The Gambier Islands spoiled us. Seven weeks! By the end we were
cabbages, needing to leave, needing to move. But in that time there was
also transformation; the onwards battle across the ocean stopped. Always
wondering what next challenge lay ahead, stopped. Part One Concluded.
The soft filling in the doughnut was a pleasant creme anglais. Not the
trringaling of sweet strawberry jam attacking the senses, but a far cry
from the black bean filling that often appears at the end of an oriental
restaurant meal. (Sometimes even I have learnt to forego dessert.) That
is to say, the Gambiers provided us with endless fresh water, a warm
climate, a place to leave bags with rubbish in, pizza on weekends, daily
fresh baguettes, pleasant walks, as well as more strenuous opportunities
for hiking hills and mountain biking. It’s a nice place to be. And an
easy place to be.
In addition to the physical comfort, we met some lovely people. The
couple around the back of Ile Teravai who spontaneously opened their
doors, fed us local food, suffered our poor french, and saved us from
boat arrest after five days in a stinking weather. Monsieur Mu, the
local king fisherman, and his wife. We spent a full day fishing for tuna
with him (unsuccessfully) and several mornings with them both enjoying
ice cold drinks and freshly baked delights. He holds the record for
catching the largest fish in the Pacific: a 259kg marlin, just a few
weeks before we arrived. (I think the world record for marlin comes in
at 306kg, but was in the Atlantic.) Even interaction with the post
mistress, frequent and frustrating as the subject matters were, were
And that’s not to mention the many yachties we met: families
from France, couples and individuals from Finland, Norway, USA, Canada,
South Africa, the Netherlands… a lot more from France… and paid crew
on enormous posh boats, gleaming with varnish, preparing for their very
rich bosses to fly in for a fortnight’s diving before rejoining them at
the next paradise atoll. We had entered a new world of ‘cruising’:
tropical cruising. To many of these people, the Gambiers was off the
beaten track. Or, as they call it, off the coconut milk run.
It was good, easy, and necessary. But also time to go.
We left on a Tuesday, with a full moon and predictions of favourable
winds. I guess the winds were favourable, but the rain wasn’t, and for
the first two or three days we were seasick and soggy. Traveling a
steady 6 – 8 knots (that’s a nice speed for us), in rain, rain, and
squally winds. Andy was just green but I, for the first time since
leaving Chile, was unquestionably seasick. A deeply unpleasant sensation
and one that might have had me quitting the entire journey had it
started earlier or lasted longer. Just as I was thanking Neptune for his
consideration in this regard at least, I realised it was also the first
time we had omitted to take the precautionary seasickness pills before
leaving. So I guess they do work.
When I could face it, I started writing again by hand. The computer
screen would have pushed me over the edge.
What to do next? The lethargy from seasickness, or seasickness pills,
has worn off – I feel alert and alive again. There is steady rain
outside so watching the ocean blue by isn’t much fun. Concentration on –
anything – makes me feel a bit green. That rules out books, card games,
and backgammon. The boat is sailing beautifully, on course, at a good
pace, direct line to Tahiti. The computer predicts it will take four
days and one hour to reach our destination under current conditions. The
windvane rarely needs resetting (and when it does, I’m not the usually
one to do it), and is holding the boat on course pretty well, within the
bounds of a significant jar-wobble factor. One day I shall calculate how
many miles we actually travel for every mile of distance gained.
So, I don’t need to steer. There are no ships or other yachts around
that we can see or are otherwise aware of. It’s two in the afternoon. We
had lunch, tuna salad and crackers, three hours ago, and a cup of tea
with a biscuit one hour ago. Thus, I am not hungry or thirsty. Emails
and weather reports have been downloaded once today, that’s ample. The
lights on the battery monitor show that one bank of batteries is losing
charge very quickly. There seems no risk of sun hitting the solar panels
anytime today or tomorrow, and running the engine just to charge the
batteries is noisy, hot, smelly, unpleasant, and a poor use of our
limited fossil fuel supply on board. Plus, it offends something
fundamental in my self, some aspect of this journey that’s important to
me. But that for another day.
We listen to a recording of Eddie Izzard for an hour, that makes some
time pass. Now it’s three p.m.
We’ve started eating in the mid afternoon lately so that the whole
business of cooking, eating, and washing-up is finished before sunset.
(Judging by recent depletion in the biscuit box and peanut butter jar,
this doesn’t mean that eating stops with sunset however.) With sunset,
nightshift starts. Then we will know what to do again.
