Strutting across the Pacific Ocean
Land Ho! Fatu Hiva
Twenty-four days and a handful of minutes had sailed past, and I had seen nothing in front of my bow to challenge Panache. It was otherworldly to be so close to ... something. It was green. How could I almost forget such a crazy beautiful color? I hadn't seen a color like that for too long. Out here, that shade of green was only present in the floating plant matter and the much more rare dorado. These teeth of land arched immediately from the water and and had the dark texture of elephant skin. If I could only just reach out and touch it. As I studied it, I started to remember all the amazing things land meant, the paramount being security. Security in food. In water. In not getting sucked into the ocean. But to reach that security, you have to keep from crashing your boat into land, which became quite relevant as I bobbed towards this green land thing. How far out am I? I was a completely secure six miles away from the shore when I started to fumble on deck stuffing sails away sloppily. I guess I was afraid I was going to crash Panache into Fatu Hiva. I didn’t. On sailboats, things rarely move faster than you, and Panache was currently one of those things. When I finished stumbling on deck, I had ample time to catch my breath and realize I was being ridiculous. First, I was way too out of shape to be exercising after sitting for a month, and second, I just put the head sail away way too early. It’s been awhile. I slowly re-raised the jib and yelled, “Land HO!” with my fist in the air. I can only imagine how cheesy that looked, but in a strange way I had always wanted to say it with such conviction. If there ever were a time to yell it, it was now.
Panache rounded the northern tip of Fatu Hiva like a champ, and I cracked off 68 pictures along the way. I had a lack of self control and an abundance of digital room to fill. It took me awhile to totally recognize Baie des Vierges (Bay of the Virgins). This confusion was accompanied by the task of finding a large penis-shaped rock. My friends teased me that such a long single-handed passage would cause a change in my sexuality, but that’s all bullshit; I was looking for a monster penis rock because it was the navigational aid for the bay and how the bay got its name. When I found the thing, it wasn't as impressive as I had imagined. This should have been obvious since I had to use binoculars to find Fatu Hiva’s penis. Despite size, the spire couldn't be interpreted as anything else. Apparently, early explorers named the the bay, “Bay of the Phalli,” and this was a perfect name for a bay overlooked by an average-sized penis rock. But once missionaries got involved, an “i” was inserted amending the name to “Baie des Vierges” which translates to Bay of the Virgins, and this name was just confusing. If I were an explorer, I’m not sure I would sail to Penis Rock in Virgin Bay.
I lined Panache up perfectly to enter the bay and glided in without a breath of wind. Charlie's Charts said there is “gusty winds sweeping down the steep slopes,” but this evening was perfectly calm. When my depth read 10 meters, I dropped the anchor and formed a beautiful relationship with land. The sun was setting behind me washing the greens of Fatu Hiva orange. I was the only boat in the bay. In the peak of the season, 20 yachts could be anchored in this 1/8th-mile bay. What a waste that I was the only person to see this. I raised my camera and took a picture.
A fisherman rowed up and barking at me. Brain, translate what that fisherman just said. “Rum!?” Rum? The fisherman was right. I had just completed a long passage, and it was time for a celebration drink. I did have rum, but I only had one bottle and might need it for bartering purposes down the line. I opened one of six boxes of wines (also brought for bartering) instead. Alcohol is a universal currency but probably works best in remote South Pacific islands. I should have bought more in El Salvador. I later heard that a German boat spent their remaining budget for the Pacific in Panama on rum and wine and traded it with everyone including customs all the way to Australia. Pretty awesome story. I poured Steven, the Marquesan fisherman, and myself a healthy portion of boxed wine, and Steven handed me a rolled up cigarette. I don’t smoke, but I also don’t normally finish a 3,000 mile passage, so I smoked the damn thing. Between coughing fits, Steve and I managed to hold a continuous conversation with little understanding on both ends. A horrifying discovery was that people in French Polynesia speak French. I told Steven that my father’s name is Steven, and he told me something about a baguette. After many wild hand gestures, I understood that Steven was inviting me to his house so he could prepare some fish for me. Step on land and have someone feed me? Yes, please.
But first I had to blow up the dinghy, a task I am never excited about. Getting the dinghy out of Panache was a wrestling match, but once in the cockpit the hindrance became the limited space. If you looked at my inflated dinghy and the size of my cockpit, you would probably say they were the same size. You would almost be right. Unfortunately the dinghy is just slightly bigger, a defect that is only apparent as the last pounds per square inch pushing the plastic dinghy walls out. If the theme of the evening were anything but “Land” I wouldn't have set the world record for blowing up Panache’s dinghy. I will be sending my record to Guinness.
