Friday, August 29, 2014


Every marriage, I imagine, has its own version of the nuclear option - some threat which one spouse or another may resort to in extremis.

In our particular marriage, this nuclear option might be called Playing The Antipodean Card.

Alisa does this now and again to let me know that the double-double demands of playing breadwinning scientist, far-ranging adventurer, loving father and husband and mediocre marine engineer have made me a total pain in the ass to be around.

As in yesterday, when the inanity of trying to make Microsoft Word behave itself while formatting the figures and tables in a five-chapter PhD thesis, coupled with the limits of uploading said thesis (10mb) and pictures for a Cruising World story (25mb) via the donkey-fast internet of Hao, combined with our long stay at the darse de Hao, which would get ever longer until I had everything finished, made me a sullen and grumpy hubby indeed.

So Alisa Played The Card.
"Mebbe we should go back to New Zealand," she said, seeming all innocent and helpful.  "Or Iluka.  Somewhere where it's easy for you to get things done."

Ha!  As if!  Living on a boat that's going nowhere seems much much worse to me than living on no boat at all.  So I'll redouble my efforts to keep all the balls in the air with my normal smile in its normal position, plastered on my face.

It's the old conundrum - it's a challenge at times to work on the boat, and working keeps me from immersing myself in travel.  But it's also the compromise that has kept us going for all these years.  And hey - it won't last forever.

In the meantime, I'm able to produce some reasonable contributions to science, even if they do take longer than they would in an office.  And the travel has its compensations, like the view of the endless horizon beyond the quai here in Hao, where I am sitting to do my internet.

But enough of all that.  This is a post about lunettes.

Lunettes, of course, are eyeglasses in the French-speaking world.  In this case, used reading glasses that are collected by the Lion's Club in New Zealand, cleaned, graded, and given to yachties to distribute in out-of-the-way corners of the South Pacific.

Alisa knew a good thing when she heard about it, and we shipped four hundred pairs of reading glasses when we left Whangarei.

She's given "clinics" in Fakarava and here in Hao.  The response has been big, as you can see from these pictures (inside the mairie, or town hall in Hao).  Eye doctors visit the villages once a year, not everyone can get an appointment, and glasses are super-expensive.  She gave away 100 pairs here in Hao - in a village of 1,200 people.

Polynesian culture very readily accepts the idea of gift giving, so it has been (more or less) easy for her to explain what she's about in spite of the language barrier.  And reciprocation is a big part of the culture.  Flowers enough for leis don't grow in the poor soil of the Tuamotus, so she and her helper, Elias, have returned from these session bedraped in shell necklaces.  And people have stopped by the boat later with gifts of coconuts or fish.

As you might expect, these sessions have given us instant entree into the village scene.  Alisa meets the mayor, and a bunch of less notable locals, and we have a bit of context for understanding the village during the rest of our stay.

And these lunette sessions super-charge the travel experience.  People stop by the boat at odd hours for glasses, and stay for a long visit afterwards, even if we had had other thoughts for the day.  It can be annoying - people ask Alisa to come by their homes when she's trying to care for the kids and it seems they could just come to the boat, or they ask her to replace scratched glasses, or she isn't sure that they really need them at all, and it seems that people are being acquisitive at her expense.

But then she sees someone's face light up when the smudges on a book are suddenly revealed as words, and none of the little annoyances matter a bit.

Or we meet a particularly sympathetic old fella who comes by the boat for a pair, and he miraculously brings forth the most beautiful Polynesian music from our boys' ukulele, which had remained mute whenever one of us had picked it up.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hao Not

  Galactic tied up in the old military harbor at Hao.  The other boat, Momo, is just from a season in Patagonia, having completed a 44-day passage from Valparaiso, Chile.
Village d'Otepa, as seen from the quai.

There's how you might think you're supposed to travel, and how you actually do do it.

