Explore. Dream. Discover.

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
– Mark Twain

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There is saltwater coursing through my veins—literally.

There is saltwater in all of us. The salinity of our blood is nearly identical to the salinity of the ocean. This may be a biological explanation for why I feel compelled to set sail across thousands of miles of open ocean.

When I was 25 years old, I left Florida for Europe alone in a 23-foot sloop named Betelgeuse–eight days after I was married. It was a voyage of high risk and adventure and, remarkably, 34 years later I am still married. My life has been a blessing. Now, work has begun on a new boat, the sailing vessel Flying Fish. It is a 46-foot Island Packet cutter designed for transoceanic passages.

In the next 12 to 18 months, I will raise the halyards on Flying Fish and embark on a new journey across those miles of open ocean. Many of the passages will again be sailed single handed. There will be challenges and discovery. (At age 59, I am no longer bulletproof and this time I will chart my course though different oceans.) It will be voyage of memoir and a reaffirmation of life.

Capt. Jack Sparrow said it best: “Now… bring me that horizon.”

Follow the odyssey of Flying Fish in this WordPress blog, or on Facebook, through Twitter feeds and by Instagram as the construction and preparations for this voyage begin.

 

A Stormy Passage South

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Storms generated in the Tasman Sea brought 30 to 40 knots of headwind to parts of the passage from Tonga to New Zealand.  Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

The stormy passage from Tonga to New Zealand was a little over 1,000 miles but the southern latitudes tested both Flying Fish and her captain. Flying Fish handled it well. Her captain took a beating.

The landfall at the Bay of Islands in New Zealand is welcoming but my first thought this morning is where are all the palm trees and why is it foggy and 50 degrees (10 degrees celsius; I’d better get used to it.)  I confess to a wistful nostalgia for Polynesia…

The decision to sail to New Zealand was in many ways a practical one. The South Pacific Cyclone Season begins in about 10 days. Already, there has been one named storm. Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and other Polynesian island groups are frequently in the cyclone impact zone. My last port of Nuku’alofa, Tonga was ravaged just nine months ago by Tropical Cyclone Gita, a storm that brought 230km winds over the island. It is still difficult to buy a banana or papaya in Nuku’alofa because most of their fruit trees were leveled by wind.

New Zealand is out of the South Pacific Cyclone Zone.

Flying Fish will spend the cyclone season here. There are some refitting projects necessary on the boat (and her captain) and I am assured by the locals that the weather does get better. It’s springtime here. And by the grace of God, so am I.

 

To see where Flying Fish has sailed in the past year click here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

I will continue to post, including details from this passage and a stop en route at the mid-ocean underwater atoll of Minerva Reef. Please subscribe here so that you don’t miss a new post, and please share this post with others who might enjoy following the voyage of Flying Fish

 

Whale Songs

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After a long serenade, a male humpback whale has found its mate near the island of Eukafa, Tonga. Now, the nearly 4,000-mile migration south to the Antarctic begins. Photograph: © Jeffrey Cardenas

For an interactive series images from my close encounter with a humpback whale, click here: Humpback whale surfaces under Flying Fish

The first time I heard the song of a humpback whale I was at anchor on a moonless night in the shelter of Eukafa Island in Tonga. I had been sleeping and the sound seemed to emanate from a dream. Then, with open eyes, I realized that the long, sonorous aria was coming from the ocean and resonating through the fiberglass hull of Flying Fish. The sound was longing and lonely and seductive. The life force in this whale song called out: I am here, where are you?

Both male and female humpback whales vocalize, but only males produce the complex song of wails, moans, and shrieks that is so identifiable of this species. Humpback songs are repeated in cycles lasting up to 30 minutes and individual whales may sing continuously for more than 24 hours. Each population of humpbacks collectively sings a unique song, one they have learned from other whales.

“The traditional explanation for why whales do this is that male whales are singing to seduce female whales, and that females get really turned on by songs that are currently in style,” said cognitive neuroscientist Eduardo Mercado III in a recent edition of LiveScience.

To the casual human listener, the love song of a humpback whale sounds magnificently free-flowing and improvised. But fresh mathematical analysis by some bioacousticians has found that there are complex grammatical rules used in whale songs. Using syntax, the whales combine sounds into phrases, which they further weave into hours-long melodies packed with information. Whales have even been found to sing in dialect, according to a study in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. Although researchers say that while these songs don’t meet the linguistic rigor necessary for a true language, there is evidence that whales use a hierarchical structure of communication similar to human beings.

Most animals use sight and smell to communicate, but these senses are limited in the ocean. Whales rely on sound, which travels four times faster in water than in air. Whale songs are thought to have an important role in mate selection as males sing for attention and to establish dominance.

Courtship rituals take place in the warm waters of Tonga and competition for a mate can be fierce. Males sometimes gather into competitive groups around a female and fight for the right to mate with her. Male humpbacks can be seen breaching, tail slapping, and charging during courtship. Ultimately, however, the female calls the shots. Polyandry has been observed in humpback whales, with females known to have multiple male partners throughout their lifespan.

