Downwind sailing, when it's good, feels like sitting on a magic carpet,
traveling without friction. Or being perched on a pretend cloud that's
being pulled across a stage, effortlessly.
We had a great day sailing today, sailing within the safety of the
lagoon that surrounds the twin isles of Taha'a in the north, and Raiatea
in the south. Broadly speaking, the lagoon is the shape of a figure
eight, with the islands being two lumps of land in the middle, and ocean
all around the outside. A painter might create the eight with a thick
stroke of turquoise if trying to replicate the water itself, or
alternatively shimmering pinks and yellows to represent the life within.
Here is where the corals are, and within them, the multitude of fish. On
a short swim earlier today I heard chirping above the water while
watching a flock of hundreds of small yellow fish. It took a moment to
convince myself that they weren't in fact canaries.
Our sailing journey took us from the south-east to the north-west of
Taha'a, anticlockwise . The wind was coming from east-south-east so was
behind us or to our side the whole way. It was relatively, strong, about
25 knots, and steady, so the sails remained full and we glided all the
way. We glid.
As we came around the top right corner, the silhouette of Bora Bora
appeared, majestic. I gasped, I gasped again, I pointed and stared. Andy
told me to concentrate as I was also meant to be steering. It has the
most fantastic profile – low and lumpy at the edges but with a huge,
steep-sided, mountain soaring out of the middle. No wonder it's a
Until that moment, when it came into view, I had little interest in
visiting the place. First, everyone goes there. Second, it is overfull
with hotels and yachts and apparently also overpriced, even by French
Polynesian standards. Third, which really should come before the first,
four years ago we met some people who had been to Bora Bora, and said
the double words in such a loud, British, and pompous manner that I've
been put off the place ever since. Somehow I thought that if I ever went
there I might instantly become 'one of them'.
So, Bora Bora was off the list. We would be rebels and just sail
straight to Suwarov from here. "What?!" people would exclaim in
disbelief," you were so close and didn't pay a visit? That's criminal."
Exactly, I would say. Up there with visiting Easter Island and not
seeing a Moai.
But now that I've seen it, albeit from afar, I have had a taste, and
I've become curious (and I actually did want to see a Moai, we just got
blown out to sea earlier than expected). Now I want to get closer to
Bora Bora, to go inside the infamous azure lagoon, and maybe even climb
the mountain. There is a reason why this is the last place cruisers go
before leaving French Polynesia, and why it has been so exploited by
I've been thinking a lot lately about Travel. Partly for the obvious
reason that I am currently travelling, and it is the mind's nature to
seek purpose in any given situation. But more usefully, the thoughts
have been catalysed by a wonderful book by Alain de Botton called 'The
Art of Travel' (published by Vintage International). I encourage
everyone, even those most attached to their sofas, to read it.
The first challenge of the book is pretty obvious: to ask oneself why we
travel, rather than to where we wish to travel. Testing my new found
insight, I ask Andy (market research stats n=1) "why do you travel?"
Ever the philosopher, he takes a long time before deciding, "because
that's what I do." Pushed further on the issue, he quotes a traveler
asked where was his favourite place. Answer – the next place.
But I stick to it. Contemplation on why and how we travel might
illuminate why I am now interested in visiting Bora Bora where I wasn't
before, and thereby also help me to identify what kind of travel I will
enjoy in the future. Further, only a visit to Bora Bora itself can then
identify whether my change of heart was wise, or whether, in retrospect,
I would have been better off avoiding it on grounds of the many aspects
it possessed that I knew I wouldn't enjoy, and so support such thinking
for future explorations.
Contrary to expectation, De Botton's book validates and vindicates the
conscious self who deliberately chooses to stay at home. It also
challenges the world-traveler to be mindful of his or her actions and
identify a reason, goal, or method, so as to not waste the experience
I agreed with almost all that de Botton had to say. From the joy of
anticipation of travel, to discovery of foreign delights, to the value
of seeing your own familiar surroundings with the fresh eyes of a
visitor. The book concludes with two chapters focussed on art, making
the points that (1) great works of art can be extremely useful in
changing our perception of a place, and (2) the practice of art,
irrespective of the artists natural ability, is a critical method for
enhancing our appreciation of a place. Quoting John Ruskin:
<i> I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing,
and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love
nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.</i>
John Ruskin isn't the only famous wise man whom de Botton consults.
