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"Confessions of a Long-Distance sailor"
Copyright © 1991 — 2005, P. Lutus

An account of an around-the-world solo sail in a 31-foot boat, 1988-1991

Chapter 4 — Marquesas to Tuamotus and Tahiti

April 23 — Day 2

This is the second day underway from the Marquesas to the Tuamotus. It's a different kind of sailing than I am accustomed to: beam reach, six knots plus change in the daylight hours, five knots after dark. It's also going to be short: four or five days.

The Marquesas was a tough place. I (and most yacht people I met) spent most of our time visiting each other's boats so as not to be eaten alive by insects on shore. People collected rainwater because it was safer than the water in town. Several people contracted Dengue fever from the mosquitoes. As time passed we found fewer and fewer reasons to go ashore.

My shopping list is long. There was virtually nothing in the Marquesas: no food, no supplies, restaurants only sometimes. But friendly people and a fruit that looks like a grapefruit and tastes like an orange.

My Heart inverter (a gadget that makes house current on a boat) got destroyed one windy day. I left the windmill running while visiting another boat, and while I was off the boat a big thunderstorm hit, with gusts of 50 knots. Many boats were damaged. Anyway, my theory is the windmill started delivering a lot of current and tripped a circuit breaker, isolating the inverter and the windmill in the same circuit, separate from the batteries. This allowed the windmill to deliver a very high voltage, which overloaded the inverter. I hope I can find some parts for it in Papeete.

Meanwhile I have to run the Honda generator to show a movie. As I expected, my little theater is making Selene popular in the anchorages.

One of the jobs I took on in the Marquesas was to change the whisker pole's storage location from the starboard walkway to the mast. I realized I was spraying the fittings for the fourth or fifth time with lubricant to unseize them, and I have yet to use the pole this year. I decided salt water was splashing it too often on the walkway.

I came up with an elegant mounting that involved drilling a few more holes in the mast. Then, the next time I tried to turn on the running light, it wouldn't light. I tried the anchor light. It wouldn't either. It almost goes without saying that the third light on the mast, the strobe, was also dead.

Selene from above
I worked an entire day and climbed the mast about six times, first thinking I had broken some wires in the mast, then being completely mystified, then realizing someone had installed the masthead light incorrectly, so that if the running light burns out, the other lights won't light either, like old-fashioned Christmas tree lights. All that was wrong was a burned-out bulb, which chose to burn out immediately after I worked on the mast, making me think I caused the problem. I never looked down on my boat so often in so short a time.

In compensation, at one point I looked down from the mast just in time to see a big manta ray cruise by — about a five-foot wingspan, completely black, swimming just below the surface. Quite a sight from forty feet up.

From time to time I think about sailing, whether overall I am enjoying it. It certainly has its moments — last night there was a nearly full moon shining on what can only be called a kind sea. Small waves, light wind, satisfactory speed and smooth boat motions. A classical, but rare, picture of sailing.

After the Marquesas visit I know why some people try to sail forever and never arrive anywhere — who pretend they have a destination in paradise, when in truth the sail is itself the destination.

April 25 — Day 4

The wind has declined somewhat. Yesterday around sunset it nearly died. The jib started flapping and wrapped around the mast steps — ripped my sewing to shreds. I hope there's a sail loft in Papeete.

On that subject I have noticed the wind frequently declines around sunset (if blowing from the East) and I have a theory about it. When the sun is on the horizon, my boat is between a cooling air mass to the East (where the sun has just set) and a still-warm air mass to the West. The air mass to the East starts cooling and contracting just like a little low-pressure region. This effect reduces the wind velocity for about an hour around sunset, then the wind builds up again.

Naturally I expect a reverse effect at dawn, and in fact I remember while sailing from Hawaii being regularly awakened by a sudden increase in wind as the sun made its appearance.

The radar quit again. I think it responds to both low voltage and high temperature. The company that made it should be ashamed of themselves. I resisted the temptation to drill some holes in the case for ventilation, realizing that would also let moisture into the works. The cure might be worse than the disease.

I have been talking to other boats on this route every day. We compare notes about wind and weather. Some are people I met in the Marquesas and are headed where I am.

This sail has been beautiful. The weather has been mild and consistent, very few clouds, easy seas. I'm not pumping gallons of water out of the bilge every morning. The smooth conditions probably explain why I am not in a grand funk about my shredded jib, which, by the way, sails much better than it looks.

