Shipwrecked on Niue

I am tired. Staying up all night doesn't get you this tired. But add the exhaustion that comes after several spikes of adrenaline, and you are getting close to the level of tired I am speaking of. I will try to be as clear and concise as possible in explaining this mishap. Maybe mishap is the wrong word, because we were quite lucky that Panache is still floating and that nobody was hurt. I guess that makes us lucky by default; however, Panache is classified as shipwrecked.

It’s hard to identify the exact genesis of any problem, because sometimes we are on a collision course without knowing it. Many actions led up to the shipwreck, but if I were to guess, I would say it all started with the knowledge of an incoming low pressure system. That kernel of knowledge set in motion a domino effect that put Panache in the condition she is in now. Don’t mistake this chain reaction theory as an admission of fault. I made those decisions. I did this. I just can’t shake the feeling that if I did just one thing differently I might have avoided this whole mess.

Panache in Alofi Bay.

Panache arrived in Niue on Saturday, November 3. Vlad and I have been racing through the South Pacific to make a well-timed jump down to New Zealand sometime in mid- to late-November. A break on Niue was well-deserved. We spent the day snorkeling and catching up with our buddy boat, Eliot, who arrived the previous day. Internet was included with the Niue Yacht Club moorings, and everyone was able to catch up on correspondence, and more importantly, check the weather. It was officially cyclone season, and weather windows were now paramount for making a safe passage. Even our next passage, a short three-day 230-mile run to Vava’u, Tonga was extremely weather-sensitive. Even at rest on a mooring ball in Niue, bad weather had a tendency to push otherwise safely moored yachts towards the jagged reef, just close enough to terrify the person on anchor watch.

Diving Niue Sea Cave. Watch out for sea snakes and sharks!

These guys are everywhere and have terrible eyesight. They swim right into you and then freak out and dive to the rock bottom. A little scary the first couple of times.

The crew of Eliot and Vlad.

THE NIUE YACHT CLUB! Also the best yacht club in the world thanks to Ira and Brian. Love you guys!

Sure enough, a low-pressure system was rolling through the Pacific right below Tonga and Niue, flipping the predominant wind 180 degrees and kicking up ugly swell. We were in the shadow of the low, but the weather was still going to be ugly and in full force Wednesday. Should I stay or should I go now? If I go there will be trouble, and if I stay it will be double! Elliot opted to leave on Monday morning putting them in Vava’u right as the weather might start to get hairy. I had read way too much about Niue to just skip it. I am here now and am going to see the darn island! Vlad and I agreed to stick around and see what there was to see and then leave for Vava’u afterwards. What’s the worst that could happen? Panache is sitting on a mooring ball rated for a yacht three times her size and weight. Although, once the wind-shift takes effect, the hardly protected bay of Alofi will become completely vulnerable to wind and swell, not to mention the weather pushing her towards the razor-sharp, shallow reef only a stone’s throw away. I inspected the moorings and had more than enough faith in their holding ability through 30ish knot wind and swell.

Like Elliot planned, they left for Vava’u Monday morning after trudging through the exit procedure. We hugged goodbye and made plans to meet in Vava’u. To make the most of our time on Niue, Vlad and I rented a car to take a proper tour of all Niue had to offer. The whole island is a huge, raised coral atoll with practically no beach and no rivers, giving the water an amazing clarity, 70 meters deep in some places. We spent our day exploring the sea tracks that lead to the water’s edge, poking around the caves and swimming in the warm, protected limestone nooks and arches. During our road trip we were constantly on the lookout for fruit. Coconuts were plentiful and replaced our water bottles. If we got thirsty, we would pull over for a coco break and machete a coconut into a pint of delicious coco water. Papayas were the next most plentiful food item, and by the end of the day we had 10 dinosaur-egg-sized fruits. It was a successful day (minus clogging the toilet with some new extra plush toilet paper that morning), and Vlad and I were happy we decided to stick around.

Playing tourist on Niue feels good 🙂

Machete man.

Public service announcement.

Vanilla Hitler

You could spend a week here and never explore all the underwater sea caves.

More snakes! Eeeeeeek!

