The Sea Surrounds
1 January - 1 May 2009
Written May 2009
Note: A new feature—Says ADR—makes its debut in this edition of Migrations. When you get tired of my ranting and raving, you'll find several Says ADR links which let you read excerpts from Alene's journal. Enjoy!
SO LONG, USA
"...to which we are bound by each best feeling of the mind."
And the heart, of course.
Missing our friends and family as much as we do, it is such a pleasure to be able to return to the US to spend time together. Good for the mind and heart.
What we don't miss is the hectic and crazy life: the news frenzies, the media overload, the traffic, the wastefulness of resources (please, turn off the lights!), the cluelessness of much of the population as to our effect on, and place in, the world.
Oops, ranting! That's liable to make this update too long. Sorry. I'll just say that we loved seeing our family and friends. We also love when we get to return to our home aboard Migration.
We arrived in Tahiti at the end of January and spent three solid weeks putting wonderful Migration back together. She was in good shape and we only had one surprise repair.
Get out the epoxy! Dry rot
What a relief to finally drop the docklines and head out to anchor. We sailed to Papeete on the other side of Tahiti to provision.
Shopping in the giant Carrefour supermarket
However, the cookie aisle is even
frozen lamb hearts or, as you can see
right behind the hearts, the whole lamb!
Though Papeete is full of traffic and noise, the anchorage a few miles south is actually quite beautiful. Nine miles to the west, the island of Moorea stands majestic. The hills of Tahiti are a verdant green. The water is crystal clear. This gave Alene the perfect opportunity to try out her new underwater camera.
Practicing underwater photography...
One of our goals this year was to sail to the Marquesas. You might remember from Migrations 10 that French Polynesia is big; thousands of miles of open ocean dotted with volcanic islands and coral atolls. The Marquesas are 760 nautical miles to the northeast of Tahiti. Unfortunately, in this part of the world, that means 760 miles upwind.
VERY SHORT SAILING LESSON
Sailboats can't sail straight into the wind. High-end racing boats sail about 30 degrees to either side of the wind. 40 year-old Migration belongs to a class of trimaran that has never been known for windward capabilities. When everything is perfect, we sail about 58 degrees to either side of the wind. But when you combine strong winds, choppy seas, and current against us, upwind progress becomes excruciatingly slow. It means we must sail about twice as far as the actual distance to our goal.
How a sailboat goes upwind.
We left Tahiti in late February. It was still cyclone season so we carefully watched the weather for any signs of tropical storm formation to the west. It was good to be at sea again—the blue horizon in every direction. But the winds were contrary and we were making slow progress. Now that we had our long-stay visas, we had plenty of time and didn't need to rush (most non-EU cruisers get only 3 months). So why spend days sailing but not getting very far? I'd gotten a bad rope burn on my hand so we decided to take it easy and stop in the Tuamotus. We'd have preferred to be farther east—away from potential cyclones—but we would just keep a close eye on the tropical storm forecast.
February is the transition time between summer and winter. That means unsettled weather. Rain showers and squalls rolled through daily. The showers are very confined—usually not more than a mile or so wide. The squalls can be much bigger. They pass quickly but dump an enormous amount of rain in a very short time. Sometimes they are accompanied by violent winds and thunder and lightning. One night we sailed through a terrific squall as we passed close between two atolls. Thunder and lightning were everywhere and, at times, the driving rain brought visibility to almost zero. We were grateful for GPS and radar.
All the rain from that huge cloud is concentrated
Standing on an atoll, your feet supported by millions of years of effort of tiny coral polyps is awe-inspiring. Charles Darwin, on his return from his voyage around the world, put forth the subsidence theory regarding atoll creation. I recently finished The Voyage of the Beagle (can you tell?) and though much of it is a bit of a slog through lists of flora and fauna and dry geologizing, Darwin occasionally infuses his fine perception with beautiful poetry. He does so when he describes the wonder of these islands:
As awe-inspiring as it is to stand on an atoll, what we love the most is the world below the surface of the sea. The snorkeling and diving is remarkable. Last year, Alene was in the water at least once a day and there wasn't a single day that she didn't see something new. This year she was armed with her underwater camera and several new coral reef fish identification books.
RETURN TO TOAU
We headed for beautiful Anse Amyot on Toau; home of our friends Gaston & Valentine, whom we met last year. We had two handheld VHF radios that they had asked us to bring for them from the US.
One day, we accompanied Gaston and Philippe (Valentine's step-father) to the fish trap. This is a rebar and chicken wire maze constructed where the current flows over the reef. Fish are trapped inside and easily gathered in large chicken wire scoops.
