Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Swimming with Manta Rays

One morning, the Kamaya crew heard splashing in the water. The four of us scrambled up the companion way and looked outside -- manta rays. The rays were circling the boat, quite close. “What a perfect time to swim with them.” suggested Bendon.
And that is what we did. We put on our swimsuits (or “costumes” as our French friends call it), snorkels, and jumped in. Mommy stayed in the kayak to point out where the gentle giants were swimming. I went under and heard the familiar chattering of the sea urchins and tiny fish, welcoming me into the water.

I looked around, and saw it. It was bigger than Kai. The giant ray headed straight for me. His wings were pumping up, and plummeting down. His mouth was open wide, gulping nutrients. I could see right through his gills and filter, and into the open ocean. He had no teeth, but gray gills surrounded his mouth. He seemed prehistoric, yet also unimaginably and beautifully elegant. He flew; he glided; he danced through the water.

I have never seen a manta ray underwater. This was amazing. The mantas were twirling through the water, and I saw many. Occasionally they would stick their wing tips out of the sea. From a distance the tips looked like tiger shark fins. But no, they were not sharks; they didn’t prowl and scavenge for bits of food that would be so unwise to come into their grasp. They are Giant Manta Rays. Dancing, and not scavenging.

I watched the manta rays swim away and then I too turned, and slowly slid out of the water, and onto the boat.

But then just as I stood on the deck, they came back again. I heard the splash of their fins going back into the water. We saw them circling around the coral, minding their own business, as if our encounter with them had not happened. But for me, I felt different and in awe of them.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


“Kaoha, ” -- that’s Marquesan for “hello.” People smile more when we use this greeting as opposed to the French, “Bonjour.”

I smell the sweet fragrant tiare flowers as soon as we set our anchor and call Taa Huku Bay on Hiva Oa home for three nights. On land, once we pass the malodorous shower and its accompanying wash basin for laundry, we continue on the road to the main town of Atuona which has giant mango trees with ripe ones dangling high in the air.

After a two kilometer walk or a hitchhike (everyone stops to give you a ride), we arrive in town. It’s here where we see the elegant Marquesans with flowers in their hair. Rumor has it that when the women place the red hibiscus flower behind their right ear, then it means their love has been taken, but if it’s behind their left ear, then they’re available.

We show the gendarmerie (that’s French for “police”) our boat documents and he scratches our name from the list. Thanks to the Tahiti Yacht Agents, we don’t have to post the necessary bond required for many Americans. The bond is the equivalent of a plane ticket home – so that foreigners don ’t settle in this tropical paradise or if we get unruly, they can put escort us onto the next airplane bound for the states.

Next stop is the ATM machine where we get some beautiful Tahitian Francs. The money here is the prettiest we’ve used so far with exotic women, flowers, tikis and animals on the bills. Even though the dollar is up (91 to the Franc) food is expensive. Cabbage costs about $7; eggs $6 and chicken $14.

Nevertheless, we need food and with Francs in hand, we beeline to the grocery store – it’s been one month since we’ve purchased anything. Imagine that – 30 days without spending any money! We first buy hot French bread (that’s less than one dollar per loaf) and brie, a perfect snack, showing that we’ve landed in a French colony. Having not had meat for a while, we also sample the Chinese chicken buns, evident of the Asian influence. We stock up on frozen New Zealand lamb – as there’s plenty in the store’s freezer, signifying that we’re closer to New Zealand than South America.

But we don’t bother buying fruit as we traded lipstick, blush and bras for football sized pamplemousse (grapefruit) when we first arrived in Fatu Hiva. At the other anchorages, people have been giving us more grapefruit, lemons, breadfruit, star fruit and bananas and we’ve also picked our own. It’s amazing that here in the tropics harvest comes three times a year which means that fruit is plentiful. Sometimes there is so much of it that it falls to the ground.

