killer whale orca pacific ocean sailboat travel

Holy S*^t! An Orca Whale!

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NOTE: This video is about five months late.  But better late than never, right?  

Llyr and her crew were halfway through our 33-day crossing of the Pacific Ocean from Panama to the Marquesas Islands. Specifically, we were somewhere west of the Galapagos Islands by about 6 days. We hadn’t seen any wildlife of any sort for a week — the middle of the ocean feels a lot like a big empty desert. We also hadn’t had a good rainstorm since we left Panama City.

First, the rain came one afternoon. Not just a piddly drizzle, but enough to go on deck and soap up, maybe even break out the shampoo. After the boys all finished their rain dance showers, I went up last to enjoy the freshwater blessing. As I reached behind me for a washcloth, I caught the unmistakable sight of a giant eyeball looking up at me from the water.

My brain flashed instantly through the brief image: black and white markings, smooth skin, big fin. My mouth took over before my brain caught up, screaming at full volume: “Holy shit! Orca! Orca! Omigod! Everybody on deck. Rob! Rob! Whoa!”

I saw Rob’s face look through the porthole toward deck with a terrified expression … and realized he was looking out at sea, as he assumed my screaming meant I’d fallen overboard. Repeated “orca” screams got through, and the whole crew piled out to the stern, where we got to watch this lone killer whale check us out. She/he swam under our stern several times, rolling over to look at us with a big, beautiful eye.

It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in the wilderness.

We didn’t see any more wildlife for over a week during that crossing. And I still had soap in my ears that night, since I was too distracted to rinse after the whale encounter.

killer whale orca pacific ocean sailboat travel

 

sail south pacific ocean crossing travel brianna rob

Third Watch

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sail south pacific ocean crossing travel brianna rob

So, this is “fair winds and a following sea:” pitch-poling like a drunk college kid as we surf down dark frothy waves. What the hell would it feel like in rough winds and a big beam sea? Terrifying.

I have third watch tonight, the pre-dawn shift from 3am to whenever someone else wakes up in the morning. It usually takes my mind and body several minutes to get used to night sailing when I start my watch. For some reason, it always feels like we’re going a million miles an hour at night. I check the heading, and make sure the sail plan is still the same: wing-to-wing with the wind dead behind us, careening down 10-foot swells as we sail due west. Even though we had the same gig happening all day, something about the moonless dark makes the boat feel faster, and slightly more out of control than during daylight.

sail south pacific ocean crossing travel brianna rob

I furl in the genoa a bit to see if it eases the motion. “We gotta slow her down!” I think to myself as I winch away at the sheet. Next, I hook up our state-of-the-art navigation systems (my iPhone paired with our Delorme spot tracker) to check our speed. 4.5 knots. Oh. Right. Maybe we weren’t going as fast as I thought. I let the sail back out and settle into a corner of the cockpit to brace against the rocking.

Third watch is my favorite. You know the dark will end. You get to stare at Orion as he ushers in the rising sun. You can watch the water change from black to charcoal to grey to silver to blue. And, best of all, you can drink coffee without worrying about whether you’ll be able to get back to sleep after your shift is over. I love coffee, and brewing a perfect little cup is my reward as the sky starts to lighten at 5:30am. Sadly, my perfect little cup flew across the galley during a big wave, and I ended up with coffee grounds in my hair, eyes, teeth, sleeves. Sigh. I went with instant coffee for round two, admitting defeat in this squirrely sea.

I plot our position and calculate how long it will take before we reach our next destination at an average speed of 5.5 knots. 3 days, 12 hours. I ignore the rattling in the lazarette behind me, the dishes slamming to and fro below, and the occasional flap of the main when it back-winds. Instead, I turn the iPhone to my favorite mix and sing along, write in my journal using the red light on my headlamp, and practice finding southern constellations. I read a bit on the Kindle.

sunset at sea sailing ocean on the horizon line blog

I hand steer the boat for a full hour when the autopilot gives up under the weight of turning the rudder through the swells, pretending I’m Captain Cook steering a tall ship in unknown waters. It is fun to be in control of the boat for a bit, to feel her surf the waves and to use stars as my navigation. But hand steering is not nearly as romantic as one would think, and my shoulders tire quickly.

