Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Ua Pou

We are now in the northern Marquesas. Our best laid plans for a visit to Fatu Hiva (to the south) were re-arranged by 23 knot headwinds. We turned around and rode the winds north, to rugged Ua Pou Island.  

While I was drawing on the beach in the little town there, some bored children wandered by. 


Soon they had raided my art supplies and were drawing and painting.  Though we could barely communicate with their fragments of English and my slender French, we had a good time together and they presented me with their paintings “pour le souvenir.” 


The boat in the painting is the Aranui, a cargo boat which visits the island every two weeks or so. It has been supplying the Tuamotus and Marquesas from Tahiti for over twenty years. The new ship is 104 meters long.  The front is a cargo ship with cranes and open decks. The back is a passenger ship with cruise ship accommodation: several decks, a mini-swim pool, sundeck, dining room, bar, library, and the odd expert on French Polynesian culture. Check out my friend Elain’s illustrated blog for a fascinating description of her travels on the Aranui3 last year.

The people here seemed at first to be a little aloof, but I've come to understand that they are not unfriendly, they are simply dignified.  Once you stop and talk to them, you will soon find yourself being driven up a valley to find fresh pamplemousse, or to meet a carver who is the brother of a friend…

And, of course, they are more connected to the world than they seem at first glance. My young friends laughed hysterically over a recounted episode of  the TV show Hannah Montana. And the guy who drove us to the carvers wore dreads and popped what sounded like Polynesian reggae into the CD player.

Later that day we walked past a quiet garden scented with plumeria and shaded with breadfruit. On the house wall, a hand-painted sign Carpe Diem.

We are now in Nuku Hiva to re-supply, then off to the more remote Tuomotus to the south.

Bread Fruit


Sunday, April 26, 2009

From s/v Circadia

Saturday, April 25
We managed to get our visas extended and have finally left Atuona, and what civilization has a foothold here, including the internet, and so are communicating once again via single side band (and the helpful Michael!)
A three-hour sail took us to Tahuata Island and an almost comically perfect tropical beach-azure water, a white sand beach trimmed with coconut palms and lime trees. A memorable place to spend my birthday, which was an indolent day, finished off with an elaborate dinner and mango upside down cake prepared by the wonderful Tavish and Farlyn.
One of the first things we did when we arrived here was to get out the snorkeling gear. (We had all been longing to swim, as the harbour at Atuona was murky and rumoured to be full of sharks.)
Under the seamless blue surface of this bay-a brilliant confusion of fish that look like they have been doodled into existence, coloured in by children: striped, cross-hatched, polka dotted, iridescent, transparent, metallic, rainbow
Schools of tiny neon damselfish flicker like electricity. In the shallows over the sand, sleek little silvery fish dart back and forth in the surf. Once in awhile an octopus materializes then melts back into stone; a couple of black-tipped reef shark cruise slowly by. And all of it shimmers with the constant play of light through the clear water.
You can just hang there and watch it go by like movie, or dive down and let everything flow obliviously around you. I stare and stare, trying to memorize the shapes and colours until I can get back to the boat to look them up in the Reef Fish Guide, a surprisingly difficult thing to do.
Meanwhile life out of water is like being in an endless hot yoga class. But I am getting used to it. This morning, before the sun was too high, we climbed a steep slope to a summit above the anchorage, where we could look up the coast at a series of deep cut anchorages, some studded with boats. The land is volcanic, heavily eroded, densely vegetated, riddled with wild goat and horse trails. Coconut palm forests flow up the valley bottoms. Fairy terns whirl like scraps of white linen in the wind, up the ridges to their nests.
Tomorrow we weigh anchor and sail to Fatu Hiva, the southernmost of the Marquesas, considered one of the most beautiful and unspoiled islands (the only island without an airstrip).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hiva Oa

They say that temperate people lose most of their sweat glands as children from lack of use. I don’t see it myself. As soon as the sun is up, the tiniest exertion and sweat is dripping off the tip of my nose and running down my back. In the heat of the day I find that if I lie very still under the faint breeze of the forepeak hatch I can stop sweating.
We have been in Atuona, the main town on the island of Hiva Oa, for over a week. It is a tiny tidy town most famous as Gaugin’s Polynesian paradise. There is a museum full of reproductions of his paintings set in his garden. Best of all are three studios, where artists from anywhere in the world can come for a three month residency. I didn’t see any sign of artists at work but my inquiries took me to the office of the mayor, a friendly guy in a cotton shirt and shorts, to whom (along with an office in France) one must apply. I think I’ve got it in the bag.
Rooster in Gaugin's Garden, by Farlyn

