Image: Now that we have mast steps, we can do this. Back in PNG, on the way to the Fenny Islands.
We made it back to the northern hemisphere with a relatively easy 10-day crossing from Buka to Pohnpei, Micronesia! The North Star now winks at us just above the horizon ahead, while the Southern Cross waves at us from behind. The sun has been south of us for some time now, and it will not cross our path again on our travels. Crossing the equator feels like a significant milestone, but that leaves us with about 6,000 miles to go—a long way when you average 5 knots on a good day. We’ll need to cover that distance over the next 7 months to get ourselves back to a safe spot in Alaska by August, so that we can tie up the boat for the winter and find ourselves jobs. (Speaking of which, if you happen to know of any jobs opening up in Alaska about September, we’re probably interested. We’re confident that our sailing adventure has significantly enhanced our job skills. I’ve learned, for instance, that I can sit in the same place for much longer than I ever dreamed myself capable, and have demonstrably improved my ability to perform repetitive tasks, repeatedly—essential skills in an office environment.)
Our passage got off to a bit of a rocky start, though, on the whole, the wind did us a lot of favors. We left Buka with a great breeze, but our breeze turned into a massive thunderstorm by nightfall, with little wind but buckets of rain and uncomfortably sloppy seas. With no moon, the night was oppressively, inkily, dark. In the thick clouds, you cannot distinguish the next line of rain from the clouds above you, or the sea from the sky until the sky is shattered for an instant by a blinding curtain of lightening. When it rains hard, the rain splatters a speckled film of phosphorescence on the waves nearby, and that is all you can see in the black night. You squint through thick raindrops at the arrow atop the mast to guide your steering when the wind is too light for the boat to steer itself in bouncy seas. The boat, which is shaped much like a rocking horse under water, pitches and bucks wildly in the chop. Altogether, the darkness, the disorienting lightening and phosphorescence, the wetness, and the rocking made for a pretty unpleasant few hours. Luckily, I got to hand the tiller over to Rob an hour into it and he was well-rinsed, and the lightening finished, by the end of his three hour watch.
Late on the second day out, we checked the weather forecast and were not thrilled with a couple of low pressure systems that had appeared on our course, so we decided to retreat and backtrack to an atoll to wait for the weather to settle a bit. A strong current runs through the only pass, a small break in the reef just deep enough for a boat to enter the atoll. We were fortunate to make it through the pass while the current was weak, but with a strong wind against the current, big waves were building in the pass. One of them crashed over my back as I was standing at the tiller, steering forcefully to keep us on course. Rob, not too surprisingly, decided the best spot for him was on top of the spreaders, for the best view and maximum gut-tumbling motion. Why wouldn’t you climb up to the spreaders for a rough entry?
Once inside, things calmed down, but we wondered whether we had chosen well. In an atoll, there is little land to protect you from the wind, just a reef to stop the waves. That means you are generally protected from the wind as long as it does not change direction, but when it shifts, waves build across the lagoon and you may also have to move. That’s not so easy if the shift happens at night, as you have to negotiate shallow patches that are rarely charted in detail. In this lagoon, with the strong currents in the pass, we could not leave the atoll until the wind let up, so we were a bit trapped.
But, we found a decent spot to anchor on the west side of the lagoon and took a nice, long nap while the wind built to near gale force. It would have made for speedy sailing, but we were worried the low would brew nasty squalls and might deepen. Lows are unpredictable in the tropics. We spent one night anchored there, and in the morning, the wind was calmer, but had shifted to the north. Waves were building from the wrong direction, so we decided we would see if the pass was navigable and make use of the wind if we could safely exit the atoll.
As Rob wrestled up the anchors, we were surprised to see a skiff (dinghy, banana boat, panga, call it what you like) just beyond the reef bashing into fairly rough seas. When we got closer to the pass, another skiff approached us and told us that a skiff had capsized the day before. Six people were missing. The missing skiff had left Buka at 3pm, about the time we were setting a second anchor because the wind was increasing. They nearly made it home. The skiff flipped in a wave as it was coming through the pass into the atoll. Three people, including the skipper, managed to reach the reef in the middle of the night and swam for the first island along the reef, calling for help from there, but the other six had not been found. There were no life jackets and no marine radio (there never are—there’s no money for them). The skipper, looking rather shell-shocked, was helping with the search. We, unfortunately, had not seen or heard anything, as we had been anchored a couple of miles away, but we agreed to follow the search boat and help however we could. They were going to retrieve the capsized boat, which had washed, or been dragged, onto the reef, and asked us to tow the boat back to the village for them. We did, and a couple of the men came back with us. They were cold and tired as they had been searching all night, and, with no idea where else to look, were reluctantly giving up the search. One of the men on board with us lost his mother, his father, his wife, and his young first-born child. We wished there was something more we could do to help, but the local boats had searched the inside of the lagoon and there was little hope outside. There was no safe place to anchor by the village, so we promised to look as we sailed, and left, disheartened, for Pohnpei.
For the rest of the passage, we were pretty lucky. It felt like a long trip, and we both rubbed our hands raw pulling on ropes to shorten and readjust sails in the perpetual squalls, but we had a favorable wind and moved well until about 20 miles south of the equator. Though we would have preferred a raft of Micronesian dancers and complimentary piña coladas, the equatorial welcoming committee instead greeted us with a couple of powerful squalls, and we ran across the equator at full speed. Then we spent a couple of days in light and fitful winds, with intensive squalls and lots of lightening, before we picked up the northeast trade winds somewhere around 3 degrees north. From there on, we had trade winds and speedy sailing on a reach (wind to the side), but lots of water on deck with waves splashing over the sides. Those waves get pretty spiteful; they sense it when your bum gets dry and quickly remedy your too comfortable situation. We had clear skies our last couple of nights out and kept our eyes on the horizon, watching the Big Dipper and waiting for the North Star to greet us.
On our tenth day out from the atoll, Pohnpei was a distant shadow on a cloudy horizon. We put up all the sail we could handle as our target took shape, grew greener, and gradually developed some contours. We pulled inside the barrier reef just as the enormous, fiery sun dropped down to kiss the horizon, and we dropped the anchor as the basalt cliffs above us turned pink in the afterglow.
We’ve been here for a couple of weeks now and are enjoying the breeze and the calm lagoon. We were surprised to find eight other sailboats here when we arrived; we didn’t see a single other sailboat in Papua New Guinea, and saw only a few in the Solomons. Most of the sailors here are Australian surfers. Pohnpei, apparently, has one of the best surf waves in the world—maybe even the second best. We hear it’s going to be amazing this week as some big swells come this way and the surfers fly in from Hawaii. But, the wave is too big for us. So, we’ve been enjoying some land opportunities, instead. There is actually some public land here, with a few trails that are open to the public—no guides required!—so we’ve been happy to go for a couple of hikes. One hike leads to a ridge strewn with Japanese artillery from World War II. Pohnpei was occupied by the Japanese at that time, and the Allied forces bombed the island heavily but never tried to take over. After the war, Pohnpei became a trust territory of the United States. It is now independent, one of the four states in the Federated States of Micronesia, but has a compact with the United States allowing benefits for Micronesians, such as the ability to work in the U.S., and insuring a decent flow of U.S. funding.
We also have free showers here, a rare treat, so we’ve been retraining our legs to run, a very painful effort. And those big, basalt cliffs that catch the sunset from the right vantage point even have a few sport climbing routes established on them, so we are eager to check those out. But the main attraction on Pohnpei is Nan Madol, an ancient Micronesian fortress built on artificial islands. We are plotting our visit to the fortress now, and will report back in a few days.
Until then, kaselehlia!