The Sailing Classroom – Mahina Tiare III

The Sailing Classroom – Mahina Tiare III

Note – I came across this piece when cleaning up some old directories. I wrote it in 2004 and submitted it to at least one sailing magazine, but it was rejected. The sailing trip was in May, 2003.

Think of a school and what comes to mind? Open, airy kindergartens with lots of space for kids to run around; a suburban brick and steel high school named after an astronaut or president; large, impersonal university lecture halls for teaching organic chemistry or polysci 101; cozy, wood paneled rooms for small, intimate seminars, where the professor is as much moderator as teacher. Or maybe, something completely different. I recently experienced a different type of school: a sailboat with class rooms in unexpected places, such as the cockpit, engine room, and galley.

Last May I crewed aboard the Mahina Tiare III, a Hallberg Rassey 46’ sloop made in Sweden. I was participating in a thirty day, intensive offshore sail training program run by the husband and wife team John Neal and Amanda Swan Neal. The Neals teach sailors with intermediate and higher sailing skills, providing hands on training on all aspects of long distance sailing. Many of their students are already bay and coastal sailors, and are looking for blue water, or open ocean experience so they can undertake longer cruises.

The Neals have been running sail training expeditions for twenty years. John is an American, who met his wife, Amanda Swan, a Kiwi, when he first sailed into Auckland many years ago. Amanda explains that she “met” John’s boat before she met him. She noticed the superior rigging on his boat berthed in Auckland Harbor, and was curious about who the sailor was. Once they actually met, Amanda found John to be every bit worthy of the rigging of his boat. The rest is history. Both are experienced, knowledgeable sailors who between them have sailed over half a million miles.

A typical season for the Mahina training begins in May, in Auckland, New Zealand. The first leg is about thirty days, starting in Auckland, sailing all the way to French Polynesia, ending in Papeete, Tahiti. The students from the first leg are done, John and Amanda take a few days to provision and prepare for leg 2, which has a new set of students. This second leg might run from Papeete to Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, and last about two weeks. And so on, such that there will be eight different groups of students on eight expedition training legs, usually ending the season in October, back in Auckland.

So yes, you read all that correctly. John and Amanda spend six months of the year, sailing through the beautiful South Pacific in their boat, teaching advanced sailing to eager, paying students. As a change of pace, sometimes the Neals sail their boat to Europe and conduct their training seminars there. The Neals are geniuses.

I had learned of the Neals through the local sailing magazine, Latitude 38. In the off season, the Neals conduct sailing seminars in Seattle, Chicago, and San Francisco. That winter I attended their two days seminar, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Although I had no plans to purchase a boat or go on any long cruises, I enjoyed sailing and thought an expedition with the Neals on the Mahina would be a wonderful vacation and a great chance to really improve my sailing skills. Unfortunately, the expedition schedule for the upcoming season was already booked up.

Then I got a lucky break. I had been checking the Neals’ web site everyday, just in case, and finally in January, I noticed a berth available due to a cancellation. The open berth was on the first leg of Mahina’s sailing season, from Auckland, New Zealand to Papeete, Tahiti, a trip of about thirty days covering three thousand miles. Not needing to think twice, I immediately sent in my application and deposit. After reviewing my application and interviewing me on the phone, John informed me a few days later that I had been accepted and they’d see me in May, in Auckland.

There was only one problem. While I had no family obligations to worry about, I had not talked to my boss Tony, the vice president of engineering, at my software company. I was director of an engineering services group, with about twenty five people in my department. My direct reports were mangers and a few senior individual contributors, all very competent who could get along well without me. Tony and I had worked together at a previous company, were also good friends, and like minded when it came to vacation (some people talk about working hard and playing hard, I like to think that I live up to this.). Still, between the expedition time itself, and time needed before and after the trip (I planned to visit Moorea for a few days to see what it was like surfing in warm water), I would be gone for about five weeks. Our strategy was to keep things quiet about the duration of my vacation for as long as possible, lest other, less enlightened department heads, complain.

