Early Saturday morning as I parsed my emails, I noticed a sailing invitation from an Aussie that was leaving San Diego on his fifty foot sloop. Short of crew, he needed another body, especially one with blue water experience. Contacting Bronte, the owner of the sloop, we met and discussed the impending voyage. Deciding that this was an invitation not to be capriciously dismissed, I scraped off the sclerosing barnacles from my crusty backside and geared up for a puddle jump to French Polynesia.
With moderate winds, we departed San Diego heading for the deep blue sea at 6 pm on the 9th of May. As the evening hours wore on we felt the decreasing winds that mark the end of a day of sailing in coastal California. Peering to port, we sighted the shadow of the Coronado Islands shrouded by evening clouds. Deciding to avoid the one knot southerly current that would drive us toward those rocky shores we started the boat’s powerful auxiliary engine. Roaring to life, the Volvo pushed Tutto Bene at a healthy six knots toward the open sea and the off-shore winds that prevail there.
Two hours later, we sheeted in the main and 150% genoa and were cleaving the ocean with a rampaging fifty foot boat that made standing without a handhold a challenge. As the winds surged above twenty knots, all hands were required on deck to reef both sails. The genoa was especially onerous in winds above twenty knots as its more than ample spread of cloth drove the boat hard into the oncoming swells rather than over them.
San Diego’s cool weather followed us for six days as we sped toward the Tropic of Cancer and it’s humid, hot, and insouciant tropical winds.
Unfortunately, carefree was not the attitude that prevailed onboard, even though it was expected on this extended blue water passage. We had a woman, the owner’s girlfriend of three months, who professed great eagerness to come on this epic journey, be a part of the crew, learn what we could teach her of the art of sailing, and have a life changing experience that would produce stories to keep her grandchildren occupied for months, if not years. But…that eagerness was short lived. From the time the winds picked up on the far side of the Coronado’s our raw recruit was ensconced in her cabin, shore-coat wrapped snugly around her with a lifejacket firmly harnessed over her coat. Security was fast in place as both arms were tightly wrapped around bent knees as she tried her best to maintain herself within her bunk, in the fetal position. Poor thing, she didn’t show her face for two and a half days. Suddenly, we were a crew of three.
Trying to find our sea legs, we continued on our course toward the Marquesas’, deciding to head straight for the islands some 2800+ miles to our southwest. A well-known author suggests heading south directly into the tropics. Then tack west once within the grasp of the northeast trade winds that blows 10-14 knots in the northern hemisphere. Crossing the equator would then give way to the southeast trades that blow with equal vigor in the southern hemisphere. However, we felt confident in following a more direct route to our distant objective.
The winds held firm, we sailed with full cloth during daylight hours and reefed at night. With moderate but bumpy seas, the owner noted a design flaw in the Beneteau. Putting the captain’s cabin in the fore of the boat, the area that experiences the greatest motion while at sea, was definitely short sighted. However, it did offer great amusement to the crew as we listened to stories of the occupants of the forward cabin being thrown out of bed, constantly falling, and being unable to sleep. As the boat surged over a swell and then fell into the following trough, the captain and his girlfriend were first thrown toward the cabin ceiling and then having become airborne fell back to earth and rolled off the bunk. Beneteau! Are you listening?
By the sixteenth of May we had reached point Oakley, named for a beloved friend of mine who had recently passed. Pt. Oakley marked the one thousand mile point from San Diego. We broke out a bottle of wine, toasted Oakley and celebrated having reached a fair distance from San Diego with only one short spell of motoring.
As we left San Diego we had encountered cloudy skies that stayed with us a few days and then finally broke into strong, unencumbered sunshine as we neared the tropics.
As we passed the Tropic of Cancer the wind swung around to the north giving us a following sea and a much smoother ride. The wind blew a constant 15-20 knots and the sea reflected space into its depths that give sailing the open ocean its name of Blue Water Sailing. The sea was absolutely gorgeous, a deep, transparent blue that is only seen far from land.
While the stars twinkled overhead, the incandescent moon rising, the hazy Milky Way clouding space above, and the sunsets dazzled our visual senses, Tutto Bene disappointed our mental processes. Our prime freezer failed to function properly and was responsible for the wasting of much food. Our batteries would only last 6 hours and required recharging by either the ancillary generator or the auxiliary engine on a more than regular basis. Our fresh water pump was not functioning correctly, as per the captain, but when I went to take a shower it worked fine.
A few days out, while Higgo, the third crewmen, was steering the boat we heard a sudden bang near the bow and then another alongside the hull. Higgo gave us a yell and Bronte and I scrambled topside to see what appeared to be a forty foot telephone pole floating on the sea’s surface thirty yards behind us. A remnant of the Japanese tsunami, we thought.