Or, since travel is really just interacting with people, there are the times on Galactic when we'd rather not travel at all.

Can you say you're not traveling if you're this far from any place that you're familiar with?

The boys and I end most days with a bike ride.

We came into the atoll of Hao with the idea that if it grabbed us we might want to stay a while.  We still have months to spend  in French Poly, I need to stay put somewhere to get some science work done, and I'd like to get the boys some more social interaction so that they (especially Elias) can pick up some French.

We had heard that Hao was friendly, so we figured that it might be the place for all that.
Eric's new trick.

Well, ok, a little travel.

Hao is unusual.  It was the logistical base for the French nuclear testing program in the Tuamotus, and until not too long ago was part of a large area forbidden to visiting yachts.  The testing program is history now, and the base is closed.  So today there's the village and a small detachment of French soldiers doing clean-up work and a lot of abandoned infrastructure.  Parts of the atoll have something of the post-apocalytptic feel that you would expect from the combination of a remote settlement and a large,  abandoned military installation.

The people are super-friendly, as advertised, though our utter lack of French has proved more of an obstacle than it has in other places in the Tuamotus and Marquesas.

And, well - the place just hasn't grabbed us.  We've been here more than a week, and consciously tried to be open to the place, but sometimes it just doesn't happen, for whatever reason.

And, if we're not captivated by the scene at some village we're visiting, we'd just as soon be off by ourselves.  We have enough going on with taking care of the boys and ourselves that we don't always want the spontaneity and surprises that come with interacting with a different culture.  Sometimes we just want to have meals and bedtimes on schedule for the boys, and time for Alisa and myself to tend our own gardens, and the delights of an empty beach near at hand  when we need one.  Perhaps we're a bit square, but there it is.

So our plan now is to go to the neighboring atoll of Amanu sometime early next week.  French sailors we've spoken to hold the place in high regard as somewhere where you can go off and be alone with a bit of paradise.  Places that offer that sort of experience, most notably Tahanea, have been the blissful highlights of our various stays in the Tuamotus.  So we figure that before we head off for the Australs, we'll give ourselves one more taste of that Tuamotu magic...

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Wrong Way

If you can put to sea in your own boat and get where you want to go in reasonable comfort - well, I reckon that you could do most anything.  The sea is the sea, after all, and the challenges are immense and varied.

So when things go right, you will be immensely pleased with yourself.  But, if you have either imagination or experience, you will also know that there was some element of luck in your success and you will cultivate a deep sense of humility having to do with everything concerning water and boats.

I mean - all this travelin' from place to place on Galactic is generally a hoot.  But you do have to keep an eye on things.
Some things get better.  Readers of South From Alaska may remember
what an epic we had anchoring on our first visit to Makemo in 2008 - our
first coral anchorage ever.  Since then this wharf has been built, and if
the supply boat isn't due you can tie up in complete protection from
the prevailing winds.

We've been going the wrong way through the Tuamotus - west to east, against the prevailing winds.
The route so far.
But, armed with onboard access to weather models, we have been able to pick the right time to make our two big legs to the east  - from Fakarava to Makemo, and then onwards to Hao.  We were on the wind both times - heeled over and all that.  But both times the wind was gentle, the seas were still, and Galactic made good progress with no fuss.

If it hadn't been for Eric getting seasick, they would have been the perfect passages.

A Spanish mackerel - four meals fresh, and
Alisa canned up another 8 meals from it.

So even though picking our weather did just boil down to looking at the little wind arrows on our computer, I was very pleased both times with how enjoyable it was to travel upwind.

But if I was tempted to get too pleased with myself, there was the experience of some acquaintances at Makemo to bring me down to earth.

They were a very nice family on a catamaran who anchored at the village of Pouheva a day or two before we moved on.  The adults were fun and they had three kids who played nicely with our own - sometimes it's effortless to spend time with someone you've just met.

