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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 5 — Tahiti to Darwin

June 20 — Day 2, Bora Bora to Tonga

Tahitian landscape
This is the second day out from Bora Bora. I spent about a month in French Polynesia, equally divided between Papeete, Moorea and Bora Bora. Papeete was awful, but I needed to get supplies and mail so I had no choice about the time spent there.

I have an amazing anchor story that happened to me in Papeete. After you read it you won't believe it happened, but it did — honest.

To moor in Papeete you drop an anchor some distance out, then back up toward shore and throw out a couple of lines — they call this "Tahiti Style." It's not easy to accomplish while single-handed, and when the boats are packed together it's a work of art.

When I arrived in Papeete it was a windy afternoon — I decided to wait for morning to try the Tahiti-style mooring, so I just dropped my anchor in the middle of the bay and rowed the dinghy ashore. The next morning there was no wind at all, so I got ready. I neatly coiled two shore lines, placed them strategically in the cockpit, and tied the dinghy alongside so it would be available but not tangle in the propeller. The boats were close together so I couldn't afford to be sloppy. I planned my every move.

I chose a place for the anchor, dropped it, and swung around so my stern was toward shore. I gently motored into position and put the throttle in neutral. Now the hard part: I had to get two lines ashore before I drifted sideways and hit another boat. So I got in the dinghy and rowed one of the lines ashore, tied up the dinghy, jumped ashore and tied the line. Then I went back to the dinghy, untied it, and rowed out to the boat for the next line.

Now I had an audience, since one rarely tries to do all this stuff alone. I took the second line and rowed ashore. About ten feet from shore, the line grew tight. So I was either too far from shore or I just didn't choose a long enough line. But maybe, thought I, the line is just tangled or hung up on something. I'll give another pull and break it loose. So I gave another tug on the oars.

What happened next defies belief, and a Hollywood special effects team would have charged a lot to make it happen. What I didn't realize is the line was wrapped around the throttle lever, and when I tugged on the oars the line pulled the throttle into the full-reverse position. My boat's engine came to life in a blast of noise and black smoke, suddenly and purposefully heading toward shore. I couldn't believe my eyes. My sixteen thousand pound, unoccupied sailboat was backing up, full throttle, toward a pile of rocks. This gives "solo sailing" a whole new meaning.

I was sitting in a rowing dinghy, about 100 feet away, trying to absorb what was happening. Before I could get the dinghy turned around and row back, the boat raced toward certain destruction on the rocks — and then stopped, drawn up short by the anchor. Unable to destroy itself against the pilings, the boat consoled itself by chewing up the lines. It took about an hour of diving to unravel the tangle of lines, which the propeller had efficiently twisted into a ball during about 15 seconds at full throttle.

I don't know whether I am becoming a better sailor with experience, but my anchor stories are certainly becoming more baroque. Ah, for the good old days when the anchor would hang under some coral, requiring an extra 30 seconds of effort to pull free and sail off into the sunset.

Theft was a big problem in French Polynesia. Anything that wasn't bolted to the sidewalk was stolen. I hardly got to ride my bike because something would be stolen from it at the slightest opportunity. By the time I left it was mostly replacement parts. It still can't be ridden because the seat was stolen on Bora Bora.

Chain is commonly used on dinghies to discourage theft. The chain joins the dinghy, the motor, and a solid part of the dock. One thief was so angered by this method that he destroyed someone's motor and dinghy with a blunt instrument.

Moorea and Bora Bora were beautiful, as expected, but the constant thefts and the risk of mosquito-borne Dengue Fever meant fewer explorations of the land than I would have liked.

I got a chance to use my hotshot Hawaii-style wind surfing board when the wind blew hard at Bora Bora. It was a fast ride in a pretty place.

My tiny 1 1/2 horsepower Evinrude outboard died shortly before I got to Tahiti, so I replaced it with a 4 horsepower Mariner. I noticed nearly everyone had a Mariner in spite of stores filled with other brands, so I took this as a sign. It's a good engine. I can plane my 8-foot inflatable with it (meaning ride on instead of in the water), but only if I am alone in the dinghy and I hold my tongue right.

