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Logs & Stories - July 2005
Marquesas: Departing Comments
Early July 2005
We were in the Marquesas Islands seven weeks but only went to two places -- Taiohae and Daniel's Bay, on the island of Nuku Hiva -- three times each.
I've still got this belief that the world is headed into a period of complication and change because of passing through Peak Oil, the doubling of the population since my childhood, and the various manifestations of Middle-East unrest, so, as I'm passing through places with low populations, I'm pondering the question, "If it was really messy most places, what would it be like here?"
Taiohae, the Marquesas' largest community, was much as I'd remembered it from 1971, only with about twice as many buildings and lots, lots more cars. Folks driving a half a mile to the grocery store instead of walking, plus a diesel generator used to generate power for streetlights that blot out the stars.
Two hundred years ago, Nuka Hiva's environment was able to feed something like 35,000 people and the 3,000 that are there now seem pretty well taken care of. A while back I mentioned that we met this really wonderful guy, Ishmael, who treated us like celebrities and showered us with fruit. Ishmael has ten siblings and it sounds like they work pretty well together to make sure nobody has to pay the huge store prices for food, but they were driving over to Taipivai (the valley east of Taiohae) to get water because the Taiohae water was undrinkable. We heard a really unpleasant thing later in Tahiti, though: one guy claimed that the suicide rate in the Marquesas had risen because of the car thing - folks with jobs would get a bank loan to buy a fancy 4WD vehicle to drive the half mile across town, then lose the job and kill themselves because they were embarrassed about not being able to make the car payments.
I hope the story isn't true.
We had a couple of other interesting experiences there. An Australian boat, Woodwind, arrived with a broken forestay; it had failed somewhere in the middle of the Pacific while they were making their passage from the Panama Canal. Woodwind was crewed by a family of five comprised of three kids around the same ages as Jackson and Naomi and two parents who were delightful to be around. We ended up spending quite a bit of time with them over a two-week period, including a couple of hikes and briefly helping them move their new forestay and furler extrusion from Taiohae's quai to their boat (they'd been able to order parts in advance via the wonders of on-board email). One of the really wonderful things to witness was the manner that David, aboard the British catamaran Milliways, helped them immensely.
Another experience in gear failure involved the Cross-designed trimaran, Moxie, a boat that two friends of ours, Bill and Joan Davis, had built in the Seattle area in the 1970's. The new owner and his wife had sailed the boat to the Marquesas with the help of friends, but the owner had a serious problem with kidney stones appear and needed to return to the US for surgery, leaving the crew (George and his son Ian) on board. While sitting anchored in Taiohae, Moxie's anchor chain had separated from its rope rode because of a failed splice, leaving Moxie adrift in the bay in the middle of the night. The crew discovered the problem before the boat went on the rocks and set a spare hook, this one inadequate in size and with too small a length of chain to be reliable. My own life has had events like this -- a lightning strike and a broken back -- when a placid, pleasant reality suddenly becomes complicated and trying.
When we visited French Polynesia in 1971, Soceress' main anchor only had about 80 feet of chain, reasonable in the Marquesas but too short in the Societies where deep water and coral heads make 300 feet more appropriate, so my father made a copra schooner trip from Huahine back to Tahiti to remedy the problem. Because of this experience, I'd anticipated the need for chain, and managed to have close to 500 feet in total and four anchors aboard in anticipation of both the requirements for a primary anchor and the possibility of needing a backup in the event of its loss (we'd met a boat during our early days in Mexico that had lost its two largest anchors during a 70-knot Santa Ana). Nearly half of the 500 feet was sitting in our bilge; I'd been slow in increasing the lengths of the rodes of primary and secondary anchors because the Marquesas, new volcanic islands, are almost coral free.
Moxie's crew was aware of the inadequacy of their anchor and chain, and asked if I had anything to spare. What to say? Certainly I did, but only while in the Marquesas, and chain, being fairly heavy stuff, was likely to be difficult to find and expensive to pay for. What to do? If I gave him my spare chain, I'd have my own safety problem once heading southward or if we managed to lose our primary anchor. The sailing community has an ethic for helping others in times of need and I feel strongly that this is a good attribute, so I didn't want to abandon this them, particularly since the boat's owner was in the hospital being cut open and the crew had suddenly fallen into a bigger problems than they were comfortable with (I wouldn't have been comfortable with it, either).