I feel like we are thousands of miles away from the states and in a truly exotic part of the world, where time ticks at a slower pace and people live a life surrounded by stunning scenery, tropical flowers and fruit and fish. I can understand why Belgium singer Jacques Brel and French artist Paul Gauguin chose to live the remainders of their lives in this paradise.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Big Passage

Five days…

Four days…

Three days…

Two days…

One day…

Blast off!

We’re ready to sail.

Well, not actually ready, a boat is never ready to leave the harbor, things to fix, things to clean, things to do. And the Galapagos Islands, especially Isla Isabela has such a protected place to call home with penguins and sea lions swimming around so that made it even harder to blast off. The Galapagos is 600 miles from South America, come on, almost two months ago we sailed 6 days nonstop from Western Panama to the Galapagos, which is a big thing ‘cause that was the most amount of days we ever sailed. Well, we’re about to break that record with The crossing, I mean The big one. The big Galapagos to the Marquesas type of crossing. Yes, we were mentally prepared.

On the second day we discovered we had a passenger with us, a tiny Galapagos leaf toed gecko. He looks kind of funny, but I like him in his home on a pineapple leaf.
As soon as we got to the seventh day I could truly feel that this was a big passage, no, a huge passage. I hadn’t seen land since the Galapagos and at that time, we had 1925 miles to sail before we reach the Marquesas. We made the crossing in 17 days, 16 and one half days to be exact, which is considered a lot less than the usual, that is 20 to 25 days.

Our boat, a Stevens 50 called Kamaya, is a high sturdy boat, and she sails super well when we have a lot of wind. Good thing because the first week of our passage it blew 20 to 35 knots. The second week we had a little less wind, 15 to 20 knots of wind the whole way, except the last day, when the wind was dead. The wind almost never dies in the middle of the Pacific, and that is why if you sail in the right area you reach the favorable trade winds allowing boats to go long distances in a relatively short amount of time.

We also rely on the trade winds to get us where we gotta go, the Marquesas. There is also another factor, the current. It loops around close to our destination. We decided to stay high up at 3 and 4 degrees North, because everyone else was experiencing bad current down south. The wind also brought rain, and it rained the first week.

Once Kai took a shower with dinghy water. Well, our dinghy is on the davits at the stern of the boat and the rain falls into it. But first let me explain Kai. He is crazy. For instance, Kai and I made this currency called giggleberries that we use to pay each other for meals and chores and at first he liked it but now he doesn’t because he is running out of money. Does that make any sense?

On the day he took a shower, the generator broke. Our battery didn’t have much juice left so we couldn’t even check into the Barefoot Net on our SSB radio because it takes up too much power. The Barefoot Net is an informal check in on the radio made up of about 20 other boats also crossing the Pacific. Every night we tell each other our latitude and longitude position as well the wind that that we’e experiencing. Some of the other boats have names like Scream, Freedom, Whoosh, Passages, and Victoria.

Victoria is another kid boat with ten year old twins, both boys. They also have a gecko.

Speaking of geckos, my Dad saw ours again on the cutting board in the morning. On the seventh day I saw it again hanging out under the navigation station.
In the navigation station we have a ship’s computer, SSB radio, a VHF radio, the switch panel, and the GPS chart plotter. The chart plotter is used for navigation, to find out where we are, our speed, depth, and course. We’ve also been trying to figure out our position with a sextant.

Every day one of us lines up the sun on the horizon, and once found, you say “mark!” Then the person down below checks the time and writes it down. As soon as the sun gets to the highest angle, we know it’s local noon. Then you do a bunch of calculations which determines your position. But you can’t use the sextant when it is cloudy. It was cloudy on the 10th day, and we couldn’t’ use the sextant, but I did see three rainbows, two in the morning and one in the evening. They were beautifully colored, red orange yellow, green blue, indigo and violet. We also found a flying fish in our cockpit.

