We got off to a rough start when Corey and Dale arrived (lost surfboards, strep throat, torrential rain, warm beer), but once we got to Kadavu, we seemed to leave that world behind and enter another. This place is so unlike anywhere else we've been, so pristine and so undeveloped, it's hard to believe it's just one night's sail from Port Denerau, home of Fiji's largest inflatable water park and the Hard Rock Café. I can't think of anywhere else where hiking to waterfalls, swimming with eagle rays, or anchoring in the shadow of a volcano are not extraordinary occurrences. And we experienced these things alone. We didn't see another sailboat for 10 days. We dove world class passes, visited local villages, and the boys had waves to themselves. In a world where everyone's chasing authenticity and striving to go remote before every last inch of the globe has been discovered (myself included), finding an anchorage that's not on the chart or a corner of the lagoon that's been passed over by the guidebooks feels revelatory. Imagine a whole islandful of these revelations. I realize that many other people have done the things we did, but doing them alone, with no one but the birds and fish as witnesses, made the four of us (sorry for crashing the boy's trip, boys) feel, at least temporarily, like voyagers at the edge of the world. I'd be willing to bet anyone else who's visited Kadavu would say the same thing.
Tubuai has it all. Green mountains, crystal clear lagoon, the freshest fruits and veggies, great food, and friendly people. For me, this island is perfection.
This is just a glimpse of Raivavae. It was really hard to capture how untouched and pristine this island is.
Remember when I said, cheerfully, that we enjoy working on the boat? I should clarify.
We do enjoy the work. (Well, for the most part. Sanding the anti foul really, really sucks.) There’s something fulfilling about planning a large scale project, focusing on that alone for weeks on end, and seeing it through to completion. We like the physicality of it and it being involved at every step of the process reminds us that this is our boat - we’re not working for “The Owner” or some anonymous boss. When your boat is your home the work is satisfying and you feel like each completed job is cause for celebration. But It’s not the work that bothers us. It’s the time.
New Zealand’s Maori name is “Land of the Long White Cloud”. It’s proven to be an accurate description this summer. Having come from much smaller, more remote islands, it’s easy to forget that New Zealand it just a little strip of land in the middle of the ocean and as such, it’s a regular phenomenon for the island to create its own hard to predict weather. Sometimes it feels like there’s a stationary bulk of cloud overhead just waiting to see what we’re going to try to achieve. We were told February is a gloriously sunny month here on the North Island. How naive of us to believe that. Those tauntingly beautiful blue sky days seem only to interrupt the long periods of start again stop again rain for a few days at a time. Before long, another front is traversing the country and the fleeting summer weather has vanished.
Actually, it’s raining as I type this. Relentless sheets of rain driven by gusts of wind that shake the boat. Sanding, painting, even polishing are out for today. I suppose we can go wash the boat down again…
But as much as I’d like to, I can’t put all of the blame on the rain. We’ve had a few setbacks along the way that have cost us an hour or two here, a full day there. We’ve never painted a boat before, and the way we’re doing it - with rollers, as opposed to having professionals spray it for us - is repetitive and tedious. When you’re painting nearly every exterior inch of your little 43-foot boat - decks, topsides, and underbody - you begin to appreciate how big 43 feet really is.
Without getting into too much boring detail (I’ll do that below for anyone interested), our process has gone like this: machine sanding, epoxy fairing, another sand, more fairing, more sanding, priming, final fairing, another coat of primer, sand, primer, sand, topcoat, sand, topcoat, sand, topcoat. We didn’t expect to do so much sanding because, in theory, you shouldn’t need to sand between each and every coat. But we’re amateurs. We’re amateurs painting outdoors, in a dusty yard, only meters away from boats on either side who may decide that they want to sand their own hulls as we’re trying to paint. Suffice it to say that we’ve learned a lot from our mistakes during our time in the yard.
Despite those setbacks, we’re starting to feel pretty good about the whole thing. In the past few days we’ve been told by numerous people wandering by that the paint job looks great. I like that about the boatyard, people always stopping by to ask questions or borrow a tool. There’s a certain camaraderie that exists here. Excuse the pun, but we're all in the same boat. Everyone is active, working hard, making progress, solving problems, and encouraging each other. It’s a pretty positive environment on the whole, and quite a welcome contrast to the days of cruisers banding together on some tropical island to complain about the lack of provisions or the price of potatoes. At times like that the social side of living on a boat can be rather depressing. The boatyard may be dirty and loud but it’s nice to feel like you’re doing something substantial, if only for your own happiness.
So we like the boatyard and we like the work. We could just do without the extended rain delay. We are way behind schedule and we still have a long way to go. But we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, or the water at the end of the Travel Lift runway if you like. Gone are the days of bumming around in a shabby boat with torn canvas. We’re looking forward to admiring the results of our hard work once we’re finally back in the water. Let’s hope that by this time next week I’ll be posting photos of the boat afloat! The forecast for the next several days doesn't include a drop of rain. But of course we know that means, practically speaking, nothing.
In the meantime, here is a little summary of the work we’ve done so far and what we still have left to do.
First we removed all of the hardware. It sounds so easy when I type it, like it’s just unscrewing a few things. It sounds like one of those things you’d ask your boyfriend to do on your way out the door. “Oh hey can you do me a favor? Can you just remove the hardware when you get a second? Thaaanks.” This was a huge job, though, involving the removal of ceiling panels and one of us up on deck and the other below to loosen each bolt one by one. Once every stantion, screw, D-ring, and bolt was labeled and stored away we could begin sanding. Ah, the days of orbital sanding on a horizontal surface! Having now experienced the arm workout that is sanding the hull, I think back on those days fondly.
After sanding, we painted a few coats of epoxy on, sanded once more and set the deck aside to move onto the hull. Deck work is something that can be completed in the water, so after hauling out the hull took priority.
At this point all of our prep work is done and we’re just waiting to prime. Once that’s done we’ll apply two coats of Kiwi Grip non-skid and then begin the process of reinstalling all of the hardware.
Antifoul is never fun to work with. Matt has tackled this job by himself so I can’t claim to have had to suffer through much of it. He first had to scrape the entire surface with a 2-inch heavy duty scraper, one narrow little pass at a time. The noise alone, which sounded like nails on a chalkboard through an amplifier, was enough to drive someone mad. After that the sanding began. Matt spent over 25 hours working away at the antifoul with the orbital sander, which is a really disgusting, not to mention toxic job. He’d zip into his hooded Tyvek suit, pull his boots on, glove up, and snap on his goggles and ventilator. I guess now’s a good time to mention that when it’s not raining here, it’s horribly humid (I’m really good at complaining about the weather), making this job even more miserable.
Here’s where our second big setback occurred. Once Matt started sanding, he discovered that there were many more layers of anti foul than we’d realized, several of them applied quite poorly. We could have simply added one more as a short term “fix” and not dealt with the real problem. But since we knew that what was underneath - i.e., the hull and the barrier coat - was in such good condition, we were better off spending the extra time to get the surface right. So as the layers slowly disappeared, the hours kept piling up.
Now we’re finally ready to start painting. I speak mostly for Matt when I say that it’ll be especially nice to check this part of the job off as done.
SAILS AND CANVAS
We are really excited to have our huge 150% genoa reduced back to a more manageable 110%. Actually, Roger at North Sails just did this today. That’s right. He completed this job in his nice dry sail loft in a single day. Which is great. But makes me feel inadequate as a human.
We are also FINALLY replacing our tattered canvas work. I don’t like to claim that things are “literally” happening unless they, well, literally are. Our dodger and bimini were in horrible condition before we even left Rhode Island, and after 16,000 miles at sea this year they are now literally disintegrating. We imagined meeting a star seamstress in some Panamanian village somewhere who could help us. Instead, we found Peter here in Opua. He is sharp, personable, and is doing a bang up job with our canvas work. We’re looking forward to drinking a beer in the shade of our new, blue bimini out at anchor somewhere soon.
Last but not least, we got ourselves a storage unit, carted pretty much everything except for tools and clothes over, heaped it all in a big pile and shut the door. We didn’t plan to reorganize and reinventory the boat, but now’s as good a time as any.
I mentioned this general process already, so you get the idea. Sand, paint, sand, paint and on and on and on. We really wanted to get this right, so we were a bit meticulous with it. After the initial sanding, we marked tons of imperfections in the hull that had to be filled with fairing. This is where time seemed to just evaporate. We’d apply the fairing, wait for it to dry, sand it back, apply more where it didn’t quite fill right, wait for it to dry, and check our work once more. While we were waiting for the port side to dry, we’d begin on the starboard side. And before we knew it three days had gone by.
When we finally started with the paint, applying the primer proved to be nice practice for the topcoat, which we were pretty nervous about. We were getting various tips and suggestions from all the paint guys in the yard (who, by the way, are super friendly and amazingly helpful). We’d read that rolling and tipping - rolling the paint on with a foam roller and evening it out with a wide brush - was the way to go. But most of the pros told us not to bother tipping. Every day we’d try some new technique - tipping vertically, tipping horizontally, “tipping” with an empty roller, not tipping at all. We were finally happy with our results after the first coat of topcoat and were optimistic that we’d only require two coats. We were telling people things like, “We’ll be back in the water next week with some luck with the weather.” (Ha!)
The second coat didn’t go so smoothly. Though we were extremely careful when mixing paint and wiping the hull down before painting, somehow some sort of contaminant must have gotten in causing little craters to form all over the hull. Meanwhile on the starboard side, there was one rectangular patch that had dulled considerably when dry. It turned out to be the spot where our fridge backs against the hull, its coldness creating condensation in the humid evening air. It hadn’t affected the first coat because we’d applied it in the morning when there wasn’t as much moisture in the air. So both sides would have to be re-sanded completely. Not a disaster. Just added time, effort and frustration.
Thankfully our final coat came out smooth and shiny and and we are happy with the results at this point. Now we’re just waiting to paint the stripes below the toe rail and just above the waterline. Once that’s done, the hull will be 100% finished.
On rainy day Matt decided to design and build a platform for our anchor winch. It meant some extra time out of the water but it’ll be worth it the next time we get our anchor chain wrapped around a big coral head someplace. We weren’t happy with our old system, which wasn’t quite strong enough, and Matt had been thinking of raising the winch off the deck for a while. It looks flash and it’s going to be a huge improvement.
Happy 2016! I hope the first three weeks of the new year have been as healthy and productive for everyone as they have been for us. We just completed a cleanse, are having no trouble sticking to our half hour of meditation each morning, and our conversational French is improving nightly!
Just kidding. We haven’t even hung up a 2016 calendar yet. Since hauling out we’ve been sanding and re-sanding the decks and hull in preparation for Tamata’s new coat of paint. We wake up early, drink lots of coffee, snap on our dust masks and get to work. At the end of the day we scrub the dust out of our pores and wash the paint chips out of our hair and climb the ladder to what is now our second floor home. And that’s pretty much how life goes at the moment. People ask how much longer we’re stuck here in the boatyard, and they clearly pity us for having to do all this dirty work. But we actually enjoy it.