This path was like walking through a fairy tale.

One of the many breathtaking limestone formation on Niue.

A fraction of the papayas Vlad and I gathered. Too bad we smashed them during all the commotion.

Tuesday was a wash with internet. That evening, on schedule, the weather started showing signs of an incoming front. Dinghying back to the boat was a bit strange in such colossal swell with no light to forewarn its arrival. Panache was rocking back in forth violently, and the timing of getting aboard became a task in itself. The predominant wind was now from the north, and the swell was from the northwest. This kicked Panache around just enough to make sleeping next to impossible.

In the middle of the night, I had to get up and hang out on deck for a breather. The cabin was rocking too much and there were too many noises to keep me from sleeping. A can of spray paint clinking back and forth was one of the worst offenders, due to its location in a locker right next to my head. No matter how I moved the can or packed material around it, the sound of that little mixing ball inside continued to keep me up. Impromptu ear plugs did little to dampen such a tenacious rattler.

While on deck I checked our connection to the mooring ball. The mooring itself was a big, heavy refrigerator-sized block of concrete with a nice, thick piece of nylon rope the size of my wrist to tie off to. It even had a metal thimble inside the eye-splice to reduce chafe. Taking stock of the state of our mooring job, I retreated back to the cockpit to keep an eye on things. Even with the noise and the unrelenting swell, my eyes became surprisingly heavy. The weather wasn't terrible, but it was uncomfortable, and with the larger swell, Panache was stretching the mooring line practically taut. Each time we reached the end of the line, I was jerked awake, and after a while I concluded it was more productive to sleep. As I climbed into the cabin, I was careful not to step on the bundle of papayas we relegated to the cockpit in case there were any stowaway bugs. With so many papayas there really wasn't any other place for them!

Throughout the night I would wake up periodically and take a sweep of the surroundings. Same waves, same wharf being beaten by them, nothing new of note. Vlad and I were never fully asleep, but we did fall into a limbo dream state where your brain was conscious just enough to lurch into action if need be. This must be how most animals sleep. In this state of grime and sleep deprivation I sure felt like an animal. Little did we know that during one of our partial dream states, the rocking of the boat had slowly untied the line cleating us to the mooring. Like a blind man walking towards a cliff, Panache slowly and unwittingly rocked towards the hard, coral shore just 30 meters away. I don’t know what I was dreaming about, but the most terrible sound woke me and Vlad simultaneously. It was as if a wrecking ball was ramming the bottom of the boat. Our animal sleep was broken and both of us shot up. BANG! With the force of a cannon blast, the wrecking ball struck again, jolting the whole boat like an earthquake. In a shaky voice, Vlad yelled “We’re on the reef!”

Never has my heart sunk so fast and my adrenalin risen so high in a single moment. Smashing your boat on a reef is a sure way to end any cruise quickly - if it doesnt sink your boat, it will sink your cruising ambition. Vlad couldn't stop yelling, “Wow! Wow! WOW!” with every battering the keel received from the reef. I hurried on deck and sure enough the bow of Panache was nosing into the breakers. “Turn on the engine! NOW!” I screamed. Panache was bow in, a miracle that allowed us to try to motor out of this nightmare. Let it just be a nightmare.

Vlad instinctively turned the ignition, “It doesn't work! Should we call for help!?” “What do you mean the engine doesn't work?” I responded sternly. As I hopped into the cabin to get the engine started, a wave pushed us deeper onto the reef, shoving Panache over 40 degrees and dumping us and most all our belonging onto the cabin floor. Vlad failed to turn on the engine switch on the electrical board, and with the switch now in the right position, the engine fired immediately. I jumped into the cabin, wrenched the tiller to center and threw the motor into reverse. Every wave was accompanied by the terrible noise of reef trying to shatter Panache’s fiberglass hull. My jaw was clenched together in solidarity with Panache. “Come On. COME ON! COME ON!!!” I kept screaming through my teeth. With each wave we crept further and further to a point of no return. It wasn't working. “We need to call for help!” Vlad insisted. I turned the engine off and did what every sailor fears, making a mayday call ...

