Swear like a sailor.

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My hands won’t stop shaking. I feel like I’m in a movie where a recently traumatized character frantically attempts to shake a cigarette out of its box only to find themselves unable to hold the lighter to light it. That’s me, but it’s not a movie and I don’t smoke. I sit there and chuckle to myself as I realize how much I just swore. I don’t swear often and when I do I’m usually laughing. This time, it was not a casual F-bomb and I was not laughing.

But before I get too far, I should probably give a little background. First, this is Alex. In April, Lauren and I flew out to Bali to meet Saltbreaker where Nick and Anca kept her after having sailed up from New Zealand. Some combination of our desire to take a turn on board and their desire to land travel lead us here to Bali.

What started as a few small repairs turned into a month of boat work but finally, Saltbreaker was ready and we set out to explore Indonesia. First stop: Amed, about 45 miles, or 12 Saltbreaker hours away. The trip North through the Lombok strait requires fighting some seriously strong currents. The same winds that pushed Saltbreaker across the Pacific also push massive amounts of water along with them. That water hits Indonesia and forces its way westward turning the straits between islands into rivers that finally drain into the Indian Ocean.

As we rounded the Eastern tip of Bali we slammed right into those currents. With full sail, the engine running full speed and the boat tucked just a hundred meters off the steep reef-lined coast, we were just barely making progress … when the tiller pin sheared. Not fluent in boatspeak? Picture an RV struggling up a winding mountain road only to have the steering wheel fall off  (though our situation was less perilous).

Screenshot of our GPS track.

I would not suggest following our track to Amed.

The rudder was locked in a position pointing us directly to the oh-so-close reef. What happens next is a bit of a blur. According to Lauren I ran back and forth along the length of the boat cursing, yelling commands and throwing stuff, anything, over the side. I’d toss an anchor over, only to find the corresponding rope a tangled mess, then scramble to the bow to throw over another, then back to untangle. I said things like, “Fucking shit fuck jib shit”, which Lauren somehow understood correctly to mean “Let out the jib sheet!” I did some very reasonable things, like shut down the engine. And some unreasonable things like attempt to steer the boat by trimming the sails (which IS possible … but not with the rudder hard to port and not with a reef 50m away). In the end, an anchor caught, spinning us around and stopping us, literally, just feet from a wall of coral.

On shore a group of kids on shore waved hello. I gave them a shaky wave back and hoped I hadn’t just added to their English vocabulary.

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Two Words a Day

I’ve been putting this post off. So much has happened since our last update (about our passage to New Zealand in November 2012), and I couldn’t think of a good way to explain it all. After much procrastination, I decided that you don’t have to know everything…just enough to get by.

And so here is a quick update culminating in present-day activities:

After arriving in New Zealand in November 2012, Alex and I sailed down to Mount Maunganui, where we quickly found ourselves at home with new friends and the closest thing to a normal life we’d had in a while. Somewhere between a week-long haulout that lasted a month and a strong desire to see family and friends back home, we abandoned the idea of returning to the tropics in May 2013.

Back in the states (I just skipped, like, 3 months here), it was strange to be sleeping in my old room and bumming around on friends couches (thanks Dralle for the unexpected month or more of couch space) while Saltbreaker, my longest-term home since leaving my mom’s place after high school, lay waiting in New Zealand. But waiting for what?

It was on one of several trips to San Francisco during this period that plans began to come together.

Alex, who had enjoyed life on Saltbreaker, was eager to do more travel by land. Since I wasn’t too excited about becoming a crazy-eyed singlehander, I was planning on returning to New Zealand in August to get the boat ready to sell.

In July, this feature-length article came out in Outside Magazine, exaggerating many things (it doesn’t smell that bad in the boat, and no, we never “came frighteningly close to a serious mishap”) but right about others (I do like cocktails of cough syrup and bloody mary mix).

As August turned to September, everything took a sudden turn; Anca, with whom I had resumed a very spatially-complicated relationship, expressed an interest in doing some traveling together…on Saltbreaker. In January, we flew to New Zealand and Saltbreaker.

The next few months are a blur of boat work and farewells. As we made our way up north to Opua, NZ, the natural departure point for the tropics, our friend Orion joined the crew, with plans to stay until late June.

We left on May 10th with a couple dozen other boats, all because the weather looked perfect for a crossing to the tropics. Unfortunately, as you may know, the weather doesn’t always do what it’s supposed to. One week into the passage, we got hit with 40-knot winds and 20 ft. seas, the worst conditions I’ve seen, and I got to practice heaving-to (setting the sails so the boat points into the wind, stops, and sits there somewhat comfortably) in heavy swell. Anca and Orion, on their first passage ever, held up surprisingly well, even though everything that had been stowed away ended up on the floor and a leaky hatch above the bed soaked our sheets.

After the blow passed, we pulled into Minerva Reef, a welcome stop after a difficult 10 days at sea. Minerva is a seamount, an almost-island, with only a couple rocks poking above the water at high tide. There is, however, a good anchorage inside the reef, and we met several other boats there. A couple of them I knew from crossing the pacific in 2012, and others quickly became new friends. With no land in sight, we pretended to be on solid ground during a night spent on Margarita, a large catamaran. The next day, we were actually able to set foot on submerged land, and climb up onto the only “dry” rock for miles.

