4 West Sets the Sun
...tossed on the billows of the wide-rolling Pacific – the sky above, the sea around, and nothing else!
- Herman Melville, Typee
From the world map laid out on the bunk in front of me, I could see the total water area of the Pacific is far greater than all other oceans – even larger than the world's total land area – an expanse of one hundred million square kilometers. With barely five months left for me to navigate some 9,000 miles before the beginning of the cyclone season in November, I planned only a few stops while crossing the Pacific, then I'd choose a spot to layover till the cyclone season passed the following year.
My first goal was to reach the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia about 4,000 miles to the southwest. For most of that distance I would ride firmly harnessed to the southern hemisphere's Southeast Trade Winds that lift and tumble the waters of the southern winter all the way across to Australia. To reach the trades, I must first sail a thousand miles to get clear of the windless Gulf of Panama and its unsettled weather until south of the equator.
With my provisions, dinghy, water cans and a hundred other items stowed and ready for sea, I pulled up my two anchors hand over hand and slowly left Taboga Island on the sultry breath of an uncertain wind. True to predictions, I logged only a few miles before the wind deserted me altogether. From then on I played hide and seek with a fitful breeze that seemed to be pulled in all directions at once. We glided on a sea so calm I appreciated why Magellan had named it Pacífico (Peaceful). As we drifted south on the languid and erratic current, I was inclined to rename at least this part of the ocean Paciencia (Patience).
On the advice of my photocopied Pilot Charts and a well-used Sailing Directions book, I laid a course south from Panama until near the equator where I would turn west to pass close by the Galapagos and then on to the Marquesas. In that way, I should avoid some of the calms and headwinds prevailing on the more direct route.
As expected, the Pacific approaches to Panama were as thick with shipping as the Atlantic side. At times I watched up to six ships passing on either side of me, some close enough that I hand-steered to stay clear of them. Sleep was again reduced to the brief moments between glances at the compass and the familiar but annoying beeps of the radar alarm. The wind, when any could be felt, continued in light puffs from every quarter. Rarely did I sail more than a mile in any direction before the wind suddenly vanished, only to spring up later from some other direction. On that first night at sea I watched faraway storms produce ominous silent flashes of light, the kind we called “heat lightning” back on my grandparent's farm in northwest Minnesota. Later I learned that all lightning produces thunder. What is commonly called heat lightning is actually lightning as far as 50 miles away, still visible, yet too far to hear its thunderclap.
The next day I watched successive banks of dark clouds drag veils of rain across the horizon. That night I entered into an area where lightning flickered low, and thunder cracked, as though armies of artillery were battling on all sides of me. Looking out the cabin windows was like staring directly at an arc welder flickering its cold light into frozen images on my retina. With the light display came torrents of rain – rock-heavy, vertical drops turning abruptly into cutting horizontal sheets during fits of short, but violent blasts of wind.
It seems remarkable to me now that I was not struck by lightning that night, or anytime, in all my years sailing on a boat completely ungrounded or in any way “protected” from lightning. Against most professional advice, I held onto my “groundless” theory: no lightning protection at all is better than an insufficiently grounded rig. A perfect ground for extreme voltages is hard to design and expensive to install and might merely serve as a lightning attractor. The theory has worked – at least so far. An even less demonstrable theory of mine holds that the degree of lightning attraction to a vessel is in direct relationship to the amount of expensive, vulnerable electronics it contains. In this regard, Atom was well-protected from lightning by her poverty of electronics.
At first when these storms approached I dropped all sail, cowering in the cabin until they passed. But not every rain cloud brought strong winds and it became clear that this strategy was hampering any progress in this mishmash of winds and was only prolonging my stay here. To take advantage of the gusty winds, I began testing my nerve by sitting at the tiller with reefed or even full sail spread throughout the squalls.
For the first time in my young sailing career, the sea took on a malevolent persona. Every mile I wrestled with this devil by constantly changing sails and reefing only after the boat was laid over on her beam ends by sudden gusts of wind. Typically, these squalls arrived at night when they could bring the most menace. I'd lie in my bunk debating whether to take in a reef until it was too late. Then I'd rush to pull on a raincoat, connect my harness and get on deck while the boat plowed on at various courses and crazy angles of heel – sails and rigging shuddering in protest. As often as not, Atom was back on her feet in a near calm by the time I made it to the mast. If I was not sitting becalmed, I was sailing on the point of blowing out my sails and it exhausted me mentally as much as physically. With each squall I might advance a single mile or sometimes not at all.
