Three Weeks In the Middle of the Pacific - Episode 1I am worried about freaking out from some sort of existential fear. Or maybe experiencing unending seasickness. But I send a cheque off in the mail anyway. I am paying to crew on a sloop called Mahina Tiare III sailing from Rarotonga to Hawaii. Up to now I have only coastal cruised a couple times for a few days. But I have a bucket-list to contend with and this is on it. I have no choice.
The 767 touches down in Rarotonga at 6 am on a warm July 1, 2014. Most of the passengers have people meeting them and throwing flowery leis around their necks. I have no one. Mahina Tiare III had arrived the day before but the owners made it clear they didn't really want to spend time with the next group of sailors until the day before we left. I sat in the arrival lounge with my 30 pounds of gear and waited for the sun to come up. The harsh fluorescent lighting cast a greyish light on the smiles of well-wishers reunited with loved ones, tour operators greeting their tourists, and taxi drivers hustling fares. But as people filtered out into the night, the arrival lounge became empty and quiet.
The sun rose around 7. I put my knapsack on my back, hugged my duffle bag to my belly, and marched out into the early South Pacific morning. A warm breeze greeted me, thick and humid and fragrant with bougainvillea; I always love the richness of the air in the tropics. The main road into town passed just outside the airport parking lot. I walked between the cars, through a gate, and out onto the road. There was little traffic. To my left the Pacific Ocean stretched to the horizon. I came to a little cemetery. A white block wall separated it from the road. I put my gear down on top of the wall, took out a camera, and snapped my first picture of the trip. The tide was out and I could see coral rocks dotting the shallow water between the shore and the reef that ringed the island. Reefs ring all the volcanic islands of the Pacific.
to be continued...
Three Weeks In the Middle of the Pacific - Episode 2After walking with my stuff for a couple miles I get to Avarua, the main town on Rarotonga. There in the little harbour is the boat I will be sailing to Hawaii on, the Mahina Tiare III. It's a 46 foot Hallberg-Rassy centre-cockpit sloop designed to sail the oceans of the world. A beautiful boat floating gently beside a rusty inter-island freighter.
By this point the 30 pounds of gear I'm lugging is heavy. I don't know exactly how far it is to the hotel where I've reserved a room for a week, so I stick out my thumb for a ride. A few cars pass by and then an old Toyota station wagon pulls over. The passenger's window is open and I tell the elderly lady driver I'm heading to the Paradise Inn. She says something I don't understand and leans over to open the door since the handle is missing on the outside. I hop in and we set off in a cloud of fumes. It turns out she works at the Paradise Inn as a cleaner. She's very friendly, and for the rest of my stay I ask her for extra jams and butter and bread and cereal - her reward for helping me out. Breakfast is included with the rooms. My room has a kitchenette, downstairs sitting area, bathroom and an upstairs loft holding a king size bed. The hotel is right on the beach with a terrace looking out over the ocean. Instead of sitting on my boat staring at Lake Ontario, it's a nice change to sit on a terrace and stare at the ocean. That's what makes travelling so great - the new experiences.
Since I have a week before we sail I buy a bus pass for $18 which gives me ten rides. There are two buses. One circles the island in a clockwise direction and the other in a counter clockwise direction. The trip takes about an hour either way. Each afternoon I catch a bus and do a trip around the island. Most of the time I go clockwise, but sometimes, just for fun, I go counter clockwise. Keeps things interesting.
I was hoping for a tropical island romance, but there are only couples staying at the hotel. The town has a few bars with music blasting out through the doors so I don't go in. I buy food at the Foodland supermarket. The best is the roast chicken for $10. Succulent! If you ever get to Rarotonga be sure to try Foodland's roast chicken. Must be free range or something.
Early every morning before sunrise a rooster comes to my door and crows like a nut case. I see it strutting around during the day, metallic-orange feathers gleaming in the sun, feeling all high and mighty. The day after I arrived I threw a stone at it, but early the next morning he was right outside my door crowing even louder. I have to wear earplugs to bed every night.