I couldn't get replacement parts on Papeete, and there are some things I need, like a new anchor windlass. Tahiti is the last South Pacific island you can sail back to Hawaii from, so I realized I was at a crucial turning point: if I sailed West I was committed to go at least as far as Australia. I decided I could raise my anchor by hand for a while — I decided to sail.

Taking a sextant sight while underway
But yesterday, the first day out from Bora Bora, I discovered things were worse than I had realized. I tried to get an afternoon fix only to find out my satnav is dead. I am practicing sextant sights with a sense of purpose — it's now my only navigation method, and the water between here and Tonga is chock full of islands and reefs that I have to avoid. Fiji is the closest island with a large city and possible marine supplies, and Fiji is a long way off.

Even though shopping in Tahiti was frustrating, I found some useful products that I doubt even exist in the stores at home. One is a cheese from New Zealand that they wrap in foil, so it has a good long shelf life without refrigeration. Another is whole milk in powder form. At home only skim milk comes this way. But there weren't any big cans of chicken soup, one of my staples.

I am sailing in the company of another boat that I met in the Tuamotus. The boat is "Take Two," and the crew is Bob, an American man who lives in Germany, and his wife Ursula, whom he met in Germany. Bob writes computer software and Ursula teaches high school mathematics. Bob and Ursula plan to sail around South Africa and I am thinking about the Mediterranean route, so we'll have to split up sometime in August. We talk on the radio every day while sailing, and have shared some anchorages. We are about 30 miles apart right now, too far for the short-range VHF marine radio but an easy contact on our middle band "HF" radios.

Today the relative wind is varying from 30 to 60 degrees aft of the port beam. I have the jib poled out on the port side, main to starboard, and staysail tightly sheeted on center to reduce the rolling motion for which downwind sailing is notorious.

June 21 — Day 3

The wind is shifting to Southerly, so it's almost a beam reach. My average speed is close to 6 knots. Normally I compare two satnav readings to find out what my true speed is, but the errors in the sextant readings are greater than for the satnav, making it hard to find my exact speed and course.

But my confidence in my sextant skills is increasing. I took four sun sights yesterday and computed all combinations of them as a test — the greatest difference between any two was only ten miles. Then in the evening I took some star sights and these also seemed consistent. So, although I won't know where I am with the precision of the satnav, at least I can get to Tonga safely.

I make sextant sights in a rather high-tech way. Rather than use a wristwatch to note the time of the observations (not easy when you're working alone), I attach a push-button to my computer. When I want to mark the time of an observation I press the button and the computer records the time. Later I list the times and the star angles and feed them into a sextant program I wrote. The program does all the calculations and tells me where I am.

If only I had been willing to buy a proper sextant. My plastic sextant goes out of adjustment too easily for accurate observations. Now that I'm entirely dependent on the sextant I naturally daydream about a fancy metal one that "real sailors" own.

I am glad to be underway again. I find my attitude toward sailing to an island and getting there is being changed by experience. If this trend continues I may just sail and avoid getting anywhere.

June 23 — Day 5

The day before yesterday I killed the batteries by running the radar all night. There wasn't enough wind for the windmill to make up the power used by the radar, and by morning the batteries were in a very sad state. I couldn't start the engine to recharge them — they were too flat for that. So I ran the Honda generator until I could use the batteries to start the main engine. After adding distilled water to the poor batteries, I decided I'll have to give up using the power-hungry radar as an all-night watchman. Instead I will have to wake up at intervals during the night and take a look around, just like a normal solo sailor. Or maybe I'll take to sleeping in the daytime, since the risk of a collision is less then. And I think it's time to shop for better batteries, after which I may be able to resume my decadent ways.

I'm feeling confident that I can use even this plastic sextant to find my way across the ocean. I have been taking two sun sights during daylight and some star sights in the evening. The positions have become so consistent that I actually think I know where I am. This is a tale that can only be told by a modern sailor, who used satellite fixes before the old-fashioned method.

I'm glad I took the time to write my sextant computer program. It's quite accurate, and has some features like listing the navigation stars that are visible at a particular time and place. When I get to Suva I think I'll try to acquire a better sextant. I am more likely to find a good sextant than a replacement satnav, but I'll buy both if I can. And some better batteries. As you can see, I am imagining Suva will be a shopper's paradise, just as I did with Papeete. This particular learning curve is taking a long time.