I’m grateful when the autopilot sputters back to life at sunrise, and the bright light signals the end of my watch. Time for another attempt at the perfect cup of coffee.

 

dinghy travel sail south pacific travel rob bri

El Coche: Our Dinghy/Kiddie Pool

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dance naked rob roberts fishing sail travel ocean

It’s always an adventure in El Coche, the nickname Rob dubbed upon Compass Rose(y)’s 10-foot inflatable sidekick. We rely on El Coche for getting to shore to buy supplies like food and fuel, visiting neighbors, and exploring reefs. Basically, the dinghy is like your car at home: not essential to basic survival, but integral for your general sanity and daily well-being. El Coche gives us freedom. She gives us autonomy. She provides a much-needed escape from a very small vessel in a very big sea.

So its a real bummer that she leaks like a sieve and deflates like a burst balloon.

I try to tell myself that we’re lucky: not only do we have a dinghy, we also have a swimming pool to splash around in! That’s the rose-colored optimist view. Most days, I take the realist view: we have a dingy that loves water more than air. Occasionally, the pessimist comes out: this dinghy is sinking, and I’m f&%$ing sick of pumping and bailing.

rob dinghy repair

It wasn’t always this bad. But it wasn’t ever good, either. Before Rob and I started as crew on Compass Rose(y), we would watch Mark and the owner motoring through anchorages, one of them constantly pumping up the nose. When we later agreed to crew, Rob told me determinedly: “I’m gonna try and patch that dinghy first thing.” And try he did. Again, and again. And again. And one last time.

The rubber on the bow won’t hold the patches. The patches on the floor don’t keep the ocean from pouring in. Every time he fixed one hole, a new gash appeared somewhere else. So, we’ve given in. We’re allowing El Coche a graceful and slow demise. It’s kind of like signing a “Do Not Resuscitate” order from your 98-year-old grandmother — she lived a good, long life, and it’s time for her to pass on peacefully.

dinghy travel sail south pacific travel rob bri

Meanwhile, we have a half swimming pool/half boat, and provide plenty of comic relief for our fellow cruisers. El Coche is usually the butt of many jokes when she’s tied up at the dock. Hell, she’s the main source of our own daily amusement, since the best cure from pessimism is to joke while pumping and bailing.

Several people watch our labors with the pump nostalgically (did I mention the foot pump has broken twice, and you have to cover a whole with one hand while you pump with the other?). They say, wistfully, “Oh, that reminds me of our old dinghy.” And then they watch us bucket out 30 gallons of water from the bottom and revise their statement, “Wow, ours was never that bad.” If they actually brave a ride in El Coche, they marvel at her squishy-ness, and exclaim at the novelty of riding in a wet taco as the nose folds in. If the motor manages to plane the boat and unroll the taco, the floor becomes a swimming pool where random snorkels, shoes, ropes, groceries, and other random flotsam bang into toes and ankles.

At least the motor works … after 12-16 pulls on the starter cord. Usually. Except for that one time Rob and I were coming back from a snorkeling expedition in Tahaa across a 3-mile-wide channel with 25 knots of wind in our face. First it cut out because the gas tube was cracked. Rob patched it with his dive knife and his teeth, as the wind pushed us toward the reef and away from our sailboat. Then in the middle of the channel, the outboard died again and wouldn’t restart, even after 86 cranks of the starter cord.

dinghy travel sail south pacific travel rob bri

That was the first time I’ve seen Rob lose his cool. He threw up his hands, yelled some swear words, and then said, “That’s it! We’re done for. We’re drifting toward Bora Bora, and there’s no way we can get back to the boat. This is EXACTLY why I would never have a boat without oars!”

I replied (cautiously), “Well, maybe we can at least use something as a rudder to steer toward the reef as we drift? Or use something to paddle…” This elicited an incredulous, “With what, Bri?!? Our hands? Oh, wait…” Rob ripped off the two blue plank seats, handed me one, and said, “Paddle HARD.”

