October 29, 2010

American Dream - the movie

Stuff. We all have an abundance of things that we don't need, right? I'm pretty sure everyone reading this falls into that category. As we fulfill these artificial needs for a better TV, a newer car, a bigger house... what is the real cost?

One of the big motivators for us to move onto the boat and take off on this adventure was to shed Stuff, and to get off the wheel of acquisition. To shed the what made our lives busy with things that seemed urgent, but weren't really important at all in the grand scheme. To find a way to live a little more simply, with more time together as a family, and a lighter tread on the earth. To live by our values instead of just hoping to "someday."

In the year leading up to our departure, we connected with a filmmaker, Joel Christian McEwen, who is inspired along similar lines. Joel was making a documentary about the crisis of the American dream: when did it change from the freedom and opportunity to build a good life, to the business of acquiring more and more *stuff*? Remember that bumper sticker... "He who dies with the most toys, wins." How did our society get there?

Joel has gathered the stories of people who are opting out of the assumed path we march down to acquire. One of those stories is ours. There's a 16 minute promotional cut you can watch here, or checkout the film's website- http://americandreamthemovie.com. Out here in the land of minimal bandwidth and poor access to the internet, we haven't been able to see it all yet (this is killing me!)- but take a peek for us, and share what you think.

Film is a powerful vehicle for transformation. I believe deeply in Joel's message, and would love to see the power of his work help effect social change. The film, hopefully, will be released this year- but Joel is still looking for funding to get it completed and bring to the public. If you, or anyone you know, is interested in sponsorship or investing (they can also take tax-deductable donations), drop a note to pr@americandreamthemovie.com.

Filming in our Bainbridge Island house, January 2008
yes, I'm on my blackberry.  sad.

October 27, 2010

Breezing through New Caledonia

New Caledonia is unfortunately just a pit stop on the way to Australia for Totem. We've stopped here to allow ourselves a shorter passage to Oz, and the best weather information before departure. With our SSB down, we won't be actively participating in the nets- minimizing time and maximizing advance info will help keep the passage safe and comfortable.

When we first sketched out our path to Australia, we seriously considered skipping over New Caledonia altogether. In a way, then, being here is a gift- the chance to see one more place, one more country. Still, it's a little frustrating to be here and not have the time to explore and get to know it better.

Old and new in Noumea
St James' Cathedral

In truth, we feel that way about every place we've visited across the Pacific.

This past week, I traded email with a friend from Mexico- she and her family sailed south about a year ago. They're considering changing their plans this coming year, from coastal cruising in the Americas to crossing the Pacific. The catch is that they're going on a shorter timeframe: they would like to gt to get all the way to Australia, but need to be back (via jet airplane, not return sailing) in the US by August. I surprised myself with how negative my gut reaction was to their plans: it felt like such a rush.

Really, we don't like rushing.
Port Moselle sunset

Why did I respond that way? Well, it wasn't a rational reaction at all. Their plans are not so different than what we've done- we've had only one more month, which is easily shaved off with a higher ratio of passage-to-anchorage days, and a handful fewer places visited. I hope the WhatChaGonnaDo crew finds a way to make it work.

Yes, there is always more to see. No, there's never enough time to see everything, or engage as deeply as we'd like. I definitely believe, after our experience, that one season in the tropical Pacific is criminally short. Two seasons MIGHT begin to get it right. Three would probably be perfect. But you can't live with the "woulda, shoulda, coulda" regrets. We've had such an amazing experience, and I'm grateful EVERY DAY to be here, to be living this life with my family.

I'm just feeling a little rushed right now, and wishing we could linger.