Gaston clears out the moray eels
Hundreds of fish are dumped into the
bottom of the boat.
Nini, the cat, likes this part.
On Sunday we attended church at the
VIDEO: "Lots of Parrot Fish!" (0:22 -
TO THE MARQUESAS!
After 10 days at Toau, we decided to sail for the Marquesas again. We wanted to visit those islands before the crowds of boats arrived from Panama, the Galápagos, and Mexico in April, May and June. Unfortunately, Poseidon didn't think it was time for our voyage. After three days we still had 350 miles to go and the wind was blowing directly from the northeast... and strengthening. Our foredeck hatch was leaking (we would later discover a cracked weld in the frame). We had a ½ knot current against us and were making about 50 miles a day toward our goal. Another week of this didn't sound fun. We spun the wheel—well, the dial on the autopilot—and headed back to the Tuamotus.
Friends on another boat had told us about the little-visited atoll of Katiu. The pass was a bit tricky but we were able to ask a local fisherman for directions and squeezed through with just a few meters on either side.
We spent a week exploring and snorkeling near the village. I gave a presentation to 30 kids at the elementary school; Alene did a fantastic job translating into French. Getting lost one day (hard to do on an atoll that is only a few hundred meters wide), we met Calixte and Tania, and their cadre of 7 dogs. Calixte is Tahitian and Tania is Greek-Russian. They moved to Katiu many years ago to start a pearl farm. We shared several meals together including a delicious lobster and champagne brunch.
Like most pearl farmers, Calixte is crazy about it and loves explaining the entire process. We had a fantastic time scuba diving in the middle of the atoll with Calixte, helping him with his oyster lines.
Unlike most people on the atolls,
Cultured black pearl farming is big business in the Tuamotus. Times have been tough in recent years; the market is down and many farms have gone out of business. But there are still plenty operating—we can attest to that as we've dodged hundreds of pearl farming buoys while sailing through the atolls.
collectors. As the oysters grow, the
exhales fill it with air and lift the line toward
the oysters and pearls.
Calixte and Tania, and many other locals, had told us about the beautiful beach on the motus at the southeast end of the atoll. We raised anchor and tacked our way back and forth across the lagoon—dodging pearl farm buoys and karenas (large coral heads).
Since leaving Tahiti, we'd seen only one other sailboat—a charter boat that had pulled into Anse Amyot for one night. Even though hundreds and hundreds of boats sail to French Polynesia every year, it was early in the season and there were hardly any boats in the Tuamotus. That was fine with us. Though I like socializing and meeting new people, I've become quite fond of being by ourselves. And now we were.
Anchored in a strikingly beautiful spot, with no other boats or people, it's heaven. We didn't need to be anywhere for a long time. We settled in.
Staying in one spot, our focus narrows. Our world is contained in that which we see. Swimming every day, we begin to recognize each coral head. And then, individual fish.
Some fish were not hard to recognize. We had 6 sharksuckers—members of the remora family—living under our boat and always waiting for us to get in the water. We became very good friends after we fed them bits of coconut by hand.
One day we took Plover to a karena about a mile away. We anchored and jumped in. In a few minutes there was a sharksucker swimming with us. Then two, three, and finally, six. They'd followed us all the way out and then pestered us during our entire snorkel. They reappeared under Migration a few minutes after we returned.
By far, our favorite fish in Katiu was the Amiable Leaf Damselfish (Pesca Ficus Delianus). That's our name for them. We spent hours searching through our reef fish identification books and still could not find this fish that we've seen many times and have photographs of. Amiable Leaf Damsels act like dead leaves, floating head down and undulating just as a drifting leaf would. But when we approached, they wanted nothing more than to shelter under our chins or armpits. They loved being close. In fact, Alene often made a small cave with her hands and they'd happily let her swim about while they were trapped between her palms.
This Amiable Leaf Damselfish isn't fazed
We walked the reef beachcombing, learned how to use our spear gun, barbequed shrimp and roasted marshmallows on a fire on the beach, gathered coconuts, swam every day, did yoga at sunset, lay on deck watching the Southern Cross and searching for satellites. Life was good. The east end of Katiu was, and remains, our favorite spot in the Tuamotus.
To see the entire bird, click here.
NOT ALL PLAY
Just in case you thought all we do is have fun, we did have our continual boat projects and maintenance. It's all just part of life aboard.
I finally learned how to use the sewing machine!
Since the Marquesas were both north and east of our position, going either direction would help us when we again tried to sail there. Makemo is due east of Katiu and, having one of the larger villages in the Tuamotus and good provisioning, made a logical next stop.
