Log: learning a new rhythm in french polynesia  🎶

[This was originally published to our subscribers.]

“You can’t cross the sea by merely standing and staring at the water.” --Rabindranath Tagore

I’ve been trying to learn to play the ukulele. I didn’t think it would be too difficult to grasp the basics since I studied piano for eight years. But learning the ukulele totally different, and I’m really struggling with it. The two aspects that I find the most challenging are switching my fingers from one chord to another and strumming consistently. The former is a practice in adaptation, being able to move from one moment to another and reassemble oneself quickly. The latter is about finding a rhythm and a natural flow.

I don’t know if my difficulty learning the ukulele is a byproduct of my difficulty adapting and finding a rhythm in cruising, but the parallels are uncanny.

During my passage, I wrote to many of you about a typical day at sea. Each day had its differences—like when my engine was overheating, or when we were caught in that hours-long squall and beating into the wind—yet there was a general rhythm that allowed me time for repairs, studies, watching the clouds, and writing.

Since landfall three months ago, everything has changed. Sailing through the tropical islands of French Polynesia has been amazing, and I feel more excited than ever about our circumnavigation. But what it takes to keep the boat moving from island to island is not the same as what it took out there on the ocean. It’s a different set of skills, and I’ve spent the summer working to adapt these and find a rhythm in this inter-island cruising life.

I'm always happy when there's water at an anchorage and I can bring the buckets and laundry to shore to do my washing.

Sailing from one island to another is typically done in an overnight passage. This allows us to both leave and arrive in daylight so that I can spot any coral or hazards in the passes and anchorages. But unlike ocean sailing, moving between islands requires constant vigilance due to hazards and local fishing boats. I never sleep more than twenty minutes at a time on these night passages, so I arrive tired and spend the next 24 hours recovering.

When we reach an island, it’s a little like moving to a new neighborhood. After I catch up on rest, I meet my new “neighbors”—locals and fellow cruisers-—and get oriented. Where can I find water? Fresh vegetables? WiFi? Sometimes none of these are available, and sometimes they are a one hour hike over a mountain. Collecting water from shore means kayaking back and forth with my five gallon jug, (sometimes across a large anchorage), until my tanks are completely full. Even though I carry plenty of provisions and water, I top up at every opportunity because I have to expect the unexpected… nothing available at the next island, or a punctured tank, or a dismasted drift at sea for two weeks to reach the next island. 

In addition to doing routine maintenance and cleaning, I always spend a few days making repairs to anything that broke or degraded on the last passage. But everything takes longer on a boat. For example, my masthead navigation light--which makes our boat visible on night passages--was missing its red color, and only glowing green and white. When I reached the calm of Kauehi’s lagoon anchorage, I climbed the mast alone to investigate. I thought it was possible that the red lens had fallen off, but it turned out that one of the two “bumps” that holds the LED bulb in its socket had sheared off. Since it wasn’t making good contact anymore, some of the nodes weren’t lighting up. At the top of the mast, I disassembled the light as carefully as possible, but still managed to drop the metal disc that holds down the casing. Tumble, plunk, plop… and it sank 35 feet to the white sand bottom. I climbed down, put on my bathing suit, mask, and fins, and free dove in search patterns until I found it. Then I climbed the mast again to reassemble the light. I took a long nap that afternoon. :)

I’m happy to leave most modern conveniences behind, but access to the Internet is still extremely valuable to me. I try to find it if I know it’s available on an island, but if so, it often costs at least $5 USD for just a few hours or less. I will travel long distances on foot if I know it’s free elsewhere. My first priority on WiFi is always to download weather forecasts, because the Iridium GO! seems to struggle to connect to satellites when I’m near mountainous islands. Then I download navigational charts for offline use in an app called Navionics (which is a terrific resource and backup for my occasionally unreliable chartplotter). If I still have time, I use the internet connection to call my family and let them know I’m ok. Most of the time, the bandwidth isn’t good enough for rapid downloads, so it can take a long time just to fetch the weather and charts and then I’ve run out of time for anything else.