Bigger yachts with diesel engines typically avoid much of this drama by reefing the mainsail and motor-sailing on a more direct course. This is the choice: test your resolve one-on-one with nature's dark side or burn up a tankful of diesel as the nonstop day and night thumping of the motor numbs you into insensibility. Living so close to a diesel motor is like being stuck with an annoying crewmate. You may not like him much, but his familiarity is easier than the unknown wrath of nature.
One of my route planning books, Ocean Passages for the World, declares conditions here “vexatious” (some would say maddening) for sailing craft. This is an area within the Intra-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), more aptly called the Doldrums. This belt encircles the earth near the equator where the Trade Winds of the two hemispheres meet and struggle for dominance. Ocean Passages warns ships to expect long periods of calms, light shifting winds, and continuous rains and thunderstorms. The heat energy released from the center of the tropical seas is what spawns hurricanes and fuels the wind systems of the earth. To clear the Doldrums, I held my southerly course until I neared the coast of Ecuador where the skies cleared somewhat and I turned to the west. Here I came across an oil drilling platform 200 miles off the coast of Colombia. At first I mistook it for a ship until I passed close by and clearly saw it rooted to the seafloor like a giant steel spider.
In this area one morning, as I was below preparing a bowl of oats with granola and powdered milk for breakfast, a sudden jolt and lurch of the boat sent my meal spilling to the floor. It sounded like a hole was knocked in the hull and the rudder was getting ripped off. As I scrambled up the companionway steps my mind raced through the catalog of possibilities. Had I sailed onto the back of an irate whale or uncharted reef? Should I stop to collect my emergency grab bag or inspect the bilge for an inrush of water? Could I stuff a cushion into a hole in the hull from inside or rig a makeshift collision mat from outside? I had a six-foot plastic dinghy but no life raft. I was up on deck just in time to see an enormous uprooted tree trunk rise behind us. We had ridden up and over the entire floating tree. I checked the tiller and was relieved to see we still had steering. Back down below I reached into every corner of the bilge and the lockers below the waterline and found no leaks or visible damage. The next day, during a spell of calm weather, I gathered my nerve to enter the water to inspect the hull for damage. I lowered the sails and hung a rope swim ladder over the side and extended the line on my safety harness. Even after looking for the shadowy figures of sharks under the hull and satisfied they were absent, I still had an unreasonable dread of leaving the security of Atom's deck and plunging alone into mile-deep waters. I was relieved to see only some deep scratches in the paint and fiberglass and no serious damage. While in the water I took a few minutes more with snorkel, mask and fins to scrape off the newly-grown barnacles and weeds clinging to the hull with a stiff brush and putty knife. The partial collision bulkhead I had installed in the lower section of the bow while refitting in Florida was reassuring, but this encounter later persuaded me to add the extra insurance of several watertight bulkheads fore and aft. Atom was essentially my life raft and she must remain afloat for me to survive.
One morning, about 80 miles off Ecuador, I awoke to the deep throbbing of a diesel engine nearby. A fishing boat, about 50-feet long, was following me just off my port side. When I came on deck, two fishermen stood at their railing staring back at me. Perhaps they thought they were about to claim an abandoned boat until I disappointed them with my appearance on deck. Unsure of their intentions, I made mine known by tacking sharply away at right angles to their course. If those Ecuadorian fishermen were looking to try their hand at piracy, I was more or less defenseless, unless you consider poverty the best defense.
I hadn't carried a gun aboard since I'd had my own gun pointed at me by a lady in Savannah, Georgia. She had been invited aboard Atom by my crewmate Tony on one of my trips down the Intra-Coastal Waterway. This nearly 40-year-old hippy had answered my ad in the Detroit News seeking crew to share expenses on a trip to Florida. Tony had been a committed hippy (he preferred to call himself a hedonist) for his entire not-so-adult life. He certainly looked the part of the hedonist, with his curly brown hair flowing into a long curly brown beard, his rounded Buddha-like belly and knobby-kneed bird legs. I liked him immediately, but reminded him, “No drugs on the boat. I can't afford to have the boat confiscated.” He said he was fine with that and kept his stash hidden from my view.