Paddling with a heavy fiberglass plank is not ideal. But given the alternative, I followed orders. We paddled HARD for about 45 minutes until we made it to the other side of the channel, where we tied up on a reef to wait for the motor to recover from overheating. We managed to get back to Compass Rose(y) unscathed but really tired. The next day, Rob made a paddle out of a broom handle and piece of plywood he scavenged from a trash heap on shore.

dinghy travel sail south pacific travel rob bri

We never leave the sailboat in El Coche without the paddle. Or without the bucket, the pump, the seats (emergency oars), and a handheld radio. A dry bag is a must, and we often pack an extra set of clothes inside it so we don’t have to sit through a dinner party as a salty wet mess. In fact, the prep checklist for our dinghy excursions is almost as long as our checklist for passage-making.

Ah, the joys of cruising. All told, El Coche still works to get us from Point A to Point B. Sure, you can see the turquoise water through the floor, but some people pay a lot of money for see-through boats. And my arms are nicely toned from the pump-and-bail routine. One thing is certain: even when I’m the most pessimistic about El Coche’s suckiness, I still know deep down that the freedom she provides is priceless and worth every ounce of frustration.

sailing pacific sunset

Yup, we still hate passages.

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sailboats at sunset south pacific travel

We were scheduled to make landfall in Palmerston at sun-up. But that was when we were averaging 6.5 knots. The wind, as usual, had her own ideas.

Rob and I sat in the cockpit on the last night, watching the crescent moon sink slowly after the sun that just left us. We were making 4 knots in the light air, the genoa flogging and the boat lurching more sharply side to side without the speed to cut through the swells.

“Crack of noon arrival,” I joked. “An exact 5 day passage from anchor to anchor.” I had thought that the 5-night passage from Bora Bora to Palmerston would feel like peanuts compared to 33 days at sea on our Panama to Marquesas leg. But two months of bopping around French Polynesian islands on short jaunts made me weak. I forgot the monotony, the endless frustrating rocking, the noise, the sleeplessness.

sailing pacific sunset
Yup. Passages are just as un-fun as ever. Rob and I tried to be positive while we watched the moon careen back and forth overhead. We listed what we liked about passages:
1) The beauty of the sea, the sun, the night sky. The solitude of this wilderness ocean.
2) The fact that two hunks of canvas can cart us across hundreds of miles.
3) Our increasing ability to manage our bodies and the boat at sea. (No one got seasick this time.)

And that’s about it. We didn’t bother listing our dislikes, as we exhausted that discussion a couple passages back. All this is with fair winds and a following sea! Imagine storms and 30-foot seas (or don’t).

So, if we hate passages so much, why the hell are we smack in the middle of the largest ocean on earth, with plenty more crossings still to come? Because we love everything in between.

bora bora beaches travel

To me, passage-making is like flying or driving long distances. I hate sitting still, being cramped in small spaces and tight seats, breathing stale recycled air, filling the monotonous hours and minutes as best I’m able. Yucky. But I absolutely love arriving at the destination. The excitement about what awaits after the long transit is what gets us through the discomfort. Same with sailing — every time we see a new island on the horizon, it feels like Christmas Day. What will we discover on shore? What presents await beneath the surface?

Maybe Rob and I aren’t real sailors at heart. We are, however, water people, through and through. And to get to the best water, you gotta pay the price of passage. Thus far on our journey, the price is still a bargain for the bounty we’ve received.

saltwater fly fishing polynesia travel blog rob roberts and brianna randall

Fly Fishing the Tuamotus (Part 1): Bonefish

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saltwater fly fishing polynesia travel blog rob roberts and brianna randall

Before we left on this adventure, I spent some time on the internet looking for information on fly fishing opportunities in French Polynesia. Besides a few random and out of date blog posts and a couple of websites for resorts or fly fishing businesses, I didn’t find much to go on. However, I could tell from aerial photos andsome time spent on Google Earth that there were endless sandy flats in the Tuamotus. Often called the Dangerous Islands, the Tuamotus are a string of coral atolls that stretch several hundred miles. With a peak elevation of about 10 feet, the islands have been feared by mariners for centuries because of their shallow, fringing reefs and the fact that they are hard to see until you’re practically on top of them. This, of course, sounds like heaven to someone interested in chasing fish..