Trying to steady my hand, I picked up the VHF radio; then it was time to steady my voice: “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! This is the sailing vessel Panache. We have two persons aboard. We broke from our mooring in Alofi bay and are on the reef. Requesting assistance. I repeat; we are on the reef and requesting ...” BANG “assistance!”

I paused for a moment and got no response. It was 3 in the morning, but someone has to be on channel 16! “Should we abandon ship in the dinghy?” Vlad asked. My answer came quickly, “No, it’s safer here for the time being.” I repeated the mayday and again got no response. “Fuck it, I’m getting us off this fucking reef!” I announced and turned the engine back on.

Panache wasn't totally on her side. The reef here was steep, and if I could gun the engine with the waves I might be able to shimmy Panache free. I gave the engine every ounce of horsepower available, and slowly I could tell we were making progress with every wave that washed between us and the reef. As I turned to look aft, I saw a huge black mass heading for us. Before it struck Panache’s stern, the water under us was pulled into the black mass and the tiller twisted violently into my side with a huge SNAP, breaking like a Louisville slugger shattering from a fastball. The tiller was now hanging on by a thread to the rudder post, but that last big wave was enough to lift Panache off the reef. We were moving in reverse. We were free, but were we slowly sinking?

“Vlad, go check below to see if the boat is filling with water.” Vlad discovered a little water on in the cabin, but nothing like you see in Hollywood movies. “Shit. It’s the toilet water!” During all the commotion our plugged up toilet was dumped onto the cabin floor. This was the least of our problems at the moment. “We need to anchor, those moorings can’t be trusted.” I said, and right then I saw mooring ball number 1, the exact mooring ball we were on. The knot attaching us to our mooring, the knot I tied, had come loose, not the mooring. “This is all my fault ...” Another sinking feeling.

We limped to the mooring ball and attempted to attach ourselves but failed, only managing to tangle our dinghy (appropriately named Buoy) to the mooring line. Another clusterfuck. We were facing stern-forward into the swell, making Panache roll dangerously. We needed to fix this, but first we needed to remove all the papayas we had smashed into the world’s largest fruit salad in the cockpit. Vlad and I dug the papayaed cockpit out like dogs digging to China, not realizing we had flung half the smashed papaya into our dinghy. Whatever.

I hopped into Buoy the dinghy and started untangling the rat’s nest of knots that were preventing us from making a second approach to secure mooring. It was bad. Buoy was being smashed against Panache as Panache rolled viciously into Buoy, all while I was trying to free us from the mooring, covered in papaya. It was madness.

What felt like an eternity later, the knot was straightened out and Panache was once again drifting back towards the boiling breakwater. Our steerage was definitely having problems, but we inched once again towards mooring ball #1 and secured ourselves, this time with two lines and extra tight cleat hitches.

Exhausted, we congratulated each other for moving quickly while our heart rate leveled. It was time to call off our mayday to Niue Radio, which by this point was getting lots of attention. We disinfected the cabin floor with bleach and sat on deck to hide from the fumes while breaking down the whole four-minute event play by play.

I can’t help but think about all the things that could have been slightly different that would have produced a better outcome. If we had only left Niue with Elliot, or tied the mooring line tighter, or left an anchor watch on deck or turned the engine on a moment earlier we might be in better shape. All things considered, we were extremely lucky because everyone was ok and Panache was still floating. We stumbled onto the fine line of danger and ended up on the lucky side. The exhaustion was overwhelming, but the sleep never came. Fear of breaking free from the mooring was enough to keep us both up.

In the morning I jumped into the churning water and when the bubbles cleared, I saw the damage. Panache’s keel looked as if Jaws chewed it apart, with a superficial scar on the bow and, the bad news, a fractured rudder. Our lack of steerage and the loud SNAP the night before now made sense. I took a few pictures and hauled myself on deck. New Zealand was out of the question. I had gotten lazy, tied a shitty knot and lost New Zealand. It sounds silly, but losing New Zealand made my time in the Pacific feel like a waste. Its like hiking within visible range of a mountains peek and turning around. We would have to remove the rudder and jury rig a fix good enough to get to Tonga 310ish miles away. Before any of that, though, we would have to wait out the low pressure system that was twisting the wind and waves into two days of torture. No toilet, no sleep and all the luxuries of land teasing us only meters away. The wharf was being swallowed by the westerly swell making a landing suicide. Grudgingly we waited it out, all the while awake and overly vigilant of the lines connected to our mooring ball keeping us away from the reef. This time of paralysis gave ample opportunities for the “what if” game. I was bummed out, and my immediate plan sequenced between scuttling Panache and flying home from Niue, fixing the boat in Tonga and waiting out the cyclone season and everything in between. Whichever way, landfall in New Zealand had never felt so far away. I had failed.

