Wednesday, June 25, 2014


I can't remember how long Alisa and I have been married unless I think about it for a minute.

But I always know how long it's been since we started sailing full-time.

Yesterday was the seventh anniversary of our departure from Kodiak. (!)

We have always made a point of celebrating the day. Fathers' Day I could do without, but if you have an event in your past as momentous as the day you set out to sail across the Pacific with a toddler, I figure you owe it to yourself to treat the day as a holiday.

In a nice bit of symmetry, Tahanea, where we celebrated this anniversary, was also the place where we celebrated the first. Elias was a year and ten months old then, and Alisa taught him how to say, "Dad, let's party!" just for the event.

Comparing the pictures of him at Tahanea then and now is quite an eye-opener.

We moved to a new anchorage yesterday, putting up with traveling in poor light for spotting coral, me in the spreaders, in order to reach a place with better swinging room for an expected change in wind direction. We've been using two anchors in series and short scope to help out with the restricted anchoring room amongst the coral and it was all a bit of a maneuver - get the two anchors up, navigate by eyeball with bad light, find a new spot, get the two anchors and the trip line down and set and checked. But I have to admit that I kind of enjoy that sort of muscular working of the boat. The adventurous life for me!

And when we were settled in the new spot, I dove on the anchor as per usual modus in the tropics and - another milestone! - Elias came along and dove on the anchor with me for the first time ever.

"Pretty soon," I says to Alisa, "he'll be old enough to dive on it by himself. And by that time Eric will be big enough to reach into the fridge and fetch me a cold beer while he's doing it."

The new spot is remarkably different for being only five and a half miles away. The last spot had three sandy motus to chose from, but this one is all about the reef, which is very close and narrow at this point, with the open ocean on the other side. The reef gives great walking with the boys, with the very big attraction of very active moray eels (reticulated morays?) in the tidepools. The motus are coral rubble rather than sand, and from the reef you can clearly see that the water level in the lagoon is higher than that of the open ocean outside. And this place feels larger, more open, than the last anchorage - perhaps because of the long sweep of the reef arcing off to each side of us, strung with motus that disappear into the distance. That and the heavenly light, the big blue sky with the tradewind clouds disappearing over the horizon, the Milky Way and Southern Cross and a thousand thousand other stars above us at night.

In the new anchorage Alisa made pizza and cake for our celebratory dinner.

Elias continues to produce the quotable quotes for our Tuamotu sojourn.

"Ahhh," he says as he hoists himself into the dinghy at the end of our late-afternoon snorkel the other day. "That's why I like life so much."

"Really?" I asks him. "Why's that?"

"Because it's so much fun."

Point taken.

Eric, on the other hand, might not have hit his stride just yet.

In the morning Elias and Alisa do school while I work. Eric is encouraged to play quietly by himself, except for the breaks in Elias' school when Alisa gives Eric his brief lessons. Sometimes Alisa gets the boys ashore before lunch, but other days we're moving the boat or working on some boat job, and the boys play in the saloon. Eric's behavior is sending the message that this might add up to a little too much time hanging around a confined space and could we find him a preschool already please?

Alisa, meanwhile, had this reflection to offer as we went to bed the day before the anniversary: "Hmm. Seven years. It feels like eight."

The end of this trip is closer than the beginning. We are all, to some degree, starting to dream of Alaska.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

And Then We Went in the Water

Occasionally we hear other boats arriving at Tahanea, talking to each other on the radio about conditions for entering the pass and where they might anchor once in the lagoon.

I want there to be a huge sign somewhere that says, "go to the windward side of the atoll!". That's where the beaches are sand, and the anchorages are shallow sand instead of deep coral. The windward sides of the atolls are the places where everything is languorous, and tranquil. The passes have the underwater life, but the windward motus are the shadows of paradise.

Once you get all the way to the Tuamotus on your own boat you're soooo close to the miraculous windward side of an atoll - a few miles, a completely inconsiderable distance compared to all the way you've come. But the cruising guides are very businesslike in their description of the many atolls: the passes and a couple anchorages near the passes get described for each island, but there isn't space, nor perhaps the appetite, to pursue descriptions of "shadows of paradise".

And, since the blessing and the curse of a traveling boat is to be forever in someplace new, without knowledge of local conditions, boats arrive from the Marquesas and are quite likely to pass through the Tuamotus without seeing just what is on offer.

I came up on the VHF a few days ago to offer a description of the conditions we had found to a pair of boats who were showing understandable concern over what they might encounter in the pass. One of the boats asked about navigation within the lagoon, an area for which most of us have no charts. "Come on down to the southeast corner," I said. "You need good visibility to do it but then it's easy. It's paradise down here."