IO, anchored off Lifou- one of New Caledonia's Loyalty Islands
IO anchored at Lifou

October 25, 2010

Old Home Week in Noumea

We hadn't planned to stay at the marina in Noumea- like everything else in New Caledonia, it comes with a dear price. When we arrived on a Saturday morning, though, coming to the dock meant we could check in that morning- officials were on hand- instead of waiting for Monday and doing the rounds at their offices ourselves. That's like gaining 48 hours for our pit stop New Caledonia- coming in was an easy decision! I'm relieved to have a few days to spend with easy shore access, instead of bobbing in the anchorage with our yellow quarrantine flag snapping under the starboard spreader.

Coming to the dock is turning out to have been a fun option, too. Up and down both sides of the visitors pontoon are boats we've met on different parts of our path across the Pacific. We haven't seen many of them in a while, and it's been fun to catch up and hear about their adventures.

Totem in Port Moselle
Next to Tagish- we've shared anchorages since Mexico!

The challenge here will now be to avoid getting pulled into the cruiser's version of "analysis paralysis", or in this case, that specialized version known as weather waffling. Everyone here is aiming for Australia. We've all heard it's going to be a more active month for weather systems. Even the French gendarme who helped us check in looked askance and asked if we knew this was the beginning of the storm season. But opportunities to cross will open, and with good wind, it may only take us 5 or 6 days to reach Coffs Harbour.

The first window to depart may be opening up as soon as Tuesday- and so we watch, and make sure we're as ready as possible to head back out to sea.

October 23, 2010


Most of the things people say they worry about when they hear about how we live... well, they generally aren't things I worry about. Pirates. Storms. "What if something happens?" type stuff. Without belittling these possibilities, the risks are sometimes more about fear of the unknown, and the known factors are all things we manage against.

But then there comes a spell where we hear bad news from the boats around us. Twice during the two-week span we spent in Vanuatu, cruising boats arrived at their destination with one less person aboard. We're reminded that safety is something we can never be cavalier about.

We arrived in Noumea this morning. Weather changes turned a two day passage into four days, but we spent most of the balance taking a break- tucked safely into a protected bay along our route. Here in Noumea, though, we found friends who had a more memorable passage- the pounding upwind pushed their rig over the limit, and they lost their mast. They're fine, and the boat is eventually going to be fine, but it's sobering.

Quartermoon's rig damage

So I'm grateful. Grateful to be safe in still water with my family. Grateful for Jamie's depth of marine experience and amazing skills on the water. Grateful for our Totem- our vessel in more ways than one. Grateful for a tap on the shoulder to remind us to be vigilant.

October 20, 2010

General silliness

During our last days in Fiji, we anchored in the beautiful island that is Navadra at the north end of the Mamanuca island chain, in company with our friends on IO and Oso Blanco.

Earlier during our Fijian stay, the boys had each acquired a sulu- the Fijian man-skirt. We anticipated having Jamie wear it during our visits to present sevusevu to village chiefs as we meandered the islands.

As it turns out, they were also a great excuse for some general silliness and a bunch of pictures. Here are a few of my favorites- the full set is here.

MIS show a little leg!

MIS jump!

MIS are deadly fishhunters!

October 19, 2010

Blown away by the underwater life

As posted last week- we have seen some incredible things underwater in Vanuatu. Our highlights have generally been from our snorkeling expeditions- completely counter to our expectations of what our memorable times here would be.

We based ourselves in and around Havannah Harbour, at the north end of Efate island, for the better part of a week. Much of our exploration was based from this idyllic anchorage.
Lelepa bay

We're curious about why the reef here is so vibrant. It wasn't just biomass- sheer volume of fish- it was biodiversity- the variety that's present. The massive examples of different species, the healthy corals, the spectrum of life along the food chain- it's in striking contrast to most other island groups.

Is it an anomaly? is it managed? is it simply not overfished? The only place that has rivaled it for fish volume (although without the supersized fish) was Suwarrow. There, though, the lack of human population made an easy rationale... here, small villages dot the islands, and many people scrape a subsistence living with easy access to the reef.