Once hunted to the brink of extinction, the humpback whale population fell by an estimated 90% before a 1966 moratorium on killing them went into effect. The population has since rebounded to about 80,000 worldwide. Cultural attention to whale vocalization intensified after a 1970s paper published in Science magazine by biologists Roger Payne and Scott McVay describing “surprisingly beautiful sounds” made by humpback whales. Analyzing underwater recordings they found that these whale sounds were intricately repetitive. “We call the fixed patterns of humpback sounds ‘songs,’” they wrote. Soon thereafter, the hit album Songs of the Humpback Whale was released and the recording went multi-platinum.

After hearing my first whale song through the hull of Flying Fish, it was impossible to return to sleep. I went on deck squinting into the darkness hoping to see the whale. I saw nothing move in the calm water. Strangely, I could no longer hear the song, either. It was only when I went below that the song echoed again through the cabin. The area of the hull below the surface of the water functioned as a hydrophone. Somewhere out there a whale was looking for love.

 

Track the passage of Flying Fish here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

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Gone Troppo

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Gone troppo in the Tongan bush, around the kava bowl.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

A pretty English girl is sipping a fruit drink at a beach resort when I wade up out of the ocean like the lizard man in the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

“Hi!” I say, as I pull up a barstool next to her, certain that she will be delighted to spend some time with a fascinating person like me.

She jumps off her barstool, tipping it over in alarm, and says, “Have you gone troppo?”

This is the first time I have heard the expression–gone troppo–which means, according the Outback Dictionary, that the person it refers to has “succumbed to a state of tropical madness; to have lost the veneer of civilization after spending too much time in the tropics.”

How could the English girl have thought this about me? After more than a week of sitting out a low pressure system at anchor aboard Flying Fish, I was eager to get off the boat and interact with other living human beings. That I hadn’t washed, shaved, brushed my teeth, or changed my clothes in longer than I could remember didn’t seem to me like it should have been a problem. Had I really “lost the veneer of civilization?” I never even knew I had it.

Bad weather on a boat is a perfect petri dish for ennui. It’s not that the weather was dangerous, although there was continuous rain and the wind was blowing a steady 30 knots with gusts to 35. I had two good anchors down on the leeward side of Lifuka in the Ha’apai Islands of Tonga. Hatches and portholes were leaking from the rain. It felt like water torture as drops of rain dripped onto my forehead. I could almost see the mold growing on the inside of the cabin. I love my boat but the walls were closing in.

Sensing my unwelcome at the resort bar, I set off on foot through the bush across the island of Lifuka. Rain or no, it feels good to move my legs. I imagine myself as the character Pig-Pen in the comic strip Peanuts by Charles Schulz, leaving a trail of dirt in my wake. Walking is liberating.

The Kingdom of Tonga is known as The Friendly Islands, given the name by explorer Capt. James Cook in 1773, who was apparently unaware of a well-developed plot by a Tongan chief named Finau intended to kill Cook and seize his ships. Upon his arrival, the Tongans had welcomed Cook with gifts of fruit, pigs, turtles, and extravagant hospitality.

I think about this as the road I walk turns into a track and then ultimately into a footpath. Despite my appearance, the Tongans I encounter on my walkabout receive me with enthusiasm, and in english.

“Where are you going?” asks a man feeding his pigs, without the preamble of a greeting.

I am walking to see your island, I answer, and to get some exercise.

“Why?” is his reply.

An elderly woman tending an open fire rendering coconut oil in a charred iron caldron asks, “Where is your wife?”

The question catches me off guard. She is where she wants to be, I say.

This does not translate so I answer more directly. She is working, I say. And this response further complicates the conversation.

“Why is she working and you are walking in the bush on Lifuka?”

What might seem like random banter with the coconut oil woman is insightful to me on many levels. I have always appreciated direct communication and in Tonga directness is a conversational precept. Tongans see into a person and discard their evasiveness. The woman pulls three bananas off a stalk and hands me a green drinking coconut. She says, “You are hungry and thirsty.”

Further along the footpath, two boys emerge from a trash heap of junk food wrappers and empty beer cans that litter a grove of banana trees and taro plants.

Hello, I say. Mālō e lelei.

“Give me money,” the larger of the two boys says in english. He is maybe 10 years old. He is menacing and holds a homemade slingshot.

Why? I ask. Why should I give you money? I can see that the boy understands my question but he cannot not answer it.

“I want money,” he repeats. And then his younger companion chimes in, “‘Io, gimme money, too.”

I turn away and continue walking. Then I see the boy’s hand raise with the slingshot. He has a piece of coral rock wedged between the rubber bands. I whirl around and take a step toward him. The boys flee down the trail. As they disappear into the trees I hear one call out, “Pālangi!” 

The encounter with the boys is disturbing but the word Pālangi is not necessarily an invective. Cook speculated that the word translated to “cloth men” or foreigners who arrived in boats with sails. Earlier etymologies link Pālangi to the expression, “People from the Sky.” But, the boys wanting money delivered this word with venom. In their usage, Pālangi described a foreigner as a “white pig.”

As a stranger in a strange land, I must constantly remind myself to walk softly in these beautiful and unfamiliar places. I straddle a world where on one side of an island there is a beach resort and on the other side of the island hard-scrabble families struggle for their daily bread. This, too, is part of my voyage of self discovery.