We ended 2015 with a trip to Western Australia for Christmas. I learned all about pavlova and cricket and the sea breeze in Perth. I was treated to a sampler of meat pies and sausage rolls and was introduced to candy like Smarties (M&Ms), Whiz Fizz (as gross as it sounds), and Violet Crumbles (don’t crumble, aren’t violet). I watched Rambler, the racing boat built by New England Boatworks (hi Dad!), cross the starting line of the Sydney to Hobart race on live television. What else? Oh, I nearly died trying to go for a run in heat that I considered suffocating but Matt classified as merely warm. And I swam in the Indian Ocean. It’s hard for me to admit that any beach can beat Second Beach, our beach in Rhode Island. But WA has one of the most beautiful coastlines I’ve ever seen. And Matt’s mom happens to live across the street from one of the best beaches I’ve ever been to. Her house is perched in what was once a sand dune and after a morning swim, we’d shower off with the hose like little kids in her grassy front yard. I could sit on the shady front porch there, among the potted plants and succulents, gazing out on that view for hours.
The part we were most excited about, though, was finally getting to spend time with all of Matt’s family, all in one place. Every day and every night we had something planned with some combination of family members and, as those things usually do, it always involved food. There’s nothing I love more than sitting around the table eating, drinking, talking, surrounded by people with whom I can be totally myself. We had so many fantastic meals, but Christmas lunch with grilled crays and prawns - lobster and shrimp to a New Englander - half a dozen salads in every summer color and champagne was one I’ll be thinking about for a long time. Our week there went by way too fast and I can’t wait to go back.
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind for us since arriving in New Zealand (nearly two months ago!) but being in Australia really made me feel like we were back in "civilization" again. And, even if it included airport food and having to spiral our way up parking garage ramps and wait in line while people battled the self checkout scanner at the grocery store, it was nice not to have to worry about bilge pumps and anchor chains for a little while. That’s not to say that New Zealand isn’t civilized (though people do seem to think it’s perfectly normal to walk around with dirty bare feet in the supermarket as though they’re at the farmer’s market. Hippies.) But the sense of urban sprawl is less immediate here than it is in a place like Perth. In New Zealand the emphasis doesn’t seem to be so much on expansion and growth - at least not visibly here in the Northland - but rather on preservation and conservation. New Zealand is a country that understands that there’s eternal value in natural beauty and they invest heavily in the environment. We’d been using the biking and hiking trails the pass by the marina daily, but we hadn’t really been out into the wilderness yet. So we were pretty excited - and maybe slightly anxious about our fitness levels after a rather indulgent week in WA - to join our friends Loren and Christina for a four day hike on the South Island over New Years. The one they’d chosen, the Heaphy Track, was one of New Zealand’s nine official “Great Walks”. I’d read that we might see kiwis, endangered parrots and carnivorous snails and I was looking forward to standing atop a summit surrounded by meat-eating mollusks as the sun set in front of me.
It didn’t quite work out that way. The rain started on the first night and didn’t start to taper off until the third afternoon. The view from the summit was like a greyscale Rothko painting. Thankfully we’d packed ponchos (we hike in style). They were big and yellow and when the four of us marched along in a row wearing them over our packs, we must have looked like monastery ninja turtles ghosting through the tussock. Our shoes got wet and our socks got soaked through and we had to wear rain gear nearly the entire time, but the stuff in our packs stayed dry and we only had to spend one night in a tent. And the tussock looked really cool in the rain. It looked like it was supposed to look, like it was designed to appear in fuzzily illuminated earth tones against the grey. Drops of water dangled from everything, always just about to fall, and there was a constant din of wetness falling weightlessly onto every plant, rock, and creek. We began the hike in sunshine and emerged on the other end in sunshine, but it was as if we’d ascended into another world in between. I loved it.
Somehow Matt managed to find a lobster in the mountains... These freshwater crays (on the left) are called Koura. And that disgusting looking bug on the right is a Weta.
I’m sure I wouldn’t have loved it so much had we been stuck in wet tents for all three nights. Thankfully for us, New Zealand's Department of Conservation builds and maintains incredible facilities. The hut system was unbelievable. All of the huts are equipped with mattressed bunks, propane cooktops, water, and coal for the pot-bellied stoves so if you plan ahead, you can walk the whole 78km trail without having to carry a tent, sleeping pad, or stove. The older huts are what a real estate agent might call “charming” - dated and slightly cramped, but with loads of character (and sand flies). The newer ones may lack that worn in character, but they make up for it in comfort. They’re bright and airy with vaulted ceilings, separate bunk rooms, and flushing toilets. Pretty swanky as far as publicly funded wilderness huts go. So having spent the day soldiering on, splashing through creeks that had outgrown their boundaries, we passed each evening rotating our shoes around the base of the stove, hoping they might dry by morning, and eating Loren and Christina’s amazingly resourceful and delicious camp food.
On the last day, we arrived at the coast. It’s just as breathtaking as everyone says, just as rough and violent and beautiful. Driftwood stacked itself at the high tide mark and the pounding of the waves drowned out every other sound. We were so lucky to have the sun above us for that stretch of the hike. We walked nearly 15 miles that last day, and the fact that it was along this spectacular coastline was what saved us from focusing on our tired legs and painful blisters.
Every part of this incredibly varied landscape was lovely to walk through. But way more thrilling from above. To get back to town at the end of the trek, we had to fly. We met Dave, our pilot, in a grassy field as black clouds rolled in over the mountains. The four of us climbed onto the wing and into the body of the little six-seater and tested out our headsets so we could ask Dave questions like, “What’s the name of that mountain?” (Loren), “How much fuel will you use on this route?” (Matt), and, “What is the likelihood of fatal crash on an afternoon like this, Dave?” (Me). Christina didn’t have any questions. Her father is a pilot and she’d flown in planes like this hundreds of times. Wedged in with the backpacks in the way back, she was probably the most comfortable of all of us, including Dave. He flew us through the slot between the mountaintops and the black clouds hanging above, roughly retracing the route we had just walked and landing us safely back in Nelson 45 minutes later as if he were a friendly bus driver just doing his job.
I chose to focus on the view on the left.
We did all the “end of the trip” things outside the hangar - sorted gear, organized rides, stretched, yawned. We’d left the clouds behind us, it was a summer evening, still perfectly light at 8pm, and we were happy. I couldn’t think of a better way to start the new year.
Too bad things can’t always be so dreamy. We’re back at work now, getting dirty, cursing the rain, and nearing our end goal day by day. We’re aiming to be back in the water by the first week of February. Fingers crossed!
We left the Vava’u Group in a cloud. We’d reluctantly sailed away from the outer islands for the last time and back into town to deal with Customs, do laundry, and fill the boat with pineapples, tomatoes, and coffee. Now a late afternoon drizzle surrounded us as we glided South. We had a week or two before we wanted to be underway for New Zealand and we planned on spending most of it in the Ha’apai Group.
The island chain of the Ha’apais, 70 miles south of Vava’u, have a reputation for being astoundingly pretty, uncrowded, and naturally pristine. The thing about far-flung islands is that rarely is one place all of these things, no matter how many times it’s described as such. Of the 62 islands that make up the Ha'apai group, only 17 are populated and just four of those have electricity. People are subsistence farmers on narrow islands without running water and fishermen where fuel for outboards is often unaffordable. Not surprisingly, the Ha’apai group hosts far fewer visitors than Vava’u each year. We were pretty anxious to see what it was like.
I've been thinking a lot over the past year about what we hope for when we plan trips to these tropical paradises. Why do those generic solitary palm, white sand beach, turquoise lagoon postcards continue to grab our attention? I don't think there are many of us who truly want to leave everything behind and disappear on some deserted island, but there's obviously something attractive about the notion. Maybe the image is so alluring simply because it's such a contrast to our daily lives. Or because, at the very moment it catches our eye, we know someone is out there enjoying that solitude, and it's not us. Probably we just want to drink beer in the sun without ever getting getting sunburt or hungover. After all, when you picture a tropical paradise, what you're envisioning is, in all likelihood, a Corona ad.
Anyway, Pangai, the dusty main town in the Ha'apais, was certainly not that. But Tamata was the only boat in the little harbor, we were offered fresh papaya while we checked in with customs (straight out of our agent’s lunch box) and the one café in town, serving cheeseburgers and cold beer, was devoid of customers and their chatter, which is paradise enough in the right circumstances. Plus, as we’d coasted toward Pangai's little harbor shortly after sunrise that morning, the weary boredom of a dark overnight sail with only light winds was broken by the thrashing of a decent sized mahi-mahi on the end of our line.
Magda, the woman who ran the café, reckoned that we were the last boat for the season. We weren’t the only people there, though. We shared the little patio with a young Australian guy traveling by himself. Jamie was on holiday for two weeks. He had come to Tonga, he said, “to escape reality”. For him, reality was the midnight shift for a talk radio show in Sydney and the use of his spare time to search for an apartment so he could move out of his parents’ house. While in Ha’apai, his home was a thatched roof fale on the next island over, Uoleva, where he spent his days taking walks, swimming, and, I suppose, finding comfort in his temporary escape.
It was such a pleasant scene – strangers drinking tasteless beer in the shade – that we spent our afternoon at the cafe. Out in the sunny street, school kids in uniform eating ice cream cones wandered by. Piglets scurried, frightened into the bushes by a passing car. Magda joined our conversation when she wasn’t busy being our waitress or chef or keeping an eye on her three-year-old son.
We made plans with Jamie to go spearfishing in the pass south of Ouleva. He never been before but as there wasn’t much to do at his “resort” and as he’d been served the same unidentifiable curry for the past three nights, the thought of exploring a bit and having the chance to eat fresh fish excited him. We arranged to meet the next day.
What we found at Uoleva (and throughout the Ha’apais, as we’d discover in the coming days) was a scene as near perfect as we’d experienced. We were the only boat in sight, and as we drifted along in the current beside the dinghy we were overwhelmed at the life around us. Things were noticeably balanced, with fish of all sizes flitting around us, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that the coral would have looked nearly the same thousands of years ago. We were able to easily spear a handful of fish – enough to feed us, the guests at the resort where Jamie was staying, and the family who ran it.
All of this perfection was interrupted by the presence of a shark beneath us, which is a fairly normal occurrence. It wasn’t just another reef shark though. It was more than 10 meters below us and looked big even at that depth. It took me a minute to understand that slinking around down there was a tiger shark the size of a car. The three of us were mesmerized by the shark’s size and grace but I’m not sure it was even aware of us. It swam off as quietly as it had appeared. Then, not even five minutes later, a 12-foot bull shark accompanied by several pilot fish showed up, made the same rounds, and disappeared into deeper water.