At night we are each responsible for managing our own boredom, in three
hour stints, making sure to look outside and scan the horizon every ten
minutes. Unfortunately the new energy situation means also saving on
light usage so reading is limited for a second reason. Dozing is
allowed, but only in nine and a half minute intervals. The risk, if you
doze over this, is less that a cargo vessel will come steaming into the
boat unnoticed, and more that your partner might wake up and catch you
out. The Shame!
So, it’s 3pm, time to think about food. Andy has decided he wants to
make a corned beef hash, fine by me. We inherited the tin of corned beef
from a fellow yachtie who felt sorry for us and our meagre supplies
(they had provisioned in Panama and had enough food and alcohol on board
to last two people several years). I have no idea what to do with corned
beef so am delighted with the suggestion. Necessary ingredients: corned
beef [from friend], baked beans [from Pitcairn], mashed potato [from
Juan Fernandez]. We even have real potatoes, for a change, but the
pressure cooker contains leftover rice pudding from last nights leftover
rice, and he’s focussed on this being a one-pot production, so we break
open (for the first time) the instant mash.
It was pretty good, all things considered, though I missed where the
meat went. Does it just dissolve or something? Seemed more like a
dressed-up excuse to eat baked beans, and who needs an excuse for that?!
It’s 4pm. There is a radio sched organised to chat with a friend at 6pm,
and sunset happens at 6:30pm. What to do next?
The ocean at night time, when it’s not raining or squalling, or being
whipped up by fierce winds, is majestic. All the way to French
Polynesia, from Chile, we used to spend our nightshifts outdoors. Mostly
getting wet and being blown about. And in my case, also quite scared. My
fears would carry into nightmares in the three hour rest periods with
the result that every twenty minutes or so I would sit bolt upright,
asking Andy if he needed my help in the storm that I was sure we were
in. As the night wore on he would first stare at me from his world of
calm with a look of decreasing patience, and eventually would just
On this passage, seven weeks after our last, I notice that something has
changed. We are going faster than ever, making record distances for our
crossing so far: 155, 150, 132 nautical miles per day (1 nautical mile
is just over 1 ordinary mile). The weather hasn’t been particularly
pleasant, but neither has it been scary. Or, rather, I haven’t been
scared. It may be at times uncomfortable, but it’s familiar as well. So
here’s what has changed. My fear.
Has it melted away completely? Of course not. But no longer do I wake up
convinced we’ve capsized, or check three times that Andy is wearing his
safety harness (he’s not), or constantly worry about myself falling
overboard. But not even that was my greatest fear. Every day that we
were sailing I would talk myself through the actions I would have to
employ if Andy disappeared into the sea. The process was supposed, I
suppose, to ensure I was prepared. The reality was that it just brought
home my inabilities, the degree to which I was ill-equipped for such a
critical scenario, and amplified my fears.
Another thing that has changed is that we no longer spend the
nightshifts braving the elements. Ironic, since the climate now is so
much more pleasant, even with the recent bouts of wind and rain. I guess
that means we’re more in control, competent, capable, comfortable…
confident. And the weather is generally better. I’m not on guard outside
in full foul-weather gear, watching and waiting for the next squall to
knock us over, preparing my response with the ropes, steering, and windvane.
This afternoon our steering – bracing – preparing – watch system
improved even further. Now when the windvane can’t cope with a sudden
puff-up of wind and fails to keep us on course, we have the electronic
autopilot ready and waiting to jump into action at the press of an –
indoor- button. So much more efficient, and effective, than hauling on
soggy wet weather gear, clambering outside, and finally steering
Zephyrus back on course, all the while listening to the sail loudly flap
flap flap if we’ve rounded up too far into the wind, or feeling the boat
lilt over if we’ve turned downwind and backed the sail.
So now, when I go outside every ten minutes, it’s to scan the horizon
for lights and take a moment to enjoy the majesty of the location before
clambering back inside to the safe, dry, warm, bench where my latest
book is waiting to be finished. (During the trip I polished off four
excellent recommendables: The Girl on the Landing, Life of Pi, White
Tiger, & If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things.)
It still amazes me when the waves behind melt under us, or when my eyes
rest on the one sail up front and I realise that with only that we are
being pulled along by the wind, held on course by a well shaped keel,
and the flip flap of plywood clamped onto the back rail. This sense of
peacefulness may also be attributed to downwind sailing – traveling with
the winds, with the waves, in harmony with prevailing motion. The boat
sits relatively flat in the water and movement is quiet.