Vlad was making a serious effort to steer my mind elsewhere. I usually enjoy wallowing in my self-pity, but in the end Vlad made me smile, pointing out how ridiculous the whole thing was. The papayas, the toilet water, the fact that we were shipwrecked! He made me realize the comedy in an otherwise dismal situation. His positive energy helped get me through the dejected two days.

By Thursday afternoon the swell and wind had died down to a point where we could remove the rudder. Being a small production boat was another huge win for Panache, because this job was as easy as removing two bolts. The cockpit looked naked without a rudder. We hauled the rudder into Buoy and brought it ashore the next morning.

Very visible low pressure trend.

Small production boat win! Two bolts removed and the fractured rudder is free!

Something is missing, I just can't put my hand on it...

It was a Friday when we finally stepped foot on land. Getting on the wharf was a bit of a rodeo, but we made it, 100-lb rudder in hand. A tourist named Graham who was a fiberglass guru back in New Zealand was visiting Niue and due to fly out that afternoon with the weekly jet. Keith, the head chairman for the Niue Yacht Club wrangled Graham into checking out Panache’s rudder. Within minutes of looking at the damaged rudder, Graham had a plan for fixing it! Niue Yacht Club had all the tools necessary to complete the project, and by the early afternoon the rudder was straightened and glassed over on one side. Graham worked some serious black magic. I felt pretty good about the fix thus far and couldn't thank Graham and the Niue Yacht Club enough. That afternoon we even fixed the toilet! The Niue nightmare was shaping up to be quite an adventure. A welcome transition.

"Commodore Keith" gave our rudder and us a ride up to the Niue Yacht Club. Thanks Keith!

Team work.

The fractured area of the rudder looks a little like the state of Texas. Right?

Grinding down the damaged area on our rudder to pour filling compound into the fracture. We then inlayed aluminum struts perpendicular to the fracture and glassed over the whole damaged area.


As of now, I don’t know where I stand with this trip. I have been cruising for over a year now, through Southern California, Mexico, Central America, the Galapagos, and through the South Pacific. How will it end? A shipwreck isn't a bad ending, I guess, if I’m looking for a good story. Right now I am sending out feelers as to the best plan of action. We can’t stay in Niue with the cyclone season in effect, so the immediate plan is to get the boat to Vava’u, Tonga where ample cyclone-proof mooring are available. Maybe jump up to American Samoa and haul the boat out, maybe sell the boat and fly back to the States with my tail between my legs. I have options, but all of them fall short of sailing to New Zealand. Dave from S/V LightSpeed gave some good insight:
“I can't recommend sailing for NZ or anywhere with a damaged boat... it's already late in the season and let's face the fact that it can be a sketchy voyage on any boat..  I'm sure you heard about the S/V Windigo that was capsized just this week en route to NZ. Plus, tropical islands are much more interesting and likely cheaper than NZ ... Take a deep breath and take you time to sort out all your options. In hindsight this is going to be a very memorable part of your adventure, so don't make any rash decisions.”
Vlad is glad for the unequivocally memorable experience he cultivated aboard Panache but is ready to move on. He will fly to New Zealand and then back to the States for Thanksgiving once he arrives in Tonga. I don’t blame him; I am a little burnt out myself. The fiberglass has hardened. I have more to say, but Vlad and I need to glass the other side of our rudder. We need to get Panache moving again.

Glass Job 50 Percent done. Ready for more.