It is time for me to return to Flying Fish for a shower, a shave, and a clean change of clothing–and to remember who I am.

 

There he, sitting in the moonlight
Not found, livin no city
He smile, mucho in a sunshine
High life, counting de fruit bat

Troppo, gone troppo, troppo
It’s time you know I gone troppo

Troppo by George Harrison 1982

 

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Sick at Sea

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Flying Fish in the South Pacific. Alone in an isolated anchorage can be beautiful beyond words… until you become sick. Then, all a solo sailor wants is a kind word and someone to bring him a cup of tea.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

It is not seasickness that ails me. I love the rhythm of this sailboat. And, I am not sick of the sea. I cannot imagine a more beautiful place to be than on the ocean aboard Flying Fish.

If I were onshore it would be just a routine illness, the kind that we all get from time to time, maybe more severe than usual–bronchitis, high fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and a blinding headache for hours on end. (If this is “too much information” it won’t hurt my feelings if you click off now, however, this bout of the flu or whatever it was, is relevant to the narrative of the voyage of Flying Fish.)

Onshore there are doctors and medications immediately at hand. You call in sick at work for a few days. No drama. On a sailboat, in a remote part of the world, it becomes an entirely different issue.

This 72 hours of delirium hit me like an unforecasted cyclone. I had been preparing for a departure from Neiafu, Tonga the following day. Fortunately, I was still at anchor when the illness immobilized me. I was awaken at midnight by a volcanic eruption of nasuea and night sweats. I could not even sit upright in my berth. If I had been underway navigating the reefs of Vava’u or the Ha’api islands, as I had intended, there might have been serious consequences.

Flying Fish is a thoroughbred of a sailboat. At nearly 49 feet and 16 tons this boat takes my undivided attention to keep the keel moving straight and level. She is a handful to sail alone but I am up to the task. I am not a young man any more but when I am sailing this boat I feel half my age. In nearly 10,000 miles under sail aboard Flying Fish, in all weather conditions, I have felt completely confident in my abilities to sail her singlehandedly. But, until now, I had not been sick like this onboard. This was a game-changer.

By morning, my lungs were seriously congested. It was difficult to breath. The vomiting had forced me to place a Home Depot bucket at the side of my berth. I was sweating and then freezing between convulsive waves of nausea. I stared at the ceiling of my cabin and thanked God that I was not under sail.

This is the first moment in the voyage of Flying Fish when doubt of my ability to sail long distances alone has entered my mind. Before I left the dock in Key West eight months ago, I had carefully prepared for potential accidents at sea. It was part of my risk mitigation. A neurosurgeon friend even gave me a surgical staple gun as a bon voyage gift, and a hands-on a demonstration of how to use it, if necessary. But I never considered the more mundane possibilities of just being physically sick at a time when I needed to be at my peak mental and physical capabilities.

After two days on my back, with the cabin of Flying Fish a horror show of sweat-soaked sheets, spilled bottles of over-the-counter medications, and an overflowing bucket, I finally addressed my options. There is a clinic on the island of Vava’u but at least three sailors I have spoken with who were recently attended there have contracted serious staph infections. That was not a good option to me. I almost made an “assistance needed” VHF radio called to other yachts in the area that might be listening. That would have been the prudent thing to do but I let my pride get in the way of feeling better. Being solo on Flying Fish–a big, conspicuous boat–puts out the message, “Hey, I’m tough enough to sail across oceans alone. I don’t need anyone’s help.” How wimpy would it look now to get on the radio to say, “I don’t feel very good. Can someone please bring me some chicken soup?” The irony is that nearly every boat in radio range would have responded. Cruising sailors look out for each other. It doesn’t have to be just life and death situations.

On the morning of the third day the illness was over. As I cleaned my body and boat I began to feel somewhat chagrined. Had I overdramatized a bad case of the flu? I don’t know; I’m a sailor not a doctor. At what point do severely congested lungs become pneumonic? Or a coral cut becomes a staph infection? In 1888, Robert Louis Stevenson sailed to the South Pacific on the yacht Casco, “to be far from any hand of help.” He had struggled with tuberculosis for years and had hoped the tropical sea air might heal his lungs. Four years later he was dead in Samoa at age 44.

Thus far along my journey, I have focused the risk mitigation on avoiding reefs and storms, but this little health event reminded me that I need to pay attention to the health and well-being of the pilot of Flying Fish, too. When I set sail from Key West with such ambitious plans I wanted a challenge without a lifeline. I didn’t want it all to be easy and comfortable. Now, I realize I need to learn about the physiological part of sailing alone, too. Being sick at anchor is far less serious than being sick under sail but in an odd way it has given some perspective and balance to my passage aboard Flying Fish.

I could have taken a lesson from one of my maritime heroes, Joshua Slocum, who as most sailors know was, in 1898, the first person to sail alone around the world. On his Atlantic crossing he had just left the island of Faial in the Azores and he made a supper of cheese and plums he had been given as gifts. Within hours he was on his back on the cabin floor writhing with cramps and delirious with fever. At one point he looked out of the companionway doors to see an ethereal figure at the helm steering the Spray. The figure looked at Slocum and said, “I am one of Columbus’s crew. I am the pilot of the Pinta come to aid you. Lie quiet, señor captain, and I will guide your ship tonight.”

