November 27, 2010

FAQ: Preparing for a Pacific crossing

Over the last few months, we've had a progressive number of questions from friends who are getting ready for their own Pacific crossing. I've aggregated the most common questions, and provided some information based on our experience this year. These answers are in the context of our 2010 path from La Cruz, Mexico (near Puerto Vallarta) to Sydney, Australia. We went through French Polynesia, the Cook Islands (stopping only in Suwarrow), Tonga, Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. It is far from exhaustive, but maybe it will be helpful for some of our pre-cruising or pre-Pacific blog readers. I know I had many of these questions in my mind during the year leading up to our departure. Additions, clarifications, and questions all welcome- please comment or email me directly.

arriving in Sydney!

Arriving in Sydney

Q: Is it complicated to check out of the country from Mexico? How does it work?

TOTEM: Our experience with clearing Mexico (from Nuevo Vallarta) was simple, but every port seems to do this a little differently. Talk to the Port Captain to find out the process where you are. In 2010, we were doing our pre-departure prep in La Cruz, but the Port Captain did not did not do clearances at that time. He directed us to Nuevo Vallarta, so we checked out and took the boat to the Port Captain's dock (his requirement). The Port Captain called immigration to come to his office and complete our immigration clearance. A few pesos later (a nominal fee based on boat tonnage was levied- they took Visa, we didn't need currency) and you're cleared to sail away. The whole process took about two hours, most of which was spent twiddlign our thumbs waiting for immigration to arrive.

Q: How much prep work is needed to understand all the laws and rules for checking in/out of country? Did you do a lot of prep work on check in and clearance procedures for each country before you left?

TOTEM: This is easy to prep. We compared our (sometimes out of date) copy of Landfalls of Paradise with the latest on Noonsite and of course, the coconut telegraph. For US and Canadian citizens, the ONLY place _we visited_ that required a visa in advance for the standard 1-3 month stay was Australia (which is readily completed online- no embassy visit required). There were only two countries were advance notice to authorities was required: Fiji and Australia. In both cases, basic information (ETA, boat stats, crew stats) is sent via email to a generic address, with a minimum number of days before your arrival. The details are well publicized via Noonsite, the country tourism site, and are generally well discussed between cruisers in the last port.

Q: Were you happy with the agent in French Polynesia?

TOTEM: Having an agent in F.P. was a good choice for us. It is a great alternative to the hassle (especially since we don't speak French) and expense (probably at least as much, after losing money on all the transaction fees among bond requirements for our family). When you look at it that way, Francesco is a bargain... and he deals with everything, so you can just enjoy being in a beautiful place.

Q: Have you found in your stops en route to Australia that you need Third Party Liability Insurance?

TOTEM: Not a single customs/immigration official ever asked us for insurance proof- I don’t think they care. The only place we were asked if we had a policy was at a marina in Denerau, Fiji, our first dock in ~6 months. The only other marina we used (in Noumea, New Cal) did not ask. In Fiji, they didn't care what the policy was or want to see it or need a policy number or anything. They just wanted us to check the box for 'yes', which is probably a requirement of their own liability policy.

Q: Did you find the 90 FP visa restriction cumbersome?

TOTEM: 90 days seems short now, but in hindsight, we would have spent less time in F.P. Once we decided that we were going all the way to Australia (an epiphany when we were in Tahiti)- suddenly, 90 days was way more than we needed to allocate to FP, and we would rather have had the days in Fiji or Vanuatu.

Q: Did you encounter any issues with the restrictive NZ laws when you went through the Cooks i.e. dumping meats, veggies, fruits, etc.

TOTEM: Our only stop in the Cooks was in Suwarrow. The resident caretakers in Suwarrow were very reasonable- be respectful and responsible, but don’t worry about having things taken from you there. I heard mixed reports from boats who visited other ports in the Cooks: some were inspected, many weren’t. It’s easy enough to plan ahead if you will go to a port that is likely to have an inspection, in which case, just don’t buy out the butcher before you leave Tahiti.