Here are a handful of images with a vain attempt to share some peeks into the underwater world. The first few are from Vanuatu, and from IO. The rest are pictures I took in Fiji. Speaking of IO- check out their blog! They just posted another great video, once again with oodles of our pictures and some of our video footage included. I am so grateful for the time Mike puts into making these. They've also have a post on their experiences with this awesome reef snorkeling in Vanuatu. Where I just say "HUGE!", Mike gets into some specific weight estimates on the beasties we've seen underwater.

It's hard to get the scale of this big tuna from the photo, but trust me, watching him patrol the reef- there is NO doubt about who is at the top of the food chain.

My bad luck with seeing sea turtles on our snorkeling expeditions had become comical. I hadn't seen one since the Marquesas! There are plenty of them around, and I often see them from the boat, but it's hard to compare with the magic of being next to one of these magnificent creatures. Trust me, I'm not complaining, it was just funny how I never managed to see them when everyone else did. Invariably, we'd come back from a jaunt to the reef and Mike or Jamie would be crowing about the amazing turtles they'd seen. I might only be a few yards away, but I'd manage to miss it completely. Huh??

My luck finally changed. This big guy- hawksbill I think?- floated right past, looked us in the eye, and was barely fazed. You almost stop breathing, it's so magical.

Banded sea snake: Mairen saw one of these sliding along our hull the first day we anchored in Havannah Harbour. This one was photographed in Fiji. The kids insisted it was an eel, but this is actually one of them poisonous types. Lovely.
The kids insisted...

Giant clams never fail to impress me with their pretty colors and silky mantle. Turns out they're good eating, too. Jamie and Mike met up with a couple of guys when we were anchored in Waya, Fiji, and spent part of an afternoon checking out spearfishing sites with them. They cracked one of these open and chomped down the abductor muscle raw!
Giant clam

Look at Niall diving down here. He does this without thinking. This is the kid who basically couldn't swim two years ago. *sigh* I am so happy and so proud!
Niall dives without thinking about it now

This fish is called an Oriental Sweetlips- isn't it pretty? I spent about 15 minutes playing hide and seek with it around a coral head. It was just a little too curious about me to skitter away completely. They're delicious, too. They were generally 15-18" in Fiji, but we've seen a similar species- slightly different coloring, more white than black- in Vanuatu, and the Vanuatu fish are almost twice that size.

Niall spotted this nudibranch- a little sea slug- it's pictured on his pinkie finger. Doesn't it look like it should be some kind of cute cartoon character? Or have I been spending too much time undewater?

Remember that pile of sea grapes from the market inFiji? Here they are growing underwater... not sure they're ready to harvest, though. Yummmmmm..... seaweed....
Sea grapes

I think this is my favorite spearfishing pic of the trip. Mike, aka Mr Lethal.
they call him Lethal Mike

The colors and forms of coral never cease to amaze me.
beautiful corals and more

Why don't I ever get tired of clownfish? Is it the X00 times I've watched Finding Nemo? I don't know, but they're so dang funny, popping in and out of their anenome home.
Nope. I never get tired of Nemo.

October 18, 2010

Storian blong wanfala kenu Totem

Long long taem bifo i bin gat wanfala kenu Totem long smolfala aelan blong Bainbridge.

Ol wan toktok blong Totem i gat wan gudfala plan. Hem wanem go long solwata lukluk aelan blong Pacific, longwei long not blong Bainbridge.

Be wind i kam bigwan, solwara i rafraf.

Afta wan dei, ol man blong Totem hem lukluk aelan blong Pacific gat long sanbis.

Oli stat blong singsing mo lafet plante lang fulap dei.

Ol fren, ol man hem blong wanfala kenu Totem pleiplei yet tedei!

The legend of the boat Totem

A long time ago, there was a boat called Totem on Bainbridge Island.

The family of Totem had a plan. They wanted to go across the ocean to the Pacific islands, far away from Bainbridge.

The wind blew, and the waves were high.

Then one day, they found the beaches of the Pacific islands.

They sang and they laughed for many days.

My dear friends, they are still playing there today!

