Crossing the Pacific

After nearly 3 months and 7500 miles to cross the Pacific from the Panama Canal. Now back home, with wobbly legs it all seems a distant dream. There were ups and downs, triumphs and doubt. Staring so long to the surrounding blue sky and blue sea was pacifying. The moments I expected more were trying. When I accepted it for what it was, a freedom, it brought ultimate tranquility. Moreover, relationships brought trials beyond the internal. Accepting that the blue is just the blue is one thing. Accepting your shipmates eating particularities, conversation habits, and smells were another. Long nights of rough sea with little sleep and resource conservation could make even the closest friends think of personal survival. The nature of a sailor anticipates change, and so these conflicts were always quickly forgotten at the marina bar. Once you have fought nature, and survived, a crew is eternally bound together. Putting man on the ocean, where he never belonged, something strange and great is accomplished.

First I’ll tell you about this luxury pleasure yacht. 42′ and 12 tons, a feather on the water, the motion of the ocean was entirely different than the previous huge steel boat. A giant weight in the bottom slides back and forth to compensate the turn of the waves. This creates a very jerky motion in high seas, but an extremely steady balance during the calm. Eating is 110% of sailing and on Sea Quill we did it with style. Two refrigerators, a freezer, three burner stove + oven, and two basin sink with sea water foot pump surrounded by an open kitchenette containing a large table and chair space for six. Outside was another table nearly as large and capable of full enclosure for poor weather. One tall mast and a jib off the bow gave us the sail power to keep a steady pace of seven knots and sometimes up to ten. When the wind wasn’t strong enough we had a parachute sail called a spinnaker, which almost kept speed with the wind at eight knots. A  state of the art AIS system drove most the time, and warned us of any danger. Until near the end that is. We were getting tired of sitting around reading and eating all the time anyhow.

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The previous crew woman that decided to stay in Panama left me her guitar, computer and of coarse her room. We stayed on the Colon side of the Panama Canal for a few days before crossing, waiting for permission. During this time I was able to explore the surrounding jungle where several US military bases now lay abandoned.

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Crossing the Canal is an expensive and complicated process. Boats which can not maintain above eight knots must stay the night in Gatun Lake, make the entire process about 24 hours. After five hours of rest there are about 30-50 miles of river before the last five locks.

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The first night, crossing four locks, we followed a huge freighter and tied along side a tug boat as you can see in the picture above.

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Gatun was a beautiful river, and passing by all the freighters and bridges was surreal. The second day we went through the locks all by ourselves, using ropes tied to four corners slowly slacked as the water level lowered. On the other side in Panama city, we stocked up with tons of vegetables, fruits and of coarse rum.

One night at the marina bar we were having a casual meal and drink when a woman from Columbia began to hit on us. I immediately put up defenses. She focused her attention on the two other guys and whenever I interrupted she would look at me with eyes like the devil. I didn’t feel like my crew mates noticed this, perhaps they were too drunk. She tried to reach her foot between my legs underneath the table. I pushed it away, it felt huge and scaly. Our captain was playing along when she told him to touch her breasts. He laughed and loudly repeated her question. A group of people were beginning to watch what was happening at our table. The woman started to focus her attention on the other guy that was around my age, and he seemed to be very intrigued by her. She began to lean over and kiss him. I felt helpless to do anything and when she reached her foot over to touch the captain he laughed and yelled “hey I never said you could touch my Pe-Nis!” in his strong french accent. He was laughing when she asked our other crew mate if she could come on the boat that night with him. The captain said it was his choice and told me to come with him so we could let him decide what he wanted to do. We walked over to the bar where a group of waitresses ran up to us asking us what we were doing. They said this is not a woman this is a man. We ran back over to our friend and told him we needed to leave. We never told him he was kissing a man.

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We stopped in Isla Pedro Gonzalez, a tiny island town where we chanced upon a few papayas and some outrageously energetic American sailors.

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Crossing the ecuator

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Galapagos was surprisingly cold. The islands are located at a meeting point of three currents, from the north, south and west. At the beginning of September when we visited, the Humboldt current from the Antarctic glaciers brought a southern chill. The beaches were lined with sea lions baking in the sun. In the night they would climb onto our deck to sleep. Well, sleep is one way to look at it. When they hop up every night, flapping around and howling at the moon, one doesn’t feel as bad to return the disturbance. We had a special stick to scare them off and took turns being the one to wake up and do it. The sea lions were typically harmless, as long as the ornery bulls, who often took over park benches on high ground, were avoided.