The weeks leading up to the trip were busy. I already had most of the sailing gear, but needed to travel light. The Neals require sailor/students to bring a seabag that weighs no more than forty pounds – not easily done. Given that we were starting in a cool climate, Auckland, and ending in the tropics of Tahiti, I’d need a broad range of clothes: fleece to go under foul weather gear for the cooler part of the trip, and light weight synthetics for the tropics. Working out flights took a bit to time, too: San Jose to Los Angeles to Auckland outbound; Papeete to Los Angeles to San Jose return. Passports updated? Will done? Camera and lots of film? Last, John asked me if I could pack and bring a few small boat parts when I flew down. John instructed the boat manufacturer to mail the parts to me; this avoided having the parts linger for a long time in customs.

While busy with preparations and making sure things would be under control at work, I still had time to get nervous about the trip. On the Mahina web site I read and re-read expedition logs from previous trips between Auckland and Tahiti. These dated from 1998 and 1999 and were full of reports that made me think twice about what I was getting myself into. A sampling of these includes “wind gusts to 67 knots”, “surfing down 30’ seas”, and my favorite: “It has been a night of torrential rains, lightning and large breaking seas”. Although I grew up not far from the Chesapeake Bay and the great sailing center of Annapolis, I had not started sailing until my mid-thirties after moving out West. I had been offshore some, sort of, mostly on sails out to the Farallon Islands, about thirty miles off the coast of San Francisco. And I had crewed on a sailboat delivery from Seattle down the Pacific coast to San Francisco. On that trip, which I now know to be an unprepared boat with an inexperienced captain, there was heavy weather off Cape Mendicino. But a bit of rational thinking helped clear the air: the Neals and the Mahina were proven over their thousands of sailing mile and hundred of students (everyone always came back, alive!). It was certainly going to be an adventure, but it would be grounded in preparedness and experience.

On top of all this, I was weaning myself off coffee and alcohol, seriously hurting my morning and evening routines. John recommends phasing out all caffeine and alcohol in the weeks before the trip so your body will acclimate more quickly to life on the boat, and mitigate any seasickness. I spent extra time in the gym to prepare for the trip and help my body through the withdrawal.

With the sailing expedition scheduled to begin on a Monday in May, I left San Jose the Friday before on a Southwest Airlines flight to Los Angeles. Once there, I wheeled the cart with my seabag and small daypack to the Air New Zealand (ANZ) terminal, which was conveniently close to the Southwest terminal. But whereas the Southwest terminal was busy and full of people, the Air New Zealand was empty and dark. There were six people ahead of me waiting for check in, but no ticket agent.

Eventually the ANZ folks showed up, and they promptly informed us that the 3:00pm departure had been postponed to 5:00pm so that the flight crew could meet the FAA required rest time. Things almost got worse when the counter agent failed to understand why I did not have a return flight ticket to depart New Zealand (of course I was leaving via sailboat). Fortunately John Neal had anticipated this problem and sent all crew a letter, made official looking by being on the Mahina’s stationary, to be used in just such a situation. The letter indicated that such and such was in fact not a bum but intending to leave New Zealand as crew via boat. John had warned the crew that we might be required to by a return ticket from Auckland, and then be issued a refund by the airline later once the return portion was not used. However, after a meeting of several minutes in a back room, the agent issued me a boarding pass without requiring any additional ticket purchases.

The flight to Auckland was uneventful. I wondered how the airline made any money; there were almost as many flight attendants as passengers. I was curious when the flight attendant rattled of five or six movies that would be shown during the flight, but given that the flight was thirteen hours, it made sense. Since the plane was not crowded, I took over a five seat section, pulled up the armrests, and slept as much as possible. I missed most of the movies.

My flight landed in Auckland around midnight and after the inevitable lines, cleared customs. I had left California on Friday, May 9th, and now it was Sunday, May 11th; Saturday, May 10th was gone forever. But I would get a day back when I came back the other way (shades of Phineas Fogg). Outside the terminal it was cool and rainy. I got a shared ride to my hotel; there were no cabs around, instead only minivans with trailers attached: people in the van, bags in the trailer. My fellow passengers were a leather dealer from Boston, a cartoon animator from Montreal, and a local Kiwi. I was at the end of the line and the last one dropped off. Having crossed the equator and international date line for the first time, I finally rolled into bed at the Hotel Westhaven, Auckland, at 3:00am Sunday, local time.

