Fetching the Long White Cloud (part1)

The weather had cleared. The forecast forty knots strom had never materialized. Yet another prediction fiasco! But the trades were still blowing from South of Southeast. The projected course for the first leg of our journey to New Zealand was to be 214˚, or just South of Southwest. At 20 knots strength it’s a little bit too much of a slap in the face to start a long and maybe strenuous ocean voyage on winds foreward of the beam. So we waited a little more. We had already been waiting for a month anchored off lazy Pangaimotu Island, a good but expensive ferry ride away from the urban brawl of Nuku’alofa. What could possibly be wrong with hanging in there for a couple more days?

And then we hadn’t been exactly idling. There was a new set of sails packed away in Aluna’s holds and she had been outfitted for all kinds of mind boggling worst case scenarios. Our first trip out of the mostly benign sailing grounds of the Tropics was strewn with tales of all kinds of natural disasters. Sudden gales with steep seas, wicked fronts and lousy low pressure systems were part of the line up of meterological monsters that peopled the soozing bed time stories of cruisers in the coconut thatched bars were they tend to congregate. Aluna had never seen gale force winds in her short but furious life and the equipment for such occasions was all still buried under other essential stuffs waiting to be installed somewhere. I therefore rigged a bridle of stretchy rope to her sterns to attach different contraptions to, should we find ourselves surrounded by heaping seas threatening to burry us in a watery grave. A spare tire makes perfect sense bolted to the rear door of a jeep, but many a guest aboard Aluna has asked me what I planned to use the two black tires for that lay on our decks. As a sea anchor! would be my usual response, and few ever ventured further along that thread of thought, like wondering how strange it was to think of anchoring in the sea! Anchoring almost by definition implies attaching yourself to something firm and steady, so how does one expect to attach oneself to a roiling and churned up sea? We do not have to venture too much into the realm of hydrodynamics to understand that adding speed to the mix the softness of water pretty quickly adquires a firmness that can break your bones and rip off the skin from your flagellated body. Those tires attached to a good bit of rode can slow a boat down and slide it magically from the doom of dangerously burrying its bows under a wave into the relative safety of riding the foamy crests.

Should, god or whoever else is in charge of things aloft forbid, the maritime situation deteriorate further and make those tires start to skid, figuratively speaking, I had yet another weapon up my dripping sleeves: A military surplus parachute manufactured to the rigorous engineering specifications of brutal all out war and designed to slow down a rocket falling out of the sky at supersonic speed. It was another fruit of eager internet merchandising and my scoring the web for treasure troves during the building of our vessel. The contraption was still in its original packaging, I had never even extracted it from its army green sleeve, where it was obviously and meticulously stored to be ripped out and deployed seamlessly. Looking at this cover a little more closely I realized that my thinking went astray as I portrayed it to you as the brave saviour of a rocket propelled grenade. Its more down to earth service must have been for airdrops of goods, where the sleeve was attached to the body of the aircraft while the payload was shoved out the hatch. No such spectacular deployment was needed on Aluna, so I extracted the danger orange dyed chute and attached its straps to a sturdy piece of rope that could simply be fastened to our standard anchor, then tossed over board and again attached to the bridle on our bows. That’s as far as my imagination dared to go into the tricky quicksands of disater preparedness!

On Sunday the winds started backing and promised to be East of Southeast for the following day. A last walk ashore around tiny Pangaimotu Island was the highlight of the day, running our bare toes through the lukewarm waters and looking up at the slender coconutpalms intensely, being well aware that we would not see them for a good long time while shivering down under in the cold. A good night of sound sleep was now the only thing missing to prepare us fully for the trip.

The breeze was stiff in the morning and for once it was just as promised a little East of Southeast. It always takes a good bit of nerve to put up the big main sail with its fickle bamboos when it’s blowing a fair bit. But the thought of a good headstart had clearly more traction than any worry, so up goes the bundle, ready to deploy. Then it’s cardio time. Pull and pull and then pull some more on the anchor rode, and don’t forget to breathe! Just before I reached anerobic exhaustion the anchor came up with a good bundle of seagrass on it. And this is where it always gets quite hectic. Aluna was now adrift and we were at the windward end of a crowded anchorage. Losen the brailing lines and pull in the sheets! Thank goodness Aluna had fallen off the wind to the correct side and soon we shot downwind across the wide harbor of Nuku’alofa doing seven knots, heading for the Egeria Channel to the Northwest where a zigzag line will lead us out through the reefs into the open sea.

Once there the first stretch of our journey was in the lee of Tongatapu Island for a couple miles. One more nostalgic look left the palmfronds in the tropics for good. The gleaming white sandy beach became thiner and thiner, Duff Reef and its crashing waves slid aft of the beam to the North and before we knew it the trade winds hit us with their full might. The top of the main sail spars started to buckle and twist and gave clear signals that there would be no peace of mind if we left it up. After two years of trials and errors we have the routine of changing the foresail down pretty good. Unlash the small mainsail from the chocks on the outsides of the hulls and bring it close to the mast; turn Aluna’s nose into the wind a bit; release the sheets and pull hard on the pair of brailing lines until the sail is bundled up and usually fluttering wildly in the wind; unlash the foot of the sail then slowly release the halyard while Beatriz pulls on the sheets to lower the tip between the shrouds of the mizzen mast; once the sail rests on deck unclip the sheets, the vang and the halyard; move the big main sail over to the side and clip sheets, vang and halyard onto the small main sail; up that one goes by pulling with your full weight on the halyards; tighten the vang and attach the sail’s foot to the bottom of the mast; let go the brailing lines and pull in the sheets; bring Aluna back on course; stow the downed sail on the sides of the starboard hull; and done! If that all sounds like quite a bit of exercise to you, it is! Done on a rocking and rolling platform ads a couple more calories to the burning list. But now Aluna is set up for her journey. That small mainsail can take up to gale force winds, but before that the mizzen would have to come down and be replaced by a smaller storm mizzen. So far we have had to do that only once back on our strenuous trip from Hawai’i to the Marquesas. With the twenty to twentyfive knot winds streaming over our beams here there’s no chance of that happening and the sails pulled us comfortably along at close to 6 knots. By noon the next day we had put behind us over 130 nautical miles of the 1,050 needed for our passage.

Once again out at sea with its physical misery, the lightheadedness, the tranquility, the splendid loneliness, life suspended in immeasurable vastness, the mind racing helplessly through all kinds of nonsense, unable to grab hold of anything reasonable, like feverishly trying to erect a house of cards on a wildly swaying swing, to thread a piece of yarn through a tiny needle eye while being punched by a dozen boxing gloves, constantly stumbling, permanently unbalanced and eternally condemned to uselessness. Once my tumurous self is sufficiently soaked and dehusked the transcendental calm of not belonging anywhere allows my dazed gaze to follow the albatross in its superb glide through the long troughs between waves and its majestic sweep steep up into the winds from where with movements of flight control invisibly small it slingshots back down at supersonic speed, hidden from sight while in the next trough and then reemerging more elegantly than ever but slowly fading away in the distance, that peculiar distance over the moving water where far can be much closer than right at your side. Smaller birds, just as agile flyers, also graze the wavy surface in search for sustenance in their watery world. Brave, resilient, self-contained life’s amazing reach flares potently breaching impossibilities where thought screaches to a sudden stop and dematerializes with no fuzz or rusty remnants. Pure, raw being.

One Response to “Fetching the Long White Cloud (part1)”

  1. Kim Says:

    I was tempted to say, “Bravo,” but then I realized your last paragraph had shredded my banner to pieces…



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