The single most amazing thing about Tony was, that as we made our way through the Great Lakes and down the east coast, no matter where we stopped, Tony came back to the boat with a new girlfriend in every port. It was unbelievable! I could almost never convince a strange girl to “come visit my yacht” for the night. Tony scored every time and each time it made me a little crazier. He had a technique the women loved. Several times I watched him work his magic. He would go to a bar or restaurant or supermarket and pick out the loneliest looking girl he could find. It didn't matter if she was somewhat fat or even plain ugly. If they looked at all neglected and were genuine females, they suited Tony. Once he zeroed in on his prey he chatted them up until inevitably getting around to discussing his acupressure technique for relieving their stress. He had a huge picture book on the subject back on the boat. Once he laid his hands on their shoulders and indicated their “stress points” they were like zombies, which he then led straight back to the boat and closed the forward cabin door behind them. In the mornings I would tap on the door to tell Tony it was time to shove off and he'd appear with some poor, disheveled girl scribbling down her phone number and desperately sad to see him leave. I told him he really needed his own boat to practice this fine art of his.
On our stopover in Savannah, I struck out at the bar as usual and came home alone. Tony was already occupying the forward cabin with a guest and working his magic from the sound of it. Early the next morning, and anxious to catch the falling tide down river, I tapped on the door, “Tony, it's time to get sailing.” Nothing. I knocked again. There was some grumbling. A few minutes later I knocked a bit harder. The door flung open and a short, heavy woman in black leather pants held up with a belt of motorcycle chain, stood there pointing a huge revolver at me with two meaty hands around the wooden grips. “Shut up and get the hell outta here or you're a dead man,” she growled.
I eased my way out on deck and went for a long walk. That gun looked familiar. The filthy wench had found my .44 Magnum Smith & Wesson Dirty Harry Special hidden behind a false panel in the hanging locker. It was a leftover from my teenaged hunting and target shooting days. When I came back an hour later she was gone and Tony was cooking scrambled eggs in the galley. “Wow man, you really pissed her off,” Tony said.
“Sorry about that Tony. I'll try to be more considerate.” I sold the gun before my next trip and haven't carried anything heavier than a flare pistol and a spearfishing gun since.
To ensure no one would ever find Atom sailing along without her crew, I always wore a safety harness with a line secured to a fitting on the center of the coach roof. The line was of a length that permitted me to travel from bow to stern and no farther. During calms I would at least clip the line around my waist if not wearing the full harness. On a boat with only a two foot freeboard in the aft section, it's easy to pull yourself back aboard when it would be impossible on a higher boat. This is one of those seemingly minor, but critical points, that make a small boat far safer in many respects than a large boat. What could be worse for the solo sailor than to watch his boat sail away from him after making one careless step? It has happened often enough before and will happen again as long as sailors go to sea. I had no desire to test my ability to “drown like a gentleman” as one English singlehanded sailor put it when asked what he would do if he ever fell overboard. So, I proceeded to sail around the world bound to my boat, not only spiritually but physically as well. It may have been an inconvenience, but it was reassuring not to need to consider each moment if conditions warranted a safety harness – it was always on.
At 84 degrees west longitude I dipped south across the equator, but held no ceremony to mark the occasion as crewed boats did in earlier days. Surprisingly, here on the equator, the bright sun overhead did not generate as much heat as it had a few days earlier. I found out why when I took my daily saltwater bucket shower. The bracing cold water confirmed I was in the chilling grip of the Peru Current, originating in Antarctic regions, and now carrying me along to the west.
That day I sailed into a patch of dancing water where an upwelling current broke through to the surface with thousands of little sharp vertical wave tips accompanied by a hissing turbulence. In these waters oceanographers discovered a powerful current 300 feet below the surface running at three knots opposite to the surface current. Under this is a third current, again running parallel to the surface current. Here, and around the Galapagos Islands, these currents meet in a conflict of great swirling eddies. It's these currents, and others in every sea, that interlink all oceans. A drop of spray falling on Atom's deck that day may also have flowed on the other side of the globe thousands of years before.