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DCIM100GOPRO

After two nights at Minerva, it was time to take off. Four days later, 17 days after leaving New Zealand, we finally arrived in Fiji. Savusavu turned out to be a great first stop: cold beer, cheap food, and old and new friends.

Local Fijians are the most welcoming people I’ve ever met. Within thirty minutes of arriving, we had two invitations to visit nearby villages, both of which we accepted. One visit took us to a gorgeous waterfall, and the other involved attending a traditional wedding and spending the night in the chief’s home.

After a week of waiting in Savusavu for strong winds to ease, it was time to head out; if I had known we’d be there so long, I wouldn’t have vowed to eat ice cream every day.

Right now, we’re anchored in Viani Bay, where a local, Jack Fisher, has been taking us out snorkeling (Anca saw her first shark! And liked it!) and dropping off fresh fruit every morning.

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DCIM100GOPRO

Other than that, we’ve mostly been biding our time, waiting for an opportunity to head east to the Lau Group, a seldom-visited splattering of islands where traditions are apparently very much alive. The weather finally seems good to make the crossing, so we’ll head out tomorrow.

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On My Way

I often wonder what others think life is like underway.  I assume some people picture us sipping rum drinks watching the sun melt behind a feature-less horizon.  Others (mom?) may picture us bobbing around in a dark windswept landscape wearing bright yellow foul weather gear and clutching the wheel as wave after wave sends saltwater pouring over our heads.  Each of those hold some merit.  We do drank a lot of rum, though not during passages, and there have been waves that broke into the cockpit, but very rarely. A more accurate picture involves one of us sleeping and the other(s) reading, occasionally scanning the horizon, trimming sails, smacking some sense into helmer, cooking or for the most part just staring blankly at the water going by.  You’d really be amazed how long you can stare at nothing but water.

When we set out from Tonga for New Zealand I decided I would take a bunch of video clips that would capture a sense of what its like underway.  The crossing should typically take 9-10 days but it took us a slow 14.  As a result, what might have been a video filled with exciting shots of Saltbreaker pushing water out of its way, is instead one filled with flogging sails, glassy seascapes and floating fields of pumice.  That said, the video did do an excellent job of capturing the feeling of the trip.  That means its extremely boring.  Since I know not everyone has an 8 minute attention span I decided to make two seperate options.

Option 1) Two weeks of life at sea compressed into eight minutes.  Sure its a bit long, and there isn’t any added music, but I personally think its an accurate snapshot of our crossing. If you get bored pick up a book, thats what we’d do.  Watch this one 2000 times in a row it’ll be just like actually making a crossing!

Option 2) A four minute version backed by the cheesiest Phil Collins song I could find, complete with situation specific lyrics.  It’ll make you feel like you’re watching the intro to an 80’s movie.  I also added captions, just like a VH1 pop-up video.  Come to think of it this option is not an option, its mandatory.

Option 1.

Option 2.

Enjoy.

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“And Our Friends Are All Aboard”

I would have to say that a fair amount of my life revolves around the wind.  So the notion of severing ties with the outside world (even if only for just three weeks) and adopting a lifestyle completely dictated by it didn’t seem to be too big of a stretch for me.

I would also have to say that a fair amount of my life revolves around travel.  Therefore the thought of jumping on a plane and flying off to a tiny speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean also didn’t seem to be all that intimidating either.

Well, ok… it was kind of intimidating.

I work as an engineer in the wind power industry.  My job involves traveling the world and figuring out where the windiest places are, thus facilitating the construction of wind farms to produce clean energy from Chile to Saskatchewan to Scotland to Iowa to South Africa.  So when I heard that my friend Alex and his brother Nick were embarking on an adventure to sail from San Francisco and head across the Pacific, it just seemed too fitting to not get in on that.

GoPro Training

I first met Alex in the summer of 2005 in pre-revolution Tunisia.  We were working for separate companies in Tunis, the capital.  In fact, we were the only two Americans out of forty or so foreigners living together in an apartment bloc across from a mosque in the coastal city of La Goulette.  Every week brought new adventures exploring northern Africa with people who would become fast friends.  Therefore, I had little doubt in my mind that I wasn’t going to have the trip of a lifetime.

I met the Kleemans in Bora Bora.  They were hung-over and smelled like they were “well-traveled.”  As it turns out, they had spent the previous evening up until the early hours of the morning with a menagerie of young cruisers from coastal countries around the world.  Honestly, I was surprised to discover such a familiar, laid-back community hiding amongst the local Polynesians and the jet-setting trust-funders temporarily residing in this resort paradise.

When I first decided to embark on this trip to a tiny atoll, thousands of miles away from any continent, I was completely under the impression that aside from some random encounters with the locals, Alex and Nick would be the entirety of my social life for nearly a month.  I was immediately proven wrong and would become quickly thrust in to the cruiser lifestyle, meeting like-minded people along the way.