Posted in Blog · Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , · 10 Comments

Tahiti Bound

Tahiti Bound Cover Image

Underway again and still looking back not forward. People say never look back, but in this moment the view was better back there. The green-capped mountains of the Marquesas were blurred by the increasing level of atmosphere separating us, and as I followed the slight but noticeable curve of the earth, their landmass slid ever deeper into the seemingly endless bath we both sat in. Turning forward with a sigh, I could see no sign of Rancho, any other vessel or anything. All that lay before me was the inescapable horizon – two blue ribbons, the sky and the ocean, resting on each other. Rancho left Baie Hanamoenoa a day earlier, eager to check out a perspective haul-out facility in Apataki. And while we had no line of sight, we remained connected through a lower frequency on the electromagnetic spectrum. Thanks to my HF radio, we exchanged “hellos” and weather info every evening. Traveling at my current speed of six knots, my passage to the Tuamotus would take five days plus another five to Tahiti. I could use the break in the Tuamotus, but I was still undecided whether the so-called dangerous archipelago was worth the visit.

On the bow looking back

For underpowered or under-crewed vessels, the Tuamotus can be a dicey stop. Panache fit both categories, so the decision should have been easy. But I have read enough about the Tuamotus to know that they are one of the most magical places in the South Pacific, if not the most beautiful. Sailing past the Tuamotus would make for a 10-day passage to Tahiti. Not impossibly long, but long enough to make me think twice about risking a layover. So what’s the big fuss about stopping?

Well, the Tuamotus are a group of atolls, or ring-shaped reefs, with lagoons in the center. Almost all atolls have one pass boats can enter to enjoy the protected, postcard-perfect blue lagoons. The problem is that entry and exit times have to be choreographed with the fluctuating tides. Not too difficult, but if you enter at the wrong time, you could be battling 7 knots of current that desperately wants to smash your boat against the jagged coral teeth lining the pass. My 12HP engine wasn’t up for the battle, and my nerves weren’t either. Once through the passage, the excitement isn’t over. Inside each lagoon waits massive sea-mines posing as coral heads. I can’t man the tiller and keep a bow watch at the same time. Or can I? All this atoll business sounds pretty sketchy, but there are numerous atolls that are very well charted and pose little threat to the timely, well-read sailor.

The big picture! The Marquesas in the top right hand side, the Tuamotus in the center, and the Society Islands in the bottom left.

The big picture! The Marquesas in the top right hand side, the Tuamotus in the center, and the Society Islands in the bottom left.

Getting closer.

Getting closer.

And closer yet. A clearly visible atoll.

And closer yet. A clearly visible atoll.

I did the reading, can time an arrival and can clench my teeth, but the jury was out as to whether I would stop or not. I eventually decided to read through my Tuamotu guides once more (I certainly had the time) and gun straight for the main passage cruisers use to thread through the archipelago. The gap lies between Rangiroa (the largest atoll) and Arutua and spans 18 miles. This option put me in prime position to stop at a number of atolls if I needed the break.

The first day out was void of excitement, always a good omen that allows me to ease into a passage. The wind was pile-driving Panache through cloud after cloud of spooked flying fish. I stayed on the bow for hours, reading my Kindle and saving the unfortunate flying fish that flew a little too high and found themselves on the hot fiberglass deck. With every saved fish, I was gaining important karma for the hundreds of miles ahead of me.

All my fish saving must have barely offset my fish murdering in the Marquesas, because the weather turned quickly as night approached. Weather turning quickly? This was a familiar but fogged memory from the doldrums I would rather forget. Muscle memory was better than actual memory, and I had the first reef in the main before I could regurgitate any fear. I downed the 90% jib (my working jib) and set the storm sail to keep calm and carry on. I could probably have had more sail area up, but I was in no big hurry, and to get a little sleep I needed to reduce more sail area than was necessary. My co-pilot Jesus (the self-steering vane) was doing all the hard labor and making me look quite lazy. The weather for the first couple of days was very fresh, and when I established radio contact with Rancho, they informed me that it was going to be another four days of increasing weather, peaking sometime on day three. Four days of building, rough weather equates to numerous sail changes daily, little sleep and disruptive rain showers that leave my body perpetually damp.

