twentieth century, and then for a while was the home of a lone Kiwi, Tom Neale, who was keen and savvy enough to actually pull off the classic dream of living on a deserted tropical island during three long stints on Suwarrow during the fifties, sixties and seventies. The world has changed enough that it would now be impossible to experience the same sort of isolation that Tom did in such an enticing setting. He wrote a very good book about his life on the island that both Alisa and I read. After the Tuamotus we are confirmed connoisseurs of atolls, and reading Tom’s book stirred our imaginations enough that we weren’t going to pass through without a visit to Suwarrow.

The western tropical Pacific has a reputation for generally worse weather than the eastern, and the area west of the Society Islands is known for “enhanced” trade winds of up to 25 knots in July and August. The stories we heard on the ham radio from the boats leaving the Societies in the week before our departure weren’t very encouraging. Boats reported knock downs, damaged rigging and generally unpleasant sailing. Luckily for us, I had revisions to make to a scientific paper that (surprise surprise) I somehow hadn’t gotten to earlier in our stay in French Polynesia. So we spent an extra few days hanging around for me to finish that work, Pelagic slinking around between wifi hotspots on Raiataea where I could download files that I needed and more deserted anchorages in Taha’a, where the gendarmes were less likely to come around asking if any yachties were overstaying their visas (we were!). When I was finally finished, the bad weather was gone. We had the pleasure of sailing off our mooring and sailing all the way out of the pass through the fringing reef around Raiataea on a beautiful sunny day, but when we reached the open ocean we found barely any wind at all. So we pulled into Bora Bora for the night rather than just sit out on the ocean and listen to the sails flap.
Here’s the view of Bora Bora over our stern the next day.

The wind was still very light that next day. We set the spinnaker and main and crept along all day and all night at one to three knots. The next morning we took the main down for a while because it was too heavy to fill in those light breezes and just flapped back and forth, slamming the boom and rigging around and making a nuisance of itself.

We made 57 miles during our first 24 hours our of Bora Bora, and only 95 during the next 24. When we’re booming along we make between 130 and 160 miles in 24 hours. The winds stayed light for days, and when they did come up they were headwinds, out of the west.

Our autopilot has been down since the crossing from Mexico to the Marquesas, so we can only self-steer Pelagic with the windvane, which works only under sail. When we motor we steer by hand. This of course makes us reluctant to motor for any length of time, since the dual tyrannies of being chained to the wheel and raising a one (almost two!) year old are too much to bear. So we were happy to sail along at two or three or four knots, let the windvane do the work, and give up all thought of doing the 700 mile trip in five or six days.

Our reluctance to motor is also evidence of a progression that has overtaken us. We’ve become much more sailors than we were when we left home, and we don’t mind sailing slowly. Even if the autopilot was working flawlessly and diesel was only, say, five dollars a gallon, we would rather sail than motor.

Especially on a trip like the one we were having, where the Pacific was flawless day after day. There were always just enough clouds to be interesting to look at during the day without being so many that the stars or the Milky Way were at all obscured at night. Though the sun was far too strong for us to spend time in the cockpit in the middle of the day, the sea was gentle enough for us to leave hatches and portlights open, so we could retreat down below to the shade and the breeze of the saloon.

The sea looked like this:

And Pelagic sailed along like this:

Every day the sea was empty. For the first six days we saw no ships, no birds, no mammals. One yellowtail tuna came aboard, and three other fish got away. All of our interest and attention were on each other and Elias. The world contracted to the size of our boat. We woke up each day and settled into a routine of just being together. Alisa and I talked for hours about the past and the future. We used the time to talk about other places that we might want to sail to, places where we might want to spend a year living on the boat. And that speaks to another transition that has come along since we left Mexico for the Marquesas. This sailing thing is feeling less and less experimental and more and more our normal way of doing things.

Elias is suddenly much easier to handle on passage. His imagination grows and grows. A seat cushion dragged onto the cabin sole becomes the motor boat that he and his stuffed animals take fishing.
With Elias more able to entertain himself, Alisa was able to get in more sailing on this trip than she has on others. She got to play foredeck ape and maneuver the spinnaker pole through a gybe…
…before she went back to the cockpit to pull the jib around and give me the chance to get this picture, which, with the diapers hanging to dry, perfectly encapsulates the dueling themes of “Motherhood” and “Sailor Mad for Adventure”. If I do say so myself:

One of the greatest compensations of this new life of ours is that trips like this one have become routine events. For days our ears were filled with the murmur of water parting at Pelagic’s bows, the slap of waves on the hull, the rustle of sails that have barely enough wind to hold their shape. We got another view of how vast the world is, much vaster than anyone who stays at home and looks outwards through the internet and TV can ever know. Every night I sat in the cockpit as we slowly moved west, west, west and looked upwards at the perfect celestial canopy, a sight that simultaneously smites us with the intimation of the unimaginable scale of creation, and thrills us with the idea that our imagination might after all be the tool adequate for grasping at it. Every morning I awoke to the wonder of nature that is a one (almost two!) year old who has been refreshed with ten hours of continuous rest and is ready for everything to happen now, immediately, the moment he awakes, and simultaneously to the more soothing sound of Alisa whispering to him, “Quiet, Dad’s still sleeping!”

Our eighth sunset since leaving Raiataea found us just twenty five miles short of Suwarrow. A whale circled the boat, Alisa, Elias and I wordlessly watching its immense form swimming past us fast on one side and then the other, just under water. We hove to, a way of parking the boat when you want to stop making good towards your destination. The wind was coming up and wind waves began to run. Heaving to normally guarantees us a smooth ride, but for some reason the swell and jerk of the waves had Pelagic rolling uncomfortably. Immediately, we were ill at ease and ready to be somewhere else. I stayed up to try to balance the boat at a better angle to the wind and control our rate of drift down towards the island. Alisa went to sleep so that we’d have at least one well-rested adult crew to take care of Elias the next day. She had been fighting against the unpleasant motion while going through a toddler’s whole evening litany of dinner, diaper change, books read aloud, nursing, consolation, and finally, sleep. When I made trips below to plot our position, I didn’t envy Alisa her long stint in the cabin. When Elias finally was asleep she came up to the cockpit and said, “I don’t know if I’m cut out to live on a sailboat long term.”

And that’s how it goes, the mostly good and the occasional bad, hand in hand all the way across the Pacific. When it’s good there’s nothing else that you want to do, ever, and when it’s not so good you remind yourself that nothing lasts.

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