Ever since leaving Panama I noticed the Aries wind vane becoming progressively more sluggish and unresponsive in light winds, first under-steering and then over-steering. I compensated by daily applying light oil on the bearings and reefing sail more than I normally would, in order to slow the boat and increase the apparent wind across the wind blade. Finally, it got so bad I had to attempt a repair, which is a daunting task when you consider I had the entire Pacific to cross and if I dropped an essential part into the sea, I would be doing a lot of grueling hand-steering before I could get a replacement. Leaning over the transom, ever so carefully, I unbolted the frame and heaved the seventy-pound vane gear up and into the cockpit. Since the wind vane was nearly new, I could hardly believe what finally became clear. The nylon bearings that fit so well had not worn, but swollen, from the effects of water and sun and were binding the free movement of the rudder shaft. It was a design fault and poor choice of materials that I later learned had caused the same problem on many other boats. Aggressive work with a file gave it the clearance needed and we soon resumed our journey under full sail.
Two weeks out of Panama the daily positions recorded in my logbook, and the X marks stippling my homemade chart, showed I was nearing the Galapagos Islands. On my present course I expected to clear the easternmost island, San Cristobal, by 30 miles sometime during the early morning hours. Even so, I set the alarm and dropped into an uneasy sleep. I felt little cause for worry since I trained myself to sleep lightly and awake to changes in the wind and wave patterns. This unusual sleep pattern, as well as the effects of isolation, had always given me more vivid dreams at sea than when in port. A good portion of my sleep time was more like drifting in and out of a dream world just below the surface of consciousness.
This was the night of the nightmare I wrote of earlier, where I stood watching helplessly from shore as my boat broke up on the rocky coast of some unknown island. The surf surged in around me, roaring as it broke against the car-sized boulders scattered on the rocky beach. I opened my eyes and noticed the gray twilight of dawn entering the cabin. I lay there in my bunk, still drunk with my overindulgence of sleep after weeks of building exhaustion. The sound of the dream's surf still pounded in my head as I slowly perceived the shipwreck had been a dream. Thank god, it was just a dream and we were still afloat! I turned in my bunk to look at the telltale compass mounted on the bulkhead. The course was off by ninety degrees. Finally, I realized the danger we were in. I leapt from my bunk to the deck and could hardly believe the sight. Dead ahead, only a few boat lengths away, was a shore strewn with black rocks where the waves crashed angrily. In a scene terrifyingly identical to that of my nightmare, Atom surged ahead to her foretold fate. For one long second, perhaps the longest second in my life, I stood frozen in disbelief and thought: “Christ, what to do?”
A wave breaking next to me broke the spell. With tiller in one hand and jib sheet in the other, I tacked the boat to windward away from the shore as quickly and with as much concentration as I have ever tacked a boat. On both sides of me the sea heaved and broke on submerged reefs. I held my breath and willed the boat to pull away, to skip between the foaming breakers filled with hull-cracking rocks just below my keel.
Once clear of the danger I felt my legs and arms tremble. “Damn, that was close! You almost lost it there, boy,” I said out loud and then chuckled to myself. I rarely spoke aloud while alone because of the unnerving hollowness to the sound. Now that the shore was no longer a threat I hurled a string of insults its way, then smiled smugly. One minute more of sleep and we really would have been dashed to pieces on that desolate coast. Besides sleeping through the wind-shift, which is something I rarely do, I had underestimated what must have been a four-knot current setting me towards the island during the night. As spooky as it seemed at the time, I can't credit my premonition to any extrasensory cause. Possibly the sound of the surf was not enough to waken me in my fatigued state, but it did trigger a dream, disturbing enough to wake me in time to prevent the disaster. I wonder, though, about the striking near-reality of the dream and close resemblance to the rocky features of the actual shore. I still shudder a bit, deep inside, whenever I think of it. In any case, when you need to believe in rational explanations, you can find them.
Spanish mariners of the 17th Century had no doubts about the mystical nature of these islands, calling them Las Islas Encantadas (The Enchanted Isles) due to their apparent change of location as strong, changeable currents swept the ships past as they floundered about in light winds.
