May 20 2010

The Land of Plenty & Strange

Tag: routemattholmes @ 1:02 pm

There are some seriously strange plants and animals here.

In the states, I feel perfectly comfortable out in the woods–I feel no fear of what I will encounter, I stride purposefully and confidently through our wilderness.  Until now, I hadn’t realized that the primary reason for that confidence is my familiarity with all of the plants and animals out there.

Embarrassingly, I find that I am uncomfortable in these woods.  To start with, they aren’t even woods–it’s clearly a sort of jungle, though far drier than your stereotypical jungle.  There are fruit trees everywhere: coconut, papaya, mango, pamplemoouse, pistach, noni, banana, and many others for which I have no translation.  This is a land of plenty: you could survive off of the fruit hanging from trees alone, not even considering the abundance of sea life.  We have almost none of these trees at home, and they have none of our trees.  So I’m walking through a strange jungle, that’s cool, I can dig it.

The creatures are another thing.

We sailed over to Hakatea Bay, the bay next door, for a four-day excursion with our friends Mike and Hyo from the boat Io.  Mike is a marine biologist, so he’s a good one to have around when you’re getting spooked by the local floral and fauna.

Hakatea bay has no town, no road to reach it, and only a few rough huts spread out along the beach.  As we dinghied to the beach, getting ready to jump out into the water to drag the dinghy in through the surf, Mike informed us to “watch out for” the many black-tipped reef sharks that hung out right up in the surf.  Sharks?  His nonchalant statement implied a lack of danger, and in this case, “watch out for” was meant as “look for them because they’re very cool to catch a glimpse of.”  These black-tipped reef sharks were about a foot long, and didn’t seem overly interested in ankles, so they went onto the list of ‘not so dangerous’ (as long as they come in the mini variety, at least).

As soon as we rolled up onto the beach, we noticed the crabs.  They were all over, but that turned out to be just the advance party.  We wandered a little ways into the jungle on the edge of the beach in search of coconuts, and discovered crabland.  The ground was covered with dirt and palm fronds, and the crabs had dug enormous holes and networks of tunnels, pockmarking the entire area.  The crabs were about the size of a large outstretched hand, with a large right claw and small left one, two beady eyes sticking up on little wiggly eyestalks, and a translucent white shell.  They could run very fast in a sideways direction–as fast as you can jog.  And there were thousands of them, everywhere, making a creepy collective clicking noise as their crabby body parts click together.  As you stepped over palm fronds and downed logs and what not you had to be careful not to step on them, and if you got too close they would dart out on a sideways run, or else wave their pincher.  Lift up a big frond and there will be twenty of them crabbing away, wiggling their little beady eyestalks at you.  The question again: are these things dangerous?  Well, no, not really, you can just reach down and pick them up if you’re fast enough.  Be careful not to get pinched by that big claw, but that’s easy to avoid.  But man did they creep me out.

My final experience with them was particularly unnerving.  Mike and I dinghied in to the beach in the dark that night in an attempt to nab some lobster that he had seen earlier.  On our way in Mike tells me to “watch out for” both needlefish and stingrays, and this time it wasn’t just for a cool sight.  Apparently needlefish are attracted to flashlights and have a sufficiently pointy sharp snout as to impale you, and Mike had seen some on our way to shore.  And the stingrays, well to be honest I don’t even know where they are or how they’re bad for you, whether they cut or poison or what, and right there you see that it’s the unknown that is fearful.  So we’re jumping out in the surf on this moonless night and I’m thinking “how can I avoid this stuff when I don’t even know where it is going to be lurking or what it will do?”

We drag the dinghy up onto the beach and then he shines the light on a shallow pool of water, and there’s a sight that I don’t expect to ever see again, which is a vast carpet of thousands upon thousands of those crabs, covering the entire clearing, all clicking in that particularly creepy way, so dense that they were crawling on top of each other.  It could have been a scene from a horror movie, if you just threw someone onto that carpet of crabs and watched them devour the body–of course in actuality they would all just run away, but boy oh boy was it a creepy sight.  The sound was the clincher, all that evil little clattering of carapaces as they scurried around the bend en masse.  Just creepy as all hell.

The next day we all hiked two hours into the jungle along a well-travelled path to the base of a large waterfall.  The cascade is currently only a trickle, owing to an extended dry spell, but there was a freshwater pool at the base of these impressive precipitous cliff walls.  It looked refreshing, until Mike pointed out the little crayfish jobbies.  They ringed the shallows of the pool, waiting for something to pinch on.  They happily swam up to pinch ankles, whatever you put in there.  That made hanging out in the pool mildly unattractive.  And then the eels showed up.  Big-ass freshwater eels, four feet long and four inches in diameter, with a disgusting little face up front, with their large mouth held partially open.  As you splash the surface of the water they come closer, curious to see if they can eat the source of the splashing.  Neither the crayfish nor the eel seemed to be afraid of us–they seemed rather willing to take a test nibble of whatever, before buggering off.