A woman moves into the next room at the end of the week. Julie's from Switzerland. She's flying to Hawaii in a couple days to meet her boyfriend - figures! - but at least we have a nice day going to the Cook Islands annual Chiefs Meeting. Once a year the chiefs and government officials from the fifteen Cook Islands get together to discuss things. They hold the meeting in a big hall near our hotel. We watched as the local chief in a grass skirt came out to the main road where the caravan of chiefs in Honda Civics were arriving. He yelled at them, stomping and brandishing a spear. Then they all marched into the hall. Julie and I and a couple hundred locals followed them. The building was designed like a sports stadium with tiered seating. When the Queen's representative came in, 'God Save the Queen' was played and the English flag was raised.
Each chief gave a speech in their local dialect. I ask two local women sitting beside me what was being said but they don't know. I then ask locals sitting in front of us, but they don't know either. Here we are sitting and listening to these long drawn out speeches and nobody knows what's being said. For some reason the absurdity strikes Julie and I as being hilarious. We have a hard time suppressing our laughter and I have to wipe tears from my eyes.
After an hour or so everyone stands up and all the chiefs leave and the hall empties. Outside there are several open-walled pavilions with long tables. Large packets of barbecued taro, pork, rice and greens, wrapped in banana leaves and tin foil, are piled on the tables. Everyone attending the meeting is given a coconut and packet of food. It must weigh five pounds. I take mine back to the hotel and live on it for the rest of my stay on Rarotonga. You can see roughly a third of it in the picture below.
to be continued...
Three Weeks In the Middle of the Pacific - Episode 3
Monday July 7, 2014 - Rarotonga, Cook IslandsToday is the orientation session aboard Mahina Tiara III, the Halberg-Rassey 46 I'll be sailing to Hawaii. I walk over from my hotel to Avatiu Harbour and meet the other five crew with whom I'll spend the next three weeks. Tom and Christa are a married couple from Toronto, Peter and Matt are buddies from Sydney, and Ingo is originally from Austria but now lives in Boston. They seem like a good group of people.
At 2 o'clock sharp John Neal, Mahina's owner, motors over to the dock with his dinghy and we all clamber in. Mahina is just a few yards offshore and soon I'm sitting in the main salon. The woodwork is lovely, and the windows and hatches let in a lot of light making it bright and cheerful. John's wife, Amanda, welcomes us with freshly cut fruit, and then John starts the orientation. First, and foremost, he lays down the toilet law. Nothing goes in except toilet paper. If he has to go toilet diving there is a $200 charge. I can tell John is not a man to be taken lightly. There are many rules that have to be followed in order that we all have a "safe and enjoyable" voyage. He plans to arrive in Hilo, Hawaii on July 28, in the early evening.
Before we return to shore for our last night in Rarotonga John assigns us our bunks. Tom and Christa have the V-berth at the front of the ship, Peter and Matt have a small stateroom starboard, and Ingo and I are in the salon. It turns out my bed is the narrow settee I am presently sitting on, all 15" width of it. I must have looked concerned because John told me if I lift the back cushions I'd get an extra few inches and it would be fine. I was too stunned to mention I sleep in a king size bed at home and like to roll from one edge to the other in the course of a night. Plus I'm a light sleeper, and here I am sleeping in the living room of the ship. The kitchen is right by my head, and the walkway from the front to the rear of the ship passes through the narrow gap between my bed and the dining table. Yikes!
That night I can't sleep worrying about how I'm going to survive the trip without sleep. I even debate not going and forfeiting the $6000 I've paid. But a last-minute plane ticket back to Toronto would cost me another $2000, so by morning I decide to go through with the voyage come hell or high water - or both. Nervously, I pack my 30 odd pounds of gear, check out of the hotel, and at 2pm I'm on the dock waiting for John and the dinghy.
As soon as everyone is on board we cast off and watch Rarotonga slowly retreat in the distance. It's a beautiful sight; verdant green island, bright blue sky, dark blue ocean. Amanda posts a Duty Roster and a Watch schedule for the first week. The six of us will rotate on two-hour watches, 24 hours a day. There will always be two people in the cockpit for safety, each doing half-hour stints at the wheel. John doesn't want to use the autopilot so we will hand steer all the way to Hawaii. Meals are at 8 am., noon, and 6 pm. and everyone eats together. Amanda takes care of the cooking and dishes, and will also give us lessons on everything we need to know to do an ocean passage ourselves.