Ardea in Maupihaa, French Polynesia

Whether it was wishing off Saltbreaker’s sister-vessel, Ustupu, on her long voyage to Hawaii, or crashing for a night on a disabled Ardea in Rarotonga before flying on to New Zealand, I was pleasantly surprised to meet so many people I instantly knew I would like.  Yet, I shouldn’t have been.  That’s because for the exact same reasons that Alex and I became friends back in Tunisia, I was now encountering people who were so automatically similar, we couldn’t help but bond and have fantastic times together.

Here you have a group of kids (read: late 20-, early 30-year-olds), with a flair for adventure and travel, isolated together and out of our element while we all procrastinated “real-life,” even if for just a couple of weeks.  There was no way we wouldn’t get along.  Sure, the rum helped; but that’s to be expected.

This was all evidenced by my very last night on Saltbreaker in Aitutaki.  It was a Sunday and, naturally, everything on the island was closed for business.  A call came in on the radio from a boat looking to receive permission from the harbormaster to enter the lagoon and drop anchor.  At the time we were tied up to Ruby Soho, a boat of very tan Canadians, and no one from either boat was able to recognize the catamaran on the radio.

After filling in for the absent harbormaster and guiding the vessel in through the shallow passage in the reef, we finally got a good look at the boat.  Samson, flagged in Norway, came in to port and we quickly sized up her crew.  The two guys we saw tying the boat up seemed young, and cool enough, but we weren’t quite certain.  There was only one way to know for sure.

After nearly a week of general merriment on the island, both Ruby Soho and Saltbreaker were running dangerously low on beer.  Again, it was Sunday in Aitutaki, where few businesses open out of fear of being shunned and ostracized by the god-fearing populace.  So a plan was hatched between both crews to head on over to Samson with half a bottle of Jack Daniels to welcome them to the Cook Islands.  If our theory of cruisers proved to be true, we knew that bottle would be gone in minutes and it wouldn’t be long before Samson was offering up its stores of liquor for all to share.

Sure enough, Jens and Morten of Samson did not disappoint.  We were treated to White Russians (with ice!), cold beer (a delicacy), and the finest Aquavit Norway had to offer.  The night stretched on in to the morning and new friends were made.  Having known the crew of Samson for less than six hours, visits to Oslo were offered, and stays in San Francisco, Vancouver and Boston were reciprocated.

My memorable three-week journey on Saltbreaker ended the next day having covered nearly 650 miles of open ocean.  I hunted lobster with my bare hands, nearly stumbled on a nine-foot lemon shark in the middle of the night, and ate some of the best, freshly butchered pork I’ve ever had in my life.  However, what I will especially remember is the time spent with good friends, both old and new, because you never know when you might need a couch (or berth) to sleep on in the future.

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Joy to the World

You know those slap-to-the-face moments.  The ones where you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you don’t fully appreciate the situation, then you stop, take a fresh look around and SLAP you realize how amazing it actually is.

This was one of those moments.

Its early in the evening and we’re sitting on the floor in a barren room inside the Pangai Naval Base.  Nick, Dralle and I are sitting next to each other forming part of a circle.  Nick is on the melodica (an air powered miniture keyboard), Dralle is singing and playing guitar and I’m playing charango (a south american ukulele).  Completing the circle is Conner (from Ardea) and about a dozen young Tongan men.  In the center of the circle are two smooth black half coconut shells and a large metal bowl filled with Kava.  Kava is a traditional drink made from a root ground up into powder and then used to create a tea-like infusion that tastes very much like mud, they make it by the bucket full.  After a bowl or two of Kava your mouth begins to go numb and after a few more you find that, while you can still think perfectly clearly, you’re no longer really in a hurry to do anything.  Its like the opposite of coffee, except much much weaker.  Tongans love it.

Between songs one of us makes a hollowed out clap, the universal sign for “more kava please”, and once everyone has been served we move on to the next song.  At first we play some ‘American’ songs; Bluegrass, Johnny Cash, etc … but quickly realize thats not what they’re into.  They begin making requests, “Can you play slow love songs?”, “Do you know Celion Dion?”.  Celion Dion is not something we know.  We dig deep into our memories and try to think of any song we know how to play that could be classified as a slow love song.  Turns out Ween does not count, we tried.  We have a songbook that we pass around, this way they can decide what we should play next.  First request: Joy to the world.  Its still October, but why not. The crowd goes wild!  Half the times we’re just repeating the same lyrics, but everyone is singing along, some of them are really getting into it.  I glace up from the songbook and take a look around.  We’re in a run down naval base in the backwaters of Tonga playing christmas music (in October) to a kava circle.  SLAP!

We play a few more songs on their request, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Silent Night”.  I’ll never be able to hear those songs again and not think of Tonga.  We said our goodbyes around midnight and made our way back to the boat.  The next day we talk with Steven who works at the Naval Base, he hosted the kava night and stayed up till 4 drinking kava, slept two hours and then started his Navy chores.  As far as we can tell he’s the only actual member of the Pangai Navy.  We’re not even sure the Navy owns a boat (maybe that could explain why he keeps interchanging the words Navy and Army?).  Steven looks up at the sky and seems deep in thought, after a short pause he tells us, “Good kava drinking weather”.  Its always good kava drinking weather in the Tonga.