The fifth day was immeasurably more pleasant than any so far. For a
start, the sun came out. Secondly, the seawater in washing-up buckets
around me was noticeably warmer. In fact, the day started becoming
worryingly warm. Pleasant as long as we had a constant seven knot
breeze, but a worry for the upcoming days we would be at anchor in a
All illusions of seasickness are now well past and instead the rocking
of the boat has an almost calming, cradling, effect. The rain has
stopped and winds have dropped to pleasant. As a result we both fell
into a deep early afternoon slumber. Andy had cooked a hefty dahl for
lunch and I baked a cake (used up the last of the bananas raining in our
cockpit) so the late afternoon evolved into another session of washing
up and an hour or so running the engine to recharge our batteries (I
caved at last). A leisurely, leisurely day. At 6pm we speak to a friend
who left the Gambiers with us and is sailing to Hawaii. Then dinner,
tea, and sunset. The day passes so easily.
A satellite flies past, bright red and everso low in the sky. It’s
weird. Then the stars appear. Some old favourites: scorpio and the
southern cross… but look over there, we’re both surprised to see, it’s
the big dipper!! Our friend from the northern hemisphere, we haven’t
seen you for months, no, years. Amusingly upside down, but definitely
all there. So this must be what the equatorial sky looks like (we past
20 degrees southern latitude line today, heading north). Both the
southern cross (pointing south) and big dipper (indicating north) in one
The moon is now out in full brightness so the stars are dimmer, but
still a glorious night. I think I might spend this entire shift
outdoors, just enjoying being here.
Orange cloud reflected in blue-grey water at dusk makes pink.
it’s the last nightshift before we arrive in Tahiti, and a dark night
too- where is that full moon, only slowly diminishing, that has been
illuminating our nights all week? Hidden behind clouds perhaps, or not
Climbing out of the cockpit, my eyes face towards our wake. Behind my
left ear I sense a bright flash, and behind my right, a flashing. The
former has passed and left no trace, but the latter is insistent. Red
green white, blinking. The same colours as on our mast light, shining
now above me. But we don’t send all three in the same direction, and
that for a good reason. (Green to starboard, red to port, white to the
back.) The blinking light hangs low in the sky, very conceivably at a
mast height, and is steady. I believe it is an Iridium satellite taking
its equatorial stroll. But I am nearer to the equator now, should it not
then seem higher in the sky to me?
Another flash to the right (I am now facing forward), it must be
lightning. Hopefully staying far away.
We’re fifty miles from Tahiti and if ever we were likely to meet other
vessels, it would be tonight. That’s enough to keep me alert.
The lightning flashes increase in frequency, and a wave hits us from the
side. We have turned upwind and have the wrong sails set for this angle.
I can hear the wind increasing but can’t see the waves tonight ; the sea
is too black.
The Big Dipper once again sits above the horizon, upside down. The north
pointing pan edge weirdly plummeting down, beyond the horizon.
Lightning now flickers across the sky in front of us. I see it to the
left as well. Expanding its reach into our little circle of ocean that
has a 15 mile radius and is moving at 7 knots towards land. It’s
difficult to not contemplate upon the tall aluminium pole from which our
sails fly. The only mast for miles around, the only high conductor
within sight of the lightning.
I hear myself pray, outloud, “please let us get to Tahiti safely. In one
piece.” I’m thinking of the various interpretations of ‘safely’. Rocking
up unharmed in a liferaft we would be safe, but that’s not what I had in
mind. I change strategy. “Please keep the lightning far from us.” That’s
far less open to misinterpretation.
To cover my bases I next imagine, with all my might, covering the mast
in a huge rubber sheet. Then I see a shooting star and wish upon that too.
The rubber mast insulator got me chuckling and distracted me from my
fear. Lightning conductors for masts? Forget that, someone should come
up with the Mast Condom: Guaranteed Protection in Electric Moments.
A few minutes later I note the lightning has passed by, from right to
left, and soon beyond the horizon. A sky of unthreatening cirrus
beckons. The sea is black, but for occasional bioluminescence in white
caps announcing a break, and by then it’s too late to prepare. The
squall is moving on.
7am: Land Ahoy! Out of the cloud and dawn grey. Tahiti has a fantastic
profile. Mountains multiple, a pinnacle spike between the peaks. A
significant landmass, the largest and highest we’ve seen yet for sure. I
sense Andy drooling beside me. Eyes on Rock. We are very close but it
will still take several hours before we anchor.
A seven day journey, Tuesday to Tuesday, touching on eight different
days. One tack, one sail change, no motoring necessary. Zephyrus sailed
us here and we the passengers. Without doubt the best passage so far, a
taste of what we’d heard about. At last we have found the trade winds.
From here they will carry us west.