They ended up leaving the anchorage the same day we did - we were heading out of the pass for the two-night sail to Hao, and they were heading down the Makemo lagoon towards the western pass.

The tooth fairy always seems to visit at sea. 

An hour after we left the pass, just after we had enjoyed a great view of a small group of cetaceans (tentatively southern bottlenose whales) we heard a pan pan call on channel 16 - that's one step down from calling mayday.

It turned out to be these new friends of ours.  They had gone up on the reef and could not get themselves off.

My birthday

The drama was short-lived.  We stopped our progress to Hao against the possibility that we would need to return to Makemo to give them a hand (no other boats in Makemo had their radios on).  But the rising tide freed them, and inspection revealed that though they'd chewed up a keel quite badly, they were taking no water and had not damaged props or rudders.  They expect to be able to make it to Tahiti or Apataki for repairs.


Later on the passage to Hao.  We saw two green flashes that day - first one
as we were down in a wave trough, and then another a second later as the
next crest lifted us up for a higher view of the horizon.  That's happened to
us a couple times before. 

We don't know exactly what happened to put them on the reef, but it was a good reminder of how easily the combination of a mistake (or two or three) and some poor luck can put you in a bad way.  So we try to be forever vigilant.  And I guess that's what makes this life afloat so bloody fierce and immediate.  We're in the arena, day after day.

Standing waves in the pass.

And the skipper, less than pleased with our transit a short time later.
Just as we were in the arena, for instance, when we entered the pass at Hao.

The passes are one of the big things about the Tuamotus.  The water screams through them, and, as Pierre on Kea told us before our first visit, "You must respect the tide!"

We arrived at Hao just before low tide to find the water ripping out of the pass.  Two hours after low, the pass was still pumping.

I looked at it long enough to convince myself that it would be alright to go through.

And it was alright - just.  The water was still coming out at six knots or more.  We cut around the race on the outside and then positioned ourselves right in the pass.  We were committed - and the GPS showed us making 0.4 knots, at full throttle and with the main catching some wind.  I had to look at the sides of the pass to reassure myself that we were making 0.4 knots forwards, and not backwards.

It was fine - we motored through, slowly, and then made the turn for the village.  But we prize the condition of having things under control on Galactic, and we were a little too close to not in control there.

I don't think I'll try that again...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Still Makemo

At Makemo, we experienced dead calm conditions - all through the night and into the dawn. 

By day the lagoon was infinite - our sight stretched out to the far flat horizon, and then bounced back to us.  At night the stars and clouds chased each other in the lagoon's embrace.  

What a four-year-old thinks about it all:

We sailed into the west pass of Makemo a couple days earlier with bad light for seeing coral.  It was an easy overnight sail from Fakarava.  The crew was anxious to see what we would find in this new place.

Or not quite new, as Makemo was the first atoll we ever visited, six years ago.  We remembered the anchorage off an uninhabited motu as a likely spot for celebrating Elias' 8th birthday.

Which we did.
 Birthday lunch - bacon and eggs.
When buying birthday presents, we're sure of our audience.

The birthday beach barbecue was, unfortunately, rained out.


So, Elias' birthday was only ten days ago as I write this.  And it seems a lifetime ago.  We're now two anchorages, two passes, two nights of sailing, and one atoll further down the line.  We've made quick friendships, and said goodbye to new friends with some unaccustomed drama.  We've dealt with a dozen situations of mutual incomprehension and wondered how we might fit in for a while in a place where we've never been before.

As always when the sailing/traveling is this good, internet access is not up to the task of keeping current on it all.

More soon.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Contingent and Bohemian

If you're paying any attention you'll know that one of my very favorite things about French Polynesia is how the internet access completely sucks.

Here in the village of Pouheva, on Makemo Atoll, the internet surpassed all our expectations for glacial service at a caviar price.  Here it just didn't work, period.

Which, since I didn't have any pressing work commitments that I was trying to meet, was completely fine with me.  I could live my life instead of staring at a screen.