Q: Budgeting/Cruising kitties are obviously individualized but to many it is always a concern. What did you find along the way?

TOTEM: The budget question... this is the million dollar cruising question. You can do this very cheaply, or you can spend a lot of money. There aren't marinas to suck your budget- you'll be anchoring almost everywhere. You don't have to eat in restaurants (until you get to Fiji, where in many places it will be cheaper than cooking on board!). Food is pricey in most places, but we actually spent LESS in food this year than if we'd been in Mexico, because we anticipated this and stocked up on long term provisions... and being in remote places, I wasn't running to the market for my favorite things every few days. Fresh fruit & veggies were always the best deal. For the most part, we just ate what was on the boat (supplemented with fresh caught fish), and most of it was from Banderas Bay. You can spend a bunch of money renting cars and doing inland touring, or you can explore what's accessible by foot or public transport from the shore.

Q: Advance planning for cyclone season?

TOTEM: I think one of the bigger questions to consider is what you do for cyclone season. Do you know where you're going for the 1st year? 2nd year? I understand marinas in NZ may get busy and this is something that could be helpful to plan in advance... but if you don’t' know when you leave, it's something you can still work out (and may even wish to wait on to see where boats you meet are headed, if you want to stay in company). We booked our Sydney marina a few months ago but it would have been nice to research more when we had cheaper wifi in Mexico.

Q: What currency did you take?

TOTEM: We carried a bunch of US$ "just in case" but never needed it. Officials everywhere we went had practical ways to deal with the fact that nobody shows up with local currency. Most take Visa, and those that didn't let you run up to the nearest ATM. We still have all the US$ we left Mexico with! (Unfortunately it's worth a lot less in Australia at the moment...) Provisioning, it was almost all in local currency, but a surprising number of grocery stores took credit cards- even some of the tiny and relatively remote magazins in French Poly.

Q: What was your experience with trading?

TOTEM: We did some, but we could have done more (it’s not something we are cultured to!). I wish we'd started much earlier. We traded for pearls in the Tuamotus, for handicrafts in Tonga and Fiji. We even had friends barter for their tattoos in the Marquesas! Stuff that's desirable? The women handicraft sellers loved nail polish and lipstick. I had a bunch of hair accessories (basic bands and clips). Men often wanted used line from the boat. Condition didn't seem to matter much. We traded tequila for loose pearls in the Tuamotus; and our friends on another boat traded costume jewelry for the same. D-cell batteries are great because people living w/o electricity (more common outside FP) often ran small radios in their homes off these. Things we were asked for: wetsuits, any kind of snorkeling gear, VHF radios, or AM/FM radios.

Q: Internet access and scabbing wifi?

TOTEM: There is no free wifi. It's often available, even in anchorages (at least in FP, which had the most developed networks) but it's really expensive and typically very, very slow. We are heavier internet users, sharing photos and posting to the blog, and ended up spending at least $100 in most countries for internet access- this adds up fast. The only place it was cheap was Fiji: internet cafes were about $1/hour. Meanwhile, if you can anticipate anything you want to download, do it in Mexico while your access is good!

Q: Have you seen many cell phones and how do they work throughout the islands?

TOTEM: We don't have one, but lots of friends did, and found them useful. You need an unlocked phone that takes SIM cards. About $10 could get you a SIM cards in each country and provide phone use for the duration of your stay. If you don’t have a cell phone, don’t sweat it. We didn’t miss having a phone. The couple of times we wanted to make a call, there was always a way to deal with being without a phone.

Q: So how did you occupy your time and deal with the long passages?