The Tuamotos are quite simply what most people dream of when they think of the term tropical paradise. The islands are small – just sunken volcano craters that just barely break the surface of the ocean. Most are covered with coconut trees and surrounded by deep, blue water on the ocean side. The interior lagoons are protected, accessible usually by one or maybe two narrow passes and the clear, warm water runs in shades of blue, green, turquoise and even yellow in the shallow, sandy edges. To top it all off, the islands are sparsely inhabited, if at all. Most of the islands we visited had very small towns or villages that subsisted on fishing, coconut harvesting or maybe some sparse tourism. Otherwise, these narrow strings of sand and coral are the domain of coconut crabs and not much else. The activity lies beneath the surface.

Because we are essentially backpacking across the ocean, I have scant resources for my underwater investigation: some snorkeling gear, a speargun, and an underwater camera. My fishing quiver has been pared down to the bare essentials: a handline for trolling while under sail and my fly fishing gear. I have a 9 weight Orvis T3 fly rod and an Orvis big game reel. The combo is about 10 years old but is solidly built and has endured expeditions in Mexico, Cuba, Honduras, the Florida Everglades and elsewhere. My fly line is a new 10 weight Royal Wulff Triangle Taper saltwater line. I used to think saltwater flats fishing was about precise 100 foot long casts to spooky fish in shallow, calm water. And while that does happen, my experience has proven otherwise. My saltwater fly fishing has necessitated quick, powerful casts in often very windy and sometimes overcast conditions. Visibility in the water is often scattered and the fish are moving fast. I need to react fast and I’m often making fairly short casts, not much longer than I would if I were trout fishing back in Montana. The Triangle Tape, along with overloading the rod helps me do that. The rest of my gear includes one extra fly line, two fly boxes, tippet from 10 to 50 pounds and a few tools and gadgets. I would, of course, love to have more.

saltwater fly fishing polynesia travel blog rob roberts and brianna randall

Our first stop in the Tuamotus was on the island of Kauehi, where we were anchored just off of Kauehi “City” and traded with the locals for freshly caught grouper and snorkelled straight from the boat.. We also happened to anchor within spitting distance of a mile long sand flat that was in the lee of the island (sheltered by the prevailing easterly winds). Dodging friendly local kids (my first polynesian entourage) and mean dogs on my first excursion, it took me several hours of slow wading to find a shallow bay in the flat where scattered coral heads were sandwiched between the flat and deeper water. As five to six foot long lemon sharks patrolled the water around me (a good sign), I eventually found a pod of bonefish (“kio kio” in Tuamotan) in about a foot and a half of water. I paused, because this is a crucial moment: after travelling, 4,000 miles during about 38 days at sea on two different passages to get to this point, my temptation is to cast as quickly as possible. But that would be folly. If I spook this pod of fish, it could be the last shot I get at them. I have no idea how many others are out there.

saltwater fly fishing polynesia travel blog rob roberts and brianna randall

Even though I have found that most bonefish in these remote destinations are not picky about fly patterns, I tried to calmly tie on one of my go to flies: the Corey Fisher Supercrab. A cruising bonefish will usually take just about any fly that is put in front of them, as long as they aren’t spooked by the cast, but I’m not taking any chances. My technique at this point is pretty simple: find out which way the fish are going, cast about 10 to 15 feet in front of them, wait and then twitch the crab as they get close. After a few attempts and misses, I finally hooked up with a 5 pound polynesian bonefish, took a few pictures and with trembling hands, slipped the fish back in the water. The fish in Kauehi were fairly spooky when the sun was up and they were in the shallows. If I had refusals on 10 or 15 pound tippet, I had to drop down to 8 pound test to get them to take.

