Sunday, August 26, 2007

Palmerston Atoll

In 1862 an English whaler named William Marster convinced 3 women from the northern Cook island of Penrhyn to move to a deserted atoll in the southern Cook Islands named Palmerston. He had 3 separate families with a total of 26 kids. He died in 1899 and is buried on the island. He has over 5000 descendants. Only 68 live on the island. The rest have immigrated to NZ or Oz. Those 68 are the most welcoming and hospitable people I believe I’ve ever met. Get this – when you arrive, they race to be the first to reach your boat so they can “host” you. There is no airstrip so the only way to get there is by ship. Their supply ship comes once every 3 months and this time it was over 3 months late. So if you’re getting the picture that they crave human company, you might be getting close to the fact. They are bored out of their minds and they’re all related to each other in at least 2 ways. Lots of wonky eyes, stutters and signs of inbreeding. “Hosting” – means they come out in their launch to bring you in to their island whenever you want. They cook large extravagant meals, play the ukulele and sing songs for your entertainment, do your laundry, give you ice, water, filleted fish, whatever you want and wouldn’t even think of asking for money in return. They really just want to hang out. Now – if you are a little too jaded to believe that, fine – I can give you the rest of the story. Yes – they want your expertise. I don’t have any, but some of the other cruisers know how to fix stuff and can jury rig two capacitors into 1 or can compute the structural load on the next community building. They want your education. Of course they’re happy to take a little fuel and some provisions if you can spare it, but they will never ask. They speak English but the accent is really hard to decipher (it’s even harder here in Niue).

We had a wonderful time. I wanted to believe that places like this still existed. That people will give without taking. That I can stay some place where everyone is much poorer than I, and never once try to sell me anything. It won’t last. Some of the cruisers were suggesting they start selling t-shirts. Believe me; I know first hand – once you start selling t-shirts, your soul rots and you end up driving an orange Tracker.

Now let me tell you about the whale. Our first night in Palmerston we were utterly exhausted after fighting the savage ocean for 48 hours, but I was awakened by this rude enormous mammal blowing air about 5 feet from my head. We got on deck and watched her rubbing up to Barraveigh. She was sleeping. One little nervous startle and she could have crushed us. Finally she bumped her nose and swam off. Exhilaratingly scary. They next day she was just lying on the surface about 100 yards away from the boats. I went in the dinghy with the Mexicans off the boat next to me and we rowed over to her. We slowly got in the water and I took the most amazing video. I’ll post it on my website when I get to civilization. She turned around and faced me. We were nose to nose. That thing is bigger than Barraveigh. Turns out she was pregnant. She had her calf on our last night right next to the boat, and then the next morning they took a victory lap around the anchorage to show off a bit.

Oh the things I’ve seen!

Why aren’t the rest of you buying yachts and learning to sail? You can’t get this stuff on the Discovery Channel my friends.

Captain Bob

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

FP Wrap up & Tonga!

I delayed writing this dispatch until we were underway so I could type the words; “We are sailing to Tonga.” Those few words have caused me a lot of regret. We’re being tossed around so much that it’s very difficult to type at all. I spend an inordinate amount of time banging on the backspace key. And, trust me – it’s no fun to be down in this cabin when all the hatches are shut (the boarding waves make closing up the boat imperative). It makes it hot and stuffy and the green gills creep up rather quickly. That led to my latest mistake. I’ve only been seasick once. I was 15 years old and my father had taken my brother and me on a deep sea fishing trip out of Mazatlan Mexico. I lost it all, but that was 25 years ago, and I thought it would never happen again. Well, I felt it coming on so I took a tablet and now I can’t keep my head off the pillow.

