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Wednesday, November 5, 2008

New Caledonia. Already?

We’re deep in our earliest experiences as Australian immigrants of sorts. Things have been especially picaresque for Alisa, who has little or no context to go on. So, for instance, the already-famous misunderstanding over the word “thong” that arose on our second day here. Tonight we had some family over to the boat for dinner (“tea”), and my uncle Slim greeted Alisa with a big hug and an enthusiastic, “You’re a good-lookin’ Sheila!” After the night was over Alisa said, “That was the first time I was ever called ‘Sheila’ to my face. How sweet.”

All the goings on have slowed up the writing, but here’s some fresh product: the action commences with Pelagic leaving Fiji, bound for New Caledonia.


I’ll start with this picture, from a different passage than the one that I’m about to describe. A mahi mahi has just come aboard, the captain is smiling, the wind is behind us and we’re sailing on an even keel. We are completely divorced from the larger world, all we know is what we see within the horizon that encircles us, and all is well.

Our trip from Fiji to New Caledonia turned out to be the other kind of passage.

As we motored from our anchorage off the resort on the Fijian island of Malolo Leilei, it was blowing hard enough to send sheets of spray over the dodger and into the cockpit, soaking me. The passage to New Caledonia would be almost seven hundred miles long. We had an initial forecast of 25 knot winds out of the southeast. Twenty five knots of wind on the open ocean makes for rowdy conditions on a 37 foot boat. But, travel-hardened as we’ve become by this point, we didn’t mind. The wind would be behind us, and it had been blowing 25 for most of the two weeks that we had been in Fiji. We figured that if we wanted to wait for perfect conditions we would likely never leave.

When we reached the reef pass that gave access to the ocean, a critical flaw in our reasoning asserted itself. I pointed the bow towards New Caledonia, and the wind wasn’t behind us. There was just enough south in the wind direction to be a little forward of the beam – in non-sailor talk, we would be sailing into the wind just a little bit.

This would mean that the ride would be significantly less comfortable. We’d be heeling over and traveling into the waves instead of with them, which would make the ups and downs of the sea harder to bear. We’d have to be super-careful with Eli to guard against the chance of him hurting himself in a fall as Pelagic charged up and down wave after wave, day after day.

But again, we weren’t too concerned. So we’d be going a bit to windward. That’s life on the big blue Pacific. As the sun sank to the west and we cleared the breakers on the reef I made sail. First task was to unroll the jib, which is easily done from the cockpit and allows us to get underway and set up the windvane to steer the boat. As soon as the jib was out Pelagic heeled away from the wind and threw up a bow wave. We started making time towards our destination. Alisa was down below, getting Elias his dinner, immersed again in the hundred provocations and frustrations that routine tasks of cooking and cleaning and getting a two year old to use a toilet become on a sailing yacht in a seaway. I clipped in my deck harness and went up to the mast to get the main ready to go up. I wedged myself into the low side granny bars, a secure spot where you can work on the lines coming off the mast with both hands. And then I did nothing for a few minutes, just felt the sloping deck move beneath me and the occasional shot of spray across my face and looked at the tropical dusk falling over the wild ocean that would be our home for the next six days. One of my favorite parts of ocean sailing is hypnotic moments like this one, when I become effortlessly mesmerized by the interacting pattern and chaos of the ocean’s movements. I think it must be the kind of feeling that people are looking for from meditation.

In the midst of this reverie I saw a big torpedo shape moving down the inside of a wave, heading for the windward side of Pelagic’s bows. It was a cetacean too big to be a dolphin, the color of pewter beneath the black water of almost-night. It swam under Pelagic and a few minutes later I saw two of the animals on our downwind side, swimming back towards us, big black melon heads and falcate dorsal fins revealed each time they came up to breath. Pilot whales, I thought. Something I’ve never seen before.

I wanted to tell Alisa to come up and look, but figured they’d be gone before I could get to the cockpit. But then she did come up to the cockpit to check on me. I told her about the whales and she just missed seeing one of them breach behind us, its long kettle-black body suspended almost completely out of the water, hanging for a perfect moment above the spray and worry of the tossing sea surface. And then they were gone. The breach gave me the perfect look that is so often missing when you’re trying to identify an unfamiliar marine mammal. Elias and I checked the field guide after dinner and the animals turned out to be false killer whales, Pseudorca crassidens.