Even though I wanted to get up earlier and had not slept well, I made myself stay in bed until 8:00am. First thing I walked to the marina where the Mahina was berthed, dropping off the boat gear I had brought along. John and Amanda had just returned from a run. I kept my visit brief as I was sure they had plenty to do, and wanted as much privacy as possible before rooming with six strangers for the next month. Indeed, John mentions in his arrival instructions not to show up early.

Back at the hotel I showered, then got a cold, greasy breakfast at the Sierra Cafe, near the hotel. Then I was off for only one day in Auckland. I visited the War Memorial Museum on the grounds of the Auckland Domain, a large, lovely park. The War Museum was fantastic: under one roof was New Zealand’s natural history, indigenous people, flora and fauna, and political history, with everything from jade adzes of the Maori to a Japanese Zero. I had majored in studies around western European history, and am usually uninterested in non-European, pre-industrial (primitive?) cultures. After my visit to the War Museum, however, that changed, and I remain fascinated by the Maori in particular, and more broadly the Polynesian culture.

After the museum visit I went in search of either a phone card or internet cafe; I wanted to contact my family and was already missing my dogs.Walking around Auckland it felt a bit like San Francisco: cool and cloudy, lots of Anlgos and Asians, only the Hispanics were missing. I found an internet cafe first and went in; inside were a bunch of young guys, playing a networked, first person shooter video game, “Death and Dismemberment”. Dweebs are dweebs wherever you go, and I felt like I was back at my software company.

After sending off a few emails family and friends, I went for a swim in the fifty meter pool at Auckland’s Olympic Club. The chlorine content was unusually high, and this burned everything, but it was nice to be swimming and getting some exercise. That night, worried about getting sleep and wound up before the trip, I broke my sail training regime and had two beers with an excellent Thai dinner.

The sailing expedition, leg one of the sailing season, began on a rainy Monday at noon aboard the Mahina at the Westhaven Marina. I was excited and nervous. What would the other student/sailors be like? How would I do? I wanted to make sure I did my part, and did not let anyone down. Running through my mind was a great lines from Tom Wolf’s The Right Stuff: don’t let me fuck up; don’t let me screw the pooch.

School was now in session.

First thing was crew introductions all around. Of course there was John and Amanda. There was another John, a biochemist from Walnut Creek; Cam, a cardiologist from Iowa; Elizabeth, a retired biologist from Canada, and a Mahina alumnae. Another veteran was Peter, a mathematics professor from Seattle, and last was Rick, a nurse from Oakland. I was the only Silicon Valley type in the crowd. Following that we had a tour of the boat, drew lots for sleeping berths (I landed in the salon), and we had some lunch.

Our home and classroom for the next thirty days, the Mahina Tiare III is a center cockpit sloop, a design John prefers. The cockpit is roomy enough to sit three to side, with a folding table in the middle. The dodger is hard, not canvas, and this was definitely more comfortable, especially in the cool weather of New Zealand. Going down the companionway, to the right was the galley. Going left took you to the navstation and aft cabin, where John and Amanda berthed. They also had a head and shower off their cabin. The main salon had two settees: for sleeping I drew the starboard side, Elizabeth the port. The dining table was to the port side. Forward there was a head with shower on the starboard side, and cabin with bunks to the port. Peter and Rick were in here. All the way forward was the v-berth, where Cam and John slept.

The boat itself is lovely. She has a white hull with blue trim. The center cockpit gives the boat a balanced look. The desk is teak, functional, pleasing to look at, feels good on bare feet. There’s no junk or clutter: no solar panels, no windvane, no dinghy in tow. Viewed from a distance, the clean sheer lines with the center cockpit and hard dodger, give the boat an integrated, classic, and timeless look.