After some stressful contemplation, I resolved that the right thing to do was to stay with them in Taiohae's anchorage and be prepared to hand over my spare chain should circumstances make it compelling (bad weather, for instance, or the loss of the second anchor Moxie was currently riding on). I have an emotional bias against hoarding things when other people have dire need for them, and the matrix of circumstance forced me to think through this. Fortunately, the story ended well -- Moxie's owner returned to Taiohae repaired, healthy and fit, and with 300 feet of chain aboard the plane. After a few days diving, he managed to recover the lost anchor and rode from the bottom.
Marquesas: Departing Comments - continued
Daniel's Bay was an inspiration. The place must have been inhabited by quite a few folks 200 years ago, based on the ruins and the fruit trees everywhere. There were two beaches - one with really nasty surf that flipped two inflatables while we were there, the other calm. Daniel, a notably kind 79-year-old and his wife, Antoinette, lived on the beach with surf; another guy lived on the placid beach. Both had good water supplies, and several times I needed to go in to get some.
Daniel, whom the bay is named after, was born in 1926, the year the census showed the Marquesan population at 1500 folks, about 1% of what it had been in 1800 before the whalers and their diseases arrived. I think of Daniel as being the beam of light that lived, an inspiration for those coming into his presence. He speaks enough English to carry on a conversation, and whenever I dropped in during my three weeks there he stopped what he was doing and made me feel welcome.
The guy on the other, placid beach seemed a different experience. Moody, apparently, with a reputation for being occasionally surly. I said hello to him twice, had him ignore me and simply walk away. We were told you could buy water from him, trading it for wine and corned beef. In Daniel's case, we were told he would simply give you water if you asked.
One day, shortly before I needed to go in to get water, a Frenchman who lives in Taiohae and has a charter catamaran approached us and asked if we could take the eggs he'd brought for Daniel to the beach (the Frenchman was short of time on this visit). I was curious and asked a few questions. It turned out that the guy felt indebted to Daniel because when he arrived in the Marquesas seventeen years earlier in an impoverished condition, Daniel had helped keep him present and alive by giving him food. What a guy. Both of them, I suppose. One for the acts of kindness, the other for the continuing gratitude. I felt privileged to have met both of them.
In the last few weeks we were in Mexico, we'd borrowed a movie, "The Butterfly Effect", about a young man who had the ability to go back in time and affect past events. Each time he did, though, he negatively impacted the poorly behaved folks he wanted to influence, altering history with fear and punishment but impacting events differently than he'd intended. I watched this and thought, "Geez, man, what would happen if you acted in a more constructive way, moving the broken people with affection rather than trying to terrorize and punish them?"
I saw Daniel and his wife Antoinette in this context. Two ancient people, bodies altered by living, giving water, nature's second most life-giving resource (I'd place air just a bit higher on the needs list), to strangers randomly presenting themselves. I wondered how many conflicts and arguments, possibly wars, their kindnesses had prevented. I was hugely inspired by Daniel, and here the catamaran owner, himself wonderful, was asking me to bring toothless Daniel and Antoinette eggs. I'm still deeply moved.
Imagine my quest for water. Do I put my broken, numb-legged body in a rowboat and go to the saint on the surf-ridden beach, hoping that I and 200 pounds of water don't get capsized by a three-foot wave, or do I go to the placid beach and buy water from a possibly unpleasant man? Not a hard decision.
Upon returning to Taiohae, we did a little research to figure out how we might additionally contribute to Daniel and Antoinette's existences. Eggs? Certainly. We asked around, and Anne, the lovely French woman in the Internet café, told us Antoinette liked chocolate. On one of my visits, I noticed that Daniel was rolling cigarettes from Bison tobacco, the same stuff Dad and Bernard Moitessier were smoking when I was a kid (Bernard was one of France's great sailors, having spent his life voyaging on small, utilitarian boats, and in 1970 completing a passage that took him around the world one and a half times nonstop and singlehanded). We collected various items, and made a visit to Daniel several days before coming in to ask for water. I didn't want the whole thing to feel like a transaction. I suppose it was, though: I gave him supplies for the privilege of standing in front of him and carrying on a conversation.
