It’s been a wild 8 months since my last post, suffice to say that quite a bit has transpired. You’ve read about Tripp’s time in quarantine and beyond and it’s well past time to hear from me. We’ve had different experiences thanks to COVID, but even the experiences we’ve shared can have a different hue or shade through different eyes, sometimes a different color altogether. For those that are following along, forgive my protracted silence.
As Hiva Oa appeared on the horizon on March 12th there were already whispers of the Coronavirus coming in via satellite texts from Joanna and others. When we set sail from Panama the month before I asked what Tripp and Anna thought might be the wildest thing that could happen during our month at sea, no one guessed a global pandemic. When we made landfall in the early morning hours of March 13th the reality of the virus still seemed far off as we celebrated the completion of our Pacific crossing, the longest passage of our circumnavigation. Joanna was scheduled to meet us in Tahiti in two short weeks and I was confident that in that time things would cool down, the spread of the virus would be contained, and I’d be enjoying Joanna’s company in Mo’orea as planned. As that week wore on Joanna saw the virus’s rapid spread through the States and she let go of the notion that we’d be seeing each other in French Polynesia. Meanwhile I held on to naive optimism that she was wrong as Tripp and I enjoyed the remote and virus-free Marquesas. It was a tough week of communication between Joanna and I as the gravity of the pandemic settled in back home and I grasped, ever more tenuously to the hope that it was all overblown.
Tripp and I spent the week meeting people in the community of Hiva Oa, finding leads for interviews, and tracking down the Tikis that were scattered across the island. On Friday we had successfully located the most elusive of these Tikis, the Crown Tiki, perched atop a hill above a banana farm that was nestled in a remote valley on the far side of the island. We were only able to find it with the help of Antonia, a French girl we’d met at the Semaphore, the yacht services outfit in Atuona. She’d been in Hiva Oa for nearly a year and she’d been to the Tiki once before. She got us as far as the village in the valley but couldn’t remember the exact trail to the Tiki. She asked a local farmer and he pointed us the rest of the way. As we hiked up to the Crown Tiki, considered by some to be the most beautiful Tiki that remains in French Polynesia, I don’t think any of us knew how drastically our lives would change in the next hours. We were driving back to Atouna that afternoon, relishing our time spent with the Crown Tiki, when Antonia got a call from Sandra who runs the Semaphore in Atuona. Antonia had been living with Sandra and helping out as a translator. She told Antonia that all sailors were expected for a meeting at the top of the hill where the Semaphore was situated. The mayor would be there to speak on an urgent and important matter. We were all sure that the inevitable topic would be the Coronavirus. In the days leading up to that meeting countries around the world had begun to close their borders in an effort to get the virus under control and it seemed those measures may have finally reached French Polynesia. As we pulled up to the Semaphore a crowd had already begun to gather. My phone logged into the WiFi as we joined the group and a US State Department notification flashed on my screen. The United States had raised the travel advisory to level 4 and all American citizens abroad were advised to come home or be prepared to stay abroad indefinitely. In that moment any shred of hope that was attached to Joanna visiting dissolved and the very real implications for the rest of our journey started to come into focus.
The meeting that followed was a chaotic affair. The mayor of Hiva Oa spoke to the crowd in French and was buried in a barrage of concerned replies also in French. The English translator on hand chimed in here and there after long intervals of discussion and frustration rose in those who couldn’t speak French. People interrupted and talked over each other as a sense of panic set in. Over the course of hours we learned that French Polynesia was expatriating all non-residents and to the dismay of the sailors, this process would happen in three days. That was simply not enough time to figure out what to do with a boat that was now essentially stranded in the South Pacific. Beyond that, many if not most sailors live exclusively on their boat and did not have anywhere to return to. There was no plan in place to deal with these circumstances, no real answers for this community.