You might assume my biggest annoyance would be physical discomfort, but that’s only second in line to my food situation – specifically my cooking situation. Sometime during my first stop in the Marquesas, my El Salvadorian propane exhausted itself, and by default I was on a raw food diet. Rancho Relaxo was nice enough to invite me over for several hot meals. It should be simple to refill a bottle of propane, but for some perverse reason, the world has decided to disagree completely on a universal propane regulator. World peace might be a little ambitious, but a universal propane fitting!? Totally doable. In the wake of my failure, Rancho invited me over for several more meals. Nobody in the Marquesas would even sell me a new tank. Too much of a scarce commodity, I guess. Without being able to get my hungry hands on more propane, I begrudgingly promoted a little camp stove to replace my dedicated two-burner gimbaled rig. This was a shit way to cook anything. It’s hard enough to make a decent meal underway with a gimbaled stove, but when one hand is busy keeping your cooking apparatus/pot/pan/whatever stationary, your meal options are reduced to just-add-water snacks. After many days where breakfast, lunch and dinner featured pre-packaged, sodium-packed soups as the centerpiece, I got a little bored. I dreamed of salad. I can only imagine what my 5-year-old self would think of this.

One night I ambitiously attempted pancakes. Preparing pancakes in the best cooking situations can be hazardous – at least the way I make them. I prefer to fill a skillet with a shallow pool of oil and sink thick batter dollops into the volcanic liquid. Without the stove moving I have a 20% chance of suffering some kind of cooking-related injury. With my gimbaled stove the probability shoots up to 50%, and with my non-gimbaled death stove (my current cooking situation), I assumed injury with every meal.

One quick check outside to see if Jesus was not sleeping on the job and that the weather was going to be consistent for the next 30ish minutes, and I was stuffed back below to mix my hotcakes. Back in El Salvador, I made my largest provisioning run at some Costco-style bulk store. My genius picked up a whopping bag of Northwest style, just-add-water pancake mix. Powdered Americana deliciousness. Super filling and easy to make. As I opened the unwieldy bag, I kept repeating, “Super easy to make. It’s super easy to make, Zack. Don’t spill boiling oil on your man bits, Zack. Pancakes, super easy to make.”

Oh, and I was naked. Nakedness on a boat is pretty standard issue. It’s hot and sticky, and clothes are not always a good option. In the current weather conditions - rain, rain and more rain - I prefer to do sail changes naked because I can keep my clothes dry while simultaneously taking a ghetto shower. Cooking with hot oil while naked should have been a red flag, but I blame it on the fatigue.

Pancakes à la shit. Cooked on a camping stove with one hand.

Pancakes à la shit. Cooked on a camping stove with one hand.

Anyway, my muscles ached after ten tedious minutes of flipping pancakes and bracing myself in Panache’s modest galley, but I had my hotcakes. I sustained minimal burns, thankfully none of which were on my man bits. The pancakes ... well, they looked like they were stuffed into someone’s pockets during an Iron Man and then slopped onto a plate post finish line. Woof. No points for presentation, but they did taste delicious. I ate with my eyes closed. That night I reduced sail area again and slept for an uninterrupted hour, being graced only with short cat naps after that. I was groggy the next morning, and the sea state just kept getting worse and worse. Sheets of rain would disrupt the otherwise sunny day, and the washing-machine swells urged me to stop and take a break at the Tuamotus.

It was time for a radio check with Rancho Relaxo. They had a Pactor modem and could receive weather fax, which is invaluable information for someone considering a stop in the Tuamotus. I caught Rancho as they were approaching Apataki. They gave me some grim weather information: predicted winds were to build and crescendo in two days’ time before dying down to a lazy 15-20 knots from the east northeast. We had enough time to exchange lat/long positions, but our communication was cut short because their entrance was starting to get too sketchy for David to casually chat down below.

I paused for a moment, carefully listening to the hiss of white noise. Hmmmm, busy avoiding shipwreck, eh? If Rancho was having trouble entering atolls with its big Volvo diesel and extra crew, how the F would I fair? I made the call. Play it safe and skip the Tuamotus. With pursed lips I got out my computer and revisited my “No Tuamotu” contingency plan. From my current position, it would be a day before I would get my first (and possibly last) sight of the Tuamotus. The next day I would thread the gap between Rangiroa and Arutua, and then I would say goodbye to the archipelago and start the five-day, obstruction- and atoll-free sail to Tahiti.