After lunch we covered some introductory material, then we went to visit local weather forecaster Bob McDavitt. McDavitt, a friendly guy who frankly resembles a large Hobbit, gave us forecast information advising us to sail the rhumb line (as direct a route as possible) for Raivavae. Interestingly, this conflicted with other forecaster information, which advised us to first sail south to 40 South, then head East. Who was right? That would be for John to decide. Afterwards we went to a Turkish restaurant for dinner, then spent our first night aboard the Mahina, and our last night in Auckland. Cam, sleeping in the v-berth, attempted to start early our acclimation to sleep deprivation by snoring several decibels below a sonic boom. Fortunately, the Mahina is as solid as she is lovely, and after I shut the berth door, we were all able to get some sleep.

Departure day, Tuesday, began with phones calls, showers, then a sail to the customs dock. After customs we sailed through the Auckland Harbor, the Hauraki Gulf, heading south and south east, skirting the coast of New Zealand. It was a gorgeous, blue sky sunny day, and the coast of New Zealand resembled the coast of California.

Underway at last, we quickly settled into a routine. Every morning from 9-11 was a class by John or Amanda on some sailing related topic. Clearly sailors must be versed in a variety of disciplines, as John and Amanda demonstrated throughout the trip. Daily we each had a different chore: navigator, headmaster, cook’s assistant, galley cleanup, salon cleaner, etc. Weekly we had set watch schedules. For the first week I was on as follows: 0000-0200 (with Cam), 0800-1000 (with Rick), 1400-1600 (with Peter), 1800 – 2000 (with Cam). Next week the schedule would be shuffled, putting me on at different times with different crew. No one got seasick, although we all suffered from its symptoms. Although I had brought along compazine (those go up the butt), I found what worked best for the first couple days was an occasional half a meclazine (oral). It made me a little groggy, but was more than enough to deal with any sea sickness. By the fourth day I was acclimated enough not to need any more meclazine.

The daily class instruction covered a variety of sailing and cruising topics: navigation, meteorology, communication, storm tactics, just about everything you can imagine. John and Amanda provide a one hundred page book, the Expedition Handbook, that contains a lotsa of information on sailing. It’s as good as anything you will find in the sailing section of any bookstore. The only topics we never covered were celestial navigation and also testing tow warps. My least favorite class was splicing – that just didn’t come to me at all. The Mahina was our class room and lab, so to speak, but a couple of us owned boats, and John would invite the boat owners to bring in to the discussion experiences from their boats. Rick owned a Moody 37 and John (crewman, not captain) had a Catalina 36.

Of course, instruction was not just limited to class time; John and Amanda were happy to answer any questions at any time: over meals or while sitting in the cockpit with us. In fact, even an equipment failure and emergency were turned into an educational opportunity.

About a week into the trip we had our only major equipment failure. Cam and I were on a nighttime watch when we heard a thunk and then ping of a piece of metal landing on deck. A moment later, the boom seemed to slide down the mast a little. Not good. I pounded three times on the hull above John’s cabin, but it was Amanda who came on deck a few minutes later. Amanda went forward to take a look, then told me to go wake up John. The pin holding the gooseneck to the mast had broken. What had hit the deck was the top of the pin, and fortunately we were able to locate it. The pin holding the boom to the mast was holding, but barely. With Cam driving the boat, I helped John and Amanda get going on repairs.

Amanda grabbed some webbing and John got some epoxy and a heat gun, and he also told me to grab his digital camera. His camera? Yes, his camera. In the midst of this nighttime chaos and serious equipment failure, he told me other people had probably had this problem, or might experience it sometime in the future. We would take some pictures of the repair process, add some text, and post it on the website for reference for other sailors. John is the coolest guy under pressure I have ever seen. He asks me to take pictures of the repairs we affect on the Mahina, so it will help others should they ever be in this situation. Shit. I’m worried about keeping things together. Of course, John is too, but he’s also thinking ahead.

And that’s what we did. We epoxied the head of the pin back on, and Amanda’s webbing and rigging held everything in place. Meanwhile, John told me to take pictures from this side then that, making sure we had it all down. If you go to the Mahina’s website, and look under our trip, you can find the repair pictures there.

Once out to sea things settled in and time slowed down, unfolding instead of racing ahead at Silicon Valley time. No email, no instant messenger, no commute, none of that 24/7 crap. Herman Melville captured it the best, writing in Moby Dick, more than one hundred fifty years ago:

For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you; you hear no news; you read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the thoughts of what you shall have for dinner.