This crossing has been very enjoyable so far. The wind has been favorable, speeds high, and I get to talk to my friends every day. We are comparing positions as we go. "Take Two" is a modern, lightweight German-built racing boat with a longer waterline than mine, but they haven't been able to catch up — mostly because their boat becomes too uncomfortable during high speeds and rough conditions. So to avoid seasickness they reduce their speed.

June 24 — Day 6

The wind has really picked up. There's a high pressure cell to the Southwest that's greatly increasing the wind force. It started yesterday and by nightfall the electronic tiller mount had broken twice (because of big waves). I just fixed it and sailed on. But about 10 PM it broke again so I changed over to the wind vane. The wind vane on this boat doesn't track very well, when it works at all — I had to slow down to 4 1/2 knots so it wouldn't wander excessively. I fixed the tiller mount again this morning, but this time I used better hardware. I think it'll hold up now.

I was afraid I wasn't going to get a position today — it was cloudy at dawn. But eventually there were some breaks, the sun peeked through and I took some sights. I was near Palmerston Island and I wanted to be sure I didn't bang into it. Even though it was very rough and the sun was only partly visible, the sights agreed with each other reasonably well. I'm starting to believe the sextant positions.

I felt discouraged yesterday but today my confidence is back. Not being able to steer the boat in a straight line sort of takes it out of me. Also I haven't been getting regular sleep for a couple of days now.

Two days ago I was worried about discharging my batteries by running the radar all night. Now, because of the high wind, my windmill is putting out too much power. I have to remember to turn the radar on to keep the batteries from overcharging. Pretty ridiculous.

June 27 — Day 9

Repairing the whisker pole in the cabin
Yesterday I wanted to give up and go home. It happened after I broke the whisker pole. I hadn't had a decent night's sleep in three days, very rough weather and gusty winds, satnav broken and weather overcast so I couldn't get a fix with the sextant, two sails need repair, then the whisker pole collapsed. It was one of those days.

Now where I go and what I do depend on what I can buy in Fiji. If I can't find a satnav or a whisker pole it's going to be hard to go on. Torres Strait, North of Australia, is a difficult place to navigate when you know exactly where you are, but if there should be overcast weather and no satnav I will probably end up crashing into something.

Also during this crossing I've realized that I can't use the radar on nights when the wind isn't blowing hard. Better batteries would help alleviate that problem.

My growing shopping list is a lot to expect from a South Pacific outpost, especially after my experience in Papeete. But this time it decides whether I go on. An alternative is to sail to New Zealand, where I can certainly find boat parts. But I want to stay with the present plan and timetable to avoid the bad part of the year in the Indian Ocean. If I sail to New Zealand and then continue from there, it will add a year to the voyage time.

Meanwhile I've been thinking how pleasant it'll be to visit the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. So when I've had some sleep and the sun comes out I still am enthusiastic about this voyage.

I cross the International Date Line sometime tomorrow. My friends on "Take Two" and I plan a long-distance party to celebrate the crossing. "Take Two" has suffered some damage during this passage. The wind has been high and the sea rough — waves have knocked them down several times. During one knockdown some stanchions were bent and their stove came out of its mountings. They report their ride is uncomfortable and noisy. Ursula was seasick for the first three days.

July 28 — Notes on Fiji

My friend Ursula in Fiji
I have been in Fiji since July 12. I like this place — the people are friendly and interesting, the outlying islands are very pretty. And it's likely I can get most of the equipment I need.

The two main ethnic groups are Indian and Fijian. The Indians own the shops and hold most of the middle-level bureaucratic posts in the government, while the Fijians hold the lower-paying jobs in Suva and are almost the only occupants of the outer islands. In a recent coup, a group of native Fijians wrestled the top governmental post, and basic control, from the Indians. Because the coup happened in Fiji, there were no casualties — just some roadblocks and days of confusion. The Indians tell me they were in panic at first and many left the country, but that stage is over and some emigrants are returning.

I would have liked to visit the outer islands for a longer time, but the task of re-equipping my boat is taking all my attention. Some essential items are coming from the States after considerable confusion about whether they could be gotten at all.

But before I realized I would have to baby-sit my order full-time, I visited Astrolabe Reef, also called Kadavu. I had been given some medicine to deliver to the village of Vambia on Ono island. A doctor on board another yacht had visited the village, examined two little girls afflicted with scabies, and acquired the remedy when he was back in Suva. He asked me to deliver the medicine.