Numb as I felt, at least I had caught up on some much needed sleep. With twelve hours of daylight ahead of me, I sailed around to the opposite side of the island to look at the possibility of anchoring in Wreck Bay. After dropping our sails we drifted near the two other yachts there while I debated whether to release my anchors. On all sides of me, squadrons of blue-footed boobies dived vertically into the water in hopes of scooping up a small fish.
The skipper from a Belgian-flagged yacht rowed over in his dinghy and gave me the lowdown on the clearing-in procedure. Since I had no visa, officials would allow only a three-day visit for which they charged $30. Before leaving Florida I had applied for a visa but received no reply. I took that as notice that cruising yachts were not welcome in Ecuador's National Park of the Galapagos. I didn't intend to make just a three-day stop at any port along my route. To get the boat dried out and back in shape after a rough passage, and then prepare it for sea again, would take two days itself and leave little time to see the island. Besides, I had spent a good chunk of my $500 traveling fund in Panama and I saw no point in plundering the cruising kitty here. It was a tough decision since as far as I knew, this could be my last chance to see the islands. As it turned out, I did return to these waters again three years later and made my shore explorations then.
The Encantadas were probably first discovered, though not permanently colonized, by Chimu Indians from coastal Peru several centuries ago. Since Europeans entered the Pacific the island group has hosted a procession of explorers and buccaneers, scientists, pioneers and even a convict colony. Given that they were not worth fighting over by Western powers who claimed most of the Pacific islands, Ecuador was allowed sovereignty over these islands, straddling the equator 600 miles off its coast.
Charles Darwin, the English naturalist who visited these volcanic isles prior to forming his Theory of Evolution, wrote:
These islands at a distance have a sloping uniform outline, except where broken by sundry paps and hillocks; the whole black lava, completely covered by small leafless brushwood and low trees. The fragments of lava are reddish-like cinders, the stunted trees show little signs of life. The black rocks, heated by the rays of a vertical sun, like a stove, give to the air a close and sultry feeling. The plants also smell unpleasantly. The country was comparable to what one might imagine the cultivated parts of the Infernal regions to be.
Despite Darwin's somber description, I would later discover these islands to be rich in its strange creatures, both animal and human. At the time I had little choice and didn't much know what I was missing as I handed the Belgian sailor a previously written letter to home and a dollar for postage. Then I hoisted sail and resumed my journey.
Offshore I picked up an escort of several porpoises gamboling under the pressure wave of our bow which they love to ride like surfers catching a wave. Watching them from on deck at the bow, their movements appeared as effortless as sleek torpedoes. Throughout the day this or that gang traveled alongside me, now and then taking to the air in leaps and back flips as if from pure love of flight. Were their high-pitched squeaks resonating through Atom's hull meant to call me back on deck? Thoreau tells us in Walden: “According to Greek mythology…Bacchus made the Tyrrhenian mariners mad, so that they leapt into the sea, mistaking it for a field of flowers and so became dolphins.”
Several miles offshore I encountered a lone seal on the surface with his back towards me. As I sailed silently past, I caught his attention with a shouted, “Hello!” Startled, he turned and lifted his head revealing what appeared to be an elderly man's whiskered face. Having looked me over, he grunted as a startled old man might do, then dove out of sight.
In these waters the upwelling of the Equatorial Undercurrent brings cooler, nutrient-laden waters to the surface, which supports the enormous schools of fish I watched racing past in underwater clouds. By some secret signal each fish simultaneously changes course to elude the dark shadow of an approaching predator. Overhead, the albatross, shearwaters and petrels glided with masterly grace over the waters. The majestic waved albatross breed on only two islands in the world, one of them nearby Hood Island, and spend the rest of the year soaring over the empty southern oceans. If in human terms I was alone, there was too much life around me to feel lonely or bored.
Sunset gazing has always been a fixed daily ritual. One particular night, among these enchanted islands, I soaked up a sunset no artist could reproduce. Multiple layers of wispy clouds stacked in rows above the horizon were colored in soft yellow and red brush strokes on a blue sapphire sky canvas. In front of this scene, a half mile off the bow, a pair of porpoises repeatedly jumped clear of the water forming smoothly arching silhouettes on a sea painted metallic orange.
