Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On the Same Ocean

I want to share a comment Maureen Gordon left after one of my recent posts. Maureen and her husband Kevin own Maple Leaf Adventures, an ecotour company which runs trips in BC and Alaska, under sail, on the historic schooner Maple Leaf. I have worked as a resource person onboard each summer for many years and as a result have had the chance to see some of the most beautiful spots on the Pacific Northwest Coast.
My recent travels have been spectacular but I can say (with authority now) that our own coast and islands are equally dazzling.  


Around about the time you were writing this, heading north on Circadia, Kevin, Paul, Lila and I were heading north on Maple Leaf.

And at some point, I thought of you two briefly, about where you were and whether you would come home at all!

    It was 5 a.m. Alaska time when you wrote this post, and I was trying to ignore our alarm clock. Unlike you and Kim in your ocean-going boat, free of land in the blue, blue sea, we were creatures of the coast, dropping anchor at night, travelling by daylight.

We were on a crew-only transit from Sandspit to Sitka.
     While you were bucking those tremendous squalls in the south Pacific and thinking of the Queen Charlotte Islands, we were in the North Pacific, moving away from the Charlottes, bucking waves and a building wind in Hecate Strait. Sunshine, though, no clouds. 

At one point, the day we headed northeast toward the mainland, you could have shot a straight line from your boat to ours and not hit a single island in between.

 Since you know the area, I'll tell you what we were doing. 
We'd dropped anchor 7 hours before you wrote. We'd tucked into a bay filled with rocks, just out of the huge copper mirror that Clarence Strait had become in the Alaskan sunset. That sunset seemed to fade not to black but ever pinker, while we stood and watched a humpback whale, no doubt incoming from Hawaii, slowly breathe and sound, swimming the path up the channel we'd abandoned for the night. The whale was more like you than us, travelling on without the need to put out a chain and rest. 

The sunset stayed through hanging the anchor light, opening a bottle of shiraz and sharing 2/3 of it. It was hard to stop looking at the sea. I realized that since we'd rounded Cape St. James on June 2, we'd been heading northwest into a brilliant sunset every night. I noted this because we were always out on deck taking pictures of the bow in the sunset.

We slept and had to wake early.

Within three-quarters of an hour of you writing, the anchor light was away, the coffee, tea and GreensPlus Energy drink were brewed (three people, three different stimulants!). We were following that humpback north for another long, long June day, crawling ever farther up the chart of southeast Alaska, still two days away from our own turning point (Sitka).

It's frightening and comforting to think about us both on the same ocean, so very far from one another but doing a similar thing ... so far away that if this technology didn't exist we'd never have an inkling of the others' existence right now.

That day was epic, a calm run and chores in the morning. Then a brief opening to the Pacific, that allowed some sea otters and us to share a brief inspection of each other. Then into Rocky Pass between Kupreanof and Kuiu Islands, where Kevin and Paul turned Maple Leaf about 120 times in 90 minutes. We traversed The Devil's Elbow at exactly high slack. The pass was so shallow it felt like we should be kayaking. 

(A moose and her calf on shore, another sea otter in the water and a great big black bear ... and no ability to stop and watch.) 

Then onward, out past Kake into Frederick Sound. I was at the helm and looking for humpback whales as the wind increased to 15 or 20 knots over an ebbing tide. 

After five minutes of constantly having to re-find a whale's splash in the growing whitecaps, punctuated by closing hatches and staring into the sun for logs and debris, I decided I was trying way too hard to whale watch. 
    We spent 90 minutes in the exciting sea hanging out in the wheelhouse as waves hit the hull from the port side and sprayed over a deck ... foredeck, well deck, aft deck, wherever the wave happened to hit. 

Great mats of rockweed, the size of a livingroom floor, were sloshing around Frederick Sound and once when a wave sprayed against the bow it broke not only into water drops but also flying bits of rockweed.