Stand watch, eat, sleep, class, read, study, talk, write in the journal, take some pictures. It’s a steady fine rhythm, everyone working together to help get the boat safely along. Shake out the reef, then a couple hours later reset the reef. Go forward at night under dicey conditions, low and holding on, to run the gybe preventer. On watch, steer for thirty minutes, keep watch for thirty minutes. Try not to deviate more than 20degress from your heading, no matter how rough the seas. Hourly record latitude, longitude, course, and weather information. At night, when not helming on watch, keeping alert, not zoning out (“don’t zone out” is a direct quote from the expedition manual on rules for standing watch, and it’s spot on description of what can happen on a night watch). Review the latest weather faxes and try to figure out what the weather was going to do. Mornings John listened in on and participated in the Coconut Breakfast Radio Net hosted by Dez on Tonga; most interesting about this was that we could get information about actual weather conditions from boats on our course who were several days ahead us.

We headed south and southeast, but we never got as far as 40 South, coming short by just a few miles. We then turned East. It was on one of my watches that we crossed the international date line. We had been talking about it, and watching for the changeover on the GPS, wondering when the read out would change from 179.xxxE to 179.xxxW. I’m on watch with Cam when John comes into the cockpit to check on things. John glances at the GPS and says, “Oh, I see we crossed the dateline”. I look at the GPS, yes it’s true, we missed it. Cam and I look at each, dumb and dumber. Oh well. But I finally got that lost day back.

Before the trip I had worried about was cooking in the galley while underway. I’m sort of okay in a normal kitchen, but it was hard for me to imagine cooking food for eight while underway. Fortunate, Amanda handled all the cooking, and we all rotated helping her and then cleaning up. John usually handled breakfast, and his French toast was delicious, while Amanda cooked lunch and dinner. Our provisions were supplemented with fish we caught while underway. Once a day Amanda would set one or two lines off the stern, and most days we caught a fish large enough for lunch or dinner, usually some variety of tuna.

One of my favorite activities was watching when John made his twice daily boat inspection. Once in the morning and once in the late afternoon, John walked around the boat, checking the rigging, sails, everything, just to make sure everything was fine. Every time he was inspecting the forward part of the boat, John would stop and stand up on the mast pulpit, on the windward side, holding on to the mast and one of the shrouds, just looking out to sea. I don’t think he was looking for land or other boats or anything like that, although he might have been. He was channeling some unknown sea god. It would have been rude to interrupt.

It was funny: John was nice, friendly, and firm. However, If you fucked up in any way by not following the rules, you would be put off the boat at the next opportunity. John made this clear from the beginning of the trip. The rules existed for the safety of the boat and passengers, and failure to even once not follow procedure could endanger everyone. John said that he had previously put students off the boat, and would not hesitate to do so again if warranted. But seeing the focus and joy on his face after his twice daily meditations on the ocean, I felt a funny mix of respect and affection. John was a virtuoso of sailing: brilliant, strict, inspiring.

The night sailing was spectacular. On clear nights the Southern Cross was off the starboard side of the boat. Early in the evening, behind us and low on the horizon, were the belt and sword of Orion. One evening, after a series of squalls, a grey band appeared, which we promptly labelled a moon bow. On another dark night, one star, probably a planet, was very low on the horizon yet bright enough to reflect off the water. Windy evenings in the cockpit you stayed snug and dry; but once you took over the wheel, the wind was so strong it was more like being in an old biplane, with the ocean spray as a reminder you were driving a boat. Other nights were so dark and still you felt claustrophobic. The best evenings were once we got into warmer climates and no longer needed the full compliment of foul weather gear. When the weather was warm and the wind was right, the best place in the world was at that wheel, the wet teak deck under your bare feet, the worn leather grip of the wheel in hand, just you and the boat and the ocean.

