Out on the ocean

A car on the quay tooted its horn and we looked over to see Atu waving at us. We’d been about to haul up the dinghy to store it on deck for the journey, but luckily hadn’t yet, so it wasn’t too difficult to get the fuel back out of the anchor locker and make our way over to shore. Euloge, his wife Hilda and 15 year old daughter Atu had come to say goodbye! And brought with them a bag full of food for the journey – banana crepes, stew and rice, a bag of bananas – plus clothes as gifts and a shell necklace. We were bowled over by their generosity and thoughtfulness. After hugs and kisses and address swapping, we headed back to Illusion and waved goodbye as they drove off to church.

And so it was time to try to get moving. Or almost. The dinghy had to be stowed, the anchor had to be pulled up. The anchor took quite a while, and the idea that we were about to start sailing kind of slipped from my mind as we used the windlass gypsy to slowly hand-crank up 90 meters of chain, waiting for the wind gusts to stop and relieve the tension. With an engine, you could just move the boat into an easier position, without it, things are a little slower. But suddenly Doug said “Ok, we’re moving” and sent me to steer while he quickly brought aboard the last 10 meters chain and the anchor. I spent the next hour or so feeling terrified and learning how to tack as we sailed our way upwind, out of the fringing reef that surrounds Raivavae (Doug assures me that entering and leaving these types of anchorages is much easier and faster with an engine – I’ll have to take his word for it!).

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I didn’t dare look at the shore or the reef warning lights, forcing myself to focus on pulling or releasing the ropes when I was told, and making sure I tied them off well. I looked at those ropes a lot. Doug seemed fairly calm and didn’t seem to be too worried, but that wasn’t enough to reassure me that we weren’t about to crash or run aground. Eventually we were lined up in the channel, heading out to sea with nothing obvious to crash into. I finally started to relax, only to panic when the depth sounder jumped from 52 to 3.5 feet. Surely we’d passed all the reef by now? It turned out the sea was too deep for it to measure and there was not an uncharted reef below us. Soon I was confident enough to consider going below deck to make a drink – that was a mistake. I immediately felt sick. We had a good supply of Gravol though, so despite having planned to wait a few hours to see how seasick I would get, it seemed a good moment to turn to medication.

Then it was just us and the boat and the water. Flying fish, the occasional bird circling over our heads, and waves and spray and battering wind.

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It quickly felt like we’d been at sea for ever. Especially once we realized the autopilot wasn’t working and one of the two of us would need to be steering the whole time. Holding the wheel, singing songs to myself through the night, watching the stars and the clouds, amazed by the green glow of the phosphorescence on the waves. During the first night I was excited about the idea of it soon being daytime, but a few hours into the light, realized it made little difference. I was still tired, the boat was still rocking crazily from side to side, and I still didn’t get to hang out with Doug. We’d mutter a few words to each other as we swapped shifts at the wheel – “hey, we reached 13 knots” or “I saw more flying fish” or “There was a bird, black this time” or “want a cup of tea?”. Then I’d stagger down below deck, bumping my way to the toilet at the front of the boat, bumping my way back, through the salon, the galley, into the bedroom. Crawl into bed, sleep until Doug’s feet pounding on the floor woke me up, then pull on the same sea-sprayed clothes, and back to the wheel. Holding a thermal mug of tea between my knees. Glad when it was finished so I could use my knees to brace myself against the cockpit to stop myself getting flung all over the place. Sometimes I’d stand up just for a change or to keep me awake.

We were meant to be keeping to 330 degrees, and had two compasses to use to keep us on track. It was hard though and needed concentration. If I got too into a song, I’d suddenly realise the number was going up, racing up to 340 and beyond, into the wind. Or it would drop quickly down to 320, which made for a calmer gentler ride, but wasn’t the right direction either. It was constant steering, and even looking down to find the water bottle could get us right off track. Doug had mentioned it would be getting warmer as we headed northwards, so I’d been hopeful, that first night, that the next day I could be in my bikini, enjoying the sunshine. Not quite. I did get into my bikini, but only briefly, to wash my hair on deck, finally disgusted by the fact it still smelled of engine coolant from my engine room cleaning adventures the day before we left Raivavae. Doug was steering and called me up as soon as the sun came out from behind the constant clouds for long enough to sit outside without all the usual layers. He sailed downwind to make it a little smoother for me and I managed not to lose the towel or shampoo overboard. The second night was stormier – waves of about 2.5 metres and 25 knot winds – and I struggled to do a full watch without waking Doug to check we weren’t about to keel over. Then tiredness was getting to me and I woke him up to panic that we were about to arrive at Tahiti. It turns out that land looks a lot closer than it really is when you haven’t seen any for a while. And all the time the endless wind, rocking us left to right, throwing waves all over us. Twice, just as I was thinking I’d finish a watch I got drenched and had to wait to dry before going to bed because I couldn’t bear the idea of waking up and putting wet clothes back on. Lying in bed, you’d be tossed and turned and think you’d never get to sleep, only to be woken up, too soon, to get back to the wheel.

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And then just as suddenly the wind stopped. After two days of it, the air was still. And we were stuck. Bobbing about in the water, wondering how long it would take us to do the final five miles up the coast of Tahiti to the marina. Doug went for a sleep. I sat eyes half shutting, trying to keep hold of the wheel and keep us vaguely on course. It was pretty hilarious to be wishing for wind, when only minutes ago we’d been cursing it. We got down to 0.00 knots. I watched the birds playing around in the water. Tried to work out if we were moving by looking at the houses on the island. Then slowly it picked up again and we were back to 5 knots, nice calm gentle progress, and I was thinking “aha, this is kind of what I expected sailing to feel like” and couldn’t believe that hours before I’d been watching the waves in the moonlight and wondering if we’d survive them. After a few hours of not doing much, we were back to being busy, sorting out the sails, radioing into the marina for an escort, steering our way into the channel between the reefs. Suddenly we were being pulled, too quickly, to the quay and trying to make sure we didn’t bump into the luxury 110 foot yacht moored up ahead of us. We got a beer at the little marina shop, sat on deck in the evening sun, our hair and clothes still full of salt, and tried to get used to the idea of being around people and boats and land.

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