The Fluid Nature of Cruising
When I last left off writing I was preparing to leave Papeete with plans to return to the Tuamotus before heading north to the Line Islands. Within a week my plans had changed yet again; a common theme of this voyage and the “cruising life” in general. I left San Diego with a simple goal: to sail to the South Pacific. A circumnavigation was, to me, a far-fetched possibility; something I was never wholly committed to. As such I left my itinerary open to change from the start, always saying I wouldn’t be bound by any schedule outside of that imposed by Mother Nature (i.e. cyclone seasons and other weather phenomena). As a result I added Ecuador to the itinerary last year and included a return home for the holidays. This year I left both Ecuador and the Galapagos earlier than anticipated, spent longer in French Polynesia than expected, and switched my year end destination from New Zealand to Hawaii. My computer is filled with different routes I drew up back home that I expected to follow, and now I’m off every single one. The latest changes felt forced on me by the steady strong trades of French Polynesia.
Upon leaving Papeete I turned south, bound for a second stint at Teahupoo. As I rounded Maraa Point the wind picked up heavily on Avventura’s bow and I was forced to sail offshore. Contrary to the customs of cruising I was towing my dinghy and after an hour I feared the strain being put on the towline by the passing swells was too much. Rather than risk losing it I turned about and pointed towards Maraa Bay a couple miles astern. I soon realized I had turned about for the wrong reason as my dinghy began surfing down the six foot swells, and each time the towline came taut it did so with a loud screech. Finally on one swell the screech of the line coming taut ended abruptly and I turned to see the dinghy drifting away astern. Had there been another person on board the recovery would have been a simple procedure, but on my own it was much more difficult. I would have to step off my boat while at sea, tie on a new towline, and get back aboard again. After lowering the sails and starting the engine I tied a long rope onto my safety harness and pulled up to the dinghy. I timed my leap, tied off a new line, and returned on board without much trouble, and was able to motor into Baie Maraa without further incident.
Safely tucked away in the calm confines of the bay, I spent the next few days surfing the fun, heavy lefts and rights breaking in both Maraa Pass and the next pass to the south. The wind was calm in the anchorage, but was still howling further south along the coast and kept me from heading south any further. Every weather forecast I received called for steady easterly trades as far out as two weeks, so rather than beat against them again I abandoned the Tuamotus and set sail for another visit to the leeward Society Islands.
Tragedy Hits Moorea
Winds were light as I approached Moorea, and a whale came up to greet me a few miles offshore. As I closed with the pass at Haapiti a French Navy vessel and a Tahitian Coast Guard boat began to close in on me from different directions. They seemed to be patrolling the island, and I feared I was about to be boarded. Each vessel came within a few hundred yards of me, but both turned away and left me to enter the Matauvau Pass hassle free. I dropped anchor just inside the pass and paddled out for a sunset surf session on what little swell remained. When I reached the lineup I learned the reason for the patrol vessels. I started talking with an American who had arrived a couple days earlier and he told me a plane had crashed shortly after taking off from Moorea on the short hop to Tahiti. The boats were searching for the bodies of the crash victims. The tragedy hit the island hard; almost everyone aboard was a local of either Moorea or Tahiti. Two days later I awoke to the eerily sweet, yet somber songs of Tahitian men and women pouring out from the shore. I was anchored directly off the town’s church where a memorial service was being held for the crash victims.
As the memorial service concluded I paddled out to find the surf had picked up. I spent the rest of the day in the water trading waves with a handful of locals and a mix of tourists from the US, Australia and New Zealand; but always in the background was the underlying feeling of tragedy left by the plane crash. Word spread that a swell was on its way in the morning; but when dawn revealed small surf and a nice breeze I decided to pick up anchor and carry on to Huahine.
The downwind overnight passage to Huahine continued to be uncomfortable for me. I made the passage two and a half times, and every time I was greeted with blustery trades, swells coming from a number of different directions, and frequently cloudy skies. Being solo I stayed in the cockpit all night keeping a close eye on my autopilot and a lookout for traffic, counting the hours as the miles fell astern. An added twist came just after nightfall when the Tahitian Coast Guard issued a Tsunami warning. A 7.9 magnitude earthquake with its epicenter off the coast of Peru, it proclaimed, had occurred at 0000 Zulu. The Oceanographic Institute predicted a 1–2 meter wave would hit the Marquesas at midnight local time. The message warned boaters in the area to put to sea and people on shore to stay away from coastal areas. I realized I was safe from danger, but feared for the cruisers I knew who were in harms way at their various anchorages.
When I anchored in the Avamoa Pass for the third time early on August 16 I found everything exactly as I had remembered it. I was told there was no Tsunami; the warning was just a precaution. Once that matter was settled I was able to relax once more. Only later did I learn of the devastation the quake caused ashore in Peru.
