Helicopters and hitchhikers
S/V Learnativity, voyage to Fiji
Saturday, May 9th, 6pm
Position 05.23S 177.50E Wind 0, course 145, boat speed 6.5 knots
You can follow our progress on this tracking map: http://forecast.predictwind.com/tracking/display/Learnativity
We left Majuro last Saturday, and we have been at sea every day since. Our world is life aboard this 52-foot boat, and we do not have TV or Internet or broadcast radio. We are ending our third or fourth day of motoring all day through a glassy rolly sea. I’ve lost count. The autopilot steers the boat, and we cook, read, work on the boat, and the days pass in a pleasant rhythm of small but glorious events.
For example, as I write this the sky is all lit up with one of the most spectacular sunsets. Gray bulbous clouds rest on the horizon while above the fluorescent blue sky is streaked across with bright red-orange clouds. It looks almost like geological strata in rock.
The days blur together, but these moments stand out, and we are never bored. There is so much to do, books to be read, meals to prepare, and I haven’t even started to teach myself to play the ukulele I bought in the Marshall Islands.
I usually sleep the first part of the night from about 9-2, and then it’s Wayne’s turn to sleep as I take over on watch. So, just at first light I was keeping an eye on the chart plotter. I looked up from the book I was reading to check again, and there was an AIS (Automatic Information System) target very close to us. That means there’s another boat out there. How did he get that close without me seeing him? I jumped up and pushed the buttons to see what info the AIS offered. There was no boat name, but it said he was only moving at 1.5 knots, and that he was “moored.” Yeah, right. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean? He was about 14 miles away. I turned around to look at the horizon to see if I could see the glow of his lights, but there was nothing. When I turned back to the chart plotter, the icon on the screen of the little AIS target boat was gone.
Ah, okay. It’s a tuna fishing boat and he must have nets in the water. That’s why he’s not moving, and why he doesn’t want to broadcast to the competition where he is. For some reason he switched on his AIS for a few minutes, then shut it down again. An hour later, the sun was well up in the sky, when I heard an odd noise coming from the same direction where the phantom tuna boat had been. I looked at the sky and saw the helicopter. He made a beeline for our boat. These big tuna purse seiners use helicopters to go out and spot the fish. We would often chat with the pilots at the Tide Table restaurant in Majuro – or just listen in to their conversations about what life is like on those boats. Most of the pilots are American, Kiwi or Aussies. This chopper had two guys in it, and they flew around the boat four times, so close they were whipping the water around the boat into a froth. As you might imagine, this close to the equator with no wind, it is hot. Add to that the fact that our 165 hp diesel engine has been running for days, and you can’t imagine how hot it is inside the boat. Most swim suits are made out of nylon, and they don’t breathe all that well, so we spend all day dressed only in our cotton underwear. So, when the helicopter arrived, I didn’t even think about the fact that I was only wearing a bright pink bra and pale pink panties. I jumped up and waved to the guys. I gave them a thumbs up to let them know we were okay, but they kept going around and around the boat. I guess it was more interesting than looking for tuna watching this crazy lady dancing around in her underwear.
Around midday, Wayne announced it was time to shut down the engine to check the oil, water and filters. We unfurled the genoa and tried to get the boat sailing. Under full mainsail and genoa, we were able to do 1-1.5 knots, but the sails were constantly flapping and flogging as the boat rolled on the long swells. As usual, when Wayne emerged from the engine room, he was covered with oil and sweat. The boat was barely moving, so he unclipped the lifelines leading to the transom steps and made his way down. He flipped the swim ladder into the swirling water under the stern and climbed in.
It’s startling how much water rushes past when the boat is only doing 1.5 knots. Wayne was hanging on to the ladder in the sparkling clear blue water, and his body was trailing behind as the boat towed him. “This feels great!” he said. When he got out, I had to strip down and try it. He was right. Skinny-dipping in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in 90 degree water is amazing! It’s fun-scary knowing the boat is moving, and you have to hold on tight because you could never swim fast enough to catch up. The blue of the water, especially under the boat, was magnificent! It’s very odd being towed behind your boat knowing that the water under you is at least 5 miles deep, and you have no idea what sort of critters just might swim along and see your little body looking like bait.
After we’d both soaped up and rinsed off several times, we were finally back up on deck when we noticed a little bird, dark head and white body, sitting on our lifelines. He was hitching a ride, and when I hung my towel out on the lifeline not far from him, he just cocked his head and looked at me as if to say, “I just need to rest up for a bit. You don’t mind do you?” He wasn’t the least bit afraid.
We are now well past the halfway point of our passage having covered just over 1100 miles. It is fun being able to post these blog posts by email through our Iridium Go satellite communicator, but I must admit, I do miss being able to read the comments on the blogs. Even if I won’t be able to read them for another week or so when we finally arrive in Fiji, I hope you will leave a few words to let me know how it feels to be joining us on board the good ship, Learnativity, for this voyage to Fiji.