Indeed, one of the joys of the books is being introduced to his chosen
guides. For each guide, de Botton chooses a location to investigate a
particular philosophy, rather than the norm of choosing a location
first, almost arbitrarily, and then seeing what might be learnt there.
So, we go to London and Barbados with J.K Huysmans, exploring
Anticipation; to a service station, an airport, a plane, and on a train
journey with Charles Baudelaire and Edward Hopper exploring the nature
of travelling itself; to Amsterdam with Gustav Flaubert exploring the
Exotic; and with Alexander von Humboldt we explore Curiosity while the
author visits Madrid. We go to the Lake District with William Wordsworth
to learn about Country and City, and to the Sinai desert to explore the
sublime with Edmund Burke and Job. Vincent Van Gogh teaches us about
Eye-Opening Art in Provence, John Ruskin helps us with Possessing Beauty
in all of the above mentioned places and finally, Xavier de Maistre
helps us to look at our habits afresh while the author wanders around
his home district of Hammersmith in London.
By the end of the book, the reader has not only explored the world, but
also reasons for exploring the world. Or not. Indeed, one of the most
enlightening and blindingly obvious points made early on is that
wherever we go, we take ourselves with us. Thus, the holiday will never
exactly replicate the travel brochure photos, the ones which,
blissfully, don't contain a trace of the lives we might want to take a
break from. This factor alone is often the culprit for holidays never
being quite as perfect as they are hoped to be.
I pondered that while snorkeling today: video and photos of tropical
fish and underwater adventure never have the sound track of your own
breathing echoing around your head. Even underwater I can't escape from
For me, the book was a timely arrival. This year of travel feels
enriching and relaxing on a good day, but also self-indulgent. I do
sometimes wonder what the point is. Or, if there doesn't need to be a
point, then if perhaps I could be making better use of my time otherhow.
For others at least, if not for myself. Put that way sounds very
It got me thinking not only about why we travel, but also how. And how
to 'get the most out of' an experience. For this, I guess the first
thing to do, is identify the why of a journey, in order to choose an
The whys for this trip are very different for Andy and I. And so,
therefore, are the hows. For Andy, many of the whys and hows revolve
around fulfilling a dream. The dream: to sail across the Pacific. The
necessary hows: buy a boat, learn to sail, learn maintenance, [get
married], acknowledge size of task ahead, learn to sail more, give boat
complete overhaul, start sailing [with new scared wife], become a good
skipper, learn to sail solo [enforced by incompetence of wife], learn
from the sea and the swell and the skies and the sails …… the
journey never ends.
For me, that's harder. The Why was more Why Not? Once the seed was sewn,
what offer could better that? If I didn't go, I would always wonder…
even if the experience was terrible it would be worth doing. In
retrospect I didn't really mean that to be tested.
There was also another important Why. To test a way of living. To travel
but to tread lightly. Not in a jumbo-jet. Not within a time limitation.
Not as a diversion from some other 'home', but as a daily reality. To
explore the viability of visiting new places around the world without
burning carbon. To see if I was actually up to practicing what I preach.
For all of these, the How can be answered by sailing long distances,
especially sailing with a partner.
So, the Whys and Hows have been assessed, what about the experience
itself, the What?
It seems to me that to make the most of an experience or place, you have
to engage with it on some level. Physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.
De Botton recommends Art as a means for engagement. Physical could be
climbing, skiing, surfing, hiking… or even just taking off your
sandals and walking bare-foot in the hot sand. Mental could be
furthering scientific understanding, learning the local language,
studying local religion, culture, or history. Emotional, for me, is an
important one. To engage emotionally means giving something of yourself,
making friends, forming an attachment to a place that triggers an
emotional response: happy, sad, or maybe just thoughtful. And spiritual-
well, that's beyond words. India calls many home, others yearn for
Africa; for me, my heart leapt when I reached Antarctica, and those
feelings only grew with time. No amount of time in Pacific 'paradise'
will, for me, replace the emotions I feel when I think of icebergs or
ice sheets, glaciers, sastrugi, and cold expansive white space. Others
dream of Oceans. That is perhaps the best reason to set to sea.
