Strutting across the Pacific Ocean
Hey Zack, it’s your brain. I think we should start moving west?! You caught a fish and hiked to the waterfall, and now it’s time to get a move on. We need to make it to New Zealand before December. Count it; that’s ... how many months? Wait, what month is it!? My brain was harassing me more with every passing hour I spent in Fatu Hiva. My party in the Pacific has an expiration date that is punctuated by hurricane force winds, and I arrived to the fiesta too late to diddle around one South Pacific island for any considerable amount of time. The idea of staying on only a handful of islands for only a handful of days looked much better on paper while I was sitting comfortably in the Americas. Hiva Oa was my next planned stop and one I had been looking forward to for a long time. During my crossing to the Marquesas, I considered skipping Fatu Hiva all together and heading straight for Hiva Oa, but opportunity is a rare bird and must be captured. I was now more excited than ever to visit Hiva Oa, because it dangled the most perfect proverbial carrot – the internet.
When I left for this trip last October, I was working for Apple retail in Oakland, California and was connected to the internet 24/7. I spent my workday showcasing/selling/troubleshooting devices where internet was a crucial tool. I spent my breaks browsing the net. And when I got home, I spent my evenings watching media content from the internet. Internet Internet Internet! Between my three roommates and I (all of whom worked for tech in some way or another), a typical night looked like a scene from the movie Hackers. I was so “connected” I was sure I would slip into a withdrawal-induced coma once the ocean replaced the web. I didn't. I was actually totally fine. But today when I enter a port with internet, it no longer represents a way to pass the time or find information; it represents a vital connection to the friends and family I love. It also allows me to download the latest music, movie or podcast, so I can stay sane while underway. For a single-hander like myself, the internet is a vital utility. It sounds like I am describing an addiction, and the internet is the closest thing I have to one. On Fatu Hiva, I was so close to Hiva Oa that I thought I could hear the faint tickle of people tapping away at keyboards and smartphones in my ear. I couldn't take it anymore. My addiction took hold, and I pulled up the hook.
Leaving the bay was a little tricky because of the variable strong wind that surges through the anchorage. With only one boat to avoid, I had an easier departure than Rancho, who was further in the anchorage and had more obstructions to navigate. Even with my engine churning at 2,500 rpm, the wind pushed me in strange directions and the whole departure felt a little like guiding a lunar lander to the surface of the moon while heavily intoxicated. Passing the northernmost point on Fatu Hiva, I was met with a fresh 20-knot wind and 4-foot swell from the east. It took me a good 15 minutes to get accustomed to not running with the wind. I hadn't heard the crushing sound of fiberglass smashing waves in over 3,000 miles, and it made me realize how much I don’t really care for passages. I just want to get to where I am going. I love sailing, and I love the ocean, but something has changed that makes me appreciate the place more than the passage. I guess long passages will do that to you, and Rancho assured me that some island time would bring back my sailing libido. Good wind and weather used to put a smile on my face, but now my smile gets larger and larger the closer I get to my destination. Are you becoming a landlubber?
The passage was short, only 45 nautical miles, but I left in the late morning and it consumed all the light the day could legally provide. I eagerly watched Hiva Oa transitioning from a barely visible silhouette to a black, bulging mound of rainclouds. A salt-and-pepper cloud of terns accompanied me between Tahuata and Mohotani, and I was sure they were following some kind of bait fish that was being followed by some food fish, but I didn't manage to catch anything of note. I was sure my trolling lines were cursed. It was dark by the time I was on my final approach, and several rain clouds passed by giving me an impromptu shower. No time to strip naked or do laundry, but it was refreshingly warm and welcome. My sunburnt skin evaporated the water almost as fast as the droplets made contact. Looking behind me I could barely make out Rancho Relaxo before their boat was rolled into an oncoming squall. As darkness became darker, it took me several minutes to get my bearings straight despite looking at two chartplotters. The navigational aids were nestled in the background lights of the main city of Hiva Oa, Atuona, making them difficult to see until I was only a couple miles away and could hear the waves bashing against the shore. I motored in cautiously to Baie Tahauku, found an abandoned patch of water among the other cruising boats and dropped my anchor. I love day sails.
