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Report Eight from the Otter: From the Marquesas to Tahiti

Papeete, Tahiti
September 8, 1999

Dear Friends and E-mail family,

The voyage from Ua Pou in the Marquesas to Tahiti is approximately 750 miles; the course is generally southwest.

At about 450 miles out, the Tuamotu island chain runs directly across the rhumb line at right angles. The Tuamotus are comprised of 78 atolls, which make them the largest group of coral atolls in the world.

They are known as the Dangerous Archipelago because of variable currents and the difficulty of seeing many of the islands until you're only a few miles away. Their land mass is typically very low Ė only five-to-twenty feet above sea level -- and, where there are coconut trees rising above that, there may be another forty feet.

The high volcanoes that were in the centers of the coral lagoons have long since eroded below the surface leaving only rings of coral reef. The small, sandy islands that dot the reefs are called motus. In some "islands," such as Rangiroa, the largest, the coral encloses an inland sea that is over 45 miles wide.

Not all the reefs have motus, which means the only thing a sailor will see is a white line of breakers ahead -- sometimes too late. Before the advent of GPS and radar, many boats were lost here.

Because of all the cautions in the cruising guides, I plotted a course that threaded its way between islands that appeared to be the farthest apart and still near the rhumb line.

I started on Monday, July 5th and arrived early on Sunday, July 11th Ė six days sailing. A six-day leg now seems like just around the corner. Bermuda, the first leg of the trip, was a similar distance, yet seemed impossibly far.

Tahiti Ė the object of my dreams and fantasies since I can remember. The far-away archetypal paradise. Now, just around the corner.

The following are excerpts from the Marquesas-to-Tahiti section in the log of the Otter.

Weíre all on the journey,

Brec

________________________________________________________________

Monday, July 5 Ė

6:30 a.m. Up with first light. The giant spires of rock behind the village are still in cloud.

I fold and lash down Runcible Spoon, the dinghy, on deck. The water is flat in this protected bay but the wind has been howling for a few days now and behind me to the southwest Ė in open water, out of the lee -- I can see numerous whitecaps.

Underway by 7:30. With the boat motion I feel tired and nap off and on during the afternoon. Sometimes it takes me a few days to feel normal.

I see a large-bodied, white bird with a blue bill fly by -- Iíve asked Sandy to bring a bird book to Tahiti.

I read Postcards by Annie Proulx. The language is addictive, the characters are isolated and alone, like me.

Evening is very dark. No moon. There are eerie phosphorescent blobs Ė as large as the boat or larger Ė that flash, light up suddenly, then fade Ė they donít move. Itís not like a swimming creature. They are all around the boat. I can see them out in the more distant dark as well as close up beside the hull. Itís spooky.

8:30 p.m. I remind myself that yesterday was the 4th of July and I forgot about it. If Iíd remembered, I could have shot off some of my old flares. Go to sleep early.

Tuesday, July 6 --

The stalk of green bananas I got in Fatu Hiva twelve days ago has turned yellow, so all at once and I have 40 or 50 bananas to eat before they turn brown. Iíve tied the stalk to the stern pulpit and twist them off as I need them. I need to eat eight or so per day to finish them by the time I arrive in Tahiti Ė they are smaller than the ones in the States, about five or six inches. I cut up five on my granola.

Today still a little light-headed from the motion. Continue to read Postcards. Itís like a drug and makes me melancholy.

Wind at 25 knots from the port quarter. There are whitecaps everywhere; again, they remind me of snow.

Wednesday, July 7 --

Long sleep again last night -- almost 14 hours total. Iím up every few hours to check horizon and radar alarm. Feel rested and light. Iíve been dreaming a lot.

Small clouds on the horizon drifting away. I repeat my morning prayer of gratitude for the new day.

I feel I have a lot to do before Sandy arrives, and my anxiety comes again to visit. Itís been a long time since Sandy visited me in the Virgin Islands. This is the longest weíve been apart and I want everything to be perfect.

Thursday, July 8 --

6:30 a.m Get up and again I feel the morning sunshine as a profound gift -- it brings me back to my childhood.

Cereal with six bananas cut up in it. I must be turning yellow. I wonder how many calories a banana has. I may be taking in triple the standard caloric requirements.