I love the strange hybrid culture here. There is an almost total lack of fresh vegetables and meat. Fruit seems to be the main staple: enormous grapefruits with sweet yellow flesh, bananas bunches which you can hang off the rigging. Farlyn and Tavish have foraged coconuts and dozens of mangos from wild trees along the roadsides. Yet every morning huge plastic bins of fresh baguettes arrive at the stores. Unlike all other foods, baguettes, cheese, and red wine are cheap—the essentials of French life are guaranteed on its colony. Pourquoi pas? Sounds like a balanced diet to me. And if you need to you can buy a can of minced duck breast or foie gras.
Through the church window, Puamau

And the French of course brought Catholicism. A local family offered to bring us to church on Sunday for an opportunity to hear Marquesan singing, which was indeed very different from the plodding hymns I remember from church as a girl. Children were passed from lap to lap or stood in the aisles swaying to the music. The women wore bright dresses and flowers in their hair. A woman seems rarely to go out, even if she’s in a T-shirt and shorts, without a flower tucked in behind her ear. For that matter men often wear flowers as well, even some of the manly paddlers that train in the outriggers every night in the harbour.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

images from the crossing

leaving Cabo

Tavish and the yellowfin tuna

swimming to the Marquesas

Farlyn at the wheel


Bottle-nosed dolpins

flying fish

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

From s/v Circadia

We have arrived! Got in yesterday (April 13 at around 3:30 pm, almost exactly 21 days after leaving Cabo). We had very good winds for the last two days, which pushed us through the last leg (a good thing as we had only emergency fuel left). It is a strange feeling after so many days of being at sea to see land emerge on the horizon. Farlyn saw it first--a blue shadow which could almost have been a dark cloud. I had been expecting to smell the land before seeing it, but the winds were blowing from the sea. Only once we were in port did the full aroma hit us: soil, fresh water, decaying fruit, and flowers. The harbour is tiny and is crammed with boats. It is interesting to talk to the others here--you can only get here via a long passage--not your usual cross section of boaters. Mostly people, like us, sail in, drop an anchor and look pretty dazed for the first couple of days. We all felt weak as kittens on our first walk into town yesterday. Atuona is a pretty little town of plantation style houses on streets lined with hisbiscus, mango, frangipani. It still seems strange to hear Polynesians speaking French--though they speak their own language, which sounds similiar to Hawaiian (though I'm sure is very different). Other observations, the streets are very clean and the offices are very bureaucratic. We waited an hour in the bank, in something that did not in any way resemble a line. Then I went to the post office to use the internet, and there were all the people who had been in the bank (waiting to pay bills, or whatever they do in the post office).  We will likely be here a few days, doing boat repairs, re-provisioning and just generally relaxing.
bonne nuit,

Sunday, April 12, 2009

From s/v Circadia

Saturday, April 11, 2009, Day 20
Noon position: 6 degrees, 11 minutes S, 134 degrees, 47 minutes W
Distance travelled: 2416 nm