August 18, the eighth anniversary of my brother’s death, brought a southwest swell to Huahine. I spent the day enjoying head high lefts on the Avamoa Pass with nobody around to share them with. I couldn’t help wishing Lance were around to bask in the beauty of the scene; trading off waves, hooting and hollering as we paddled out the channel, and soaking up the aura of Huahine. As it were I had my pick of set waves, and passed the lulls remembering my brother and thinking over my life and what lay ahead. It was a magical day of six foot surf, overcast skies, and more waves than one man could handle.
I spent a handful of days anchored off Huahine on this my third visit, surfing everyday, exploring the extensive lagoon, and doing some hiking on the lush island. Other than the 18th every surf session was spent on the shallow, hollow right at the Avapehi Pass. Every wave bends sharply along the reef, and every wave opens up. It’s the sort of wave where you either pull into the tube or you end up on the reef inside (that is if you don’t sit wide on the shoulder). I wound up getting a handful of spectacular tubes, and had a great time watching a couple young locals who put themselves in the perfect spot on every wave. I was surprised to find that half of the local surfers on the island were American ex-pats from either Hawaii or California. Each had chosen the island for its year-round surf, among other things, and each gave me a rather warm welcome.
Chased from Huahine
As I returned from a sunset surf session on August 20 I noticed a Tahitian Coast Guard boat had pulled into port. A Hawaiian on the sailboat Pearl Hunter waved me over and warned me that the Coast Guard would be boarding every boat in the morning. Since I had checked out of the country in Tahiti I was technically anchored illegally, so after a few hours of sleep I awoke in the black of night and slipped out the Avamoa Pass bound for Raiatea.
A faint easterly breeze was enough to push Avventura through Raiatea’s main pass just after dawn and by the time most cruisers were waking up I was dropping anchor off the Careenage on the island’s northwest coast. I never did run into the Coast Guard again, though I stayed in French Polynesian waters almost another two weeks. The first four days were spent at Raiatea hoping for the arrival of a forecast swell that never did materialize.
On the 25th of August I went to raise anchor but found my anchor stuck. I had set a trip line in case the anchor got hooked on a coral head, but even when I pulled on this the anchor wouldn’t budge. Out of options, I donned a mask and dove in to see what was wrong. I found my anchor was hooked on a length of chain that was strung out along the seafloor, perhaps connecting two of the nearby moorings. My trip line was twisted around the anchor itself, and once I was able to untangle the trip line I climbed back aboard Avventura and was able to raise anchor without further problem. The sail to Bora Bora was picturesque, but slow. I entered the island’s picturesque lagoon in the early afternoon and anchored off Bloody Mary’s restaurant near the south end of the island.
I spent more than a week on Bora Bora enjoying the spectacular vistas. I circumnavigated the island once more by bike, this time equipped with my new digital camera to capture the scenes, and swam in the emerald waters of the lagoon. As my stay was winding down I devoted a full day to cleaning Avventura, knowing the mess she would become as I sailed the 1160 miles north to Christmas Island.
As August wound down the time came for me to depart the gorgeous islands and shimmering atolls of French Polynesia. My visa had been up for three weeks, and I had been officially checked out of the country for a week more than that. Everything was set to go when I checked the internet for the latest weather forecast and learned the trades would be light for the next 24 hours. This, coupled with the arrival of a south swell thumping the reef beside the pass, kept me at anchor one extra day enjoying countless fun-sized waves with steep drops, mushy shoulders, and a few nice locals to share them with.
Bora Bora to Christmas, With a Detour
The second day of September brought a return of the trades and saw Avventura slide out Bora Bora’s pass, this time turning to starboard, bound for Christmas Island. This would be my first true passage as a single-hander and I was both eager and anxious for the experience of being completely alone at sea.
A day of glorious tradewind sailing carried me 130 miles north; but as the sun set on my second day at sea squalls closed in with spits of rain and the wind began to die. Two days of fickle winds followed during which I was forced to burn precious diesel, and when the wind returned it was coming more out of the north than the east. I was quick to realize the wind would force me west of a direct course to Christmas Island so I decided to head for Penrhyn, an isolated atoll in the northern Cook Islands about two hundred miles west of a direct course.
With my new course set I was able to slack off the sheets a bit and watch the miles tick off astern. Days were filled with reading, evenings with a glorious sunset backed by soft music, and nights were spent getting as much sleep as I could manage (which, for the record, wasn’t much).
As my sixth day at sea wore on Penrhyn was creeping ever closer and I was faced with a familiar predicament—anchor at night or spend the night at sea with land hard by. As the sun began to set I sighted land and erupted in ecstasy. I threw my hands up in victory and danced a little jig in the cockpit. The thrill of my first landfall alone nearly equaled that of raising the Marquesas or sighting the Azores after crossing the Atlantic. Creeping closer to the atoll, I got on my VHF Radio and called, “Any vessel, any vessel, this is the sailing vessel Avventura.”