The only picture I took in Pangai, it does however accurately depict how we passed the majority of our time there.

Thanks to a few waves of bad weather we ended up spending quite a bit of time in Pangai, the largest town (but by no means a large town) in Tonga’s Ha’apai group.  When we first arrived we stumbled into a school supply store for no reason other than to kill some time.  The shopowner was a big smiley lady (both her and her smiles were big) who seemed to be enjoying the novelty of us white-folk browsing her store.  She asked if we we’re enjoying our time in Ha’apai and we gave the mandatory “Yeah we LOVE it here” then asked, “So what should we see while we’re in Pangai?”  Her response came covered with a thick serving of pride, “Oh, theres nothing to see here!  People come here to relax.”  She wasn’t joking either, downtown theres a cafe that will serve you a hamburger or pizza while you browse the ultra slow internet, you can buy (really pretty amazing) fried chicken from the blue house near the wharf, veggies from the market … and thats … about … it.  At night the kids wander around throwing rocks at mango trees trying to score themselves a late night snack.  There are no bars, and at first glace you might think the young men just stay at home at night.  Then you walk by the naval base.

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Palmerston

Palmerston Atoll is a strange place. In many respects its just another one of the South Pacific’s beautiful atolls. Its turquoise lagoon is surrounded by a vibrant coral reef and coconut palm covered beaches. Supply ships make the 250 mile trek to the island two to three times a year, refilling the inhabitants freezers with frozen chicken and ice cream. But what makes the island so unique is not its stunning beauty and relative isolation, its the people.

The atoll boasts a bustling population of approximately 50, all of whom can easily be categorized into one of two groups:

A) descendants of one Englishman ‘Father’ William Marsters, or B) shipwrecked sailors.

Rumor has it that William Marsters obtained the land from England and settled there with four wives, each of whom was placed on one of the Atoll’s islands (the islanders still speak with a British accent of sorts). Of course if you take a single family put them on an atoll with little to no contact with the outside world, you’re setting yourself up for some hillybilly style inter-marriage. I’m not sure how William Marsters handled that issue back in his day, but these days when it comes time to marry, Marsters hitch a ride to Rarotonga on one of the supply ships. Back on the ‘mainland’ they find themselves a spouse and (possibly) return to the island. After multiple generations of this a reasonably large portion of the cook islands population must somehow be related to William Marsters. (In fact our first interaction with one of the Marsters was back in Aitutaki where a local family took Ruby Soho and us under their wing and even killed/cooked us a pig.)

Of the approximately 50 inhabitants, 25 are children and the island has been set up with a surprisingly well equiped school complete with an additional special needs teacher (the daughter of a shipwrecked sailor from the 50s — see category B). The majority of adults find themselves employed by the islands administrative office which has managed to create a beaurocracy that would make Italy proud. I particularly enjoyed overhearing this conversation while getting a tour of the admin building:

“So I can’t use this red wire then?” said Andy (a category B inhabitant), who was trying to install a HAM radio for the admin office.

“Sorry Andy our protocol says you need a black wire for the ground”.

“You are aware that for AC appliances you need a green wire for ground right?”

“It says here in our rules we need a black wire”. And so it was.

Palmerston is just a small detour off one of the more frequently sailed routes from French Polynesia to Tonga making it a popular rest stop along the way. Somewhere around 50-100 boats a year pass through the atoll and thanks to their administration office each visiting boat is assigned a local host and visited by customs officals. We were assigned to Simon’s family and they would come pick us up in their skiff, bring us to land, make us lunch and give us tours of the island. We earned our keep by helping them with some of their computer problems (Palmerston island runs linux!).

Our stay was marked by poor weather, a system was just passing through causing light westerly winds that blew directly into the anchorage making it a bit bouncy and forcing us to keep a 24 hour anchor watch to make sure we didn’t end up shipwrecked on the reef (see category B). Back at the boat we spent the majority of the time in the water. The surrounding reef is extremely healthy and the water visibility easily pushed 150 feet. Pelagic (read: delicious) fish would swim up within feet of us all but begging for us to spear them. Most mornings a whale would pass by our boat, sometimes surfacing just a couple boat lengths away, we could hear them singing/groaning while free-diving.

The island was beautiful, the people friendly and the water full of life … but after a few days we were ready to push on. Our next stops: Beveridge Reef (where we swam with overly curious sharks) and Niue (where ate lots and lots of indian food).

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Rock Lobster

First scanning the eroded surface for a good foot hold, I leaned into the river of water flowing against me and stood up to look around. The moon was nearly full and though mostly blocked by clouds it still lit up the night enough to see my surroundings. Just 200 ft away large ocean swell met its turbulent death against Mopelia’s outer reef then poured over into the lagoon causing the several knot current which was making it so hard to stand. Around me I counted five submerged lights each slowly scanning the reef floor. I couldn’t actually see who held them, but I knew each light was followed by two people, one with the flashlight the other with gloves and a bag.