To experience this, especially by chance out on our own, was really something special. It was hard to fathom what Jamie was feeling. He was here to escape, and I’d imagine he couldn’t have been further from the chores of his daily life back in Sydney. But though escape was his intention, I wonder whether it was the outcome. The day before, he’d never held a speargun. Now he’d caught his own dinner, experienced the silent pleasure of drifting over a healthy coral reef, and swam with two of the more aggressive species of shark all in one morning. He later told us that when he brought the fish back to the resort the local guys cleaned it up, cut it open, and dug right in, tearing raw flesh with their hands and urging him to do the same. Since they had no way of keeping anything cool, I imagine they washed it down with a nice, warm beer.
The rest of our time in the Ha’apais wasn’t as thrilling as our five minute shark swim, but each day was just as quietly beautiful. Because we didn’t visit any of the inhabited islands besides Lifuka, the whole place felt empty and synced to some distant metronome. We’d occasionally hear some crackle on the VHF and we did share an anchorage with some local spearfishermen one night and a French sailboat another. But for the most part we felt like we were the only people in the whole of the Ha’apai Group. We anchored off one island where a lonely black cow walked the beach at sundown. Another was the setting for an abandoned resort, its distance from Lifuka, an already distant destination, the likely explanation for its deserted porches and vine-covered fales.
The more time I spend in spots like the Ha’apais, those far-flung, postcard perfect island destinations, the less I view them as escape hatches. Instead they feel like portals to a way of life that so many of us are continually striving to live, one where people are deeply connected to their surroundings. It’s one where people’s relationships with the environment are necessarily balanced because survival depends on it, where limited resources make for creative solutions, where there are very few shortcuts or substitutions for hard work, and where communication may be relatively primitive but is rarely frivolous.
That’s not to say that Tongan life is simple and life in the developed world is complex, and I certainly don’t want to romanticize any notion of “island time”. But after a year spent in and out of very isolated places, I am still struck by the contrasts in what being connected means. On our trip, we’ve tried our best to stay connected, mainly through this blog. In the course of doing so we’ve also discovered that we don’t necessarily miss the things we’ve inadvertently escaped from and that there’s another, more tangible form of reality the further you get from the ever progressive buzz of the “real” world.
The last place we visited, the little island of Kelefecia, was one of the most scenic either of us had ever been to. Limestone cliffs towered over a protected lagoon where coral rose to just below the surface of the water. The island’s shape and structure – like preserved ruins or a crumbling, ancient wall separating one vast, empty expanse from another – gave the whole place a dramatic feel and at sunset, when the clouds were illuminated red-gold above us and the sky glowed electric blue, we just sat on deck and watched the world around us slowly fade out.
(And Big Change of Plans! AND It's Been One Year!!!)
Things are winding down here in Vava’u. The whales have moved south and with them have gone most of the tourists. We, on the other hand, are still here. Plans change often for us, in small ways and large. In fact, it’s abnormal if our plans don’t change at this point. Over the past year there have been times when we’ve had to leave suddenly, pulling anchor in the early hours of the morning and reevaluating our next move only once we’re underway. We’ve made and broken loose plans with several friends, unable to lock down a date or place to have them on board, and as their week of vacation time draws closer and closer and logistics have still not been sorted, those plans fizzle out and we start looking at other options months down the line. We’ve had to skip entire countries, weather or timing not permitting us to follow our original route. It can be pretty annoying and bums us out when it means missed opportunities to see friends and family. But it also means that we may find ourselves in a place we never intended to visit, like Niue, or that we end up staying for a while in one place and really get to know it, like Makemo in the Tuamotus, and now, Vava’u.
In this case, our change of plans has surprised us. We’re so happy we’ve stayed in Tonga rather than hurrying off to pack in a quick couple of weeks in Fiji. It was a bit of a disconcerting start here with constant rain and wind and the ever-present throng of boats packed into Neiafu, Vava’u’s main harbor. But as the weeks went by the weather improved and we began to realize that most of those boats never leave the harbor. Which means we’ve had some incredible anchorages all to ourselves. We’ve also unexpectedly gained a more authentic experience here and, having met lots of different people who call Vava’u home, have had small glimpses of what Tongan life is like from the perspective of locals. We've had pig roasts and Tongan feasts, traded fish for fresh produce in one of the smaller villages, and learned about some of the traditional arts, ways of cooking, native species, and even early navigation tactics. It's not the first time we've felt lucky to have been able to be more than just tourists.
The middle of October is the beginning of the end of the season in Vava’u, and now the whole place has that empty but still animated feel. Things feel calmer. More quiet. Maybe it’s just my Northern hemisphere sensibility kicking in as November arrives, but it feels a bit like it does at home when fall settles in. One season lingers as long as it can until it is fully eclipsed by the overpowering presence of the next.
It’s in this climate that Matt and I have been spending lots of time out on the porch at Mounu Island, where we’ve become good friends with Kirsty, Allan, Lynn, Amber and her three adorable children, Ma'ata, Nati and the rest of the wonderful staff there, and the family pets: Otto the dog, Chicken and Charcoal the cats, and Brad the bat. Guests or no guests, it’s my favorite spot to get off the boat. What I love most is spending the late afternoon sitting around the long wooden table having a coffee or sipping on a beer with whoever’s around. The sound of the waves lapping at the sandy shore, the sight of the boat out on the mooring, the dog at your feet, the baitfish schooling up just offshore… Replace the coconut palms with ash trees and the chirping geckos with mourning doves and I’m back home. It’s the first time on this trip that I’ve missed home not because everything is so foreign but because everything is so strangely familiar.
We’re off in a few hours for the Ha’apai Group, a 70 mile overnight passage, so we won’t be popping into Mounu until next year. Which brings me to our biggest change of plans yet. Next year... We’ve decided not to make Australia our final destination in December. Instead we'll spend cyclone season in New Zealand and circle back East for another lap of the South Pacific next year. There has been so much we’ve had to skip over and we’ve really only scratched the surface with our six month stint sailing between French Polynesia and Tonga. It’s a fitting time to announce this, too, because today marks the one year anniversary of the beginning of the trip. Hard to believe that only one year ago we were sailing out of Narragansett Bay on a calm, crisp morning, full of anticipation and eagerness. Harder still to have imagined that we’d have been to all of the incredible places we’ve been to, met the number of people we’ve met, and discovered things to be marveled at and adventures to be had everywhere we’ve gone. It’s gone by in a flash and we’re thrilled to be able to continue on for another year.
In the meantime, we're celebrating Year One - where else? - at sea. Only a few more passages until we reach Opua, on the northern coast of New Zealand's North Island. Matt's enthusiasm level has dropped slightly in the past week after Australia lost the Rugby World Cup final to the Kiwis... But I'm pretty anxious to get there, where I'll be feasting on blueberries, sweet corn, oysters, cold water fish, good cheese, and crusty bread and washing it all down with (finally!) a nice glass of wine. Yew!
On the surface, Tonga is understated. It is, technically, a kingdom, but its landscape isn’t as grand as its political classification suggests. The islands of Vava’u are lumpy and densely forested so from afar don’t have the same dramatic allure that so many other South Pacific islands do. But get up close and the electric blue of shallow water lining the land glows, short hidden beaches without a footprint on them reveal themselves, and caves and caverns leading into and under craggy rock faces sit waiting for visitors. Below the surface, the marine life is healthy and lively, and this time of year baitfish swarm in massive schools, often being chased by bigger fish below and hungry birds above.
We visited one of the more well-known caves last week and discovered how spectacular Tonga can be. Just as the sun was starting to get low and send rays beaming into the cave’s opening, we swam in and hung out with literally tens of thousands of skittish baitfish. Such a cool spot! We got some amazing photos. I thought I’d share just a few while I’ve got decent internet. Enjoy!
Looks like my attempts to update the blog more regularly have failed… We’ve had a pretty action-packed three weeks so I haven’t spent much time chasing internet access and when I can get online, uploading photos has been nearly impossible. I am able to upload small photos to Instagram fairly frequently, though, so if you don’t already you can follow along here.
Since I last wrote, the rain finally lifted (though not before completely filling our tanks!) and we’ve been exploring as much of Tonga’s Vava’u group as possible. Being in town is convenient, but the mooring field is crowded and your only hope of getting internet access is at one of the restaurants, nearly all owned by ex-pats, where you can generally choose from french fries, pizza, or fajitas. On the upside, they do broadcast American football and Rugby World Cup matches. So after a brief greasy-food-eating sports-watching blowout, we stocked up on fresh fruit and veggies and headed out of town.
As we sailed out of the harbor that first day with the sun finally illuminating Tonga’s marvelously clear water, I suddenly got why there are so many sailboats here. The geography of the Vava’u group is such that there are dozens of well protected anchorages - deep coves, enclosed lagoons, sweeping reefs - scattered among open bays and channels where the wind funnels through but the swell cannot reach. Good sailing by day, secure holding at night. You feel so remote but town is just a few miles away. Between anchorages, we often find ourselves skating across flat water with just a bit of the jib out, able to comfortably enjoy nice lunches, make coffee without spilling, and reel in fish without fear of falling overboard. Sailing is simple and relaxing again! After so much time on the open ocean worrying about wind and sail changes, waves and weather, it’s such a pleasure to go for an impromptu jaunt down to another island or head out for a few hours of diving. We’ve caught up on sleep and boat maintenance and our freezer is filled with fish again. Life feels a bit more regular.
It hasn’t been dull, though. Matt’s brother Glenn and his girlfriend Amy have been here for the past week. We’ve been diving in caves filled with thousands of glimmering baitfish, tramping around lonely islands on the hunt for coconuts, catching yellowfin(!), eating grilled squid (!! - Glenn’s first victim), and spending many of our nights cooking over beach fires with friends on uninhabited islands. I know. Pretty ideal.
We’ve also enjoyed a couple more refined meals, one at Mounu Island Resort and the other at Eue-iki’s Treasure Island Resort. These are both “eco-resorts”, not air-conditioned, multi-story, manicured hotel resorts. We met the owners of Mounu, Alan and Lynn, through friends of ours. Their daughter Kirsty, who helps run the place, is a mean kite surfer and a fantastic cook. Their guests are always happy and well fed. Spending time there feels like hanging at a friend’s place and we always look forward to watching the moon rise on their beach-front deck while Alan tells stories about whales, fishing New Zealand’s far north, and whatever else is on his mind that night. Usually the general theme is danger: at-sea rescues, shark attacks, Vladimir Putin… standard dinner party stuff.
Eue’iki (aka Treasure Island) is where we met up with our friend Joe to complete a course in free diving. Like all of the islands here, Eue’iki’s coast drops off to over 40 meters just a stone’s throw from shore. This is an ideal environment for learning the basics of free diving. We practiced relaxation and breath holds in the shallow area and diving technique and static depth training - essentially holding your breath at a set depth - out in the deeper water. Treasure Island has a covered dock where we learned freedive-specific stretches and went through a few yoga courses with Heidy, who is a fantastic teacher and has become a good friend. (I think the thought of spearing a fish at 20 meters is about the only thing that could get Matt to do downward dog.) The four of us sailed to a favorite spot of ours, Hunga, which is a deep, flat lagoon almost entirely surrounded by tall hills. Just outside the narrow pass we dive in what feels like an aquarium: busy striped jacks darting around like they have places to be, thousands of tiny yellow and black fish appearing like a swarm of bees but pecking like birds at the algae on the reef, the occasional job fish poking around, a huge blacktip reef shark making the rounds now and then, and a school of ghostly, big eyed mumus dangling, as Joe describes them, like marionettes staring out at you until you make eye contact, when they just as silently turn and disappear.