The first sign of the tropics was the appearance of flying fish on deck, eleven days out of Auckland. It had been gradually growing warmer as we headed northeast, and that particular day was noticeably sunnier. Next day, confirming the warming trend, John suggested we go for a mid ocean swim. This sounded welcome and scarey. It was scarey because it’s axiomatic in sailing that when in the middle of the ocean, you stay on top of, and attached to the boat. You don’t unclip your tether, remove your pfd, and jump in the water – you just don’t. Obviously that was not quite the case as Amanda and one other crew stayed aboard, as the boat hove to, and lines were run out the stern and transom for people to hold on to if they started to drift away from the boat.

So that’s what we did. It still felt odd, sort of like jumping out of an airplane. The water was brisk, not quite tropical, but felt great anyway. Once wet, I climbed back on the transom, soaped up, then jumped back in to rinse off and drift along in the open ocean. The water was endlessly deep, and looking down brought on the same thrill as looking over a steep cliff. A line from the boat was near, I grabbed it and pulled hand over hand back to the boat. A quick rinse with a little fresh water from the boat, and all was well again.

We ticked off the days and got closer to Raevavae. Our string of catching a fish nearly every day continued, and I was almost getting tired of the fish. When sailing you can’t be in a hurry, and patience is enforced whether you like it or not. Certainly long distance sailing requires a certain mental discipline and emotional stability, but as we got closer to Raevavae, the more eager we were to arrive. We speculated about the arrival date, and looked forward to calling our families. We watched closely the daily noon to noon run, and soon enough we were less than 100 miles from the island.

Raevavae came into view early on a beautiful, perfect Thursday morning. The island was spectacular, with sheer green cliffs similar to the Naipali coast of Kauai. Seeing land, smelling land after being to sea for awhile, a lot of things I’d read about sailing and the sea crystallized in a way that’s hard to describe. Seeing land after nineteen days offshore was more profound than I expected. With spotters placed forward, we navigated through the coral reefs, and pulled up to the concrete quay. While waiting aboard for John to process us at the gendarme’s, an enterprising local woman brought us some bananas, taro, and pamplemoussier, the local version of a grapefruit. The bananas were much smaller than the monsters we get from Central America; much smaller, but much sweeter and flavorful. In exchange Amanda gave the woman the rest of some recently caught Ahi tuna. After a bit John returned and we were cleared to visit the island.

Raevave is one island in the Austral Island groups, one of the five island groups that make up French Polynesia, the others being the Society Islands, the Tuamotus, the Marqueses, and the Gambier Archipelago. The population is about 1,000, and the island has a brand new airport, but no planes arrived or departed during our stay.

We spent two days and two nights on Raevavae. As soon as we could, we made our way to the local store, bought phone cards, and called home. We had hoped to do laundry, but a lack of accessible running water meant we’d have to wait until the next island. We spent one day hiking, mostly in the rain. One of our mottoes was “get wet, get dry”: we knew if we were wet, that soon enough we would have a chance to dry. And if we were dry, we knew that soon enough circumstances would cause us to get wet. So we were philosophical about hiking in the rain, and the hike was not spoiled by the rain. I took pictures of the red ginger plants, taro fields, banana trees, bougainvillea, hibiscus. We were a bit of a novelty to the locals as the Mahina was only the fourth sailing vessel to come to Raevavae that year. One night we had dinner with the crew of the third sailing vessel to come to the island, Jim and Jeanette from S/V Dancer. They had arrived several days before us, and we had been in radio contact with them via the Coconut Breakfast Net. The next day they gave us a tour of Dancer, a beautiful 53’German built, blue hulled aluminium sloop. Jim and Jeanette have been on this cruise since 1997, and after Raevavae were headed for the Tuamotus.

The day of our departure from Raevavae the monthly supply boat arrived. It was kind of like a floating Costco that delivered. The whole island turned out at the quay to either to pick up supplies or just watch the activity. The most common items being unloaded were 55 gallon drums (or the metric equivalent), bicycles, and portable hand cement mixers. We were interested in getting some additional diesel fuel for the Mahina, and by virtue of her knowledge of French, Elizabeth was sent to strike a deal, to see if the supply ship had any diesel to sell. We became concerned, however, when one moment she was on the quay talking to some crew, and the next she had disappeared into the boat. A few minutes later, however, she called down to us from the bridge, where she stood surrounded by several sailors, who took a keen interest in her. She was unphased, however, and was successful in getting the diesel. That night we joked with her about being the only woman on a freighter full of tough and probably horny sailors; but in the inimitable manner of the English, she just raised an eyebrow and replied that there was nothing there that really caught her eye. The theme carried over into that evening’s scrabble game; when Peter spelled out the word “rump”, we assured him that the trip would be over soon and he would then be reunited with his wife. His cabinmate, Rick, looked worried.