On the day of my visit I heard by radio that my equipment order had come unraveled, so I was, to say the least, preoccupied with getting back to Suva. But I had promised to deliver the medicine, and I was only two hour's sail away from the village.

Vambia is a very pretty village, even in the context of Fiji, where ordinary things seem unreasonably beautiful. Nearly everyone has a garden. In the center of the village is a large courtyard of grass, surrounded by gardens. According to custom I was presented to the village chief, and I presented an offering of Yaqona, the root used to make Kava, a remotely intoxicating ceremonial drink.

The chief of Vambia is a woman. At great risk of categorical stereotyping, I immediately jumped to the conclusion that a connection existed between the beauty and orderliness of the village and the sex of the chief. For that I deserve to be flayed within an inch of my future income potential by a group of outraged feminists, if any could be located.

In 1979 a violent hurricane struck Fiji — the death toll for this one village was 23, all but one of whom were killed when the church, in which they had taken refuge, collapsed on them. When I heard this I thought to myself how prosaic that the most dangerous place in the village was the church, as true during a hurricane as any other time.

But this thought only reveals my urban cynicism, my colorfast polyester incapacity to see the value of religion in traditional cultures. In any case, even I was impressed by the aftermath of the tragedy — with the help of a clever architect the village built a new church, hurricane-proof and structurally beautiful as well. A roughly cylindrical inner chamber is surrounded by radial supports of cinder block, which give the structure the overall aspect of a crouching marine animal.

As I gazed with wonder on this excellent building, I thought to myself: If there was a hurricane, if coconuts and pieces of roofing tin were flying through the air at 100 miles per hour, would I take shelter in the church? Once inside, would I hold my nose? Plug my ears? Grab a hymnal and try to appear inconspicuous?

I then met Skelly, the man whose daughters were to receive the medicine. When I saw the advanced stage of scabies from which they suffered, all doubt about the need for the visit evaporated. Then Skelly invited me to lunch in his house. During my visit I played my recorder (a medieval flute) to the delight of what seemed two-thirds of those under eighteen, who gathered around the house in curiosity.

For lunch we had fish spiced with curry, a kind of unleavened cake like a Spanish tortilla, and cassava, a somewhat bread like fruit. Naturally, surrounded by an environment indistinguishable from paradise and pleasant, hospitable people, all I could think about was that I had to go back to the "big city" and try again to order things I need to safely sail to Australia. So I said my good-byes and departed in the afternoon for Suva.

August 22 — Day 8 of the passage from Fiji to Darwin

After delays and foulups too numerous and baroque to mention, the equipment I ordered arrived on August 14, just one day shy of the day I had decided would be absolutely too long to be in Suva. Bob and Ursula had waited also, because they had some items arriving with my order. So we spent that day getting the equipment away from customs and installing it.

After I ordered my equipment I thought I would have a normal visit in Fiji, sail around, visit interesting places. Well, apart from having to re-order out-of-stock things and generally baby-sit the order through to Suva, I really couldn't safely travel around without an anchor windlass, one of the broken items. After the windlass broke down I started using my lightweight anchor, since I had to raise it by hand. As it turned out, this wasn't such a great idea.

One afternoon I met Take Two on the East side of an island in the Kandavu group, South of Suva. They had anchored there because the wind was blowing from the Southwest, an abnormal direction. I didn't like the place. I worried that the wind would change to normal Easterly trades again, putting us on a lee shore. So I anchored well out from shore, in 50 feet of water, and I used the light hook. The rest of the boats were in 20 feet of water, close to shore. Oh well, said I. They all have extra hands on board, electric anchor windlasses, all that stuff. If the wind changes I have to raise the hook and motor off by myself. But I'm just preparing for a remote possibility.

In the next four hours — after dark, naturally — the wind changed from 12 knots Southwest to 30 knots Southeast. One by one, the boats raised their hooks and left. But I couldn't leave — there was no way I could raise my hook by hand, out of 50 feet of water, in a 30 knot wind, alone. In an emergency I would have to cut the line and motor off.