This apparently, is how you catch lobster.

Our guide was our newly acquired friend Edgar, one of the dozen inhabitants of the island. His home is a 15′ by 15′ tin shack containing a bed, a stove and a 200 litre drum filled with a homebrew they affectionately refer to as Cosmos. Ask him what he does for a living and he’d tell you “Coconuts” but what he really means is he makes copra, the sun dried meat of the coconut. Sacs of copra can be sold to Tahiti where its used to make things like coconut oil, for $0.70 a pound or about $80 for a potato sac full. Apart from one couple who are starting a pearl farm, everyone on the island makes copra.

Mopelia is the most isolated island we’ve been to. No phones, no internet, no regular shipments. For transport and material goods they count almost entirely on other passing ships (including sailors) to bring them to/from Maupiti. During their summer, which is cyclone season, the number of passing boats dwindles leaving the inhabitants entirely disconnected from the rest of the world. Cyclones there are a real threat. Just a decade or so ago one passed over the island destroying what was then a small village. The locals have no access to weather forecasts, so an impending cyclone would take them by surprise. I asked Edgar if he was worried about one passing over again. “If it looks like a cyclone is coming, the government will pick us up in a helicopter”, he said. Apart from that they’re on their own.

Earlier on the evening of the lobster hunt Edgar met us on the beach and led us down to the end of the adjacent motu (island). Eight of us (Saltbreaker, Ardea, Ruby Soho) followed him, stopping where the coral sand ends and the rocky reef began and put on our snorkel gear. The wind was blowing strong making for a chilly south pacific night. We all slowly filtered into the water and turned on our lights revealing a surface made entirely of rock worn smooth and slippery by the never-ending current. The buoyancy from saltwater created a feeling of anti-gravity and, combined with the strong current and surreal scenery, made it feel like what I would imagine maneuvering around the surface of the moon would be like in strong lunar winds. Moving around was a mix of swimming and rock climbing.

As we scrambled around from between the coral heads florescent fish would peak their heads out of holes inspecting the strange source of light. Around one coral head the light revealed a large animal protruding from a gap in the coral. An eel perhaps? We moved in to investigate and quickly realized it was in fact the long swept back tail of a rather large lemon shark! I guess they like to sleep by stuffing their heads inside holes in the coral? We turned the other way.

Eventually we found a lobster, his eyes glowing in the light like a cat’s. He took a few backsteps and we reached out to grab him. Success! Thankfully this species of lobster has no claws. We stuffed him in our mesh bag and were about to pull the draw string closed when he managed to slip out, first crawling over Brian’s face before swimming backwards directly into my chest and then right back into my hands.

Half an hour later we regrouped on land and began telling our own recap of what happened like kids would after a go-kart race. We found we had collectively captured eight lobster, half of which were thanks to Edgar. According to him that was a pretty small catch, but being our first hunt we considered it a wild success.

-Alex

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To Mock a Bird Killing

Intended to post this one a while ago …

Hanamonae Bay, on the northwest end of the island of Tahuata in the Marquesas, has got it all.  Its smooth white sand beach is lined with coconut trees, limes, pamplemouse and several other unidentified (but delicious) fruits.  The crystal clear water and healthy coral reefs on either side provide hours of snorkeling entertainment and make spear fishing feel like a trip to the supermarket.  Every morning a pack of manta rays make their way through the anchorage and will playfully swim around you passing close enough to pet.

It also has wild chickens. We were determined to have one for dinner.

Day 1: Practice
The next morning we scavanged our boats for anything that could be used as a weapon and made our way to shore to hone our skills.  Amongst our arsenal was; a pole spear, a spool of cord for rigging snares, a machete for trail blazing and a slingshot with steel balls for ammo.

We stacked tin cans and let loose on them with the sling shot, occasionally knocking one down.  If we found a chicken, we’d have to get really close.  Satistified with our skills, we set out into the valley to find ourselves some dinner.  An hour later we found ourselves back on the beach with nothing but a bag full of limes and arms covered in thorn scrapes.  We hadn’t even come close to a chicken.  The feast would have to be postponed till the following day, instead we gathered firewood.

Day 2: A Close Encounter
After our hunt in the valley proved to be a failure, we studied the mornings rooster calls and decided to head into the hills.  The grass was thick and we each took turns with the machete blazing our way uphill.  The sun was hot and the going was slow, but as we neared the top a chicken mistakenly let out a call.  We staked out the vicinity … but in the thick waist-high grass we never even caught a glimpse of our meal to be.  Once again we returned to the beach empty handed.

On shore a group of locals had backed their boat towards shore, turned the stereo to eleven and begun burning the wood we’d collected.  They offered us some beers, and laughed at our failed attempts to catch a chicken.  “All the chickens are up in the trees.” one of them said, “wait till they’re asleep then noose them”.  Unsure if they were just pulling our leg we asked if they caught the chickens. “No! we buy them forzen at the store!”.