The meeting ended and all sorts of plans were made that night. Many American sailors started preparing to sail to Hawaii, some discussed hauling their boat out and flying home for the season, most had neither option and prepared to hunker down on their boats to see what happened. Tripp and I also found ourselves at a crossroads. I had come to the conclusion that I needed to go home, it was not an easy decision. The uncertainty of the moment was like none I’d ever really encountered. I was faced with the reality that I wouldn’t see Joanna in the next week and the prospect of being indefinitely apart from her. I don’t think anyone really knew what to expect in those first few weeks of March. The cozy mental cocoon that led much of the US to believe that we would escape the impact of this disease, like we had with Ebola, SARS, Swine Flu, and the rest, had been split open. There was no point of reference for what came next. I had fears of indefinite border closures and restriction of movement and I knew that what was most important for me was to be with Joanna and near the people I love the most. Tripp had also been formulating his plan. His family saw the benefit of the isolation the Marquesas provided and encourage him to stay, also Antonia had suddenly found herself without a place to live. When we reconvened after the meeting at the Semaphore we had both already come to the decisions that were right for us. Tripp knew I needed to go home and I knew he needed to stay, a mutual decision was made in that moment. Tripp would stay with the boat and Antonia would stay with him. I would fly home. I was grateful for the ability to go home while Tripp took care of the boat and I was grateful that Tripp wouldn’t be confined alone. I booked my flights the next day at the local AirTahiti office, waiting in line for over an hour as everyone scrambled to deal with the news. In the span of 72 hours I’d gone from focusing on our next port to flying home. It was an emotional time. I was grappling with a vacuum of expectations, would I be back in a week, a month, longer? What would happen if I couldn’t get back? Was this the beginning of the end for our journey? All these questions danced among the staccato highs and lows, of anticipating Joanna’s arrival, to mourning the cancellation of her trip, to seeing her in less than two days. It had been an eventful week.
Two days after the meeting I hopped on the dinghy with my pack, my water bottle, and some nitrile gloves. I hugged Tripp at the landing, a bit misty eyed, and we assured each other that we’d see each other in a couple of weeks, maybe a month. Surely all of this would be dealt with by then, right? I began my hike to the airport. Confinement had started that morning in Hiva Oa for residents and sailors alike. No cabs were running and people were not supposed to be on the road. I was fully prepared to be approached by the police and questioned, perhaps harassed, for being on the road. I was hoping that I could maybe turn that encounter into a ride to the airport. I gave myself two hours to hike the road and trudged on, awash in uncertainty and conflicting emotions. Just a ways up the road my fortune took a turn and a car approached me. It was Sandra from the Semaphore, she was kind enough to risk a fine and picked me up to take me the rest of the way. She didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak much French, I thanked her profusely and gazed out the window at the miles of road that I would have been climbing otherwise. I got to the airport far earlier than anticipated but with no complaints. I slept and read as the last flight out of Hiva Oa approached. Over time the lobby began to fill with other travelers who were being sent home. People were wary, we knew so little about the virus and how to contain it, a woman was coughing violently and all eyes were on her as we waited for our flight. The small propeller plane landed outside the open-air airport and I watched as dozens of Polynesians streamed off the plane. Not only had non-residents been expatriated, but locals had been sent back to their home islands from Tahiti as well. I watched as they all received health screenings before leaving the airport, curious about what my arrival to the States would entail. There were rumors of imposed quarantines, temperature checks and more. I prayed that I would pass muster and not get stuck in San Francisco. As we boarded the plane the bright tropical colors of the flight attendants clothing, and the flowers in their hair, were contrasted by the surgical masks they all wore. I wore my nitrile gloves and hoped that would keep me safe. I had a keen sense that I was leaving a safe place and going into the belly of the beast. My air travel had a high chance of exposing me and numbers were steadily on the rise back home. Lockdowns had already begun and I had dark images of what home may be like upon my return. From the plane I saw atolls below and felt a pang of sadness at leaving. My excitement for the South Pacific had been growing as we crossed the ocean and as I looked down I worried that I might not get the chance to explore this part of the world, a chance I had been greatly anticipating. We landed in Tahiti and I rushed to my connecting flight, we were packed in like sardines, I tried not to touch anything or my face and I fell into restless sleep as we hurtled towards San Francisco. We landed to very little fanfare, no temperature checks, no screenings, no quarantine. Just regular customs. The airports were sparse, some wore gloves, others masks, but it wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. The remaining flights home were uneventful and by 11:30 that night I was back in Charleston. I can still feel that potent exhilaration as Joanna pulled to the curb to collect me. The rush of seeing her combined with the fatigue of travel and pandemic paranoia was an intoxicating cocktail. I rested deeply that night and was very happy to be home.
The next day Joanna and I did a provisioning run to the grocery, we were self quarantining for two weeks to be sure that I hadn’t contracted the virus in my travels. The massive grocery run felt just like provisioning the boat for a long passage but we had freezers for ice cream, the abundance of an American grocery store, local craft beer, and far less need for canned foods. The two weeks were somewhat tense as we monitored ourselves daily for symptoms, but they were blissful as we spent uninterrupted time together after many long months. Luckily I made the journey unscathed and after two weeks with no symptoms we were breathing a bit easier. It was early April now and things had only gotten more dire in the time that I was home. The nation was in the midst of a full lockdown, only essential businesses operating. Mask guidelines were just starting to be recommended but the guidance was still unclear. We would make large grocery runs when we needed but didn’t leave the house for anything else but a jog or tending to the plants. In some ways it’s hard to describe the open ended question mark of that time, but for many Americans, I don’t have to. I think we all lived through that period day by day. We progressed from being sure that it would end soon, to being hopeful it would end soon, to realizing that this might not be something that “ends.” I spent my time editing Apparent Winds videos, monitoring the global travel situation, keeping in touch with Tripp, and getting outside for hikes or paddles with Joanna whenever possible. The nebulous and fuzzy period of time between March and May was uncertain and scary but it had its silver linings. After so much divided time with Joanna in the lead up to our trip we now had unlimited time together and honestly, it was fantastic. Just what I needed. In some ways it felt like a hurricane evacuation as a child, an unplanned vacation with an indefinite end. One thing was clear by the end of April, this trip home was going to last longer than a couple of weeks or even a couple of months.