Then I started getting paranoid. I watched the anchor rode bouncing around, thinking how quickly I would be on the rocks if the rope parted, say, by rubbing on some coral. I knew I wouldn't be able to sleep unless I dropped the heavy hook — even though the water was 50 feet deep, even though I would have to raise it by hand later. So I dropped the heavy hook and a lot of chain, and went to sleep.

An hour later the boat turned sideways for a moment as (yes, you guessed it) the rope rode chafed through on a coral head. Then the second hook caught and stopped the boat. The next morning I had to dive to retrieve the light anchor, re-splice its rode, then raise the all-chain anchor to depart.

That's why I spent most of my time in Suva: my boat wasn't safe until the equipment arrived, and the equipment didn't arrive until it was time to leave. Ideally I would carry a spare of every critical item on board, if that was possible on a 31-foot boat.

But the real shock came when I ordered five items from the catalog of a large West-coast marine supply house and they didn't have any of them in stock. Not one. Finally I expressed my order this way: "please send any satnav, any manual anchor windlass ..." and so forth. Their slick, brightly colored catalog was a fairy tale.

I bought the sextant from a small shop in Suva, after the disaster described above made me realize mail-order and mail-delivery are separate events, not necessarily causally related. This is a real sextant, made out of metal, with a little telescope mounted on it. When you take a sight of the sun, you can make out sunspots. During my first few days on this passage I tested it on morning and afternoon sun sights. Then I compared the result with the satnav — one calm day there was less than one nautical mile of difference.

I ordered the Heart Inverter because the Honda generator finally and quite literally dissolved in salt water, leaving me with no way to run power tools and my little vacuum cleaner. Vacuum cleaner, you say — isn't that just a little trendy, sailing around the world with a vacuum cleaner? All I can say is, try to pick little pieces of glass out of the tiny cracks in the cabin floor, so they won't later magically migrate into the soles of your feet. I always seem to miss a handful of slivers even with a vacuum cleaner, and they always find me later.

A word to the wise: avoid glass, any glass, on a sailboat. On an ocean voyage the sturdiest glass containers end up being plucked out of elbows and knees.

I guess that's enough about equipment. After five days of nice sailing Ursula called on the radio to say that a gale was headed my way. What? A gale, in August in the South Pacific, near the equator? I looked at the regional weather chart: zero chance of gales in this area, at this time of year. So I thought maybe the meteorologists were being cautious, maybe they meant a gale was possible, not probable. But I made some preparations anyway.

The predicted wind velocity was 50 knots. In the Beaufort scale of wind velocities, that's Force 10 or "Storm." "Storm" is listed above "Gale" and "Strong Gale." During the next 24 hours the highest velocity I was willing to sit in the cockpit and observe on my wind meter was 45 knots, but I assure you, gentle reader, it was a storm. The rain moved horizontally through the air and hurt you when it hit. Dead birds floated in the water. The tops of waves blew off and flew through the air. The sea and air moaned out loud.

The cabin was a carnival of dislodged books, clothing, tools, all moving, all wet. And I realized I had to go upwind, to avoid an island that was about 20 miles to leeward. So I went out on deck to double-reef the main and put up my storm jib, a tiny sail for high winds.

A wave nearly swept me overboard as I installed the storm jib. The storm jib rides on the staysail wire, located nearly on the bow, a very unstable place in rough conditions. I wore a safety harness, which is attached to lines that run the full length of the deck on both sides. In storm conditions you try to do your work with one hand while holding onto the boat with the other, while also looking out for waves. I was playing with one of the copper hanks on the jib, trying to work it free and attach it. I had tested the hanks in the safety of the cabin, using a plier on those that had gotten stiff, but I managed to miss this one. But I think I can — wham!

The breaking sea pulled my hand from the shroud with an authority that had to be experienced to be believed. For an instant I saw the harness and the deck line stretched tight, as a wall of water tried to push me off the opposite side of the boat. It was sort of like falling and hitting a frothy sea, except the water came to me.

Later, in the cabin, I asked myself some questions. Was I being foolhardy going out on deck at the height of the storm? But I had to put the storm jib in service to move upwind, or, to be more precise in these conditions, not to go downwind. My highest priority was to stay clear of the island behind me, so I had to go on deck as soon as the wind became too much for the existing sails. I wore my safety harness in the prescribed way (attached to the upwind side of the boat). Of course, I wasn't planning a full-on harness test just then.