Then we were across and surfing downwind, up Chatham Strait, into Warm Springs Bay for the night.
Love, Maureen 

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Emerald City


We arrived in Hilo a couple of nights ago, after 18 days of sailing, from Papeete, Tahiti.  The wind and rough seas we had so much of on this crossing continued for those last 500 miles. We were very excited to glimpse the Big Island and scanned the sea all our last day. We figured we couldn't miss it, since it is topped by a 4200 m. peak. It is an amazing feeling to sight an oceanic island, after days and days of seeing nothing but sea and sky. It seems like a miracle that it's there at all and equally unlikely that we could find it. I can't imagine how the Marquesans, who are believed to have first colonized Hawaii (only about 13oo years ago) did it.  It seemed sufficiently epic in a strong sailboat, with high tech sails, electronic navigation, a tank of fuel, holds full of water and food. 
Anyway, we never did see the island, there was so much cloud, but as night fell we could see the bright white light off the east cape and eventually the orange glitter of the lights of Hilo.  As we turned into the harbour a land wind blew into our faces. Suddenly I had a dog's sense of smell. There were cloves and compost and gardenias and the inside of cigar boxes. We finally dropped our anchor after midnight. Since then we have been in that enhanced state of enjoyment you only get after tough expeditions, when simple things are exquisite: a hot shower, clean clothes and bedding, a meal that is cooked, delivered, and cleaned up by pleasant strangers.  It has rained mostly since our arrival (not surprising, since Hilo is on the rainy side of the island) but we don't care.  The city is lush and feels more real than many Hawaiian towns; there are lots of bookstores and indie film theatres, and dim shops full of second hand Hawaiian shirts and retro knick knacks. Now, off to find a Kona latte, no maybe a chocolate macadamia nut ice cream cone, or a pair of new flip flops...

Our most excellent crew:



Friday, June 19, 2009

from s/v Circadia

Thursday June 18, 2009
12 degrees, 51 minutes N, 148 degrees, 16 minutes W

Three days of sailing to windward in 17-20 knots. Waves come up over the bow, rush back over the side decks, or appear like invisible critics on the sidelines tossing buckets of water at you, drenching you while you are innocently standing at the wheel. It's as if the utopia of our little boat has been taken over gradually by a tyrant. At first you object strongly but gradually you come to accept the situation and try to eke what joy you can out of life, a little reading, a little star gazing, the odd piece of chocolate.
But meanwhile it takes a lot of energy to do simple things, having to hold on to avoid being thrown across the boat. Fortunately the galley is downwind so things don't come flying off the counters and out of the cupboards when you're cooking, but the head is upwind, which requires agility.
It is not easy to accept that nature is above all indifferent to the beauty and the obstacles it throws at us. It just doesn't care that there are earnest environmentalists here, trying hard not to lose any plastic overboard, or burn too much fuel, simply wanting to make their way, without bothering anyone, to safe port.
The good thing is that we have been sailing steadily at an average of about 150 miles a day and at the moment are just over 500 miles from Hawaii, a few more days of sailing away. We are already noticing the change in ocean regime; the water temperature is 2 degrees colder than Tahiti. Last night we wore sweaters for the first time since leaving Mexico. Soon we will see the first signs of land: contrails, fishing floats, maybe a big 'ol American warship.
Meanwhile, today the winds are lighter and coming from behind the beam. The boat flattens out and we can finally clean up and cook a good meal. Our thoughts turn to the end of the journey, the restaurants, the laundromats, the hot shower and internet again. There are always a lot of unanswered questions on these trips. This time I will be curious to see what I can find out when I get in about the dorado, who always seem to travel in pairs, each taking a lure, port and starboard, as if in some mutual suicide pact; also, the meteor shower which seems to be falling from the northern sky the last few nights.
I hope you are all able to find a find a dark field to walk through in your bare feet, to watch a few falling stars on the solstice.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

from s/v Circadia

Monday, June 15, 2009
5 degrees 50 minutes N., 144 degrees, 59 minutes W.