A familiar voice responded, “This is Bold Spirit, go ahead.” I had met Jeff and Kathy in the Marquesas and had seen them off and on in the Society Islands; but now their voices were my savior. I asked about the anchorage outside the atoll and they responded by giving me a waypoint of where they had spent their first night. Armed with this, and with my radar scanning the black horizon I inched my way closer to the atoll. With no moon to be seen and only three lights visible ashore I crept up to where my depth sounder spotted the bottom and watched as the numbers jumped up from over a hundred till it hit 60. Then, with the engine in neutral Avventura’s bow nestled into 45 feet of water and I dropped the anchor as the trades blew me offshore. At 10:15 p.m. I shut down the engine and settled in for a nice night of sleep.
Dawn revealed a small coco-palm-covered motu a few hundred yards off Avventura’s bow, separated from the main settlement by a stretch of exposed barren reef. Inside the lagoon I could see Bold Spirit bouncing on her anchor off the main settlement and before long I was chatting on the radio with both her and the Katie Lee (Like Jeff and Kathy, I had met Larry and Trinda first in the Marquesas and again in the Societies). They had both planned to depart that morning, but each had a sick person on board, so they determined to stay another day. That made my decision easy: I’d sail north with them and keep in radio contact the entire way. A few minutes later an official called on the radio and asked what my intentions were. I said I was only staying one more night in order to make some needed repairs before continuing north and did not wish to enter the lagoon or check into the country. After a bit of back and forth I convinced the official to let me stay outside without any hassle.
Eager to experience at least a small amount of what Penrhyn had to offer, I decided to go snorkeling around Avventura. When I jumped in the dark blue water the bottom was not to be seen (depth sounder said I was in 115 feet of water), so I followed my anchor chain in and watched as the reef began to rise from the depths. I could see my anchor clutching a coral head in sixty feet of water, and continued in over the brightly colored reef. Before long I noticed a massive sea turtle heading my way. He was swimming straight for me and I kept waiting for him to dive or divert. Finally when he was just ten feet away I was ready to dive when the turtle ducked his head and descended, gliding beneath me and continuing towards the sea floor. It felt as though the sea life of the atoll wasn’t yet used to human company.
After snorkeling I pulled out a surfboard and paddled to shore. I climbed over the reef and walked to the little motu where a handful of fishermen were cleaning their day’s catch. I introduced myself and we talked for a bit. I had a lot of trouble understanding their English, but before they left to return to town they handed me a string with four fish on it, cleaned and ready to be cooked. I thanked them and they warned me to beware of sharks on my paddle back. Judging by the black tips circling the scraps in the lagoon, sharks were an everpresent part of life on Penrhyn. I survived the paddle back without a shark sighting and enjoyed a relaxing evening with a beautiful sunset, a huge fish dinner, a visit from another boat of local fishermen, and a second night of good sleep.
The ninth of September dawned sunny and beautiful with 25 knot trades sweeping across Penrhyn and by 0830 I had raised anchor and was preparing to set sail. Bold Spirit and Katie Lee (a Passport 40 and a 45 foot ketch respectively) raised anchor at the same time but it took them an extra hour to leave the lagoon and set sail. This gave me a headstart and I had a triple-reefed main, storm staysail, and part of my jib out and was able to shut down the engine by 0900. The wind remained over 20 knots from the ENE the entire first day and just after sunset I watched as Bold Spirit slipped past me to starboard to take the lead. It was the first time I had ever undertaken a passage with other boats so near, and we set up a schedule to chat a couple times a day. I worked my way into a routine of shortening sail at night and losing ground, but regaining that ground in the daytime when I sailed a bit harder. This kept me always within a dozen miles of Bold Spirit and ahead of Katie Lee who were having the passage from hell (Larry had a wound get frightfully infected and Trinda was badly burned while cooking underway).
After two days the wind and seas eased a bit and the motion (which I had compared to beating to windward in the Caribbean) became more manageable. I was able to set a full jib and my autopilot performed magnificently. By the fourth day I nudged ahead of Bold Spirit and continued on at a refreshing clip counting the miles. The morning September 13 found me dodging squalls, and at one point I spotted a waterspout about a mile astern, but by midmorning the skies cleared and just before 1300 I cracked open a Hinano and toasted my return to the northern hemisphere some 4550 miles west of where I had left the hemisphere some 10 months earlier. That night brought a return of squally weather and winds over 20 knots and I spent the night in the cockpit adjusting the sails to keep things comfortable while maintaining my speed. By 0500 I realized sleep was out of the question, so with land less than 25 miles away I rolled out the jib and let Avventura fly with the 22 knots of easterly wind. The miles fell away at a 7 knot clip and the GPS showed land less than ten miles away, but still the horizon was of endless blue. Finally an unbroken line of trees emerged from the sea when I was just seven miles out and I had raised Christmas Island (named by Captain Cook who first arrived there on Christmas Eve in 1777). It took another couple hours before I arrived at the anchorage, but by 1030 I dropped the hook off a pier in the lee of the atoll. I had covered the 660 miles in just over 5 days, and arrived at the anchorage over 4 hours ahead of the boats I had left with.