Then, on the 11th day when the seas were calmer, we got the dough ready to make sourdough bread. We wanted to keep the dough warmer so we brought it to the dinghy. That is when we found it, the flying fish! It flew into our dinghy, which we had put up eight feet high on the davits for the passage. I have no idea how that fish could have flown that high into the sky. But I do know that it was so unlucky as to zip itself into Kai’s old shoe!

The next day, the sourdough pizza was ready and Mommy and I baked it. Alone, I made banana bread, which our grandma who we call Oma, Dutch for grandmother, bakes a lot. Then my Dad, nicknamed Bendon, baked sourdough bread. In case you’re wondering how my Dad got that funny nickname, it started when Kai was little and used to say total nonsense, like “wah- nah- nina- no- ne,” and stuff like that. One day I heard him say “dan- ding the bendon,” but I thought he said “daddy the bendon.” That was shortened to “the bendon” and finally “bendon.” And the name stuck.

We have set up a three day schedule for our crossing consisting of movie night, crepe day, chocolate day. Then it goes back to the start. We changed crepe day to baking day because we got tired of making crepes in the rolly seas.
The day after that, Kai and I made banana bread because it was baking day again.
On the fourteenth day, zziiippppppp went the fishing line. Fish on! Bendon started reeling the fish in. It looks like a big one, and we got it in, close to the boat. Wow -- a 4 foot long sailfish, juvenile. It didn’t have a real long bill because it was young. We decided to release it because we wanted to preserve billfish and we weren’t sure it would be tasty.

Kai and I played with our stuffed animals all the time and especially on this passage. We love our stuffed animals. We have about 20 of them, and we created a zip- line through the cabin. They go zziiipppppp down the line, almost as loud as the fishing pole. We took some rubberbands, and tied them to two posts. Then we tied a stuffed animal to the rubber bands, and dropped her. She was bouncing up and down, bungee jumping. And then we took a Lego wheel to reduce the friction on the line.
Finally, we made a cart, and rolled that down the line. The stuffed animals loved it. The cart was just like a foot rest or something. We made another improvement. We took some life jackets, and padded it all over so it wouldn’t . It was a success, until the line broke. That was the end of a really fun game.

Kai and I like to sleep with our stuffed animals. On the 15th Night, Kai slept with Fuzzy the bear outside, and it rained on them at five am. That morning, I made crepes, and guess what happened? Well, I baked savory crepes, with scrambled eggs and some salsa. I was about to take my first bite when, splash! A ton of saltwater came in through the hatch, and got my crepe and I soaked. I suppose that the sea reminded me that I needed a bit of salt on my food.

I slept outside that night and my Mom woke me up with the sunrise and a big surprise. Land!

Five days…

Three days…

Two days…

One day…

We’re finally there!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Big Crossing

On May 2nd, after 17 nights at sea, 16 and one half days to be precise, we completed the biggest crossing of the biggest ocean of the world – the Pacific Ocean. Well, we haven’t navigated the entire girth of the Pacific Ocean, but we sailed from the Galapagos to the Marquesas. Along the way, I sent email posts to via our SSB, single-sideband radio. I have started writing for Yachtpals and encourage you to take a look at their site. Here are the posts, which I’ve changed slightly, hopefully for the better.

Internet in the Marquesas is sparse and it's super hard to download photos so please be patient with us as we’ll post on our blog sporadically and then when we do, you’ll see a bunch of posts at once.

Day One -- April 16
01 degrees 16 minutes South; 92 degrees 09 minutes West

My stomach always bubbles with nerves whenever we haul up our anchor and sail away. Yesterday, at 4 pm, it bubbled as much as a can of coke, not because it was tax day, but because we were beginning the longest offshore passage so far from the Galapagos to the Marquesas --2883 miles.

As I write, the current is favorable and we're on a tight reach sailing fast for Kamaya - between 8 and 9 knots. There are at least six boats within 100 miles of us, but I can't see them. For that matter, the only thing I do see surrounding us are carpets of rolling blue.