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The authorities will only allow a sailing vessel to stay for 36 hours to fill water, fuel and restock food supplies. Otherwise there is a $600 cruising fee. The downtown was empty during the cold slow season. The famous Galapagos orange was still readily available along with the perpetual hospitality of the locals. The customs agent who assisted us every step of they way, getting fuel and water, brought us to his home for a snack and to meet his children. When we left he rushed out to say good bye carrying a whole banana tree which we hung off the back of the boat. (Seen in the photo below)

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After Galapagos a little over 3000 miles separated the next  island of Nuka Hiva, French Polynesia. The sea was so incredibly calm 18 days of the 21 day crossing. We saw whales swimming along side us for several hours, though too far for pictures to capture. At one point, we were just sitting down for lunch when the Captain hopped up anxiously and said “What is that coming in the distance?” We went outside and saw a wall of white water coming our direct from at least two miles away. For a few minutes we were all in incredible fear thinking of a tsunami or storm. A closer look with binoculars revealed a stampede of dolphins. Within the next minute somewhere between 250 – 500 dolphins were jumping and splashing passed the boat. One hundred broke off the pack and swam in front of us, racing along, jumping out of the water for over an hour. One small, young looking dolphin, full of energy, became a story like inspiration to us all. As all the other dolphins leisurely jumped out of the water one to two feet, he would be seen cutting below in the clear water at full speed. Launching himself in the air 10 feet, he was a complete anomaly among the others. A Johnathan Livingston Seagull.

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The blue provides tranquility for those who let it in. Madness for those who fight to keep it out. Anger and anxiety for others who let it in but hide it. 21 days are not so many in the span of a life, or the life of the universe. The life in the single room of a boat can be a prison cage where a wild animal paces back and forth, or a floating achievement of freedom, a testament to the future of the human race and what is possible. Christopher Columbus sailed with three ships crewing about 40 men each to cross the Atlantic approximately 3000 miles. They took five weeks while we crossed in three with three men. Soon the speed at which we travel in space will also increase. Our space ships already function with few astronauts on board. Either way, as we shouted Land Ahoy we felt like space men after a long journey through vast emptiness. Wobbling, taking the first steps on land, we were taking the first steps on a new planet.

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The tiny Island of Nuka Hiva has a population of 2,600 of the most friendly people you could ever meet. At one point we were walking back to the boat with groceries when a truck  stopped and offered a ride, we graciously accepted. Crime is nearly unheard of. The island only has two police officers. One supply boat comes per month, filling the empty shelves of the two grocery stores. Several other boats had just crossed the Pacific. During our five day séjour we became a big family. The last night we made a huge fire on the beach, where many locals joined us in celebration. That night captain reminded us of his ability to drink. He was an old man and we worried he would wander off, swim by himself and drown. Another friend in his 20’s got so drunk he went home with a old not very attractive local woman. We kept trying to tell him to come back with us, please come with us you don’t want to do this. He would shout no no, I know what I want, look at this beautiful woman, I am going to sleep with her. The next morning we found him sleeping by the marina. When he woke he told us how he didn’t remember anything, woke up in her bed in the middle of the night and ran away. No one wanted to say goodbye, but we were racing the cyclone season and everyone took off, some to the north for the Cook Islands others south towards Tahiti. 

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A boat full of fruits, freezer full of fish, and a sky of rainbows. Yet something was off in me for the next island hop which was only 800 miles or five days. I was stuck thinking about love after meeting a beautiful woman and regretting a missed opportunity to join another boat that was heading to uninhabited atolls to snorkel with reef sharks. I beat myself up about it thinking and thinking. Depression, diagnosed in 7% of Americans, is characterized by lack of motivation, paranoid antisocial behavior, anxiety and destructive habits.  While I was feeling off, I didn’t want to do anything, but felt I had to. I had to keep studying French, I had to try and talk to my crew mates, I had to eat, I had to pretend I was OK, but I didn’t want to do anything. It felt like there was no energy anywhere outside myself, and every time I tried to make some excitement it was only disorder.  I was spiraling downward and the more I fought against the current I sunk. Returning to lessons of meditation in India, of detachment, I began meditating. I had nothing to do and nothing I wanted to do so I just sat there. Sometimes with my eyes open, sometimes closed, sometimes looking around at things and other times just one thing, for hours. After three days I was quiet, regaining balance, returning to the brimming cup of joy I generally have. Is there some profound psychological understanding within this experience? Perhaps it is the constant struggle to maintain a fruitless routine which perpetuates depression? Depression and anxiety could be an indication of a peaceful soul waiting to relax and accept the human condition. Whatever it is, I thank the crew for being understanding and supportive.

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Sailing into Raiatea, a small island of trees marks the skinny passage into the Atoll. An Atoll is an old volcano island that had a high ring of coral grow around its base. As the island began to sink from the middle with age the coral reef eventually is higher than the land in some areas. This creates a barrier that breaks the waves creating calm blue water full of colorful fish. 

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We climbed to the top of the mountain to take pictures.

A couple of young sailors were sponsored to sail around the world in their 14′ boat. Their mast had broken and after waiting two months for it to be shipped from France we were there just in time to help them put it back together. We had a few mechanical difficulties also. Our generator broke on the Pacific crossing and Raiatea was the first stop where that could be fixed. We also noticed that a pulley block had broken at the top of the mast which we replaced. We thought everything was ready to go. After filling fuel, water and food supplies we set off, but eight hours out our auto pilot broke. The first boat from Miami to Panama never had auto pilot and that was fine. In this case we were concerned because a small catamaran like ours is a bit more difficult to pilot due to its jerky motion and light weight. Also the captain was 69 years old and had been known to be a bit disoriented in the middle of the night or early morning. Almost every morning I would wake him for his watch and he would have to be reminded who I was, where he was, and what he needed to do, usually taking about 30 minutes and a cup of coffee. With only the three of us it would mean eight hours a day steering. The captain decided to head back to Raiatea and luckily we were able to fix the problem. At least we thought we had, but this time it broke after three days. Later we found out it was because the guy that fixed it put a tiny pin in the hydraulic pump where a bolt was required. Now we had no choice but to steer for the next 12 days to New Caledonia. Personally I was very happy for this, because I was ready for a bit more adventure and I realized I hadn’t really been sailing sitting indoors all day reading. We were very sore. We bonded over the trial of our physical and especially mental endurance. Celebrating we stopped in the Ils de Pines just south of New Caledonia, a magical place.