TOTEM: Being in the ocean for so long was easy some days and tough on others... but the easier days vastly outnumbered the harder ones. Tough days for me were being seasick (I know better now than to try and "tough it out", but I used to think I could skip meds and deal with it), or coping with my gimpy shoulder. I strained my rotator cuff for my right shoulder the month before we left Mexico, the only Rx is to give it rest and not use it, but that's pretty tough when you are in a seaway and using both arms to hang on or move around. Staying busy helps. I used to knit a lot but the hot weather made it tough to get inspired to be handling wool or yarn. I could read for days and days and be pretty happy, although with three kids on board, I also had other distractions and priorities!

Q: What was the sea state on your PPJ to the Marquesas and beyond?

TOTEM: The sea state was interesting and not what we expected. Multi-directional seas (swell and wind waves) were the norm from Mexico on but I really have to wonder if that was particular to the conditions this year. I don't remember hearing about it from other cruisers before, and it's not what we experienced from Seattle through Mexico. There would be generally a primary swell, and a secondary from an offset direction (sometimes as much as 90/120 deg), which often meant one would be on the quarter and the other would come along and give a more beam-to slap now and then. The beam slaps are not really fun, since the movement can be more unexpected- especially at night. It's not like every day was like this, though. Most of the passages between island groups were like this also, but not all of them. It's hard to know what it's going to be like for you. Our hardest passage was the trip between Bora Bora and Suwarrow. Friends last year told us it was their best passage ever. It’s a box of chocolates, a la Forrest Gump, you could say.

Q: What were your anchoring experiences and need for 2 anchors?

TOTEM: We use only one anchor the overwhelming majority of the time. On the rare (count on one hand) occasions we've used two, it's been to set a stern hook so we could point into a swell or reduce movement in tight anchorages. If you arrive in Hiva Oa you'll be setting a stern hook for your first anchorage after the passage. Anchorages in the Marquesas were more likely to be rolly than anywhere else we visited, but it was still no worse being anchored in La Cruz. One anchoring trick we found really helpful in the coral reef areas (and especially atolls like the Tuamotus) was to rig up a system with fenders that floats your chain. It keeps chain from dragging on the coral and makes it harder to snag coral heads. This has been covered in Cruising World and Lat 38, and is probably in a file on Yahoo group site for the PPJ.

Q: Before you arrived in Australia did you need a transformer?

TOTEM: Because we didn't stay in marinas much (and there are so very few... don't count on it, anyway. Along the path we took, I can count the marinas between Fr. Poly and NZ on one hand), I can't make generalizations about dock power, but you have to be able to deal without plugging in anyway so I think it's kind of a moot point. We'll be dockbound for a while in Australia and will probably get a transformer here.

Q: How did you get your weather info especially since your SSB was down so often?

TOTEM: Getting weather via nets isn't great on the big crossing. We're really just getting the reports of localized weather at the locations of other vessels checking in. Useful, but not the big picture either. Other nets you'll participate in later often have weather. The net that evolved between cruisers after arrival in FP included a weather synopsis at the beginning. A handful of people traded responsibility for putting it together. It wasn't rocket science, just collecting and sharing the stuff available through the radio, but a huge help for boats like us that had lost communications. Farther west, nets like Fiji's Rag of the Air give grib updates to boats checking in based on their position.

Q: What was your experience with navigational aides and cruising guides?

TOTEM: None of the South Pacific Cruising type overview books have enough detail to be a day-to-day cruising guide (we are SO spoiled with the guides for Mexico!). Some are just plain abysmal in terms of organization and clarity, but it’s still helpful to have one of them on hand as a basic reference. We had Landfalls of Paradise, and it was adequate as a high level overview by country. Beyond that, to have any kind of good detail- especially with regard to anchorages- you may want to acquire a unique guide for each country you visit. Expect even the most recent of them to have dated information, but be sufficient as a reference for common anchorages.

For French Poly., the best we found was “The Guide to Navigation and Tourism in French Polynesia”. People say it’s out of print, but call around- it can be found. There is also a good, but older, guide for the Marquesas- I think it’s called Exploring the Marquesas. This one is on the PPJ site- print/bind in MX. If you think you’ll spend much time there, it’s worth getting. Charlie’s is fine.