Because we love to fish and therefore often find ourselves with more than two people can eat, we worked out a deal with Kirsty at Mounu and Mark and Veronica, the lovely owners of Treasure Island. They’d take any fish we’d caught or speared and didn’t have space for in the freezer off our hands. They’d get to serve fresh fish, we’d get to fish as much as we liked, and I got to learn new ways of preparing whatever we caught. Between Tamata, Mounu and Treasure Island, there were fish recipes from Mexico, Tonga, New Zealand, the States, and Australia. Plus those we’d all learned along the way . Typically after we’d had a significant froth session over hauling in a tuna off the line or a fresh bucketful of jacks, snappers, and jobfish speared off the reef, we’d spend the next half hour talking about what we were going to do with it. Options for eating it raw ranged from sashimi, poke, carpaccio, ceviche, and poisson cru, known simply as raw fish in Tonga. Or maybe we’d sear it for just a minute and serve it with a freshly whipped aioli. We could roast it whole, stuffed with herbs and garlic. We could sort of “cure” it in a oniony-tomatoey-vinegary mixture (escabeche). We could fry it up and serve it with chips. We could chop it up and cook it into a curry. We could mix up a quick coconut milk sauce and let the rich, sweetness of the fruit play against the bright, saltiness of the fish. And after filleting, we could heat the head, wings, and bones into a simple broth, add a few veggies and herbs and make a clean, spicy soup. And we could add noodles or rice or sausage or cream if we felt like something more substantial. Whether slicing it up thin and letting it melt in your mouth after a long day of diving, having it served to you at a long table with good conversation and good wine, or whacking it on a campfire whole under the stars, eating a fish that you’ve caught yourself just hours before is one of the most basic and most enjoyable culinary pleasures there is.
I could go on and on about fish. Instead I’ll just say thanks to Glenn for digging out and transporting Matt’s legendary Western Australian lure, a red and white “Giant Trembler”, because that’s been the favorite among yellowfin. More than a few jokes have been made about its name (all very tasteful, of course) but it’s undeniable - fish are crazy for that thing! We’re off to see what we can get with it today. Meanwhile, here are a few photos of what we've caught lately. More on Treasure Island, Mounu, whale swimming, outriggers, and underwater caves soon!
After being anchored at the village for several nights, we woke one morning, pulled the anchor and slowly made our way toward the next island southwest of Mangareva. I believe Taravai's official population is eight – six adults and two children – though if you count non-permanent residents like pigs, chickens and goats, the population triples. Taravai is an incredibly peaceful place. The main “attraction” is the big church that sits on an tidily manicured parcel of land at the water's edge. Bees buzz around its aging stained glass windows. Branches of bougainvillea nod in the breeze. When we visited the church was empty, as it no doubt almost always is. But it is kept spotless nonetheless, with pews in perfect order and everything on the altar in its place as though a preacher and his congregation may wander in and begin mass at any moment.
Beyond the church a wide grass path cuts through a grove of bananas and papayas, which is maintained by Taravai's residents. We met one of them when we wandered into her backyard. She immediately welcomed us and invited us to stay. The yard was shady and quiet. Chickens pecked at coconut husks, a couple of small horses mulled around near the house, and piglets scurried in and out of the brush.
Lolo explained to us that she was only here temporarily, a sort of extended house sitting gig. She and her husband, who was out hiking for the day, were originally from France. They had sailed all over the world, most recently coming from Patagonia, and had become accustomed to life on the move. But then they sailed into the Gambiers and after some time in Rikitea, spent a few nights at Taravai for a change of scenery. She fell completely in love with the place. Now their boat sat an anchor in front of the house, looking rather bare boned and stationary. Lolo spent her days tending to the animals – including nursing a neglected horse from Rikitea back to health and fattening the piglets for slaughter (her weapon of choice was shotgun) – growing a vegetable and herb garden, maintaining the path and yard, and making jewelry from shells and coral she collected. I know it must get lonely there, that everyday life can't be easy and that there are downsides to that kind of life that I know nothing about, but as she was describing it while we sat there in the shade sipping lemonade, her life sounded pretty dreamy and surreal to me. When it was time to go, we left her with several baguettes and she filled our arms with plantains.
Later that evening as we puttered around in the dinghy fishing, the sky glowed a fiery orange and cast a golden light on the cliffs and rocks on Taravai's far side as dark clouds rolled in. Wild goats stood like statues on outcroppings above us as raindrops began to fall, distorting the visibility of the coral beneath us. Smoke rose from one of the houses and sank back down, settling into folds in the mountainside. We got a glimpse of French Polynesia's dramatic side for a few moments before the rain poured down and we sped back to the boat.
We were returning from an excursion to find some bok choi when a small, grey pickup slowed to a stop and a man wearing a bandanna Springstien style gave us a weary look. He asked in a thick French accent if we spoke German. We did not.
“Merde... Ok. Uh... Get in.”
We recognized this guy. He'd asked us the same question about a week before, to which Matt had responded, “Oh are you Fritz?” We'd read about Fritz, a German man who'd been living in Rikitea for years and made his washing machine available to people passing through on boats. And we were in desperate need of a laundry machine.
“Fritz? Fritz is an alcoholic,” this man had replied, looking disgusted. Then he drove off. (We later met Fritz. A friendly, sedentary older man whose preferred Hinano lager over coffee for breakfast, he spent his days watching old war movies on a grainy 10-inch square television while renting out his miniature washing machine for $6 a load.)
Anyway. This time, instead of asking any questions we crawled into the bed of his pickup just in time for him to speed up the rest of the hill, round the corner at the top, and bounce onto a dirt road without so much as feathering the brake. But not in time to notice the gun he had stashed in the backseat. The big boxer mutt who was standing guard in the driveway just watched.
Venturing out of town in Rikitea means going uphill, no matter which direction you head. Rikitea is the main village on Mangareva, the largest island in the Gambier archipelago. These are the most remote of French Polynesia's islands. The weather station to which we'd followed the road sits perched on a flat lookout a third of the way up the mountain. On the day we'd arrived we'd been told by other sailors that there was a man here who grew bok choi, but all anyone knew was that he lived near the weather station. After a few halfhearted attempts and a lot of peering over fences, we'd finally stumbled upon a house in the shadow of Mangareva's highest peak, Mt. Duff, whose backyard was filled with rows of leafy greens and peppers. I'm usually the only one on the boat who gets excited about that kind of stuff (definitely the only one to use the term “leafy greens”), but after nearly three weeks at sea we were all feeling way past due for fresh vegetables. And finally finding it felt a bit like a bit of an achievement. For $10 we filled a plastic shopping bag full of bok choi, whole heads cut at the stem and dripping wet from being dunked in a five gallon bucket of fresh water. It was as we were cheerfully walking back down the hill from this successful mission that we bumped into Not Fritz.
He steered the truck down a steep curved driveway at the end of the dirt road. Our destination was a simple house tucked into the corner of a hill overlooking Rikitea's harbor. Our boat looked teeny and far away from up there. All around the house there was evidence of ongoing projects: a garage filled with tools and scrap metal, spare tires stacked outside, tarps keeping piles of stuff under cover here and there. There were a teeny kitten and two small dogs there to greet us – not the kind of big mutts you saw lying around town, but rather what you'd refer to as specialty breeds; had they been groomed and deodorized, you might find them stowed away in some woman's purse somewhere far, far away from Mangareva. And plants grew everywhere. Some in containers, some in a makeshift greenhouse, some just this side of wild spilling out from under hibiscus trees or the edges of the patio.
I spotted a few small tomatoes, a pepper plant, and a bunch of herbs and realized that this man hadn't brought us here to kidnap, kill or rob us. He wanted to feed us. Seeing us toting around a bag full of greens, he wanted to set us up with more fresh food straight from his own garden. He was already out of the truck and halfway into the forest behind his greenhouse when we came to this realization. We followed behind while the dogs scrambled around our ankles. Before long we were loaded up with an armful of starfruit and several heavy papayas.
We still didn't know his name. He was one of those people who does what he's doing without distraction, delay, or even a smile. At that moment he was on a mission to collect food and that was all. Also, he seemed fixed on the idea that we didn't speak French or German and he didn't speak English, so even when I'd attempt to stumble through the awkwardness he'd dismiss it and continue marching toward some other part of his garden, me trailing behind. But I persisted, telling him that I worked on farms and in greenhouses. When I tried to ask him about his orchids he softened a bit and we could get along a half step above our very basic, mostly nonverbal form of communication.
By the end of our short visit, the amount of fresh food we had in our possession had multiplied tenfold. In addition to our bok choi we carried bags full of little green bell peppers, bananas, starfruit, papaya, ginger, rosemary, Thai basil, and the thick, glossy leaves from a shrub he called bois d'Inde, or India wood (what I think was cardamom). We couldn't get him to take anything in return, Panamanian rum and fish we'd caught at Henderson Island being the only items of value we had for trading. He just laughed. “I have,” he told us, as if to remind us that there's not exactly a shortage of fish in the Gambiers.
This wasn't our introduction to the kind of hospitality that French Polynesia is so famous for, but it is my favorite instance. There aren't many places where you can (or would) hop into a stranger's truck in a foreign country without speaking the language and without second thoughts as he whisks you away down a deeply quiet dirt road. And even fewer places where, after doing so, you'd end up not somewhere terrifyingly creepy, but instead in a mini-Eden on a tropical mountainside.
We'd sailed through the wide gap in the barrier reef that surrounds the Gambier archipelago after 18 days at sea and two nights amid the solitude of Henderson Island. To us, the whole place was a miniature Eden. The pointy summits of Mt. Mokoto and Mt. Duff rise over 400m above the sea, which is nothing compared to the giants of the Marquesas and Tahiti but looked pretty magnificent to us. Mokoto and Duff are often hidden behind low passing clouds, and the rest of the island seems to have melted down from their peaks rather than risen up from below the sea. The vegetation is lush, deep green, and covers every fold in the land. From where we stared up at all of this on Tamata, the foreground was an electric blue sea separated from the shore by a splotchy border of pale turquoise.
On land, there was the usual abundance of coconuts and plenty of banana and breadfruit trees. But also there were bright green pamplemouse – a sweeter version of the citrusy grapefruit I grew up eating – hanging from untended trees, mangoes ripening on shady branches, pumpkins swelling in ditches beside the road. The village bakery cranked out hundreds of baguettes each morning, as well as pain du chocolate and croissants on the weekends. There was a takeaway counter at one of the little shops (magasins) that served up steak frites and chow mein, plates that should rank alongside poisson cru as national dishes if not for the quality of the food, at least for their ubiquity on menus throughout French Polynesia.