The journal is behind and I spend the morning catching up. The afternoon is spent reading Tahiti guide books, planning Sandyís and my itinerary out to Bora Bora, and trying to erase my tan lines.

4:30 p.m. I am coming out the companionway into the cockpit and spot what I think is a large whale directly behind the boat. The wind is still up and the following seas are seven-to-eight feet high.

The creatureís submarine-colored shape and round form has a large back with a curved fin on top and is running down the wave just to starboard of our wake. The adrenaline pumps.

Iím not sure if itís threatening, but whatever it is, it is bigger than Otter. I think it may be attracted by the rotor on the end of the water generator line and immediately haul it in. The monster swims back and forth across the wake as if looking for its missing toy.

Sometimes I hear it blow but I see no water vapor. Sometimes it doesnít surface but I see a large boil of upward water. I see its shape beside the boat. It occasionally turns and its underside is white.

After about five or six minutes I have a feeling it is only curious. When it finally disappears, Iím left with the sense of a special visit from a large benevolent creature. Someone tells me later that it sounds like a whale shark Ė a friendly vegetarian that grows up to 40 feet in length.

I realize that so far Iíve not spotted a real whale. Itís okay Ė I can wait.

I nap as this evening Iíll enter the Tuamotus. By 10:00 p.m. Iím between Manihi and Takapoto. I see Manihi 13 miles away on radar. The sky is pitch black. The Milky Way is bright.

Friday, July 9 --

Bananas, bananas and more bananas.

I catch up in my journal and write about last nightís sunset. Again I was transfixed for over an hour in the companionway, looking forward at the white-capped seas, the white ragged edges on torn denim; pink light rays in a light pastel blue sky, silvery gold edged clouds; orange-topped silent soldiers marching in ranks down the deepening blue all around, their lavender bottoms turning gray.

Iím washed with a physical sensation of love. My skin does not separate me from a vibration that I feel in the pit of my stomach flowing to my neck and outward into the movement of clouds to the horizon -- all moving together in rapture, perfect beauty, a perfect deep silent chord keeping a rhythm beyond time. It goes Ė it goes Ė it goes to lead gray.

I punch the button on the GPS for a reading and go below to plot my position. I change my course to cut closer to the Arutua atoll. It will be afternoon when I pass and Iíd like to see at least a glimpse of a Tuamotuan atoll.

Weíre making good time -- the days are flying by, my beard is getting longer.

I work on drawing the floor plans of the houses Iíve lived in, starting with the first -- the apartment in Willimantic where we live when Dad was at UConn. We moved from there when I was about three or four to LitchfieldĖ there are definite images of rooms and parts of rooms but a lot of it is vague.

I find it fascinating trying to recall how rooms flowed one to another. Where did the Christmas tree stand? Where was the Morris chair? Where did the stove in the kitchen in Litchfield stand? Thereís my brotherís crib in my parentsí bedroom. Thereís the dresser Mom painted vivid turquoise over the newspapers on the floor.

Unchecked memories flood back. Uninterrupted, a thread of thought will go on and on bringing me to places I havenít visited in 40 or 50 years. Iím surprised at the detail of recall, some bright and shiny as new, some dim and misty-edged -- tantalizing.

I review my impressions of the Marquesas -- as remote as any place I may visit. I am eating their grapefruit (and bananas!), drinking their water, smelling their smells -- I have frangipani blossoms from Ua Pou.

I picture the stunning, dark, smoky beauty of the islands, the strong separate roles of men and women. Strong sunlight and shadow. Yards and jungles filled with fruit. Beautiful children. Adults open and generous and welcoming. Power of ancient Gods still alive in the forests. The piles of burnt coconut husks along the trails like so many vanquished warriorsí skulls.

Fierceness behind the smiles -- a cannibal culture less than 200 years gone who couldnít understand why they were asked to give up their rituals when the new God asked them to eat his flesh and drink his blood. A darkness fastened at the edge of the beauty giving it great contrast.

1:30 p.m. I spot Arutua off the port bow. At six miles away I see green palm tree tops pushing out of the blue waves then disappearing below them again. Such an odd sight Ė a strip of fragile green on the endless ocean.

As I get closer, the green stretches up on stalks, then the stalks become grounded, and finally white sand beaches appear under the brown-green underbrush. I sail by, the trees lowering into the blue again, like a cardboard set going back into a slot in the stage.