With the motor still cranking amps into the batteries, I opened up my MacBook Pro to see if the anchorage had access to an open wireless network. In the middle of an anchorage with nothing in sight but a gas station, unassisted by an antenna, my Mac picked up two open networks! Unfortunately both were pay-as-you-go services, and I wasn't about to shell out four euros an hour for internet. Or so I thought. I would have to wait until morning to cruise Atuona and sniff out the free internet. Is there a Starbucks on Hiva Oa? Now that’s a Starbucks mug I have to have.
Rancho called me over the VHF and was preparing to enter the harbor. Their engine wasn't working properly and could only be run for a couple of minutes before it fell victim to some kind of fuel obstruction. They spent a good hour tacking into the harbor, and when the entrance became too narrow, they turned on the engine and hoped it would last until they dropped their anchor. Hiva Oa was the promised land for fixing things. I watched David slowly weave through the moderately full anchorage, circle Panache once like a dog approving a snooze spot and drop his anchor. “Cheated death again!” I yelled. I adopted this victory cry from Richard Spindler while racing his boat, Profligate, in Banderas Bay, Mexico. After a day sail or a sail across an ocean, it never ceases to make me smile.
My time in Hiva Oa was spent doing three things: interneting, repairing, exploring and more interneting. Sounds familiar to any cruiser. Internet was ongoing. I discovered to my disgust that there was no such thing as free internet in French Polynesia, and that if you wanted it you would have to buy it from one of three main providers that had a brutal price structure I am convinced the devil himself devised. I don’t even want to tell you how much money I spent on internet while in FP, but I will tell you my internet budget eclipsed my food/drink budget dramatically. Tip: If you are in FP and spend any reasonable amount of time on the net, do yourself a favor and buy the 100-hour package. It’s stupid expensive and looks like too many hours, but you will use it. Buying 10-hour packages at a time will only cost twice as much. Panache—learning the hard way with confidence. While there is nothing better than an internet connection, there is nothing worse than a slow one. The internet in the anchorage was dreadfully slow. Glacially slow. I could probably carrier pigeon a handwritten letter to my parents faster than this internet could deliver an email. Even so, being without internet for so long I was surprisingly okay with such a slow connection, since announcing my arrival to the masses was such a good feeling.
With my thirst for the internet satiated for the time being, I could focus on another pressing problem: repairing my self-steering system. Three days into the crossing from the Galapagos, I noticed a clicking noise that turned out to be my self steering system deconstructing itself. I jury rigged it, but needed new stainless steel bolts and new backing plates to fix it properly. The repairs were not difficult, but finding the right parts was. Many places in Mexico claimed to sell stainless steel hardware, but many of those places either lied or sold such a crappy quality of SS that it was pointless to give it such a label. My fears were put to rest when I found a full-fledged hardware store chock full of A2 stainless steel. A4 is the grade that dominates Panache, and it has lasted a good 30 years, but A2 was good enough to get me to New Zealand. The price wasn't ideal, but having a bulletproof self-steering system was priceless.
Bolts in hand, I rowed back to Panache. My dinghy was definitely on its last legs. I discovered a small air leak but paid it no attention – as long as the sun was hot, the air inside the three tubes kept it firmly inflated. However, in the evening the dinghy wilted to a pitiful pile of rubber. The sun was on my side at this moment. The anchorage was dirt brown due to a river feeding it sediment. Allegedly this anchorage is a breeding ground for sharks and swimming is discouraged. I had this idea in my head that every anchorage ... correction, every square inch of waterfront in the South Pacific was like all the pictures and postcards I coveted my whole life. Don't believe this. Hiva Oa was indeed paradise, but the anchorage wasn't. It confused me that the warning existed in the first place, since the water looked poop brown. Who in the hell would swim in this water!? But the warning remains. As my two dissimilar oars waddled me towards Panache, I watched locals fish off a concrete pier catching baby sharks, solidifying the rumors, and at night I could hear some pretty big swishes in the water. I’m guessing it was the baby sharks’ big brother, Jaws.