Guardian angels manifest themselves in many ways. May all of those who sail alone have an angel looking out for them, especially when we are sick at sea.

Track the passage of Flying Fish here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

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Market Day in Tonga

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Alesha Muhuinga sips the juice of a green coconut at the fresh produce market in Vava’u, Tonga.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

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The fresh bounty of the market is loaded aboard Flying Fish.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

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A church choir with women and men dressed in traditional ta’ovala woven skirts sings to the market patrons shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

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The Utukalongau Market in Neiafu is the main event in town each week as it draws buyers and sellers from across the island group.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

Big Bats & Bad Starfish

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A colony of male Flying Fox fruit bats hang upside-down on scent-marked branches as a female makes her final approach to choose a mate.   Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

The Unique Fauna of Tonga

Each landfall in Flying Fish presents new fascination and wonder. Every island offers distinctive culture, unique geology, and an idiosyncratic diversity of nature. The Kingdom of Tonga is no exception.

Flying Fish is anchored close to a shoreline in the island group of Vava’u. Growing at the high water mark is a Tropical almond tree that provides a roost for a colony of bats. These are big bats. Think of a small dog with black leathery wings. And yes, they do have teeth, fangs actually. And no, they are not vampire bats, there are no puncture wounds on my neck (yet). Still, I would not be happy to wake up in the middle of dark night to find a bat the size of a poodle fluttering around inside the cabin of Flying Fish.

These bats are known as flying foxes (Pteropus tonganus). They are the only mammals that can fly. The bats are thriving in Tonga but their numbers have declined on other Pacific islands. Some species of fruit bats in Samoa and Fiji have become extinct because of overhunting. Flying foxes are considered a culinary delicacy in the South Pacific. In the Kingdom of Tonga, however, they are considered sacred. Nobody is allowed to hunt them except, of course, the King of Tonga. There is an expression here–Fakatonga–translated it means, it’s the Tongan way of doing things.

In my anchorage there are several dozen bats hanging upside-down in the almond tree. They are a generally passive group with continual chittering and readjustment of their claws upon the branches of their roosts. Occasionally, one will drop from a branch, take flight, and disappear into the crown of a nearby mango tree. When the fruit is ripe, the bats masticate the pulp and spit out an “ejecta pellet” (a wad) of fiber. Contented, the males then scent-mark sections of a tree branch to attract females to land within their territory.

I look up to a sudden commotion on one branch. Two bats bare their teeth and wrap their wings around each other, squealing, as they begin a ferocious struggle. Amid the screeching and tumult there is a whirling ball of wings and fur, yet somehow the bats manage to stay attached to the branch. The melee causes other bats in the vicinity to wrap their cloaks tightly around their heads, as if they cannot bear to look at what happens next. It seems as if the combatants are in a battle to the death.

But then… Oh!

It turns out that they are not actually fighting at all. It’s bat sex. Procreation. The two bats re-emerge from their amorous scrum and then immediately look in opposite directions and ignore each other. It is the way things are done here. Fakatonga!

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A female bat (middle, with the black neck) chooses between two males. Other bats nearby cover their faces with their cloaks because all hell is getting ready to break out as the males fight for the right to mate.   Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

Underwater, the life in Tonga is equally fascinating. The reef and coral is vibrant and alive, despite evidence of an invasive predator that is multiplying here as in many other tropical South Pacific habitats.

This beautiful creature is called the Crown of Thorns starfish, and it has an insatiable appetite for coral. A Crown of Thorns starfish is capable of eating six square meters of live coral in a single year. The size of this starfish can be massive with a diameter that measures up to three feet projecting 23 individual coral-eating arms. It’s spines will not only puncture a wet suit but they are also laced with a toxin that can cause vomiting, nausea, and severe pain.

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The Crown of Thorns starfish has 23 individual coral-eating arms with venomous spikes that repel predators and can cause vomiting, nausea, and severe pain in human beings.    Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

I first began seeing Crown of Thorns starfish on the pristine reefs of French Polynesia. In the nearshore waters off the Cook Islands, where much of the reef is dying or already dead, these starfish were feeding on the last of the live coral polyps. In Australia, The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has joined in the culling efforts of Crown of Thorns there. The problem is so severe that in February volunteer divers removed nearly 47,000 of these starfish from the southern Great Barrier Reef in just seven days.

Research has shown that the outbreaks of Crown of Thorns are related to many of the same issues occurring in all oceans worldwide: increasing water temperatures, spikes in nutrients caused by costal and agricultural runoff, overfishing of natural predators. While the problem is not nearly as severe in Tonga as it is in other areas of the Pacific, the threat to these reefs is real. Crown of Thorns starfish have the ability to move at a speed of 20 meters an hour and one female can produce up to 65 million eggs during a single season.

