20. French Polynesia
Before he wrote his iconic Moby Dick, Herman Melville worked on a whaling boat. In 1842 he jumped ship to escape a tyrannical captain and later wrote about living amongst the Taipis, on the island of Nuku Hiva, Marqueses, who were said to be the fiercest of the cannibal tribes in the South Pacific. Melville defended the Taipis and their strange ways (although he became concerned that he was being fattened up for the cook stove) and was critical of Western colonialism and empire building. Robert Louise Stevenson also landed on Nuku Hiva 46 years later and went on to write his famous Treasure Island. Thor Heyerdahl lived with his first wife on nearby Fatu Hiva in 1937 and 1938 until, again, some of the locals became inhospitable, forcing them to live in a cave before escaping. He learned there that the prevailing winds and currents came from the east, from the direction of South America. That, together with discussions with some of the local old men, suggested to him that the original inhabitants of the Marqueses and also Easter Island came from South America. In 1947 he completed his famous Kon-Tiki raft expedition from South America when he crashed onto the Raroia Atoll in the Tuamotus. He certainly proved that he was right about the direction of the winds and current, but it turned out that he was wrong about where the Polynesian people came from. Linguistic and DNA studies have confirmed that they somehow managed to sail against current and wind from South East Asia and Taiwan. They must have undertaken some of the most impressive voyages never recorded.
During my teen years I read everything I could find about these three authors. As time went by I mostly forgot about them. But, years later, once Feathercraft kayaks was humming along, and I was looking for a challenging trip during our winter off-season that required folding kayaks, I remembered: ya, those warm places and those guys. I think that it was Heyerdahl’s choice of craft, the balsam raft that led me to begin designing what eventually became our two-person folding catamarans with four masts and sails. There is an old song that Frank Sinatra made famous with the lines: “regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention”. Well, I do have one big regret in the boat design department that I’ll dare to mention: If I had just kept to our tested and strong large folding double kayak and added an outrigger designed for open ocean travel, as I did after this misadventure, our journey might have been a lot more enjoyable. But, here’s the thing: when I ask my fellow voyagers what was the best trip they ever went on, they always insist that it was this one.
Dan and Evan with two girls at Fatu Hiva
July 6, 2005 -11, -139 deg.
How could the tropics be so cold? I was lying in my hammock with a sodden fleece blanket draped around me. I had long ago cast aside my clothing as being too wet, too cold to be of any use. Somehow I had managed to get some sleep. But now the hammock was bouncing violently and every few seconds a fresh blast of salt water washed over me.
It was night-time and pitch black. The only light that I could see was from the LED lamp on the top of one our four tiny masts (two for the sails, two for the single hammock) and the red glow of the compass on the other pontoon of our two-person folding catamaran.
I heard Evan say something, but the storm drowned out his words. “Say louder,” I screamed. “I can’t handle it anymore!” he shouted.
I flicked on my headlamp. “Holy shit.” The water was coming at us from above, below and sideways. The boom of one of our two sails had broken off, and the other was swinging wildly. I stepped carefully onto the netting that was strung between our two pontoons and attempted to lash down our sails. There was a clear danger of being swept into the abyss by the storm winds and raging seas. Evan looked at me with his headlamp. All I could hear him say was, “Dad, put your pants on!”
I didn’t. Instead I started wrestling with the lines that were flailing wildly around us. As I grabbed one, a violent gust snapped a sail tight and pulled the line into a noose around my baby finger. I felt a rush of pain as the line dug deep to the bone. There was no time to worry about that now.
We hauled the sails down, lashed them to the masts and carried on bare-bones. Sometime later Dan and Ken pulled up beside us in their catamaran and shouted if we were O.K. Evan just said, “My dad won’t put his pants on.”
By the time Evan finished his four-hour shift steering the wind had abated somewhat and I had managed to bandage my hand. Keeping it dry was out of the question.
On both boats we managed to raise a small reefed sail. Although during my day-shift the finger started throbbing, I was still able to follow the compass and keep us on course by checking our position with the GPS. While running downwind we just had to stay on the purple line.