Niall dives without thinking about it now

playing in the shallows

October 17, 2010

Radio fail

Once again, our SSB radio has failed. It's very frustrating.

The symptoms are similar to what we experienced during our Pacific crossing in April-- namely, it won't tune up. We aren't trying to transmit, because that can only damage the unit. When we crossed from Mexico to the Marquesas in April, transmitting after failing to properly tune resulted in blowing the internal power amplifiers. I sincerely hope we haven't done that again (since making the expensive repair in Papeete, we've been extremely vigilant about ensuring a proper tune before transmitting).

Our good friends Chuck & Peggy, from s/v Alert, had offered to send us a dipole antenna back when we had the original problem. Good souls from our radio clubs on Bainbridge Island and at the Seattle Yacht Club offered ideas and assistance as well- the troubleshooting ideas helped, but it was the feeling of support out there that was at least as important. We felt good about the repair in Papeete and decided to wait for the end of the season in Australia before figuring out our backup plan (dipole antenna, secondary ham radio, sat phone, or some combination of the above)... it's feeling like hubris now!

On the other hand- we know we can do this. Although being without a functioning SSB is very difficult for me, the primary communicator on Totem. The important thing is that we can recieve: so we will be able to get weather faxes and can listen into the various nets, which will help us get useful weather data during the coming weeks. Meanwhile, we have been rethinking our route to Australia- making choices to shorten the number of passage days we'll have.

We're departing today for Noumea. It's frustrating, but we'll get by, and we'll learn more about how little we really need.

Language lessons- Vanuatu edition

I've prided myself in learning a least a smattering of each local language- but reverting so some unappealing American ethnocentrism, I seem try English first in Vanuatu and am almost sorry to find that it works every time. I think I may have succombed somewhat to the disappointment of a fleeting stay in a place that deserves months if not years to explore.

Still, it's impossible not to be fascinated with the literal puzzle of reading and understanding some Bislama.

Port Vila Public Library - Vanuatu Cultural Center
pablik laebri blong Port Vila

Vanuatu has over 100 local languages, and the inherited official languages of French and English- the result of the "condominium" period of the early 20th century when France and England shared colonial governance of the country. The true linga franca, however, is Bislama. A refinement of pidgin English, it was evolved based on contact with Europeans as a way to facilitate trade and communication between islanders with different mother tongues. Literal English is transposed on the Melanesian syntax.

For example:
Bird - pijin
Parrot - grinfala pijin
Sea bird - ol pijin blong solwata
Thank you for your help. - Tankyu tumas long help.
What is your name? - Nam blong yu emi wannem?
How much is one lemon? - Mi pem hamas wan lamen?

It appears simple at first, but is a fully developed language with a fully developed vocabulary and grammar. It may be derived in great part from English, but as a unifying language that developed *in* the islands, it has an important part of self-identification for ni-Vanuatu.

Time to bone up on some vocabulary.

Manioc (cassava) bundles for the airport
kary manik blong airport

October 15, 2010

Thinking with my stomach

I have to admit, much the cooking on board is lately has been pretty uninteresting. As we work across the Pacific islands, we commonly go in spurts of a couple of weeks without access to fresh produce. There are plenty of long term staples on board, but there's really no good substitute for a crunchy fresh veggie or ripe juicy fruit. Resorting to canned versions of either is a desperation measure.

Instead, so we grow sprouts in order to have anything resembling a crunchy fresh veggie. We buy greener tomatoes when we can find them, so they'll be getting ready to eat when other freshies are eaten or past their prime. We try to have fruit on hand that will last.

Before cruising, we were spoiled with our access to excellent food. We had a spectacular diet based on vegetables from a CSA (Chris Lewellyn, I miss you!), meat sourced from farmers we knew (Bruce, will you and Debbie come visit us in Australia?), and staples from an organic buying club (*sniff* those days are distant). Any gaps or cravings could be easily filled by a family-owned neighborhood grocery store that offered a broad spectrum of what the world has to offer.