Daniel ended up teaching me how to smoke Bison. Because of the influences of my father and Bernard, I'd been experimenting with it. Pretty strong stuff, this tobacco produced in Holland -- one inhalation, and you end up gagging and coughing for about five minutes. Daniel's secret was to roll thin, loosely packed cigarettes, maximizing the paper-to-leaf ratio. I figure the stuff isn't really bad for you, though: Daniel at nearly eighty was looking pretty healthy, and Bernard lived into his mid-70's, succumbing to skin cancer as I recall. I figure it must be because Bison is too harsh to chain-smoke.
One of the things of which I'm mindful is that Daniel and Antoinette really didn't need the things I brought them. The world they live in, their ecosystem, was so pristine and intact that it seemed to shower food on them. It struck me that one of the enormous ironies of the place was that the misery of the nineteenth century, the countless deaths -- the men, women and children that perished from diseases brought to them from afar -- created the abundance that Daniel and Antoinette lived in.
Passage to Tahiti
We left Taiohae on July 17, departing the Marquesas broad reaching in about 20 knots of breeze with the full main and genoa up. We were pleasantly hustling along, the boat averaging around eight knots, having bursts to about ten or eleven as the self-steering drove. I was feeling a bit tired, so I went below to take a nap. About an hour later I got up, and, while I was still in a groggy condition, Karryn starting complaining about the wind vane's behavior. "Geez what a whiner," I thought, as I went to Seafire's transom for an inspection.
What I found was a little disturbing: the self-steering had fallen apart. Actually, the trim tab the windvane uses to control the rudder had popped off the back of the boat. It turned out a combination of the boat's speed, the boisterous waves and the trim-tab's flexibility had pushed the blade out of its gudgeons.
Since it was at that point about 3PM, we dropped the sails and went about the repair. I ducked below, grabbed my harness and tools, and went to the stern to put the trim-tab back in place. I was a little concerned about the operation: as I said, the waves were boisterous, with the upper half of the rudder leaping in and out of the water, and I still didn't feel mended from my back injury. I got in the water wondering "What's this gonna be like?" and went about the process. Karryn and I managed to put it back together while Seafire lay ahull and things went pretty well.
We were off and going under sail in about an hour, this time with smaller sails and going slower. Then, right around sundown, a squall moved in, we picked up speed and it happened again. This time we didn't have enough daylight to put the thing back in place and I had no faith that it would stay there, so I lashed the trim-tab to the rudder with a couple of sail ties, and we spent the night sailing the boat slowly and hand-steering.
The next morning we came up with a more permanent solution. I got in the water again and pulled the trim-tab completely off, then dug two spare battens I'd had squirreled away and bolted them to either side of the blade, adding substantial stiffness.
The re-installation process was a little challenging. The water in this particular location is about 10,000 feet deep, an interesting thing to think about, and the trim-tab is negative buoyancy. During the final installation the waves were still pretty sizable, and I was concerned about losing the trim-tab. We tethered the blade to the boat, but in my paranoia I didn't really trust the knot. I climbed down the transom ladder holding the trim-tab as Karryn lowered it on the tether.
The first operation was to get the thing place in the lower gudgeon, about four feet below the water's surface while the boat bounced around, rudder jabbing up and down in the vicinity of my head. At one point she lowered the thing about eighteen inches more than was helpful as I held my breath and hung onto it underwater and struggled to insert the blade's 3/8-inch pintle into the gudgeon, a little like trying to thread a needle while driving on a bouncing ATV, and doing so on a single inhalation. Because of the trim-tab's weight I wasn't able to hang onto it AND swim to the surface, and since I was underwater I wasn't really sure about the security of the tether. As I struggled to get the pintle in the gudgeon's little hole, I felt myself faced with a decision: do I let go of this thing and let it sink, or do I simply drown? Fortunately, though, I found the hole in time.
The whole experience was confidence building. I'm still pretty afraid of my spine failing again, and I had to get in the water with the boat bouncing around in 20-knot winds and 10-foot seas four times, but my body never broke. Plus we spent a day with the kids hand-steering under sail, something they hadn't been required to do before, and they did wonderfully.
The rest of the passage was a pain in the ass, 20-25 knot tradewinds and their accompanying seas blasting us from abeam while Seafire sailed under staysail and reefed main and we hoped the self-steering wouldn't fail again. The boat's motion was continually uncomfortable, and at one point I got bounced into the forepeak when I was washing my hands in the head and damaged my chest and upper back. Fortunately for me, Karryn appreciated opportunity to keep her hands in shape by giving me back rubs several times a day!