For the Cooks… I don’t know. We had info from Charlie’s Charts for Suwarrow, our only stop in the Cooks.

For Tonga, if you spend much time there, you'll want Sailingbird’s cruising guide. I didn’t even know it existed until we got to Neiafu. Nothing else comes close. If you'll only visit the Vava'u group (which, if you're planning to go all the way to Australia in one season, is likely), then just print out the Moorings guide from the PPJ site. It's perfectly sufficient.

Incredibly, Fiji does not have a guide book that’s worthwhile. The existing books are based on 20-30 year old research with 10-20 year old edition updates. It’s pathetic! Cruisers share tons of stuff via the internet and thumb drives relevant to the S Pac once you’re out here (and somewhat in MX, and on the PPJ website- it’s just harder to find). For Fiji, people passed around MaxSea tracks. These were really helpful to get an idea for where other boats went and how people wove through the reefs… it is one big reef minefield there.

The best guides for Vanuatu and New Caledonia are actually computer-based programs to download, and not printed guides. I don’t have the URL handy for Vanuatu but it should easy to find by looking for “the Tusker guide” for Vanuatu. For New Cal, it’s www.cruising-newcaledoniTotem:com.

November 25, 2010

Thankful to be here.

Tasman sea
off for a walk in Coffs Harbour

Our quiet family Thanksgiving dinner last night, we went around the table talking around things we're thankful for. To a one, the kids all agreed: they are grateful to be out sailing, to be living this life.

November 22, 2010

Getting to know Australia

the coast channels Oregon
Same same but different

At first blush, Australia is so superficially similar to North America- the differences sometime catch you by surprise. It's like there's a little unexpected twist to everyday things.

The coastline at our landfall, Coffs Harbour, for example- looked so much like the Oregon coast. Evergreen trees, rolling surf crashing onshore, little islets just offshore... but look more closely, and it's all done in tropical shades. Those conifers are actually Norfolk pines, which aren't actually pines and would not survive in PNW temperatures. The noisy birds overhead that looked like crows when silhouetted? Some kind of parrot, when their emerald feathers are seen in the sunlight.

This is going to be fun.

November 20, 2010

Land ho!

At four days and 21 hours, Jamie sighted the coast of Australia. Poetically enough, it rose from pink clouds at sunrise. I was off watch sleeping (and happy to stay that way), but he woke Niall up for a bleary first look at our destination.

landfall: the coastline emerges at sunrise
Australia emerges from the pink morning haze

Later that morning, as the shore came into focus, we all sat giddily in the cockpit. It's hard to describe the excitement of the moment, but it all feels right. I'm grateful for the safe completion of another major passage, and ready to rest.

November 19, 2010

Day 5 - Almost there

sunrise on the Coral Sea
Sunrise in the Coral Sea

The wind has backed to the Northeast, which means we're running dead downwind. It's also lightened up considerably to 10-15 knots. We motorsailed, which is easier on the autopilot, a more comfortable motion, and ensures we can get in during business hours on Friday.

I'm devouring a stack of cast-off magazines from a fellow cruiser- mostly fashion oriented, and about half of them Australian. I'm hoping for cues to some of the culture in our destination as well as easing my brain into the fact I'll have to actually pay attention to what I wear soon. But the shiny pages of scrawny models bound up in "look at me" clothes feels false and foreign. So does the message on almost every page, pitching something "essential" to buy. It's entertaining, mostly, but makes me wonder how the adjustment to first world life will sit. In case we missed the point, one magazine is actually named "Shop Till you Drop". Maybe the Aussie fasion mag should gets point for telling it like it us, but something inside me resists.

Siobhan flips pages with me. Her game is to point at something she wants on every page. This could be people for her imaginary game ("I'll be her, and her, and you can be that girl") to things she wants to eat or use (a pizza on one page, an electronic gadget on another). Maybe she'll be our material girl... she's already our fashionista.