I expect to reach Manihi Atoll sometime late tonight, not a good arrival time. I will either heave to (stay in place on the sea) or anchor outside the reef until morning. I've been told the water there is clear and the diving is great.

I have been thinking lately about the rapid entropy of sailboats, the rate at which everything decays. For me that offers a bigger contrast than most sailors, because I write computer programs. Computer programs get better with time (up to a point, anyway) and don't decay at all because the machine regenerates them electronically. Once you write a worthwhile bit of code you can set it aside and it will always be there, just as you left it. You can use endless copies of it in different programs. Each copy will work perfectly, assuming the original did.

So programming attracts me intellectually because a program is like a good joke: it keeps working, so I keep using it. It attracts me emotionally because it tells a tale of immortality: little functional elements that do the same thing forever. Many years after their purpose has come to seem silly, they spring to life with the same spare tenacity, making the same inquiries, cranking out the same responses.

I want to adjust to the sailboat reality, but not give in entirely. I favor it because I live in a body that is more like a sailboat than a computer. I disfavor it because it confronts the idealism of the well-crafted program.

I don't want to give up the passion of the all-night programming session, so I won't paint my entire world with sailboat pragmatism. I don't want to suffer unnecessary agonies either, so I won't apply a meticulous, infinitely patient work style to this boat. A perfect example is my sewing the jib for six hours in Nuku Hiva. It was a great job of hand-stitching, but it all ripped out in five minutes yesterday when the wind changed. I should have looked at the jib in all its raggedness and resolved to do something about it later — much later.

May 14 — Rangiroa Atoll

For the last two weeks I've been having great adventures among the Tuamotus, and meeting new people.

At Manihi Atoll I met a Canadian family that built their own boat out of wood from their own land — they sail with no fancy equipment. They have a sounding line to measure depth, and they reduce their sextant sights with pencil and paper. They are also very likable people.

But first things first. I entered Manihi Atoll early in the day, after looking at the pass through binoculars for a while.

A digression. The best time to enter an atoll is about noontime (so you can see the coral clearly), at high tide (maximum depth) and slack water (so you aren't being sucked onto the rocks by a strong current). On a given day you try to choose a time when at least some of these conditions exist. But I was tired — I didn't want to wait until noontime, or find out when slack water was. I wanted to have breakfast and take a nap.

Typical scene inside a coral lagoon
The first part of the pass was well marked and deep — 70 feet. But the far side opened out very wide, no markings, very shallow, incoming current very fast (because I didn't wait for slack water). So I had to choose to go to port or starboard around a marked obstacle in the middle of the pass — on the port side the water was broken up into ripples and mini-whitecaps, on starboard the water was smooth. I thought, "If this was a river the smooth part would be the deep water." So I decided it was deeper on the starboard. Wrong. Before I knew what was happening I was in four feet of water. A coral head scraped some paint off the port side of my keel.

Fortunately I bought a boat with a full keel and keel-hung rudder, so I only scratched my bottom paint. So I list safe grounding on coral among my boat's advantages. There are some things I dislike about it, such as its tendency to let water in too many places — but it tolerates stupidity rather well.

Also my conversations with other boat owners make me realize I didn't spend very much for it. I have been aboard a number of boats that were bargain-priced at a quarter million. I have also seen some boats that had no business being sailed across the ocean.

One such boat is anchored here in Rangiroa — because the atoll surrounds the anchorage, the waves are tiny. But the boat, a Cal 40, rolled fiercely and perpetually. It is simply too light for its size, and it has a nearly round bottom to achieve high downwind speeds — so it rolls in the slightest swell. It was awful being on it in this protected anchorage, so I found it difficult to imagine sailing it across the ocean.

So my experiences in the Tuamotus are reassuring me about my choice of boat. One author thinks a full-keel boat like this is essential for operations near coral reefs.

Rangiroa is my third atoll, after Manihi and Ahe. The local people at Ahe were friendly — they held several feasts while I was there. Some of the boat people and I played music on various instruments, and the local people played also. The atoll closely resembled the mental picture most people have of a tropical paradise. I spent a day walking from motu to motu, wading through tide pools, drinking out of coconuts and pretending to be an island explorer.

Playing music at Ahe Atoll, author at center
But Rangiroa is the best. The water is much clearer here, and there are fish everywhere. I joined another boat and we decided to cross over to the less-traveled South side. We spent three days diving with Hawaiian reef spears (a kind of pole with a rubber sling attached) spearing big, slow fish called "groupers" and having fish dinners in the evenings. Since I can hold my breath for a long time I ended up being the hotshot fisherman.