If you had told me 10 years ago when I bought this saltwater fly rod that I would be alone on a flat in the Tuamotus, casting to bonefish, I’m not sure I would have believed you. During the next couple weeks, we visited several more islands, all of which had remarkable, picturesque flats and coral reefs. Not all of them led me to bonefish. On Fakarava, despite some of the most georgeous water and variable depth flats that I have seeen, I was shocked when I didn’t see any bonefish (I had also read a sailing blog talking about large bonefish on Fakarava) I did, however, have some fun catching a handful of other saltwater fish species (you’ll have to wait for Fly Fishing the Tuamotus: Part II).

saltwater fly fishing polynesia travel blog rob roberts and brianna randall

We also visited a mostly uninhabited island called Toau, just north of Fakarava. The pass into Taoa is on the east side of the island and can be pretty ornery depending on the direction of the wind and status of the tide, which may be why we spent several days on Toau and had the place entirely to ourselves. North of the pass there is a small tidal river and lagoon fringed by mangroves. I spent two afternoons prowling this area and the adjacent sand flat. I found that the bonefish in Toau ran in pods of 2 or 3 fish and were generally eager to chase a fly or at least follow it. I caught a handful of fish on Toau and I’m sure some of them were pushing 8 pounds. They took small shrimp and crab patterns and pretty much everything I put in front of them if it was presented well. The fish seemed to prefer a slow twitching motion and often took the fly when it was motionless. The bonefish were close to shore in a foot or so of water. Despite not seeing very many people, they were quick to flee the area if I misplaced a cast or was too loud when wading. I could have spent weeks on this atoll fishing, snorkeling and exploring the rest of the island, but unfortunately, we had to leave this little gem and take advantage of a weather window to get to Tahiti.

I’m not sure when or if I’ll ever get to visit the Tuamotus again, and I’m still coping with the fact that I only got to spend a few weeks there. We only got 3 months on our immigration visa in French Polynesia and I would have gladly spent all 3 months in the Tuamotus. Bri and I biked along sandy coastal roads with our snorkeling and fishing gear strapped to our backs, lunched on coconuts and wandered along reefs that were in better condition than most places I’ve ever visited (watch this underwater video from a past blog on the marine life in the Tuamotus). With friendly locals and a laid back vibe, I was easily within my comfort zone. The Tuamotus are not easy to get to and the services are pretty sparse, but if you’re into some excellent flats fishing and water time in the backcountry of the South Pacific, this is the place for you.

scuba diving with sharks tuamotus brianna randall and rob roberts sailing blog

Playing with Sharks

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scuba diving with sharks tuamotus brianna randall and rob roberts sailing blog

I’ve come to peace with sharks. They still give me pause when I see them coming toward me underwater, and they definitely earn my cautious respect. But I’m over the hump on my fear factor. The turning point — besides the shark immersion at Kauehi pass — was scubadiving the so-called “shark wall” at Fakarava’s south pass. This world heritage site is famous for those interested in swimming with the sharks. We watched hundreds of sharks hanging out along the wall, cruising through the shallow flats, and hovering in blue depths at 100 feet. I spent long minutes simply studying the slow rhythm of their big gills flaring in and out, in and out.

Sharks are smart. Graceful. And not dangerous, unless you do something stupid.

scuba diving with sharks tuamotus brianna randall and rob roberts sailing blog

It’s kind of like the peace I made with bears after living in Montana for a couple of years. Respect the bears’ space, don’t harrass them or tempt them, and they are awesome to watch in the woods. Same with bees, when I helped Rob extract honey from his hives a couple of times. Respect the bees’ homes and personal space, don’t swat at them or make them angry, and they’ll give you delicious honey instead of sting you.

The sharks in the Tuamotus are mostly blacktip and whitetip, known to be curious but not dangerous. Now, if I see a ten-foot hammerhead swimming toward me, I’m not going to feel peaceful at all. But these motu sharks are kind of like pets at anchorage. They come check out the boats, circle the anchors. Plus, they know that humans often go fishing, and learned to follow along.

scuba diving with sharks tuamotus brianna randall and rob roberts sailing blog

Rob is extra careful spearfishing, since the sharks will come up and snatch the speared fish right off his pole. They’re not interested in eating him, but if his arm got in the way of their snapper supper … well, I doubt they’d complain much. Spearfishing is definitely a group activity here, just in case. On the other hand, Rob’s also had a blast flyfishing for the smaller-sized sharks. He hooks them as the patrol the shallows at low tide, so he can study them up close before releasing them back to the sea.