Not sure if the collision with the floating wooden pole had caused any damage to the boat we headed below to inspect the bilge. Noticing some water entering the small space under the floorboards, Bronte immediately thought the hull had been breached. However, noting that a stanchion was leaking by the port toe rail, it was concluded that the small amount of water was more likely from the stanchion than from any hull penetration.
Due to the excessive motion in the forward cabin, sleep deprivation constantly haunted those that resided there. Statements were made that didn’t make sense. One morning Bronte offered, “The batteries are holding their charge well!” I replied, “No their not, they only lasted six and one half hours last night.” He said, “I guess they’re not.” The batteries had a capacity of 200 amp/hrs.; they should last at least twelve to fifteen hours.
Bronte, who followed me on watch, constantly appeared when he wasn’t on duty. He’d state, “Sorry I’m late for watch.” I’d reply, “You’re not on watch for another three hours.” Confused, he returned to his roller coaster cabin. One morning, at six thirty he arrived, again apologizing for being late for watch. The watch had actually begun at six and it was my turn. I sent him back to bed. I wasn’t sure whether he was attempting to escape the trauma of the forward cabin or the woman who resided there.
Then there was our passenger. The woman who refused to watch a video on sailing and be a part of the crew decided she would rather sit and watch. She had a fight with her boyfriend and not getting sufficient satisfaction from berating him started in on me. I was sleeping in my cabin, door ajar, and was summoned to the saloon. I refused, stating, “I’m busy, sorry, can’t come out!” Difficult to support that statement when she could look in the cabin and see I was lying in my bunk. So…I complied, even though I didn’t want to be part of a festering problem, didn’t want to get involved in their argument. I could foresee disaster resulting from this coming encounter.
She asked me, “What are the emergency procedures if the electricity runs out?” Apparently, she had failed to take into account that this is a sailboat that could manage without electricity. I was dumbfounded by the question. However, attempting to remain at a distance from the owner/girlfriend conflict, I directed her back to him and then calamity struck.
That statement set off a hysterical rage that had me on the receiving end of a great deal of cursing and hand gestures. Demeaning statements flew at me, a verbal fusillade that was such a shock to my senses that I sat there speechless. Not quite understanding what had just transpired, and more importantly why, I composed myself, stood up and returned to my cabin. I closed the door behind me to keep out prying eyes and then tried to put out of mind what had just taken place.
The following days were filled with great winds, flying fish, petrels, terns and frigates. The birds flew around the boat, flying fish landed on the deck and Tutto Bene continued to eat up the north Pacific Ocean as she headed southwest under increasing winds. On the 18th of May, the winds hovered between 22 and 28 knots as we passed the half-way point of fourteen hundred miles on our non-stop voyage.
By the 19th we crossed 10 degrees north and became curious about our impending intrusion into the inter-tropic convergence zone. The zone encompasses a few degrees above and below the equator where the wind is often absent. The sun’s intense heat at the equator causes clouds to release their moisture and then rise leaving a windless area behind.
Our winds held and we sailed, often times soaked with a warm rain, right through the equator. We toasted crossing the line at midnight on May 23rd. I finished my watch at ten pm but remained on deck for the celebration of again crossing the planet’s bulging beltline. The trade winds which had swung to the northeast now came from the Southeast as we were now sailing ‘down under.’
The winds had slacked off, falling to ten to twelve knots. We removed the reefs from the sails and then the wind increased to twenty again. Following the increase, we reefed the sails, sometimes rolling them up and unrolling them in one three hour watch. Eventually, the wind died, we motored two to three hours and again they found new strength and soon we were again screaming along at eight knots.
On May 24th, we passed Pt. George, the 2K mile mark on our journey. George was an Aussie friend who helped Bronte after he was devastated by a divorce. A true friend, whose comforting remarks had burned his understanding and support into Bronte’s memory. With fair winds and clear skies we powered on, heading toward our destination, a mere five days away.
On the next day I was visited by a white bodied albatross that circled the boat three times and not finding us a suitable host, headed off into the blue. That night, I watched a full moon rise from the sea, its silvery moonbeams lighting our path. I was reminded of my blue water crossings of almost fifty years ago where I was introduced to the spirituality of our planet. I had fell in love with the sea, was embraced by its warmth, and introduced to the constellations that have guided mariners for centuries.
Now, here I was, returning to the heart of the planet, in the middle of its vast ocean, thousands of miles from land, and never felt safer. Again, I was able to visit with the planet’s creator, see his mastery, his unequalled splendor and marvel at the magnificence of it all.