We settled in pretty quickly. I especially fell in love with the more temperate climate and self-sufficient, independent feel of the Gambiers. For us, most days in the village anchorage would go something like this: we'd wake up just before sunrise in order to make it to the bakery before the baguettes sold out, return to the boat for hot coffee and fresh bread, and then spend a few hours working around the boat. We'd usually head into town to do something around lunchtime, and spend the afternoon swimming and rotating our endless rotation of laundry. Sometimes we'd take long walks hoping to stumble upon the bok choi man. Most afternoons we'd make a few runs to the dock at the far end of town where there was a fresh water source. We'd paid $5 for what was essentially an endless supply so we wouldn't have to run the water maker. If you're planning on doing a month's worth of laundry in a five gallon bucket, you either need consistently rainy afternoons or a steady supply of fresh water. As it got close to 4 'clock the sun would grow weaker and sink lower, leaving us to finish up whatever work we had in the cool shadow of the south facing hillside for the rest of the afternoon. It was dark by six. Though the Gambiers are semi-tropical, they are situated at 23 degrees South. At that latitude, winter makes itself felt.
One morning we hiked Mt. Mokoto, Mangareva's bald peak. Though it wasn't the most challenging hike, it was one of the best I've ever done. The end was a bit steep and completely above the tree line, leaving unobstructed views on either side of the narrow trail. One of those sides was a sloping, chartreuse meadow, the other a cliff. There were wild goats scampering around the rocks below us and way beyond them were miniature pearl shacks floating in a haze of blue. Such an incredible hike.
When I think back on it now, it doesn't seem like we did a whole lot during our time in Rikitea. But just as on a boat, everyday chores in a remote place like the Gambiers take at least twice as long to accomplish as they normally would. Life slows down, each morning's “to do” list dissolves into a languid afternoon, and night sets in early. Our time there passed quickly.
We knew we wouldn't be able to see Henderson Island until we were close. Like, 5 miles away. But we'd been at sea a while, and after 18 days of nothing but ocean you'll start looking for even the lowest lying slab of land 20 miles out if you know it's there. For two or three days we'd been sailing pretty much dead downwind under a sail configuration known as wing-and-wing or goose-wing: the main all the way out on one side and the jib, held in place with the spinnaker pole, all the way out the other. Picture a cormorant perched on a rock, its wings drying in the sun. Kind of like that. The wind was light, the swell behind us had diminished, and we were being pushed along gently. From sunrise until about 11am, when we got our first glimpse of the waves colliding with the vertical walls that define Henderson, time passed slowly.
As we neared land more and more birds swooped in to check us out and then flapped along behind, staring down at the fishing lures we were trolling. Every couple minutes one of the smaller gannets would rise up a bit higher, hover for a second, and dive in. Generally they'd resurface empty beaked, or maybe fumble a bit with the plastic lure before dropping it back down where it would race along below the surface. The frigate birds would watch, waiting to see whether it was worth their while to descend and attempt to snatch away whatever the smaller birds may have caught. It seemed impossible that one of these things wouldn't hook itself so we watched nervously, except for Matt, who was focused solely on catching a fish. We were finally in a place where we knew they were just beneath us and the way he saw it, if a seabird was dumb enough to hook itself that was the bird's problem.
The cascade of hungry birds continued as the wind picked up, and as we altered course to give ourselves some room, and while we began to put the jib away and run under the main alone. Only just as we were furling the jib, one of the gannets got itself tangled in the line, so our furling job turned out a bit sloppy. We raced to the stern where the bird, totally helpless, was being dragged along as it flailed. Matt's feelings apparently softened and he quickly hauled the bird in while it tried to stop itself from being pulled underwater by spreading its wings (wing-and-wing style) and removed the lure. He got the bird to choke up a gallon of water and resume breathing. It sat on the aft deck barely able to support its own head while we redirected our attention to the jib, which had blown partially unfurled and somehow tangled itself up in its sheets. By now the wind was strong right on the beam. We tried bearing off and loosening the sheets, but they were a total mess and we realized it would take a lot more time and effort to fix it than it had to free the bird.
I nosed the boat into the wind while Loren and Matt worked together first to get the part of the sail that was unfurled straightened out, and then to come up with a plan for sorting out the rest. Now the problem was that heading into the wind meant heading straight for land. The swell lifted not in that gradual, wave rolling toward shore way, but more like a train ascending from a tunnel: a sudden, unstoppable force rising from somewhere deep down. So each time we got too close we'd have to bear off and circle around. We ended up doing half a dozen circles in order to unwrap one sheet and then the other and finally the sail. Our scenic cruise along the western coast of the island ended up being little more than a frustrating series of spirals on the chart.
We were tired, there didn't seem to be any place to anchor, the boat was a mess. And there was the bird. Over an hour had passed since Matt had saved his life and though he had regained his physical strength, he seemed to have suffered memory loss. He'd hold his beak open, threatening to snap it shut on Matt's fingers whenever he got near. The wind was irritating, and the chop seemed to come from all directions. This was not the arrival we'd been expecting.
Then we rounded Henderson's westernmost corner and were suddenly gliding through smooth, clear water. In front of us was a sandy anchorage that, while deep, was sheltered from the wind. And in front of that was a narrow white beach full of coconut palms. Still in disbelief, we decided to rest for at least a few hours and possibly overnight while we cleaned up the boat and checked the weather. We were determined to make it to Pitcairn and whether or not we would depended on the wind.
The blue of the open ocean had been deep and mesmerizing. But being underwater at Henderson and seeing straight to the bottom at a depth of 48 feet was almost more incredible. Fish that seemed tiny from the surface revealed themselves to weigh 12-15 lbs as we dove deeper. Sharks looked like remoras, patches of coral like little cauliflowers, and our anchor chain, instead of fading into the depths like it normally did, led to a miniature anchor that sat like a toy dropped in a sandbox.
As the sun started to fade it was becoming clear that we would be spending the night there. It was perfect. We cracked a few beers and broke out the fishing rods. The flying fish we'd collected during the crossing were fantastic bait. Within seconds of casting we'd feel the familiar tug and jerk of an unhappy fish on the other end. We pulled up several jacks who were deceptively strong for their size. Then we began feeling even stronger, more determined pulls on the line and were pretty excited at the thought of bigger, tastier fish. As the first one broke the surface we saw that it was certainly bigger.
“I caught a f---ing shark!!” Loren shouted. Sure enough, he was doing his best to hold a thrashing grey reef shark on the line, the rod tip bent 180 degrees and Loren's eyes and smile wide. The shark wasn't too happy, though, and pretty quickly freed himself by breaking the line. We didn't care. What's a couple of hooks and a few feet of line? And why fish for fish when you can fish for sharks? By this time the sharks had worked themselves into a bit of a frenzy so catching jacks was nearly impossible anyhow. We continued on with our shark wrangling and beer drinking.
The next morning, we woke to the same smooth waters and mild wind. We checked the weather and concluded that we had two options: we could either leave that afternoon in order to arrive at Pitcairn the next morning, but due to the steady ENE winds that were forecast – the same winds that were making our anchorage at Henderson so pleasant – there was no guarantee that we'd get ashore at Pitcairn; or, we could choose to stay at Henderson, skipping Pitcairn altogether.
Had Pitcairn been almost any other island the decision wouldn't have been difficult. But we'd been looking forward to getting there for months. It's one of the least visited islands on the planet thanks to its near-impossible approach. And this is what made it such an ideal hiding spot for Fletcher Christian and the mutineers from the Bounty in 1789, having sent Captain Bligh and those faithful to him overboard in a liferaft near Tonga. Today the island's 50 or so residents are all descendants of those men and the Tahitian women they brought with them (ie, kidnapped). The incredible story on which Pitcairn's surviving civilization was founded has lured sailors for hundreds of years, yet very few actually make it there. And we were within 100 miles with at least a slight chance of getting ashore.
On the other hand, almost no one gets to Henderson either, and we had just about the most ideal conditions we could have asked for. Henderson is a UNESCO world heritage site with over a dozen of its own endemic species. It's one of very few examples of an ecosystem free from human intervention. The water was the cleanest and most beautiful we'd ever seen. And while it would have been fun/weird/troubling to meet the residents of Pitcairn, Henderson's association with the survivors of the whale ship Essex was to us just as alluring. The whole place had a sort of Robinson Crusoe feeling to it. The craggy cliffs, the caves dotting the coastline, the pounding waves, sharks, coral reefs, hundreds of birds and lonely coconuts palms had all existed for thousands and thousands of years without people. Knowing that gave the place a special sort of aura. If we'd felt far away in the middle of the ocean, now we really felt like we were at the end of the earth.
Maybe you can see where I'm going with this... We ultimately decided to forfeit our one chance to visit Pitcairn and take advantage of the time we had at Henderson while the conditions lasted. I'd be lying if I said I didn't regret skipping Pitcairn. But I value the time we spent at Henderson even more. It was truly the coolest place I've ever been. Even Matt, who sometimes seems to have been everywhere, was in awe. We spent most of the next two days in the water and each evening relished in the knowledge that this place was, at least for the time being, ours.
Landfall after an ocean crossing is never dull. At whichever place you arrive your first hours there seem magical. No matter if the place is a run down town, a sleepy village, or New York City. Everything has this buzz about it that you often don't notice while you're living amongst it all. It's one of those things you don't miss until it's gone, and at sea it exists only as an element of some vivid memory. But usually after the first few hours back on land that buzz starts to fade into the background and the magic subsides. You begin to notice the dumpy parts of town, the absence of measurable action, and the presence of loud, grating noises. It sometimes feels like almost as soon as you arrive you're already looking forward to the next place.
We only stayed at Henderson for two nights before we had to leave. We would have loved to stay longer but the wind would be picking up in a few days and we needed to be anchored safely in the Gambiers before it did. So leaving was difficult. At Henderson the magic never subsided. I guess when you know you're someplace really special and that you'll never be back that's how it goes.
There's a sort of paradox about the Galapagos Islands. In the same way that you don't have to leave your car to see a bison in Yellowstone National Park, or pay for a tour guide to introduce you to a loudmouthed New Yorker in Manhattan, in a place as wild as the Galapagos you need not put in any grueling effort (besides getting there) to have the experience you came to have. Like many of the great protected natural areas, the wilderness you experience is ultimately rather tame. Within a day of being anchored at Isla Isabela, the Westernmost island in the Galapagos, we saw swimming iguanas, tiny penguins, sea lions and tortoises. We arranged to go diving. We watched the sun set behind an active volcano. And any questions we had could be answered by all the other sailors around us, because they were all doing the same things. That's not to say these experiences weren't authentic. The fact that I was in one of the most unique natural places in the world was never lost on me. I'd never seen any of these animals in the wild before, and certainly had never enjoyed daily private swims with sea lions just beneath the boat. The dive we paid for was incredible– hammerhead sharks shyly passing by, sea turtles approaching without fear, hundreds of barracuda drifting before us like a gleaming curtain, and visibility like I'd never experienced. In the evenings, we ate Ecuadorian style BBQ and drank tall Pilseners (which were really lager) while we checked the weather and our emails in one of the cafes in town. One afternoon we sat through a torrential downpour and the booms of thunder that accompanied it while the clear, green water surrounding us flattened and then gave its surface up to the endless attack of drops of rain. The islands of the Galapagos are just as unbelievable as everyone says.
