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Friday, November 14, 2008


“It’s October 14th. My Dad’s and brother’s birthday is the 16th. I was just saying to myself, wow, it’s October 1st. And now all of a sudden it’s two weeks later. It’s crazy.”
“It would go faster if we’d stayed at home.”
“You think?”
“Sure. If we’d stayed home we’d be sixty by now.”


Until 2006, the only port of entry for New Caledonia was Noumea, the capitol, which is on the western side of Grande Terre, the main island. So boats making the tradewind passage from Fiji or Vanuatu had to sail past the Loyalty Islands and the Isle of Pines, two of the premier cruising areas, to go check into the country, and then were faced with an upwind trip to get back to those places. So it is a change for the better that we could check into Lifou, in the Loyalties. But the rules required us to make our final clearance at Noumea within a week, so we weren’t completely at liberty. While we spent a couple days in Lifou drying out Pelagic after the passage from Fiji, we talked about going up to Ouvea, an atoll in the Loyalty group, for one last hit of the atoll living that we had loved so much in the Tuamotus.

A quick look at the distances on the charts, and reflection on how a strong southeasterly would make it so hard to get from the Loyalties to Noumea, put that plan to rest. With Ouvea out of reach, we realized that atolls were suddenly a thing of the past for us, at least until our next set of tropical passages comes along. Dear reader, let that be a metaphor for everything that you find beautiful or worthwhile in life: for a while there, in the misty recesses of time (you know, back in June 2008), we were living an atoll to atoll existence. The Pacific stretched out endlessly before us. We had plenty of time to learn about harvesting coconuts, and there would be lots more times when we would sit on the beach and look through the reef fish field guide with Elias to identify the multicolored-wonder we had just seen. And then, suddenly, it was all over.

Our consolation would be the Isle of Pines, which was conveniently on the way from Lifou to Noumea, and is meant to be one of the jewels of New Caledonia.

We had a great overnight sail to get there, close reaching into a whisper-smooth twelve knot breeze. In the morning we woke up in the company of old friends – flocks of thousands of either short-tailed or sooty shearwaters (I never learned to tell them apart). These two species are the most abundant birds in Alaska, and, according to something I read somewhere, sometime, may be the most numerous wild birds in the whole world. In the Austral winter they migrate to the Bering Sea, where there are contemporary, reliable accounts of flocks so big that they take days to fly past. Then they return to Tasmania and New Zealand for their breeding season, where they feed their chicks in the nest with a strategy of alternate short local foraging trips and massive, 1500 km foraging trips to Antarctica. Very cool birds. They were congregating over the turbulent water in the reef passes between Grande Terre and the Isle of Pines, looking for a meal after the ordeal of their migration all the way from Alaska. They follow a soutwards path similar to our own, first down the west coast of North America before striking out to the west. I was surprised at how touched I was to see these little seabirds that are also dual residents of Alaska and Australia, and who were also approaching their final leg of their trip. We used to see shearwaters at the end of the summer during the five years Alisa and I worked in Kachemak Bay, and I used to watch the endless string of their passing flocks through binoculars from the hilltop vantage point of the UCSC campus when I was in grad school. Seeing these familiar birds from the decks of Pelagic was a great confirmation of life lived at a global scale.


Our goals for the Isle of Pines were simple: a beach for Elias and a coral reef for us. We ended up with just the beach. We found the anchorages in our cruising guide full of yachts, so settled for a spot off of a little deserted island with no other boats at anchor and a nice beach for the family, but no coral. So suddenly snorkeling was a thing of the past for us, too.

We settled into a lazy routine, going ashore every morning with Elias, getting him back in time for lunch and a nap, and spending the rest of the day on the boat. “It’s embarrassing how quickly these days go past,” Alisa said. We reveled in the slow pace, knowing that we’d get busy again once we hit Noumea and started preparing for our last passage of the trip.

Preferred beach activities for 2 year olds and 40 year olds.
And there were some natural history delights to keep us entertained. We saw our first sea snake, swimming along next to the hull as we were dropping the anchor. Didn’t get a picture then, but did see several more ashore on the island, and got this picture of at least two of them entwined in a crevice in the upraised limestone that ran behind the beach.
Sea snakes on the beach. One head is just visible in the upper left-hand corner. Check out the tick that has attached itself to the eye of the snake on the right. This is one of those times when it would be really useful for a snake to have hands.
And there was great birding on the island, reflecting the presence of the large landmass of Grande Terre island just a few miles away, as well as the east-west gradient of land bird diversity in the tropical Pacific. I was very happy with this photo of what we think is a silvereye, Zosterops lateralis.