As I crept closer and closer to Manihi, my frequency of scanning the horizon accelerated. Ten miles out and nothing … 9, 8, 7 miles out and still nothing. How screwed up are these charts!? I would normally tack and not get so close to such a dangerous shore, but I wanted to make sure I could have enough space to make the gap. I needed to stay as high on the wind as possible. With a breaking sigh of relief, I finally spotted Manihi 6 MILES OUT! No wonder people run into these islands! I was lucky enough to be making this portion of the passage during daylight. The sea state didn’t make it easier to see anything, but when lifted by the crest of each wave, I could see a gold line representing a beach and a jagged green line of palm trees. This game of peekaboo lasted the entire length of Manihi, and the perfect lagoon on the other side of the battered shoreline taunted my fatigued body.

Level ground was hard to come by on this passage. However, the crest of each swell did give me a good vantage to atolls I would never visit.

Level ground was hard to come by on this passage. However, the crest of each swell did give me a good vantage to atolls I would never visit.

What could I possibly be missing? I convinced myself nothing, until I spoke with Rancho that evening. They had a nail biting entrance they described as a “close call,” and then a brisk sail inside the lagoon to the anchorage. After dodging bommie coral heads left and right, they dropped the hook and were finally able to absorb their surroundings. Rancho’s description included words like “beautiful” “amazing” and “incredible.” They spoke of the unique color of blue they have never seen before and the crazy volume of fish that filled every cranny of the lagoon. Well, shit. I shouldn't have asked, but at least someone was enjoying a break.

The strong weather met me at the gap, and I was making good use of my inner forestay and storm sail. At this point, I was beyond any point of return back to the Tuamotus, and the only thing I could cook efficiently was hot water for oatmeal and pasta. Re re repetition was the name of the game.

The gap. My entrance to obstruction free (for the most part) water. My exit to the Tuamotus.

The gap. My entrance to obstruction free (for the most part) water. My exit to the Tuamotus.

I wouldn't call the sailing difficult, just very needy. Little squall cells were constantly rolling over Panache, bringing rain, a reefing job and wet clothes. My harness is usually on, but night sailing in the choppy weather and gales demanded it. Every so often, the angle of swell and my current tack collided, sending a wave breaking into the cockpit. I don’t typically batten down the companionway hatch because it becomes too difficult to enter and exit Panache. The solution is a snap down cover to prevent floods of saltwater from entering my dry nest. Easy to snap down, flexible to poke your head out and waterproof to keep those swells outside. The thousands of miles I had sailed were finally undoing the cloth, and each cross swell made my world that much wetter.

I was effectively riding the squall line of the low pressure system. Sometimes I would be in front of it, but most times I was either right on it or deep within the dark mess. When the wind was above 30 knots, I would run a bit more with the wind to make for a smoother passage, but I needed to make southern progress to meet Tahiti. Lulls below 30 knots were my opportunity to make southern progress, but these moments were getting fewer and fewer the more I lost the race against the squall line.

Eventually the black mass outdistanced me, and I was in too deep. I needed to wait to make my southern progress. I dropped all sail area, and was magically sailing bare polled. In a moment of awe, I looked at Jesus, who was sailing famously, looked at the chart plotter that read a current speed of 6 knots (also my hull speed) and shrugged, convinced this was my break. It was the late afternoon, but it was so dark it might as well have been midnight.

It got much darker than this. This is what it looks like when the sky and sea tries to swallow you up.

It got much darker than this. This is what it looks like when the sky and sea tries to swallow you up.

Scruff master 2000.

Scruff master 2000.

I did the sail change dance for an additional day before the weather started to normalize, and a blue sky presented itself. Makatea, a little island nub splitting the difference between the Tuamotus and Tahiti, glimmered in the distance, and I finally knew my passage was nearly over. I started to see other boats in the far distance and hear French chatter over the VHF.