I didn't have any plywood to replace the backing plates for the self steering, so I decided to jigsaw a couple circles out of my composite plastic cutting board. A white powder coating of plastic sawdust covered my cockpit giving panache a very Christmasy feel, but because the look was out of season, I cleaned it up. To unscrew and re-screw the new bolts required help from David, so I enticed him with the promise of a rum and Coke from my virgin bottle of Flor de Cana. Even with two people, the job took an unexpected amount of time. I should have expected this, though, because all boat projects are this way. We both washed the work down with a “cruiser cold” (almost warm) rum and Coke. As the alcohol slowly trickled into my bloodstream, the pinching feeling that Panache was hurt dissolved. I still had a shopping list of projects for Panache, but I am a firm believer that it’s bad luck to cross every item off one’s boat project list. The one boat I heard of that actually checked every project off the list got struck by lightning the same day. It’s a bold thought to think you are ever truly done with anything on a boat, and Poseidon will straighten you out if you think otherwise.
I finished as much work as I was comfortable with and was ready for a little exploration. My first priority was to explore the local restaurant that was bellowing out clouds of fatty oils – the beautiful byproduct of a deep fryer. Glorious. Burger, fries and a cold Tahitian beer. I almost asked for French Fries, but I guess they don't call them that. It was better than almost calling them “Freedom Fries.” Waiting for that food was on par with waiting to make landfall in Fatu Hiva. Moving from a diet that was almost void of meat to eating a burger was slightly overwhelming for my taste buds, and even more so for my stomach, but it was worth it. Filled with hollow calories, Rancho and I roamed the town and bought fresh provisions with our newly acquired handfuls of Polynesian Francs. By this point, my coin purse (a recycled Crown Royal bag) is filled with so much exotic currency that it has become difficult finding the right form of payment. I pride myself on resisting souvenirs, partly because they just clutter your life, and so the only souvenir I seem to obtain is foreign currency. But now all that change is cluttering my ability to buy things. Typical. I could tell the woman at the market was trying her hardest to repress laughter, probably from my silly pirate bag of booty.
Rancho connected with a local woman who runs a laundry service for cruisers and who also happened to give car tours of Hiva Oa’s archeological sites. When an Australian boat opted into the package, the all-day tour became very reasonable. The next day we packed a full picnic and hopped in the back of the woman's covered pickup. Ideally I would have a month or more to explore every nook at my own slow pace, but I would have to settle for the 30-mph drive-by version. It felt good to go so fast. We wound up to the top of mountains, wove our way to the lowest valleys and snaked our way along steep coastal roads. The vistas on Hiva Oa are dramatic; large-scale scenes of mountains and sea that left my camera brimming with pixels. Every once and awhile I realized how remote all this is and it made everything more beautiful. We would stop the car when someone spotted a guava tree on public land and we would get out and do our best to strip it of all the ripe fruit. I hated guava until I had one here. So sweet with a nice texture and crunchy seeds in the center. They taste the way you would think the tropics should taste, making them fulfill an almost unreasonable expectation in my mind. Fruit picking rule: If its not on someone’s land, pick it, because it’s probably going to spoil if you don't. Hearing this just made me hungry.
The archeological sites were cool but a little too static. I enjoy history from a safe distance of never studying it, making the subject a perpetual interest. Part of the problem was the language barrier, since I don’t speak French beyond the word croissant. Context aside, the huge Tikis were impressive but only held the attention of our group for an hour before our hunger steered us to a beachfront park area for lunch.
Tuna steaks, steak steaks, sausages, carrot salad, a variety of fruit, bread and cake was the complete menu. We brought too much food, and I ate way too much. The bumpy ride back was a little challenging with such a full stomach. At one point we were behind two other trucks and discovered what traffic was like in the Marquesas.
Hiva Oa seemed to be completely out of propane, and I was left using Rancho’s little camping stove. It worked, but it was completely inadequate for meals requiring more than hot water. I found myself eating on Rancho’s boat most nights. My lack of cooking fuel and my drive to put miles towards New Zealand pushed me onwards, a whopping 10 miles to Tahuata. Apparently Hanamoenoa Bay has one of the few white-sand beaches in the Marquesas. The islands are young volcanic rock and fall steeply into the ocean, making coral, and consequently white sand, a rarity. Hanamoenoa had it. Hanamoenoa had so much that it was like stepping in quicksand. My feet would sink a full foot into the gritty muck. It was a nice feeling and a nicer challenge to attempt to run. My brief dabble in civilization was over, back to sand, salt and coconuts. I was happy the scenery was straight out of a Cruising World article: Finding Bliss in the Marquesas.