Christmas Island lies just 120 miles north of the equator in a region that is permanently swept by the southeast trades. This, coupled with the atoll nature of the island (meaning the highest point of dirt isn’t more than 10 feet above sea level), creates an extremely dry, desolate environment. Brown, desserty brush fills the gaps between the spaced out coco palms which are clearly starving for water. Even the few breadfruit trees on the island are so dry the fruit isn’t able to grow into maturity. Thus my first experience ashore on Christmas was of walking in through the desolate brush and taking the bus into the main town (London [the older settlement of the island is called Paris, situated across the lagoon pass from London; and the secondary town is Banana though I never saw a banana tree on the island]). The streets were lined with trash, most of which was either paper or old beer cans, and I was shocked that the inhabitants could be so lazy as to dirty their streets when all it would take is to toss it into the sea and let the permanent westerly current take it out into deep water for destruction.
The process of checking in at Christmas Island revealed a return to the third world where bribery is the norm. When the officials visited my boat they said the only fee would be $40 for my 3 month Kiribati visa; but when I went ashore to pay this I was also charged a $25 customs fee and told there would be an additional $60 a month to pay to immigration and a $20 port captain fee (without getting into the details I managed to avoid the latter two fees which, it seems, were just the ideas of crooked officials). After getting checked in the crews of Bold Spirit and Katie Lee treated me to a nice lunch at a small Chinese restaurant in town before we all made our ways back to our boats.
My time at Christmas Island was spent mostly aboard Avventura, paddling around offshore, or walking along the beach searching for shells. I found the islanders on the whole to be unwelcoming and at times mean-spirited. Stories abound on the island of sexual crimes committed against women and children, and after my wonderful experiences with the Polynesians of the Tahitian isles I was appalled at the different feeling I got from these Micronesians. I also spent some time with Chuck on Tuaroi, a 70 foot steel sailboat anchored near me. Chuck is a Californian turned Kiribati citizen who has lived in the island group since the late-70s. He’s the typical island surf bum who has found his slice of paradise and is doing whatever he can to never leave it. Chuck was very welcoming, and I had a good time exploring the surf breaks of the island with he and Ed, a Texan-turned-Hawaiian who was helping Chuck fix up his boat to begin running charters with it. During my two weeks at Christmas the surf never exceeded waist high, and frankly I couldn’t see much potential in the island.
The kindness of the sailing community provided a sharp contrast to that of the islanders. I was invited to dinner aboard Bold Spirit on two separate occasions, and on Katie Lee a third night. I learned a couple new card games and enjoyed sharing stories of travels with everyone. One day we all hopped in the island’s bus and rode it to the end of its route just past the ramshackle village of Banana. We had planned to get off and explore the area, but it all looked just as desolate as the part of the island we had already seen, so we stayed on the bus and returned to London. Two cruise ships passed through the island in the final three days of my stay; each of which had come in from Hawaii and were bound for Bora Bora after their six-hour layover at the atoll. The ships brought a temporary influx of people and money to the small community; but when they left island life returned to normal and I prepared to continue on to Fanning in search of nicer people, better surf, and a more scenic atoll.
A Record Day
At the end of September I decided my time had come to carry on. I raised anchor in the early morning hours of September 29th and sailed away from Christmas Island without feeling the urge to ever return (a first for me on this voyage). The wind quickly jumped from ten to fifteen knots and once I was clear of the island I found myself being urged on by a two-knot westerly current. Even with a double-reefed main I averaged over seven knots throughout the day and well into the night. Since it was only a 160 mile passage I stayed up all night, watching as the clock struck midnight and the wind began to ease. Before 0400 it was down to just seven knots, but with the help of the current I was still able to make over five knots of speed. Dawn brought with her spits of rain and a return of the wind as I sailed right up to the pass to Fanning Island.
I arrived off the pass at 0730 completing the best 24-hour run of the voyage to date (a measely 154 miles). Unsure of what the tide was doing or what the pass would be like I thought about anchoring on the coral shelf outside before I heard the radio come to life. Seducente, a 45 foot sloop, was just arriving from Hawaii and they were given instructions on how to enter the pass by a few boats already anchored inside. They were told it was virtually slack water, and we should come in now rather than wait outside. I told Seducente I was on my own and asked to follow them in, and since they had three people on board they readily agreed to lead the way. The lagoon entrance was straightforward and simple (just avoid the shallow shelf extending out from the north side of the pass), and with the slight help of an incoming tide we scooted right into the atoll and each dropped anchor just south of the entrance.
Minutes after my anchor was set the officials were heading out to Seducente to check them in. Afterwards Brian on Seducente brought them over to Avventura where my passport was stamped a couple more times (just to ensure it is completely full by the time I reach Hawaii) and I was charged a $25 anchorage fee of some sort (the only fee other than the visa charged here at Fanning). The two officials were very friendly and welcoming, each rather shocked I was sailing on my own, and went about their business quickly. Within an hour of my arrival I was cleared in and ready for a nice long stay at the atoll.