We have lost the wind again, just under 300 miles from the Marquesas. This is a phenomenon I notice often when sailing, a kind of reverse relativity—the closer you get to your final destination, the more slowly you approach it—distance increases or time lengthens, I’m not quite sure which, until it feels like the smallest span will take an infinite amount of time to cross. At any rate, soon we will have to turn off our engine and simply bob around out here until the predicted wind comes in. Meanwhile we have the sky to entertain us: the horizon trimmed with a continuous cloud frieze of towers and arches, and closer clouds like hot air balloons just loosed from their tethers floating up and over the boat; squalls which drag transparent curtains of rain shot with rainbows.
Yet despite our slow progress there is a feeling of anticipation building. Everyday we see signs that we are approaching land: plastic bottles and fishing floats, a far-off boat, birds which breed here (Tahiti Shearwaters, Sooty Terns, Frigate birds). Conversations drift to what we will do when we get to there: check emails, find a Laundromat, eat out, have a good bottle of wine, take a long freshwater shower…I expect we will all quickly scatter to spend some time to ourselves. (Though it is amazing how one can find privacy on a 40-foot boat—bow, cockpit, side decks, aft cabin, forepeak, the main salon—four people can each find a little space for themselves.)
Most of our fresh food is gone; we have a few eggs, some cheese, 2 oranges, 2 apples, 2 grapefruits, a bag of onions, a few potatoes, three beets, one yam, and a half dozen of the invincible jicamas. We’re hoping for another fish but meanwhile we are surviving on dried and canned beans, pasta, rice, canned vegetables and fruit; every couple of days Kim and Farlyn make bread.
After I finished the last paragraph I went up to watch the glassy water and to try to conjure wind, but another phenomenon, a law of sailing physics you might say, is that a watched wind never blows. Fortunately another law states that things change. Somehow it’s easy out here to think that when the wind is blowing it will blow forever, never giving you respite from a heeling boat and that when it is windless, you will always be wallowing in swells, losing hope. Anyway, while I was sitting on the bow I saw a sleek dark form leap out of the waves. It was so big at first I thought it was a dolphin. I had a brief movie play through my head that went like this: this big tuna is going to swim to the back of the boat and take the lure we have been dragging for days, then Tavish, who is watching “So I Married an Axe Murderer” on my computer, is going to miss the last scene as he jumps up to pull in the fish. Moments later Kim shouted “fish!” At the end of the line the very fish I saw, a 25 pound yellowfin tuna. Like the skipjack we caught last week it was hydrodynamic, with “recess-able” fins, including the spiny dorsal fin, which slid into a slot on its back. It’s skin was opalescent, its fins and scutes brilliant yellow. It was such a beautiful and astonishing creature, like pulling a small god out of the water. We might have thrown it back, but it was already bleeding and we will keep what we don’t eat to give away when we get to the islands.
Post Script: while we were all busy with the tuna a little whiff of wind came in…

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

From s/v Circadia

Tuesday, April 7, 2009, Day 16
Noon position: 0 degrees, 37 minutes N, 131 degrees, 14 minutes W.
Total distance travelled: 1933 nm

We have been plagued with light winds for the last few days, as we approach the equator, burning precious fuel, but hoping to find the SE trades soon to carry us the remaining 800 or so miles to the Marquesas.
The other day it was so calm that we simply jumped off the boat and swam along with it slowly, in 14,000 feet of water. I have been trying to find the colour of the water in my paint palette; the closest I can come is a mixture of phthalo turquoise and indigo. The sea is bottomless, scentless and clear as mineral water-you can see someone swimming 20 feet away in perfect detail; beams of sunlight split into fans, which flicker far below.
Life onboard is routine now that we have been sailing for over two weeks. Some days it seems we are characters on an unchanging set, trying to make sense of the world with limited information. We seem to generate many more questions than we have answers for (given our finite library and lack of internet connection) and drift into long speculations, like Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Gildenstern. It would be easy to forget what's real, to begin to doubt the existence of land altogether. But it's there on our charts. And that "imaginary line" (which seems like the most real thing out here at the moment) is less than sixty miles away (we have the champagne chilling).
Meanwhile it's great to have this tenuous connection to you all. I can't access the blog, but Michael has been kind enough to send me comments: Chris, good to hear from you. I have a great photo of you and the gang, which I will forward to you when I get to an internet connection. Colene, thanks for taking the time to keep me company out here and Julie-I ran out of time in Cabo to answer your last email-promise one soon. I will also post some pictures of the tuna, as well as some other photos from the crossing. Meanwhile I hope spring is bringing you warm days; your farm must be beautiful as it emerges from winter.

Post Script: crossed the equator an hour ago (around 7pm, under sail). Cheers.

Monday, April 6, 2009

From s/v Circadia

Sunday, April 5, 2009, Day 15
Noon position: 3 degrees, 54 minutes N, 129 degrees, 52 minutes W
Total distance travelled: 1721 nm