Beer after beer came out from their cooler, followed by several whole fish (from the same cooler).  They generously invited us to eat their fish, and then generously invited themselves onto our boat “to dance”.  An awkward gathering followed during which they drank a healthy portion of rum and insisted on playing techno.


Day 3: An Umu (of sorts)
Thanks to the locals from the previous day we now knew which fish were ciguatoxin-free and decided our luck with hunting would improve in the water.  Sure enough we managed to pull up a dozen or so (small) fish.  We dug a square pit about 3ft deep and just as wide, lined the bottom with large rocks and lit a fire inside.  The fish were wrapped into little packages made from large leaves and covered in coconut milk.  After an hour or so we then piled a new layer of rocks on the fire (though later realized we should have kept the fire a burning for a while longer at this point), follwed by our little fish packages.  We then layed branches over the pit, covered it first in canvas, then in sand and sat back and watched the sunset.  An hour later, when we figured the fish was done, we deconstructed our underground oven revealing several packets of slightly less raw fish.


The umu was a failure, so we transfered our undercooked fish to a grill grate and began finishing them over the bonfire.  As we sat on the beach with the last bits of light slipping away we heard a cry coming from the valley.  A happy healthy chicken was taunting us.

Our chicken dinner would have to wait until Vaitahu … but thats another story.

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Tahitian Pearls

I have just had the good fortune to spend nearly two weeks on Saltbreaker in French Polynesia, on-board 25 June to 7 July.  In the struggle to come up with a post on my visit I found myself unable to focus on any particular corner of the adventure or arrive at a coherent narrative of the total trip.  I now come to think of the entire experience as a series of small shiny moments, none so huge as to dominate, none so small as to be forgotten.

A Nine Hour Crossing:

Alex had plans to visit to San Francisco in June to be part of a close friends wedding. As soon as the schedule was settled, the idea of meeting Saltbreaker started to sound possible. There would be a definite window when ship and crew would be within reach of an international airport, this could work.  My wife Kay, (did I tell you how generous she is?) fairly insisted that I try to work it out. Really. Just ask her.

Sunday 24 June I find myself at LAX trying to find the international terminal.  It is my wife’s birthday  (did I tell you how generous she is?) and I’m heading to Tahiti without her.  I find the Tahitti Nui counter and they say “Ah, the other Kleeman”.  Alex has checked us in already and parked us together in perhaps the best seats in coach, bulkhead exit row.

We just have time to hit Duty Free for our combined allotment of 4 liters of Jack Daniels, more on that later, and settle in to make a crossing in 9 hours that took Saltbreaker 9 months out of San Francisco.

It’s strange to think that an Airbus 330 has a hull speed about 100 x that of a Valiant 32.

What’s in a Name:

This gray fish is a Remora.  They are those strange creatures that hook themselves to sharks to hitch a ride and maybe a free meal.  They have this suction thing on the top of their head that makes them look like they’re built upside down.  This one took a shine to the Saltbreaker dinghy and spent several days with us, including a 20-mile northward cruise in the Fakarava lagoon.

As you may recall, the crew has a tradition of naming animals after what they eat.  This trip we met a dog, now named French Fry.  Alex says that if he ever gets a dog of his own it will be named “Dog Food”.  On telling this story at home, Kay suggests Purina or IAMS might be better names.

This Remora, amazingly enough, has been dubbed Toothpaste.

Good Morning:

During my stay Alex and I were sleeping across from each other in what they call the settee berths, bench by day, bunk by night.  Most mornings I found myself alert early, reading in my berth watching the crew come awake.  Alex seems to go from dead asleep to sitting up with no transition, but then sits there for about 30 seconds looking like he’s trying to remember how to make his eyes work.  Then he says good morning.

I found it tremendously amusing every time.

Cuckoo for Coconuts:

The machete went everywhere, don’t leave home without it. There was coconut water several times a day.  A good-looking palm and the boys would go all Robinson Crusoe.  The next thing you knew one was up top knocking them loose and the other was catching.  This passion included locals who would gift you with a coco at every opportunity.

Oh Canada:

1 July is “Canada Day”, and being in the company of Dan and Sylvie of Ustupu this meant a celebration.  Dan claimed that shaving your beard to leave a mustache with handlebars is required, everyone with a beard agreed.  Sylvie fed us special treats starting with Poutine, essentially fries covered in gravy and cheese, followed by buckwheat crepes with the compulsory maple syrup.  Finished off with something involving broth, potatoes, and dumplings, it has a name but it escapes me.  Being Canada day, beer and Crown Royal were givens.

I said something about isn’t this “Dominion Day”? Blank stares from the Canadians.  On further research it turns out that it was called Dominion Day until 1982, then changed.  I’m not crazy, just old.

We rounded out the festivities with a bike ride to the end of the road (about 10k out of town), a visit to a pearl farm, more beer, more coconuts, soft serve ice cream, and more beer.

I could immigrate.

Cookout on the Beach:

Heading back to the southern pass of Fakarava we stopped for a cookout on the beach, in the company of Ustupu  and some new friends aboard Mystic. I must quote part of a spot message from Nick, in case you don’t get them,

“Remember the guy who lives on coconuts and rainwater? We just spent a night with him grilling shrimp and veggies over a palm frond fire. His wife made coconut bread. Alex and I played some tunes and then he borrowed the uke and stole the show singing such hits as “Grandma Forgot The Matches” and “If You Don’t Smoke Cigarettes, Go Away”.