That same night I sat becalmed as currents pulled me westward at two miles to the hour. Our slow speed suited the moment. Stars burned bright from high overhead down to near the water's edge. Where the stars left off, a brilliant display of phosphorescence took over. Looking straight down into the inky water I could not tell it apart from the sky as the star-like pinpricks of light from luminous creatures mixed with real stars reflected from overhead. The gentlest of rolling seas merged to become one with the sky. The lack of a discernible horizon added to an effect that nearly overturned all sense of direction. Then the plankton-rich waters exploded with a bright bioluminescent glow outlining my old gang of porpoises from head to tail; the radiance of cool flames washing their bodies as they raced through the water. Around them piercing flashes marked small fish darting here and there to elude the hunters.
With morning's faint breeze, Atom sailed close along a bay on the north coast of Floreana Island and then slid away to the west, gathering speed as the wind freshened. After passing the last craggy sentinels of the western Galapagos Islands there lay over 3,000 miles of wide-open ocean before I would see another island break the surface. The effect of the emptiness ahead suggested I might sail off the edge of my world as soon as it got dark.
On the next day, my 26th birthday, the trades filled in with certainty. The wind strengthened and for a week blew consistently from the east to east-southeast. As I settled into my sea routine I recorded days of 140 mile runs in the log book. On and on we sailed, west-southwest, always reaching for some unknown place hidden behind the setting sun.
I was eating pasta and tomato sauce out of a bowl in the cockpit one evening, enjoying another sunset and the brisk sailing, when suddenly, “Bang!” the entire jib was flying loose out to leeward. The original inner forestay had parted from the deck taking the jib with it. I almost choked in fear, thinking the mast would come down next. Then I remembered I had doubled up the rigging wires in case of such an event. I reeled in the thrashing sail and made temporary repairs to the forestay with shackles, thimble and bulldog clamps. We were sailing again within the hour.
The final insult of that day came when I went below and found my bunk soaked by a wave that had snuck aboard through the open port. The sea began to pile up and once or twice a day the different wave patterns overlapped, creating a wave high enough to climb over the stern and splash into the cockpit. One of the few disadvantages of a small and low riding boat is the near constant wetness of living so close to sea level. I never knew when I'd get dumped on, so these occasional sloppy waves discouraged me from sleeping out in the cockpit during nights of otherwise pleasant weather.
For another two weeks I sailed without incident in a moderate southeast wind. As Atom plowed on towards the rim of my visible world, the days became a collage of patching sails, baking bread in a skillet on top the single-burner kerosene stove and reading books. I even relaxed enough in the unchanging weather to sleep up to four hours at a time and I found my strength building and my spirits soaring.
During the day I focused on the moods of the sea and a world composed of the whites and blues of clouds, sky and sea. At night, as always, the stars, planets and moon held my attention. Polaris, the navigator's North Star, whose altitude above the horizon is always equal to the observer's latitude in degrees north of the equator, had dropped below the horizon long ago. It was replaced by its less-precise southern hemisphere counterpart; the Southern Cross, which swings in an arc around true south. As I ventured farther south, the familiar star patterns of the northern sky appeared upside down. In the southern sky, new stars, previously unknown to me, rose higher every night.
While sailing west the new moon appeared later and fuller every night until one evening that white balloon floated free from the ocean, directly astern. Of all the days at sea, this was the time most looked forward to, when once each month a full moon rises opposite the setting sun, and in turn the following morning, the sun rises in the east just as the moon is extinguishing its light in the sea's western horizon. I stood as a mere atom between two luminous beings locked in an eternal dance.
On darker, moonless nights it was easier to observe the orbits of the five visible planets – Venus, Jupiter, Mars, Mercury and Saturn – as they drifted in the grip of the cosmic currents. Occasionally, four planets were visible during one night. Jupiter, with its attendant four moons, one or two of which seemed to me were just visible through my 10-power binoculars, was rising in the east during evening twilight. When low in the sky it was bright enough to cast a path of silvery light across the waters. Mars and Saturn were there also, not as bright as Jupiter, or so easy to pick out without a planet chart, but still firm allies marching side by side.