I don’t really want to catch a shark, even if I do feel more comfortable swimming with them. Same with bears and bees: I have no need to contain the things that might harm me, but I do want to understand them enough to appreciate their purpose, their beauty, and their role on this grand blue globe we all share.

 

 

sharks scuba diving in the tuamotus on the horizon line travel and sailing blog brianna and rob

Cue the Soundtrack from Jaws

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in Ocean Tales, Outdoor Adventures

diving with sharks scuba diving in the tuamotus on the horizon line travel and sailing blog brianna and rob

A lone sailboat speeds from the lagoon to the open ocean through a narrow pass in a remote island. Waves break on either side of this pass, crashing on pink-white sands as the sea floor rises abruptly from 2,000 feet deep to zero at the shore of this Pacific atoll. Sailing through the pass is carefully timed during slack tide to avoid the waves and eddies created by the 8 knot current as the sea rushes in and out of the lagoon. Just as the sailboat clears the pass, two people jump overboard. The sailboat keeps going.

Cue the soundtrack from Jaws.

This was the scene as Kayanos left Kauehi, and Rob and I were the ones who jumped off. On purpose. And so excited to snorkel the pass that we almost peed our pants. After we both dove overboard, Rob — who got his mask on first — immediately said, “Wow. There’s a shark right here, Bri!” I shoved on my gear so I wouldn’t miss the shark sighting, as I had on a few of our previous snorkeling trips. I looked below to see not one shark, but dozens of sharks swimming towards us out of the crystal blue depths. I made a calm and appreciative noise through my snorkel that sounded roughly like, “Mmpharrghgh!?!!!”

sharks scuba diving in the tuamotus on the horizon line travel and sailing blog brianna and rob

Talk about freaky. Sure, I knew the Marquesas and Tuamotus are renowned for having healthy, thriving shark populations. And I’d seen them swimming around in Nuku Hiva, following fishing boats for scraps. But I’d only seen a shark underwater exactly twice before. And they both swam away from me, not at me. Adrenaline pumping, I slowed my breathing and followed Rob toward the reef and shallower water.

I should clarify that my body followed Rob while my head followed the progress of the 7 or 8 sharks following us. They stayed a respectful 10 feet away, curious about why the hell humans would jump off a moving boat in the middle of a deep blue sea. I was starting to feel curious about that myself. Once we could see bottom, though, I immediately felt safer — a completely illogical reaction, since the sharks could eat us just easily in five feet of water as 1,000 feet of water. But these sharks weren’t going to eat us. First off, they were “small” blacktip and whitetip sharks, only about 5 or 6 feet long. Second, they had plenty of other food.

Once over the reef, we could see hundreds, maybe thousands, of fish. Big jacks, mackeral, snapper, grouper, parrotfish. Colorful butterfly fish, trigger fish, squirrel fish, angel fish and wrasses. The visibility was probably 80 feet, and the coral was a diverse blanket of living color. All around us were moving mini-dramas of fish mating, fighting, eating, hiding, swooping. The sharks lost interest in us, and resumed their slow cruise back and forth between the reef and the depths. It was the most amazing snorkeling experience I’ve ever had.

scuba diving in the tuamotus on the horizon line travel and sailing blog brianna and rob

After about 15 minutes, Rob and I began the second part of the Remote Pass Snorkel Adventure: getting back on the sailboat. We swam against the current to make our way out of the pass toward the ocean. Kayanos was hove-to (as close to parked as a sailboat gets) about one mile away from us. We waved our arms several times as we swam to a more mellow spot, signaling we were ready for pickup. Ben and Sarah sailed toward us at about 6 knots, then once again expertly heaved-to to slow down.

They threw out a floating line, and Rob made sure I was holding on before he latched on behind me. We were getting dragged fast enough behind the boat that my bathing suit bottoms came off, but managed to pull ourselves hand over hand until we reached the stern. Sarah let down a rubber fender as a step. Rob had to push my butt up as I hauled myself over the rail four feet above my head. By the time we both flopped into the cockpit, we were breathing heavy and totally amped on endorphins.

