the journey

The tuamotus

The Tuamotus, popularly known as the Dangerous Archipelago, are the largest group of coral atolls in the world. There are 78 atolls total within a 600 km by 1500 km area. The atolls are essentially a pile of coral only a few meters above the sea surrounding a central lagoon. No two are alike. Of the 78 atolls, only 31 of them have a pass to the inner lagoon, and some of these are impossible by sailing yacht. The currents also tend to be quite strong, often creating interesting piloting for mariners who are navigating through the various passes and between atolls. Also, fresh water is scarce. The local people collect rainwater and are careful about their consumption. To visit these by sailing yacht, one pretty much needs a reliable gps, radar, and a watermaker. Thus the reason sailors have only been entering these atolls in the last couple of decades or so.

So now you may be wondering why one would want to come here? In my opinion, it's a very easy answer. The Tuamotus are gorgeous! Picture white sand and coral beaches and coconut trees as far as you can see. Then add water. Warm water. Deep incredible blues, turquoise greens…beautiful healthy coral reefs, abundant reef fish of all kinds and colors, rays, dolphins, and lots of sharks. Only small villages exist here, with few stores and services. The Tuamotus are where you want to come to "get away from it all". And if you love the underwater world, like we do, you will be in paradise.

May 25, 2007

Current Location: Fakarava Atoll, Tuamotus
Current Position: Approx. S 16° 03', W 145° 37'

The descent into the warm rich blue liquid begins. With steady breaths of oxygen from our aluminum tanks strapped to our backs, Nicole and I peer into the depths while we float weightless allowing ourselves to sink deeper and deeper. At 100 feet below the surface we reach the bottom. Holding onto rocks to refrain from being swept backwards into the pass with the steady 3-4 knot current flooding into the lagoon, we look out into the blue expanse and observe the beautiful underwater world we are privileged to be a small part of for a short time. We are on the lookout for the big pelagic fish: tunas, rays, barracuda, and sharks. Today only sharks are our neighbors. Gray sharks and black-tipped reef sharks silently weave their way through their liquid home. All around us we watch with amazement, appreciating the reality that so many are here and that we can be so close to these incredible creatures. My eyes are huge and I keep looking over my shoulder, feeling innately that I am being snuck up on from behind. But as we continue to linger for a few more minutes it is apparent that our new friends could care less about us.

Because we are deep, we cannot stay long, and after a few minutes we let go and fly with the current towards the mouth of Garuae Pass, Fakarava, the largest pass in the Tuamotus. We skim the surface of the coral, whisking past the colorful butterfly fish, rainbow wrasse, green and red parrot fish, surgeonfish, iridescent blue damsel fish, triggerfish, and spotted grouper hiding in the coral's nooks. We move past underwater canyons where the huge schools of snapper live and over the canyon ridges where the large schools of gray sharks effortlessly cruise.

Eventually we come to an underwater sandy basin called the Aquarium that is surrounded by coral and filled with huge schools of snapper, surgeonfish, triggerfish and more sharks. We drop into the sandy bowl, out of the current, and linger in this incredible world for a while. Sixty feet above us I can see the sun's rays penetrating the rippling water's surface. I concentrate on breathing, steady slow even breaths, trying to make my air last as long as possible so we can stay below, appreciating the peace and beauty of this underwater sanctuary.

Time slips by and we slowly glide back up into the current and into Fakarava lagoon. We ascend slowly and hover at fifteen feet below the surface for 3 minutes, our scuba safety stop. When we surface we are well within the lagoon, greeted by the golden sunshine, coconut trees lining the shore and an inner peace that comes from knowing we were privileged to be part of such a beautiful world under the water's surface in the middle of the South Pacific Ocean.

June 10, 2007

Current Location: Rangiroa Atoll, Tuamotus
Current Position: Approx. S 14° 57', W 147° 40'

This blog was hijacked by Bronwen Lodato while she was visiting DreamKeeper for three weeks. Here's what she has to say:

The jury is still out. That is, the jury which decides if in fact I have a sailor in me. So we all have many identities living buried within us, right? Some we are in touch with; others we never will be. Like for instance, I definitely have a ballroom dancer in me, but a dogsled musher? Not likely. I am quite certain that a comic book cartoonist will never emerge but if I could become a bit more cantankerous, I might be able to muster a pastry chef. A sailor though? Like I said before, the jury is still out.