For the first time since I began this blog I find myself at a loss for words. There is a monotony to this environment that is difficult to describe. I can’t even imagine a comparable experience, except maybe travelling slowly through a great desert. It tranquilizes the mind, until you find yourself spending more and more time thinking about less and less. Which doesn’t make for great copy. I could say we’ve successfully crossed the equator and are gradually sailing up through the northern latitudes one by one. I guess I could tell you what we ate for dinner last night (a fresh Dorado, or mahi mahi, which Farlyn caught on one of her new lures) and that dorado are beautiful—golden yellow, with a bright blue fin like a sail; that we poached it in coconut milk, lime and ginger, and it was delicious. I could report that yesterday was Kim and my 23rd anniversary, but that brings me to that how-did-the-time-pass-so-quickly thing, which is clichÈ, but maybe, after all useful to contemplate in the light of what feels like an endless crossing—in retrospect it will feel so very short. Which reminds me to savour the experience, which is, most of all, one of time and placeless-ness.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

from s/v Circadia

There’s an Oz like quality to this experience. You set off on a journey with your odd companions (and what you hope is enough brains, heart, and courage). There’s no telling what exactly the dream will throw at you next: flying monkeys, poppy fields, headwinds, squalls, doldrums...All you know is you have to get to the Emerald City—Hilo.
We are slowly approaching the equator, counting down the degrees of latitude from the south. I am used to the phenomenon of being a tiny speck in an empty ocean. But once in awhile I have a vertiginous feeling—as you might if you hike all day, looking at the trail, then stop and look up and realize you have climbed to the edge of a 3000 foot drop off.

Many things about this crossing are similar to our crossing from Mexico to the Marquesas:
-The watches which deconstruct day and night, and the forced idleness in-between which gives simple things like flossing executive importance.
-The big screen sky. The other night we saw a lunar rainbow, silvery grey, like suspended graphite powder. In the morning, just before the full moon sets, its shadows are pale blue and it looks transparent, a very thin cross section of the moon pinned against the sky.
-The visitations from other living things: flying fish (this morning we found one which had flown in the galley window) seabirds, and last night, a pod of dolphins. I like to crouch at the bow and try to hear them come up for their greedy gulps of air; it is comforting to hear something else breathing way out here.

But this crossing is different in many ways. We are sailing into the wind and towards the sun, pointing at the Big Dipper rather than the Southern Cross. Any day now we will see the pole star and slowly the familiar northern constellations will appear. Our mind set is different, because we are sailing home.
And you know what Dorothy said.

Monday, June 8, 2009

from s/v Circadia

Sunday, June 7, 2009, 1:15 am
12degrees 4 minutes S; 147 degrees, 45 minutes W

The Gimbaled Life
We left Moorea three days ago, sailing into light winds. We are expecting to sail to windward on this leg, especially towards the equator, which we must cross to the east so that we can have the right sail angle in the NE trades to Hawaii.
The winds and seas built quickly and for the last two days we have been sailing upwind in 15-20 knots, a tough start to this long crossing: sea sickness, heeling boat, the effort required to do ordinary things like prepare food, brush your teeth, change into dry clothes.
Living on the boat becomes like living in the intertidal: water comes in any open hatches, or down into the cabin with us, dripping from our rain gear. Everything is slippery. Skin becomes clammy with salt and hair feels like the wall-to-wall carpet in an apartment I had once in the 80’s.
Last night and all morning we passed through a vast area of vicious squalls, one lined up after another, some with winds of 30 knots, all with driving rain. At one point the sea and sky was so grey and stormy in every direction it felt like sailing off the coast of the Queen Charlotte Islands. The last squall was a huge dark mass, like a black hole, that seemed to suck everything in towards itself: light, water, wind. We shot out the other side, as if out the last gate of hell, into the blue.
Now we are sailing gently on easy waters, under a full moon. And, as if the gods noticed we deserved a break, the wind is westerly, so that we can make some precious easting.
Once again I think of our gimbaled stove, that simple but essential concept of swinging level no matter how thrown off balance, and how difficult it is to achieve. It’s important to remember the third law of sailingdynamics (see post, April 11): THINGS CHANGE.
On these night watches I think of what people I love are doing. My computer is still set on west coast time, where it is early morning. Maybe my friends on Protection Island are already up, having a cup of coffee, wandering through their gardens to see what’s in bloom and what the deer have eaten.
In Victoria, my son will be waking, planning his Sunday. My daughter will have just arrived on Baffin Island for her summer job. It will be, I think, around 9 in the morning. She will not have seen darkness at all tonight.

