epiLogue: making landfall in French Polynesia

[This was originally published to our subscribers 33 days after making landfall.]

content warning: this log contains sensitive adult topics that may not be appropriate for young readers. please use discretion if you are sharing with children.

I've been trying to figure out how to tell you why I've been so quiet after we all shared such an incredible experience crossing the Pacific together. We have so much to celebrate, but for awhile I wasn't able to. I wanted to write and thank you for your support during the journey, but now I must also thank you for your patience while I put this final Log together.

Generally, I think my life is one of incredible luck. But even I get unlucky sometimes, and that’s what happened on my third day after landfall. It messed with my head and my heart a little, but I’m on the other side of it now. I’m glad to finally be able to share this story with you, and I'm looking forward to sharing those ahead in our journey across the beautiful South Pacific.

It’s a long story.

dropping anchor

As we approached Hiva Oa midday on Thursday, June 6th, the view of dramatic volcanic cliffs and mountains rising out of the great blue was spectacular. Reaching the uninhabited southeastern edge of the island, I turned us nearly due west to sail the final 15 nautical miles in an increasingly short, steep swell pattern. I started to take a final cockpit bath, thinking that I might be greeted by customs upon arrival and smelling decent could have a positive impact.

Ten minutes into my bath and thoroughly soaped-up, the swell intensity suddenly increased, tossing our stern around through a 100-degree arc. Now that we were pointed downwind, the foresail was dumping and filling with each rolling swing, we were on our slowest point of sail, and it was clear that unless I could keep the jib full, we were not going to make it in before dark (which happens around five o’clock PM local time). I knew I’d have to pole out the jib with only ten nautical miles to go.

This is a time-consuming task, the afternoon sun was beating down, and with the wind behind us, the air was stiflingly still. Post-bath yet drenched in sweat, nervous with the approach of land, dehydrated and under-fed (by my own neglect that morning), I wrestled with the pole and screamed at the ocean. “Oh, you’re going to do this NOW, are you?! You need to test me one more time?! You can’t just let us have a nice easy sail in?! Arghh!!!”

I had a list of tasks to execute in preparation for landfall, and I wasn’t pleased to add the pole to it. The anchorage required both a forward and stern anchor, which was a technique I’d never performed alone. I didn’t even have the chain attached to the aft anchor yet, the windlass remote still needed to be plugged in, the forward anchor unlashed, and the locker full of its chain was still taped closed to minimize water entry during the crossing. I rushed around in the final hour and a half, heart pounding, feeling overwhelmingly nervous at the nearness of land and the sound of giant swell pounding against unforgiving black cliffs.

When we entered the anchorage, we were greeted by David, a fellow Californian and member of the Pacific-crossing “net” that I’d participated in during the voyage. I felt overwhelming gratitude as he pulled up alongside in his dinghy and offered to set my stern anchor for me. I lowered the anchor into his boat and he sped away to drop it well behind us, while I set the forward anchor, reversing and letting out chain. David invited us to visit him and Kathy whenever I felt up to it in the coming days, and then left me to rest. 

The moment both of Windfola’s anchors were down and snubbed I looked around at the dramatic volcanic peaks surrounding us and the bay full of our international bluewater sailing fellows. Emotions that I didn’t even know were in me rose to the surface, and as I grinned and laughed, I also sobbed. I couldn’t believe we’d made it. The ocean always reminds you of your place, and her allowing you a safe arrival feels like a gift of grace. 

The next three days were a blur of activity. I met the agent, Sandra, who would facilitate the process of clearing in with customs. Zia and I got to know David & Kathy, who are absolutely wonderful and I know will be our friends for life. Another couple of similar age and hilarious Southern dispositions completed my new duo of “anchorage parents,” and we visited the markets in the nearby town together to exclaim excitedly over french cheese, ice cream, fresh meat, and crispy baguettes. These seemed like unbelievable delights after our passage, as did our dinner of cold beers and pizza at the only restaurant around.

On Saturday, I visited the gendarmerie to complete my formal entry paperwork. Escorted by Sandra and arriving with a few other skippers, I was greeted with smiles by the two gendarmes on duty. One was a large local Marquesan, and the other, Philippe, was from France and part of a mobile Gendarmerie unit that is assigned out to foreign territories for three months of every year. The U.S. doesn’t have an equivalent organization to the gendarmes, but they are like a cross between state, county, and federal police with an Army National Guard flavor. In rural places, they handle a variety of federal governmental tasks, including customs, in addition to typical law-enforcement responsibilities.