The next day the wind blew at 30 knots from the same direction (the direction I wanted to go). The following day saw lighter winds, same direction. Today the wind is finally turning to the South, and I am again moving West. The three days of contrary winds quite literally make this passage three days longer, since I hardly moved West at all.

I have just heard that the sea swept a man off his yacht during the storm. He had a wife and children aboard, but they were unable to rescue him. His wife is guiding their boat back to Fiji by means of radio instructions. I have been thinking about that incident — was he wearing a harness? Did he teach his family how to turn the boat around to recover him? It seems the answer is no to both.

August 30 — Day 16 of the passage from Fiji to Darwin

Today I am sailing near 13 deg South, 150 deg East, between Australia and Papua New Guinea. In about three days I will pass through Torres Strait, an interesting, shallow, confined passage first negotiated by Captain Bligh of HMS Bounty. I mean the first European, you know, the only important people, to hear Europeans tell it.

This passage began with no wind, and I had to motor for the first 12 hours. Then a storm, about which enough has been said already. Now classic trade winds have taken over, about 15-20 knots. I have my sails rigged wing-and-wing, mainsail on the port side, jib poled out on starboard. I have arranged my staysail, the small third sail on a cutter rig, to close the gap between the other two sails.

There have been almost no equipment problems on this passage. One problem that came up concerned the little electric motor that moves the tiller on the auto pilot. One night the auto pilot started beeping an alarm — on investigation it turned out the tiny brushes inside the little electric motor were almost completely worn away, so that they only sometimes touched the armature. As a temporary measure I twisted their mounts to get a last little bit of service time. For a while after the repair I thought the motor would fail again right away, there being only a microscopic amount of brush metal left. But I'm still on course four days later.

Apart from adding replacement electric motors to my shopping list for Darwin, I have been thinking about how this big boat is being guided across the ocean by a little electric motor, not very technically sophisticated, not very costly. When I am sleeping, a black box is sensing the earth's magnetic field and moving the tiller back and forth, by way of this little motor.

Of course, a well-designed wind-vane steering system is more philosophically appealing — I could have a complete electrical failure and the boat would still make its way to port. All I would have to do is adjust the vane for changes in the wind. It's totally organic, as they say in California — the wind pushes a vane back and forth, and an ingenious scheme of rods and levers amplifies this small natural force to steer the entire boat, so that the vane stays in the position chosen by the operator, and the boat keeps the same angle to the wind. I actually have a wind vane on this boat, but in describing its operation the words "ingenious scheme" must sadly be left out. The company that built it offered a refund to anyone not satisfied with its operation. By the time people began demanding payment, the company had gone out of business.

When I first sailed this boat, I marveled at the wind vane's ability to hold the boat at exactly 50 degrees off the wind, a desirable point of sail called a close reach. What I didn't realize at the time was I could have gotten the same result by simply tying the tiller down with a piece of line — this boat, most boats, are very efficient at guiding themselves on a close reach. My wind vane wasn't really doing anything, the one thing it does well. But there are much better wind vanes than this one, and someday I am going to have one.

Now that I have compared the simple, elegant wind vane with my electronic contrivance whose little motor might fail any time, I think it only fair to point out that Bob and Ursula on Take Two have switched from their decent wind vane to an auto pilot like mine. During this voyage I had been steadily gaining on them, about ten miles per day, even though their boat is unquestionably faster (because it weighs less and has a fin keel and spade rudder). Then they decided to try out their new electronic toy, freshly acquired in Fiji, and I am no longer gaining on them. The drawback to a wind vane is that when the wind changes direction, the boat does too. Now that their boat is moving in a straight line, their effective speed has gone up, and I can't close the gap between us.

This is classic trade wind sailing. If the temperature was much higher, squalls would be a constant risk, and as a single hander I would have to run under reduced sail, so as not to be caught unprepared by a sudden wind increase brought on by a squall. But temperatures are moderate, the wind blows at a constant speed all day, slightly stronger at night, so I can run plenty of sail.

I have decided to break one of the rules offered me by an old salt I met in Brookings, as I prepared for the Hawaii passage. "Never let out the last reef," he said. I usually obey this rule, since it would be very difficult to drag down the full mainsail and set the first reef if the wind was to suddenly come up. But there have been no significant wind changes or gusts for about 10 days now. So I am running all the canvas I have in an eight to twelve knot relative wind.