California Fun at Fanning
With the official business taken care of it was time to set foot on the island and check the surf. I paddled ashore and walked across the short spit of land to the ocean side of the atoll. There, peeling off the point just outside the lagoon entrance, was a nicely-shaped little left reeling off unridden wave after unridden wave. I was quick to rectify the problem, and on my first day at Fanning found myself surfing better waves than I had seen during my two week stay at Christmas.
Running off no sleep, I was only able to surf for a couple hours before I was thoroughly drained of all my energy. I meandered my way back to the lagoon through backyards and swampland, and while paddling back the crew of Seducente waved me over to their Dufour 45. I climbed up their swim ladder and was introduced to Kevin, Brian and Andrew and quickly handed a Bud Light. Now a Bud Light may not sound like the king of beers to all of you with your choice of Corona, Pacifico, Heineken, a nice bottle of wine, or the mixed drink of your choice; but I had been drinking Ecuadorian, Tahitian and Australian (Victoria Bitter and XXXX) beer for the past eight months and Bud Light tasted just fine to me.
Seducente had just arrived from Hawaii where they had spent nine months completing a refit. The boat hails from Alamitos Bay (up in Long Beach where I found Avventura) where the three guys had left last July for the Marquesas. They had sailed between the first two hurricanes of the season and arrived safely in the Marquesas. They then spent a few months bouncing around French Polynesia before sailing directly to Hawaii. Now they’re headed back to the South Pacific with Australia as the stated destination. Kevin and Brian were old friends who’d known each other since high school, and Andrew is the twenty-four year old son of one of their good friends. It didn’t take long to realize the three guys got along better than almost any sailboat crew I’d ever met. The atmosphere on board was laid-back and loose, and we became quick friends. Within a half hour I was invited back for a nice steak dinner and a few more beers.
My time at Fanning has since been non-stop fun. From surfing the always empty left point break to snorkeling in the lagoon pass or on the rusty wreck of an old tug near the anchorage; from horeshoes (I claimed the first-ever Fanning Island title, only to have it stripped by a pair of local youngsters minutes later), bochy ball, football and stickball on the beach to nights relaxing aboard Seducente or Avventura. We have had potluck dinners on a sunken barge (which now serves as the dock for a cruising boat or two), have spent time meeting and talking with the locals, and spent one grueling day getting my anchor chain cleared off a coral head in 18 feet of water (I learned to dive and hold my breath for over 30 seconds the hard way—by force of necessity). Through it all I’ve been considered a welcome guest aboard Seducente where I’ve been treated to more meals and drinks then I’ll ever be able to repay. Their crew has made the first two weeks of my stay here as enjoyable a time as I’ve had cruising this year.
NCL—The Other Fanning Island
The day dawned like most have in this tropic paradise: clear, sunny skies with light trades blowing through the calm and quiet anchorage. But ashore preparations were already underway to transform the island into a playpen for the Ema-tongs (spelling uncertain, but it means gringo in Kiribati). October 24 was cruise ship day at Fanning. The Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) leases a large chunk of land on both sides of the pass here. Ships used to call on a regular basis as part of an extended Hawaiian cruise, but this year there hadn’t been a ship for over six months. Thus the island had been preparing for and anticipating the arrival for weeks, cleaning and prepping the facilities, airing up the tires in the bicycles, putting the Hobie Cats back together, cutting down all coconuts from the palm trees, and bringing in new, clean sand for the beaches. After weeks of watching the preparations the time had come to join in the fun.
As luck would have it the first north swell of the season showed up at the same time, so I was quick to paddle across the pass and catch a few waves. Unfortunately it was also a full moon and the spring low tide exposed rocks normally hidden and left the waves shorter and with less form than usual. Thus after just a handful of head high waves I abandoned the surfing endeavor and headed ashore. On my way back along the rocky point I ran into the first of the cruise ship passengers, a fisherman from Oregon. He told me a bit about the cruise (11 days in all, visiting all the major Hawaiian islands except Molokai, and calling here for the day), and asked what I was doing here. My answer shocked him a bit, and after a fifteen minute conversation he went about casting into the pass and I headed into the NCL complex.
The area that had been empty for so long was now crawling with hundreds of people eating buffet lunches, drinking Coronas and Pina Coladas from the bar, and sitting in lounge chairs on the beach. I found the crews of Bold Spirit and Katie Lee, and we were quick to blend in and join in the fun. With the advantage of having met and befriended many of the locals (including Bob, the islander who runs the NCL complex) and of being white and thus somewhat blending with the passengers, we engorged ourselves on hamburgers, pizza, pasta and potato salads, pineapple-upside-down-cake, and, best of all, fresh oranges, apples and WATERMELON. To realize what a delicacy this was let me just say my provisions have been left to rice, various dry beans and pasta for the past month. My last hamburger was some four months earlier in southern Tahiti, and aside from bananas I hadn’t had fresh fruit in a full two months!