After years of knowing the producer for the majority of our meat- something I think is important- I was reluctant to switch to "mystery source meat" in Mexico. We tried being vegetarian for a while, and it was OK until we didn't have much access to fresh vegetables in the sparsely populated Sea of Cortez last summer. We have better access in the Pacific islands, but opportunities to purchase can be spaced out by weeks. Except in a couple of locales (like Tahiti, where you can get almost anything you want- for a price) the variety of produce and grains can often be extremely limited, anyway .

If I sound a little glass half empty, I'm probably just down because I recently had to throw out all the remaining flour on board. We make our own bread, so this is kind of a big deal. But we found bugs. Lots of bugs. Flour with the odd weevil is one thing... flour that is alive with larvae is another. Then, it was in the pancake mix- my backup (besides pancakes, it makes excellent fry bread and can be used for some muffins and similar quick bread type baked goods).

It's not all bad. Far from it! When we do get to population centers with markets, we are eating gorgeous, fresh, and local. I've got a pile of pictures from the market in Port Vila to get uploaded and hopefully share tomorrow.

Also, our provisioning in Mexico- which we are *just now*, almost seven months later, finishing up- went really well. As we use up the last of many of our Mexican-purchased goods from the spring, I've been noodling on long-term provisioning lately. Got questions? Send me an email, or comment below.

fresh peanut bundles

fresh peanut bundles in the Port Vila market

October 11, 2010

Unexpected delights in Vanuatu

It's often best to arrive in a new place without too many expectations, so you are open to letting the experience of it flow. We often have the luxury of time. Not feeling rushed through a place helps us be open to opportunities for new experiences or learning as well- we aren't bent on trying to cram in a checklist of "Things We're Supposed To Do Here." The reality, though, is that we often build up preconceptions about what it will be like, and what it will happen- even if it's just as a byproduct of preparation steps.

It's a little different for us at the moment. With the cyclone season fast approaching this part of the Pacific, we only have a few weeks left in tropical islands before running south for Australia. As a result, we arrived in Vanuatu with some expectations and a fairly specific plan. Sure enough- so far, Vanuatu has not been what we expected, and forces outside our control have changed our plans!

Originally, we thought we'd arrive on Efate island and spend a couple of days in Port Vila, the capital and our port of entry, before sailing north to Epi island. There, we would encounter people who live in extraordinarily different circumstances than any we have seen before. We'd have a glimpse into a history closely tied to the land and rich with ceremony. We'd get to swim with the resident dugongs in a bay at the north end of the island. There would be epic snorkeling at an atoll between Efate and Epi.

That's not exactly the way things are turning out. We arrived a week ago, but weather systems have kept us in protected waters on Efate. Port Vila has interesting corners and its own charms, but it's not the rural village removed from most vestiges of modern western culture that is the Vanuatu of our Discovery Channel dreams. For the most part, we're just another in the crowd of white tourists disgorged from vessels- cruise ships were in port for half of our stay.

Things started looking up as soon as we got away from town. This seems to be a consistent theme for us: enjoy what the population centers have to offer, but find the outposts as quickly as possible, for this is where the best memories and friends are nearly always made. In company with our friends Mike & Hyo on IO, we worked our way around to the protection of the northern harbor on Efate.

Although we thought Vanuatu would be all about cultural experiences, what we're finding in so far instead is unparalleled sea life. It is simply stupendous: in the last few days, we have seen the largest specimen of nearly every species of sea creature we've encountered to date in our two years of cruising.

It started when we made a pit stop to snorkel at a pinnacle about 7 miles from Vila, and found an incredible combination of pelagic fish and the usual confetti of colorful reef fish. A tuna patrolled with the controlled calm of a predator. Turtles glided through, and the fish all seemed utterly fearless- based on the way reef fish surrounded us, close enough to touch, we suspect dive boats feed them. Mairen, my snorkeling buddy, was nearly hoarse from squeaking with delight with each new discovery.