At night, while standing braced in the companionway with head and shoulders above the hatch, I craned my neck back to stare at the mainsail as it swept out a pattern against the stars. With bow pointed west, surfing swiftly down waves on an eastward turning earth, I momentarily felt as if the planet were spinning beneath me while the boat was held immobile by some unseen force. It was an illusion similar to a memory I had of sitting in a stopped car next to a train that began to reverse. For a moment I felt I was moving forward and pressed down harder on the brake.
During this long isolation at sea I startled myself with unexpected flashes of memories of insignificant events I thought long lost. I sometimes mentally replayed a period of my life – a long ago chat with a friend, a childhood incident, all with remarkably complete recall. At first these lifelike views into the past made me uneasy. Then they grew familiar and even welcome. Where my mind roamed I willingly followed. This heightened awareness into the past only happens when senses normally numbed with the anesthetic of our intrusive society are reawakened and laid open. Out here, even the clock became absurd, with its breaking of time into meaningless seconds and minutes. If not for the requirements of celestial navigation I might have thrown my clocks overboard, followed by the calendar as well.
For the solo sailor to remain on good terms with the sea he needs to balance his blind romantic love with a good dose of fearful respect. She will send you subtle messages like an underlying swell pattern or halo around the moon, which you need to be aware enough to read and act upon. For instance, I learned from experience that a change in wind direction often foretold an imminent change in the wind's strength as well. Waves of chaotic shape indicated the nearness of land or surface currents, and their set, or direction of flow relative to the wind. Swells from distant storms will ride under the local wind, wave and swell patterns and tell you something about weather coming your way. The whispers of light wind passing over sails and rigging and the gurgling of water along the hull are sounds so ever-present and hypnotic they are only really noticed when they change their patterns or are absent. The slightest unrecognized sound, like waves slapping the hull at a different angle, served as my replacement alarm clock when far from shore. However, as in the past, I would continue to be caught by surprise from time to time.
One night while sleeping a bit too soundly for my built-in alarm to be heard, Atom was laid over flat by a rain squall that crept up out of nowhere. The wind gusted at gale force for a brief time as I struggled naked, but for my harness, to lower the sails before they were torn apart. The night was so black that lacking functioning deck lights, I worked entirely by feel, relying on memory for the position of each line and cleat. In the morning I found an open seam in the mainsail that required restitching by hand. Also, I found another of the original mast shroud wires had a growing crack in the lower swage fitting and I reinforced it with wire and clamps. Later, in port, I replaced it from a roll of second-hand wire and end-fittings from my spares locker.
This was the main problem of sailing on the cheap. Those expensive rigging fittings that should be replaced at the first sign of wear, needed to be used until they actually started to fail and then replaced with other, questionable, used spares. The only option was to over-strengthen everything and use redundant systems. Nowadays, with more knowledge and better finances, I shudder at my makeshift approach, but it did see me through.
Sure, you can stay home and work towards the day when you have the perfect boat, perfectly outfitted, as most people try to do. You might even wait and do your cruising as a retired person clutching a fistful of platinum credit cards on a finely fitted boat filled with expensive gadgets needed to maintain your increased demands for comfort and security. But by that time you are somewhat lacking in the robust health and enthusiasm to fully engage in your long-postponed adventure. If I chose to sail as a young adventurer, poorly equipped in the material sense, I make no apologies. I was well-fitted out in health and spirit. As all sailors ultimately learn, it is easier to prepare a boat for sea than to clear the decks of your life for a voyage into unknown waters.
At least the rain shower that night allowed me to take on a tankful of fresh water. To catch rainwater I had installed a valve on each side under the deck drains that diverts all rainwater hitting the deck to a hose inside the main cabin that I used to fill water containers and the built-in water tank. As the winds eased, I let the rain rinse the salt off the decks for a few minutes and then opened the valve to fill my shower bag and every bucket and container I could lay hands on. I tasted each container for salt before pouring it into the main water tank because occasionally a wave would land on deck and contaminate the water for a few minutes until it had a chance to rinse off again.