Having assessed the Whys, Hows, and Whats, I realised it was time to put
our trip under the microscope. The conclusions drawn after looking
through Andy's microscope are pretty positive. Boat still floating, crew
happy, half an ocean already crossed and signs are encouraging for
completing the other half in good spirits. New skills learnt, new people
met, great interactions with new cultures and languages, dreams lived.
To look through my microscope, I needed to delve further into our
environmental impact. An activity which, I must admit, I was confident
would result in an overall sense of self-satisfaction aka: smugness. I
was pretty sure we had a very low, almost non-existent, impact.
To help me, I consulted another great book that I hope to finish on this
journey: <i>Sustainable Energy – without the hot air</i>, by David JC
Mackay (published by UIT Cambridge). It's good, really good. Simple,
factual, helpful, and easily navigable.
Here's what I came up with:
Wherever possible we sail, as opposed to motoring, although we do have
an engine. For Andy, this is both a philosophy and an aesthetic. The
engine also encourages our ethical attempts by being loud, hot, smelly,
and generally unpleasant when run, and really unpleasant to try and
sleep through. Further, Zephyrus is equipped with an oversized and
inefficient Isuzu C221 67 horsepower truck engine so could definitely
have motored more miles on substantially less fuel. That, however, is
not the point since our main source of propulsion has been provided by
wind rather than diesel. Thus, even with an inefficient engine I was
confident of smugnosity.
Our electricity meets are generally met by three 60W solar panels but in
three locations when we found ourselves in consistently overcast places
for extended periods of time (Chiloe, Gambiers, Baie de Phaeton), we ran
the engine for a few hours to keep the batteries healthy. We have no
fridge, freezer, washing machine, or water-maker so electricity is only
really needed for running navigation and communication instruments and
charging laptops (and occasionally power tools).
Our cooking stove runs on alcohol. For colder climates, such as Chile
and New Zealand, we also have a diesel heater. We have no outboard motor
(requiring petrol), but rather row a dinghy or swim to shore. Thus
diesel, wind, sun, and alcohol are the only energy sources we use to
sustain, and propel, our lives.
The odometer on our GPS, installed new in December, currently reads 6335
nautical miles. About 500 of those were enjoyed exploring the Puerto
Montt area. Thus, since leaving the coast of Chile we have traveled
about 5835 nautical miles in six months. In that time we have burnt 338
litres (89 US gallons, 74 imperial gallons) of diesel.
What does that mean?
Thanks to the first couple of chapters in MacKay's book, and the
appendix, I can tell you that 338L of diesel, at 10.7 KWh/L, means
3616.6 KWh of energy. That is the same energy as you'd get in 7000 cans
of baked beans or 170 250g packs of butter, not that that really helps
much with anything.
Of more interest to me is how much impact we have had on the atmosphere.
Diesel emissions produce 250g of Carbon Dioxide per kWh of chemical
energy… so we have produced 904kg of Carbon Dioxide.
We have also burnt about 60L (47kg) of ethanol which, if we assume pure
combustion and ignore the contaminants, will have produced about 90kg of
All told, our ohsorightonlowimpactlife has already produced over a ton
of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions.
One ton of carbon dioxide in the air that wasn't there before.
Since the day we left Chile, i.e. the day we started having our lowest
If I focus the lens on the magnifying glass further, I should also
confess to one return trans-Atlantic flight last year, which would
instantly add another three tons to our collective number (triple that
if you want to account for the higher-impact effects of flying), and an
entirely unmeasured amount of electricity used in the renovation of
Zephyrus including continual use of welding and power tools, production
of materials and paints, and diesel burnt in the car we used for errands
around town. Plus, of course, all the energy used in production and
transport of the various cans and staple dry foods we stacked our
cupboards with prior to the journey.