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A beautiful but destructive creature, a single Crown of Thorns starfish is capable of eating six square meters of live coral in a single year.   Photography: ©Jeffrey Cardenas

And so what do big bats and bad starfish in Tonga have to do with each other?

Nothing. And Everything.

Creatures like these in places like this remind me why I am here, alone on a sailboat, a long way from home. The voyage of Flying Fish is taking me to places where every sight, and scent, and touch seems fresh and new. Some things are beautiful. Others are destructive and even frightening. It is all life as I have never seen it before. I am experiencing the wonder of a natural world more complex than I could ever imagine.

Track the passage of Flying Fish here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

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Niue: Ocean and Rocks

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The Talava Arches on the northwest coast of Niue are accessible by first hiking inland through the center of a cave. Photography ©Jeffrey Cardenas

Ocean and rocks are a yin yang of nature. One is soft and the other is hard. A boat floats on one and wrecks on another. But, when the fluid element of water meets the solid and seemingly immovable entity of rock, the two forces interact to form a dynamic system. That dynamic system defines the island of Niue–both geologically and socially.

Niue is the world’s smallest independent nation. It is situated in the Pacific Ocean triangle formed by the Cook Islands, Samoa, and Tonga. There is no harbor. Boats anchor in an open roadstead exposed to the south, west, and north. Niue is very different from other South Pacific islands. There are no mountains or barrier reef and lagoon system. Instead, the terrain consists of steep limestone cliffs along the coastline with a central plateau rising to about 200 feet above sea level. Heavy swells from the Southern Ocean crash against the cliffs forcing water through chasms and caves creating blowholes that shoot spume 100 feet into the air.

The water surrounding the island is exquisite. There is no sediment flowing into the sea from rivers or streams and rainfall is naturally filtered through chambers of limestone. This makes for amazing nearshore water clarity. Some divers have reported 300 feet of visibility. From the deck of Flying Fish I can see the coral at 120 feet below the hull. Spinner dolphin welcome me into the anchorage. Offshore, a migrating humpback whale and her newborn calf rest on the surface of the water in the lee of the island.

Captain James Cook was also enchanted by this island (or at least by the idea of possessing this island.) In 1774, he made three attempts to land on Niue but the inhabitants here proved to be an immovable force. The Niueans were the yin to Cook’s yang. Cook came ashore with guns and the Niueans, fearing disease and slavery, successfully defended themselves with stones and spears–and bananas. They painted themselves with the sap of the red hulahula fe’i banana, and when they chewed the hulahula it gave the effect that they were spewing mouthfuls of blood. Cook fled in terror and later charted Niue with the epithet of “Savage Island.” No European explorers visited Niue for nearly a century after Cook. The name Savage Island survived on maps for almost 200 years. As late as the 1980s, the United States Postal Service still required the use of the name Savage Island for mail being addressed to Niue. Some locals are still bitter about it.

“We had a tradition,” one resident told writer Tony Horwitz. “Warriors painted their lips and teeth with the juice of the hulahula, the red banana, to frighten people off,” he said. “Cook called Tonga the Friendly Isles, probably because he had so many girls there. Tahiti he called the Society Islands, same reason. But because we throw a few stones and spears, we’re savages. No one likes Cook much in Niue.”

I first attempted to anchor Flying Fish inside the submerged atoll of Beveridge Reef located approximately 130 miles from Niue and 1,000 miles from Bora Bora. No land at all is visible at Beveridge Reef. These concealed rocks have been the cause of several boats running aground including the Nicky Lou of Seattle, a fiberglass hulled fishing vessel that can still be seen on the reef.

According to native tradition, Beveridge Reef was once “a fine isle, with many coconut-palms growing thereon but it was swept bare by a fierce cyclone which carried away both trees and soil leaving nothing but the bare rock.” And then sea level rise covered the bare rock.

The Beveridge Reef I encountered aboard Flying Fish en route to Niue was no “fine isle.” It was an explosion of ocean meeting submerged rock on an otherwise empty horizon. Days of sailing had shown only water and sky until the morning I sailed into the coordinates of Beveridge Reef and it looked as if the world was ending at sea. From the cobalt blue depths of nearly 5,000 feet enormous swells were crashing from every point of the compass into the shallow water of an aquamarine lagoon. It was a wild spectacle of nature. Despite the siren call of seeing what might live below the surface of this bizarre open-ocean reef, I decided it would be prudent to sail the additional 140 miles to Niue.

There is also a siren call on Niue. Walking amid the hard fossilized rock there exudes a softness about the island that is alluring. The vegetation hums with life. Butterflies and orchids are everywhere. The scent of wild vanilla is in the air. The population is about 1,500 people, and declining, but those who remain embrace visitors with warmth and kindness. At the Catholic church for a Sunday service, where I had arrived early, a Niuean first grader took my hand and led me to where the children are having Sunday School before mass.

On the southeast corner of the island I joined Narumi Saito for a hike through old-growth trees. Bathed in shadow and light, it was like a cathedral within a forest of fossilized coral. At the Togo Chasm the trail abruptly drops away into a fissure between the rocks, accessible only by ropes and a makeshift wooden ladder. At the bottom of the chasm there is a small patch of sand (rare, on this island of rock) and four or five coconut palms. A pool of spring water collects in a basin of rock on one side of the sand and the roaring ocean swells shoot through a rock cave at the other side. Later, Narumi climbed a palm to take a green coconut for lunch. In the crown of the tree she cried out in exuberance, “I am monkey!”

