When facing fear becomes a necessity

August 2016

Our pantry stocked with a few fresh vegetables, we slipped our mooring in Neiafu at one o’clock in the afternoon and wound our way peacefully through Vava’u’s mosaic of emerald islands under a sky speckled with cumulous clouds. The beauty of the Vava’u group is undeniable, and left no mystery as to why some cruisers looped from New Zealand year after year, basking in the treasure trove of protected anchorages.

The weather gods had urged our departure, beckoning us back to sea with promises of steady tradewinds to propel us westward. We still had many a mile between us and Australia and only so many months to cover them. Cyclone season has been slowly but steadily encroaching on the South Pacific cruising season in recent decades, one of a litany of symptoms pathognomonic of climate change (see Jimmy Cornell’s perspective on the subject). We were mindful not to tarry anywhere for too long.

The open ocean greeted us with upwards of 19 knots of beautiful wind from the southeast. The seas were a bit confused and as the only speckles of land for a thousand miles fell further astern, we found ourselves bouncing in 2- to 2.5-meter seas. Red Thread bucked forward gleefully on a course due west for Fiji at 6.5 knots.

Logbook 09.07.16 @ 12:10 am: Not a great start in terms of comfort, but at least we’ve kept up our speed.” –Neil

The combination of an animated sea and an unsettled tummy meant that my bunk time was not particularly restful. When Neil stirred me for my watch at 2:30 am, I was already exhausted. The first couple days of a passage are always the most challenging.

What a fiasco!
Twenty-four hours at sea, Neil was walking the deck conducting routine checks on the rigging when he noticed that one of our battens had torn through the luff of the mainsail halfway up the mast. We turned head to wind to reduce pressure on the sail and hurried to reef our in-boom system, such that we could remove the batten and avoid further damage. As we dropped the sail, we noticed another tear beneath the port sail number. There was no question what my boat project would be when we reached port. Thankfully, at least the fiasco occurred in daylight!

In our rush to tend to the sail, we had forgotten to reel in the dual handlines that run from Red Thread’s port and starboard stern cleats continuously from dawn until dusk. As luck would have it, when we fell off the wind after securing the sail, the lines wrapped around our propeller, creating what would be a likely disaster should we be need to fire up our engine and put the boat in gear. One of us would have to get wet.

We hove-to again.

“Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.”

Helen Keller

The good Captain donned his bravest face. Despite being born a water baby, the bottomless abyss of the open ocean shakes up Neil’s anxiety like nothing else. I, the cowardly desert rat from Utah who would be staying comfortably onboard, reassured him gallantly that he would slice away the lines in mere moments and that there was nothing to fear. We were in 2,500 meters (8,200 feet) of water and more than 250 nautical miles from land. Relative to coastal waters, there is comparatively little marine life out to sea. Still, I vowed to keep shark watch.

Fishing lines wrapped around our propeller.

Neil tugged on his snorkel, took a deep ragged breath, and held onto the swim ladder as he eased his body into the water. Using the boat hook, he managed to partially free the line, but he’d need to go further under the boat to address it fully. The swell was about 1.5 meters, but the period was long. These were not ideal conditions to swim under the boat, but it could be done.

And then I saw it. “It” was a gray triangle not more than a couple boat lengths away darting back-and-forth and moving in our direction.

“Babe,” I stammered loudly and with as much composure as I could muster, “GET OUT OF THE WATER NOW.

NOW!!

His nerves already frayed, Neil reacted like a frog dropped in a pot of boiling water and catapulted back into the cockpit with the velocity of a rocket, leaving a stream of obscenities trailing behind him. In a blink, the shark had disappeared, but in a split second, it had affirmed Neil’s fears of swimming at sea and dissolved my pomposity. Many sharks are relatively harmless, but unless your name is Ocean Ramsey, a large solo shark hundreds of miles from land is a poor choice of a swimming companion.

The fishing line could just as well stay put until we neared land, where he could have another go. So long as we didn’t need to fire up our engine, the line wouldn’t be an issue.

In Fijian waters
Not long after sunrise, we were navigating through the Oneata Passage, a stretch of water a couple nautical miles wide that signaled our arrival to the Lau Group, Fiji’s easternmost island chain. The 57 islands comprising the Lau Group are spread over 188 square miles. Many of them are low-lying, meaning you have to be within just a few miles to actually see them. We saw a few as we made our way west, such as Labeka (600 meters), but if it weren’t for our charts, we would have had no notion that the incredible archipelago even existed. With a bit of reprieve from the swell, Neil faced the fears that had been stirred up by the debacle the day prior and dove beneath Red Thread, successfully slicing the line from our prop.