I also decided to practice old-style sailing. Since I was inside an atoll I raised anchor, sailed to the South side, and reanchored without using the engine at all. I have always wanted to do that — I tried it a couple of times in Hawaii but the wind would die at some point and I would have to motor. So I made the entire round trip without engine power. I felt like a real sailor. I am sure this arrogance will evaporate, but it was a momentary sense of achievement.

I am somewhat tough on myself, so when something goes right like this, I come up with a justification for humility. In this case it's easy — having a motor on a sailboat is an incredible luxury. People have been sailing at the mercy of the wind for millennia, and many still do. But then I did it single-handed. On the other hand, Joshua Slocum sailed all the way around the world single-handed, without a motor or any electronic gadgets to help him. Oh well.

Tomorrow I leave for Papeete. I have a long list of repairs and purchases, including rebuilding the genoa and buying a new outboard motor. My outboard sounds like a robot complaining about taxes.

May 16 — Enroute to Papeete — My Birthday

This is the second consecutive year I've had my birthday while underway. Last year at this time I was on my way to Hawaii, feeling rather blissful in my first trade wind sail.

Somebody ought to collect boat stories and print them in a scholarly journal. I keep hearing new ones, the majority having as their theme the corrosive effect boats have on relationships. It seems that boats eat relationships faster than salt water eats boats.

Here's an example of such a story. I am using this example not because I think it's true, but because it's typical — it doesn't describe actual events as much as reveal the attitudes of the people who tell the story. Even if it's true, this story gets retold for reasons other than truth.

It goes like this: A man and a woman plan a voyage. They go out for practice sails and everything is peachy keen. The big day arrives and they set sail for parts unknown. But just when they are nearly out of sight of land, the woman goes into some sort of trance, jumps overboard and starts swimming toward the disappearing land mass.

She is plucked out of the sea and the departure is aborted. After lengthy conversations and debriefing, they decide it was all a fluke brought on by anxiety, and everything is all right. They set out again, and she jumps overboard again.

This story has a big serving of one of the major themes of sailing stories — how women aren't cut out for a life at sea, how women can't confront their anxiety about it, etc.

The sea story that makes women look foolish is just one element of sailboat politics. The most important element is that most boat owners are men — and not just any men, but very often men who want to be captain of something, anything. If women's increasing status makes you anxious, you can always buy a sailboat and set sail for the 19th century.

Based on my conversations with sailing women, I think it is generally true that women can't think of anything they would rather do than sail the South Pacific, and they are already accustomed to dealing with male behavior, so they sign on with a boat owned by a man. But some of these women are unprepared for the combination of close quarters, isolation, and the streak of arrogance that commanding a vessel brings out in men. It's sort of like taking your favorite radio into a closet and turning the volume all the way up.

For balance I have to report that I meet many women who are out here because they want men to order them about — who knew exactly what they were signing up for.

There's an advertisement in the boat magazines for a sailing school run by women, for women. They say "No yelling!" I hear they are doing well. If no yelling is taken as a sign of a well-run boat, I would flunk. I sail alone and I yell at myself regularly. Someone who yells at himself can't be expected to resist yelling at someone else.

As I visit anchorages I envy those with companionship. I confessed that to a woman visitor, who quickly told me I was the subject of great jealousy among the men I know — I was sailing solo, I could do as I pleased, no crew disagreements. Apparently many sailors regard solo sailing as the only true form. I hadn't thought of that.

I have made some friends among the boats, which after all are moving toward the same destinations at roughly the same speed. Part of the reason is that I fix broken things — in some instances very important things like satnavs and radios. Another reason is I don't engage in threatening behavior, like focus my attention solely on women. And I make good conversation.

I just realized I have visited about 20 boats and I'm the only solo sailor. Of course, I could make a similar remark about the town I come from — apart from me almost none of my friends voluntarily lives alone.

Since it's my birthday I'm thinking about larger time scales. What will happen to me? Will I have better relationships in the future than the past? Or have I become a sugar daddy forever, doomed to endless frustration at the hands of people who just want money? Is this sailing adventure just one part of a future in which I am no longer a solo voyager? Or will I stay a single hander in life as well as sailing?

Who knows? Who cares?

Ah. I can just make out Tahiti on the horizon. I should be ashore tonight. I think I'll announce it's my birthday and shame someone into taking me out.

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