Tripp and I had begun to discuss back up plans. We were still hopeful that we could complete the circumnavigation but were unsure of what that would look like. We applied to exemptions for Australia’s travel ban and discussed me flying there after him and Antonia sailed there. That would keep us on schedule and seemed a plausible avenue at the time. We discussed American Samoa, we checked regularly with the US consulate in French Polynesia to see when flights in would resume. But there were many obstacles as we navigated the restrictions at home and abroad. Quarantine had laxed for Tripp and Antonia, but inter-island travel was still not allowed. Australia denied two attempts at an exemption and most of the countries on our route remained closed indefinitely. We were in regular contact but it was a hard time. There was no end in sight, no way out, and Tripp and I were existing in very different worlds. Sometime during May I began to read the writing on the wall and started to swallow the idea that our circumnavigation would not be possible. Too many countries were still closed, too much time had passed, and the virus wasn’t going anywhere. Tripp was in French Polynesia where they had successfully contained and eliminated the virus after the initial wave of 61 cases. He was surrounded by other sailors all intent on sailing west, all of them sure that the way forward would reveal itself. To the day that I’m writing this there are some boats who still think that New Zealand may open before cyclone season, but that door seems firmly shut. The savvy, smarts, hope, and optimism that embodies most of the sailors I’ve met is a force to be reckoned with. If someone was going to find a way around border closures, I’d place my bet on a sailor. But it became increasingly clear to me from the outside looking in that even a sailor was up against an unbeatable challenge, especially in our circumstance given the two year timeline. There was just not enough time to complete our goal even if countries were allowing entry. I think when I started to express this concern to Tripp he felt that I was giving up. If you read articles at the time about our plan to move forward, you’ll notice a clear divide in our expectations.
It was hard to be in that position. I was trying to be a voice of reason but it wasn’t always received that way. I was also battling pre-conceived notions from some that my coming home was an abandonment of Tripp, despite it being a mutual decision. There were some who openly accused me of not planning to return, despite my insistence that I would return at the first possible chance. I knew in my heart that I had always planned to return and that I had done nothing wrong, but I felt jaded gaze of others and it affected me. It was also a hard time for mine and Joanna’s relationship. The time together had been nice and still was, but there was the constantly imminent ending always around the corner. French Polynesia could open the next day and I could be flying out within the week. And when I did leave, it’d be into a world that is being ravaged by a pandemic with an open ended timeline and no assurance on the next time we’d see each other. That uncertainty took an emotional toll in an already stressful time. A clearer picture began to form in May however, rumors were circulating that flights would resume in June, so Tripp and I decided it would be best for him to stay in French Polynesia and I’d meet him there. We’d decide our route upon my arrival, working with the most up to date information. The end of May came and with it a wonderful birthday trip to the mountains with Joanna and news that flights wouldn’t resume until July. The can had been kicked again, the uncertainty prolonged.
With June, America — already in the grips of a pandemic — slipped into the greatest civil unrest it’s seen in decades after yet another slaying of a black man by police. Tensions had been rising with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and the murder of Breonna Taylor earlier that year but the murder of George Floyd unleashed that angst and frustration in millions of Americans from every walk of life. Joanna and I marched, we yelled Black Lives Matter, peacefully and forcefully. I listened to Black voices and recognized the injustice that plagued their lives, far later than I’m proud of. June ripened and the divides in our country reached new heights, fueled by an administration intent on sowing hatred and chaos. Those divides still remain, if anything they’re further inflamed now, but as the unrest grew in June the notion of leaving in less than a month became harder. These are heavy times and being with loved ones is important as we traverse them. I knew I had to leave, I had to go back, but leaving Joanna to navigate our brave new world alone ate at me, and still does.
