What if I want to stay…?
If you had told me I’d be sitting in the cockpit in French Polynesia, snug in a sweatshirt and fleece blanket and cradling a cup of tea, I’d scarcely have believed a word from your lips. But here I am in Raivavae: faded sorority hoodie, blanket, tea. Thanks to a few leaves I found growing ambitiously along the roadside, my tea is a fresh, spirited mint. That helps cut the chill. For the record, ladies and gentlemen, the South Pacific is not all sultry bliss and balm. At 23° south, days are warm and evenings nip. I’m cold!Neil and I have just finished an afternoon matinee on a 12-inch laptop screen, the Book Thief, a film I quite enjoyed and that put my husband almost immediately to sleep. I crawl up the companionway to find cumulonimbus brush strokes in gray, pink, and yellow plastering the sky, and a veil of rain softening the glow of the waning afternoon sun. On the horizon, I spot the supply ship that was scheduled to arrive at dawn, nearly 12 hours ago. Tardy. Yet on time…on island time.
A holler rises in my throat. I want to alert the village that the supply ship, which only arrives twice per month, is just about to the pass through the reef! This is momentous – fresh eggs and produce from Tahiti 400 miles away! Wahoo!! Alas, we are at anchor and the only person in my immediate “village” is the man sound asleep behind the salon table. I’m sure someone ashore has seen the lights and is notifying our island-dwelling friends.
I forced myself from Raivavae; I could have stayed. The owner of the magasin in Rairu and his wife—who rinsed shells in plastic bottles of seawater and strung them on necklaces and taught elementary school, and whose daughters had skin the color of a hazelnut truffle with wondrous brown eyes—would have become our friends. I wondered what life on the island could be like… -Jessie
The amber glow of the sunset washes the sea in buttery caramel. A lone seabird glides with a hurried grace, wings outstretched as it soars through one wave trough to the next to the next. Even the upper columns of the squally clouds that threaten to overtake us from the east appear radiant.
The sky is busy, and we have every expectation that we’ll get a decent dousing at some point this evening. Fifty-five nautical miles until we reach the southernmost point of Tahiti Iti, Tahiti’s less-touristed southern sister.
This passage started out bumpy. The seas were lively, bucking even. The logbook reads, “3 meter seas at 10 seconds; churny + rolly.” The Pacific arched her back, bucking feistily and tossing us about until I nearly threw up. But the sea’s discontent and the breath of the sky propelled us forth at a good pace. We were sailing under full sail and making six knots. And then sharpness of the waves dulled and the skies were blue. The same water that felt course just hours before mellowed and became smooth, quickening our pace and tempering my gut.
Unfortunately, calming seas did nothing to ease our nerves regarding our increasing concerns about our batteries. Between Galapagos and Rapa Nui, we realized that our batteries were on the fritz and the passages between Rapa Nui and the Gambiers and the Gambiers and Raivavae made it all the more apparent. Even when the skies were not laden with lead, our solar panels could not buoy our failing batteries. We cranked our Honda 2000i generator every 4 to 6 hours. When the seas were heavy and rolling us about, we had to stabilize the generator with towels and fenders to ensure it didn’t tip over and kick off. We knew this wasn’t sustainable and could put us in a compromising position. We just had to hope the batteries we’d arranged to have shipped to Tahiti would actually be there when we arrived…Final hours
Winds were between 16 and 22 knots for the next 24 hours…we rode the trade winds promised in the tales that seafarers tell. And King Neptune sent us a skipjack tuna.
“Fairly uneventful watch. Saw 2 falling stars 😊 sailing deep 140° on starboard tack. Hoping to avoid upcoming sea mounts that rise to 3,400 and 1,700 feet, respectively from 14,000 feet. Don’t want pushed up seas! -Jessie, logbook
The craving I feel for familiar faces is almost overwhelming. Mark and Helen will be with us in a matter of a week, and we brim with excitement. We also expect to rendezvous with the Saritas, whom we first met in British Columbia, Canada, on our honeymoon, and then again in Mexico. Excited might be an understatement.By midmorning, we had sailed nearly the full length of the western coast of Tahiti. The breeze eased abruptly from 15 knots to 5 as we glided around the northwestern corner of the island and Red Thread quieted. And then we heard a soft tink, clink, ping! What had fallen on the cabin top? I peered around the dodger scanning for anything that looked awry and Neil went forward to investigate. “We’ve got to get the sail down NOW!” he urged. I pulled on my gloves in a flash and readied the lines to drop the main sail. “What has happened?”, I asked myself. Neil rushed aft and informed me that one of the screws that secures the boom vang connection plate to the mast had corroded out. When he inspected closer, he realized that half of them had been compromised by galvanic corrosion and all but fallen out. Shit.
We hurriedly dropped the main sail and turned on the engine, thankful to be just a few miles from Papeete and relieved that the screws had held during the passage. Identifying a weakness in our rig so close to a safe harbor after literally thousands of sea miles was grace from the Universe. We added yet another thing to the long list of fixes to be attended to before Mark and Helen arrived. We prepared our lines and fenders as we entered the harbor, ready to tie Red Thread to a dock for the first time in 132 days and nearly 6,000 nautical miles. Papeete was a proper city, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since Central America. No one we knew had ever heard of the Gambiers or Raivavae, but Tahiti is an island known around the world—shrouded in romantic stories and illustrated in tropical vacation brochures. She was before us; we were about to meet her.Passage perks
Point of departure: Rairu, Raivavae, Austral Islands of French Polynesia – 06/13/16
Point of arrival: Papeete, Tahiti, Society Islands of French Polynesia – 06/15/16
Distance traveled: 416 nautical miles
Total time: 2 days, 23 hours
Engine roaring: 4 hours
Sails soaring: 67 hours (94%)
Average speed: 5.9 knots
Jessie’s musings: My belly was a tangle of knots those first few hours. It’s funny how just a few weeks in a safe harbor can dull a sailor’s grit and stir anxiety. Every new passage is an opportunity to renew my fervor for the sea and to baptize my soul in a queasiness that—at moments—cripples me. I remember the gratitude I felt when we hauled in a massive skipjack tuna. Skipjack don’t always make our eyes sparkle. They’re the less delicious variety of the tuna family, after all. But she was our grandest thus far. Interestingly, she was more flavorful than other skipjacks we’d tasted. She rivaled any yellowfin we’d caught! Our initial grumbling that she was not a yellowfin was replaced by gratitude that she was exactly what she was…an animal gifted to us from King Neptune himself. An animal that would nourish our bodies for days.
Neil’s reflections: I was ready to move on from Raivavae and to get to warmer water for snorkeling and diving. I was also ready to see Mark and Helen, who are so much fun, and to finally get the problems with our batteries resolved. We left after several days of big storms had passed between Raivavae and Tahiti, and the passage was bumpy at first. Overall, though, it was a good passage. We caught a huge skipjack tuna!