We are sailing to Tonga! We’ve bid adieu to the peaceful beauty of French Polynesia. Now the question has become: “Will we go direct or stop off at an island or 2 along the way”? The voyage from Bora Bora to the northern chain of islands that is the Kingdom of Tonga is 1250 miles as the crow flies. In reality it’s more like 1400 for my wandering vessel. I can sail in a straight line, but it isn’t always the most comfortable and I decided long ago that I’ll take comfort and safety over speed. Along our path there are the options of a few atolls in the Southern Cook islands (named after Captain Cook), or Niue (which Cook originally named “Savage Island”). I’m pointing Barraveigh toward Niue but will decide whether or not we stop based on conditions. Tonga is only another 200 miles and I’m excited to get to the only kingdom in the South Pacific. Originally I was going to take the northern route and stop in Suvarrow which is in the Northern Cook’s but the conditions ahead didn’t look favorable so we altered course. It’s important to stay flexible and with all these island adventures to choose from, it’s easy to change one’s mind.

Back in French Polynesia (that was so 4 days ago!); Raiatea is visible from Huahine and was a pleasant day sail. The main reason for anchoring there was to fill our propane bottles as we were about to run out and then Suzi’s baking would come to an abrupt halt. I can’t have that. From Raiatea you can see the high volcanic mount of Bora Bora, and once the propane was replaced with butane, we were off to embrace it.

Bora Bora – What a place. It’s too hyped to be that good. Or is it? The water is perfectly clear and teaming with life. I did numerous dives and snorkels. For the first time I saw the little Nemo fish hiding in the anemone. We borrowed bikes and cycled around the east side of the island. Its hotel after resort on the most tranquil clear water beaches you’ve ever seen. The bungalows over the water are rather cliché but adorable none the less. Yes – it’s a honeymooner’s paradise, and that’s all you’ll meet too – Honeymooner’s and sailors, but it is stunning. We spent our time near Bloody Mary’s, which is a restaurant / bar that has built a beautiful dock, put in free mooring balls, and gives away free water and ice. They’ve done this to attract the yachties. “Yachties”, in this case, doesn’t mean the cruisers on budgets who catch rainwater and ferment their own booze. It refers to the mega yachts that are all over the place. Some even have helicopters on the deck.

Yes- Bora Bora is really that good. I didn’t want to leave but the bottom was scrubbed, the extra chain was cut and stored in the stern, the SSB radio had been repaired, and our tanks were topped off. I was out of excuses. So it’s once again into the great abyss.

We’ve got 587 miles to go until we decide whether we stop in Niue or push on to Tonga. You can bet I’ll keep an extra reef in the sails and my harness on at all times. The furling line for the headsail chewed thru again and that put me at the pointy end of the boat tying knots as she crashed headlong into the next swell. It was much easier this second time around. Harken has a big design flaw with that drum. We’ve got very confused seas. The waves look like Keystone Kops running around and colliding with one another. No order. Chaos is the norm. The wind is 25 with gusts to 30 and the moon has turned his back on us. These black nights always unhinge me. Wish us luck.

Captain Bob

Update – The previous entry was written 6 days ago. Shortly after, the wind piped up to 40 and the seas grew to become 15 foot breaking waves. All the fuel jugs I keep lashed on the port side of the boat were ripped loose from a giant wave that exploded on our broadside. All the fuel jugs I keep lashed on the starboard side were ripped loose an hour later when another wave knocked us over so far that Barraveigh’s right side was completely immersed. The wind was so strong that it ripped our mainsail and the bimini. It was 48 hours of hell. The final night, we were so exhausted and the conditions were so dangerous that I closed up the companionway and we both laid down below to rest. We put all our trust in the autopilot as we screamed along at 7 knots falling off of waves. We had no plans to stop in Palmerston but “any port in a storm”, so I radiod ahead as we entered the anchorage and a boat came out and 2 friends jumped aboard to help furl the headsail with the broken line. Finally – we were safe, and at anchor.

I’ve repaired everything and in a few hours we will go back to sea and head to Niue.
In the next entry I’ll tell you about Palmerston – the most amazing place I’ve been yet in the SPac

Friday, August 17, 2007

Motoring to Bora Bora

There’s zero wind. We left early this morning after grabbing some free water. Getting the anchor back on deck was a piece of work. It was extremely difficult for the windlass to hoist it off the bottom and since the visibility is so clear I could see the giant coral head as I was lifting it from the depths. The boat that was anchored next to us came over to take pictures and help to free it from our anchor. I now have more respect for what that windlass can lift.