The first time I take the helm I find it disconcerting how vague it seems. I've only owned and sailed sailboats with tillers. With a steering wheel I can't tell what the boat is doing. And the wind is from the back quarter so I have to be careful not to let the boat jibe. As we draw away from Rarotonga we get into an ocean swell that tries to turn the boat. I compensate and send the boat off course. Then I overcorrect, the boat overshoots the wind, and the sail starts to go dead. John comes bounding up the companionway shouting "Turn the wheel the other way!". Which other way? He grabs the wheel and yanks it starboard.
Twenty more days and counting.
We've all taken seasickness medication before getting on board, as per John's instructions, but soon the ocean swells are working their magic. I double up on the pills and shove in a few suppositories. We've also been given one-litre water bottles, and Amanda keeps a chart recording how much we each drink - three litres a day minimum to prevent dehydration. John says he doesn't want to give any of us a rehydrating enema. Not sure why? Fluids also help prevent constipation which Amanda suggests should be avoided in the middle of the Pacific. I start drinking more water than I've ever drunk in my life. Too bad John has a rule there is to be no coffee, tea, or alcohol on the trip. All we have is room temperature water.
Feeling woozy from seasickness, I go over the merits of this trip. I've done some coastal cruising in BC, and also down in Antigua in the Caribbean, but I felt sailing in the middle of the Pacific would be a good experience. I needed to know whether blue-water sailing was something I wanted to do. I think I have my answer.
The first night I share the wheel with Christa who, despite the medication, has to keep a vomit bucket handy. I retch in sympathy. The one benefit my berth offers is that it's near the centre of the boat and so there is less movement when I lay down. Tom and Christa in their v-berth at the bow tell me it feels like they're flying through the air as the boat lurches up and down the waves. Tom says the only way he can stay on his bunk is by gripping the bottom bed sheet between the cheeks of his ass.
The wind is from the southeast as we leave Rarotonga so we make good headway east. Later on, when we get into the easterly trades and turn north, we'll have a nice beam reach up to Hawaii. We only tack a few times the whole trip, during the first week. We make Bora Bora in four days.
The weather is sunny and beautiful, and the island of dreams glows in the late afternoon sun.
We anchor in the bay among numerous other yachts and go ashore for dinner. I have a big steak and cold beer. I notice that John and Amanda don't eat off the yacht - part of their frugality.
That evening there is an inter-island dance contest in a sports field nearby. The six of us head over and pay $15 for grandstand seats. The dancers are all couples and the dances are erotic - loud rhythmic drumming and suggestive movements. Some island girls are bewitchingly beautiful. But I sense resentment from the young local men, one of whom mutters to me in the bathroom to be careful if I want to keep my wallet.
Bora Bora is our one and only stop on the trip. When we weigh anchor late next afternoon we won't touch land again until we reach Hawaii three thousand nautical miles straight north.
Days pass and we get into a regular routine. My mind goes dull from lack of sleep. Sometimes my longest break off-watch is in the middle of the day. While the other crew can retire to their cabins and close the door, I lie bathed in sunlight and noise. I use a sleeping mask and ear plugs, but they only do so much. I am still acutely aware of people around me. I listen to the music on my ipod to block out my surroundings. Pharrell William's 'Happy' is my favourite song.
John is pretty quiet, mainly communicating when instructions are necessary, or when he discusses the weather forecast which seems to be his main interest. He rarely engages in small talk and I sense an edge, a tightness of character, that might be due to his having spent much of the last twenty odd years at sea? Or perhaps it's the other way around? Maybe his personality drove him to the sea? Amanda is more friendly and chatty, though she's quick to deride anyone who makes mistakes. Ingo, being the oldest, is the slowest in getting around the ship and has a bit of a hard time remembering all the detailed instructions - some lines go around cleats in a clockwise direction, others counter clockwise, only one turn before figure eights, jib sheets can't touch the seats, three wraps of the winches, etc. - I can't remember most of it either. I notice Amanda picking on Ingo. Then when I make some mistakes she zeros in on me. Fortunately, Ingo nearly knocks himself unconscious falling out of the bathroom and Amanda turns her attention back to him, much to my relief.