I spent the day sitting at a picnic table with the group of cruisers watching the somehow foreign antics of the ship’s passengers, enjoying the food, and chatting with a few of the ship’s crew. It was a nice change of pace to see and chat with other white folks who spoke English fluently; but watching the small taste of the island the passengers got just made me appreciate all the more the vantage point I am able to get out here on a sailboat, visiting places cruise ships won’t, staying as long as I choose, and getting a taste of the local culture and people that the cruise ship passengers can never see. One of the major drawbacks of being a passenger on a cruise ship is you will never see a place the way it normally is. Norwegian Cruise Lines took great pains to transform the island to be “safe” and enjoyable for the passengers, and in doing so it killed the atmosphere of the atoll. The natives all set up stands and sell their various handicrafts, but there is but little interaction and no chance to see what life on the island is truly like. I haven’t come across a better way to see the world than by sailboat, and if there’s anybody who has please let me know what it is.
Stupid American Moments of the Day: I was asked today, “Is Tahiti like this (Fanning), or is this a little more primitive?” Let’s see…grass huts here, skyscrapers there. Also, as a truck tour was loading in people to take them down the road to “see the island” a lady said, “Well I don’t want to go unless the truck is full because we might get stuck out there and it could be dangerous.” The motu is five miles long, has but one dirt road, and the locals are among the nicest people on earth!
Highlight of the day: As the day wound down and the bartender began packing up the booze I went over and started chatting a bit with her, and by the end of the conversation I walked away with a six pack of Coronas and a bag full of limes—score one for the cruisers! Not to mention I left with a handful of oranges and a few apples, all of which were going to be left ashore, and which Bob had said we were welcome to.
Now the cruise ship is preparing to power away once more and island life will return to normal for the next six weeks. The locals will put away their nice, clean clothes, the bikes will be locked up, the Hobie Cats put away, the chairs stacked up, and the coconuts allowed to grow once more. In short the island can return to the tropical paradise it was when I arrived here.
Spirit of Aloha in the “Cruising Community”
Perhaps it’s the remoteness of this atoll, my young age among a cruising community dominated by retirees, or the sense of shared experiences, but never before have I felt the “Spirit of Aloha” thrive like it has here. Every boat that has passed through has been nothing but kind and welcoming, willing to share all they have with me and help in any way possible. It all started before I even entered the lagoon, when three different boats came on the radio to share their advice on the entrance, after which Seducente led me in. The California boys on Seducente fast became close friends, and their boat literally served as my second home in the atoll during their two week stay (they had originally planned on just making a three day pit-stop). Their help getting my anchor chain unwrapped was invaluable, not to mention they helped recharge my refrigeration, served me countless meals, and brought a laid-back playful air to the cruising world.
Next came Alegria, a beautiful ketch an older Australian couple had purchased in Hawaii and were sailing home. They had two younger crew members on board, James and Amber (in their twenties), who became a part of the youthful contingent of Seducente and myself. Each time we headed out to snorkel through the pass or head in for an afternoon of at the beach they came along and added to the fun.
Then there’s Robby and Loraine on the wooden ketch Southern Cross. They have been to Fanning on at least three separate occasions, each lasting months at a time, and their knowledge of the island and its people has done nothing but enhance my stay. Robby has written for cruising magazines in the past and he’s been ready and willing to dispense with advice on every topic under sun. Add to this their hospitality and arranging on a handful of “barge parties,” and Robby has truly lived up to the “Spirit of Aloha” he is so often preaching.
And, of course, I couldn’t leave out Bold Spirit or Katie Lee. As I said earlier, I sailed north from Penrhyn in their company till Christmas Island where I left a full two weeks early. Upon their arrival here their warmth and kindness continued. Both Jeff and Larry spent an entire morning helping me try to repair my outboard (without much success, though not from a lack of knowledge on their parts), and when that failed they led me across the pass to a calmer anchorage and helped me get Avventura situated once again. They have dragged me along on a number of visits ashore and have even ferried me to and from the surf break a couple times. And to top off the outpouring of generosity Larry and Trinda gave me a bundle of bananas while Jeff and Kathy gave me a “care package” of canned goods and five gallons of diesel out of their excess for the sail north.
The outpouring of generosity I’ve experienced is unlike any you come across in the day-to-day life ashore in the States. But once the docklines are thrown off and you sail into foreign waters Mother Nature seems to instill in sailors that “Sprit of Aloha” Robby preaches. Though it is not a universal truth (anyone who doubts this need only read my book, Voyage of the Atair), the vast majority of “cruisers” are always ready and willing to lend a hand when and wherever needed. So next time you’re stuck in traffic or dealing with a rude customer, client, waiter, etc. just remember that there are still good people out there willing to pass along their knowledge and assist others in ways almost inconceivable back home, and without the promise of anything more than kindness and gratitude in return. Larry and Trinda, Jeff and Kathy, Robby and Loraine, James and Amber, Kevin, Brian and Andrew—thanks for all you’ve done for me, and for making my stay at Fanning so enjoyable and memorable.