I felt almost desperate to explore the Lau Group and to learn from the small communities that call them home. Given that we still had 150 nautical miles to reach Savusavu, one of only three ports where boats could clear into Fiji, and knowing we would need at least a few weeks to do them justice, I was coming to terms that we would be unlikely to visit these islands on this transpacific voyage. I jotted the Lau Group down on my “Next Time We Cross the Pacific” bucketlist right below Rapa Iti and focused my attention on the building excitement about reaching Savusavu the following day.

Rhythms at sea
Among the most confronting aspects of being at sea for days or weeks is the monotonous routine that is established, to some degree, by necessity. Some find the experience freeing; others find it almost unbearable. I have come to crave it. My mind can be lost in the hypnotic rhythm of the ocean, minutes or even hours absorbed by seemingly endless horizon. Punctuated only by the occasional marine life or element—a seabird, a flying fish, a dolphin, a distant whale spout, flotsam, jetsam, a sea snake—time seems to literally and figuratively melt.

I riveted myself back from daydreaming. A sea snake?!

We were 7 nautical miles from any hunk of earth, and I startled alert at the sight of a bright yellow sea snake (presumably hydrophis platurus) tootling along. Later that afternoon, some behemoth sea monster gobbled up our large purple and black lure, snapping the 300-lb braided line! We were astonished! Never in 10,000 nautical miles of sailing had that happened! For all the monotony that may be, the last couple days had been anything but routine!   

Landfall on Vanua Levu
That evening, rain drizzled from the sky. Phosphorescence illuminated the hull and glittered as raindrops struck the sea. Dawn broke on our final day of the passage and larger islands came into view one-by-one: Gau, Nairai, Koro. At last, Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island was in sight. We crossed our fingers that we’d arrive during daylight, but with winds dropping to 10 knots and unable hoist our full mainsail due to the tears, we could not sail particularly fast through the short, 1.5-meter swell that was sloshing us about. We were not going to make it, but we were obstinate about continuing under sail as long as we could.

At 7:30 pm, we sailed into Savusavu Bay, and a man from Copra Shed Marina welcomed us to Fiji in a tin boat. The marina was full, but he generously led us to a safe spot where we could anchor overnight. Customs and biosecurity would arrive to board us bright and early the next morning.

Passage perks
Point of departure: Neiafu, Vava’u, Tonga – 06 September 2016
Point of arrival: Savusavu, Fiji – 09 September 2016
Distance traveled: 440 nautical miles
               Fastest 24 hours: 172 nautical miles
               Slowest 24 hours: 128 nautical miles
Total time: 78.5 hours (3 days, 6.5 hours)
               Engine roaring: 1.5 hours
               Sails soaring: 77 hours (98%)
Average speed: 5.6 knots
Jessie’s musings: The moment that stands out most to me from this passage was the moment I spotted the shark while Neil was dangling from the swim step behind the boat. A flash of what would transpire if he was gobbled up flashed into my mind. All synapses firing, I envisioned a shattered, traumatized me sailing Red Thread onward to Savusavu alone and the horror of having to tell our families of his untimely death. Incredibly melodramatic, I suppose, but I definitely felt sheepish about how brazen I had been in reassuring him that there was nothing to fear.
Neil’s reflections: The water has always felt like a safe place to me. However, after we’d hove to and reefed in the main, realizing that I’d need to dive the boat to free the lines from the propeller revealed a level of fear I didn’t know I had. Staring into the abyss, thousands upon thousands of feet of water beneath us, drove me to a moment of panic. What was looking back up at me? I struggled to get the lines free and couldn’t at first bring myself to fully let go of the swim step. Jessie calling out that a shark was nearby was the last straw and I leapt out of the water. Once we arrived into Fijian waters, and I’d had a chance to process everything, I had built up the resilience to go again and was quickly successful. This sailing lifestyle is an ongoing learning experience…most often about yourself.

3 thoughts on “When facing fear becomes a necessity

  1. Hi! Just came across your wonderful blog! Are you still at sea? I noticed the date was back from 2016, but WordPress notes the post as going live about a day ago. I lived 10 years in the Seattle area — my husband and I are thinking about moving back to the area. Have you ever done much sailing in the Port Townsend area? We loved it there!

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  2. Swimming or fixing things in deep ocean water definitely is a bit spooky. We had to laugh at the description of Neil just about walking on water to get back on board after the shark sighting. Your posts are always enjoyable to read, Jessie!

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