Shortly after the sun sets, Tim and I begin our three hour watches. Last night we started at 8 pm. Maya helped this morning and took over at 7 am so I could get some sleep. She wants to do more watches, especially in the middle of the night, which will be super helpful. As per school, we have a loose routine during the day, which includes math (using the sextant), writing (in a daily logbook/journal) and science (astronomy). We've just started looking at our Rosetta Stone French, an instructive language program that we use on the computer. I'm a little sad about leaving Spanish speaking countries, especially after we all became pretty conversant in the language.

This morning, I found a stowaway on board - a Galapagos Leaf-Toed gecko. He was hiding in the pineapple. Tim says he’s good luck. I hope we have enough insects on board for him to eat. 2768 miles to go!

Day Four - April 19, 2010
03 degrees 36 minutes South, 102 degrees 52 minutes West

Today was our first 200 mile day. For the past two days we've sailed with only our big 120 jib and we've been making record time for heavy Kamaya.

It's been a bit rolly with seas up to 7 feet and gusts to 35. None of this was on our grib files, those are the files that we download from the National Weather Service. Yesterday, we sailed with rain rain and more rain. Fortunately, the rain dissipated today and brought rainbows to the sky. As we our keel advances through the water, schools of flying fish skim the surface propelled by the wind and their wings. (ADD PHOTO 3052) I saw one lonely turtle floating on the ocean surface. Where is he going? Where has he been?

When I struggle to stay awake for my 11 to 2 am and 5 am to 8 am shifts, I think about the brave and crazy solo sailors out in the ocean. How do they manage?
Maya and Kai made forts in the aft cabin and lucked out today because I was too tired for boat schooling plus I had to spend most of the day hand steering to save on power. With overcast skies, our solar panels don’t generate enough energy and the raw water pump on our generator broke. Fortunately, Tim managed in the rolly seas to install a band-aid fix and now we can use the autopilot.

2168 miles to go!

Day Five - April 20, 2010
03 degrees 45 minutes south 105 degrees 19 minutes west

We've had strong winds with gusts up to 35 knots and big waves for the past two days. This means that we've sailed 200 miles in a 24 hour period and hopefully we'll get to Fatu Hiva in less than my predicted 20 days.

Ocean passages are a test of endurance. Being cooped up, in perpetual motion and
having to wake up every three hours builds character and tough hands. Yet, sometimes I wonder why anyone would willingly put himself through this?

To keep days from melting into one blur, we’ve created a three day routine: one day is movie day, crepes the next and chocolate the third day. This keeps me sane and the kids excited. Though being boat kids, they've learned to do with less and keep themselves entertained. They've each plowed through books and treat them like candy.

It's crepe night and I need to prepare the batter.

Day Twelve – April 26
04 degrees 57 minutes South; 124 degrees 59 minutes West

More than one year ago when we were sailing across the Gulf of California from La Paz to Mazatlan in mainland Mexico, we met up with a boat called Third Day in the middle of the passage. We had spoken on the radio and found out that Jason, one of the boys on the boat, was celebrating his 10th birthday. So for math class, Maya and Kai had to figure out how we could intercept each other and pass a gift to Jason. We managed to find each other and with light winds toss a gift of Indiana Jones books to Jason. They passed us half a loaf of warm sourdough bread.

This was the first time we had eaten sourdough at sea and the taste still lingers in my mouth. Hot bread smothered with jelly and cream cheese: perfect texture, interesting sour taste and overall delicious. Since then, we managed to acquire some sourdough of our own and, like the Alaskans and the pioneers on the Oregon Trail, we stir the sourdough with a wooden spoon and feed it every few weeks.

Today, with calmer seas and slightly lighter winds of 20 to 25 knots from the southeast, we made sourdough pizza to celebrate being more than two-thirds of the way through our journey. We have also decided to swap out the crepe day of our movie-crepe-chocolate routine for a baking day. Maya baked banana bread for dessert and Tim baked a loaf of sourdough bread. Suddenly, we have oodles of tasty treats!