On the 26th with Bronte complaining that the fresh water pump wasn’t working properly, he spent four hours trying to repair the dysfunctional pump and failing to find success with his efforts replaced it with a new one. Bronte was a workaholic who found great pleasure in wasting time on various tasks that had no apparent benefit.
Darkness brought some special events. Clouds would occasionally fill the sky and when a small window opened up moonbeams would light up a stage, waiting for Tutto Bene to sail into the dancing light. It was truly magical. We sailed into and out of the shimmering beams in awe of the moon’s serene beauty.
We sailed for weeks into the sun Without trying we were having too much fun We followed the sun throughout the day We danced on moonbeams into the night Sailing through paradise could not be more right
With slack winds we removed the spinnaker pole from the Genoa and Bronte got bonked in the head as he wasn’t paying attention to his task. A butterfly bandage closed the wound and our passenger actually cooked dinner for us that evening. Jokingly, we considered breaking one of Bronte’s legs each week, speculating that ongoing injuries would motivate our passenger to cook more often.
The next day our winds departed leaving us with a glassy ocean that spread to the horizon in every direction. Without the wind, the heat at 9 degrees south latitude was oppressive. We stopped the boat. I jumped in the ocean, and finding the water refreshing, invited the others to join me. Swimming in the ocean over one hundred fifty miles from land is not an indulgence experienced by many. With no land in sight, and no wind, it was an invigorating and revitalizing break from the tropical heat.
As the paucity of wind continued, our last day on the ocean was powered by Tutto Bene’s motor bringing us to Nuku Hiva on the morning of May 29th. We were now members of the Pacific Puddle Jumpers, an informal group of sailors that had departed the west coast of the Americas to travel nearly three thousand miles to the Marquesas.
We entered the island’s main bay and anchored the boat. Needing to clear customs at the gendarmes, Bronte went ashore with our passports and associated paperwork so that we could properly enter French Polynesia.
Unfortunately, the tide was low and as he approached the grey concrete quay where dinghies tied up, the dinghy’s bow slid under a metal ladder. A wave rolled in raising the level of all the boats and the next thing Bronte heard was air escaping from the dinghy where the ladder had punctured the forward inflated tube. As the air escaped, sea water rushed into the dinghies interior soaking Bronte’s feet and entering him into the Village Idiots Club of Nuku Hiva.
We were now without shore transportation. We tried to not let that bother us. However, I have to admit to fuming when I heard what happened. We were now restricted to this less than idyllic bay and couldn’t leave until the dinghy repair was completed. We hitched rides with others motoring in to the quay or out to their boats. Higgo and I got as far away from the boat as possible; to cool off, get away from the ‘dim duo’, and to experience some joy of our recent landfall.
On the opposite side of the bay, we found a popular locals swimming beach. We spent the next few days there only returning to Tutto Bene in the evenings. We gave Bronte and company as wide a berth as possible while waiting for a change in crew. Bronte had mentioned that he planned on putting our passenger ashore as soon as we arrived, however, a colorful, clinging dress and curves seemed to have him under their spell. He had changed his mind!
At our newly discovered swim beach, snorkeling in the semi-clear water illuminated beautiful bell shaped coral surrounded by small tropical fish. With water falls flowing into the bay from the surrounding mountains, and rain falling almost daily, silt was constantly added to the bay water making the underwater view less than optimum.
Spotting a small home/restaurant adjacent to the swim area, we decided to stop for a meal. To our dismay, as Higgo and I consumed a modest lunch, we were presented with a bill for 3800 French Pacific Franc’s, approximately $45. It turns out a 12 oz. can of Ginger Ale cost $4 and we had consumed four of them for a charge of, yes, $16 plus the food. We got the point, French Polynesia isn’t cheap.
Back on the boat it was time for some serious discussion. First Higgo, then I, had a down to earth talk with Bronte. The friction on the boat was palpable. This was no way to cruise through paradise. I told Bronte I was ready to leave tomorrow and would not continue on the boat as things were presently. He responded, “I want the four of us to go on together.” I thought he had suffered a brain aneurysm. We had a dynamic that was working with the three of us. The passenger was not a part of the functioning group; she was more of an observer, an unexpected, unappreciated, and unacceptable one.
I brought up the point that he had said, on two separate occasions, that he would put the observer off the boat when we reached land. He responded that, “I have changed my mind.” It was his boat so his rules were in effect. Again, I stated I’m ready to leave, this won’t work as it is.” He asked me to stay and I responded, “I’ll wait another few days to see what transpires.” That ended the night’s conversation.