Bora Bora will be our last stop before leaving French Polynesia. Too bad – we really love it here and I’m now perfectly fluent in French. Well, it was true about the love we have for this part of Polynesia, but I can’t speak more than 3 words of French after 3 months.

Huahine was one of my favorite islands. It’s a surfer’s paradise and all our friends were there. We spent the evenings going from dinner party to cocktail party and the days snorkeling, surfing, and diving. There was of course the odd job that had to be completed. I had my rematch with the dinghy – she won again. She still leaks both air and water and I hate her more than anyone can hate an inanimate object. Then I cleared the obstruction from my bilge hose by using my dive tank as a pressure blaster. I was quite pleased with that magic trick. So much for work.

We took an archeological tour of Huahine. Apparently it rivals Easter Island for archeological significance and ruins in Polynesia. We saw many of them with our transplanted American guide Paul. He was extremely knowledgeable in multiple disciplines and gave us a wonderfully comprehensive narration of the culture, history and structures we visited. Then we ate hamburgers and French fries.

The last few islands were almost where the trip ended. On Moorea we got caught in a nasty night of 25+ knot winds while in a tiny anchorage with razor sharp coral closely surrounding Barraveigh. The wind clocked around and fortunately the anchor chain wrapped around a coral head and stuck fast. We didn’t drag and it was the wrap around the coral that saved us, because the wind shift had dislodged the anchor. I could see it laying upright on the bottom and the reef only 1 boat length away just gnashing it’s teeth. That was close and nothing but pure luck. Its amazing Barraveigh isn’t flotsam right now.

Even closer was the judgment error I made while surfing the pass near Fare on the island of Huahine. I looked down the lip of the big roller as it dumped on the shallow water beneath it, pulled back and let it roll under me. “I’ll catch the next one.” I should have, but I didn’t, and the next thing I knew I was too far inside and the waves were now breaking. I was between the reef and the wall of crashing water. “This is bad. This is not going to end well. Stay calm.” 1 minute later I was standing on the reef waiting for the next roller to break in front of me. I focused on not being thrown over or getting rolled, and when I did I protected my head at all costs. I smashed my knee into some coral. That brought searing pain that made my mind focus more than ever. “Ok, get back on the board and paddle paddle paddle. I need to make some distance before the next one comes.” I was talking myself through it, but in the back of my mind I didn’t think I had a chance. Usually these reef accidents aren’t so serious and I’m mostly concerned with my board not being damaged, but this situation developed so quickly that suddenly I was in a horribly dangerous predicament and the waves were substantially larger than my previous errors. I never thought of the board. I figured if I was lucky, I’d get away with being torn up real bad and hospitalized. I just didn’t want to be broken and drowned. If I could just stay conscious and not get my head smashed I might have a chance. Every crashing wave thrashed me on the reef like a rag doll and every lull gave me a chance to paddle north a few more yards. “There. That was the end of the set. Now go go go!” I tore into the water as hard as I could to get as much distance from me and the killing zone as possible. Once I felt safe, I took a few more paddles just to make sure I was again in the deep water of the pass. I knew I was going to live. Chris and Fielding from Barefeet had watched my struggle and were waiting in their dinghy to make sure I was safe. They hoisted me in and drove me to Barraveigh. My feet were chewed up and I had a bruise on my knee that would make me limp for the next couple days but I got off easy. And the board? Not a scratch.

I met an English sailor named Tom back in Panama, and we ran into each other again in the Galapagos. His boat was named Magic Roundabout. He was 22 years old and having the time of his life. He drowned 2 weeks ago. They found his body beneath his boat. Apparently he was spear fishing. It can happen to anyone. That, and the couple near misses I’ve had have sobered me up lately. I’m moving the needle on the meter to “very safe” and keeping it there. Sometimes it’s good to be scared.

You folks make sure you stay on the planet so we can meet again.



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