The approaching land masses of Australia and New Guinea are beginning to block some of the open-ocean swell, so the surface is becoming smoother over time.

Take Two and I are planning to stop overnight in Torres Strait and have a dinner before continuing to Darwin. In our daily radio contacts we have been debating whether to risk stopping in Sri Lanka during the Indian Ocean crossing. It is located perfectly to break the passage into manageable parts, but there is a civil war going on.

September 7 — Day 23 — Gulf of Carpentaria

Torres Strait was quite an experience, neither ocean sailing nor port — something in-between. The water was very shallow. One could, at least in principle, drop anchor at any time. Reefs and obstacles were everywhere, some "marked" with a ship gone aground.

A big fish that didn't get away
Bob and Ursula on Take Two contacted another German boat, "African Queen," on the radio, then we met them face to face in Torres Strait. We decided to try catching some fish, then get together for dinner. So I put out about 100 feet of rather heavy nylon fishing line and a plastic squid on a stainless steel leader with a little lead weight. I had previously used a shorter line, but Ursula told me she uses a longer line to keep the lure out of the boat's wake, making it easier for fish to see. Anyway, after I took this advice I barely got the line in the water when a big fish took hold. Ursula caught one about the same size, so there was plenty of fish for dinner.

We anchored near Twin Island, a bad anchorage, poorly sheltered from the wind and with a rocky bottom. The wind was strong, and had been so for several days. After dinner I suggested that everybody pile into Bob's dinghy and come to my boat to watch a movie. This idea caught on fast.

Now get this. After the movie, we were all standing in the cockpit getting our bearings when we realized "African Queen" was gone! I broke out the spotlight and we managed to locate her, about 1/4 mile downwind from where she had started. Fortunately there was shallow water for a great distance, so the anchor had caught firmly on something after a long drift. Since it was now blowing 30 knots and the current was running better than a knot, Bob wisely declined to try to dinghy over to African Queen — if the motor should fail or a wave swamp the dinghy, it would mean the loss of all on board.

So I decided to raise my anchor and deliver African Queen's crew to their boat, then deliver Take Two's crew to their boat. The first part of this plan went well, and African Queen's crew recovered her. Then I discovered I couldn't motor against the wind, something I should have foreseen. So I unrolled a small bit of jib and tacked back to the anchorage. It took a long time, but everybody got back to their boats.

African Queen then radioed they couldn't keep their anchor set. They explained they were using a Danforth, an anchor that doesn't work at all in rock. I persuaded them to throw out their small CQR, a hook that until then they had regarded with contempt. It caught and held them well — so well they broke their anchor windlass trying to raise it the next morning.

As we approached Torres Strait we heard from yet another German boat, sailing in the Gulf of Carpentaria, that a suspicious boat approached and closely followed them about nightfall. A freighter then appeared and the boat took off. So we all interpreted this as a thwarted attempt at piracy, and decided to sail as a group. Naturally I am the slowest boat, but no one wants to get too far away because I have a shotgun. Yesterday I tried to add some speed by going wing-and-wing using the new, big whisker pole. The whisker pole held up and I saw over six knots for about 30 exhilarating seconds, then the whisker pole mount broke. The mount is a stainless steel ring on the mast, which should be no problem to replace in port, but meanwhile I can't go very fast. I now have a list of about eight items to buy in Darwin, including another auto pilot.

The first time I limped into port after only three weeks at sea with a scarcely seaworthy boat, I believed that would be a rare event. The fact is every time I come into a port after more than a week underway, I have a list of purchases essential to leaving again. I guess that's a reality of cruising, and I may even be adjusting to it.

On the personal side, on these long passages I review the events of my life. Lately I've been thinking about times I have missed an opportunity to get to know a woman. I started this train of thought with the recent past, but soon I was reviewing events from 25 years ago.

Some of these missed opportunities arose from a lack of self-confidence — but, no, that doesn't put it strongly enough. Let me try again. I come from a family that was not only non-functional by conventional measures, but when the children went out into the world, some second-order effects took hold as well. The most important was a sense that we were guilty of some black deed, and eventually the thought police would discover this, take us outside, and shoot us.