I’m subsisting on the support of my subscribers, so I do everything I can to cut cost. I spend a lot of time walking or hitchhiking to get good deals on produce and groceries. I’ve learned how to find the subsidized food items (their prices are written in red), and these have become staples in my diet: saltines, pasta, tinned vegetables, powdered milk, sardines, and eggs (when they’re available). Fresh meat is a treat, and I usually only enjoy it if another boat invites me over for dinner. When I see a local house with abundant fruit trees, I’ll ask if I can collect some of what’s already fallen to the ground. The people are often happy to share, and point me to others who have extra. A few words in the native language go a long way, so rather than “merci,” I’ve learned to say “maururu roa” with a big, thankful smile. This has led to some wonderful local friendships, sharing whatever we have with each other over an evening barbecue.

I made friends with locals in the village of Kauehi who had this great beach where I could land my kayak safely... which led to baking fresh bread in my solar oven for them, free diving the lagoon's pass together, sharing my Marquesan pamplemousse stock, and many wonderful evening barbecues.

I still study the weather a little every day, since I am trying to learn the South Pacific patterns. The big systems that roll from Australia across the Pacific toward Chile have major effects on the tropics. Most of my research now isn’t on the weather, though. Instead, it’s reading charts and guides on upcoming islands and anchorages, so I can memorize my options for different weather conditions and emergencies. Weather and itinerary are major topics of conversation when cruisers gather for sundowners on a friend’s boat, and I learn a lot from comparing notes with others. It seems like socializing out here is as much for knowledge sharing and support as it is for just kicking back with new friends.

With all of these tasks, the days seem to disappear quickly. People often comment admiringly on how I “do everything myself” as a singlehander, but the truth is, when you share the load with someone else, you probably do a better job at everything and you have time to relax.

I truly enjoy all of the work it takes to keep our boat moving. I’ve learned so much from our experiences this summer, and I’ve repaired and improved things I never dreamed of… I even adjusted the valve clearance on our inboard diesel engine! But I’ve spent so much time managing passages, breakages, studying, and provisioning needs that by the time I reached Tahiti in late-August, I’d all but stopped writing and reading for pleasure. I’d lost my rhythm. It seemed like I’d become more reactive to cruising, rather than building the creative lifestyle that I wanted. 

I have found some time for creativity... Inspired by found ocean objects, shells, and local beads, I've made gifts for many of my California to French Polynesia crossing subscribers!

When my close girlfriend arrived to Tahiti for a visit, she kindly spent many hours listening to me describe my dilemma. How do I find time to write and share the way I want to, but still keep costs low, and sail on to New Zealand at the pace that the pending cyclone season requires?

We discussed this as I spent days trekking around Papeete on foot to solve an electrical problem with my windless (which is essential to me for solo anchoring). First, to the hardware store, then the marine supply, back to the boat, and the next day to an electrical specialist to solder a new plug to the handheld remote. Then back to the boat, where I had to solder on a new deck plug. It was a case-in-point for my problems, because I ultimately invested three days in a repair that a hired electrician could have fixed in a half day.

My friend pointed this out. “You need more time if you’re going to write again.” We decided together that I needed to slow down, be willing to hire help to make repairs when possible, pay a few dollars for a five-minute taxi instead of walking for an hour, and spend the occasional $5 for nearby WiFi. Creating more time in my days will allow me to redevelop a consistent rhythm of writing and sharing this journey with you the way I’d hoped to.

I sailed to Mo’orea after her departure, and I’ve stayed for over three weeks. I’ve been developing new rhythms that have given me time to write, share, and correspond again. I’m hoping that with practice, I’ll also improve at adapting quickly to the constant changes that come with cruising. I have a clear vision of a more balanced path forward for our circumnavigation… and on it, I’ll have more time for learning to play the ukulele. Maybe now I’ll finally figure out how to change chords easily, and strum smoothly.

creating a new rhythm,

elana, zia, & SV Windfola ⛵🎶