The next morning I rose and washed my face, brushed my teeth and got ready to face another day in paradise. Exiting my cabin, I saw Bronte sitting at the saloon table. His first words were, “The passenger’s leaving.” I thought, Bravo! But replied, “Sorry it didn’t work out for you, but I think it’s best for us all that she leave.” You could feel the tension dissolve.
Two mornings later Bronte helped his girlfriend hitchhike a ride ashore and then to a taxi that would transport her to the airport on the far side of the island. From there, she could fly to Papeete and then on to Los Angeles. The good news was she was out of our hair. It was a shame. An incredible opportunity had been wasted, lost to control and ego issues. The voyage of a lifetime, visiting unknown lands and experiences that would probably never be replicated were thrown away because of? See above.
On the second of June a big swell hit the harbor that was open to southerly weather. A wooden community fishing boat, perhaps thirty feet in length was washed off its mooring on to the rocky shore. Another fisherman moved in close to shore to see if he could help rescue the first boat and was also washed ashore. Both wooden island vessels were pulled from the crashing surf by a crane but by then were a total loss.
Perusing the damaged boats on shore, I could see one prop was broken in multiple places, the boats topsides were ripped apart by the crashing waves and the engine was flooded with sea water as the boats were turned upside down in the swiftly moving, powerful swells that threw the small boats onto the rocks. This was a bad day for the villagers of Nuku Hiva.
Finally, the dinghy repair materials arrived from Papeete and, three days later, the repair was complete. Frustrated by ten days of hanging around Taiohae Bay, we weighed anchor and headed for the next bay to the west. Taioa Bay offered us some new views with mountains that jetted into the clouds thousands of feet overhead. We had read of a natural wonder that could be accessed from the bay. We searched for and found the trailhead that would carry us onto a path that led to the 3rd highest waterfall on the planet. The bad news was, it was a two and a half hour walk, inland.
The next morning, the three of us paddled the dinghy to shore and pulled it up on the beach. We tied the painter to some plants in case the tide flooded during our absence. The trailhead led us inland on a well-marked path that carried us toward Vaipo Waterfall. Our information book published that the waterfall had an 800 foot cascade from the highlands.
We had been told, by an Austrian woman we had met, that the walk was level, “easy walk,” she stated. Warning: Never speak to an Austrian about walking in the mountains. If it’s not the Matterhorn or the Eiger, an Austrian thinks the trail is level. So…we hiked inland, the path starting out level and then inclining into the hills. As we crossed the first river, river rock lined the pathway giving the trail a solid feel. Obviously, someone had spent some time and energy laying those rocks, making our assent that much easier.
We passed through tropical jungle, new trees sprouting from coconuts that lay on the lush plant carpeted floor. Sweet grapefruit hung from trees that dotted the jungle. Mango grew wild, tree ferns were abundant and other exotic trees, including rosewood, filled out the canopy that was dense enough to close off the sun. As we progressed up the hillside we were fortunate to get a glimpse of the full eight hundred feet of the waterfall and the three to four thousand foot cliffs that jutted toward the sparkling blue sky.
As we cruised up the trail toward the base of Vaipo we spotted trees that grew on a cliff overhead. The trees had allowed their roots to trail over the cliff and fall 40 feet to where moisture was more plentiful. Hibiscus added to the colors of the jungle and plumeria perfumed the moisture laden air. We crossed two more streams on the path and finally broke out of the jungle reaching the basin created by Vaipo’s cascading waters.
The climb had taken two hours. We were hot, fatigued, and disappointed to see only the bottom 100 feet of the waterfall. The pool at its foot was bright brown from the sediment that washed down from the highlands. It didn’t look especially inviting. Not to be deterred, I ripped off my tee-shirt and cautiously entered the pool where I was delighted with the refreshingly cool water that descended almost a thousand feet from the mountain top.
We shared a mango that I had found on the trail and soon were heading downhill. The return journey to the bay was thirty minutes shorter, but no less fatiguing. Each of us slipped at one time or another on the path, the rocks being moist from the shaded humidity.
On the return trip we collected wild lime, mango, and a coconut for our salads. Returning to the beach where we had left the dinghy, we all collapsed from our extended hike and allowed the wind to cool us. I jumped in the ocean to refresh myself. Rested, we pushed the dinghy into the water and rowed back to Tutto Bene where a cold beer was waiting.
The next day, we headed for a nearby island, Oa Pou, which lay 25 miles to the south. As soon as we peeked out of our anchorage, the wind began to blow at a steady twenty knots. On a close reach, we headed south and enjoying the sailing in perfect winds, decided to bypass Oa Pou and head on toward the Tuomotu Archipelago.
