The dilemma was excruciating. World Cup Final, or Full Solar Eclipse. Not only would they occur on the same day, but during the same hour. Compromise was impossible.
During those days Andy was recovering from the flu. Man-flu: the worst possible kind, the kind that would be fatal for women were they able to catch it. The only known cures are tea and sympathy, and only the former was available in any kind of quantity. Times were tough.
After the physical symptoms of manflu comes the Bubble of Silence. A cocoon of non-communication that forced me to scan recent history for any unforgiveable offences I may have committed. I found none. Just this once, perhaps, it was not my fault. He just didn’t want to speak.
On land, in a town, mood swings and silent moments can be disguised in the background noise of bustle, traffic, pre-booked events in the diary, school runs, work meetings, watching TV or maybe even going to see a film. They can be hidden, or ignored. Not so on a small boat. Especially not so when the silence is shrouding the skipper. The skipper who, even I have to recognise, ultimately makes the call on where we go or what we do, and at this time there were some Big Decisions to be made. I usually have some input, but his is the deciding voice. For good reason: he’s ultimately responsible for the boat, our safety, and our well-being. And he knows a lot more about retaining all of those things than I do.
I spent more hours than necessary worrying about the upcoming choice. Just how much does he love football? Just how much of a natural phenomenon geek am I? Is it really possible to weigh these two up against each other? Just how much does he not want to speak about either, and just how annoying will I be to him if I attempt to broach the issue?
Then England lost in the play-offs, perhaps unfairly, but at least we knew that they wouldn’t be in the final.The odds were shifting in my favour.
I decided to do some market research: just how cool is a solar eclipse anyhow? Versus: what kind of location could we find with an enormous screen for viewing the football.
In addition, our anniversary was to be the following day, and neither of us wanted to be doing nightshifts on a lumpy sea on that occasion.
Plus, to be honest, we had itchy feet. That was the most significant factor. It was time to go. We arrived in Tahiti on June first and the eclipse wasn’t going to be until July eleventh. Six weeks . Six weeks too many.
One morning, around the time I had given up on us ever having an interesting conversation again, I told Andy that if he put the kettle on then I’d make the tea. He replied,
“I have a better deal. I want to go to Suwarov. You can choose what we do until then.”
My head swirled. I saw stars. I blinked a lot. I giggled nervously. I blinked a bit more. I put the kettle on. He was serious. This was more amazing than anything I could have conceived in the previous few days.
As I rowed to shore that morning to collect fresh baguettes, a pod of dolphins played between me and the sand. Life couldn’t get much better.
For the first time since we started this adventure, I had responsibility. A state of being that used to be so critical to my mental health, and one that should have felt natural, brought with it the burden of making the right decision as well . Not only could I make the call, but he was waiting for my decision. He wanted no part of the discussion.
I thought I’d want to go to the eclipse, no question, but then realised I also wanted him to be able to see the footy, and even more importantly I had really itchy feet. Whatever we did, no longer could I blame him if we missed the eclipse. We had about ten days to go. In ten days we could visit at least two more atolls and would be well on our way to the Cook Islands, and then Tonga. But the path of the eclipse ran closest to us south of Tahiti; all the next islands in our route, to the north and west, would be further away.
My market research intensified: Stefan Geens (ogleearth.com, stefangeens.com, and good friend) was consulted. He would tell me what to do. And just what the difference was anyway between a 99% eclipse and a full one.
Not only did he send detailed coordinates of where we would need to go, but also the following advice:
A partial eclipse, even a 99% eclipse or an annular eclipse (where the moon is too far away to completely cover the sun) is nothing like a total eclipse. In a total eclipse it goes completely dark. The wind dies. It gets cold. Your skin crawls. You get that tingle down the spine. You suddenly see the entire corona of the sun agains the blackness of the sky, which is invisible at all other times. As totality nears and if you are in a wide open area, I’ve heard you can see the shadow of the moon racing towards you from the horizon at thousands of kilometers per hour. If there are puffy clouds, you will see them extinguish one by one from the horizon to you, and then light up again as totality nears its end.
… A total eclipse must be one of the few events on the planet that loses everything in the retelling or in the televising. There is no way to experience it vicariously. Now if you had been in South Africa with tickets to the final and had to choose, perhaps it would be a close call, but as the alternative is watching television, it’s not even close.
In the same download as that email, and therefore arriving at the same moment, was also a message from some wonderful friends, Brandy and Mark, who we know from Chile. They would be arriving in Tahiti the very next day, and were likely to stay there a while. We were in Moorea, only twenty miles away.
The decision was made. We were returning to Papeete, Tahiti’s capital. But this time, we were going to do it right.
No shopping for critical provisions (that was all done last time). No filling up with fuel and electrical supplies. No getting sick. No staying at a marina that could be anywhere in the world. No spending good money on bad hamburgers. No penny pinching. No maintenance, scrubbing, or chores. No multi-tasking.
It was time to see the city for what it is loved for.