MIKE/IO: If all is well on Totem give us a quick tune now please.

BEHAN/TOTEM: (hits tune button)

MIKE/IO: got it, good! all's well on IO. Here's a position- if you are within 20 miles of this mark, give me a tune now.

MIKE/IO: OK, you're within 20 miles of that position. If you are east of this position, along your rhumb line towards New Cal- give a tune now please.

MIKE/IO: OK, good! If you are within 10 miles of this position...


It takes some time, but Mike usually pegs us within just a couple of miles.

November 18, 2010

Day 4 - Fickle Autopilot

Big news today- we GYBED! Yes, it's exciting things like this that make the day of the passage sailor.

petrels around the boat
Petrels circling Totem

The autopilot needs to be babied. When he opened up the gear box for another lube, Jamie found brass shavings- a sign the planetary gears are wearing. At least we replaced the plastic gears back in Mexico- they would never have lasted this long! We are taking steps to lighten the load on the autopilot- hand steering more, motorsailing when it makes sense. With just two of us trading watches, hand steering all the time would be exhausting. Niall is able to help, which is huge, and we can still rely on the autopilot in some conditions. A new autopilot is now just another boat buck looming in our future.

We're making great progress. Besides near ideal conditions for Totem- 20-25 knots, right on the beam- we're riding the East Australian Current (those who know it can now quote several relevant lines from Finding Nemo...). We've gone long stretches of averaging 9-10 knots, rarely seen less than 6, and occasionally surfed over 14. Not bad!

Ocean-dwelling petrels circle Totem. These dove-gray birds spend most of their life far out at sea. It's beautiful to watch them glide over the water, perfectly anticipating the lift of the waves and and staying just inches above them. Occasionally a wing is very diliberately dipped to skim through the surface: it's magical to watch.

At 6:45pm (NSW time) this evening, Totem crossed into Australian waters. We watched and counted down the minutes until this first hurdle of arrival: it was an exciting moment! It looks like we'll arrive in plenty of time on Friday to complete clearance and avoid the nearly $300 additional in fees that come with checking in on the weekend.

November 17, 2010

Day 3 - Blue skies!

charging along
Totem charges along on a reach.

I wake to the "beep-beep-beep" sound of the autopilot spontaneously shutting down. A less auspicious beginning to our third day, which is otherwise bright and blue. Jamie spends a few hours hand steering. I get breakfast and monitor the morning radio net while skimming through the autopilot manual. The troubleshooting guide lines up with Jamie's gut: excess friction is causing an automatic shutdown of the drive unit before the motor can be damaged from working too hard. I take over steering the waves while Jamie digs up a can of WD40 and crams himself into the lazarette to lube up our old Raymarine as best he can. We gingerly shift back to the autopilot, helping the wheel along to minimize effort on the drive unit. It seems to work, so Jamie and I sit in the cockpit and eventually breathe a sigh of relief.

Jamie not only wore pants last night, but a fleece and sea boots. I resisted the boots, and neither of us have consented to put socks on yet. We're just not ready to condescend to wearing them again.

Even though we can't transmit, the HF radio nets are a key part of our day. Along with friends making the passage to Oz concurrently, we've organzied an informal net with twice daily check-ins. Mike from IO runs the show and is our advocate and guardian angel, tracking Totem's estimated position and sharing weather updates for our benefit.

When the SSB stopped working in Vanuatu, we found that our tune-up was still audible at significant distanc, and we use this single chirp as a basis to communicate. Mike asks us yes/no questions, and we confirm positive responses by hitting the tune button. It can be a bit cumbersome, as the tune process takes about 30 seconds before timing out, but it's effective. Mike has gotten our position within a radius of just a few miles at each of our twice daily nets, and read forecasts taht we aren't able to download ourselves. It is truly wonderful to feel so looked after by our friends, to know that even in this vast expanse of ocean, we aren't alone.