By nightfall my left pinky wasn’t pink, it was bright red and curled down, with large black splotches oozing with pus. The rest of my hand was bright and puffed up, like with a bee sting. I became feverish and started hallucinating about the stars flailing about madly and diving into the sea. (There were no stars out that night). When Evan relieved me, I climbed into the hammock, took a couple of Tylenols and some antibiotics and passed out.
Woke up some 24 hours later. Fever mostly gone and head fairly clear (or so I thought. This was debated later by Dan and Evan). However, my finger was black, the skin was coming off the bone and my hand was huge. Dan screamed more bad news. Something had broken inside one of his pontoons during the storm and he was having trouble keeping afloat. He and Ken had to pump continuously.
After the Storm
By noon they decided to scupper the boat. Ken jumped onto our craft first. Dan passed some of their essential gear, including an inflatable dingy. He tied the rest to the boat, opened up all of the valves, knifed the hulls and jumped off as she went down.
Dan, abandoning damaged catamaran
With four people plus gear on an open pontoon boat built for two our bums were awash and we were continuously soaked. My hand was in rough shape and endangering my overall health. On the good side, though, we had a fine following 15 knot breeze, food and water. Plus, I was traveling with the best group I could have asked for.
Somehow, Evan, who was only 16, had managed to steer our boat for 24 hours straight while I had passed out. He never panicked. Maybe all of those nights playing Warcraft online had prepared him. Of course he had been on kayak trips up and down our coast almost every year since he was 3 years old.
He’s gone through various names: “Treeboy” on this trip because of his gangly height. “HINO” came next, for “high input, no output”. This was during the time he was still filling out his large frame. Now, at 6 ft. 5 inches and 240 lbs., he is “Lurch”. He isn’t the fastest mover out there, but he sure is steady. Despite his size and appearance I have never seen him act in a physically aggressive way. He says that his bulk keeps him out of trouble. I think that it is more than that. His long training as a violinist and his love of music and nature maybe offer more insight into him than his size does.
If Dan had grown into his current 6 ft. height and filled out earlier he would likely have made the NHL, being very fast on his skates and with super quick reflexes. He also loves a good brawl at center ice. But, like so many Canadian guys, his aggression ends at the rink. Recently Dan and his wife Katherine had their first baby: a healthy girl weighing almost 11 pounds. Her nickname is Porkchop. Dan is a full service dad: diapers, playing, cooing, giggling, and staying up all night. He’s even cut his hockey from five nights to two. Just don’t mess with Porkchop.
Ken Fink has been combining power with paddling technique to win kayak races at his home state of Maine since before our two young guys were born. His specialty as a professor of oceanography was the formation and dissolution of beaches. He likes to talk about that.
Actually, he likes to talk about anything. But, he also listens. He is one of those people who gets on well with everyone because he is curious about people and their stories.
Ken, still smiling
The summer before, in 2004, the four of us paddled and sailed an earlier version of our catamarans down the length of Moresby Island in Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) in northwest B.C. That trip had been an opportunity to test the new crafts and also ourselves, as a team.
On our first day in Haida Gwaii there was very little wind. Ken and I started off paddling hard. The two young guys in their catamaran repeatedly fell far behind and started singing loudly. Then they stopped completely, although with full sails up. I knew that they were goading us, but Ken was new to this and found it frustrating. “What are you guys doing?” he shouted. “We’re practicing our light wind sailing” came the reply. And they continued singing and sitting there. At that Ken just started laughing. He got their humor and also our desire just to explore the islands.
During our two weeks we talked to many local “watchmen” at important First Nation sites, and marveled at the totem poles and the moss, the ancient Sitka Spruce trees, the huge black bears, the ducks, coots, eagles and hawks. It was so much more than just paddling down a coast as quickly as possible. Ken got right into it.
By the end we were a team. Each night we would pull up to a beach and set up our hammocks and flies right on the boats. No campsite or tent required. We wanted to be able to sleep on the boats, whether on land or sea. The only problem was that Ken had trouble getting in and out of the hammock. But here, in Polynesia, we had much bigger troubles than just getting out of a hammock.