We left Raevavae on an overnight sail to Tubuai. The trip was uneventful, and once on Tubuai, we were finally able to do some laundry. Tubuai was fine, but being the administrative center of the Australs, had more people, more cars, and an airport that was actually in use. The island was plain compared to Raevavae. The best thing about this island was the quality of the French bread, which rivaled Paris and sometimes was enhanced with a hint of cocoanut. John would later transform these baguettes into the best French toast, ever. We stayed less than a day, then began the two day sail for Tahiti. By now we felt like old hands; the routine familiar, the boat and crew comfortable with each other. That afternoon I was at the wheel, the Mahina pointing just a little off the sun, the light was reflecting off the waves of a following sea, the waves rolling towards the sun. The second day out we had our best noon to noon run of 184nm.

The last full night at sea sleeping was difficult because I was not used to the heat. The trip had begun with us needing fleece under foul weather gear; now we were fully in the tropics. Approaching Tahiti with Moorea in the background was so spectacular as to be unreal, but reality wasn’t far away: in response to a question about all the little wisps of smoke seen on Tahiti (fog? mist?), someone said, “burning trash”. We anchored about 10km south of Papeete, and waiting to clear customs, we tended to the boat. Without an ocean breeze, sitting still, we were all made lethargic by the heat. To keep cool we swam while waiting for John and Amanda to return. They soon returned with all paperwork processed, and we headed into Papeete for the afternoon and evening, with plans to meet for dinner later.

Papeete was crowded, noisy, and grimy, all the best aspects of a European city, amplified with the heat and humidity of the tropics. But there were compensations: while riding the public bus into the downtown, a dark haired, dark eyed, perfect, and I mean perfect, Polynesian woman got aboard the bus. About twenty, and curvey in all the right ways, if anyone was doing a sequel to Boticelli’s “Birth of Venus”, I know where to find the model. In town we found more accessible delights: gelato, cold Hinano beer, and mai tais. We walked around, trying to get used to the all the stimulation of people, noise, traffic. That evening we met at Lou Pescado’s for dinner, our first meal outside the Mahina in nearly thirty days.

After dinner on the bus ride back to the marina where the Mahina was anchored, the wind began to pick up and large drops started coming down. As we got into the dinghy, the rain suddenly came down with a force you can only find in the tropics. We were soaked in seconds. It was somehow fitting and ironic: after our first restaurant meal in a month, packed from Italian food and wine, dry for a while, but not for long. Get dry, get wet.

The trip was winding down. Rick left the boat early to get back to his girlfriend. We sailed over to Moorea, which was a relief after noisy Tahiti. We had our last lesson in Opunohu Bay, climbing up the mast for a rigging check. On our last day, John ferried us ashore on Moorea, and we used my rental car to get people to the hotels, or else to the ferry so they could get back to Papeete and the airport. Cam and Elizabeth and I were staying for a few extra days to explore Moorea. Near the top of Oponohu Bay on Moorea, I found an internet cafe. Using the my version of international sign language, I paid for fifteen minutes of computer time. While waiting for the computer modem to dial out, I noticed on that computer was software from my company back in California.

At the end of the trip we received as a diploma of sorts, a Certificate of Completion, gold stamped, and signed by John and Amanda. For cap and gown we received and wore a Mahina branded t-shirt. These were nice enough to have, but the shirt has long since worn out, and the certificate is tucked inside the Expedition Handbook and sits on my bookshelves. More important and more enduring are the knowledge and experiences gained: always run the radar if within 150 miles of land, the intense blue sea and lush green islands of the tropics, the quick stop might be the best method for recovering crew fallen overboard, the feel of wet teak on bare feet during nighttime sailing, wind waves are generated by local wind, and my favorite: don’t zone out.

Leave a reply