A Black Eye to End a Glorious Stay
After such a wonderful time at Fanning, with the arrival of November it came time to start think about sailing north to Hawaii. The 1000 mile sail is spent mostly in the northeast trades, which strengthen as the winter progresses and begin shifting further north. This means the sail gets more and more difficult the longer you wait, so once it was clear the hurricane season was a thing of the past Katie Lee, Bold Spirit and I knew the time had come to head for our cyclone season destination. I set about preparing Avventura, cleaning her hull and waterline, stowing all gear, and inspecting her rigging. We had one last potluck dinner and bonfire on the beach, I said good-bye to the local friends I had made on the island (especially to Teuta and his family who had been so welcoming and generous, and who left me with a departure gift of a bunch of bananas, 3 papayas, a bottle of syrup they made from the sap of coconut palms, and a few small fish), and November 4 was decided upon as the day of departure.
Unfortunately nature decided I was not yet ready to leave. I awoke at midnight on November 4 in a cold sweat. My head felt on fire while the rest of my body was shivering, and I knew I was in the throes of a fever. Before I was able to get back to sleep I found myself in the head, throwing up and with a rough case of diarrhea. Every half hour till dawn I found myself back in the head feeling as bad as I had in ages. As the sun rose on a new day I was forced to watch as Bold Spirit and Katie Lee began their passage north. Though I stopped vomiting by mid-morning, I was in no shape to put to sea by myself and determined not to leave till I regained my strength. It took a full two days of recovery to get back to feeling healthy, during which time Robby and Lorraine from Southern Cross treated me like their own kin, bringing me chicken soup and checking on me a few times a day.
Bashing through the Trades
As the days passed I continued chatting with the northbound boats and monitoring their fast progress, longing to be out in open water. When I awoke on November 7 my stomach felt settled enough to put to sea, and though I still had a bad case of diarrhea I decided the time had come to depart the security of Fanning’s lagoon. I picked up anchor, turned out the pass, and was shoved out of the lagoon by a five-knot ebbing current. At the end of the current Avventura began bucking into the standing waves where the current met the open ocean, and I was quickly feeling queasy once more. As I turned north I left the effects of the current and was soon able to set sail. After an hour or so I was rounding the northwest tip of Fanning and began to steer on-the-wind. After over ten days of steady trades blowing over fifteen knots my departure day saw the wind die to the ten knot range and I found myself happy to make four knots. What’s more, the wind was out of the east and I was barely able to make any of the easting I needed.
(Before I continue I should throw in a quick description of the conditions one expects to find between Fanning and Hawaii. The wind between Fanning and about 8 degrees north is generally out of the SE or ESE around fifteen knots. From 8 to 10 degrees north in the late fall you generally encounter the ITCZ [Inter-tropical Convergence Zone], or the “doldrums,” where you encounter squalls separated by periods of calm winds. Once north of the convergence zone you enter the realm of the northeast trades, which at this time of year tend to be out of the ENE between 15 and 20 knots, shifting more northeasterly and strengthening as you approach the Big Island. Given these conditions the common technique is to get as far east as you can before you enter the ITCZ. My goal was to get to 155 West by the time I reached 8 North, which should then allow one to reach Kona, Hawaii without having to tack.)
As my first day at sea wore on the wind remained light and I encountered the first squalls of the leg, something that would become a common theme over the thousand mile trek. A big cluster or line of cumulus clouds would descend on me from the east, and as soon as the squall hit the wind would pick up considerably and, most of the time, rain would begin to fall. The nice thing about squalls is that they pass through relatively quickly, and the longest one I encountered along the way lasted just a couple hours. But each squall requires you to reduce sail and be alert and ready for anything. As the sun began to sink in the west of my first day at sea I noticed a squall approaching and before I could roll in the jib any the wind jumped from 12 knots to 35 or 40 knots and Avventura was shoved down on her side. The rail gradually began dipping further and further into the sea until the cabin roof was underwater and the windscoop aft was touching the sea. I quickly threw off the jib sheet and Avventura righted herself as I began to crank in the jib. The first burst of wind was the most ferocious, and just a couple minutes later the wind was down to twenty knots, I put a third reef in the mainsail, and settled in for my first night at sea.
Day one saw me cover a depressing 87 miles, but as the second day began the wind started to stabilize herself in the fifteen knot range and the miles began to tick away. Squalls continued to be the order of the day and in my logbook, starting at 1700 I made entries for three straight hours that read: “Running from a squall; Squall caught me; Squally bullshit. Annoying.” But as night fell the wind shifted south of east and I began making the easting I desired. Day two saw me sail 100 miles, and day three brought the first twenty knot winds of the leg and propelled me another 132 miles to the northeast. Day four saw me caught in the middle of the ITCZ, struggling to sail through the squalls and waiting out the intermittent calms. By nightfall the squalls were rolling through every half hour, and I found sleep impossible. When I found myself becalmed once more at 0300 on November 11 I pulled in the jib, started the motor, and laid down to let the autopilot do her work. Perhaps my log entries on November 11 give the best glimpse of the conditions and my state of mind: “0255: Engine on. Tired. Sick of Squalls. 1300: Dodging squalls. 1400: Dodging squalls. 1500: Sunlight between the squalls. Bashing hard. 1600: Losing some easting.”