Now, after a couple days, the internet is inexplicably working.  I met a couple of non-pressing work deadlines.  And then, as is my wont, I took a look at the Times online.

And, oh vey, is the world doing an awful job of looking after itself while we're on this endless voyage of ours.

At the risk of being facile, I cannot help but ask why we, and our boys, are living such a charmed life.  Why are we so endlessly fortunate?  Those four (?) young boys who were killed while playing on the beach in Gaza a few weeks ago serve as a counter-example to our experience that will stay with me for a very long time.
One of the natural history marvels of the South Pacific are nesting fairy terns.  They famously don't actually build a nest, but just lay an egg on a bare tree branch and let the newly-hatched chick balance as best it can.  We've seen lots of fairy terns, but never a nest - until we spied this one in front of the Rotoava Mairie - the town hall.  Chick and adult were active when we spied them at dusk, but when we came back for pictures the next day it was siesta time.  That fluffball on the right is the snoozing chick
Tuhoe, the mayor of the commune that includes Fakarava.  As an orphaned teenager, he was adopted by an Alaskan couple visiting on their yacht, and spent the next five years living in Anchorage.  I asked him to pose with the fish he was giving us from his freezer
So, there is no way to segue out of that sort of intro, except to say that we are (touch wood yet again) on the most amazing roll.  It feels like the first seven years of all this nautical carrying-on were just the warm up.  We are now securely living an existence more contingent and bohemian than that led by anyone else we know - with the exception of a dozen or so of our sailing friends.  Well aware of how swiftly the unyielding twists of lifetime narrative can put an end to this sort of idyll, I am treasuring every day.

Like…the day that saw us done with our various business at the big smoke of Rotoava, and sailing off to the south pass of Fakarava:

Here and below - the blokes, more or less keeping watch for coral bommies.

God, do I love sailing in an atoll lagoon.  As long as the light is good.

And me, at the end of our second three-hour day of sailing inside the lagoon.  Moving the boat takes it out of you.

 And this one, for our friends on Enki, who are sailing the populous waters of the Med.  Check out the egregious overcrowding in the south Fakarava anchorage - ten boats in one frame!

The good old days, they're all gone.

The main attraction that brings all these boats is the famous south pass, with its various fauna Chondricthian.  We of course wanted to see for ourselves.  This, and below, is what happens when Alisa tells four-year-old Eric to hold on in the dinghy on the way to the pass.

He flies instead.

And some of the goods: a Napolean wrasse, of which there were several to be seen every time we visited the pass.  Something this big has to be poisonous (ciguatera) to be common.
 Boy and goatfish.
Gray reef shark.

"They're potentially agressive!" Elias loves to point out.

Not that you'd know it from watching him swim around them.  The kid is very very relaxed in the water.

 How Eric "snorkels".  We're holding onto the painter of the dinghy and letting it float in the pass on the ebb tide along with us.  You get a great ride that way.
Toes and sharks - every parent's dream.
I've done all that one kid can do in one day.

Alisa taking a break from the water for a French lesson.  What else do you do if there's a retired French teacher in the anchorage?

Since these pictures were taken, we used the most perfect hiatus in the tradewinds to make tracks 75 miles upwind, to Makemo and its satisfyingly awful internet (and delightful new wharf).  More on all that soon.

Watching the green flash

Monday, August 4, 2014

And There Was That

"That" in this case being the south pass of Fakarava. This is one of those places that is well-known enough to be a part of an itinerary for a pre-planned trip to the South Pacific, and therefore also the sort of place that is likely to be quite dull from a traveler's perspective. Boatloads of daytrippers being carted in to the beach on the motu, the row of studiously boring private cruise ships anchored off in the deep water with their crews of nautical servants in matching getups, local interactions that are filtered through the expectations of tourism. That sort of thing.

But, hell, we're on a roll. (Touch wood.) We had a great time.