I forgot a funny story from earlier in the trip. The captain had awoken in the middle of the night while we were anchored. He freaked out because he thought we were drifting to rocks, turned on the engine and tried to drive. When he went to look why the boat wouldn’t go he fell off and before he could figure out what to do about it he decided that he need to shower. It became a joke that in case of emergency, be very patient because the captain must first shower before making any decisions. Our captain was a very wise man, with 50 years of sailing experience, but he was obviously losing some of his coherence. The other crew mate and I basically made the quick decisions, and repaired most problems. Neither of us had even been on this sort of sailing trip, but with a combination of his experience day sailing with his dad and my experience in stressful situations, at the fire department and on the last boat. We put our heads together with our captain and made it happen.

From the beginning I told them I would learn French. They didn’t believe me. They didn’t like to speak English so if I was to understand, I had to learn. With in a month I could understand. Within two I could more or less speak. By the end of three months I was getting off on the French Islands and talking to locals. This would be the fourth language I could make at least basic conversation and interactions with, after English, Spanish and Hindi. (I don’t count Norwegian, because I barely every spoke it.) Don’t ever test me on it, conversation is deeper than words.

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After a few day break we jumped over to Noumea the capital of New Caledonia. This was the first “city” we had seen in three months. Seeing homeless people, crowds and super markets again was bewildering.

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The plan was to wait for the auto pilot parts to be shipped from France which would take up to one month. Everything pointed towards me not waiting around. A girl back home invited me on a road trip with her. Also I wanted to get home for Thanksgiving with my family and get away from the city. Australia was the be the final destination but as we drew closer I felt less like going there. Originally I thought I’d stay and work for a while. I realized the adventure was about being in the open ocean and experiencing the French. Australia was a huge chunk of land that spoke English. Flying home from New Caledonia was cheaper, easier, and no visa was required. I still needed to purchase a visa for Australia. Something I’ve always been good at is using my two feet to change my environment when I feel it is necessary.

Our crew had a final diner night where conversation got a bit heated and we laid all our feelings out on the table. We didn’t realize we had gotten loud and the rest of the restaurant was listening to us. The finally came when the conversation reached a climax and a waitress dropped a tray full of plates in front us. After confronting all our emotions we felt closure. The owner invited us to come out back and smoke with him and his rasta son to calm down. They didn’t need me for the last few days it would take to sail to Australia, especially with a fixed auto pilot. I had a plane ticket for the next day. Our goodbyes were heart felt, I was leaving my family.

When I went to the bus I found out that there was a holiday and no buses. A local told me to walk to the highway and hitch hiking. I got picked up in five minutes and taken to a gas station near a popular intersection. The first car that pulled in was full of teenagers going camping, they were so excited to give me a ride all the way to the airport. We tried for almost 20 minutes to play Baby I’m Yours by Breakbot, the song finally came on right after I got out of the car at the airport. I dropped my bags and started dancing full power, and they screamed and cheered as they drove off. The airport exploded with laughter. An employee who was just going on break took me into a back room and we talked in French for almost an hour.

Someday I want to write a book about going home, because the nuances of travel especially of reintegrating to society are comical.

A few mention able tid bits:

The French: Our boat was french as well as our crew and generally conversation and commands were in French. Even the islands we visited were French. We ate lots of cheese, drank a lot of wine, listened to French music, watched French movies, talked about French culture and made French jokes. From the first day I joined the boat I downloaded several books and began studying. After one month I could understand most conversation, but barely speak. Speaking was much harder. Besides a few short awkward conversations forcing myself to speak to strangers, I had little confidence.  One day it just clicked. With confidence, in days I was speaking at length. The accent was the hardest part. I realized if you hesitate embracing the accent, your French will be inaudible.

Swimming: After the first two challenges on Crazy Horse, I was in love with swimming. I went swimming almost every day. A third challenge presented itself on Ils de Pines. I climbed on this huge rock that had a sign saying don’t climb on it. I thought the only reason this sign was there was because there were all these cruise ships that stopped here, and they didn’t want anyone to get hurt. On the other side of the huge rock I sat out on the ledge. A couple of locals came around the corner swimming and started yelling that I needed to jump. They said that people get killed for climbing this rock because it is sacred. The drop was at least 50 ft over jagged volcanic rock. I made it and didn’t get killed either.

 

P.s. We can’t forget about all the squids and flying fish that hop up on the boat every night leaving ink stains, but also making a tasty meal for any desperate sailor.

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