So that was nice.

With main and jib up we plowed through the night time ocean, dodging the occasional fishing boat out of Suva. It was a wet ride. Pelagic sent sheets of spray up into the air each time we crashed into a wave and the wind carried them horizontally across our decks. Every surface forward - jib, rigging, anchor windlass, lifelines and stanchions - ran with flowing seawater. The deck drains on the low side of the boat gurgled with gallons of clear water that were constantly flowing through them. And when the wind and waves came together to put all their force at once onto Pelagic she reacted with an animal’s instinct of the proper time to bow before superior force, rolling away from the inanimate, clawing sea and dipping her low side rail deep beneath the waves until the moment passed and she could swim upright again. This went on, hour after hour, all through the night, and all through the days and nights that followed, without any reprieve.

And then the problem revealed itself – the fly in the ointment, the worm at the bottom of the bottle. Faithful “Once In a Lifetime” readers will remember that our first significant passage of this trip, from southeast Alaska to Washington state, which incidentally feels about two lifetimes ago at this point, was plagued (PLAGUED!) by deck leaks. We had had a long section of caprail replaced before leaving Kodiak, it wasn’t properly sealed, and as a result she leaked like a screen door when going to windward. I put a bead of caulk on both sides of the new rail in Port Townsend, and that took care of the leaks for a year or more. Well, caulk sticks to oily teak for only so long, it appears, and those leaks under the caprail were back. But we’ve been sailing down the tradewinds, so the wind has been almost constantly behind us, the decks have stayed dry as a result, and we were happy in our ignorance of how big the problem had become.

Then this windward passage came along. The double bunk forward where Elias sleeps at sea became soaked and unusable. The starboard bunk in the saloon where Alisa sleeps at sea became soaked and unusable. My clothes locker got soaked, and, since I couldn’t leave the door to the locker open without all its contents spilling out, the door stayed shut so that my soaked clothes could mildew in peace.

Just as we had on the passage to Washington, we retreated to the half of the boat that was usable. Being more travel-hardened now than we were then, we were able to shrug the situation off to a certain degree and just get on with it. I was reminded at one point of the terminology of my mountain climbing days. Back then we were in the habit of setting off into unvisited corners of the Alaska Range in groups of two, with no communication with the outside world and no more gear and supplies than we could easily carry. Thus dubiously positioned for success in a notoriously inimical environment, we would attempt to climb some mountain or another that no one had ever heard of, by a route that no one had ever tried before. Sometimes this was a lot of fun, and other times things went well wrong. Being crazy enough to get ourselves into these situations in the first place, we had a name for these “other times” that reflected the devil-may-care bravado that we hoped to bring to the whole affair. We called them “suckfests”, and we brought a certain connoisseur’s enjoyment to them, particularly when they happened to someone else.

Our passage from Fiji to New Caledonia would have been a routine trip, but the deck leaks turned it into a suckfest. A suckfest with a two year old. A suckfest with a two year old that was happening to us, not to someone else.

There is a timelessness to these passages. Things cease to happen one after the other in a linear, forty hour workweek kind of way. Time just becomes another ocean that we are sailing across. We’re somewhere in it, we were at the beginning of it at some other time, and likewise we’ll be at the end of it, sometime. But for the right now, we just find ourselves afloat on the shifting surface of an ocean of time, with the shores of beginning and end out of sight. When things are going well, this is one of the most rewarding and sublime aspects of our whole sailing life, as close as a skeptic might ever get to something like a spiritual existence.

When things are going poorly, the timelessness just stretches out towards a horizon where continuity and the reassuring flow of events will re-establish itself. You can imagine that horizon you must reach before time will start flowing again, but you can’t see it. You hope for it, but despair of ever reaching it. And meanwhile you’re stuck in the eternal now.

So things happened as we went about the rote activities of our days and nights, timeless day after timeless day. Once I watched Elias, who was reading books on the cabin sole up forward while Alisa made our daily call to the Pacific Seafarers’ ham net. The boat was closed and airless. The bow was an anti-gravity chamber. Elias read. I got sick. After Alisa was done with the net I went upstairs and vomited. A convenient thing to do under these conditions, as it turns out. No need to actually lean over the lifelines and hurl into the ocean – I just slumped on the cockpit seat, comfortable in my misery, leaned over the coaming, and got sick on the side deck. The waves that washed over the deck every fifteen seconds had things cleaned up four times over by the time I was through, all evidence of my infirmity efficiently removed by sparkling saltwater.