But right up there among the best experiences we had were getting small glimpses into the lives of the people who were making a living there. Yes, the wildlife and the scenery were amazing and memorable. Each morning it's what I looked forward to seeing. But, two months on, the most colorful memories are our interactions with the people for whom Isabela is home, not a tourist attraction. When you pare a place down, sometimes what's left is the people, no matter how spectacular the rest is.
We met a 19 year old surf-obsessed cab driver learning to speak English, a farmer willing to let half a dozen tourists romp around his fields and take whatever they like, an Austrian restaurant owner whose “chalet” was perched on the side of a steep hillside overlooking the harbor. Our dive guide was a short, square guy in cutoff denim shorts. Short shorts. He was the Ecuadorian copy of Willem Defoe from The Life Aquatic. His skinny, Catalan sidekick pranced around the dive boat in his underwear between dives. And there was JC, our "unofficial" agent (since Isabela is an unofficial port of entry), whose closet must have housed an eternal rotation of Hawaiian print shirts and whose bicycle wheels were always turning. His mustache seemed to twitch and his glasses suddenly needed cleaning whenever it became clear that he wasn't quite telling us the whole truth regarding the legality of us being in Isabela.
We also met non-locals, other sailors with whom we've ended up becoming good friends over the past two months. Unlike anchorages in other parts of the world where people are coming and going to and from different places on different schedules at different paces, the Galapagos is the last stopping off point for boats coming from South America before heading off for the South Pacific. Every boat in that anchorage was going the same direction – west – and we were all waiting for the right weather window to allow us to go. We ended up meeting a really nice group of people with endlessly entertaining stories and a shared sense of adventure. We ended up keeping in touch via SSB radio during the crossing, which not only provided our main form of entertainment each morning, but also made us work a bit harder to keep our speed up and our fishing lines active. Not that we're competitive...
Isabela, too, is where our good friend Loren joined us for the Pacific crossing. Loren is one of the few people we'd welcome on board without hesitation for such a long offshore passage. Out of all of our friends he has one of the most demanding work schedules, but somehow managed to talk his bosses into letting him spend a month not just out of the office but pretty much completely out of touch and off the radar. He'd be sailing with us for the next month as we made our way from one archipelago to another. He arrived with snowy stories of Boston's fiercest winter in years (which, after so much time around the equator, made me a little homesick) and a massive backpack full of spare parts that he lugged around from airport to airport.
So this was our backdrop during the ten days we spend finalizing plans and preparations for the longest open ocean crossing on our trip. The Galapagos were just as spectacular as you'd expect them to be. But it was the people around us who made our time there most colorful. We were surrounded by a liveliness that was exciting but never overwhelming and a constant state of activity that, in the following weeks, would fade until it existed only in memory against shifting shades of blue.
Ahead of us lay nearly 3,000 miles of ocean and only sun, moon, and stars to mark the passing of days.
After rounding Punta Mala we spent a few nights on the Peninsula de Azuero and bumped into friends we’d met back in Escudo de Veraguas. Barney and his family were traveling the same route and schedule as us and we spent a couple nights in a calm bay on the southwestern side of Isla Cebaco together. Barney has sailed all over the world, his wife, Mel, is a fantastic cook, and their daughter, Faa, is a well-traveled and experienced dive instructor – way more mature and accomplished than I was at 18-years-old.
Mel and I were lamenting the lack of fresh herbs in Panama; we’d both been trying to grow some on board, neither of us with much success. She’d bought a bunch of what she thought were jalapeños but what turned out to be teeny sweet peppers so I gave her half the bag of habaneros I’d bought in Panama City. The next day she shouted over to me as I passed in the dinghy. “I have your peppers!” I was a bit confused. I told her they were hers to keep, I hadn’t lent them to her for the night. But she waved me over and tossed me a small jar. Homemade hot sauce! And Mel is from Thailand, so her hot sauce is proper hot. During our time in Cebaco she also gave us a recipe for Matt’s favorite Thai dish, three-flavor fish (which I promptly forgot because I was busy eating her spicy chicken with pineapple) and a packet of spices for Laab, or meat salad (ie: the best kind of salad). She also makes a mean fish cake, which I’ve since been trying to recreate on Tamata.
Besides the food and story swapping, there were two other constants during our time in Cebaco Bay: a steady northeasterly wind racing through the gap between hills, and a big, black barge moored in the southeast corner. The barge was seemingly there permanently, but surrounding it on smaller mooring balls was a pod of baby-blue-hulled, black-tinted-window motor boats that were kept immaculately clean when they weren’t buzzing in and out of the bay. I sort of just assumed it was a drug-running operation until I remembered that we were only 35 miles from Hannibal Bank, a legendary Central American fishing spot where the Pacific rises sharply from 1300 meters to just 17, attracting tuna, sailfish, marlin, wahoo and other pelagic fish.
This was Cebaco Bay Fishing Club, an understated fishing “lodge” where guests could fish all day and return to drink cold Balboas and grill their catch on a big barbecue on the barge’s deck in solitude, accompanied only by the roars of howler monkeys and the slapping of baitfish on the surface of the bay’s prairie flat water. No gourmet restaurant. No infinity pool. No masseuse. Just fishing and beer. (Which I realize is about as redundant as saying “just skiing and snow!”) Anyway, we learned that you could buy ice and diesel and that the hose leading from the nearby rocks on shore was transporting fresh water from the island’s natural spring for drinking, laundry, showers, and washing down the boat.
Jose, the manager, was a quiet guy with a shy smile. There were no guests at the time, so he showed us around the boat. He also loaded us up with ice and scheduled a time for us to come alongside and fill up with very expensive diesel. The covered deck was inviting and offered a few minutes of refuge from the wind. Apparently the Panamanian Aeronaval thought so, too. Eight of them arrived on their black speedboat in full camo the next day and spent the afternoon listening to music, napping in the hammock and playing dominos in the shade. Josh and Kim arrived on Kuhela that day, too, and the four of us enjoyed fresh fish for dinner each of our remaining nights there.
I know I keep talking about how great the places we visit are, but really, we had it pretty good in Cebaco Bay. If the surf hadn’t picked up at Santa Catalina over on the mainland, we likely would have stayed put. But it did. So we didn’t.
We said goodbye to Bastimentos early on a Friday morning, spent the night in a beautiful, deep anchorage near Kusapin called Playa Raya, and set out the next morning for a place we'd been looking forward to visiting since we began planning for Panama back in Newport. With dying winds and diminishing swell we timed our arrival at the island of Escudo de Veraguas perfectly. There is no well-protected anchorage there, so although the island is only 12nm from the mainland spending time there can be rather uncomfortable. Even if there’s little or no swell, there is nowhere to hide from the wind. We learned that the first rolly night, but by midmorning the next day the sea was glassy and clear and the next three days were unbelievably perfect.
The island is awesome, in the true sense of the word. As we rounded each new bend the scenery seemed more and more unreal. We spent all day exploring the extensive barrier reefs, puttering through the many lagoons and inlets, spear fishing, snorkeling and searching for low hanging coconuts. The north side of the island was all Caribbean blue with white sand beaches tucked between lush green outcroppings and mangrove islands. The south side felt like something out of the reptile exhibit at the zoo – smooth rock walls dipping into deep teal water, tree trunks, vines and foliage rising from the tops of cliffs, creating a not-so-inviting entrance to the dark black jungle behind.
Escudo is the only remaining place in the world where the pygmy three-toed sloth lives. It’s hard to know exactly how many are left – counts have ranged between 40 and 100 – but the consensus is: dangerously few. I was hopeful that we’d spot one (though Matt was skeptical) so I spent the whole first day with my neck craned up, searching the canopy and high branches that hung over the water for any sign of fur. But there was more to be seen underwater and as the evening set in we enjoyed freshly speared fish and a full sky of stars overhead.
The next morning, we were cruising in the dinghy through some of the lagoons where we’d found orchids, bonefish, and tons of horseflies but no sloths. At one point, just after we’d shut the engine off the get over a shallow spot, I caught sight of something that didn’t look quite like the other branches of the red mangrove tree nearest us. We were totally shocked to be just feet away from a miniature sized sloth with three severe looking claws. His body was a self-supporting hammock and he seemed to have a smile on his face. We felt bad for waking him with the snapping of our lenses but he just opened his eyes slowly, checked us out, and went back to sleep. We went back the next day and found him in the same exact spot. I’ve been told (by a semi-reliable source) that even if a sloth drops its baby it won’t come down from the tree to rescue it. That could be one reason that they’re so extremely endangered; I can’t imagine that an island bound sloth has many predators.
We caught sight of white sails as we made our way back to the anchorage and raced over in the dinghy to greet our friends Josh, Kim and Thor. On our sail over from the mainland we’d snagged a huge wahoo, which I’d been marinating in a vinegary escabeche sauce for a couple days. We shared what was only a small portion of the fish but was tons for the five of us and we raved about how cool our time on the island had already been. Josh is the only person who might be more excited about spear fishing than Matt, and the two of them were frothing about getting in the water first thing the next morning.
That’s pretty much how our days went at Veraguas. We’d wake up, pack up the dinghy with fins, masks, snorkels, spear guns, lunch, cameras, and set out for the day. In the afternoon, we’d grab a beer and cruise along in the shadowy south side of the island until the sun started to set, then head back to the boat, cook up some fish, and pass out early, exhausted from the long day in the sun. I really don’t think we could have planned for better conditions. I also spent my birthday there, which happened to be the day I speared my first fish (first shot too!). We delayed leaving as long as we could, but needed to meet my brother and his girlfriend, who were flying into Panama City from Rhode Island. With them coming, we weren’t as bummed out about heading to Colon we might otherwise have been. But it wasn’t easy sailing away from Escudo de Veraguas, knowing we’d likely never get to see it like that again.
Sailing into Laguna de Bluefield makes you feel like you’re shedding skin, extra weight you didn't know you were carrying. Something that's established itself back in Bocas Town is washed away, and that invisible layer that separates you as tourist from whomever has something to offer no longer clings to you like the inescapable humidity. You pass the last dive and tour boats at the Zapatilla Islands and continue on into the dark water that lies flat between the steep, forested hills of the Kusapin peninsula. Thatched roof houses appear here and there and two or three small villages sit quietly along the shore as you move deeper into the bay.
