What can I say about crossing the Pacific Ocean? In one sense, nothing happened. Every day we woke for our 4-hour watch shifts. Every day the wind blew from the southeast. We never saw another ship. We didn't even see an airplane. We spotted two killer whales not far from the Galapagos, but for the rest of our 2700nm sail we didn't see anything else besides flying fish. No dolphins, no turtles. We didn't even catch a single fish. (To our credit, that's not out of the ordinary; that part of the Pacific Ocean is known as a desert.) When I think about it now, it doesn't seem like 18 distinct days passed but rather like we spent a non-quantifiable chunk of time somewhere... else. Neither here nor there. Which I guess is true. Even coordinates don't really mean anything without context. I think about being at sea the same way I remember a dream or a scene from a book I've read or call to mind a story that's been told about me as a child, but of which I have no personal recollection.
On the other hand, each day was distinct. There were quiet differences. The constellations shifted over the course of 18 days and the moon nearly completed a full cycle. The sea felt different from day to day. The boat's rhythm changed. Variation in meals and the books we were reading altered our moods. Each morning we collected the flying fish and little, slimy squid who'd flung themselves on deck the night before and stored them in the freezer for bait. At 900am we'd get on the SSB radio for a quick chat with the friends we'd made in the Galapagos. There were three other boats who were all within 200nm of us en route to the Gambiers. Unless someone had a technical issue, talk revolved around food - what we were making and what we were craving. We plotted our position each morning and as we connected the crosshatches we slowly began to feel as though we were making progress.
Everyone reacts to boredom and repetitiveness in different ways. Loren, a (now reformed) vegan, began eating meat, then quickly developed the same unhealthy addiction to pure MSG that Matt has. For two weeks the two of them quietly tore through instant ramen like kids and their candy stashes after Halloween. Loren tried to disguise what was clearly a problem by adding fresh green scallions and finely minced garlic to his gallon sized bowl of sodium and deep fried noodle brick. But he wasn't hiding anything.
There were not so subtle differences, too. One pretty bad squall hit so suddenly we didn't have time to grab the jackets that hung just inside the hatch, let alone reef the main before the wind slammed into us at over 40 knots. Fifteen minutes later the only signs of it were a confused sea and our sopping wet clothing and hair. A few times we stopped to swim in the middle of the ocean. There were several days where the wind dropped right off and we were only sailing at 3 knots. Though we were getting further south, the sun was still strong enough to make a breezeless day pretty uncomfortable. On those days we stopped the boat, leaped off the bow, and drifted along beside, staring down into the bluest blue we'd ever seen.
When I've done ocean crossings on bigger boats with full crews the time passes in a less abstract way. It's a job, and it feels like one. Every captain has his own way of structuring watch, but with a six person crew we've always done a staggered four hours on, eight hours off schedule. There are always two people on watch, and during the day there's usually at least one other person up and about. Which means conversation is plentiful, whether you like it or not. Halfway through your watch, your watch partner changes so thankfully you don't have to hear someone read jokes off their phone or describe the first three seasons, episode by episode, of Game of Thrones for the equivalent of half a work day. With a crew of six, it's fairly normal for a conversation about avocados to go something (or exactly) like this:
The strangest part about being part of a crew on a yacht is that it doesn't occur to you how bizarre the people you're stuck on a hundred foot floating tub in the middle of the ocean with really are. In this case, lovably bizarre. But not always so.
On a trip like ours, however, you're not just thrown into a situation but have each chosen to be there. And likely you rate it among the best experiences in your life so far, so complaints about the boat's owner/food/location/crew are not only not the bonding mechanisms they are on a job; they're nonexistent. In addition, when you're a three person crew you're always on watch alone. Conversation is sparse. Night watches can be long. And despite this metaphorical distance, you have very little physical privacy on a 43 foot sailboat. So you wake, eat, watch, read, sleep, write the occasional email, eat some more, etc. You don't have as many of the strangely comical moments you have as part of a crew, but you end up stitching together a tapestry of silent understanding instead that comes from sharing a meaningful moment with someone else far away from the rest of the world.
At one point I wrote to my brother that being at sea could be just as repetitive as a 9-5 job. Every day you're held to your schedule, and every day that schedule is the same. But after I sent that email, I felt like it wasn't an accurate representation. Even though the days are structured the same, the things we experienced each day were never the same. Even though the sea was technically the same Pacific from one day to the next, in reality it wasn't. The feeling changed each day even if the scenery didn't. The colors and sounds and light were all slightly altered.
Long before setting off on this trip, I read Bernard Moitessier's book The Long Way. Obviously it left more than a small impression on me. But one of the passages that affected me the most was his description of life at sea. He wrote: “The days go by, never monotonous. Even when they appear exactly alike they are never quite the same. That is what gives life at sea its special dimension, made up of contemplation and very simple contrasts.”
I remember reading this while still on land and wondering whether I'd feel the same way.How would our time sailing across the Pacific pass? I'd already crossed the North Pacific and the Atlantic but on bigger boats with enclosed cockpits, full sized galleys, and seemingly endless supplies of electricity and water. On Tamata we're much closer to the water, affected more personally by the weather, and make do with much, much less. And sometime, for whatever reason, that makes you feel far away from everyone who doesn't live like that. For the whole five months leading up to this part of our trip I'd had a certain anxiety about it. The Pacific crossing was always in the back of my mind, as though everything was leading up to the time when we'd be no place, really, not much more than a tiny speck on the chart, untethered, far from anything and everything. I assumed it would take a huge amount of mental preparation. I just didn't know when or how I'd prepare.
And then there we were, living a pretty uneventful life at sea, every day like the one before it. And all that anxiety about the crossing was somehow displaced. Or maybe it just receded into the background, like I had to put it aside when reality overtook expectation. I was neither scared, nor nervous, nor worried. It didn't even hit me until a few days out from the Galapagos that this was it – this was the portion of the trip that had been the most stress-inducing for so long, and each day was just another day. It sounds like such a simple concept and so obvious when I say it now, but it was pretty incredible to have that realization and to experience those simple contrasts for myself. And to feel so calm about it all.
After two weeks or so we were suddenly under 300 miles from Pitcairn Island. In a day, our focus shifted from when we'd arrive to whether we'd even be able to get there. Pitcairn is known as one of the most untenable anchorages in the South Pacific, and conditions really have to be perfect in order to get ashore there. It looked like we had about a 50/50 chance, so instead of altering course and heading straight for the Gambier archipelago further west, we continued on toward Pitcairn.
Approximately 100 miles northeast of Pitcairn lies Henderson Island, a 5 mile long brick shaped island surrounded by steep cliffs and desolate except for some birds and a few thousand hermit crabs who grow so large they take up residence in empty coconut shells. If you've read the story of the whaling ship Essex, you may have heard of Henderson. It was the island on which the survivors landed their life boat – sort of miraculous considering the harsh environment – only to be forced to leave again in search of a more substantial supply of food and a fresh water source. Our plan was to sail quite close to Henderson to fish and scope out anchorages. We weren't too hopeful that we'd find a safe haven as there are no protected coves and no barrier reef on the island. But being within a couple days sail of land after such a long passage is always a thrill and, just like at the very start of our Pacific crossing, those days felt charged and full of anticipation. We sailed on, now ambivalent about what had for the past two weeks been repetitive routine, steadily inching tour way toward our destination on the horizon.