“What is this world if, full of care, we have no time to stop and stare”? My sister tells me that this poem by William Henry Davies was a favourite of my paternal grandfather. And it came to me on arrival to Hiva Oa, French Polynesia after 40 days at sea, when I told Salty’s skipper that I was going to get off the boat there.
I started this mission in October, to get to Australia from the UK without flying. The Pacific crossing was the part I was most looking forward to, with its thousands of islands so small and remote that they you can’t see them on the world map. French Polynesia alone is the size of Europe. Would I get a chance to see these places again? How could I truly absorb them, travelling across over just 8 weeks? Did I want to do it with this same crew that I had been with for 40 days, on the same boat and have that be the breadth of my experience? Not to mention that we were paying $15 a day in the knowledge that other crew were travelling for free. In the bay we were anchored were another thirty or so boats of different shapes and sizes that had arrived from Panama, Mexico, California and South America. Some of them even had dive tanks and compressors on board, a salivating prospect for the plethora of pristine dive sites that lay ahead.
We had just landed in the Marquesas, lush green volcanic islands populated by a proudly tattooed tribal people who were cannibals until surprisingly recently. The Tuomotus lay ahead of that, known as the Dangerous Archipelago, low lying atolls made up of thousands of tiny islands (“motus”) surrounded by perilously shallow and sharp coral reefs, with world-class shark-dense diving. Beyond that were the Society Islands, including the “Pearl of the Pacific” Bora Bora, middle aged volcanoes surrounded by lagoons made calm by a protective ring of coral reef on which thousands of years of organic material had composted to produce compact postcard paradises.
But for now I was in Hiva Oa, the first touch point after 40 days at sea. A French territory, it was a quaint French village community nestled in a rugged green-on-black forested volcanic wilderness. The post office was the only place with internet, baguettes were the only cheap thing to eat and everything closed for 2 hours over lunch and a half day on Friday. As a European citizen, I could stay indefinitely and even work there and settle down (ahem).
That first night there happened to be a bbq jam session at a shack on the indescribably beautiful headland overlooking the bay, the perfect place to scope out boats looking for crew. The first person I spoke to was a Danish chap called Chris and, fuelled by the first beers in 40 days, I flashed my random access memory into his face at about 40 words per second.
“Well you seem like a nice guy”, he said “I’m pretty sure you could come onto our boat”.
And so it was. They even had dive gear on board. The next morning my sore head awoke to Nick (crew of Jandamarra, another Australian boat we were friendly with) asking our skipper Geoff if he and his girlfriend could jump ship and join Salty. It seemed crew changes after 4,000 miles at sea were common. Now knowing that I would not be leaving Geoff in the lurch, I told him that I was going to jump ship too. I confirmed with Chris that the offer was not a drunken one and was sleeping on their boat the next evening.
However, all was not straightforward. The boat, Pelagos, had been taken out of the water due to rudder problems. They had thought it would be a quick fix, but it turned out the repairs would require parts to be shipped in and they would be out of the water for at least three weeks.
I remained optimistic. It wasn’t the worst place to be stuck.
I figured I would hang around, see if Pelagos got fixed, and absorb the Marquesan atmosphere and see if there were any catamarans with full diving gear and a crew spot going.
Meanwhile Harry, the third member of Salty’s crew, had also decided to leave, and he joined Jandamarra and sailed off to explore the Marquesan islands.
Three weeks passed as I lived on board Pelagos as it was propped up on land. Even though we had to climb down a ladder and dredge across the muddy boatyard to shower or go to the toilet, and inspect and change the cockroach traps daily, I made some good friends in Chris and Anders, and it was good to explore the island and decompress after such a long boat trip.
It was also enlightening to meet all the different types of people doing this sort of thing. Old couples, young couples, single-handers, lone wolves with crew… Most intriguing were the families. “Home” schooled, kids were not a barrier to their parents following this dream. More than that, every child sailor I met was confident, socially adept and intelligent, with exceptional cultural awareness and knowledge of the world. One six year old expertly switched between French and English as she chatted with a multicultural audience. The catamaran Tanda Malaika and its crew of four kids and two parents were to become a feature at many stops across French Polynesia. We sang, rapped and jammed on guitars and ukuleles and shared ice creams and crepes in Tahiti. Finishing each other’s sentences and interrupting each other without frustration, they were a hive mind. Various cruising parents told me of how the kids stop bickering when they get on a boat and turn into a crew. It struck me that taking your child on a cruise around the world is not a selfish act that endangers them, but a gift of quality time with family and a character changing developmental gift from the school of the world.
Then the news came that it would be yet another three weeks before Pelagos would be ready to sail. As alluring as the idea was of cruising a diving paradise with two young guys with diving gear (they were 20 and 21), it was time to cut my losses. I emailed John, skipper of Jandamarra, to see if he would still have me. Luckily he and Harry were keen and they sailed the 100 miles back against the wind to pick me up.
Jandamarra is named after an Aborigine warrior who led the resistance against the English. And this machine battles the south seas well. Just 4 foot longer than Salty, it* is nearly 50% faster, regularly touching 10 knots**. Geoff would agree that it was a significant upgrade – the most exciting element being that I now had my own toilet.
I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay on Jandamarra. John was a man of few words*** and I did worry about why his previous crew jumped off. We had a frank conversation in which I committed to crewing until Tahiti – sharing expenses like food and diesel but with no daily fee. After reprovisioning and a last drunken bbq, we set sail to Fatu Hiva’s Bay of Virgins.
I was back on the move again and it felt good.
* While it is conventional to refer to boats as feminine, I think this may be a patriarchal tradition we should eradicate. Have you noticed how although we have no gender for most nouns, we refer to things as female that “Man” can or seeks to control? It should only be allowed when impersonating a pirate.
** One of my father’s many casual strings to his bow is his qualification as a naval architect. He still remembers the formula for calculating the “hull speed” of a vessel based on its length and I am sure it is only a matter of time before this appears in the comments below.
*** For an Australian