Though Bluefield is only about 20nm from Bocas, it took us three days to get there. We spent one day at Red Frog Beach, eating shrimp tacos and drinking margaritas in the rain, and another wandering around a cacao farm on Bastimentos before leading the boat through a narrow, winding gap (aptly called “The Gap”) that cuts a path through Cayo Nancy and deposits you into a maze of mangrove patches, vibrant green egg-shaped masses strewn across a haze of glimmering aquamarine. We arrive around lunchtime on our third day when there are few people around. Two children paddle past in their dugout canoe, or cayuco, staring. Approaching slowly in case of unmarked shallow spots, our engine deafens us to the sounds of life in the jungle around us until we anchor at the end of Bluefield and signs of normalcy – birds calling, dogs barking, someone hammering, palm fronds clacking in the wind – drift out to us.
Anxious to get to the beach, we head into town. Town is a few houses, a sparsely stocked store, and an empty school. We pay the woman at the store the fee that allows us to visit the community and leave our dinghy tied at the dock ($3/person/day) and follow the paved path up the hill into the jungle. It feels worlds away from Bocas. Bananas hang in reach, butterflies float past, what I assume is breadfruit dangles high above, water trickles from some unseen source, and a floral scent comes and goes as we follow the rise and fall of the path. After a few minutes we can hear the surf, and not long after that we are facing the shore, turquoise waves breaking upon the golden sand. Some friends from Bocas who've arrived on their sailboat the day before greet us. They’re taking a break from surfing, playing with the little kids who’ve become part of their crew. The kids harass you for your photos, posing momentarily with contorted faces, barely staying still long enough to capture an image before grabbing the camera to get a look at the screen and see how silly they look. There are a few adults around, some stopping to chat, others continuing on with their work. Cows sink up to their knees in the mud and wander near the houses behind us. At first glance it’s your typical tropical paradise – a deserted beach on some remote shore in the Caribbean. But more than that it’s front yard to the people who live here. You don’t get the sense that there’s anything exotic about it like you do from those stock postcard photos of palm trees hanging over the water. You experience instead that lived-in feeling, something that, at least for me, is a reminder of home.
Apparently we missed better waves that morning. The rip tide is strong now and the swell is dying a bit. After a short surf session, we make our way back, the seven of us forming a miniature army: surfboards under arms, flip flops smacking our heels, food on our minds. I ask Manuel, who is from Brasil but has spent more time in Panama than anyone I know, about the breadfruit (I’ve never seen it before). He says yes, it’s breadfruit, and as if to prove it picks one the size of a small soccerball off the ground – “the first of the season!” – and takes it with him. He then becomes our impromptu naturalist. This one looks like banana or maybe plantain, but is not. This is yucca, that’s cassava. That strange looking whitish-green fruit we saw on the beach was noni. It’s good as an antioxidant and for healing cuts and scrapes. As we come to the top of the last hill, a boy is selling fresh bread, small rounds that are sometimes referred to as Johnny Cakes, though I’ve also seen them called Journey Cakes. Anyway, they’re not the cornmeal Johnny Cakes we have in Rhode Island, but instead dense, doughy, oversized rolls with the faint flavor of coconut. We buy four at $0.25 a piece and continue on to the dock below where our dinghies are waiting in dark, glassy water.
The next morning I sit alone on the beach while Matt spends a few hours surfing. He paddles into the waves as the rip current sucks him out and down the beach, then makes his way back to the rideable break. Whoever'd been there yesterday has gone, and just as he has the waves to himself, I have the beach to myself. Unfortunately it isn’t a great day for lying on a blanket reading. Light rain showers continue while sunny patches try to break through for most of the morning. The current has stirred up the shallow water into wavelets and chop so it’s not really worth taking photos either.
Instead I stand on the beach in my bikini in the rain, pacing a bit, hoping to see a sloth. A few people pass now and then. I begin to feel a bit odd standing there in next to nothing as they pass by on their way to work, school, wherever, trudging through the wet sand in the high tide mark, over rocks, and through mud in long jeans or knee-length skirts.
Unlike Bocas Town, no one speaks English here. The people are Ngobe Indians; they speak their own language and Spanish. As it happens, I know just enough Spanish to present myself as someone who appears to be an adult but is mentally on the same level as a 4th grader. One man stops to check out my camera. Because I can’t say much in response (“Si!”) the conversation trails off, as usual. But he’s still standing next to me, so I examine what he’s carrying. To my surprise, it’s a radio. I point, say “Es un radio!” and smile. I’m smiling because I can’t believe that this man is actually walking along the beach with a radio, allowing me to utilize one of a handful of phrases I’d learned from Rosetta Stone word for word. Then I realize how silly I must seem, stating the obvious, smiling, and quite clearly not comprehending whatever it is he’s saying in response. He eventually asks me where I’m from and when I tell him Estados Unidos, it all seems to make sense. He continues on his walk behind some sea grapes and disappears around the bend.
Evenings in the bay are still, except for the dozens of cayucos coming and going silently through the water. Some carry whole families, some a single man or woman, some just a couple of giggly children. In the morning people seem to be on their way someplace, but now, as the sun is setting, the pace of travel is leisurely. People fish, or stop to sell bread or pipas, green coconuts filled with water. We hack one open and empty nearly a liter into a jar, a $5.00 expense back home. One boy just comes to look, grabbing hold of the toe rail and inspecting the boat intensely. A man tells us he’ll bring breadfruit and lobster (“panfruta y langosta”) in the morning and is also selling crafts his wife makes, woven net bags made from colorful plastic. Two boys selling bread are persistent. We still have some left from the day before but it’s hard to say no to these two. The older one is all business, a quick talker, and the younger, shyer one can’t stop smiling. The older boy tells us it’s veinticinco, twenty-five cents, and when we take a minute to decide he says less timidly, “a quahtah”. We cave and buy two.
Our last day we spend walking. The town of Kusapin is about 2.5 miles and to my surprise the path is partially paved, probably an unfinished Peace Corps project. The rest is mud, dirt and rock interspersed with short lengths of narrow beach where I’m tempted to stop and set up camp for the day. Our shoes are unnecessary in the mud, where they only get stuck, so we go barefoot like everyone else. I stop where fresh water pools collect as they cross the path to wash the dried mud away, but Matt doesn’t bother. We pass old women in gum boots hauling bags of produce on their backs, children with sacs of fish swinging at their sides, a boy sporting a bright blue Barcelona jersey holding his father’s hand, groups of women with machetes, several dogs, an elderly couple, the woman carrying a live chicken tucked under one arm and a bag of vegetables in the other. Hardly anyone speaks to one another. Most people say hello as we pass, but some women say nothing. Often children continue to wave and call “Hola!” long after we’ve gone by. One girl calls out from a window, smiling broadly, “Hola gringo! Hola gringa!” The attention we attract is so unlike that in Bocas, where interactions are limited to people offering to take you to one beach or another for a fixed amount or selling you overpriced cheeseburgers and smoothies.
We reach Kusapin just before lunch. It’s larger than I expected, but sleepy (it is Saturday morning). It’s sunny and hot and we are sticky with sweat when we stop to take a rest and a drink of water. Though the houses and buildings are rudimentary, the town is clean and there is something cheery about it. A sign warns: Take care of the water. Life depends on it! At the one restaurant we’d been told was there a man and boy are preparing for the day’s lunch. Kids are hanging out, wandering around in pairs. You get the sense that people take pride in making their community an enjoyable place to live.
It’s hard not to compare this place to Bocas or Carenero. There, trash is left to pile up and rot and it seems like most people spend most of their time catering to tourists’ wants and needs instead of investing in their own. We are still outsiders here. It’s obvious. But our status as tourists or visitors doesn’t give way to the type of impenetrable “us-them” constructs it does in Bocas. Having grown up in a tourist town, I am familiar with that kind of separation. There’s certain level of contempt reserved for tourists. There are certain areas of the beach where only tourists go. There are restaurants that everyone knows only tourists eat at. The word itself becomes irritating and adopts a negative tone. But at the same time many people’s livelihoods depend on those tourists. And oftentimes from the tourists' perspectives their experiences seems authentic. It’s not like by coming to Kusapin we’ve escaped being tourists. Much of travel is a fluctuation between feeling part of and apart from what it is you’re experiencing. It’s just that Kusapin is a place where tourism hasn’t become, and hopefully won’t become, an industry.
After a massive lunch of pulpo guisado (octopus stew) with patacones (fried plantains) and rice and beans, I want to take a nap in the sun. But we have the walk back ahead of us. Fortunately what was inches deep mud has now dried into clay after just a couple hours of beating sun, and the way back is much easier going. On the way out of town, a young guy, maybe 18, says nothing as we greet him. Then suddenly he shouts “HEY American boys!!! How’s it GOING?!?” Either I’m looking especially haggard or he’s not the star of his English class. Whatever the case, I’d much rather be an American boy in Kusapin than whoever I am back in Bocas.
I forgot to mention that we broke our steering cable two days before arriving in Panama, mostly because we’ve been sitting on the dock and its absence hasn’t been an issue. But there is a reason we havent taken the boat anywhere since weve been here, and it's not only because the swell has been so big. With Christmas and New Year’s thwarting our hopes of receiving replacement parts within a few days of arriving, our planned week in the marina stretched into three and we began to really miss being able to throw off the dock lines and go. Access to laundry, showers, and wifi makes life much more convenient, but being able to anchor where we like and having the freedom to move on a whim is part of the reason we live on a boat.
Marina Carenero sits in a corner of a small cove just across the water from the relative bustle of Bocas Town. It’s a mostly quiet place... until evening, when a repetitive and irritating mix of calypso and reggaeton starts up at the local club just around the bend. The weathered wooden building hangs over the water, its windowless facade decorated with playing cards and poker chips in an airbrush-style mural, highlighted by sweeping washes of color and a couple of faded palm trees. Substitute the cards and palm trees for an American flag and you’re in Lake Winnepesaukee. Sounds of drum and bass interspersed with accordion and airhorn don’t so much drift across the water as march toward any open hatches, where they remain, uninvited, sometimes until 6am. It’s a bit of a mystery, really; anytime we’ve driven past while the music is going the place is nearly empty. We can usually spot at least one guy sort of sway-dancing, beer in hand, but as far as I’m concerned one man a party does not make. (Unless it’s this one friend of mine - I'll call him "Ted" - standing in the living room drinking a Rainier, bouncing and singing along to old reggae on the record player after having spent the day out on the river casting for steelhead.)
Anyway, besides the neverending solo danceparty whose greatest hits play on repeat each night, the marina is quiet. It’s home to about 15 boats, 10 of which it's safe to say are there permanently. Boats seem respond to Panama’s sun and rain the same way their expat owners do: they age more quickly and become less likely to ever leave as time goes on. Staying on top of maintenance and keeping things clean in this climate is vital, but the atmosphere around Bocas Town make it an easy place to shirk responsibility, put off small jobs - "mañana..." - and blend into the backdrop of slow decay, claiming to be living the dream.