We were surprised to find two boats in the anchorage—the first we'd seen in many weeks. We bought fresh vegetables and bread and then headed to the east end of the atoll, this time accompanied by Ben and Carine of the Brittany-flagged Avel Mad.
Though the Makemo village anchorage has little to recommend it, both the
east and west ends of the atoll are beautiful. We
found excellent snorkeling and improved our spear gun techniques. We ate a lot of parrot
We'd intended to exit through the west pass and head southwest toward Motu Tunga; practically giving up on getting good winds for the Marquesas. But suddenly there was a forecasted change in the weather. We returned to the village to find new boats arriving from the Marquesas. We met s/v Zen and s/v Kaumoana and had a great time snorkeling the pass, exchanging island information, and having potlucks. After so many weeks alone, we were suddenly becoming very social. It was especially a pleasure meeting Cami and Cole (11 and 9) on Zen. We had a great time talking books, singing, doing origami, and playing the pittuba. Of course, we liked their parents as well but we think most people just put up with them so they can be around their kids.
THE UNDERSEA WORLD OF ALENE D. RICE
If you spent just one day in the water with Alene, you would know that the salt solution of the sea flows strong in her veins. She's an amazing swimmer and diver. Most impressive to me is her skill in underwater observation. She notices so much that I don't see. Look at this octopus. There's a ray. Here's an eel. She continually surprises me with her ease and grace. I've always thought of myself as a water person who is pretty comfortable in the ocean. Living, and swimming, with Alene, challenges me. I float temporarily—a visitor. Alene becomes part of the environment.
It's cliché, I know, but the undersea world really is a magical place. A reef is full of life; so much is happening all the time. Yes, there are sharks that can bite and rays that can sting and all kinds of other things that can kill you, but mostly there is harmless, beautiful, colorful life. And such colors! The coral, the fish, even the clams! Here's a selection of the hundreds of photographs Alene's taken this year (with a tiny 3 megapixel flash-less $49 camera!).
VIDEO: Below the Surface (2:08 -
THIRD TIME'S THE CHARM
We'd been watching the weather carefully and the forecast called for a week of light winds. The Marquesas would still be upwind, but we like sailing to weather in light air. We sealed the leaking forward hatch with duct tape and set off.
It was a quiet and calm six-day sail. Occasionally frustrating as the wind often blew directly from the direction we wanted to go, or it didn't blow at all. We made a brief detour to the remote atolls of Tepoto and Napuka, but without passes and with very steep coral shelves, the anchoring was too dicey for us. These are known as the Îles Disappointment—they were for us, as well as for some of the locals who gathered on the wharf waiting for us to come ashore.
We arrived at Hanavave on the island of Fatu Hiva on the 1st of May. We'd made it! Our elation was slightly dampened by the fact that there were 14 boats in the anchorage.
It was May Day. I didn't dance the sun up,
Now we are in the Marquesas. Tall, green, verdant islands. Dramatic cliffs completely covered by vegetation. Coconut trees climb the mountainside and give way to mangoes, bananas, orange, and lime. We are awash in fruit. Pamplemousse for breakfast each day. Things have definitely changed. Most notably, we are not alone. Every anchorage contains sailboats—sometimes dozens—and more arrive each day. This is the season when the hundreds of boats crossing the Pacific make their first landfall here. Most move on quickly but they are replaced by new arrivals. We are continually reminded how lucky we are that we don't have to rush.
The biggest change, however, is our focus. It is now about land, not water. The clarity of the sea doesn't approach the atolls. We hike instead of snorkel. We visit local artists and look at sculptures, tapas, and carvings. Soon we'll visit archaeological sites. The sea still surrounds us and we dive in to clean the bottom, check the anchor, and cool off. But the land dominates—towering above the anchorage, drawing the eye to its peaks.
It is all new. We look forward to our explorations here... but I
sometimes find myself looking to the West and calculating the
distance to where the atolls lie...
But I have too deeply enjoyed the voyage, not to recommend any naturalist, although he must not expect to be so fortunate in his companions as I have been, to take all chances, and to start, on travels by land if possible, if otherwise, on a long voyage. He may feel assured, he will meet with no difficulties or dangers, excepting in rare cases, nearly as bad as he beforehand anticipates. In a moral point of view, the effect ought to be, to teach him good-humored patience, freedom from selfishness, the habit of acting for himself, and of making the best of every occurrence. In short, he ought to partake of the characteristic qualities of most sailors. Travelling ought also to teach him distrust; but at the same time he will discover how many truly kind-hearted people there are, with whom he never before had, or ever again will have any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance. Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle (1839)
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