Finally, a flight was booked for July 7th. The promise of July had come to fruition and French Polynesia was reopening. The angst of leaving and the excitement of return wrapped around one another and filled me waves of disparate emotions. With a firm date in hand Joanna and I planned the last of our time to before I left, we visited family in Hilton Head and her sister in New Jersey. We soaked up the love and comfort that comes with family and we held tightly to each other knowing it would be awhile before we were able to again. The end of June came, the year rolled on, and so did the delays. My July 7th flight had been cancelled and French Polynesia had pushed back their opening to the 15th. Another hiccup in a long string of unclear outcomes, feeding the idea that somehow this may never end. I rescheduled my flight for July 20th and waited, expecting more bad news. As the 20th approached and no cancellations ensued, the reality set in. My one last hurdle to jump was my coronavirus test. I had to take a test and receive the results within 72 hours of my flight. At the time South Carolina’s numbers had spiked to 1200+ new cases daily. Our governor had relaxed restrictions and reopened the state to disastrous outcomes. Testing was at an all time high as a result and the average wait time was 5-12 days. I needed mine in less than three. I was able to get referred for an MUSC test and I overnighted a home test that promised rapid results. Thus began my week of nasal swabbing. I took the home test and went to the MUSC drive through the Friday before I flew out and crossed my fingers for the results. After so many delays and false endings I didn’t know how to feel about the departure that loomed just three days in the future. What if my results didn’t come back in time? I would have to cancel my flights at cost, buy new ones, arrange more COVID tests and hope that this go around my results cleared in time. What if I had COVID and was asymptomatic, that would be another problem entirely. In a minor miracle I received both of my test results the evening before my flight, both were negative, I’d be leaving the next day. It was a strange goodbye. There was the obvious sadness and grief, there was excitement to return to French Polynesia, and there was comfort in knowing that after 4 months of uncertainty we were moving toward some sort of solution. Joanna and I shared a kiss and some tears then I slipped on my KN95 mask and dragged the two large duffels, laden with boat parts and goodies from the States, into the terminal.
The flights from Charleston to Houston to LAX were all fully booked. Despite being better prepared to deal with the virus I was far more nervous about the prospect of contracting it this time. There had been a million plus cases diagnosed in the States at this point and widespread resistance to mask wearing. Most people did wear their masks but I had to ask the man behind me to put his mask on after he sat down without it, drunk and laughing. When I landed in LAX I gathered my bags, each of them weighing in at the max allowed 50 lbs, and lugged them to the international terminal. It was near midnight when I arrived at the AirTahiti desk. After some fretful deliberation over whether my test was acceptable they began to check me in. “When would I be leaving?” they asked. My heart sunk. In all of the coronavirus prep and emotion of leaving I had forgotten that French Polynesia requires a return flight for an American visa. It must be within the three month period we’re allowed in the country. Leaving on a boat doesn’t count. I bought the cheapest flight from Tahiti to San Francisco that I could find, as I stood at the desk, the last of my money leaving with the flight confirmation. But, I was in. The last obstacle between me and French Polynesia had been cleared. I was able to breathe a sigh of relief and finally accept that I was going to be in French Polynesia within 24 hours. I’d be flying into Tahiti then taking the ferry to Mo’orea where I’d meet Tripp and Antonia for the first time in 4 months. I was anxious about the return, to be honest. I’d be walking into a situation where the boat I’d come to know, my home, could no longer feel like my own space. I’d been sailing J. Henry for five months and had been away for four, while Tripp and Antonia turned the boat into their living space. Antonia would be there for ten days after my arrival, then she’d be heading back to Paris. It was a weird ten days. I think there was a conscious attempt to make things feel welcoming, but there was no doubt that I was walking into a world that was very much Tripp and Antonia’s. I tried to take it in stride and I think I did a fair job. I mostly tried to adjust to life without Joanna after spending everyday with her, and get my life back in order in my bunk. Out of no contempt for Antonia, I was more comfortable after she left. Our shared time was the closing of a chapter that I had no part of and Tripp and I couldn’t begin picking up the pieces of our journey until she was gone.
Antonia flew out of Tahiti on July 31st and Tripp and I began to discuss our plan for moving forward in earnest. The COVID pandemic had made things difficult for the kind of trip we were on. Granted there’s not much that COVID made better — and we’re lucky to have our health and the health of our loved ones — but now is not the ideal time for international travel. The route that we’d spent months planning was out the window and our tidy schedule along with it. Now we were in cyclone territory with a finite time to get out and few options to run to. Per the terms of our lease the boat had to be back in two years which ruled out any fantasies of hunkering down and waiting things out. With all of this in mind, I returned to French Polynesia with a focus on getting the boat home safely in the quickest way possible. I had no intention of stranding Tripp anywhere with the boat, but I also wasn’t as inclined as he to wait and hope that more borders would open up. Tripp was, and still is, intent on using the boat for the entirety of the two year lease and my plan had been from the start to come home after a year and a half. Without our original plan things were fraying a bit at the seams. I have the person I want to spend my life with waiting at home and I’m eager to start that life with her when I return. Tripp had the fulfillment of a personal lifelong dream (a circumnavigation) in his hands, and is invested in making the most of what is left despite the COVID closures. These complicated and sometimes diverging motivations were once held together by the common Apparent Winds mission. We were unified and aided by solid planning and a desire in both of us to circumnavigate. Now things had become much murkier. With the circumnavigation out of the picture and the status of the world in question, my emphasis had switched to definable solutions. I wanted a clear timeline that tied up lose ends. Tripp, being in a different place in life, was open to the uncertainty — and his optimism persisted. The dissolution of our original plan had brought fundamental differences in what we wanted, long term, to the surface. That push and pull has been present since then as we’ve tried to hammer out a route.