It helped immediately that we knew some of the young terrors zipping around the anchorage on kite boards. We had met a couple of young French guys on an eight-meter yacht (America translation: "small") at the village in the north of Fakarava, and they were well in evidence when we arrived - rafted up with first one, then two other shabby boats of shabby young sailors having the shabbiest, most delightful time you could imagine. Just looking at them and their cheap boats and the nautical hitch-hikers that they had found room for stoked the furnace of my enthusiasm for the life afloat. Whatever these guys know about living on a sailboat, you won't read about in one of the American sailing magazines. One of the guys was feeding the dream by giving kite surfing lessons every day to other yachties in the anchorage and the other had his parents aboard on a visit from France.

Soon the mom, a retired French teacher, was aboard Galactic giving Alisa some lessons to help her communicate through the reading glass "clinics" that she is doing in French Polynesia, and the dad was explaining his ideas about how all seven billion of us fall along the gradient of precariousness and security, and how that affects things like our propensity to speak multiple languages and think in terms of "I" or "we". There are Ted Talks, in French, it turns out, and his fourth book is in the works.

We had a very nice beach fire with the whole mob. Everyone was very gracious about speaking English to include us. There was no alcohol, which, after our years of Australian and Kiwi barbecues, felt outlandishly original. There was a much higher degree of skill at enjoying the local resources than we can bring to bear. They knew which fish were safe to eat, and had braved the sharks in the pass to spear very many of them. They made a grill over the fire with green palm fronds. Their skill at processing coconuts far surpassed our own. They sat, and talked, and let the meal come as it would, with whatever item that was ready - poisson cru, grilled fish, bread cooked on sticks over the fire - being shared around the circle by the person who had made it. Music was played, and fire juggled. Elias and his parents allowed themselves to be enthralled. Eric allowed himself to be asleep.

Because there is no appreciable population of Americans of French descent (one of the few European nations you can say that about) and because of the French awareness of their role as a linguistic and cultural/philosophical redoubt against the hegemony of English in Western culture, the Francophone world strikes me as being very much an alternate universe to what an Anglophone American might take for granted. And, as always, we learn whatever we know about France primarily from our interactions with the crazy, adventurous people whom we meet far from France, and who evince no desire to go back.

Besides that, there was also the famous pass, which we snorkeled as a family again and again. There were sharks, as advertised, and there were scores of other species of fish, some of them quite new to us.

And, I reached out to the world a bit. I worked at existing science commitments, and I solicited new work. I put some effort into reviving my long-dormant "career" of freelancing for sailing magazines.

There was time. We would stay until the tradewinds faltered, giving us a chance to get further east in the chain. Eric and I made the tour of the anchorage in our rowboat, hearing about the travails of a frustrated American who relies on hitchhiker crew, meeting the exuberantly enthusiastic crew of a boat (three Aussie blokes and an Italian bombshell) who were completing their epic adventure (Scotland to Fiji via the Falklands, Patagonia, Antarctica and Ecuador). Every one of the boats in these anchorages has some unique story. Most of them are great, entertaining stories told by interesting people. Some are hermetic stories of unhappiness carried at great effort to the far side of the world. We are who we are, I suppose.

And then, suddenly, the forecast showed a change in the winds. The weather would serve us to get east, and also the crew of one of the French boats who were over the moon at having landed a job in Nuku Hiva, far to windward. And the weather would serve the boats who were remembering their need to get downwind to Tahiti. So we'll likely see none of them again. As motivated as you are, of course, it's difficult for a thousand reasons to get to know someone in this sort of chance encounter, no matter how amenable each party might be. So we'll boil down to a one-sentence description for each other. Years from now, someone might say, "those Alaskan marine biologists with their two kids who had been going for seven years" and we'll say, "those two French guys on that little boat who had one of their parents visiting so the other guy had to sleep on deck in a hammock. Remember them?"

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