I do not consider myself easily spooked, freaked out, or scared.  But these new water creatures have been beyond my understanding and I admit that I am made uncomfortable by it.  I don’t know what the dangers are, is the thing.  I don’t know what I can and can’t do.  If I stick my hand in the water, is the eel going to dart away or is he going to swim up and take a bite?

I realize that the confidence and utter lack of fear that I feel in the united states is largely a result of my familiarity with the environment.  Being in this foreign land of strange new creatures, and feeling weirded out by them, is humbling.

It does make things exciting.  Like being in an Indiana Jones movie with snakes and booby traps and poisonous things.  I just have to sack up and pet the eels, so to speak.

May 08 2010

25 days at sea

Tag: route,victoriesmattholmes @ 7:31 pm


We just arrived in Nuku Hiva after crossing the pacific.  Good lord was that a long time to be out in the ocean.  I’m going to ramble on and on now.  Let me tell you, there’s not much of anything out there. In terms of tourist attractions, you’re not missing anything. I had expected to see a fair amount of wildlife, different views of the ocean, something. Nope. It all looks the same. For 25 straight days one of us checked the horizon at least every twenty minutes–over 2,000 instances of climbing out of the cabin to check the horizon, and every time seeing exactly the same thing: nothing. The only thing we saw during that entire time were a few birds and a bunch of tiny flying fish. Not even other boats–for three straight weeks we saw no other boats.

The pacific ocean does have boobies, I’ll give it that. Near the coast, at least. We had an exciting Booby-caused moment that I will now relate in entirely too much detail. A booby is a very annoying bird. For the first 5 days of the passage, we were frequently targeted by boobies. They want to land on the boat, hang out, and shit. There is no equivalent to a floating island in their evolutionary history: they do not need to do this. What I am saying is: don’t feel bad for them. Moreover, they have a hard time making the landing, but they are stupid and stubborn enough to continue attempting it without regard to the bodily risk. They will get smacked by the sail, tangle in the rigging and bounce off the deck into the water–then get up and try it again. The first time one landed on our solar panels, I was nice and let it hang out. Then a river of bird poop spilled into the cockpit, narrowly missing karen. Booby’s welcome expired. I took our boat hook and gently nudged him off (he didn’t like that–kept pecking at the pole and squawking at me). He came right back. I pushed him off again. A few dozen more times he came back, with progressively more aggressive expulsions on my part and angry squawks on his part. Eventually, I was flicking him a good ten feet off the boat before he would fall in the water and repeat his attempt. Like a bonk-the-booby video game. He landed high up on the spreaders; I duct taped all my long poles together and continued to battle him. Finally, at dusk, he landed on our spinnaker pole, from which our spinnaker (largest sail on the boat, by far) was flying. I shooed him out along the pole (funny image, a squawking sidestepping out of balance booby) until he was over the water and not the boat–i.e. a poop safe zone. The sun sets. I hear a noise. I look over: the booby has fallen off the pole and has his foot stuck in the tripline running down the pole. I know what’s coming. As he drops like a stone into the water, he triggers the release, opening the jaw and letting the tack of our spinnaker fly free. This is not something you want to happen to you in the dark with 15 knots of wind and a big spinnaker. Anyway, it took a half hour to get everything contained and put away–a frantic half hour reminiscent of racing on the bay when something goes horribly wrong. Boobies, man. No booby love, no more.

What we did see: we saw beautiful sunsets and blue water. Moonless nights were very dark; you could see bright stars reflecting off the calm ocean. The milky way was prominent. The moon would often make a dramatic appearance–sneaking up from behind a cloud, bright orange until it got some searoom off the horizon.  Lots of sky, lots of water, that about sums it up.

All in all, this passage was not as hard as our 9 days from Ensenada to Banderas Bay, but nevertheless it was harder than I expected it to be. I had heard great things about the trade winds and I was expecting good, consistent wind. Not for us, my friend, not for us. Two days out of La Cruz the wind died on us, and we sat bobbing around for a few days, not wanting to waste our fuel (we battled boobies during this time). Once the wind came back, we had a few good days of sailing before we hit the ITCZ (i.e. doldrums) and then the wind died again. Then we had 5 days and 5 degrees (300 miles) of doldrums, with no wind, occasionally punctuated by weak, unimpressive squalls and rain. On the other side of the ITCZ, the wind picked back up right in our face, together with a contrary current pushing us backwards as well, so we beat upwind and up-current for five more days before we could point towards our destination. Then, finally, the last week was glorious wind and glorious sailing in the southern trade winds.