By the time I was back to French Polynesia it had become undeniably clear that a path westward wasn’t going to be an option. Instead, I had been pushing for a route via Hawaii and the West Coast of the US for months. This would provide an easy coastal route back to The Panama Canal and put us back safely in the Caribbean. While I still leaned toward sailing the boat directly back to Charleston at that point, Tripp was hoping that borders would open and he could sail across the Atlantic to Europe. The conversation on route had been pushed until my return in case there were any developments in border openings, although I didn’t have much hope in that regard. Unfortunately, it appeared now that the window for passage from Hawaii to San Francisco would require too quick of a turnaround. There were a few key projects that needed to be addressed on the boat, fixing our refrigeration chief among them, and that would require us to be in French Polynesia for at least two more weeks. Including time for quarantine, we would’ve needed to leave essentially the day I got back to French Polynesia (the week before would’ve been ideal), in order to make the weather window for heading East. The next weather window wasn’t until at least March of 2021, it seemed Hawaii was off the table. There was another route though. It was the route that the Polynesians sailed from Tahiti until they found Rapa Nui (Easter Island). South and East from Tahiti, through the Tuamotos, through Mangareva, rounding the Pitcairn Islands, then East to Rapa Nui. At that point we could start heading Northeast into the Humboldt current along the West coast of South America, eventually reaching Panama. It was a long route with even the rosy estimate looking like 60 days at sea. And half of the way, or more, would be upwind. Upwind sailing is less comfortable, slower, and puts considerable strain on the boat and the crew. The seas between French Polynesia and Chile are also notoriously rough, with high winds. It was a gamble, but it was a route home. It was also a route that didn’t require us to make landfall in any countries whose borders were closed due to COVID. After a week of discussion we decided it was the route that made sense. As an added bonus, we wouldn’t have to leave until September which meant we had ample time to get the boat ready and could even explore a bit more of French Polynesia in the meantime.
Our main delay was a valve for the refrigeration system that was caught in COVID limbo on its way to Tahiti. Mike, our refrigeration repairman had ordered the part from the United States and had specifically inquired to make sure it could be shipped to French Polynesia. They assured him it could so he ordered it. That was a week before my return and we found ourselves two weeks after my return hanging around Papeete, sure that the part would be in any day.
This is a trap that many of the friends we’ve met here in French Polynesia have fallen into. French Polynesia, the sprawling federation of archipelagos that it is, is home to some of the most beautiful places you can imagine. I’ve found myself in awe more times than I can count, a sheer overwhelm of the senses as sights, sounds, and smells combine to create a literal paradise, almost too much for a human to take. Papeete is not one of those places. No, Papeete is what happens when cheap, gaudy architecture runs rampant, compounding upon itself split here and there by dirty narrow streets filled with the vices of the modern world. Admittedly there are nice parks and avenues along the water and in the shopping district, but once’s you’re pierce that thin veil you see the real Papeete. The city a necessary evil, it’s the trade hub for the entire country, the seat of the government, the largest city on the largest island. And to tell the truth, my disdain for it is rife with problematic implications. Who am I to idolize the idyllic places of French Polynesia and ridicule the places that emulate and import the western culture I come from? It is antithetical to much of what I’ve see in Polynesia, but if there is a demand then so be it. Should I have a life with access to “modernity” and relegate exotic places in the tropics to a world without, just so I can enjoy an “authentic” experience? I think the real problem with Papeete for me and other sailors is that it’s easy to get sucked in and slip right back in to the world of consumerism and materialism that is often easier to shun with our lifestyle. After so long without access to things that are readily available elsewhere, Papeete feels like the land of plenty and subtly seduces you into sticking around. Before you know it you’ve been there for weeks and “waiting for a package” is one of Papeete’s most enticing disguises.