Clearing-in was easy, and I learned that Zia would actually be allowed ashore in French Polynesia as soon as I took her to a government veterinarian in Tahiti. This was two months or more of sailing away, but still terrific news. Philippe congratulated me on my solo crossing and welcomed me to “France.”

Semaphore bluff, Hiva Oa.

what happened next

On Sunday afternoon I headed up to Sandra’s “office” for the third day in a row. It’s a ten-minute hike up a dead-end dirt road on the eastern bluff at the bay’s entrance. Her office is a cargo ship container with a thatch-roof awning extending over a few wooden picnic tables. The sign there says “Semaphore,” which means the place for hoisting marine visual signal flags, and that’s what most of the cruisers call it.

Every morning Sandra opens the Semaphore from 8:30-10:30, and cruisers wander up to buy a “coffee” (instant nescafe and powdered milk) and get the day’s WiFi password. A typical morning WiFi congregation is around twenty people, so the internet is usually slow. Many cruisers return later in the day for a faster connection, and it’s not uncommon to see people on the bluff at the Semaphore during all hours of the day and evening. The view of the sea and the mountains is stunning, and there are lights that illuminate the tables all night.

It was about an hour before sunset when I arrived that Sunday to find a few others quietly bent over their own devices. I chatted a little with my neighbor, a fellow singlehanded sailor, while I initiated a backup of my photographs from the crossing. I knew the backup would take a few hours, and I was looking forward to using the time to watch the sunset and write about my experiences so far on Hiva Oa.

Other cruisers came and went throughout the evening, and I wasn’t alone until around nine o’clock. Laptop open, sitting under the outdoor spot light, I was composing an update for you much like this one.

I was excited to tell you about my arrival, the crazy winds and seas, the sudden immersion into land life and how I forgot my shoes the first time I went ashore and wandered the town barefoot. I was excited to tell you how I was going to climb an old single-handers’ mast the next day because he’d broken his rib on the crossing and his foresail shredded, and I was happy to be able to pay forward all of the help I’ve received by going up to cut it down for him. I was excited to tell you about my first ice cream after the passage, and how I chose the classic vanilla sandwich kind with that unique outer “cookie” that sticks to your fingers in a gummy, crumbly way.

A young local man arrived while I was typing. He was probably in his early 20s. Smoking cigarettes, drinking something dark from a large soda bottle, and listening to a youtube music video out loud on his phone, he milled around the end of the table where I sat. He was large in the typical Polynesian way, tall, stocky, and much bigger than me. What they call “thick” in Hawaii.

I continued to type and watch the status bar progress on my phone’s backup. He tried to speak to me in French, but after a polite "good evening," I explained that I don’t speak the language and returned to my writing.

He alternated between standing and sitting at the end of the table on the corner of the side across from me, about three feet away. There would be long stretches of five or ten minutes without any words, and then he’d try to say something in French or English. I stayed focused on my computer, though I did politely responded to his sporadic questions. 

“Where do you live?”

“On a boat.” Long pause. My backup continues.

“You english?”

“I’m American.” Eyes back on my computer, I realize he’ll probably continue to try to practice his english on me, and I try to express my preoccupation through my body language. Ten minutes pass.

“You have boyfriend?”

“I’m married,” I say firmly, holding my hand up and pointing to my ring. “My husband is on the boat.” I hate myself for saying this. I’m a captain, I just crossed an ocean. Why do I feel like I have to make up a man in order to set boundaries? Why does experience tell me that this is a more effective shutdown than saying I’m just not interested?

I focus on my computer. The backup is nearly finished, but I am enjoying writing under the stars. I want to stay while I’m feeling inspired, and I feel like if I leave, I’m letting a man behaving annoyingly prevent me from freely doing what I feel like doing (which I’ve generally resolved isn’t how I want to live my life). But I know I should probably just go. I put most of my things into my bag and write a few more notes during the final minutes before the backup ends. I hear a noise like velcro. A minute passes.

“Miss, miss, is OK? is OK, miss?” I look up at him.