There have been moments, possibly entire days, when I would claim to be as salty as they come and ready to sell my soul for a sweet little 40 foot ocean-ready vessel so that Mike and I could see sections of the world the way these two lucky dogs are! Take for instance the south pass of Fakarava. Play with me: close your eyes. You wake to absolute silence and only a sliver of sunlight slicing through the porthole of your gently rocking berth. You glance at the clock and marvel that although it is only 5:30, you are unquestionably awake for the day so you quietly brew a cup of coffee and tiptoe up to the cockpit. Wrapped in only a light sarong, you survey your surroundings. You are anchored in a sea of varying degrees of blue: cobalt, lapis, sapphire, aqu---aqua so light it is almost excluded from the blue category. It is ridiculous, really, and you chuckle under your breath at the absurdity of the beauty. You know not else what to do! It is too beautiful even to take a picture one will understand. You decide to keep the moment for yourself. You mentally check your daily calendar and remember that the only thing you have penciled in on today's date is to snorkel. You brew up a second cup of coffee. By the time you finish your cup, the gang is up, properly slathered in sunscreen and ready to go; together you clamber to collect four sets of masks, fins and snorkels and hop into the dinghy and motor out to the pass where the tide is flooding into the lagoon in which you are to be anchored for the next four days. You gear up and peel off the dinghy and sink slowly into the big blue world below---this world which exists at every moment, parallel to our above-the-sea world, yet totally foreign to most of us for lack of exposure. Nonetheless, this world is downright irresistible to those of us prone to falling in love easily.

You hardly have to kick your fins because the tide is moving you along at a nice little clip and the coral walls and schools of fish (in every color, size, pattern and shape imaginable, mind you) are perfectly showcased as you whiz by. "It's like we are on our own personal conveyer belt!" Mike shouts, the words barely recognizable through his snorkel. You all exchange the shaka (hang loose sign) underwater because Mike is right on, and what a marvelous conveyer belt it is! You have been told countless times about how "sharky" the Tuamotu waters are but no amount of warning can prepare you for your first (of literally hundreds) of encounters with the sharks. You constantly scan your field of view for the telltale dark bodies and black tipped fins reluctant to be caught unaware should one sneak into your periphery without you noticing it first. Keeping this focus is no easy task (especially for those of us easily distracted by fantastically whimsical reef fish playing all around you). Up ahead about 30 feet you see him: undeniable and foreboding, the shape of a shark and he is coming at you.......head on. You remind yourself that these sharks could care less about you and you continue swimming along in what appears to be a very unfunny underwater game of chicken! After about 15 heart-racing feet, the shark peels off and darts down into the depths to join his...oh I don't know...say 45 closest relatives in what comes to be known as The Shark Cauldren. The drama of the sharks, by no means, eclipses the fact that you are on an underwater magic carpet ride and you discover that doing a front flips through an enormous school of electric blue needle fish not only takes your mind off the terror of the sharks, but is actually terrifically fun. So terrifically fun, in fact, that you begin to wonder if possibly you do have some sailor genes in you after all.

And then there are the days when I am certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I possess no such genes whatsoever! For example our first overnight passage, or what I like to call "the night I slept in a washing machine." Gar and Nic warned us that the weather forecast called for seas that were agite and forte, or for those of us who don't understand a lick of French, tre rolly-polly!! Three hours into our passage, Gar is barfing again. Mike and I are beside ourselves trying to focus our eyes and minds on anything that will make the nausea go away, knowing that if the winds were in our favor we would only have to withstand this bronco-bucking for another 18 hours or so. "Who wants lentil soup?" Nic hollers from the galley, and I start laughing thinking she has cracked the funniest joke of the day until I realize she is stone cold serious. Does she not understand that we are in crisis here?! We are miles and miles out to sea with nary a motu in sight and waves crashing over our bow! We are barreling down monstrous waves at break-neck speed and holding on for dear life as the boat rollicks and pitches side to side. I am studying the instructions for the emergency life raft and Nicole is making lentil soup. This is when I invented the freak-o-meter, which would come in handy countless times in the next few weeks. Here's how the freak-o-meter works, it is such a simple mechanism: if I start to feel terrified or freak out because I think we are in an alarmingly dangerous situation, I look at Nicole and if she is freaking out then I freak out too. If she is calm, then I set about the task of talking myself down. The freak-o-meter is so far 100% accurate. At 3am, an especially rouge wave dislodged me from my wedged-in position in my berth and I was absolutely certain that DreamKeeper had plumb tipped over. I peered out of my berth to find Nicole cocooned in her sling sleeping like a newborn. I wedged myself back into bed and managed to drift off again. At 5am, a wave slammed so hard against our hull I literally bounced awake. "There she goes," I thought, "the straw that broke the camels back." But as I squinted up to see who was at the helm, there was Nicole inspecting her fingernails. "Unbelievable," I muttered to myself. After we were safely achored in the lagoon in Ahe, I realized just how reliable the old freak-o-meter had been and I also realized that I love the land more than I care to admit. I was pretty darn certain, following that passage, that no amount of sailing would make me a sailor!