We hear over the net that FlyAweigh has broken a lower stay on their port side. They've dropped all sails and are doing fine motoring through with plenty of fuel to reach Australia, but it's yet another reminder. Anything can happen, an you have to be able to cope with a spectrum of unexpected events. Their boat was commissioned barely a year ago- who would expect this level of rigging problem?

The dryer, cooler air is an exciting reminder of our destination. Pants, foulie jacket, hat and boots were essential for night watch, and I finally submitted ot the tyranny of the socks... sliding into fleece to warm my toes.

November 16, 2010

Day 2 - Cool and gray

Lumpy gray seas reflect the sunless skes, too overcast to cast a shadow. Our cockpit cushions have a light salt grit from waves that slapped the hull and splashed over the coamings last night. The sea state has eased considerably from our first day, so I cooked a hearty breakfast for the crew/family of eggs, bacon and potatoes. We've all shaken the "blahs" that often accompany the first days of a passage as our bodies adjust to the constant motion. A few squares of dark chocolate, usualy reserved for the wee hours, find their way into my morning watch.

Hats, yes, but no socks yet.
Niall and Jamie in the cockpit- bundled up, but still refusing to condescend to socks.

The children have slid easily into their passage routine as Jamie and I have slid into ours. Their quiet times spent reading or listening to audiobooks are interspersed with rambunctious wrestling in the aft cabin's big bunk. We shift watches in a seamless rhythm found through trial and error over thousands of sea miles.

Late at night, leaning over the binnacle and looking astern, I can just make out the phosphorescence that marks our path. Clouds obscure the stars and no moon shed light, making this the inkiest of nights I can remeber at sea. We charge along at well over hull speed, surving down the front of three meter wave fronts. Without light to expose our surroundings, the feeling of speed is magnified and exhilarating.

November 15, 2010

Day 1 - departing New Caledonia for Australia

After waiting for an early morning squall to pass through, we headed toward the pass through the reef. Looking for a push to get away from the coast and a full charge to our house battery bank before starting the passage, we motoredsailed away from our last of 24 tropical islands visited this year. Gray skies were cracked by widening spots of blue, as the roll of ocean swells took over from the choppy fetch in the lagoon.

We have a series of reminders that this passage closes a chapter for us on Totem, the end of a glorious season crossing the tropical Pacific. Already it feels distinctly different. The breeze is cool; I can't remember the last time I wanted to wear pants, but they're suddenly essential. Overhead, a contrail cuts through the clearing sky. It stands out starkly, and we all stare at this once familiar sight that has become entirely unfamiliar to us.

We're a little anxious about the weather, but not enough to wait in New Caledonia any longer. From one update to the next, forecasts have shifted meaningfully several times in the last few days. With our HF radio unable to transmit, and no sat phone for backup, our options for weather updates are limited. But all signs point towards departure. Degradation could mean discomfort, but not danger.

We think our waiting has paid off, but know we'll be skirting a trough of intensified wind between two weather systems that would be nice to keep tabs on. For the first time in many months, I have dosed with Meclazine before departure. I'm grateful for it now: the swells are nearly on our beam and Totem rolls sharply to starboard, but we're feeling fine. My world is full with the joyful feeling of wind in my hair as we sail for Australia.

double reefed under blue skies
On our way!

November 12, 2010

Landfall in Australia!

Totem is in Australia! Our passage from Noumea to Coffs was a little shy of 900 miles, and Totem rocketed here in five days + 1 hour. It was near ideal conditions for us (average around 20 knots with apparent mostly square on the beam), and the most comfortable sea state we've had in a long time. How delightful to have reasonably predictable swells from a single direction... trust me... those bi- and tri- directionals are no picnic.

We're taking some time to recover, but plan to head for Sydney as soon as we're rested up and the weather allows. Meanwhile, I'm going to dribble out a series of posts from my log during the passage.

coming into Coffs Harbour
Jamie scanning the Coffs Harbour entrance

November 10, 2010

Oso and IO, our comrades divine

As my good friends know, I like writing bad poetry to mark occasions (birthdays are a favorite). The was shared over a bowl of kava with our good friends from the M/V Oso Blanco and S/V IO, on the last evening we spent together in Fiji. We parted ways the next day: Oso remaining in Fiji before heading to New Zealand, as we headed west for Vanuatu and then Australia at season's end.