Most of my fresh vegetables were eaten or turned rotten within a month of departing Panama. After that I still had some onions, squash, potatoes and the alfalfa and mung beans ready to eat after three days in the sprouting tray. A few limes wrapped in foil also lasted about a month. I later learned to rinse some of the vegetables and fruit in a bucket of water with a couple spoons of bleach added to kill the mold-starting bacteria and extend their life in the tropics. One of my favorite dinners was a cornbread prepared in a covered frying pan on the stovetop and ate as a sandwich with sprouts and mustard. This cornbread was filling and delicious hot from the skillet. Leftovers were still edible later the same day. By the second day it felt and tasted like a rock hewn from the cornbread quarry, perhaps because my basic recipe contained no eggs, sugar, oil or preservatives.
While laying my track across this immensity of open horizons, I became more and more impressed by what I'd read of the seafaring abilities of the ancient Polynesians. Western ethnologists think of the Pacific as being divided into three regions classified loosely as Polynesia (Many Islands), extending in a great triangle from Hawaii to New Zealand to Easter Island; Micronesia (Small Islands), containing most of the atolls and smaller islands of the tropical northwest Pacific; and Melanesia (Black Islands), extending from Fiji to New Guinea. By the time European explorers arrived almost every habitable island in the Pacific was, or had been, inhabited.
The Pacific Islanders certainly arrived in some type of voyaging canoes, but how and from where? Norwegian anthropologist, Thor Heyerdahl, suggested that Polynesians, at least originally, descended from American Indians who drifted across in large rafts from South America. To support his theory, he led the famous expedition in 1947 on a balsa raft, the Kon-Tiki, which sailed over the same waters I was now crossing. Most anthropologists reject Heyerdahl's theory today. They believe that about 50,000 years ago, Polynesians began a series of slow, eastward migrations by sailing canoe from points in Asia, and by AD 1000, had settled as far east as Hawaii, the Marquesas and Easter Island. They may even have gone on as far as the west coast of South America in a kind of reversed Heyerdahl theory.
I wonder how many of those experts who skippered nothing more than a car or office desk can imagine the difficulties of taking canoes of vine-lashed logs against the prevailing trade winds for thousands of miles. Even with a modern designed sailing vessel, I would no more try to cross the tropical Pacific from west to east than I would consider swimming across. Yet it apparently is possible to make fitful progress east during those rare seasons of El Niño when the trade winds abate to be replaced by variable and temporary west winds. That seems to have been the principal way they managed to make such long passages to the east. In fact, the year previous to my Pacific crossing had been an El Niño year and yachts making passages across the Pacific had reported unusual headwinds and out of season cyclones.
Perhaps it was a combination of migrations from Asia as well as from South America that peopled the islands in the eastern Pacific. However the Polynesians arrived, they did navigate their craft between the various island groups without a compass, using their knowledge of stars, wind and wave patterns, currents, seabirds and doubtless some other methods now lost to us.
It remains nothing short of a miracle to me how those ancient navigators made long voyages into unknown territory and then were able to find their way back and forth between the newly discovered lands and their home islands. By contrast, I need do little more than unfold my chart, set some sail, point the bow of my boat downwind, set the self-steering and let nature take over. The blessed, timeless quality of the sea is that, while man has conquered the continents with a lasting presence, at sea, the evidence of our passages, ancient and modern, are erased in the moments of a ship's vanishing wake.
From a mid-ocean perspective, the islands of the Pacific are only a minor intrusion on the bosom of a boundless sea. Charts of the Pacific, particularly those showing a few hundred of its thousands of scattered islands, distorts our perspective. Say we had a chart whose scale depicted a one-mile-long island as a speck just one millimeter wide (less than the thickness of a penny). For it to include the entire Pacific, that chart would be longer than my 28-foot boat. In spite of Western charts appearing crowded with islands, Polynesians know this is not reality. They live in a world comprised of 70 parts water to one part land. No wonder they were so at home on the sea until their fragile cultures were turned upside down by the arrival of Europeans. It takes a long voyage to get a feel for the true nature of this planet, to watch day after day the furrows of waves reaching out to the rim of the horizon, to sense the earth's rotation as stars wheel overhead at night.
I was, finally, fully at peace with the sea. At the same time, I was tremendously eager to make landfall once I sensed its approach. On my last full day at sea, I stood for hours on deck trying to discern an island from the island-shaped clouds. A three-star sight during that evening's twilight fixed my position 25 miles east of Hiva Oa Island. I reduced sail, hove-to, and kept both eyes open through the night.