I know most people in their right mind wouldn’t jump off a moving sailboat into unknown shark-infested waters in the middle of nowhere. But they’re definitely missing out. I highly recommend the Remote Pass Snorkel Adventure, and hope that someday we’ll find another accomodating (and skilled) captain who let’s us dive overboard to investigate the deep crystal blue.

 

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We’re in love (with psychedelic clams).

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Ocean Tales, Outdoor Adventures

snorkeling in tuamotus, bri on the horizon line travel and sailing blog south pacific

Sorry for the long radio silence. Turns out that paradise doesn’t include internet. Plus, Rob and I have been a pretty distracted the past few weeks. Why?

Because we’re in love. Giddy, giggly, bubbly blissful love. Not necessarily with each other, though our giddiness certainly overflows into more hugs and hand-holding. Rob and I are in love with the Tuamotus, the volcano atolls that formed rings of shallow coral in the middle of a deep sea. We’re in love with green water, blue hues, white sands, fringing coconut trees, tiny purple fish, giant psychedelic clams, sea cucumbers as thick as my leg, stealthy sharks, flying manta rays and diving fairy terns.

During the year before we left, Rob and I had a little tradition. Some nights just before we crawled into bed, exhausted from a day of playing, working, and living fully in Missoula, we’d pull up Google Earth on the laptop. We’d huddle close to the screen and zoom in on islands and bays we hoped to visit on our voyage. The ones that called us back time and again were the strange-looking thin circles in the middle of the Pacific: hollowed-out islands that looked like a lifesaver or a really skinny doughnut. But instead of a cream-filled center, these narrow coral islands encircled marvelous blue-green lagoons, teeming with some of the richest marine life on earth. The Tuamotus.

fishing for bonefish in tuamotus, rob on the horizon line sailing blog

And now we’re here. We get to spend every day inside of Google Earth, and it’s way better up close. We snorkel before breakfast, and then head to shore. I dance in front of some coconut trees, and watch Rob stalk the white sand flats with his 9-weight fly rod, playing with sharks, bonefish and jacks. “Isn’t it awesome?” he calls over his shoulder as we watch a pair of trigger fish mow down on some bait fish. “It’s like hunting, but in the ocean.” Lunch break consists of tuna on crackers, some raisins and almonds, and coconut water straight from a fresh-plucked nut. Then it’s on to more snorkeling, fish stalking, or beach-combing and biking with the local kids.

These islands are why we wanted to leave our beloved mountain home, why we left good jobs and great friends in search of unknown shores. The French sailboat anchored in front of us in Kauehi City (a village of 200 people and 2 roads) has been here for over a year. I can see exactly why, and would probably do the same if French Polynesia wasn’t strict about stowaways in their gorgeous, coveted country. If you’re not a citizen of the E.U., the government only allows you to spend 90 days in French Polynesia.

Unless Rob or I suddenly fall in love with a Tuamotuan or a Tahitian who wants to marry one (or both?) of us, we only have until the end of August to indulge our love affair with these spectacular coral atolls. Which means it’s time to stop writing and dive overboard to caress the psychedelic clams and majestic mantas again.

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Land Ho! Kaloha, Nuku Hiva.

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WE MADE IT!

33 days at sea. 52 days total on the boat. 4,178 miles of ocean. 2 full moons. 3.5 time zones. 1 proxy high school graduation ceremony. 25 pounds of rice. 3 minor sail repairs. 4 avian hitchhikers. 8 new constellations. 18 degree shift in water temperature. Dozens of flying fish on deck. Hundreds of oatmeal packets consumed. Thousands and thousands of waves under our keel.

We arrived in the Marquesas today, the easternmost islands of French Polynesia that are a much welcome raft of green mountains and waterfalls in the middle of a big, big, big ocean. Landfall at Nuka Hiva inspired many emotions, the first of which was relief and the second of which was awe. The crew of Llyr moved at an average of 5.5 knots this past month (with an occassional 7-knot sprint thrown in), which is basically the equivalent of jogging from San Diego to Maine and then down to Florida. Read: it was a LONG journey. 150 square miles of solid ground never looked so decidedly delicious.