So my brothers and sisters and I staggered into the real world with one priority: avoid being found out. We believed we could live among real people and enjoy some of the fruits of life in the West, while hiding our basic unworthiness, our black secret. We knew we could do it because our parents had done it.

What this meant for me personally was that if someone took notice of me, they would have to be explicit indeed to overcome my belief that I was unworthy of notice. I'm not saying I am now beyond this kind of self-doubt, but when I look back I see amazing situations in which a woman signals me to draw near, I am as oblivious as it is possible to be while still breathing, and she naturally feels rejected, or at best disregarded.

An example. I lived in a house in San Francisco with several other people, during the so-called Summer of Love. One evening a woman who lived in the house sat down with me over a cup of tea and explained that she was feeling very frustrated sexually, and thought it would be in her interest to strike up with a younger man. She was about 35, I was 22. I listened sympathetically, and offered suggestions. Oh, I was the perfect sympathetic friend, but for the life of me — why didn't I realize she was discreetly inviting me to get involved?

An earlier example. When I was 18 I fixed television sets for a living. I still lived in the neighborhood of my high school, renting a room from a family that took me in after my parents threw me out.

From time to time a young woman visited me in this household. She was the daughter of a teacher who had given me an I.Q. test several years before, with results that surprised the rest of the teachers. She may have been motivated more by fascination than anything else: here's this dropout with a high I.Q. — an overly bright, complete misfit. She and I would sit in the dark kitchen and talk about things. She was very pretty, I mean I would think so now, not just as an eighteen-year-old. And very smart.

My God, my God. I can hear my monotone even now, describing the inner workings of television sets. In retrospect I can't think of a more discouraging experience for a young woman. I could have suggested a date. I could have placed my hand on her shoulder and told her that I appreciated her visits, that her willingness to sit with me made me feel like a real person. I could have turned on the kitchen light and fixed her a cup of tea. Of course, to do any of these things I would have had to risk rejection, and (to hear me tell it at the time) rejection would have killed me.

In the "natural order of things," women are required to say "no" a whole lot, and if they are lucky a person they would choose chooses them, making any overt appeal unnecessary. I'm not saying I approve of this, I think it stinks — but I can see the reasoning. But it encourages the very behavior in men that it implicitly criticizes — we have to be outspoken to a silly degree to discover where we stand. A man who won't act aggressively toward women, no matter how appealing in principle, is doomed. I hate to say it, but I think it's true.

We are about four days from Darwin. Everybody is getting excited at the prospect of being in port after so long a passage. There's a lot of talk about restaurants and bookstores and repairs.

September 12 — Darwin

Ursula & Wallaby, near Darwin, Australia
On my arrival yesterday the Australians radioed me to drop my anchor offshore and wait for Immigration to come aboard. I don't really mind these delays, and besides I find it difficult coming ashore suddenly after 27 days at sea.

The immigration official was efficient, competent, poised — and a woman. I am not happy with the confession I am about to make, but I feel I must include it — to cast it out would be false. This young woman briskly fulfilled her responsibilities, making the relevant enquiries, placing items of intelligence in her forms — while I drank in her khaki uniform and practical shoes, and let her voice wash over me. I've always been a sucker for a woman in uniform.

In the same moment I loved her and hated myself. I've spent my life encouraging women to enter professions, ridiculing those who stay home, barefoot and pregnant. And yet here I was, confronted by a government official whose sole and genuine wish was to meet her responsibilities for Australian Immigration — and all I could think to do was slip downwind from her and breathe more deeply than usual, which I did. She was a no-nonsense professional, and she smelled great.

But I revealed nothing of my anguish, gave no sign or word. I can take shelter in this small achievement: I behaved respectfully. I didn't lean toward her, didn't touch her shiny dark hair. In that moment I became a foot soldier, moving through a landscape of desire, under orders to resist the sight of nature's perfect form.

I sat with my hands folded, responding to her enquiries, while something awakened and twisted inside me, something born at sea. Chemical messengers screamed in my ears, nearly drowning out reason. And as she rose to leave, I shook her hand, said "It's been a pleasure meeting you." It was an absurd understatement, but the words of a gentleman. Also a lie, for this woman has shown me something — the sea has made me part animal, and left me on a strange shore.

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