They duly arrived a few days later - in a pack of five boats traveling together.

We reminded ourselves that we had arrived at the same anchorage with two other boats three years ago, although we did have the excuse then of gathering a mob of kids for Elias' birthday party.

And we reminded ourselves that we didn't have any special claim on the place. And that, among all the billions of people teeming about on the earth's surface, we were remarkably lucky to be where we were, and shouldn't expect to have the joint to ourselves.

But still - there were now nine boats in the anchorage, including ourselves, and including a catamaran that had stern tied to a coconut tree on the beach where we had been spending most of our time.

It's likely that every one of these boats was the home to some remarkable people whose company we would enjoy. But at this point Tahanea is a place where we'd prefer to tend our own garden.

So, hey presto - we moved. And found an even better spot, where we had never been before, anchored in sand off of a cluster of three motus. One of them is remarkable for having a soft sand beach around its entire circumference, and Alisa and the boys finally saw some Tuamotu sandpipers in this place.

And! we finally got around to putting on our snorkel gear to check out the bommies that dot the sand flats around us.

What a pleasure - a host of familiar fish species that we haven't seen since last winter in Tonga and Fiji. And, added bonus, while this atoll gets fishing pressure from visiting yachts, locals based on neighboring atolls and commercial fisherman serving the Tahiti market, it obviously gets nothing like the pressure that the reefs of Tonga and Fiji are under. There are actually a few larg-ish fish around on these shallow coral formations - emperors and groupers and trevally and parrot fish and reef sharks and even a good number of Napolean wrasse, that fish that is freak-of-nature big and therefore very scarce over much of its range. My inner ecologist is very pleased.

And so we have that whole other side of Tahanea to keep us busy. Alisa is ashore with the boys as I write this, digging in the sand with them or watching Elias climb the more forgiving trees to fetch coconuts. And after lunch, Elias and I have a date to do a bit of snorkeling. The light promises to be perfect for pictures. And I can't wait.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


I just read Amsterdam, which I picked up in some book exchange in New Zealand. I'm always happy when there's a new Ian McEwan novel out, as I've read them all at this point. But on re-reading Amsterdam I was struck by a similarity with Atonement - wonderful exposition, strained denouement.

There was a line from the book that stayed with me. The composer character comes home from the funeral that begins the story and settles in to work on his latest symphony: "He would work through the night and sleep until lunch. There really wasn't much else to do. Make something, and die."

In the sort of living that we're about now, in the blessed Archipel des Tuamotu, we're not making anything that will outlast us.

[I did write yesterday, and set to work on the last bits of my PhD thesis, but you'll grant the larger point.]

I suppose the experience of being here, and seeing the world from the decks of a traveling sailboat, will inform the men who our boys will grow into, so that is something that we're "making" that will outlive us. Otherwise, though, all we're making is memories for ourselves.

Our memory banks are becoming a bit overstocked now that we're nearly on the eighth year of our trip. I've been struck in the past at how photos capture a memory, and replace it, but also keep it alive. There are a hundred moments from the early years of our trip that stay with me only through a captured image of one of us frozen in some gesture on board our familiar home at some unfamiliar spot. Moments that we didn't photograph disappear, in their details at least. "Was that Bahia Magdalena or Abreojos?" I say to Alisa. "Keppel Islands or Moreton Bay?"

Alisa noticed that we took no photos two days ago when we went ashore at Birthday Island to do laundry. We had the camera with us, but I was in a recuperating mood, laying on a beach towel in the shade and bestirring only to gather and open coconuts, and Alisa was hard at the laundry.

So I'll have to work to remember that day, which was was after all priceless like any day that comes to us, and that we chose to spend in that particular way.

I'll have to remember our clothes hanging from the two lines around the hut and their colors against the just-green of motu trees. I'll have to remember the short line that I hung from the exposed rafters of the hut and the tree that was blown over against the hut that Alisa used to hang the clothes that wouldn't fit on the lines.

I'll have to remember the hut itself - how it seems insubstantial at first - unpainted scrap materials - and how looking at it carefully shows you how much work someone took to bring in all of the materials - the corrugated roofing and the plywood for the walls and the lumber for the frame. I'll have to remember the two plastic barrels in the back that catch water from the roof and that Alisa remembered from three years ago as a place where we might get water for the wash.

I'll have to remember showing Eric the game of seeing what the clouds look like and how he instantly got it and couldn't help but seeing a new shape in every cloud the tradewinds brought by.

I'll have to remember our lunch on the two beach blankets spread under the palms. The bread that Alisa had baked that morning and the cheese and salami and olives and apricot bars for dessert that Alisa had baked two days before and the startling quiet of the boys while they were eating.