He’s moved a little closer to me up the other side of the table, his pants are open, and he is aggressively masturbating as he stares at me. 

Everything happens quickly. I yell. I jump up. I throw my computer into my bag and grab my phone, all as I back away from the table quickly. I’m trying to avoid seeing his parts without turning my back on him. I tell him that’s disgusting, he’s a pervert, that’s sick, I’m going to tell Sandra. “What the hell is wrong with you!?” I scream. But I back away rather than fighting. I’m a coward. Or I’m a small person in self-preservation mode presented with someone larger than them who has been drinking something unknown. I’m in the dark, I’m in a foreign country. I think about how no one will be able to hear me scream up here if he pursues me. He could be over the table in a split second. I forgot my pocketknife. I don’t have a flashlight. He’s so much bigger than me.

I wish I had laughed at him, mocking him or saying something cleverly insulting. I wish I had stood my ground and told him to beat it. I wish I’d thrown a rock at him and chased him off and kept writing like I was completely unshaken. I don’t want the bad guys to win.

But I just run. I turn on the flashlight on my phone and I run down the uneven, rocky, steep dirt road in my loose sandals. I run down the hill while I look over my shoulder and strain to hear any sound that would indicate he’s pursuing me. 

Halfway down the hill, I see a parked car that wasn’t there when I went up the hill. There’s nothing else up the road, there’s no reason for a car to be there. I want to keep running but I stop to snap a picture. The flash isn’t on, I have to turn it on and try again. My heart pounds at the delay. I get a clear picture and begin to run down the hill again. I run and run. I stumble and I run.

I reach the bright lights of the pier. My kayak is tied there. There are a few locals around, as there almost always seem to be at night. I don’t remember what I was thinking, but eventually, I’m in my kayak and paddling back to my boat. I honestly don’t remember much of anything after that. I know that I thought about how I’m already a survivor, and this wasn’t nearly as bad as I know it can be. I know I had flashback nightmares again that night.

a new day

I had an appointment in the morning to go up an old singlehander’s mast and get his torn genoa down. After a quick bath, I put on lots of sunscreen, a sun shirt, and my favorite Spectra Watermaker visor, which allows me to clip my hair in a giant pile on top of my head. I never thought I’d be someone who wore visors, and I don't even have a watermaker, but I got this one for free at the Richmond boat show and it’s easily my favorite hat.

I joined another cruiser on the singlehander’s boat around nine AM. It was hot already, and I wished we’d started earlier. We spent the next few hours working to unwrap the tangled shreds of his giant genoa. I felt nothing and everything while I climbed the mast, clung to the forestay, and lowered myself down it at a backwards angle with my legs wrapped around it and my arms unwrapping the sail while cutting with the knife.

At some point, I started to feel irritated. At nothing in particular, because I didn’t mind the work at all. During a break on deck, I told the guys, "I’m a little tired." I glossed over the details of the night before. They’re appalled. One of them tells me that maybe because of who I am, I shouldn’t go out after dark (remember that sunset is at 5:15 PM on the island), and maybe shouldn’t go places alone. 

I was so upset at this response, but I didn’t feel like I could tell them that. Their hearts are good, they are trying to “fix” things and to protect me. But telling women to live with less freedom is neither a solution nor protection. Telling me not to go places alone is like telling a bird to stop flying. My identity is freedom.

Hiking above Anaho Bay, Nuku Hiva.

the response

Within the next 24 hours, everyone in the anchorage seemed to know what had happened. The people from French boats would stop me ashore and say how sorry they were about my experience, encouraging me to go to the gendarmerie. Everyone told me to tell Sandra, but I didn’t have to, because by Tuesday when I visit the Semaphore again, she already knew. “I think you need to tell the gendarmes. I think it’s important. Do you want to go? I’ll drive you there.” 

I was really surprised by everyone’s reaction. I’ve never had a positive experience with law enforcement when reporting issues like this, and I thought that because there was no touching or assault, the police probably wouldn’t care. I know that in the U.S., the cops would mostly be annoyed and disinterested. And on an island where everyone knows everyone, I assumed they would protect the guy, who was probably a relative anyway.