Boats both before and after us had better luck with both the wind and the ITCZ; most people had less than a hundred miles worth of doldrums and experienced solid trade winds on the north side. We just got unlucky in that regard. The result was that we ended up doing a lot of work, putting sails up and down, changing things around constantly, etc, until the last week.

We crossed the equator in the middle of the night on May 3; Karen woke me up at 4 in the morning with a mixed drink (rum and jumex). Dutifully in my delirium I drank my drink.  In my state I was confused about what I was supposed to do. I watched karen pour some rum into the ocean. I believe I expressed gladness for our progress, and passed back out (memory of this event is hazy).

At no point during the passage was I bored. Both of us read at least 10 books–best way to stay awake during a night watch. I did some boat projects. I got out karen’s sewing machine and made myself a pair of shorts out of a pillowcase. I relearned the turk’s head knot. I studied french. I learned some new constellations. I consolidated my lists. We watched some movies, listened to music. I made iced lattes. I made iced tea. I drank beers. Karen read, wrote, baked bread. During a dead calm, karen cut my hair on the foredeck. I got the best tan of my life (better have–I was butt-ass-nekkid most of the time).

We made hundreds of entries in the log book.

Much of my time was spent messing around with the boat. Trimming sails, changing sails, changing the lead of lines, adjusting the self-steering, tweaking the course, reefing, unreefing, furling, unfurling. At best, this business–the business of sailing the boat–would occupy only a few hours each day (spread out). At worst–when conditions were constantly changing–it took all of my waking hours to keep on top of it. The primary attribute of “great wind, great sailing” is above all consistency–conditions that don’t require constant changes.

Watching our little boat depicted on the chart on the computer was strangely addictive–even though it was just a big blank white screen.

At least once a day we participated in a net on the ssb radio with the other boats out there, all watching out for each other and tracking each other’s progress. I would estimate about 10 boats participating each night. The community was solid; we made a number of friends over the radio, people we had never met in person. Occasionally we would even set up a radio date where we met on a particular frequency at a particular time to chat. I was surprised by the enjoyment to be found via the radio.  And now we already have friends to meet up with on land.

It was no problem staying clean; whenever we started to feel dirty we would take a shower with buckets of seawater. Maybe even use a little bit of freshwater to rinse, if we were feeling luxurious.

Lack of sleep was an ongoing challenge. Usually each of us would be on watch for half the night, so we could get a decent stretch of sleep. Even so, that meant that neither of us slept more than 6 straight hours in a row during the entire passage. We always had plenty of time during the day in which we could nap–but it’s not so easy to go to sleep on demand.  The lack of sleep wasn’t dangerous,it just sapped our motivation, made us cranky at times.  Both karen and I found that the surest way of getting sleepy enough to pass out was to go on watch–all of a sudden it seems like all you want to do is sleep!

During the final days, more than anything I just wanted the rolling to stop. I grew furious at the boat for constantly throwing me against the walls whenever I moved around, the same way one might get mad at being randomly shoved as you try to walk down the sidewalk. Didn’t matter that the boat is inanimate, still I blamed it for causing needless suffering. You try to walk from the head to the galley, and you get thrown on your ass on the settee. On your way past the mast, you get hip-checked into it by an unpredictable lurch of momentum. You’ll be slipping through a doorway and get a doorknob shoved in the gut. You’ll be standing at the sink and lose your balance, ending up all the way over on the nav seat with your feet in the air. The motion was incessant, inescapable. At the end, I just wanted to be still.

We made landfall (feels sweet to be able to say that–the expression itself indicates a serious passage–after all you can’t go out sailing in the bay for a day and then “make landfall” back into the marina, no you need to sail across an ocean and then you can make a landfall) at Taioe Bay on Nuku Hiva, in the Marquesas, french polynesia, on the morning of Saturday May 8–a few hours ago.  We are both ecstatic to have the passage behind us.  I’m glad we did it; I’m more glad that it’s over.

After getting the boat in order, I had a beer, then slept for 6 hours.  Just woke up in fact.

Now it’s time for us to go explore land.

May 02 2010

Another position update

Tag: tripsJonathon Haradon @ 2:48 pm

Day 18 finds Syzygy having crossed the ITCZ and within a day of the equator.  For the last 500 miles they have been sailing nearly due south in order to cross the ITCZ as efficiently and quickly as possible.  Now that they are in the southern trade winds, they should be able to make straight for the Marquesas.

Matt and Karen have been at sea now for 17 days and have traveled 2400 miles.  They have almost exactly 1000 more miles to go and so might be making landfall in about 7 days.