My dinghy speed to shore must have been unbearable for Steven, because he abandoned the hope I could row myself to shore within the year and pushed me with his kayak. The speed gain was mediocre. You have been killing yourself with walking speed for too long, ready yourself for speed-walking speed! I was grateful. The language barrier became more apparent when Steve and I tried a technical maneuver. Eventually he let me row solo in a straight line slowly as opposed to a zigzag line quickly with his help.
Once ashore we walked along a main road lined with fruit trees and hibiscus. It was a dark path, but it didn't take me long to realize it was the only main road on the island. And walking on land was crazy -- you didn’t have to brace yourself with every step! We met up with his wife and daughter who both spoke a tiny bit of English. First question that was asked: “Do you have a wife?” I answered in the negative with a shy laugh. The smell of flowers and fruit was so strong I could taste it. We passed many people, and they all greeted us with friendly smiles and words that could only come from a small community such as this one. I had a deep yearning to speak French, but had zero basis to try my hand at it. I was starting to feel like the typical dumb American. I asked the wife questions, but many answers came in the form of the same smile and nod that Steven provided when I spoke to him, so I can’t be sure if she understood.
The house was amongst others of the stilted variety, simple yet perfect for the surroundings. We went in the backyard, poured a cup of wine and started descaling the many fish. The fish were dumped on the ground creating a sunset of colors against the flat grey concrete. I would normally consider these fish to be too small to eat, but they turned out to have more than enough meat cumulatively. The noise of Steven’s handmade scale scraper, a wooden paddle with tiny nails driven all the way through, was periodically interrupted by wonderful questions: Do you want rice? Do you like limes? Do you want pummelo? I didn't know what that last thing was but I said yes. The descaled fish were filleted if big enough or if not, they were just cut into small pieces, bones and everything. The pink cubes of muscle were salted and then given a vigorous lime juice shower. Dinner was ready, fresh from the ocean.
They packed everything in a reused shopping bag and told me I could come back anytime to gather oranges from their tree. Oranges sounded amazing. Such an invitation made the edges of my mouth curl because the closest thing to an orange I’d had recently was orange Tang, but in reality Tang is closer to sugarcane. With my hands full of fruit and fish I wandered back to my dinghy and rowed back to Panache.
The night was calm, and I was finally eating fish after 24 days of failed fishing. There was little wind and night fisherman dotted the bay with their headlamps. In the distance I could see another brighter light. Green. After finishing my meal I turned on the HF radio to listen in to the maritime nets. They are not exactly exciting, but for general weather warnings they are helpful, and in the offhand chance I hear a boat I know, I always like to listen. In an empty boat other voices, even over the radio, are always comforting. I stood in the cabin and leaned against the companionway looking out over the ocean. I had just positioned myself at the starting gate for some of the best cruising in the world. I visualized a huge map spider-webbing out to the hundreds of places I could sail to and the thousands of places I could sail to from those. Endless possibilities. I exchanged a smile with a fisherman who was using my anchor light to attract the fish. Beyond Panache I could see that the bright light in the distance was still there, but this time it was red. Could it be a boat? That would make sense, but the light hasn't moved at all. I checked the light one other time that night and it still didn't appear to be moving but did change back to green. I ignored this and laid down with the comfort of land nearby. My consciousness slipped away as waves washed against rock.
The rise of land let me fall asleep quickly, but single-handed sailing has trained me to be an insomniac. While underway I try and wake up every 40 minutes. This was a difficult ability to instill, but once established my body couldn't sleep for more than two hours before sounding an internal wake-up alarm. I woke up often and always to the same latitude and longitude. No matter how still or quiet, my body would rise and fall like the tides all night long, a pattern that can only be broken by sunlight.
The view was spectacular, and I wasn't the only one enjoying it. Those lights last night were coming from a boat named Rancho Relaxo of the Sea that was tacking into the bay. Sailing into this small bay to anchor at night. Impressive. A woman was standing on deck topless watching the same view. She turned and waved. I waved back and quickly looked away embarrassed. I hadn't noticed her at first but must have looked like I was staring. We aren't in Kansas anymore. I don't have a problem with the human form. I love it! Nudity just isn't something American culture embraces. It’s silly really, but it’s hard not to feel a little embarrassed when you have lived all your life thinking you should hide your body in front of other people. Another luxury of sailing solo -- naked sailing with no guilt.
I was sure the Rancho Relaxo was on the Baja Ha Ha, but after seeing the Austrian flag on the back of the boat, I realized it was another Rancho Relaxo, but I had heard the name recently. Yeah! Camelot, a boat I met in El Salvador was hanging out with Rancho down in northern Costa Rica. What are the odds of that!?