It is odd to be moving for so long through a mono-geography. What makes place here? There are the animals. But most of the birds we see are ocean wanderers: shearwaters, petrels. The closest thing they have to a home would be the remote breeding islands where they were born and touch down on once a year to breed.
As for what lives underneath us-that is mostly a mystery, except for what emerges from time to time: squid, flying fish, a tuna. Yesterday we sailed through a huge group of Pantropical spotted dolphins. Scores of mothers and calves, groups of males, came rushing over to the bow. Apparently these animals have specific ranges of several hundred square miles-somehow they know what is home in this borderless expanse.
Mostly, it seems that geography on the ocean is not what is here, but what happens here-the effects of wind, current, and latitude. For instance, a few days ago we passed into an area where squalls lined up on the horizon. It is wonderful to sail into one of these-first the wind freshens, then, suddenly you are in a rainstorm. It reminds me of that scene in The Truman Show, when the weather program glitches and rain falls in a narrow cone out of a perfect sunny sky. We all ran above decks to stand in the downpour. Tavish and Farlyn collected 6 gallons from the foot of the mainsail in a few minutes.
This province of squalls is expected-a result of the mixing of the two systems of trade winds on either side of the equator. The doldrums are another geography expected here. In the last few days the winds have been steady and we have been flying the smaller, heavier spinnaker. It is a beautiful red sail, staining the chrome and the water at the bow raspberry with its reflection. We left it up a couple of nights ago and sailed on smooth seas. But last night the winds dropped and we are under motor.
Heat is the main event at our current position. Daytimes, we only stand at the wheel for about an hour at a time, occasionally dousing ourselves with seawater, which helps, despite the fact that it is 34 C. The rest of the time we stay below out of the sun, trying not to exert ourselves. Yesterday Tavish observed that he was breaking out in a sweat threading a needle. (He's sewing a stuff bag out of scraps of blue spinnakerů)
I look forward to the night watches, as they are so much cooler than the day. Plus there is the welcome geography of the skyů The moon is now bowl shaped, half full, and already so bright the stars are faint until it sets at around 3 am. The Southern Cross rises in the south and slowly tips over as it travels across the sky. For thousands of years it lay buried in the constellation Centaurus. Then, a few hundred years ago European navigators discovered that the upright of the cross points to the south celestial pole, and so they pulled it's little diamond (it is the smallest constellation in the southern sky) out of obscurity.
For now, our country is the small protectorate of Circadia, slowly approaching that invisible "landmark" (or as my dictionary says, imaginary line) the equator, a little over 200 nm away.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

From s/v Circadia

Thursday, April 2, 2009, Day 11
Noon PDST : 9 degrees 45 minutes N, 125 degrees, 43 minutes W
Distance traveled: 1286 nm

It's getting hotter and hotter. I live in my bikini, covered up with a white shirt when I have to stand at the wheel, in the searing sun. Sometimes I stand with my feet in a bucket of seawater, to keep them from feeling like they are baking in a convection oven.
When I get bored I time the flights of flying fish, which scatter at our bow wave. They shoot out of the water and veer and skip above the waves before re-entering, sometimes clumsily, doing a little flip before righting themselves and swimming off. The record so far is 9 seconds.
It's been days since we've seen any other ship. It's hard to describe how empty it is. Any sign of life seems lush. From time to time Masked Boobies or White-tailed Tropicbirds circle the boat. The other night around midnight a group of about ten dolphins swam with us for a while. I like to imagine that they are as entertained to find us as we are to see them-something fun to play with, after miles and miles of nothing. From the bow we could follow the braided paths of their movement, each animal cloaked in bioluminescence.
The days and nights flow into one another, each much like the one before. We spend about 6 hours a day at the wheel, though we sometimes let the autopilot take over for a while. (In order to run the autopilot we have to run the engine about an hour every second day, to top up the batteries, though the solar panels also contribute).
I find it helpful to think of the many hours at the wheel as a job. (At any rate, best not to think of it as a holiday). It also helps that I am reading Caroline Anderson's Bounty, a detailed account of Captain Bligh and his crew's ordeal, including a 3600 mile voyage in open launch through the Great Barrier Reef and Endeavor Strait to Timor. The good news is that the Circadia crew doesn't look like they're going to mutiny. Tavish and Farlyn, experienced seafarers despite their young age, are ever cheerful, helpful, and calm in tough situations. The other day we shredded our big blue spinnaker-lines flying, fabric splitting, pieces blowing off downwind. Tavish was quickly up the mast in a harness to untangle fouled lines, Farlyn up and down between deck and below to handle lines and to stuff the tattered fragments back into its bag. We're sorry to see it in such a sad state. It's carried us a lot of miles.
Yesterday one of Tavish and Farlyn's prize lures, bought in Cabo, finally hooked a fish-a skipjack tuna. If you see a tuna fresh out of the water you will never think of tuna sandwiches in the same way. First, it's back is streaked with midnight blue, the sides are abalone, but shimmering as they suffuse blue, violet, pink. The belly has racing stripes and the body itself looks like it was designed by Italians: sleek, efficient, and stylish. The pectoral fins when not in use lie pressed completely flush against the sides, in grooves which bear their exact imprint, including delicate veining; just in front of the tail a series of little fins or scutes create turbulence which increases swimming speed. But best of all is that it is delicious, which is a good thing as we will be eating it for several days.