We’ve passed the time waiting for the new steering cable to arrive trying, and mostly failing, to dry out gear and laundry and air the boat out. We spread out the charts nightly, planning and replanning the next part of our trip and routing our passage through the Pacific. I’ve read every issue of Outside Magazine we have onboard, and can list their top rated "superfoods" both chromatically and chronologically by month of popularity. And when we run out of responsible things to do, we feed the wildlife and set off fireworks.
Today we're excited to be off to Cusapin for a few days. Check out the map to see where we are. In the meantime, here are a few scenes of life at Marina Carenero.
The swell has been huge here. Depending on who you talk to, we're getting once-in-a-season or once-in-a-decade waves this week. Unfortunately for me that means a break from surfing, but I have been trying to get out and at least take a few photos. We went to check out one of the biggest and meanest waves around the other day to get a close up look at just how much water really moves there. I snapped a few photos. Apparently so did Kelly Slater. And even he passed it up for something less punishing.
Bocas del Toro is a place of contrast and interruption. Almost every day the beating sun is temporarily eclipsed by sudden downpours, or the other way around. The soft sounds of wind, waves and the occasional bird are interrupted each morning by the blaring descent of incoming jets, only a couple hundred feet overhead, and by the criss-crossing of pangas (water taxis) throughout the day and well into the evening. Locals sell fruit and crafts in the afternoon heat while groups of backpackers in search of all day breakfast pass by. The vegetation is lush and the houses cheerfully painted, but waste and garbage congregate along the shoreline and pile up beneath the houses of the local villages. Children walk barefoot through the fetid mud and trash. Only a few hundred feet down the path, the grounds of rental houses and hostels are strewn with surfboards and lounge chairs, and barefoot girls in their bikinis lazily sip pina coladas and daquiris on the porches of waterfront restaurants.
We've been here nearly two weeks and we're beginning to be able to navigate our way through some of these contrasts and see Bocas through a more finely filtered lens. Though many of the restaurants on the waterfront in Bocas Town have nearly identical appearances and menus, we've learned which ones are worth stopping at (few) and which ones will disappoint (most). We don't try to make a run for it when there seems to be a break in the rain - looks can be deceiving. We buy bread from the shy little girl who brings it from her house behind the marina down to the dock every few days instead of the loaves that mysteriously last weeks on end from the grocery store. It's $1.50 for five big rolls here on the dock, and they're usually still warm. We pass on the vivaciousness of the crowd, where travelers meet and exchange stories and tips and phone numbers and questions ("How long have you been traveling?" "What's your destination?"), and seek rather the intimacy of more ordinary conversation, where questions are more mundane ("What is your dog's name?" "How did you break your wrist?"). Sometimes it's nice to just talk about the weather. To just be here.
I don't want to imply that we're somehow being exposed to some hidden side of Panama, or that the only authentic way to experience Bocas is to stay away from fellow travelers or do as the locals do. We're tourists, too, and we're only just beginning to distinguish between the things and places that add real value to our daily lives here and the things that we can happily do without. I recently read an article by a journalist who was traveling in Sao Paulo. He wrote:
"Tourists are immigrants who audit. We feel the dislocation yet bear none of the responsibility. We pick up a few words; we don't abandon our mother tongue. We come for the enticements but we don't stay for the test.
Our fleetingness deprives us of depth but rewards us with intensity." (Thomas Swick, "Faces in a Crowd")
We have no intention of becoming immigrants here, but I guess we're beginning to sacrifice some of the intensity we first experienced for a greater serving of depth.
In many ways, one week in Charleston is not enough. The city’s colorful buildings, shaded parks, and historical markers remind you that its importance to the American economy and culture dates back to Colonial times. Really getting to know Charleston would take months. There are the stately and bright private residences along The Battery, the old public market downtown with tourists shuffling between stalls, the College of Charleston and the Citadel, the USS Yorktown aircraft carrier parked in the marshes across the Cooper River at the end of the iconic Ravenel Bridge, and stoic Fort Sumter out near the harbor entrance in the distance. And yet a week as a visitor can be overwhelming. Everywhere you go you’re confronted with another attempt to reinforce – or redefine – what it is to be Southern. That confrontation is most immediate in Charleston’s famed food scene. From downhome to upscale everyone puts their own twist on classics like shrimp and grits and hushpuppies and everyone's trying to outdo everyone else, to be more southern, more real, more Charleston. It’s especially true of the bars and restaurants on one of Charleston’s hippest areas, upper King Street.
For instance, the bars “Proof” and “Prohibition” are both described as mildly Southern-themed places to get a drink. If you were to judge by their names and facades alone you may choose to visit one, not both, assuming them to be nearly identical. We went to both. At Proof, a dimly lit space with limited seating, bartenders mixed cocktails with names like Smoldering Manhattan, which, according to Garden & Gun magazine, “tastes intriguingly like an old library smells,” and served small bites like boiled peanut hummus. I opted instead for a glass of red wine, which tasted intriguingly like fruit, sugar, and alcohol, and a side of water, which may have been boiled at some point to remove any impurities, but I didn’t ask. I would have liked to try a more traditional southern snack of boiled peanuts, but mashing them into hummus seemed neither right nor appetizing. Our bartender was a tall, slim man wearing black pants and a white collared shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and sported a well manicured but not too tame mid-length beard complimented by a mostly short cropped head of hair. (I say mostly because there remained a slicked back tuft on top of his head, which must have been too hard to reach with a hand cranked, artisanal shaving tool.) I wondered why he spent so much time confiding in the mirror until I realized he was talking to a second bartender, a tall, slim man wearing the same clothes and hair as he was. Both men’s ensembles were brought together with suspenders in a subtly Southern way.
What to one man is a fashion accessory is to another a necessity. Over at Prohibition, the bartenders wore suspenders to literally hold their ensembles – jeans, plaid shirts, beer bellies – together. Men too old to be shooting tequila on a Saturday afternoon were yelling at their teams as college football games were broadcast over several TVs. Even if we hadn’t been a Yankee and a foreigner, it sill wouldn’t have been wise to ask to turn on the hockey game. While Proof played on the exclusivity of the speakeasy from America’s underground alcohol culture, Prohibition glorified its backwoods bootlegger.
Being a visitor in Charleston is like being at a Halloween party without a costume. Everyone is somebody - somebody Southern - except you. Our introduction to the more reserved side of Charleston society was at Hall’s Chophouse. Hall’s is the restaurant everyone told us is the best place to eat when someone else is paying. The owner personally greets everyone who walks through the door in what I assumed was an act to play up southern charm and hospitality, but was more likely a sincere effort to make diners feel welcome – treatment you rarely receive in New England restaurants of the same caliber. We were immediately introduced to a charismatic man who owned a well-known car dealership in town. Actually, to call him charismatic is a bit of an understatement and not quite accurate. He simply holds court. In the twenty minutes we spent talking to him he called an economics professor away from his table to ask what the hell an economics lab was if it didn’t have a supply of beakers and test tubes and rallied a preacher he called “the Reverend”, who happened to be walking by, into prayer for us and our trip, all while holding three separate conversations between our group. Eventually he excused himself, telling us that if he didn’t get going his wife would start the fight without him, and we were seated for dinner.
The only thing better than the company and entertainment at Hall's was the food. My dad’s friends from Newport who spend a lot of time in Charleston generously treated us to some of the best steak and Brussels sprouts I’ve ever had, as well as sharing some tips about routes, anchorages, and stopping points between South Carolina and the Bahamas. After dinner we met a man who had spent some time in Newport. He, too, offered his suggestions for eating in the city and we mentioned that we wanted to try the oysters at a place called Bowen’s Island outside of Charleston but didn’t have any way of getting there. He offered (insisted) to take us over the weekend so we exchanged numbers and it was settled.
The other thing about Charleston is everyone, including your cab driver, has an opinion on oysters. On the halfshell is typically how I prefer them, but on arriving in Charleston I was searching for the best place to get chargrilleds after my friend Ted turned me onto them last year. I read about oyster roasts, which I guess are the equivalent of our clambakes up north. And then learned about lightly steamed cluster oysters at a place out in the marshes of Bowen's Island and we made it our mission to get there.
In the city, the charm is decidedly Southern. Just outside, though, what you experience is a bit more raw. Cross one of the bridges that take you off the peninsula where Charleston sits and visit any of the shrimp docks or oyster houses along the inlets and creeks the wind their way through the marshes and you’ll understand what lowcountry means. One specific example is the woman we ran into on while walking around one of the seafood docks over in Mount Pleasant on Thanksgiving day. She was fishing in what must have been a foot of water, cigarette in mouth, beer in hand, and massive chocolate lab called Cookie by her side. She told me she was gonna get one, she knew there were flounder down there, she seen a big one. I told her all she needed was patience, and she agreed, I think, with a swig of beer. Unfortunately patience wasn’t all she needed… I use “fishing” as a loose term here; there wasn’t a lot of action involved. There was a rod, some line, a red and white plastic bobber. Other than that there was the beer drinking and the waiting. Around the corner the smoker was going, country music blasting, half a dozen pickup trucks parked outside. We also found a piece of chicken skin and a human tooth further down the dock. One huge guy gave us barely understandable directions to the nearest corner store to pick up some beers – I assumed at the time he meant for ourselves, sort of an invitation to join what I guess was a party? I realize now he’d likely run out of Bud heavy. I wanted to stay, but I’d actually made some traditional Thanksgiving food (suddenly so boring) so we had to leave. Also, I really don’t think we were welcome.
A broader and (for most people) more inviting representation of the Lowcountry is Bowen’s Island. We’d planned to meet our new friend Scott there to eat oysters while watching the sun set over the marshes. I was expecting a sort of Martha Stewart does Charleston oyster jubilee with twinkling lights and cheesy music playing but it was anything but. The building was raised on stilts, constructed with 2x4s, plywood and cinderblock and paneled on the west with glass windows. There was a sweaty guy steaming oysters in a tiny corner of the cavern-like basement where you had to go to pick up your order. Upstairs it was loud, crowded, warm, and lively. We waited in the stillness outside, our breath visible as the sun sank into the smoke hovering in the marshes.
The platter of oysters we ordered didn’t arrive arranged neatly on ice with lemon and horseradish but as a hunk of shell piled on shell atop a plastic school lunch tray, along with a handful of shucking knives and kitchen towels. One tray wasn’t enough. Two trays wasn’t really enough either so we got some peel and eat shrimp, something else you see all over the Carolinas. It was briny and messy and there was no attempt to be anything other than what it was. There were well-dressed families, guys in overalls who looked like they’d just stumbled over from a hog farm, hipsters, tourists, frat boys. That’s what makes Bowen’s Island such a cool place and unlike anywhere else in Charleston, where it seems like Southern has to mean something specific. Here was everything I thought of as Southern all in one place.
If there’s one stereotype about the South that’s true it’s that the people are more friendly than most places. We arrived in Charleston knowing nobody and left having visited some of the best places on our trip so far, thanks largely to the kindness of strangers.