I figured that we could still get to Napuka, our original destination. But once there, what would we be able to do? I would still have to be evacuated to a hospital or clinic. I thought about our trip so far.
We had flown to Hiva Oa, the largest town in the southern Marquesas group. Our plan, which we had forwarded to the French authorities well in advance of our arrival, was to assemble our two crafts in Hiva Oa, paddle/sail the 45 nautical mile upwind passage to Fatu Hiva and then sail downwind the 270 nautical mile route to Napuka, the first atoll. It was on this crossing that we had come to grief. From there we had hoped to wind our way through many of the atolls making up the Tuamotus, and end up in Tahiti. Our route would take us about 885 NM, all in. Easy.
The gendarmes in Hiva Oa didn’t know what to make of us and delayed our departure for several days. This gave us the opportunity to explore the village of Atuouna and hike the trails above. One morning, after walking up through narrow alleys and over a hill we came to a small cemetery. This was Gauguin’s final resting place. I could imagine him coming up there, to a peaceful place with a stunning view of the harbour and the open ocean beyond. I have always found his paintings of the Marquesans mysterious. Who were these people? Did he know them well? Intimately? Or was he more an observer? After trekking around the island I came to realize how his paintings had not just depicted the people. The landscape, with all of its lush greens punctuated by tropical colours was captured beautifully.
The Marquesas are completely different geologically from the Tuamotu atolls further south. These islands are volcanic basalt. The tall hills capture enough rain to enable lush tropical forests to flourish. (Apparently the rains sometimes fail, but the forest was gorgeous when we were there). The light is soft and rich. On the other hand, the Tuamotu atolls are remnants of sunken volcanoes and are mostly coral, with an elevation of a few meters at most. We expected that the light would be harsher, and the plants and people more weathered, not at all the way we think of Gauguin’s paintings. Because atolls are low-lying rings of coral built up over sunken volcanoes, they are particularly susceptible to rising sea levels and ocean acidification. Most will likely be submerged, or at least washed over to be uninhabitable, within a few decades. I have long wanted to visit these atolls before they disappear. I wonder if Dan and Evan will be able to return here some day, or will they be gone.
Leaving Hiva Oa before dark
When the gendarmes finally gave us permission to go on our trip, they insisted that we had to leave right away, just before nightfall. It would have been really nice to have left in daylight, but we adjusted, sort of, and after two nights of heavy buffeting and one lost paddle, we arrived in Fatu Hiva. We passed from the Bay of Virgins through a narrow opening to enter the small harbour at Hanavave, on the northwest coast of Fatu Hiva. Islanders helped us carry our strange crafts onto the concrete platform where they store their canoes and boats. There is no dock.
Instantly kids swarmed our boats. Men and women milled about. Where did you come from? What sort of boat is this? People were so friendly that Dan was soon invited to share a meal of goat and vegetables with a local family. Unfortunately, he became awfully sick. We had to stay in paradise for a few extra days until he recovered.
Kids at Fatu Hiva
There is a waterfall spilling out of the jungle a few kilometers from the bay, which we visited daily. On the way we passed bundles of noni fruit. The noni has been revived here since an American company started making extravagant health food claims about its noni juice. In Polynesia it has long been used as a cure for stonefish sting, sore throat, diabetes and other ailments. It smells like rotten cheese.
In the evenings I would quietly watch as all of the villagers got together to practice their tamure dance. They would line up in rows and dance to just a drum and flute. The women swayed gently and rhythmically with their hips while the men pranced around them with their legs gyrating as fast as a drummer’s hands, like scissors gone mad. All of the adults took part. I was told that they were practicing for a dance contest with the group from Omoa, the only other village on the island. Some of the dancers were awkward, others had beautiful fluid movements. There was one couple that was simply stunning. She was beautiful and sensuous while he was strong and his legs vibrated so fast you could hardly see them. They held each other’s gaze while they moved, and, wow, the only electricity on the island burned bright.
The Best Dancers
One morning about a dozen men eased into the water in the small harbour. After swimming out to the breakwater they spread out and then pulled a net amongst them. Suddenly, they all started slapping the water and slowly guiding the net to shore. By the time they reached shore and pulled up their net they had trapped dozens of small fish. I marveled at the simplicity of this.