The fog was lifted when Mike told us that our part had been sent to Auckland, NZ. The problem with that is that all flights from Auckland to French Polynesia were suspended due to CoVID. Mike was now pleading with FedEx daily to get the part back to LAX, where it was before Auckland, and on a plane to Papeete. In short, it was going to be awhile. We rubbed the dust of Papeete out of our eyes and remembered that there was a whole beautiful world just around the corner. Tahiti Iti is the southern island of Tahiti. “Nui” is the Tahitian word for big and “Iti” is Tahitian for small. We were told that the south island was beautiful and there was a recommended anchorage, Port Phaeton, right at the isthmus that linked Tahiti Nui and Tahiti Iti.
To be honest Port Phaeton didn’t live up to our hopes. It was very still and wet, murky water, mud bottom, a strange swampy backwater at odds with the tropical mountains on either side. It was an ideal place to leave a boat for a season, or longer. It was protected from wind and waves and had good anchor holding. Some boats had clearly been left for good, many of our neighbors had clumps of moss growing up and down their masts, out of their port lights, and hulls even – no longer resembling boats so much as floating clouds of Spanish Moss. There was, however, a very large grocery store nearby, great for the six months of provisioning we needed to stockpile before our departure. In between our daily runs of forty to sixty cans of food, Port Phaeton also became the catalyst for many a friendship.
In the time before quarantine we were moving at a breakneck pace. Throughout Bermuda and the Caribbean our average stay in any given place was probably 3-4 days. We’d pull in one day have one or two full days on shore then leave the next day for a new port, and most often a new country entirely. It was what we had to do to stay on our two year circumnavigation schedule and for the most part it felt normal. We didn’t meet many other sailors and if we did, it was in passing. Only once did we have dinner with other sailors, a young couple in Bequia that made a point of coming to our boat, but that was an extreme outlier to the rule. Most sailors are some variety of “cruiser” meaning they live mainly or entirely on their boat and travel from place to place. Some have a smaller range, like the Caribbean or the Mediterranean, others have plans to sail the world, but usually on vastly longer time scales than our two years. In fact, most sailors we’ve met since being in French Polynesia are flabbergasted by our two year schedule, the most common refrain being something along the lines of “How did you see anything?! You must have missed so much!” For us, two years away from home and the chance to see so many places was an incredible and enriching opportunity, and while that hasn’t changed it’s hard not to admit that they’re right after getting to sink our teeth into French Polynesia. Being here for as long as Tripp has, and as long as I have, 8 and 4 months respectively, you really have to consider what our perspectives may have been if we were able to stick to our original plan. We would have been in and out of the country in 3, maybe 4 weeks.
Staying in a place longer let’s you embrace it. You establish rhythms and routines like you would in your hometown, visiting cafes and grocery stores at the same time on the same days, starting to recognize faces. You adopt the meter and cadence of life where you are, busy in the cool mornings, quiet in the heat of the afternoon sun. Sunday’s are still in town but life picks up on the water buzzing with Va’a’s and fishing boats and surfers. On shore the air fills with the smell of fire roasted meats and breadfruit and the roosters shriek in an endless chorus. You taste the island in the pineapples, papayas, mangos, and coconuts. You taste the sea in the salt on your lips and in the clams, crabs and fish you collect. “Iaorana” and “nana” become second nature and you’ve never meant a thank you more than “maurururoa.” Staying in a place also means meeting people.
In quarantine, and the months of sailing while waiting for French Polynesia to reopen, Tripp and Antonia met a lot of boats. That window was a COVID free time with every sailor unable to move on, the perfect recipe for new friends. I imagine it must’ve been like freshman year of college, everyone eager, open, and unsure. A unity in place and purpose. But you’d have to ask Tripp to be sure. My experience was more like transferring to a college during sophomore year. There’s still plenty of socializing and people to meet, but certain social networks had already been established. When we woke up the first morning in Port Phaeton Tripp had a message from a boat named Stormalong. They were a young Dutch couple, Niels and Lynette, Tripp met them in the Tuamotos on an atoll called Tahanea. They were part of the Gambier contingent and had gotten to know a number of other boats while being quarantined there. Two other boats from that crowd were also in Port Phaeton an American couple, Chris and Fred, on SeaJay and another Dutch couple, Floris and Ivar, on Lucipara 2.
Niels and Lynette were going hiking and invited us along, Floris and Ivar had hiked to a waterfall the day before and said it was worth the short hike to see it. We accepted the invite and set out with vague directions, promptly getting lost. We managed to find a stream and made the assumption that at some point it must lead to a waterfall. What ensued was a gorgeous hike as we hopped into the river and followed it straight up. We rock hopped through dense jungle – thick trees, fragrant flowers, giant bamboo, and tropical plants lined the banks. Huge fresh water eels thrashed in the water as we leapt between black volcanic rocks covered in bright green moss. We followed the river for miles, scaling our way up the mountain and over multiple falls. We ended the day with wet feet, new friends, and an invite to Lucipara 2 for Ivar’s birthday. It was a fun night and the establishment of a “COVID bubble” that would last for the remainder of our time in French Polynesia.