This is Niue, a rock island of surprises and contradictions that blended together form a rare jewel in the Pacific. Back on the deck of Flying Fish, the breeze off the island signals that the weather is returning to the prevailing winds. It is time to prepare the boat for the passage to Tonga.

I like to breathe in the scent of land under the beauty of a night sky before I leave an island like Niue. As I stand on the deck of Flying Fish under a riot of stars on a moonless night, I watch the bright streak of a meteor etching across the sky. This time it is rock and air, two additional opposing forces that interact to form the dynamic system that is our earth.

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Togo Chasm, roaring ocean swells fill this sea cave with water and light. Photography ©Jeffrey Cardenas

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The Dangerous Middle

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A mid-winter squall thrashes the coconut atoll of Maupihaa, a last outpost of French Polynesia. Photography: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Winter has arrived in mid-June as Flying Fish negotiates the changes in longitude on its journey westward around the globe. Here the solstice on June 21 is the shortest day of the year. After a lifetime in the northern hemisphere I feel like I am upside-down.

For many sailors the departure from French Polynesia to points west—the Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji—marks the end of the Coconut Milk Run, the forgiving passage of trade wind sailing from the Americas to Tahiti. The party is over in Bora Bora.

The South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCV) dominates the weather now in the Central South Pacific. Even though the cyclone season is months away the fierce winter storms passing well south bring an unsettled climate here. At this longitude Flying Fish has sailed into an area of the Pacific Ocean known as The Dangerous Middle.

West of Tahiti, weather windows must now be more carefully consulted. Mid-winter fronts arrive every seven to 10 days. When they descend upon these waters the ocean is anything but pacific. I am sailing solo again. This brings everything into sharper focus. There is no margin for error.

I waited nearly two weeks in Bora Bora for the inclement weather to pass (not exactly hardship duty Bora Bora) and finally seeing an opening on the weather charts I departed for the island of Maupiti, a short 25 miles west. Maupiti is a French Polynesian island of soaring cliffs, luxuriant vegetation, and magnificent beaches. There are braserries and warm baguettes. But within hours of my departure from Bora Bora the wind returned to near 30 knots and seas increased to 12 feet. Squalls reduced visibility. Maritime navigational notes warn against attempting an entry into the exposed south pass of the Maupiti atoll when seas exceed two meters. The warning is well founded. As I approached the pass I could see set waves breaking completely across the only entrance to the lagoon. A current of five knots was flowing out of the narrow cut between two spurs of the coral reef.

Maupiti may be one of the most scenic landfalls in the South Pacific, an island not to be missed. Maybe, but for me it will have to be in another lifetime. I took one last look; I could almost smell the French pastries. However, running this pass in Flying Fish under these conditions would be certain disaster. There was also no turning back against the wind and seas to Bora Bora. I continued on, a night passage of more than 100 miles, to the atoll of Maupihaa.

Maupihaa is a low coconut atoll with virtually no radar return. Arriving in a torrential rainstorm I was first able to make visual contact only because of the massive swells breaking again the reef. This is also a “single pass atoll”, meaning all of the water that flows over the reef and into the lagoon has only one pass from which to exit. In stormy weather this creates a raging outgoing current. Although the pass is located on the protected northwest corner of the atoll the navigation notes state, “Passe Taihaaru Vahine is one of the trickiest passes in French Polynesia. Currents can reach six knots with whirlpools and rips that can make this entrance impassable.” An Australian sailor in a boat already anchored in the lagoon (he had been waiting there for nearly 10 days for better weather) talked me through the pass over the VHF radio like an air traffic controller guiding a plane in on an instrument approach. “Look for a break in the coral shelf,” he said, “and then come in hot because any hesitation will sweep you sideways onto the rocks and there is not enough width in the pass to turn around.”

Hours later after my heart rate returned to normal, I learned that Maupihaa was unlike any other island I had sailed into in French Polynesia. In 1998, Cyclone Martin swept over the island destroying 75% of the trees and vegetation, and all but one of the houses. Now less than 10 families live here in open-air huts sustained by a hard-scrabble life of harvesting copra (coconut meat for oil). A supply barge arrives only a couple times each year. There are no hotels, no roads, no shops. Barter among the inhabitants is the only currency. Thousands of seabirds inhabit the atoll and the lagoon abounds with sharks, turtles, and colorful tropical fish. Aside from the constant roar of seas breaking on the atoll reef, there are no other sounds–except for the incessant barking of dogs.

“The locals have invited you to dinner ashore,” the other sailor said once I had secured my anchor. “Expect to be served tern eggs, coconut crabs, and dog stew. Bring liquor.”

Dog stew?

We are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. And in the Dangerous Middle, Toto is on the menu.