After settling into an bay near Havannah Harbour, snorkeling the area reefs produced even more drama. We've seen snapper and groupers that exceeded six feet in length. Massive sea turtles have glided by. Buffalo parrotfish, a riot of color and easily 100 lbs, drifting by schools of jittery snappers. In a comical domino effect, Mike accidentally spooked the largest eagle ray we've ever seen which went jetting down and startled a fat whitetip shark on the bottom. Later,Jamie e was lining up a shot on what would be by far the biggest groupers he's ever speared, when he realized he was being checked out by a yellowfin tuna with a body as long as his own. Even the average sized parrotfish, snappers, and groupers vastly exceed the typical fish size we've seen. It is an new feeling to be in waters where we have been knocked off the top of the food chain.

If the reef wasn't magical enough- to cap it off, on the swim back from their last visit yesterday, Mike and Jamie swam with dolphins.

I don't know what's next, but my expectations have been swept back off the table.

Posted via radio: we have no internet access

October 9, 2010

We're on the Today Show!

Not the show, but the affiliated website- either way- it's *very* exciting for us!

Our family was recently included in a story by Laura Coffey as part of a series on homeschooling and traveling on TodayShow.com - "A moveable feast: For some, the world is a classroom."

For newcomers to our site via MSNBC, welcome! We've been traveling since we sailed south out of Puget Sound in August 2008. It's been a wonderful path for our family, and anyone can do it. If you've had the dream percolating, feel free to email me questions or post them in comments. It sometimes takes a while to reply, as we don't have routine internet access.

My good friend Laureen hooked us up with Laura while we were cruising in French Polynesia (check out her blogs- linked on the blogroll at right: The Excellent Adventure, and Elemental Mom). After putting up with a challenging Skype connection of big audio delays, Laura captured the essence of so much of why we love this cruising life. It's pure joy to see your children learn and grow from the changing environment around us!

For regular readers, who are curious, here's a link to the story:


It's been up a little over a week, although I've procrastinated posting thinking we might get decent internet access. That doesn't seem to be happening, so thanks for bearing with me.

Posted via radio: we have no internet access

In other news...

Our son Niall is ending a dry spell on his blog with a post today- you can read about his first impressions of Vanuatu at http://adventuresontotem.blogspot.com/.

Posted via radio: we have no internet access

October 4, 2010

While we're away...

Totem is en route to Vanuatu right now. Depending on the wind, we're expecting a transit of three to four days. For the curious, we post our location from sea once or twice a day via Winlink and YOTREPs. They're both linked at the top right of our blog, just below the subscription box.

I think I'm more excited about Vanuatu than any of the countries we've visited so far. I'm trying not to think about it too much, as it always seems best to arrive without expectations of what exactly you'll see and experience... know enough to be prepared, but let a place unfold for you.

Meanwhile, here's a little kiss goodbye from Fiji:

A beautiful view from Totem, as we wove our way through island passes...

Stunning Yasawa views

...and a snapshot of me in my happy place, hanging out with a beautiful kid.

October 1, 2010

Gorgeous hike

Anchored at Waya island with IO, we also were able to catch up with our friends on Syzygy, and planned a little adventure.

We'd been eying the mountains around the bay since we arrived. Even cruising down the west side of the island before turning into the south bay, Niall and I sat on deck and daydreamed about what great hiking was waiting for us there... the ridges positively beckoned!

With the six crew on Syzygy, our group made a long snake up the hillside. It was short, but steep, and we were all sweaty and tired by the time we reached the top. As with the best hikes, though- stunning views make it well worth the effort.

Great views from the top

Hiking back down is never as fun for me as going up. The real trick, it turned out, was to look away from the amazing views long enough to make sure you didn't wipe out on the rocky hillside. Trail? Yeah, right...
Hiking back to the bay

The kids were amazing, and did great on what was a pretty strenuous half day adventure.