By the time I had a shimmering Tahiti in my view, I had consumed enough sodium for the remaining part of the year. I was ready to have real food, Inter-webs and a fresh baguette … and to flirt with the French. The wind all but died on my approach, and I ended up motoring most of the way. A pilot dolphin kept me company for an hour or two, but decided I was too slow and spun off towards neighboring Moorea. I was having a bit of trouble identifying the main passage to Papeete in the dark. Between the seizure-inducing lights from the airport, the blanket of flickering lights from the capital of French Polynesia and the numerous other passages into the lagoon surrounding Tahiti, my approach was at a snail’s pace. When I got close enough, I called port authority to request entrance. In English.

Once permission was granted, I continued to snail along. This is of course when I got a fuel restriction and bobbed uncontrollably outside of the entrance for 30 minutes before port authority called me back to make sure I was alright. I explained to him the vintage and status of my engine, and he gave me a forced laugh before I fired the engine up and continued on. Following a perfect line of lights, literally and on a chart plotter, I slowly edged my way into Papeete, a milestone conquered. I could smell the city. Hear it breathing. The acceleration and beep of cars and the thick smell of flowers laced with smog. It was an industrial port overflowing with palm trees and honeymooners. Working my way to the stern tie moorings in front of Papeete, I got a good sense for how small Panache really is. Panache might lack speed and comfort of some of the boats surrounding me, but we all ended up in the same place at the end of the day. My distant neighbor across the bay was a mega yacht that I saw leaving Costa Rica when I was there. I can’t imagine how much fuel they used to cover the same distance I did.

Backing into a stern tie dock was a major pain. It was a first and amounted to a 40-point turn that almost crushed Jesus off the back off Panache. After a very lively passage this was probably the hardest part. I hadn’t been tied to a dock in over 4,000 nautical miles. It felt really good.

I could have slept for three days straight, but I logged onto my computer almost immediately to announce my arrival, and I found this message on Facebook:

Hi Zach, Molly told me to reach out to you. I heard that you have been sailing around the world and recently made a call out for mates. I'm in a rather strange point in my life, I was supposed to get married in two weeks, then leave with her to sail/travel around the world for a year. I found out last week that she had been sleeping with another, older, man for the last two months so I ended things with her. I'm not falling apart mentally or anything, but I do feel an urgent need for something new. I am not exactly an accomplished sailor quite yet. I've taken an intro level class but thats it. I do learn very, very quickly and I am sure that I would be up and running within a day or two. I am not a novice, however, to travel and adventure. I've been to over 40 countries all over the world, and without tooting my own horn too much, I'm fucking good at having a good time. Anyways, let me know if and where you would like to meet up, or what your plans are in general. Thanks, Vladimir

I stared at the message, and then read it again. I felt bad for the guy, and while my “recent” breakup seemed trivial to his, I could still relate. What did I know about him? I went to high school with Vladimir but didn’t really know anything about him. We had numerous mutual friends, but never seemed to cross paths directly. I mainly remember him being a very small high schooler who toted around a backpack equal to him in size. I chuckled at this thought. It didn’t bother me that I didn’t know him. I liked how forward he was, how he was ready to trust me and commit to a serious sailing trip remotely. Furthermore, our huge stack of mutual friends made a strong case for our potential friendship. Halfway through deliberating, I realized I was desperate for crew, and Vladimir’s proposition was ideal. I had been solo for too long, and it was time for company. Going weeks without talking was mentally taxing, and the long-term effects to solitary confinement, no matter your surroundings, couldn't be healthy.

I would call him tomorrow.

The next message was from my mom begging me to find crew. How ironic. It’s so satisfying when things just work out. By the time I closed my MacBook and lied down, the sun was already coming up. I couldn't be bothered to see how different my surroundings looked in daylight and sank further into my bed, still damp from the passage. As alien as the sound of the city was, I had no problem falling asleep. After all, I had already sailed into a dream.

Panache next to the big boys. The other boats might be larger, but we all ended up in the same place.

Panache next to the big boys. The other boats might be larger, but we all ended up in the same place.

Posted in Blog · Tagged , , , , , , · Leave a comment