To that I can only add that we made our own utensils from palm fronds, skewers, chopsticks, and plates. The local couple was impressed. “Did you make these?” Thanks to Mystic for the photos, check their blog for a nice commentary.

The dinghy ride back to Saltbreaker under a really big moon was enough to make the trip all by itself.

See Ustupu at  http://dansylvie.blogspot.com/

See Mystic at http://blog.mailasail.com/mystic/51

If Cash is King then Jack is the Emperor:

I spent the entire trip with a useless wad of US 20’s in my bag.  As soon as I left Papeete the Yankee bucks were just so much paper.  Even the local currency, the beautiful Pacific Franc (XPF), had limited use beyond the city.

Alex commented that he thought you could accomplish most anything in Polynesia with a bottle of Jack Daniels.  They seemed to prove that when they managed to barter 1/3 of a liter of Jack for 5 gallons of gasoline, the guy did not want cash.  In another exchange, a touch of the elixir conjured a lobster dinner.

As I can now appreciate, cash is of no use when there is no place to spend it.

Drift Diving the Pass:

The lagoon is about 15 miles x 30 miles with two passes to the ocean, one north and one south.  The tide is about 12 inches, maybe 18 at full moon.  Twice a day all of that water rushes in and out through the passes.  When it’s running out you just avoid it, when it’s running in you take a dinghy to the ocean side and jump overboard, the ride back is spectacular.

Nick and Alex free dive an easy 10 meters but I’m just a bobber with a snorkel.  The water is so clear, especially during the flood tide, that I rarely loose sight of the bottom.  Even at that the fish in the shallow sections along the edges of the passage are thick.  I feel like an extra in “Finding Nemo.”

Once out of the passage proper the current continues to pull you over shallower coral at a fabulous pace. Nick called this the “superman experience” and it really feels as if you are flying over the reef.  The best part is, about the time things start to calm down you find yourself back in the anchorage a few yards from the boat.  80-degree water is nice but after nearly two hours submerged, a little sun and a cup of coffee really hits the spot.

Pizza Pizza Pizza:

Nick has mentioned Manihi more than once in the blog and in location updates.  He has a spot near the southern passage to the Fakarava lagoon where he entertains some few paying guests, makes Pizza, and serves as patriarch to an extended family in residence.

He cooks and serves food in what he calls his garage, a roofed over boat slip with walls on two sides, picnic tables and a great wood fired oven.  We commented that if Epcot center had a Polynesia pavilion it should look just like this.

For Alex and I, this is our second time at pizza night. Nick has spent four weeks in Fakarava at this point is on his fifth visit. He has nearly been adopted.  Alex had prepared some bread dough hoping to borrow the oven and make a loaf or two to share but as it turns out the pizza feast is overbooked so the dough is donated and turns into maybe four additional pies.

Manihi takes a shine to me, no doubt thinking that if I had something to do with Alex and Nick that I must be OK.  We have some father-to-father conversations and he keeps bringing me beers, most generous considering that the nearest brewery is some 400 km by boat.  He tells me I should stay with him and I could help him build boats, I think, that for this evening at least, he really means it.

Taxi Please (2): 

On my return to Papeete, I spent the night at a motel across the street from the airport in preparation for a morning flight back to the states.

After two weeks camping on the boat I was ready for a long shower and a nice restaurant meal.  It did take three rinses to get my shampoo to lather up.

The guy at the hotel desk graciously recommends a great place and arranges a ride for me, Taxi Sylvie!

An SUV arrives with two young girls in it, I assume one of them is Sylvie, there are plush stuffed Koala bears hugging the headrests, they chatter happily in French, I sit back and watch the world go by.  At the restaurant I attempt to pay them and they won’t take the money.  “Non Monsieur”.  I can pay them after they pick me up and take me back to the hotel.  I find this amazing; Papeette is not small, over 100,000 residents.

I finish my meal and the waiter calls Sylvie, they show up in minutes, I think they were waiting around the corner.  This is hospitality.

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Alone in Fakarava

One month ago today, I hitched a ride with Alex and Dave Green to the airport. The town of Rotoava only has one flight a day and the airport is outside of the town of 500 people, so a ride was easy to catch; our driver was one of the half dozen airport employees.

An hour later, I dinghied back to Saltbreaker by myself, climbed below, took a seat and a deep breath, and began the long adjustment to being truly alone for the first time in 9 months. This atoll, Fakarava, was the last stop for Dave Green who returned to the states to go back to school, and Alex was on the same flight, heading back to the bay area for Dosh’s (read his post on his time as crew for the Baja Ha-Ha aboard Saltbreaker here) wedding. I was a bit apprehensive about spending the next two weeks on the same tiny patch of land as I waited for Alex to come back. Little did I know that I’d spend the next month here, and still wouldn’t want to leave.