My fishing dry spell was officially over after catching a delicious monster that was chasing the bonita I was about to catch. Ciguatera poisoning was a slight worry, but I had heard nothing of the toxin in any of the fish in the Marquesas. Rancho left for the Tuamotus a day before I did. I wasn't looking forward to the 10-day passage to Tahiti, especially with only the little camping stove I borrowed from Rancho to cook my meals. I spent one more night in Hanamoenoa and enjoyed the evening with an Australian boat named Anaconda. This family has named all their boats this after their grandfather, who escaped being killed by some Pygmies in Papua New Guinea by slaying an anaconda, blowing air into it and floating down a river to safety. Ridiculous, but stranger things have happened I guess. When they picked up the boat on the East Coast of America, they also picked up some fireworks, and we used them onshore as a post July 4th celebration – or at least that was my intent when lighting them. I wore my Old Navy American flag shirt and saluted towards the States. The 4th is one of my favorite holidays, one I find people universally enjoy. I have met people who hate firework displays, but they obviously have some serious problems. I can understand dislike of light-ur-own fireworks, they can blow off your finger and all. But professional fireworks displays!? Seriously!? Are you a nervous chihuahua!? I digress. It was dark and you couldn't stand in one spot too long or land crabs would inspect your toes for food. The crab molestation forced an awkward dance and, coupled with the non-indian reservation fireworks, made our trio look more than special. Our finale was throwing the remaining fountain fireworks into a small fire and watching the fizzles. It was strange to celebrate the United States’ independence in the Marquesas in late August. I’ll take what I can get.
It was time to leave. Sliding away from land is always a little unnerving at first. I am a land creature that wishes I had gills. Or at the very least a blow hole. Just think about it like this, it’s only a 10-day passage. You just crushed a 24ish day passage. This is going to be a piece of cake. Just hunker down, read a book and enjoy the ride. It’s my brain so I have to listen, and looking at my options I found no other choice than to follow suit. To the next step.
Sailing solo for 8 months was an amazing experience that sharpened my tenacity, deepened my personal accountability, and developed my self-reliance. It also gave me some of the most devastatingly lonely moments. On day 12 of my crossing from the Galapagos to the Marquesas, I reached my halfway point in the passage and also tripped 5000 miles since I started sailing last October. Amidst the excitement of reaching such a milestone I was struck with a bolt of depression – I had nobody to celebrate such a moment with. Two years ago, my Pacific daydreams were shared with Karen by my side. At this point, I miss the idea of sharing the moment more than sharing it specifically with Karen, but my melancholy mood exemplifies the letdown in expectations. Those solitary moments are burned into my being, and they have clarified how important human contact is for a healthy, rounded passage and for life. That day I vowed to find crew – a task my mother has been begging me to do for the past I-don’t-know-how-many months. I don’t regret my time sailing solo, I just am ready to share my experiences with someone other than my self-steering system, Jesus.
I have always been very lucky in finding crew. Before the 2011 Baja Ha Ha, I picked up two eager crew members my age in only a matter of weeks. After Karen bailed on the trip, I was desperate for crew and would have accepted a chimpanzee as a first mate. I got lucky to find Eric, Nate and later on in Cabo, Mer. Like any group stuck on a 30-foot boat, we had our differences; but this never eclipsed the fun we had. Eric joined me on Panache as I made her maiden voyage out of Ventura Harbor. We were as green as it gets, full of theoretical knowledge and ready to test it. I had an idea of cruising, but had no expectations as to the rhythm of sailing Panache. I think not knowing made it easier to work with my crew because we were discovering that rhythm together. Today, I have the rhythm down to a science, and it works extremely well for a solo sailor. Before departing the Marquesas, I posted an open invitation to Facebook for crew: “Looking for crew, meet me in Tahiti.” Sure enough, my friend referred her friend, and before long, Vladimir had a ticket to Tahiti. I actually went to high school with Vladimir, but we were never in the same circles. As his arrival date crept closer, I became aware that bringing a new person aboard would disrupt a perfectly functional system that had worked for thousands of miles. It was my job now to make that rhythm work for two and to teach it to Vladimir. I was out of practice in the vocal conversation department, and as previous crew can attest, I was never great at describing things. Hey Eric, will you pull that jigger thingy? No, no ... The green one. Yeah, but pull it the other way. Great, now tie it around that nubby thing. Thanks. Sailing solo for all these months only strengthened my inability to communicate. If only Pictionary were an acceptable form of communication …
Teaching concerns aside, the bulk of my anxiety came from wishing for a positive reception. I have so much anxiety about acceptance in general, I am surprised I ever dare open my mouth. My blog has helped alleviate some of this anxiety by allowing me to put myself out there without fearing how my words will be received. However, having crew is much more intimate, and it regurgitated this anxiety. It chewed my mind apart, forcing me to confront the issue. You might think I am taking this a little too seriously, and you would be right. But realize that I even have trouble watching a favorite movie with someone who hasn't seen it before. I am so worried they won’t like it. I have to constantly look over at them to make sure they are not asleep. Ultimately, it stresses me out. Inviting crew aboard Panache isn't just for a peek at the cruising lifestyle; I’m inviting them into my life.