The weather is cloudy and rainy as we head north. Squalls hit us. The wind is a out of the east, varying from 20 to 35 knots, and the waves are roughly 10 feet tall most of the time. At night, when there are no stars, I have to stare at the brightly lit compass needle to stay on course. It flickers hypnotically in the pitch dark, putting me into a trance.
Instead of letting the boat speed up with the wind, John wants us to keep it between 6 and 7 1/2 knots. Reefing has to be done at the mast and is tricky, especially at night, so most of the time we slow the boat down by easing the main to spill air. But this means the boat isn't nicely balanced and makes the steering slushy and the boat sluggish. Helming is tedious.
Reality takes on a strange fluidity - day passes to night, helm shifts come and go, meals are eaten, lessons are taught, snatches of semi-sleep. I feel I'm floating - not only literally, but mentally. Fortunately, Peter and Matt are steady characters with a typical Australian sense of humour. Their jokes about their discomforts help ease my own.
At one point I'm complaining to Matt about something when he says, "Dave, sometimes you just have to suck it up." I realize I've been whining too much and make a point of being funny instead. Every evening after dinner somebody has to tell a story. My stories are humorous and popular, particularly the one at Ayers Rock where a dingo grabs the bottom of my sleeping bag in the middle of the night. Ingo is fascinated and asks questions, so his nickname becomes 'Dingo'.
We only see one freighter the whole trip, though sometimes the 75-mile radar picks up a fishing boat. We see a few flying fish and the odd dolphin, but mainly there's nothing but water. John keeps two lines off the stern and we catch a big Spanish Mackerel and another smaller fish, both very tasty. Every few days we have a saltwater wash on the back deck using a hand-held nozzle. We're allowed one litre of fresh water in a drinking bottle to rinse off.
Since I am living in the main salon I have no privacy. I quickly get used to putting on a strip show for the rest of the crew. Surprisingly, nobody seems to take much interest. Sometimes the motion of the boat is so violent I sit on the edge of the dining table to put on my pants. Amanda noticed my bare ass resting where she normally eats, and instructed Neal to tell me not to do it. I felt like asking how the hell I'm supposed to change, but instead just kept doing it when I know no one is watching.
Crossing the equator marks the half-way point of our trip. We have a ceremony. Amanda reads out something about 'Pollywogs' turning into 'Shellbacks,' and we all eat some foul, green, gruel while wearing animal noses. Standard procedure, I assume.
John does breakfasts; oatmeal porridge with papaya and banana. Amanda cooks tasty lunches and dinners, often including papaya as well. Let me just say for the record that papaya is one of my favourite fruits, and I can eat my fair share of it, but by the end of the trip I've eaten so much I gag at the smell and haven't eaten any since.
On July 28, my 61st birthday, the sun comes out and we spot the Big Island of Hawaii in the distance. We sing songs all afternoon, and by 11:30 that night we are docked in the harbour. John's navigating has taken us three thousand nautical miles up the middle of the Pacific to our destination, arriving within a couple hours of when John planned three weeks earlier.
Next morning we have our final class - mast climbing. Eager-beaver Tom volunteers to go up, so his wife Christa has to be the one to hoist him in case he falls. Sweat glistens off Christa's forehead as she cranks the winch under the scorching sun. Peter, Matt, Ingo and I stand in the shade and watch. We're impatient to get off the boat and into a bar for some cold beer. When the class is over an Immigration Officer comes to the boat. Then John drives us to a restaurant for a final lunch together. Afterwards he takes the others to their hotel, leaving Amanda and I at the restaurant. I can't help but notice Amanda scavenging leftovers off the plates. Much of what John and Amanda do seems to be about minimizing costs. I'd been concerned when I noticed they kept the Man Overboard float tightly wrapped in plastic to protect it from the elements. John told us to take the plastic off before throwing it, but it'd be easy to forget in the heat of the moment and it might not auto-inflate?
All in all, it was an experience. It was beautiful, and nothing can match the incredible solidarity of the middle of an ocean. However, I like a little more variety and will stick with coastal sailing.
Thank you to John and Amanda for making the trip possible, and to the good ship Mahina Tiare III for getting me to Hawaii, and to Neptune for allowing my passage.