While calculating the statistics for my crossing, I heard a knock on my boat and it was Rancho coming over to say hi. Packed into a hard-bottom dinghy was the family of the Rancho Relaxo of the Sea. David, Guillermina, and their two kids, Bruno and Viola. They had also just finished their crossing from the Galapagos! I was amazed. I thought there couldn't be another boat making the crossing this late. I was way wrong. Anyone part of the European Union is granted a much longer visa, affording these boats the option to wait out the cyclone season in French Polynesia. They invited me over for a beer, hungry for external stimulus after a long passage. I guess regardless of who, or how many people you have during a crossing, you will always be hungry for something different at the end of it.
Rancho had been cruising for almost two years and had come all the way from Germany. David, the husband, was from Austria, Gi was Argentinean, they lived in Berlin, and their kids were multi-lingual. I can barely speak English and Bruno can speak German, Spanish and is learning English. I learned that the reason they had sailed into the bay the night before was not to show off, but because their engine was not functioning ... along with their radar and chartplotter. When they heard the crashing waves get too loud they would tack. It made for a long night. The next day we did our best to find a 60-meter waterfall and failed. Failure aside, it did feel good to stretch our legs. That evening while telling yarns from our crossing, a boat Rancho met in the Galapagos came into the anchorage. Another boat that had just finished a crossing!? Red Sky Night was an Australian boat with an Australian skipper and a young Belgian couple as crew. We all stayed up late trading stories and getting well acquainted over Panamanian rum, while the newly filled anchorage swayed with the strong tropical breeze.
The next day, all three boats went out in search of the waterfall we failed to find the day prior. It took us a little detective work, but we eventually got on the road to the waterfall. The trail was muddy from all the rainfall, and the air was thick with moisture and evaporated dirt. Along the way I gathered hot peppers that were growing along the path to spice up a boring meal of rice and beans. The trail was well established and followed a stream weaving up and down just to the left. There wasn’t a break in the jungle until we came to the vista of the impressive waterfall.
The hike wasn't hard, but the temperature was enough to break a sweat. Everyone stripped down to their swimsuits and jumped into the sweet water. The water was clean and filled with bubbles from the cascade. We tried our luck at clinging to the crack that worked its way up the falls, but the slippery factor capped our progress to no more than a foot above the waterline. Abandoning fantasies of climbing any considerable distance up the falls, we climbed up the adjacent berm that hugged the pool of water at the base of the waterfall. A perfect spot to jump from. It wasn't high, but the relatively small landing made it exciting. We all took turns making the jump. Swimming in fresh water was a welcome change.
Lunch was couscous, granola bars and water, and this spurred a conversation about food. I was glad to find I wasn't the only one obsessing over the idea of pizza. Lunch was more of a snack, and after bumbling around the falls for an hour everyone was getting a serious hunger. I had just run out of propane and talked about leaving to Hiva Oa the next day, but everyone shot down this idea and just invited me to their boats for food. I wasn't a total mooch, I always brought food that I couldn't cook as collateral. But how did I run out of propane so fast!? The bottle should have lasted me four months at least! Upon further inspection, I discovered that the regulator was letting out a leak. This was a problem easily fixed with some silicone-based glue, but it was too late. Looks like Panache left a trail of propane across the Pacific. Rancho was kind enough to give me a small camping stove for morning coffee.
Dinner on Red Sky Night was pasta with pink sauce; very rich and delicious. We exchanged media and told our respective stories of how we wound up here and where we planned to go. Daniel, the skipper, was an electrician who had originally bought the boat in the Caribbean with the intent of selling it in Australia for a profit. He looked up the most popular boat and found a reasonably well-kept charter version for sale. Not a bad idea. Have an awesome extended vacation and make a little money on the side. Daniel admitted that he wasn't sure if he could sell the boat after having so much fun aboard it. The lifestyle is too good and highly addictive. He planned to breeze through the South Pacific and make it to New Zealand by cyclone season. My plans exactly.
When I got back to my boat, I found that another boat was anchored right in front of me. Literally. I could almost jump from my bow onto the stern of the boat. I let out all 200 feet of chain and called it good, but the wind was really whipping that night. The boat in front of me must have had a tense night of anchor watch, because when I woke up to the sound of goats, the Marquesan version of a rooster, they were gone.
I should really follow them. I was just starting to get used to the idea of land and already was thinking about heading for Hiva Oa. I had only seen a fraction of what Fatu Hiva had to offer, but I had to stick to my timeline if I wanted to be in New Zealand by late November. Rancho was also eager to make miles so they could finally fix their engine, so we agreed to buddy boat to Hiva Oa. I was still sailing solo, but at least I was sailing with another boat.
Posted in Blog and tagged with Bay of the Virgins, Bay of Virgins, Bovines, Fatu Hiva, French Polynesia, Hiking, Island, Marquesas, ocean, Pacific, Panache, Polynesia, Rancho Relaxo of the Sea, Red Sky Night, Sail Panache, Sailboat, Sailing, SailPanache, South Pacific, Waterfall, Zachary Shane Orion Lough. RSS 2.0 feed.