I'll have to remember the way that a machete swung into a coconut husk makes a sound precisely between a whisper and a shout.

I'll have to remember Alisa telling me she heard a fruit dove calling, and then hearing it myself, and seeing three fruit doves flying across the channel from the next motu.

And I'll have to remember holding Eric by both hands in the glass-clear shallows and telling him to kick! kick!, his little pro wrestler body tucked up in a rashy and the ridiculous tight swim shorts from Oz.

Little Eric who stubbornly refuses to swim at age four.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Touch Wood

I forget which Hemingway story it is - a protagonist is looking back on his life and remembers when his younger self and his young wife from a marriage that didn't last are commenting on how lucky they are. The protagonist in the present looks back on this scene and rues that they didn't think to touch wood.

Anyone remember which story this is?

I would have titled this post "Lucky".

That's the word that Alisa and I were saying over and over to each other and the boys the first two days we were here.

How lucky we are to be at Tahanea for the third time.

When we left Tahanea the first time we had just celebrated our one year anniversary of leaving Kodiak. We had finally come to terms with our new life of living on a traveling sailboat with a toddler and Tahanea felt like the six-figure payoff. As we sailed along the windward side of the atoll before turning west for Tahiti we had every expectation that we would never see the place again.

We didn't know anything about the second child who would come along to our family, or our decision to buy a second liveaboard boat in California, and the resulting chance to see Tahanea again.

On our second visit to the place we met our wonderful friends on Pacific Bliss, those marvelous travelers who enliven every scene they encounter. They sought us because they had heard we had kids on board and wanted to get together a quorum for Zinnia's ninth birthday party on the beach. A few days later we had Elias' fifth birthday celebration at the same beach with the addition of the Aussie/Danish kids from Gruffalo. I remember waking that morning with a migraine and desperately wanting to get better to MC the kids' games. Alisa prepared to go ashore without me. But I rallied. That night the three boats built a vast bonfire and baked Danish bread wrapped around sticks propped over the coals.

We chose our anchorage on this third visit because we thought we were at the birthday spot. We turned out to be off by one motu, but we found the spot by dinghy yesterday.

Visits to the beach figure large in our days. We had our first bonfire yesterday, with Kiwi marshmallows for roasting. Elias has been allowed his first pocketknife and is learning to whittle. He wants to catch enough of the little amphibious crabs that inhabit the limestone shoreline of the windward sides of the motus to make a meal. We saw the green flash of the setting sun from the beach, across the lagoon from us and to the left of our anchored boat. The sun playing a dumbshow of armageddon as it sank through the high tropical clouds and stretched down to the horizon. There is nothing mysterious or elusive about the green flash as some people maintain. If you have a clear view of the horizon at sunset in the tropics you will see it.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

And On The Eighth Day

He made Tahanea.

Having a bit of experience at that point, He got things right.


Yesterday, after 23 days at sea, we entered Passe Teavatapu, Tahanea Atoll, and ended our passage from New Zealand. The place names of our start and finish points - Opua and Teavatapu - were left for us by the Polynesians, and remind us that our trip was just one possible arc through the Polynesian World, that vast oceanic realm where the tiny bits of land scattered across the chart are less dense by far than the legos on our cabin sole.

We didn't tell the boys beforehand that we were going to make landfall. For days I denied any knowledge or expectation of when the trip might end. I couldn't bear the prospect of their end-of-trip over-excitement, the running and screaming and sword fighting in our shared and limited space. So when Elias awoke, just before dawn, with the motus of Tahanea in plain sight to leeward, his thrill was immediate and untainted by long expectation. Plus! I had just chucked out the fishing lure, and we had a bite. Elias claimed the moment - harness on, tether clipped in - and proceeded to reel in a fine yellowfin tuna. "It's the biggest fish of my career!" was his one-sentence blurb. So now it's official - Elias is the only Galactic with a career.

Joking aside, this was our longest-ever passage, and certainly our longest with no fish. The idea of three weeks at sea in company of a four year old without the consolation of the world's freshest seafood dinners is too much to contemplate. This yellowfin saved us from a fish-less passage at the last possible moment.

As we knew it would, the simple act of navigating the pass - Alisa on the bow, the standing waves safely to starboard - carried us immediately between worlds. The long passage, the broken ribs, the days hove to, the galley portlight flexing under the load of a boarding wave, the questions about the bigger picture - all that was forgotten. Our attention was entirely captured by the tropical paradise we had entered. Tradewind clouds towered overhead, frigate birds harassed boobies, a dozen shades of turquoise marched up from the revelation-blue deep water of the lagoon to beaches the color of dried bone and the green of the motus above, riotous with plant life, the coconut palms always on the downwind side.