We moved on to Noumea, making the trip in two easy days. The earth of southern Grande Terre was red and the brush was silver-grey, reminding us of the vast Australian landmass ahead of us. We found the harbor at Noumea thick with yachts, many of which were joining a scheduled cruising rally to Bundaberg. These events are becoming more and more popular – pre-scheduled, group passages ranging from a single leg, like this one, to complete round-the-world voyages. What the allure might be I cannot begin to guess.

We talked to some boats we knew and started hearing things like, “The wind’s supposed to peak at 24 knots in five days, but that’ll probably be 30”, or, “There’s going to be a westerly swell, and the period is supposed to drop to six seconds four days from now, so it’s a bad time to leave.” How they could know the weather in such detail so many days out, we hadn’t a clue.

We could feel a big group grope coming along as all the Bundaberg-bound boats in the rally started trying to choose the very best time to leave on the 790 mile crossing. There’s something about leaving a safe harbor that gets very difficult once people start trading weather rumors. And at this point in the trip across the Pacific everyone knows a boat or two that has run into weather bad enough to break rigging or rip sails, and it was only natural for people to feel a bit of suspense over this last passage before the cyclone season hiatus, wondering if they’d get away with an easy trip just one more time.

We wanted to avoid that scene, mostly because we know we’re as susceptible to the psychology as anyone else. And we didn’t want to be trying to check into Bundaberg while all the rally boats were arriving. And the harbor in Noumea stank of sewage and the local Melanesians, the kanaks, gave us the same greasy eyeball that they give to the French. The racial tension and urban dislocation of traditional culture were palpable. While tension between Melanesians and Indo-Fijians in Suva was obvious, it didn’t have anything to do with us. But in Noumea being white was enough to get us involved – nothing overt, just that unspoken tension and a very noticeable reluctance for any Melanesian to make eye contact.

So we availed ourselves of the sailor’s great prerogative when things aren’t quite to liking on shore, the prerogative to just put up the sails and bugger off. Let other boats go through the indecision of “should we go or shouldn’t we?”. Let other people stare at weather faxes and GRIB files and worry about squalls and lows and squash zones. Let the tourists pay the high prices for the dubious honor of staying in this colonial city. We were going sailing.

We made one final pre-departure push, much like the pre-departure pushes that have kept us up late in every port we’ve left since Kodiak. Alisa provisioned the boat and I dealt with the bureaucrats and laid a new bead of caulk inside and outside the cap rail, hoping to staunch our recurring indoor Niagara Falls if we ended up in sloppy weather. Alisa took Elias on his long-promised visit to the aquarium and he ran around outside the shark tank, holding his hand over his head like a dorsal fin and doing his “dun-dun-dun-duh” imitation of the theme from Jaws and scaring the little girls. I pulled the dinghy around the perimeter of Pelagic and gave the waterline one last scrub, mindful that the Australian quarantine authorities can require fouled boats to haul out and repaint to limit the introduction of exotic organisms. I watched other skippers in the stinking harbor water, scrub brush in hand, and enjoyed my moment of smugness over having cleaned off the bottom in the clean waters of the Isle of Pines.

Friday was coming, and we still don’t leave port on a Friday, so one final push on Thursday saw Alisa grabbing some final food items for the crossing and me speed-walking the rounds of officialdom in the punishing tropical humidity, and then both of us winching the dinghy onto deck while Elias took his after-lunch nap.

“I’m exhausted,” I told Alisa. “Maybe we’ll just get out of town and anchor up somewhere.”

“Fine with me,” she said. “That counts as starting the trip on Thursday.”

The harbor patrol came by and made outlying yachts squeeze into the already-crowded anchorage outside the marina. We picked the hook and gave thanks that Elias didn’t wake up, then steered through the anchored fleet, waving to boats we knew.

And then the excitement hit us.

“I can’t believe we’re sailing to Australia!” Alisa said.

Elias came up into the cockpit and watched Noumea disappearing over the stern. We would have just enough time to get out through the reef pass before dark. We were energized, all thoughts of anchoring for the night forgotten. I cracked a beer and picked our way around the shoals between Noumea and the open ocean.

We pulled through the pass. A sport fishing boat went the other way, hurrying to be back in town by nightfall. The water was grey beneath the western Pacific overcast that had been following us since Fiji. Shearwaters swarmed over prey schools in the current. I put up the main and Alisa went below to feed Elias his dinner. The sun set in front of us. I set the windvane and Pelagic ventured out on the nighttime ocean. We were sailing to Australia.


Marnie said...

I met you briefly before you left on your journey. I heard about what you were doing and was surprised to say the least. I found out from Patrick Salty that you had a blog and have been following for about four months. Needless to say, I am way more than jealous, just down right in disbelief. You mentioned the beautiful atolls of June 08, and I know your trip isn't over yet, but is there anyplace along the way you thought to yourself, yep, this is it, I need to go no further - heaven? I must say some of those places LOOK heavenly. Any place you would want to live? Or was passing through enough? Marnie

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