Track the passage of Flying Fish here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

 

The Coral Gardens of French Polynesia

To be among the coral gardens of French Polynesia is like swimming in the Garden of Eden. The coral has been growing here for 500 million years. But this paradise could vanish by the end of this century. In our lifetime we may be cast out of the garden along with everything that swims within it.

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The coral gardens of French Polynesia are extraordinary in color and diversity.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

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A clownfish hides in a bed of stinging anemones off the island of Mo’orea.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Tropical reefs have lost more than half of their reef-building corals in the past 30 years, according to a 2015 WWF report. It is a fact that since the beginning of the 20th century, sea surface temperatures have steadily increased. Coral polyps unable to cope with unusually warm temperatures become stressed and expel the colored microscopic algae living in their tissue. Without the algae the coral dies of starvation and what is left is a skeleton of white bleached rock.

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The friendly eye of a pufferfish belies the fact that some species have a toxin called Tetrodotoxin, which can be 1,200 times more deadly than cyanide.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

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A Pacific Guineafowl Pufferfish, in its black phase, the jazz musician of reef fish.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

There is hope, however, for coral in French Polynesia because of a concerted effort here to protect and manage marine areas. From the Marquesas to the Tuamotos and the Society Islands there are a series of UNESCO reserves, protected maritime landscapes, and regulated fishing and anchorage areas. And they are enforced. When I inadvertently dropped the anchor of Flying Fish in a patch of sand in a restricted area of the lagoon of Mo’orea, the maritime gendarmerie were quickly on the scene to suggest a different anchorage.

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The flange of a Giant Pacific Clam undulates with iridescent color.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

What can one solo traveller do to preserve this underwater Garden of Eden? Aside from the obvious (like dropping your anchor in the correct spot) the effort of awareness on all levels is essential. It is in that spirit that I offer these images of the coral gardens of French Polynesia.

For a compendium of reef awareness issues and programs log on to: http://www.CoralGuardian.org

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A pair of Blackwedged Butterflyfish swim in a shallow tidal pool reflecting the surface of the water.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas
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The coral gardens of Taha’a are spectacular above and below the surface of the water.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

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A small motu off the Polynesian island of Taha’a, with the caldera of Bora Bora at sunset.   Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Track the passage of Flying Fish here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

The Many Faces of the Marquesas

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She could have just walked off the canvas of a Paul Gauguin painting.     Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

For nearly a month it was as if Flying Fish had been sailing off the face of the earth. Then, at sunset on one clear afternoon, the peak of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas was outlined on the horizon. By morning our anchor was secure at one of the great landfalls of ocean voyaging, the exquisite Bay of Virgins. Towering basalt cones resembling giant phalluses mark the entrance to the bay. French sailors originally named it the Baie des Verges (Bay of Penises). When the missionaries arrived they were outraged so they inserted the letter “i” making it the Baie des Vierges, which translated to Bay of Virgins (as if somehow that made the name less provocative.) Meanwhile, the indigenous Marquesans must have thought all of this was hilarious. Until, of course, they realized that the arrival of outsiders was literally wiping their civilization out of existence.

The Marquesan name for this group of 10 islands is Fenua Enata (Land of Men). The archipelago covers over 1,500 square miles of the South Pacific. It is a land of crenellated mountains, waterfalls, deep fertile valleys, and a dark coastline pounded by relentless surf. As early as 500 AD, seafaring Marquesans sailed and paddled their oceanic canoes thousands of miles to the islands now known as Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. A thousand years later, Europeans were following the same sea routes. In 1595, Spaniard Don Alvaro de Mendaña y Neyra sighted the Marquesas by chance. He thought the islands to be uninhabited but near Tahuata hundreds of light-skinned natives, naked, tattooed, and unarmed, paddled out in canoes and boarded the ship. Mendaña ordered a gun fired and the frightened natives jumped overboard. Then the Spaniards began shooting the Marquesans as they swam to shore. To be certain that nobody would forget his legacy Mendaña carved his name and date into a rock—and then left three bodies hanging from trees in a nearby village. When he departed, Mendaña left three large crosses and over 200 dead Polynesians in his wake. In the years that followed slavery, alcohol, firearms, and syphilis would further reduce the population until 95 percent of the indigenous people of the Marqueseas had died.

It is with this history in mind that I pull the dinghy of Flying Fish quietly into the bay at Tahuata where Mendaña had caused so much mayhem on his visit a half a millennium ago. A corridor of banyan, cashew, and wild almond trees shade a cobblestoned walkway. A lazy dog barely twitches an eye as I walk by. The foundation of a me’ae, an ancient Marquesan place of worship, is situated on high ground overlooking the bay. This me’ae would have most certainly been here when Mendaña arrived. Nearby, I hear the soft sound of sweet music from a ukulele. A young girl who seems to have stepped directly out of a Gauguin painting is playing the instrument. She sits on a rock wall near the cemetery of a Catholic church. A three or four-year-old boy, naked, dances soundlessly to the music. I sit nearby and the girl acknowledges me with a smile. Then she continues to play an enchanting set of chords as if she is the only person in this world who can hear the music.