We're all anxious for the landscape of endless blue waves and flying fish to change to lush green mountains and waterfalls. We're ready to learn about the Marquesan way of life -- to hear them play the ukulele, learn how to swing our hips so that we can dance like Tahitians, and examine the painted tapas, made from mulberry bark.

But before I get ahead of myself, we still have 870 miles to sail. The current continues to assist us in sailing near 200 mile days, but that will change as we head south to Fatu Hiva. Thanks to the SSB radio and our informal Barefoot Net we can learn about the weather and current that other boats around us are experiencing and it sounds like the wind will get lighter and the current less helpful. I'm sure Captain Cook would have loved to have that information when he sailed the Endeavour across the Pacific in 1769. How times have changed!

Day Fourteen - April 29, 2010
07 degrees 36 minutes S; 132 degrees 59 minutes west

We're Almost There!

Today marks our second full week at sea. Fourteen days of perpetual forward motion, endless blue, flying fish and being on watch from 11 to 2 and 5 to 8 in the morning. We have witnessed every sunrise and sunset. As we sail west through three different time zones, the moon grows bigger and full, so full that last night, it lit our path, as if someone from above had switched on the lights. The 1 to 2 knot current keeps us moving at a rapid pace, well rapid for our boat. We have 379 miles to go as of the writing of this blog.

When we left the Galapagos on April 15, the winds gusted to 35 knots and we sailed through squalls and rain. By Day 10, the winds calmed down to 15 to 20 knots and with it the seas. It’s been calm enough for us to transform Kamaya into a mini-bakery specializing in banana bread, sourdough bread and crepes. We squeeze our limes into limeade and nibble on oranges. We take showers every third day, using the fresh water from our watermaker. We're practicing navigating with our sextant, but we rely on our Raymarine Chartplotter to really mark our course.

We send and receive emails with our SSB radio and we also do our daily 6:30 pm check in with the informal Barefoot Net, consisting of 25 boats all traveling west to the Marquesas. We've managed to stay ahead of the pack, because our course kept us north of 4 degrees south, north with the favorable current and wind.

I want to scream and shout and celebrate. We did it. We survived our longest offshore passage. We deserve a huge round of applause when we arrive. Perhaps a reward when we anchor in Fatu Hiva, a place with friendly natives. But then I chuckle. We sailed this passage with a watermaker, autopilot, GPS, radar, SSB radio, and a flush toilet.

This is luxury, first class luxury especially compared to the sailing vessels in the 16 and 17 hundreds like those sailed by Ferdinand Magellan, William Dampier and Captain James Cook. They had it rough. Imagine sailing into uncharted waters, without really knowing what lies ahead, much less having to navigate with the sun and the stars. Imagine using lead lines to determine depth. Moreover, once anchored, not being sure whether the natives will be your friends or your enemies. To top it all off, imagine having to contend with scurvy and other diseases which killed many of the crew. Those sailors deserve the standing ovation.

Yes, when I think of it, we have it pretty easy. But I'm still proud that we made it this far.

Day 17 - May 2, 2010
10 degrees 28 minutes South, 138 degrees 40 minutes West


We arrived in Fatu Hiva at sunrise this morning after 17 nights at sea. I wish everyone could see this magnificent lush anchorage with towering basalt peaks. One peak looks like George Washington, the others perhaps are the reason this place was called The Bay of Virgins. For the French speakers – it used to be called Baie des Verges, but the missionaries added an “i” and changed the name to Baie des Vierges. Use your imagination – the scenery is tremendous.

I jumped in the warm water to go for a swim and was extremely surprised when I looked at our hull and saw green and brown smudge above our waterline and purple goosebump barnacles living on the hull. Who would have thought that anything would attach to a boat after such continuous motion? When we asked the other boats in the anchorage, they all nodded their heads and told us it takes hours to remove the gunk.

Looking Back

It took me more than seven years to turn our blog into a hard covered bound book. At first, I was leery of wrapping up our adventure because...