The next day on our timeless round of days I spent collapsed in the saloon bunk that was still dry. I didn’t quite feel seasick – no nausea, none of the relief that I usually find from seasickness when I hit the refuge of the rack. I just lay there, big strong dude that I am, arm over eyes, bereft of all strength, content to be ill and useless. I listlessly thought back to my one experience of commercial fishing, which, as it happens, was Bering Sea crabbing in Force 10 conditions. Boats one hundred and forty feet long were rolling violently enough to show us the view down their stacks at one moment and the bottom of their keels the next. I had been seasick on the trip from Kodiak out to the Aleutians before the season, but once the crabbing began there was nothing, either in force or in evidence, that would keep me from doing my part to work through the season with the rest of the crew. I wasn’t sick for one second of the five day season.

I thought back to that time and wondered, did I rise above myself for the five other men on that boat in a way that I am not doing now for my own wife and son in this boat? Alisa looked at me with concern and then got onto the business of managing boat and toddler, alone, far from land.

I stayed sick, and started to think of all the times I’ve been laid out on passage since we left Mexico, some of them in conjunction with the symptoms of seasickness, others clearly not. Something seems to be going on, Alisa and I later agreed. Something that we’ll have to figure out before that passage from New Zealand to Patagonia.

The day came when nightfall found us only forty miles or so out of Lifou Island, where we could make our preliminary clearance formalities into New Caledonia. I shortened sail and went to sleep in the quarterberth. Two hours later I woke up, just before my watch alarm was set to go off, also just before the radar alarm would have warned me that we were ten miles from land. If you sail the open ocean you start to feel the danger and approach of land keenly enough that your unconscious mind can wake you at precisely the right moment in a situation like this. I crawled out of the catacomb slot of the quarterberth and climbed into the cockpit, completely befuddled by sleep. I looked automatically at the sails, then snapped awake when I looked at the horizon and saw the light on the southern end of Lifou Island winking away on the beam, well back from where our bow was pointing. The east side of Lifou is a large bay, and sailing within ten miles of shore meant that land was surrounding us on three sides, and we were sailing directly away from the safety of open water. Alone while Alisa and Elias slept trustingly below, I marveled at the new sea sense that had me awake at precisely the right moment and simultaneously felt the dread at realizing how much depended on the combination of my internal clock, the radar alarm and my watch alarm to wake me on time. Otherwise Pelagic was sailing, surely and blindly, towards her destruction at the base of some wave-washed cliff.

I turned the boat around and hove to. We crept away from the island at a knot or so, waiting for the sunrise before making landfall. I stayed up to watch our progress, making sure that sails were balanced with helm and we were moving away from land. I then slept for two more hours. I woke as the eastern sky was just turning gray and turned us around us back towards Lifou. One hard part of passagemaking that I find getting easier and easier is the sleep deprivation. When squalls or landfalls allow me only four or three or two hours of sleep in a night, I find that I do OK the next day.


The marina in Lifou turned out to be the best marina in the world. The harbormaster was named Lulu, to start with, and the local village was named “We”. All good so far. The water was turquoise and clean enough that coral was growing inside the marina and we could watch reef fish right from the dock with Elias. Pretty cool. And there was a great mix of traveling yachts who were checking in, like us, and local French yachts. So we chatted with the visitors and walked the docks looking at the very cool aluminum and steel French sloops. We washed everything that had gotten wet on the crossing, taking full advantage of our first dockside hose since Mexico. We made brief forays into We and availed ourselves of the cheap baguettes. But, theme that this is becoming, we only had one week to get to Noumea and present ourselves for the formal check-in with immigration, and we had less than three weeks before we wanted to be in Oz. So, after getting Pelagic washed up and enjoying a 40 dollar pizza, we left.


The best marina in the world. Note the small size, turquoise water and the track on the right, with lots of sticks for little boys to pick up, and lots of bushes to be hit with the sticks.

Pelagic in dry-out mode, We.

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