Zooming out again, according to MacKay's 2009 statistics, the average
Briton emits the equivalent of about 11 tons of Carbon Dioxide each
year. Double this figure for North Americans and Australians (Canada:
22, USA: 24, Australia: 25 tons CO2e/y per person).
While considering possibly-safe trajectories that require global
emissions to fall by 70% or 85% by 2050, MacKay states:
<i>If we subscribe to the idea of "contraction and convergence", which
means that all countries aim eventually to have equal per-capita
emissions, then …. we should get down to … roughly 1 ton per year
per person by 2050. This is such a deep cut, I suggest the best way to
think about it is no more fossil fuels."</i>
One ton per year per person is exactly what Andy and I have been
producing during these last six months. So, while this emission rate is
eleven times less than the average Briton, and twenty-five times less
than the average Australian, it is still only what we 'should' be doing.
It's not better than right.
I was pretty disappointed, a bit ashamed, and also surprised, at these
results. I have heard numbers like these bandied around for years, and
bandied them myself, but never really understood, on a practical
day-to-day level, what they mean. This lifestyle that involves no car or
plane travel, no electricity from a grid, and no movie theatres,
cinemas, or other late night city excursions, and which I thought might
reasonably last for 6 – 12 months, is actually the per capita emission
goal that we should be aiming for not only as individuals, but as
The most important thing I learnt from this exercise? To do the maths
before assuming smugness.
Having not entirely satisfied my environmental goals, I flipped through
my diary to see if I had any other goals prior or during this trip that
I could feel good about. The only clear ones written on February 18^th :
<i>Skills I'd like to have by Isla de Pascua (Easter Island): reefing in
and out, changing the jib and making it go up and down, working Otto the
wind vane, using a sextant.</i>
I regret to say that these all remain on the list of 'skills I would
like to have'.
The only longer term goal I can find recorded: not getting flustered in
times of urgency.
That, indeed, would make this whole trip invaluable to the rest of my life!
I guess one of the most important things I am getting out of this is
Time, both to reflect on our life and to carry out necessary daily
activities. Time to not only read about emissions but do my own
calculations, time to read about travel and incorporate those ideas into
our activities. Time to write, and think, and play.
More practically, I use time to learn to cook (in the absence of
take-aways), wash clothes by hand (in the absence of washing machines),
and collect water from rain (in the absence of a tap). Time to make or
fix things instead of buying new. Time to row instead of using an
outboard motor. Time to sail rather than fly, walk rather than drive.
I've just realised something… for many activities we're using time
instead of oil.
Perhaps more sustainable lifestyles are possible, but rather than
rushing around looking for them, all we have to do is slow down!
It's now a few days after starting this piece and Andy and I are ready
to go to Bora Bora. To see that mountain, swim in that water, tick that
box, and test the travel theory. For the last five days we have been
attached to a mooring buoy at the Taravana Yacht Club on the south-west
side of Taha'a. It's a fun spot, the first social location we have found
that specifically caters for boats.
On Tuesday night there was a magnificent buffet of Polynesian food
followed by a dance show put on by a local family… kids between eight
and eighteen dancing and twirling fire to the best of their ability
while parents, uncles, and aunts provided music with voice, guitar, and
drums. Little kids shrieked happily as they ran across the beach stage
and lots of 'volunteers' were dragged out to join in the show. We
continued to dance and laugh all night, meeting and mingling with locals
and other yachties alike.
Two days later there was a bring-your-own barbeque, and a more tranquil
opportunity to chat with folk who live here. This morning we were
accompanied on a stroll by a local teenager and his dog, and this
afternoon he and some other kids paid us a visit on Zephyrus.
There's a good vibe here. We're both smiling. It isn't hard work, in
fact, it's not work at all. It's not a must-see or a check-box, it's the
enjoyment of daily life. This 'it' is the travel we seek: people,
interaction, fun, experience, good times.
The wind picked up this morning and lumpy weather is predicted for the
next three days. We've decided to stay and enjoy the people and place
here rather than get bashed around in an unknown anchorage beside one of
the most famous pacific islands in the world. Bora Bora can wait.
However beautiful it is, it can't beat the warmth that greets us here.