Each morning I would hike up a local hill behind the village and try to receive a text message on my satellite phone from my wife, Theresa, about the weather forecast from Atuouna. We finally left Fatu Hiva with a favorable weather report and cheers of good sailing from our new friends. But now, awash with four people on an open catamaran built for two and a serious medical problem, a decision had to be made. In hindsight, it seems brutally obvious: It’s an emergency; you’ve got a sat phone. Use it. But, damn it, I wanted to see those atolls! Nonetheless, after we talked it over, everyone agreed. We phoned first the authorities in Tahiti and then my unfortunate wife.
The authorities wanted us to keep our phone turned on and I said no way, we didn’t have enough battery for that. It was easier for me to talk briefly with Theresa and have her deal with them.
They didn’t have a boat anywhere near us. “Did we need a life raft dropped from the air?” Actually, we had two small two-man inflatable rafts on board. We didn’t need another. We asked if any fishing boats were nearby. No, there weren’t, or, if there were, none of them wanted to bother going out of their way.
Hours later we received a report through Theresa that a fishing boat had been contacted and was heading for us. “Yay!” I asked from which direction, thinking that we might head for them, but never received an answer. We kept heading for Napuka and gave them our GPS location occasionally.
July 8, 2005
Rescued. Aboard the Viny Viny V11. Fate has thrown 5 Marquesans, three Canadians and one American together in this fine tuna long-liner, helmed by Captain Bruno.
The Captain wears a black pearl and a cell phone around his neck, even though cell coverage is more than a hundred miles away. He’s dark, strongly built, super-confident and, damn it, you have to say: swashbuckling. He tells us stories of going to Vegas with loads of cash earned from his fishing and black pearl interests and being met with open arms reserved for big spenders. He owns three speed boats with 200 plus HP, 10 pearl divers, a mansion in Papeete. He barks his orders, is obeyed instantly; fixes the engine; is a trained chef in France; a gambler; dad of two boys; and, no doubt, lover of many. Our saviour. He’s a character. He also now owns, as part of the rescue deal, our catamaran, inflatable boats, reverse osmosis water-maker, tents, paddles and gear. Except for personal effects that’s everything. Why not? They have come out of their way for two days and given up lucrative fishing income and we got rescued. Plus I’m going to send him an inflatable kayak.
Dan with Captain Bruno
The other crew:
Brue: large, belly, long hair, a real traditional-looking guy tattooed, 30s.
Tuoe: 18 years, mustache, sloping shoulders, into rock music, still forming. Nice smile.
Macki: Broad shoulders, powerfully built, quiet, what’s he about?
Kaddie: the only smoker, first time aboard, the others say he is a little crazy, because of his grin? Offered us dope, for a price.
I feel responsible. I managed to put a lot of people, both on and off the boat, through some trying times. As for my left hand, my pinky isn’t pink; it’s bright red and curled down, with large black splotches where pus has oozed out. The rest of the hand is bright and puffed up, like with a bee sting; most of the swelling stops at the wrist. Of course it hurts — a lot. We are all suffering from sea sores.
Those 4–5 nights at sea were difficult, but, boy, will I remember them. The stars; the water washing over us; trying to stay awake; keeping course on a star; checking occasionally with the compass; checking that periodically with the G.P.S. In the end it would have been better if we had been going in the opposite direction, the Vinny Vinny V11 would have reached us sooner, because they were coming from the north. But the people at Papeete Affaires Maritimes didn’t tell us that. So, I bring home some great memories, some pain, design for a new sail rig, and good friends made and kept. Not bad for a failed trip.
The fish boat took us back to Hiva Oa, where we had started from. I received excellent medical attention there, and yet more and stronger antibiotics. The doctor there didn’t think that I would get to keep my finger. After later going through another round of antibiotics to deal with the c. difficile that I got after the first batch, I fully recovered. I even still have my little finger, although it is stiff and bent out of shape.
Dan and Doug safe aboard the Viny Viny VII