You can’t get much more intimate than living on a 30’ sailboat with another person. If you want to go anywhere on the boat, the other person has to get out of the way in order for you to pass. The bathroom (or head) has no door for privacy, and the term “privacy” really has no right to be used on a 30’ boat. It is the ultimate test of one’s ability to stand the other person. Vladimir might accept me and Panache, but will he be able to withstand our unwavering presence as crew? A tall order.
From what I gather about Vladimir, or as my dad dubbed him “The Cosmonaut Cruiser,” is that he is very well-traveled and flexible. A priceless characteristic. I feel like I lucked out once again with the crew gods and should do my best to accommodate Vladimir, and thus honor the crew gods.
Looking in the mirror, it doesn't take long to spot an easy personal hygiene tweak I could make to welcome my new passenger – I could shave the monstrous mountain-man beard that has taken over my face. Coupled with my long hair, I look like a lion. Add sunglasses, and I look like a lion wearing sunglasses. It’s ridiculous. The other day a drunk South African thought I was Tom Hank’s son from the movie Cast Away, and last night while dinghying out to Panache, someone yelled “Hey Jesus!” They could have been talking to my self-steering system, but I am pretty sure it was directed at me. My beard saves flavors from any and all beverages I drink, and it billows in the wind at speeds above 7 knots. Yes, I look fucking grizzly and tuff and definitely get respect that I am not normally used to, but it’s a pain to sit by and let this thing grow. I am a human Chia Pet without the luxury of being able to ignore myself. I made all sorts of promises about cutting my beard for personal reasons, but the arrival of Vladimir might just be the push I need to make a beard-free dream a reality. In comes Daniel from Red Sky Night: “Don’t be soft. Don't cut your beard. He won’t give a shit if you have one or not!” Rum + yelling is a very persuasive mix. This is coming from someone who recently cut his beard.
Ok, I will table the beard thing, but arriving to a clean boat would certainly be a nice gesture. As I surveyed Panache’s cabin, I realized I could probably use some help with the mess. Cue animated light bulb above my head. The whole point of crew is to share experiences, including cleaning Panache. If I really wanted to treat my new crew to the full experience, I needed to keep Panache filthy until my crew arrived. Vladimir wasn't coming down here to be babied. I decided to cancel the welcome parade for him and just present him with a true reality. I explained to him over the phone the circumstance, but words can never do any experience justice, and Vladimir would just have to see the way I lived first hand.
It was the eve of Vladimir’s arrival, and I had done zero preparation. While I sat in the cabin drinking my ceremonial morning hot chocolate, I realized that doing anything other than doing nothing was to sugar coat or disgrace the very lifestyle I lived. I sport a homeless man beard, a proper cruising boat is dirty, and things break often. I manicure, clean, and fix as they become necessary. Take it or leave it; that’s who Panache and I are while sailing.
When he finally arrived, we spent most of the evening catching up on the years between high school and now. Vladimir had just been dropped into paradise. The boat and my beard seemed to be non-issues. The next day when we started doing some repairs on Panache, Vladimir literally dove head first into the engine compartment to help out. We were replacing the salt water pump, but it was located in the most inaccessible spot. Truly perverse. It was a job I could never do by myself and solidified how important crew is. I tried to tackle the job prior to his arrival, but got so frustrated with my short T-Rex arms that I abandoned the task. With Vladimir by my side, we experienced the same frustration, but the ridiculously difficult task became comical with company. With salt water pumping freely, I realized that all my anxiety was pointless and that Vladimir was going to be a perfect fit for Panache.