We arrived in Tahiti on a Sunday, left the following Saturday, and had an amazing time. One night at Marina Taina where Andy met friends he knew in Patagonia three years ago, two nights with Brandy and Mark downtown, two days hiking and camping up in lush mountains, one night watching Polynesian festivities, several days spending large quantities of money, a couple of evenings eating from caravans in the night market, and every day sat pouring sweet fresh drinkable water in endless abundance over our heads. From a hose.
Papeete, we discovered, is all about fresh running water.
Unlike our previous visit, we moored downtown, in the heart of Papeete. Tied to a dock, we could jump off the boat and walk into the city in just a few minutes. No concerns about the anchor dragging or other boats swinging too close to us, no need to row ashore, and, more importantly, no need to row back late at night.
Since it was the first time we had been tied to a jetty since leaving Chile, it was also the first time in six months that we had running water on our boat. On the first day we stood under the hose on the jetty, in swimwear. By day two we had filled a 50L tub of water in the cockpit and were pouring jugs of fresh water over our heads. By day three we had the hose running water continuously into the overflowing water tub while we poured litres and litres of deliciousness across ourselves, our clothes, the boat, ourselves, the boat, into our mouths, over our heads, and then maybe across our ankles, behind the knees, and all over our bodies once again. I lost all sense of self-consciousness. I’m in downtown Papeete, sat in the cockpit of our boat, starkers, having a fully fledged bath.
Fresh water galore.
But there was also another advantage to being at the marina: we could leave. With the boat tied up and under full-time security, it was the first time Andy felt comfortable leaving the boat overnight.
We went for an incredible hike, camping overnight in a mountain hut.
The hike started at the ‘Belvedere’ viewpoint, at about 600m altitude. The road getting there was dull so we took a bus and hitched. By the time we reached the starting point it was already late, about 12:30pm, but the walk was only 8km so neither of us were worried.
What we failed to take in was that the hut we were heading for was at 1800m altitude, a continuous 1200m climb for two people whose greatest ascent in the last three months had been the four steps used for climbing in and out of the cock-pit.
At one point we crossed a heart-stopping ridge. Even Andy, with all his mountain experience, was impressed. A ridge from which the hills plummetted on both sides, dense with vegetation but steep and unforgiving slopes. Reminiscent of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
We stayed the night in a refuge for hikers. It had rats and was cold. Really cold. Between us the warmest things we had were a single fleece sleeping bag liner, a single women’s thermarest (narrower and shorter than the standard), and a double mosquito net. Under Andy’s initiative the sleeping bag was cut in half horizontally: Andy got a poncho and I got a hoody. We looked like moomintrolls. Even snuggled up on the thermarest, under the mosquito net (that I decided was also impregnated with rat-repellent), and both inside the hoody, we got cold. So at 3am we started walking. Around and around and around. Around in a circle, six feet in diameter. Around the hole that the rat came out of. Talking shit. Until sunrise.
It was kind of fun, in a not-at-all-fun kind of way. Being cold, at least, was novel. And there was no risk of serious danger. I should say rather that it was fun-ny. Especially in retrospect.
More importantly, the scenery was spectacular. And the two days hiking felt great. Despite being cold and exhausted, we returned with enormous smiles and happy memories. And ached for days afterwards. Really ached. The ache of muscles that have forgotten they ever had a purpose.
We returned just in time to see a Heiva Extravaganza – a best of the best of the July festivities in Tahiti. And an extravaganza it was too. Wiggling buttocks, beating drums, knocking knees, al-capella choirs, more drums, more dancing, spectacular costumes, incredible body strength, roars and whistles, shrieks and cries…. skinny, fat, tall, short, young, old, tattooed, adorned… everyone giving their all for the show. A show of shows.
Just watching made my muscles ache even more.
Two days later we left the big smoke, this time we’d done it right. Cities are made for surfing on, not being drowned by.
We headed south. Towards the “Zone of Totality”. Even the words gave me a thrill. South between Tahiti and Moorea, south, the opposite direction from our next landfall.
On the way out we were met by a dozen rowing teams from around French Polynesia, racing as part of the Heiva Competitions. They had left at 8am from Tahiti, rowed around Moorea in six-man pirogues, and were now returning six hours later. Six hours of hard, hard, graft.
Made sailing feel easy, even lazy.
Three hours later I was not so sure. We were going nowhere. Zero knots under sail, about two with the engine on. We had counted on a constant five knots in order to reach our destination. And we weren’t about to sail through the night, in the wrong direction, in choppy seas, to only see a partial eclipse that we could have seen from Tahiti.
There was plenty of wind, as predicted, but coming from a different direction than we expected. That on it’s own wouldn’t have been a problem. What we hadn’t counted on was the swell: the overwhelming shove of the sea, push of the waves, generally velocity of the ocean, against us. Waves were coming from the south-east, the direction of the eclipse. The wind was coming from the north- west, from Huahine, the island we were next headed. The resulting condition makes for uncomfortable choppy seas and slow progress in almost any direction.