Three days later we arrived off Manihi at nine am but decided it was too dangerous a place to try entering its narrow lagoon. The remnants of collapsed volcanos, narrow entrances to the interior lagoons existed on many atolls but could, at times, be hazardous to navigate.
We decided to head on to Rangiroa, the largest of the Tuomotus. The winds increased to twenty eight knots and we rolled up the mainsail. We reefed the genoa down to twenty five percent of its full size and were still zooming at full speed. To slow the boat we sailed a zigzag course, changing direction every three hours and arriving at our destination a little past sunrise.
We arrived at slack tide, the safest period to enter through the barrier reef. There, we braved breaking waves with twenty knot winds that hastened our entrance through a pass and into the peaceful lagoon within. There, we found an anchorage populated with ten other cruising sailboats.
Rangiroa was gorgeous. Crystal clear water, a light blue, adorned the shore transitioning to a cobalt blue as we entered deeper water. The Polynesian atoll consisted of rough sand created from hermatypic coral that was worn down as reefs had broken up over millennia. Thick palms, mango and other tropical flora adorned these twenty feet high ‘islands.’
With clear, shallow water, the snorkeling and diving were extraordinary. In a few feet of water, I spied angel, butterfly, parrot, blowfish and many other small, beautifully colored, tropical fish. While treading water, observing the dynamic taking place beneath me, a four foot black tip reef shark swam by passing without giving us a thought. He was beautiful to watch as the cruising black tip glided effortlessly past.
I was somewhat disappointed to note that native homes no longer sported the traditional woven walls and palm thatched roofs. Additionally, the natives more often wore American clothing in place of their lavas or sarongs. Everyone wants to be part of the modern world and the South Seas were not to be left out of the twenty first century.
We played at Rangiroa for three days and decided it was time to head southwest toward the Society Islands. I had hoped to visit Bora Bora on this trip but our ten days of wasted time in the Marquesas put an end to that dream. By the time we reached Tahiti I had only 3 more days to play. We checked in with the gendarmes, and made a line of sight course for Moorea, a modest twenty mile, afternoon sail.
Arriving in the late afternoon we motored around Cook’s Bay, and then anchored for the night. I swam a short distance, enjoying the refreshing waters of the inner bay while allowing my lingering anger to quietly dissipate. Surrounded by the hillsides that produced sharp vertical cliffs that reached strongly heavenward, we enjoyed the peace and tranquility of that lovely island.
The following day we motored to the adjacent bay, Opaunoku, two and a half miles distant. This was the location for the filming of the movie South Pacific in 1958. A beautiful bay with twenty cruising boats at anchor, serene clear waters lay undisturbed within the barrier reef. Surrounded with jutting hillsides, covered with green vegetation from sea to sky, and air that you could see through a hundred miles, we understood where the term paradise was coined.
The next morning I donned my scuba tank and went for a dive on the outside of the barrier reef. Three dive boats had come over from Papeete and numerous divers were in the water. I swam over the reef, grabbing handholds as I parsed the undersea. A three foot and then a four foot black tip swam by, paying me no attention. Interestingly, when a diver is bigger than a shark, it’s the shark that shows the most fear, usually rapidly swimming away with a flick of its tail.
After a pleasant lunch, taken al fresco, we sailed back to Papeete, the wind again cresting at twenty knots. The sail was delightful, the seas mild and we arrived at 4 pm, entered the harbor by the south entrance and began our search for a mooring.
The following morning, I brought my bags into shore, called a taxi and headed for the airport. An eight hour flight on Air Tahiti Nui deposited me at Los Angeles Int’l where a limo was waiting. The driver took charge of my bags, put me in the back where I melted into the leather seat and safely delivered me to my house in Encinitas.
While the sailing on this voyage was superb, personalities were not. They added a level of friction and tension that was unnecessary and unacceptable. When living in a confined space for an extended period of time it is obligatory that people get along. I often equate living in a sailboat to living in a closet. There is no room for squabbling and no place for those that don’t wish to participate in the necessary duties of an extended sailboat journey. Leave those people at home.
While I was overjoyed with my return to paradise, I was disappointed in the changes that had taken place. People had stated that if I returned to the islands, “You will be disappointed!” They were right. On my circumnavigation in the mid-sixties, I saw the world through the rose colored glasses of an adolescent. Today, with decades having passed, I yearn for the world I knew. Unfortunately, it no longer exists.
While the developing world may have progressed more than my romantic notions would allow, the benefits went to the islanders. Technology had invaded their businesses. Homes were now constructed of plywood. American clothing had taken root. As in many lands, the villagers wanted to be like us in the developed world, not like the cloth cloaked villagers of times past.