Despite the squally weather I did tick off 107 miles on day 4 and another 110 on day five. By dawn on the twelfth the ITCZ was south of me and the trades had settled into the ENE blowing 22 knots. The squalls became fewer and further between, but seemed to have the knack for knowing when I was just about to fall asleep. A couple would pass each night and another one or two during the daylight hours; just enough to keep me on my toes and cursing Neptune and Poseidon. Putting the squalls aside the trip was a quick, uncomfortable bash to windward with four straight days of winds over 20 knots and six foot northeast swells. Avventura’s lee rail was often underwater, and I consistently had a triple-reefed mainsail, my storm staysail, and half a jib out making around five knots. The miles fell astern (Day 5: 110, Day 6: 132, Day 7: 123, Day 8: 125, Day 9: 139) as I listened depressed to Bold Spirit report their arrival in Kona after nine days at sea. I was thankful to find the winds hold steady from the ENE and continued pushing Avventura into the swells, anxious for landfall and a good night of sleep.
My final night at sea was spent in the cockpit keeping an eye on the autopilot as I beared off to a beam reach and set a direct course for Kona. The swells built into the 8 foot range and a few last squalls greeted me as I spotted lights for the first time in nine days. By 0400 on November 16 I was safely tucked behind the Big Island and the trades came to an abrupt halt. Dawn revealed land close off my starboard side as I powered north towards my first anchorage. Now that seas were calm the 48 straight hours I had been awake began to catch up with me so I decided to make some coffee (for one who hates the taste of coffee that’s saying quite a bit), only to find the stove wouldn’t light. I knew I would be cutting it close on my propane supply, and sure enough I had run out the very moment I sighted land. Instead I was forced to caffeine pills to keep alert through the morning.
Just before noon on Friday, November 16 I was approaching the bustling port of Kona. A cruise ship was anchored offshore and two parasail boats were running circles frighteningly close to me as I weaved between a tourist-trap submarine, jet skis, fast zodiacs, and moored boats. I found my way into thirty-five feet of water beside Bold Spirit and Katie Lee and found a sand patch amongst the coral to drop my anchor in. As the clock struck 1200 I shut down Avventura’s engine, threw up my arms in triumph, let out a few good hoots, and dove into the clear water to check on my anchor. Seeing I was well dug into the sand, I returned to the ever-faithful Avventura and cracked open the two Hinano beers I had saved for the occasion. Never has a beer tasted better than at the end of a long and arduous single-handed passage. I had covered 1085 sea miles in 9 days and 5 hours (a couple hours more than Bold Spirit took, and a full 2 days faster than Katie Lee who encountered rigging problems along the way), and for the first time in three months found myself in a place with internet, telephones, big hotels, and bustling with activity.
To arrive in Hawaii on my own after sailing the 2500 miles from Bora Bora single-handed was a thrill to say the least. Many sailors who have made the trip north from Fanning call it one of the most difficult of their sailing lives, and with the squalls many have told me it is quite a feat to make the trip solo. I learned the hard way, by getting around ten hours of sleep total in nine days. I was able to avoid the full brunt of seasickness, but never felt great throughout the voyage. My diet consisted of eating somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 bananas, a few cans of beans, some pasta and rice; and sending e-mails and talking by radio with Bold Spirit and Katie Lee marked the highlights of my days (aside from the natural displays of sunrises and sunsets, along with the eerie approach and departure of squalls). It was a passage I would not like to make again single-handed; but all the squalls made my arrival that much more satisfying.
As the afternoon wore on I sat in the cockpit soaking up the sun and watching with eyes wide open as boats filled with white tourists sped past. Bold Spirit and Katie Lee stopped by as they returned from their days ashore and handed me a Subway sandwich and welcomed me to the islands. Just another example of their endless generosity, for which I am ever-grateful. I stayed awake long enough to watch my first Hawaiian sunset in years before falling into bed and passing out. By now I have checked back in to the US and have been able to stretch my legs ashore. I’m glad to be back to the land of internet, grocery stores, and English-speakers; but at the same time I already long for the isolation and solitude of Fanning Island, and am in many ways disgusted to be anchored in a spot where I can see a Wal Mart sign staring back at me. The beauty of the South Pacific and the isolation of Fanning Island will, I imagine, always be in the background calling out to me; but for now it’s time to enjoy a winter in the beautiful Hawaiian islands.
(This blog was written in segments at different times between Fanning Island and Hawaii. Pictures will be following as soon as I can get them posted at www.flickr.com/photos/avventura. Happy Thanksgiving to all, and yes I am fully recovered from my Fanning sickness and the 9 day sail north.)