The island of Fatu Hiva was impossibly scenic. Tahuata was spiritual. But Hiva Oa was the island where Paul Gauguin would choose as his final resting place. The life and death of Gauguin has fascinated researchers for over a century. He arrived in the Marquesas in 1901. Gauguin had quit his job in France as a stockbroker; he abandoned his wife and five children, and then sailed to Polynesia where his artistic genius blossomed. He built a two-story house in Hiva Oa with wooden frames on which he carved his favorite epigrams including “Soyez amoureuses et vous serez heureuses (Be in love and you will be happy). Gauguin wore shoulder length hair, a velvet cowboy hat, and reportedly had repulsive manners. And, he was plagued by bad health. He drank to excess, took drugs, had syphilis, and despite the attentions of his 14-year-old mistress Vaeoho, he died 1902. There is a post-mortem legend in Hiva Oa that on the day he died his Marquesan neighbor, Tioka, went into Gauguin’s house and found him lifeless. Following a Marquesan custom, Tioka bit Gauguin’s head, but the great artist was dead and he did not stir. The faces in his paintings can be seen everywhere in the Marquesas.

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The Marquesan people–and their dogs–possess the spirit of mana.  Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

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As these children prepare for a school presentation their faces reflect the purity of their island heritage.     Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

On the island of Nuka Hiva is Baie Hatihue, a remote and lovely spot that captured the attentions of Robert Louis Stevenson. I anchor Flying Fish in the bay and go ashore in search of fruit. An entire stalk of bananas costs me the equivalent of $5 in Polynesian francs. With the bananas on my shoulder I catch the eye of two lovely Marquesan girls braiding each other’s hair and giggling at the sight of me. I set down the bananas and point to my head. I cannot speak French or Marquesan but I needed a haircut and with a pantomime of scissors I convince the girls—to their great humor—to open a makeshift barbershop for me under a breadfruit tree. One of the girls runs to her house and brings out a pair of scissors with rounded tips, the kind that would commonly be used by children to cut construction paper. She sits me on a tree stump next to a crowing rooster and piglet on a rope, and starts whacking away at my mop of gray hair. She is laughing so hard that I think she might put my eyes out with the little rounded-tip scissors. The commotion causes a dozen people in the village to come out of their houses and share in the merriment of a white-haired foreigner with a stalk of bananas getting a haircut next to a piglet on a rope. It is one of the most terrifying—and erotic—moments of my life.

The eroticism of the Marquesas, and French Polynesia in general, can be as innocent as a haircut under a breadfruit tree. Or it can be as contrived as the paintings of Gauguin or the literature of Melville. In 1842, Herman Melville, then only 23 years old, deserted his whale ship in Nuka Hiva and went native. He was only off the boat a month but the island inspired his classic book, Typee, a loosely autobiographical first novel that includes the usual literary drama of getting chased by cannibals, ect,. But the passage in the book that endures is when Melville’s character Tommo describes the rapture of an idyllic canoe ride with his young island lover Fayaway. She stands in the canoe and using her naked body as a mast and her tapa cloth robe as a sail. The book was a huge success, particularly the uncensored first edition. Gauguin and Melville “invented” the Polynesia that those of us who had never visited the islands had come to know. And in the modern media this invention continues.

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On the dock at Nuka Hiva, these grouper will feed a dozen families.     Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

Lilly and I visit Baie Hakatea to hike the royal road in Hakaui Valley and to visit the ancient sites of pae pae and tahua. The trail terminates at the remote and wild 1,500-foot Vaipo waterfall. Along the trail we are stopped by Teiki and Kua Matio, a young couple who offer to make us, for a fee, a traditional Marquesan lunch when we return from the hike. We agree. The ancient road and me’ae are spectacular. The waterfall is stunning. The home of Teiki and Kua is situated in manicured grove of fruit and coconut trees. They have roasted goat and miti hue (river shrimp) prepared for us along with traditional taro and breadfruit. Teiki is like a character out of central casting: half of his face is tattooed and a large boar’s tooth is pierced through his ear. It is all too … perfect. I am told later that this was the site of the television show Survivor Marquesas. A film crew spent months here making it look, well, Polynesian. I feel something inside of me deflate. It is as if we have finally stumbled across something raw and untouched—and then it turns out to be a movie set.

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A boar’s tooth in the ear and the scowling face tattoo of Teiki Matio can do nothing to harden the the beauty of his wife Kau’s smile.     Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas

The Marquesas, I discover, is full of ironies like this. The islands are among the most isolated in the world and the inhabitants have learned, like all of us, to do what is necessary to survive (no pun intended). Nonetheless, we see a place the way that we want to see it. In the Marquesas I will remember poisson cru made with raw coconut milk being squeezed through cheesecloth. I will remember scalloped hammerhead sharks and mellon-headed dolphins. I will remember the sacred me’ae with massive 600-year-old banyan trees growing among the ancient foundations of moss covered basalt rocks.

And especially, I will remember the many faces of the Marquesan people who have endured a dark history of warfare, occupation, and disease brought about by those of us from the outside. The Marquesan people exist because they possess the spiritual power known as mana.

Track the passage of Flying Fish here: https://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Flyingfish

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Flying Fish at anchor in Baie Hatihue on Nuka Hiva.     Photo: © Jeffrey Cardenas