A few weeks later all of us had made it to Mo’orea, trickling in at different times, and for nearly a month it felt as if we were living in a floating neighborhood. We hiked together, snorkeled together, ate together. If one of our tribe went to shore in the morning they’d pick up fresh baguettes for everyone at the store. We discussed plans for moving forward or backward or staying out. Some were applying for exemptions into New Zealand, others were planning to hide out for the cyclone season in the Marquesas, some still had no idea. I remember wondering if I’d ever live in a community like that again. A group of people with such different ages, nationalities, beliefs, and goals is rare to find in an on land community. There were Stormalong and Lucipara who I’ve mentioned. There was Helen from Sweden on WOW, Esteban from Argentina on Volunteer, Jacob, Sophia, and Hand from Germany on Anita. And so many others. We shared real parts of ourselves with each other as we talked about what had brought us here and where we were headed, and the fear and excitement that came with it. I felt a true sense of being in a neighborhood and I liked most of not all of my neighbors and knew them well.
Floris and Ivar even had a similar mission as Apparent Winds. Their project, Sailors for Sustainability, has been ongoing for four years as they’ve sailed from the Netherlands, through the Med, across the Atlantic, around the Horn, and now in French Polynesia. They meet with people who have found sustainable solutions to our world’s problems. They focus on solutions that are scalable and have a positive impact on their community. Ultimately their driven to share a positive outlook on our fight against climate change, a topic that can be grim and overwhelming. It was great to talk shop with them and learn from their experiences. It also helped reinvigorate our mission after a long COVID pause.
With September came our departure from Mo’orea. We had to get to Tahiti to pick up a visiting friend. We also would be buying the necessary equipment to install a solar panel system on the boat. For far too long we’d relied on a diesel generator to power our systems. Not only was that antithetical to our mission but the generator was a regular source of hardship as something broke nearly every time it ran. As we were preparing to leave Charleston we had enough on our plate that we fell back on the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” adage. Well it was broke now. I think investing in a solar system and installing it also seemed intimidating and involved. We couldn’t have been further from the truth. We were able to find everything we need, well priced, and install it, all within one day. There was obviously a bit of research beforehand and questioning our friends who had solar in Mo’orea. But when we finally got the ball rolling things moved quick. By the end of the day we were keeping our batteries charged and running all of our systems. A true dream come true. It was one of those things you wished you did a long time ago once you see the obvious benefits. I think we’ll feel that way about a lot of sustainable solutions once we as a society finally make the switch.
Robert, a childhood friend of Tripp and me, was in town for 7 days. After our forced stagnation the new pace ahead of us felt breakneck. Our plan was to sail the Society Islands to Bora Bora, where Robert would fly out, in just 7 days. We’d stop by Mo’orea, Huahine, Raiatea, and end in Bora Bora. Our first stop, Mo’orea, was almost like returning home. Except for the fact that our temporary community had disbanded. We’d all said our goodbyes and gone our separate ways after our month together and now the anchorage felt empty and a bit lonely. But Robert’s contagious spirit kept us up. That and the opportunity to swim with the migrant Humpback Whales that come to Mo’orea every year. A number of our friends had gone on one tour in particular that was supposed to be spectacular. The guide was the first to swim with the whales in Mo’orea, over 25 years ago, and he had a true connection and appreciation for these majestic animals. He even expressed regret to us, that his business had spawned so many similar ones, not all of whom do it for the love of the whales. Heitfara, needless to say, came highly recommended so we used a guest in town as an excuse to enjoy a tour, something we don’t usually spend money on. It was well worth the price.