As we take off for Australia and point to a different port than our good friends on IO, it seems worth sharing. Just remember, by definition, it's *bad* poetry...

Tosio raft up


Oso and IO our comrades divine,
We know that our happiness is also thine.
Those who call parting "sweet sorrow" don't know
the circles of life in which we cruisers flow.
We know there's a time and a place and a boat;
we just have to wait and we'll all be afloat,
in some quiet atoll or islet or bay,
sharing a sunset, rehashing the day.
So when you hear 'gayjoe' or 'rummy' or hey!!
You'll know fellow travelers are coming to play.

rafted together in Fiji
Tosio raft up

playing cards on Oso. Again!
What a surprise... we're playing cards!

November 8, 2010

"Stuck" in New Caledonia? I don't think so!

We're finally on our way to Australia, but our stay in New Caledonia stretched out from a few days (planned) to almost three weeks (definitely not planned). The primary reason was the weather, and our desire to make the final leg to Australia in good conditions.

Fundamentally, there are a couple of ways to deal with this unwanted delay. One is to get very frustrated thinking about all the things waiting for us in Sydney- the things that need to be organized, the plans for our future that can't be worked out until we are there. For a few days, I did a pretty good job of being grumbly on that front and willing the weather to bend to my desire. Not terribly productive.

The other way is to simply accept the reality we are given, and make the best of the situation. At one point, I had the epiphany that I had to simply declare that we were on vacation. Other than last minute bottom cleaning, the boat was basically ready to go. There are always projects, but nothing was essential. The best antidote for fretting is to chuck it all and go have fun!

Since we hadn't expected to have any time to enjoy New Caledonia, so we didn't really know what to do at first. Thankfully, this is an easy "problem" to solve. We have had a blast spending time with friends we've known across the Pacific. We've been inseperable from IO for months, of course. We've known FlyAweigh since our days in the La Cruz marina in Mexico as well, but ever since we checked out of the country the same morning in Puerto Vallarta, we've usually been an island group behind them. We met the kid boats Merlin and Victoria in French Polynesia, and periodically reunited kid packs from among our flock.

Adventure #1 was the aquarium field trip blogged last week. At that point, we still thought we were mere days from departure. Ha! Another week was in store. No problem- it was just time to get out of the smelly marina (pipes dumping raw sewage emptied right at the top of the dock... nice). The lagoon, on the other hand, was spectacular. I cannot being to describe the brilliant shades of blue, from turquoise to periwinkle.

Noumea lagoon panorama

For most of a week, we anchored off an islet named Maitre. The only structures onshore were part of a lovely resort. Happily, they welcomed cruisers as long as we kept our profile, you know, subtle. We couldn't quite blend in with the Japanese honeymooners in their matching outfits, but kept our profile low while enjoying the pool and freshwater showers. The kids had a ball walking the beach, claiming "snake island" for their own, and herding parrotfish in the shallows.

We all piled onto FlyAweigh one morning and cruised out to a less trafficked part of the lagoon. This is literally the largest lagoon in the world, so that wasn't too difficult. We thought our days of epic snorkeling were over for a while. I am so happy to be wrong! Gorgeous corals, new reef fish, octopus, cuttlefish, eagle rays, and more. I dubbed one hunk of rock that Mike and Jamie favored for spearfishing (oh, we ate very well!) a "rest stop on the turtle highway." I have never seen so many turtles, and I have never seen such large turtles, but there they were. From the 4+ foot green turtle with a ridiculously big head, to the graceful hawksbills that glided through- one after another after another.