Three weeks on a sailboat in French Polynesia and the jury is still out. For me, sailing has split moments of untouchable rapture and unexplainable emptiness; like simultaneously being painfully confined and yet totally free. So as the jury deliberates, I think I will plan my trip next year to the Maldives to see if I can't figure it out then.

June 17, 2007

Current Location: Papeete, Tahiti
Current Position: Approx. S 17° 34', W 149° 37'

They're here! The horn of a now familiar red truck beeped impatiently, calling us from across the harbor. Jumping into the dingy, my eyes filled with happy tears, we raced to meet them at the concrete dock in Fakarava. Jumping into each other's open arms, beaming with gigantic grins, I no longer had to pinch myself to make sure it was real. Our dear friends, Bronwen and Mike, had arrived for three weeks in the Tuamotos.

Slipping into life as everyday friends was easy. We shared stories and our hearts, cooking and crewing, adventures and the future. Gar and my need to connect with close friends were quickly met with Bron and Mike within 40 feet or so for almost three weeks. Once the excitement and reality of being together truly settled in, we moved into old patterns and hatching plans of what we wanted to do. It really didn’t matter since the colors were more brilliant and everything was more beautiful and fun and amazing since we had our friends to share it all with.

Our "plans" were pretty simple and very loose. This allowed us to be open to serendipity. We responded to the beckoning white sand beaches with waving coconut palms, the pull of the strong currents of pass snorkeling, the quest to find the most beautiful shells, and the welcome peace of floating over coral heads in clear calm waters.

Our time together was terrifically fun and also totally efficient (except when Bron or I held up the team by being girls). Not only are Bron and Mike are some of the best friends we could ask for but also some of the best crew.

We woke up with the sun or a little later. Someone would make coffee and tea for the team and delicious meals were made by that same someone or someone else. Then the dishes were done by another someone. Days seemed effortless. We were never short of helping hands and jobs that needed to be done were finished before we even asked for help. Everything was more efficient and dare I say, even cleaner.

They were also a most adaptable crew. They prepared meals for what we knew was likely to be a rough first passage. As the boat rolled and pitched in agitated seas, they held on and tried to keep it down as their faithful captain wretched over the side. I lost my company on night watch, as Bron's seasickness coping mechanism was to sleep; she adopted 12-14 hour passage beauty sleep sessions, while Mike hunkered down in his sea berth listening to every unfamiliar sound. At sunup, Mike was always a dependable and welcome greeting.

When we weren’t on passage, days were filled by naked gun days of "Motu Madness". Motu Madness...picture many deserted, wild, small islands, fringed on one side with clear aqua water leading to white sand beaches lined with coconut palms and beyond the edge of the atoll, and open ocean, beckoning to be explored without a plan and almost any toy one might want. They were a perfect playground. Our only limitation was loosing the sun at darkness. We entertained ourselves at anchor by jumping off the boat, looking for sharks and remoras, doing stupid human tricks, playing games like if you were stuck on a deserted island, and baking desserts. We laughed at everything and nothing and shared our hearts and our lives.

All too quickly, three weeks had passed. After a final day circumnavigating Tahiti by car, we dropped Bron and Mike at the airport. Tears slowly rolled down my cheeks as we put the extra computer, comforter, and sheets back into their berth, converting it again into the garage. My tears were bittersweet. They fell, celebrating our friendship and our time together and also from the early pains of missing them.

Living this life that we have chosen has been an incredible journey and like anything, with its challenges. One of the hardest things for both of us, especially me, is missing friends and family.

We miss being there to share our lives directly, to hear stories and give support, to celebrate and grieve, to play and challenge one another. To simply BE together. One of my greatest challenges is feeling like I am not a good friend as I am not reliably available and present. I realize that our lives continue without each other in them and I cannot fill the role I once did. One of my bigger fears is that I will not have a have a place in my friends' lives; I hope that you will not simply forget about me because I am not there. Dear friends, know I miss the deep connections, the simple everyday things, the ability to share laughter and advice, and the beauty of just being there.

It is so beautiful to miss. Thank you Bron and Mike for being here and to all of you who have kept us in your hearts. Know that although we are not with you in person or within telephone distance you are safely nestled deep in our hearts and we think of you more often than you know. Thank you for your friendship, support, and love.