My experience with the humpbacks is one I’ll never forget. From the first one I saw rising from the blue depths, astonishingly close, my entire perspective on these animals changed. Given my background in marine science and my love for nature, of course I liked whales. I mean who actively doesn’t like whales? But I don’t know that I would’ve gone as far to call myself a whale person. I don’t have whale stickers on my car or dream of a whale tattoo. I don’t listen to whale song to go to sleep. I was always more of a bird or plant person. But now? I’m dangerously close to the whale fanatic I described above. There is such a piercing and relatable intelligence when you find yourself in the presence of a whale. As the first whale came to the surface to breathe I felt her see me, I felt her curiosity as she looked me up and down. There was a friendly indifference to me mixed with mild interest. Similar to how you or I would regard a squirrel or small bird. As she surfaced she released a spout of air that went high above my head. She took a few deep breaths and then dove again into the depths. So deep below that only the slightest darker blue silhouette could be noticed if you focused intently. We swam for hours with this whale and others. As we rolled our bodies and played at the surface, waving like Heitfara suggested, the whales below rolled on to their backs and gently waved their 10 ft pectoral fins. The highlight of the experience came just before the sunset. We had heard faint whale song throughout the day as we dove. Heitfara would dive deep, hands cupped around his ears, and rotate to locate where the sound was coming from. We got closer and closer until we came upon a massive singing male Humpback. As we approached the song became more and more audible until the point that o felt it vibrating in my chest. When he was right below us the noise was almost unbelievably loud. For an hour we listened to him sing. I’d dive down, close my eyes, and slowly float back to the surface while his clicks, whirs, and whines serenaded me. No matter how hard I try, I don’t think I’d ever find the right words to truly capture that experience. As we climbed back into the boat all of us glowed with awe and the light of golden hour. Even Heitfara, a 25 year vet, had the smile of a child. It seemed like each time was as exhilarating as the first for him and I can understand why.
The next few days flew by as we sailed on to drink banana rum in Huahine, make fires on uninhabited motus in Raiatea, snorkel in Bora Bora, and generally enjoy the best of the Society Island before we made our way back East. Robert flew out of Bora Bora and we stayed two days longer, relishing the beautiful lagoon and mountain views. As we left Bora Bora I marked a point on our chart plotter, a mile or two out of the western pass of Bora Bora, the farthest west we’d be going on our intended circumnavigation.
The sail from Bora Bora to Raiatea was uneventful and we spent two more nights on our new favorite little island, eating crabs and clams and coconuts. Then we left for Huahine. It was a short 20 mile sail and we could see the island on the horizon, should be a breeze. It wasn’t. In the ensuing eight hour sail we got a real taste of the supposed two months of upwinding we had planned on our way to Easter Island. We were moving slowly and at terrible angles, each tack putting us near due north or south as we fought against the wind to make any eastward progress. The boat was under strain as well, a block that the main sheet ran through shattered under pressure as we hardened the sails to their maximum, fighting for every degree East.
We arrived in Huahine tired and bit crest fallen. The prospect of doing that for any longer than we just had, let alone two months, loomed large and ferocious in our psyches. Knowing that we didn’t have another choice in terms of getting the boat back, neither of us said anything that night. It’s harder to do something you have to do if you let yourself go down the road of complaining about it. The truth was evident in our actions though. We had planned on a night in Huahine, two at best. On the third night there the concern bubbled to the surface. Neither of us felt like the upwind eastern route we had been planning on felt right. The strain on us and the boat would be immense and all the while we’d be heading into more remote locations which would be closed for entry. If we were to need repair or rest, it would be harder and harder to come by as we wore on.
We had convinced ourselves we had no other options, was that actually true? Looking at it again, Hawaii came back into focus. We had taken it off the table because we missed the weather window for this season. But what if we were able to wait in Hawaii until next season when the window opened back up? The sail to Hawaii would be an 18 day sail as opposed to a 60 day sail. And if we made our way to the Marquesas first then we’d have a broad reach to Hawaii instead of an upwind beat. Everything about it sounded better. We chewed on it for a few days but I think both of us knew instantly that it was the right choice. The window was a little later than the route to Panama, we’d leave in November to avoid the cyclone season in the northern hemisphere. We talked over the plan with Helen from WOW who was now in Huahine and with new Australian friends Dave and Lenny on Perigee. All seemed to agree that Hawaii was a no brainer. We ended up spending three weeks in Huahine and got another chance to see Stormalong when they arrived a week or so after we did. Those were happy times in Huahine with friends. It is perhaps the sleepiest of the Society Islands, a hidden gem. We were renewed and refreshed by our plan to head for Hawaii and were able to enjoy the company of our little community, transplanted from Mo’orea to Huahine, before we said goodbye for good. When we sailed out it was to the sound of air horns and cheers from our friends. Smitty a local Huahinan that we had befriended paddled is out on his Va’a. It was a lovely goodbye.
We had one last stop in Tahiti before we headed for the Tuamotos and started the exit of French Polynesia in earnest. We needed new batteries and Tahiti was the place to do it. The added benefit was that the biggest missing part of our goodbye was Lucipara 2. They’d been in Tahiti waiting on packages since we left Mo’orea, another victim to that trap. They had finally received their package and would be leaving the next day, but they stuck around one night to have dinner with us and have a final goodbye. It was a great evening with great friends and when they sailed off the next morning we closed the first chapter of our friendship with all the folks we had met during our time in French Polynesia. From here on out it’d be pretty much just Tripp and I as we made our way for Hawaii. We were turning the page on this era of our journey and officially heading back towards home.