I learned very quickly that some things on a boat are easier with one person, and some things are much much more difficult. Keeping things clean for instance, is incredibly easy when there aren’t 3 dudes and all their earthly possessions packed into a 32 foot boat, hoping it’s somebody else’s turn to do the dishes according to our respective imaginary schedules.

Anchoring on the other hand, is a process much more easily accomplished with two or more people.

With one person, things get tricky. In the South Pacific in particular, anchoring is a pain even with a full crew. Coral heads, known by cruisers as “bombies” litter the seafloor, causing the anchor chain to get wrapped in a Gordian knot every time the wind changes direction. Pulling the anchor up usually only takes a few minutes, but the next day, alone, it took an hour and a half.

Starting in the cockpit, I would throw the engine in gear until I had some momentum going. After tossing it back in neutral, I would sprint to the bow of the boat and start tugging up the 150 feet of chain by hand (our windlass, a winch used to haul up the anchor with minimal effort, had broken back in Mexico).

This spectacle in itself would probably be enough to attract the attention of anyone nearby, but the fact that I was doing it wearing a mask and snorkel was so entertaining that one Tuamotian passing by in at outrigger decided to pause his morning exercise routine for a while to marvel at mine. The mask and snorkel were on because as soon as the bow was directly over the offending coral head, I would have to dive off the bow pulpit, pull myself down 40 feet and manually unwrap the chain. Of course any new slack I had created would get wrapped again quickly, so I’d have to book it back to the boat, climb up the swim ladder, sprint back to the bow, and pull up the 10 feet of chain this massive feat of exertion had gained me. Then start over.

When there was no more chain left, I dove down and pulled the anchor itself out from under a massive rock and immediately screamed, “Blubbly blubbling blub” into a stream of bubbles as the 15 knots of wind blowing 40 feet above me began to drag the boat and anchor away with nobody on board. A breathless rise to the surface and a quick swimming sprint and I was back in control of Saltbreaker, motoring towards my next anchorage. When the adrenaline in my veins had finally run it’s course, I remembered to take my mask off.

The next anchorage was in the middle of nowhere on Fakarava, which is itself in the middle of nowhere. I spent a few days there, taking advantage of this complete aloneness by using the head with the door open, singing along to songs I would have been embarassed to play in front of others, and eating terrible yet delicious food whenever I felt like it. Sometimes all at the same time.

With that out of my system, I rejoined society. Society here meaning 2-3 of other sailboats and the guests and employees at a dive shop at the southern pass of Fakarava, an absolutely world class diving location.

Like all coral atolls, Fakarava was created by an ancient volcano aeons ago. Around this volcano grew massive amounts of coral, whose calcium skeletons created a self sustaining reef. While the volcano itself was no longer able to support itself and sank back into the ocean, the coral remained, forming a massive ring of coral rubble 15 miles wide and 30 miles long. It’s interesting to note that this patch of “land” is really just a pile of solidified calcium extracted from seawater, so it may be better defined as a patch of solid ocean in the middle of the liquid ocean.

When the tide rises (luckily it doesn’t rise more than 12 inches or so here, since the highest point of “land” is only a dozen feet above sea level) fresh sparkling clear seawater floods through two deep passes between islets and rushes in at up to 5 knots, creating the most spectacular natural roller coaster ride in the world. Taking the dinghy just outside the pass, you can hop in the water with 100+ft visibility and float over brilliantly colored coral formations, patches of needlefish floating on the surface, massive bumbling Napoleon Wrasses, schools of unicornfish, and most impressively of all, hundreds and hundreds of sharks.

Yes, sharks. It took several rides through the pass to feel comfortable with them, but after a while, I couldn’t get enough. Aside from one 10-12 ft. dusky shark which gave me the creeps, most of these sharks are 3-4 feet, with the occasional 5-6 footer. Blacktips, whitetips, silvertips, and big schools of gray sharks were always around, and absolutely stunning to swim around with. All of them are completely harmless, though I wouldn’t want to be in the water when the dive shop threw out their fish scraps before lunch.

I spent the next week and a half there, riding the coaster at least once a day. I made a lot of friends on boats who were only able to stop at this beautiful spot for a couple of days, employees at the dive shop, and with a local man Manihi who had built a wood burning oven and would occasionally invite all the cruisers over for pizza topped with fish he caught in the lagoon.

As my alone time came to an end it was time to sail back up to the north end of the island to pick up Alex, our Dad (who flew in to visit for a couple weeks), and journalist Sarah Rose (long story) from the airport. As it often does however, the weather dashed all plans. With a big storm system to the south, the best place to hide out was in a protected area surrounded by reefs near the south pass, 30 miles from the airport. Luckily, I was able to arrange a powerboat ride straight to Saltbreaker for Alex, Dad, and Sarah through connections I made while drinking beer at the dive shop in the south.

The weather system passed through just in time for Dad and Sarah to experience a rocky first night on Saltbreaker. With 2 of them slightly seasick, and all 3 recovering from jetlag, I was left awake by myself by 8 p.m., thankful for the 2 weeks of solitude, yet glad to have company again, especially to help with things like anchoring.

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