Cockpit shower and clean clothes. Brilliant clear trade wind sky -- winds at 18 knots abeam.

Dark night. Squalls start rolling by Ė gusts to 30 knots. Iím putting a second reef in the main when a few big waves punch up over the bow. Iím drenched.

I repeat, "Itís all part of the game," but then realize that Iím on the losing team, getting hosed. For someone who lives on the sea, I hate getting wet.

Below I change and sponge off the salt.

Saturday, July 10 --

6:00 a.m. I have been up all night between squalls and fishing vessels; a heavy rain continues to fall for a long time.

As I doze I think itís October and Iím driving in the rain past the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. The trees toss their leaves in wet clusters across the windy evening street. A warm yellow green glow comes from the library windows.

The scene shifts and Iím reading in bed with Sandy next to me and soft lamplight on the cream pages. The same dark storm is rattling the window. I hear the pine trees rush in the wind. I am warm and snug. It must be gusting to 30 outside.

7:30 a.m. The rain squalls pass. Itís extremely dark off the bow. A complete arc of rainbow, intense as colored fire, directly ahead. Weíre sailing into its center, the bottoms of the arc touch the water just out of reach Ė so close, so intense.

Breakfast. Iím getting bananaíd out!

Really muggy and stuffy below with all hatches shut against the rain.

Rain squalls ring the horizon all day.

Time to start napping as ETA at Tahiti is early Sunday morning.

Sunset is another beauty: Paintbrush-daubed sky; light salmony white stipples. I feel the presence of the grandparents.

7:00 p.m. As I nap a forward locker door slams open and a gift from Dad drops to the floor. What do things mean? I hope he is all right.

Sunday, July 11 --

Just after midnight I wake and scan the horizon. I see lights of a boat off the starboard bow just as the guard alarm goes off.

I turn on the VHF and find there are four of us out here approaching Tahiti. We give our positions to each other.

One, named Lolita, is just out of range for me but I hear one of the other boats, Innoccenti, speaking to her. It would be great if itís Pepper and Jody, who rafted with me through the Panama Canal.

Innoccenti and I chat. They are from New Zealand, out six years. They are closing the circle home and counting the days. They loved the Red Sea and give me a very different image than the guides Iíve been reading.

I tell them I have a pair of red socks to fly under the New Zealand courtesy flag, when I clear in there, just in case the immigration officials require it!

On deck I see the loom of the airport lights on the north of the Big Island. Approaching land is always like Christmas Eve Ė Iíll be up a while.

3:00 a.m. Graham on Innoccenti calls. Did I get hit by the big squall? He had gusts to 35 knots and it drove him six miles off course to the north. I say Iím sorry, but it missed me altogether. But Iím not so sorry -- my competitive weirdness now puts me in a race to arrive first.

4:30 a.m. Abeam of the light on Point Venus.

5:00 a.m. Lights of Papeete clearly visible.

6:00 a.m. Still extremely dark Ė can barely make out the islandís outlines. Low clouds running overhead.

6:30 a.m. I see the long breakwater and large gas tanks. Sky just starting to lighten.

7:00 a.m. Pick up red and green lights of the channel markers in the distance.

8:00 a.m. Moorea, the island 12 miles to the west of Tahiti, is very dramatic in the early light with clouds swirling around its hidden peaks.

Tahiti is starting to change from a gray lump and take on character and form -- green ridges rising up steeply into now-gold morning.

I furl sails and motor through the pass into Papeete harbor. High speed ferries rush by. One-hundred-foot catamarans, swarming with tourists, are raising their sails.

I look around the harber: there's Oystercatcher, and Lolita, and UFO. Thereís the yacht quay right in downtown. Itís full.

Thereís the Paofai Temple, a pink church with white trim along the black sand beach lined with trees.

Itís here I lower my anchor and back in. I tie lines ashore to the trees, which have blue-eyed mourning doves in them.

Beyond my bow I see the protecting reef and beyond it, Moorea, purple now in the Sunday morning light.

From the glass telephone booth as I call Sandy I look across the harbor and I feel Otter and I have sailed into a ViewMaster 3-D postcard!

"Sandy?! Iíve made it! Iím calling from Tahiti!"

 

 

*** End of Report Eight from the Otter ***

 

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