It has been strange to spend a year in perpetual summer. ClichÈ perhaps but the northern summers are so much sweeter, being hard won—like this perfect night of moonlit sailing.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Na Na French Polynesia

Common Myna

Our time here is coming to an end. We are watching the weather now, waiting for the right winds to set sail north to Hawaii, another three week crossing.

On the island of Moorea, beyond the dark smudges of coral heads, the deeper water is the kind of blue that travels down the optic nerve and goes straight to some centre of longing; the kind of blue you dream of in the middle of winter.

 Sitting on the beach the other day I leaned against a palm, trying to memorize that blue, enjoying a medley of bird song above me, until I realized that, in fact I was hearing only one bird—the Common Myna.

The Common Myna belongs to a group of birds that are among the most accomplished mimics in the world. The Indian hill mynas are virtuosos at imitating the human voice.  Human and myna sonograms of a phrase like hi there Charlie, look almost exactly the same, though the bird’s vocal tract is nothing like ours.

 I read once in a book on human speech that bird song has more in common with human language than any sounds made by our ape relatives.* Birds are born with the ability to make calls, which keep the flock in touch or signal danger. Human babies are also born with innate calls, two in fact, distinguishable world-wide, one a cry of pain, the other of hunger. Later, like birds, humans learn other sounds: meaningless as single units, but eloquent in sequence.  Rich in variation and dialects we layer them, like bird song, over our innate sounds. We share this “double articulation’ with birds, as well as the fact that the entire unlikely enterprise is controlled by the left side of the brain. 

I brought  one bird book from home: A Field Guide to the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific—an especially good reference on the seabirds, like petrels, shearwaters, and terns…But like all oceanic islands, the islands we have been sailing through have a small but specialized collection of land birds.

The only guide I could find for the land birds was Oiseaux du Fenua – Tahiti et Ses Iles. I can usually figure it out, Aire de Repartition, might sound like a new perfume by Givenchy, but it actually means distribution.  Regime Alimentaire is not a program at a health spa, but diet, and nidification, not a painful aesthetic procedure, but nesting.  Unfortunately it is too easy to translate most of the Statut entries, species after species disappearing—because of introduced birds, rats, dogs, cats, development—holding out on uninhabited islands. 

I would rather have seen the Tahiti reed-warbler in the coconut I was leaning on at the beach, but why not admire the myna?  It is what birder friends of mine might call a trash bird, an introduced species, which (like most introduced species) out competes the native birds, tossing them out of house and home and just generally ruining the neighbourhood. But the myna can’t help it that he’s here. Or that he is so much better at everything, including singing, than the natives. And after all I’d like to be a better mimic. I’ve been working on Spanish for twenty years and still talk pretty much like I’m in fourth grade.  When I try to speak French I usually come up with a Spanish word or some incomprehensible hybrid.

And then there’s Tahitian. Tahitian belongs to a group of Polynesian languages that includes Maori and Hawaiian.  Spoken, it is a soft stream of short syllables, rich with vowels. In fact the vowels are pronounced just like Spanish, but the similarity ends there. Hello is or ana.  Goodbye is na na.

*The Seeds 0f Speech, Jean Achison 

It's Farlyn and Tavish's  20th birthday today!  A happy and sad day, as we say na na to Tavish, who's hitching a ride further west (on a South African boat)--he should arrive in Australia in early August.  We'll miss him!