On Wednesday I went to the Gendarmerie with Sandra, and she waited with me at the front counter until they called me back. The captain of the district (which includes three islands and has only five gendarmes) was a tall, imposing Polynesian woman with fantastic traditional tattoos all over her arms. With a warm smile and kind demeanor, she personally took my statement over the next few hours. A local tour guide translated for us, and told me stories about playing football during his time attending university in Hawaii. Philippe, the temporary gendarme from France, joined us from time to time, and during a lull while the captain was printing my statement, he asked if I wanted to go exploring that Friday on his day off. Apparently, there was a beautiful bay with a white sand beach on the north side, and it was only accessible via an hour and a half long hike. I hadn’t seen any of the island yet, so I said yes.

The captain asked me if I wanted the man who did this to apologize to me. She said that regardless, they were going to pick him up and talk to him, that they consider this a serious issue. I told them that I had no interest in ever seeing him again, but thanks for the offer. She assured me that if I had any issue at all, no matter how small, I could always come to visit the gendarmerie again, on this island or any other. In a strange way, having authorities take what happened so seriously felt healing… and not just for this time, but for every time in the past that they hadn’t.

That Friday, Philippe and I drove across the island to the trailhead. He took me on a mini-tour along the way, stopping on the high plateau in the middle of the island to watch the wild horses graze, and at the airport, where a handful of guys hung around a breezy hangar waiting for the one inter-island flight per day to arrive. We reached the small village at the end of the road, driving past residents burning scraps from copra production while the children practiced soccer on a beautifully-manicured field by the school.

We found the unmarked trailhead and started our hike. A dog joined us, occasionally roaming off to chase wild goats. The trail was dusty and rocky, winding along the dry brown cliffs of the coast. When I first caught sight of the bay, I exclaimed aloud with happiness. In contrast to the murky, sharky, unswimmable waters of the entry port, this bay was picture-postcard gorgeous. White sand, clear water with abundant coral, and beautiful azure and turquoise waters greeted us. It was my first swim since landfall, and I was in heaven.

First view of Hanatekuua Bay, Hiva Oa.

sailing on

What happened on the hill at the Semaphore has led to many good things. I’ve connected with some wonderful people, gone on more hikes, sailed an unplanned course to unexpected places, repaired some of the leaks on Windfola, and even took on a young solo French woman to sail with us for a few weeks. As I meet more sailors here, especially women, I feel a renewed sense of conviction about the importance of what I am doing by voyaging solo. I met a little girl last night who sailed with her family from California, and when her mother told her I sailed alone, she asked me “But who was your captain?” I was sad and glad to have the chance to tell her that I am a captain, and in that moment, forever change her preconceptions about who can be one.

I am thankful for all of the positive outcomes of what happened, but I also struggled for weeks with how to share that everything isn’t paradise here. I couldn’t simply write happy stories like everything was ok, because it wasn’t. I had mixed feelings. I was emotionally sandwiched between the wonderful things happening during the day and nightmares some nights. I typically write every day, but I stopped for almost three weeks. Perhaps I found it difficult to return to writing since it’s what I was doing in that moment at the semaphore. I don’t know.

Shortly after what happened, I met a family sailing from Europe to New Zealand with their two teenage daughters. The younger daughter told me about an experience she had in the showers of a marina in Greece that has affected her ever since. She talked about the anxiety she feels, how she’s had to learn to navigate the world as a woman, checking mirrors when she enters bathrooms and changing the way she walks around corners. Even though she’s grown so much in their year and a half of sailing, she’s also become more nervous and wary. She doesn’t want what happened to her to change her, but she does feel more fear.

I told her that I feel the same way. I wear a necklace that says “fearlessness” not because I believe that being without fear is so admirable, but because I believe a fearless life is knowing fear but not letting it set our limits. After these experiences, we might feel afraid. But we have to continue to live free from its control. We have to sail on fearlessly.

heading for the horizon,

elana, zia, & SV windfola ⛵️

P.S. The necklace I wear is a long-time fundraiser of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization that helps women and children who are survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and childhood abuse. If you are interested in getting a “fearlessness” necklace for someone in your life, you can purchase one here.

P.P.S. Knowing I'd find solace in data, a girlfriend of mine recently sent me this thought-provoking article on solo international women travelers and safety that I recommend you read. It highlights some of the problems and complexities we face, as well as approaches to solutions and how to be an ally to us (which you all already are :)