The Pacific crossing inspired just as many emotions as landfall, many of which will be shared in upcoming blog posts. For now, let’s suffice it share the basic summary: our first ocean crossing was a resounding success. No one got scurvy, went overboard, or was banished from the boat. Rob and I have lighter hair and darker skin, and we still like each other, too. The injury list is relegated to a few bruises and one burn I got while making cookies in a swaying boat (they were worth the pain).

Stay tuned for a whole host of stories and reflections from our month at sea. Sadly, the internet connections in French Polynesia are slow and scarce, so we’ll be going light on photos for each post. I promise to post photo albums when wifi speed allows. Meanwhile, check out this scene of the crew attending Connor’s surprise high school graduation ceremony on May 18th, which substituted (sort of) for the one he missed in favor of joining this journey.

on the horizon line blog sailing pacific graduation at sea

crew of llyr on the horizon line sailing blog cruise pacific crossing

Meet the Crew Sailing the Pacific

Posted on Posted in Family and Friends, Ocean Tales

Llyr under sail - on the horizon line with rob and briThe Steele-McCutchin family is awesome.  Rob and I feel fortunate to have found such good people to spend a few months with, and such capable people to sail with across the largest ocean on the planet.  They bought Llyr 4 years ago because they were ready for new expeditions.  None of them had much previous sailing experience, but they took loads of offshore courses before sailing south from Maine to Panama last summer, spending 4 months cruising in the Caribbean along the way.  You might notice their red hue in the photos below, which gives away their Scottish-Irish roots (and indicates it was early in the trip!).

Their grand plan is to set Llyr up permanently in Vanuatu (Melanesia) as a research vessel dedicated to documenting the impacts of climate change on coral reefs.  During the storm season in the southern hemisphere (October to March), they’ll return to their family-owned maple syrup farm in western Massachusetts to collect the sweet nectar of New England maples.  Here’s a snapshot of Llyr’s crew:

llyr sailing pacific on the horizon line cruising blog

Meet Brooks.  He’s the skipper, the mechanic, and the weather expert.  Brooks is good-humored in his role at the helm of Llyr and his role as the oldest aboard.  He also handles stressful situations calmly (thank god), and loves to converse about theories related to everything from education to climate change to how to change to oil mast most efficiently.  As a clinical psychologist during his first career and a farmer during his second, Brooks enjoys figuring out how and why things work like they do.  You can find him in the engine room, or trouble-shooting random problems from bow to stern.

llyr sailing pacific on the horizon line cruising blog

Meet Janis.  She’s the head caretaker of this big brood aboard Llyr, keeping our daily operations running smoothly.  A fluent French speaker from Montreal, Janis is a trained anthropologist, and likes to stretch, eat dark green foods, and sew.  If you have an idea, she’ll likely be able to make it a reality.  You can find her cooking up tasty sauces or creating a wind-scoop from old flags.

llyr sailing pacific on the horizon line cruising blog

Meet Connor.  He’s 18 going on 28, a brand-new high school graduate with an EMT (emergency medical training) license, a great sense of humor and a clear head.  Connor is the first mate, and is intimately familiar with Llyr’s many electronic and navigation systems.  He’s going to spend the fall and winter in Australia this year, and planning to head to college as a pre-med major after that.  Meanwhile, you can find Connor helping his dad with troubleshooting, surfing Facebook (at the marina only), or teasing his younger brothers (gently).

llyr sailing pacific on the horizon line cruising blog

Meet Rowan.  At  15, he’s doing a much better job of leaving his social circle than I would have at that age.  Rowan is a detail guy, and sees the little things the big-picture thinkers might miss.  He loves to dive, and reads incessantly…he actually burned out his Kindle in the first week.  You can find Rowan cramming in calculus (gotta make sure he’s caught up after his few months out of the classroom!), listening to music, or scarfing down sodas or milk.

crew of llyr on the horizon line sailing blog cruise pacific crossing

Meet Gavin.  He’s the life of the party, and the youngest crew member at 10 years old.  Gavin loves to draw and write and fish and kayak and swim and jump and chat and play games.  He provides comic relief for the rest of the crew, and much-needed energy when others might be tired of chores.  You can find Gavin eating PB&J sandwiches, sleeping in the cockpit, or trying to climb the mast when his parents aren’t looking.

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