Sunset was now only an hour away and we had gone nowhere. We also couldn’t go back,- attempting to navigate through coral into an anchorage after dark is just plain daft. So Tahiti and Moorea were out. Huahine was into the wind. The eclipse was into the waves.
Andy informed me, as gently but un-negotiably as he could, that we wouldn’t be seeing the eclipse this year. I regretfully agreed. And noted that we wouldn’t be seeing the World Cup either.
But then the wind changed in our favour. And we flew.
Wild seas, bashing into the waves, water flying across the decks, Zephyrus heeling far over… it was like being back in Chile again. Sailing into the wind. Sailing fast, wet, and hard. Soaring. Exhilarating.
A thrilling ride, and a ride towards the eclipse. We made up mileage I’d have never dreamt possible and by midnight were only ten miles from the Zone of Totality. It was my turn for nightshift and we thankfully reduced sail. We were going to make it after all. We were going to see an eclipse. A full eclipse.
0220 we enter the edge of the Zone of Totality
0430 we’ll have about a minute of totality
0600 two hours into a nightshift and I’m really, really sleepy
0630 sunrise, on eclipse day, and a beautiful cloudless day it is too
0645 amazing how the sun makes you feel awake again. lots of contemplation on the sun today
0700 wide awake, pretty excited
0715 looking at the sun through special glasses, it’s a perfect globe
0725 eclipse should be starting any moment
0732 pacman sun – a chunk has been taken off the top left side. Visible only through glasses, the day is as bright as ever
0745 still bright daylight. pacman turning into screaming face
0800 significant coverage of sun by moon but you’d never know without the glasses
0815 Andy thinks it’s getting chilly
0820 Rhian agrees at last, definitely getting chilly
0823 and darker
0825 it’s a beautiful day but feels like a storm is brewing. eerie
0826 big thick clouds covering the sun! where the hell did they come from?
0827 Andy pronounces for the second time in this night (is that a smile on his face?), that alas, we’re not going to see the eclipse
0828 really big thick dark clouds between us and the moon and the sun
0829 Andy puts his camera down. Rhian gasps. A thin sliver of sun emerges behind a cloud. You can see it with the naked eye but not through the glasses.
0831 the camera is snapping away again. Rhian is shaking in some kind of rapture and ecstasy. Not sure whether to scream or be utterly awe-fully silent.
0832 the eclipsed sun emerges in a patch of clear sky beside enormous dark clouds. The sky goes a lot darker. I can see one star. Light intensity is like a dark dusk. It is cold. And windy. And amazing.
0833 screaming gasping pointing and shouting overtake silence
0834 amazing ball of darkness, for over two minutes
0835 the moon continues her journey across the sun and a peak of light screams out of the left edge. Known as the Diamond Ring Effect. Snapping continues. The day lights up again. I have goosebumps.
0836 we have both just witnessed a most spectacular, awesome, thrilling, and inspiring phenomenon
0845 the moon continues her trajectory, Zephyrus is turned around, sails are set, direction Huahine
0900 daylight and sunshine, good winds, waves in our favour. A peek through the glasses show we’re back in screaming face stage, but this time screaming down to the right, not up left.
0910 Andy starts playing with all combinations of shortwave and HF radio to try and hear the game. The shortwave handheld is most effective. He finds accounts in german and spanish first, then in english. The signal becomes clearer if the antenna is pointed towards south america for the spanish commentary, or new zealand for the english. I once heard of a couple who navigated to New Zealand in this way.
0925 The english version is rubbish, mostly consists of a kiwi journalist interviewing other kiwis in pubs around the country that are showing the game. Kiwis clearly don’t appreciate football. The radio is turned off.
0935 The sun is once again full. I get chills just thinking about what we witnessed. Throughout the day all I will keep saying “did you see that?” “No, really, did you see-ee THAT?” “How amazing was that?” However, whenever I try to record the experience I get seasick. An enforced day for recollection and contemplation.
1346 I finally bring myself to connect the computer to satellite phone and check emails. There are TWENTY incoming messages, mostly from my sister-in-law but ably supported by Stefan and my brother, with a blow-by-blow account of the World Cup Final. Reading them out-loud to Andy we experience the game vicariously and, it seems, a lot less painfully than had we watched in real-time. Clearly the right choice was made. Congratulations to Spain.
Evening. The sail to Huahine proves to be hard work, but the reason noble. Passing Moorea seems to take hours, and we’re both really tired. Unlike for longer passages in the past, we had made no special preparation for this two-night journey. No pre-cooked spladge that’s easy to reheat and eat, no attempt to rest the body before-hand. In fact, we hadn’t even given the sailing a second thought. We definitely hadn’t accounted for the fact that the first three days are always the hardest, and that the seas might not be welcoming. I guess it’s the knowing that it will all be over soon that makes you not worry too much. Like the night in the hut.
Monday July 12th, 5pm, we drop anchor in Huahine. Hooray, we did it. It was great. In celebration of our second anniversary we drink a bottle of wine. Not long after, we collapse.