Grilled tuna for lunch, and then the family ashore. Walking, glorious walking for the adults, and endless running and screaming and playing with beach detritus for the boys. Then the whole family nekkid and scrubbing themselves in the shallows around the dinghy, the water perfectly cool after the no-wind oven created by the palms over the beach. Then another walk, and comments on all the palms that might be short enough to climb for their nuts, and a sit on the breeze-freshened beach at the windward side of the motu for the adults while Eric paddled an oldbucket ship in a pool and Elias dug channels, lakes, moats, seas in the porous beach sand.

Then sushi for dinner in the cockpit, and a few chapters of The Prince and the Pauper for a bedtime story, and a gin and tonic for my wife and me under the tropical full moon, bright enough to see the color turquoise and to distinguish the coral heads beneath us.

Elias before bed in a tired voice, and I swear uncoached by any statement from adult lips: "This is the best life there is."

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Sailing to Cleveland

The other times that we've sailed into French Polynesia were different.

Those other times, we were coming downwind through the tropics to a tropical landfall. For days as we watched the GPS count down the miles to our landfall, we sported around deck in our swimsuits and dumped buckets of seawater on each other's heads to cool off.

This time, we are coming upwind through a broad band of disturbed weather, fleeing a gale that had blocked our way further south, in the thirties south latitude, where winter has begun. The sky has been leaden for weeks, and though we are all the way up to 20° South, we continue to wear full raingear on deck, bare feet our only concession to the fact that we are in the tropics. Every hatch and portlight and dorade has been sealed up since we left New Zealand, and the inside of the boat is fetid with Essence of Family in Small Space, mixed with Sticky Crust of Salt From Sodden Raingear. If you squinted your eyes and looked at the sky and sea around us, you might be forgiven for thinking we were sailing into Cleveland, Ohio ("The Mistake on the Lake") rather than the Tuamotus.

Cracking your ribs on passage turns out to be antithetical to writing on the blog, and to any other sort of productive thought. On passages in the past I've worked on scientific papers and filled pages in a journal. On this one I've managed only enough energy to read (free tip - don't waste your money on East of Eden, get your hands on the American Library collection of Nabokov instead). The rest of the family is passing the time as well - paper airplanes, coloring sessions, and long spells of reading aloud. An excerpt of Steinbeck's The Red Pony, red aloud from a collection of animal stories, suddenly brought back the entire novel from my memory, a book I likely read 35 years ago, and had no recollection of ever holding in my hands. That brought forth all sorts of other books that we need to read to Elias - Watership Down! A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court!

And there were others, but I forgot to write them down.

This is the 21st day of the passage. The boys are doing admirably, though I have been concerned at times that they might be wising up on us. For a while Elias realized that his bunk up forward is the worst place on the bunk to sleep, and he came back to the saloon to claim the choicest bunk on the boat, the downwind settee in the saloon. Eric told us yesterday that he doesn't like sailing (though he hasn't been seasick in a week) and would prefer to be at anchor. Toughen up, lad! I didn't make the Pacific this wide. We are only a few days out at this point, but we won't tell them that, for fear of the end-of-passage impatience from the junior crew that would suddenly overwhelm us. Instead, I hope to present them with the sight of land, a fait accompli, and transition directly to them badgering us to get ashore immediately.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Eric Says

Eric says he hates the golden rule.
Alisa says she lost the plot.
Elias says, can we fish?
Elias says, can I reel in the fish?
Elias says, can I net the fish?
The person with the hurt ribs gets to sleep on the low side!

Maybe one week to our temporary paradise. Too long to count the days yet.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


Tomorrow will be the two-week mark for this passage, and, if you've been following the little map on the right of the screen, you'll know that we're nowhere near our destination in French Polynesia. We've entered that timeless zone that marks long passages, when there's no thought of the trip's beginning or end. We're just here, where we find ourselves, in the long middle.

It's been five days since I fell, and I've improved to the point where I'm able to do things like pole out the jib and raise the main. We hove to yesterday under double-reefed main to let a poorly developed low pass over us, and today we finally got westerly winds, for the first time in eight days. But some gear on the main is broken, for the second time in the trip, so it's down for the night to let the epoxy repair set. Between the finicky main and amateur tactical choices and a battered skipper, we're not setting any records on this one. The weather guy we're talking to on Gulf Harbour Radio radio has taken to saying things like, "Boy, we feel for Galactic."

The boys, though, are having a grand time. The first flying fish of the trip was found on deck this morning, and though it was small, it went into the frying pan for their breakfast. After all the wet and cold of the last week the cockpit has again become habitable, and the whole family had solar showers outside today. We've even seen red-tailed tropic birds. Progress.