If only our underwater camera hadn't stopped working in Fiji (to be fair, I took that little Fuji to depths it did not belong in) we'd have underwater eye candy to share. Instead, you have to settle for a picture of Kim from s/v Victoria, who is clearly telling a grand fish story:

fish tales from victoria

Allan and Alison broke out their windsurfer. Jamie is a natural: despite about a 20 year gap since his last windsurfing experience, he took off immediately. He opted to cruise way out into the lagoon; Allan, on the other hand, had fun aiming as close to the stern of Totem as humanly possible (and grinning like a wildman the whole time).

Allen aims for totem

Jamie spent hours in the water with Niall, giving him his first lesson.

niall's first lesson

Mairen decided to commemorate the whole day by helping me make a dessert with a paper-and-lego windsurfing diorama featured on top.

celebrating windsurfing

Alison has a lovely, calming, positive presence... just being around her helped my perspective on the unwanted wait in New Cal.


Meanwhile, the girls adopted Allan:

Allan, the girls next bff

That is, when they weren't inflicting themselves on Mike and Hyo. Fortunately, they are not only used to this, they seem to encourage it.

goofing around on FlyAweigh

As usual, lovely memories are made when we least expect them. Saying goodbye was difficult- we're not all sure exactly when we'll meet up again. I'm going to cherish the gifted days we had with these characters for a long time.

November 5, 2010

Just another day on Totem

My parents recently asked for "normal everyday" pictures of what's happening with the children on board. It's hard to say what a normal day is, since they change as often as the scenery around us- but there are common themes. Here are a few snippets from recent days on board Totem.

Niall has been working on knots and splicing with Jamie.

knots and splicing

The girls crafting designs from popsicle sticks. Siobhan made a pretty spiral and announced it would be the top of our christmas tree (not sure exactly how that's going to come together, since December is summertime in Australia). Flotsam from the morning scattered about the table- a book of Greek myths, biology lab projects, and a field guide for fish identification.

just another day on Totem

Niall is an excellent teacher to Mairen and Siobhan- ask them, and they'll tell you, he taught them how to swim. Siobhan loves her dinghy lessons.

the teacher

OK, so this isn't "normal everyday" stuff- it was a special treat- but it's the kind of cooperative learning that happens all the time on board. We have some packaged science projects stashed, and I broke out the owl pellet dissection kit on a flat passage day recently. They had a blast going through the pellets, guessing what might be inside, and using the tools in the kit to try and identify the skeletal remains of different critters within.

science project day!

When we're in a pretty bay, hardly a day goes by that we're not swimming. One of our last days in Fiji, Mairen and I snorkeled from the boat to shore and did some beachcombing. Siobhan has the eagle eye for cowrie shells, but Mairen amazes me with the natural beauty she finds.

crab shell

Resting in the evening on our new-from-IO hammock, strung up on the bow. They were all belting the classic "Lollipop"... Siobhan just couldn't stop!

She's singing

November 3, 2010

Halloween in New Caledonia

Be afraid!
Amazing what you can do with sunscreen and green food coloring.

We keep finding more silver linings to our present situation: waiting in New Caledonia for a good window for our passage to Australia. Sure, it's frustrating- we expected to be there by now, settling into a "home" marina in Cammeray... checking out the nieghborhood... learning about new surroundings. I chafe a little more every day that we sit here.

The kids, on the other hand, are thrilled. Halloween would have been lost in the shuffle of a passage if we'd left on our expected timeline. Instead, they celebrated with friends. There were costumes both cute and ghoulish, and a passel of other cruising kids to scare up treats from around the anchorage.

Creepy characters
The junior crews of Totem, Merlin, and Victoria

We wondered how many people would be prepared for our dinghy full of trick or treaters. Surprisingly, quite a lot! I think quite a few boaters weren't expecting to give out candy, but scrounged up treats for the kids anyway.

trick or treating!
Greg (s/v Merlin) takes the children from boat to boat

We hung out with other parents back on Merlin, and whey they returned, they had more than just successfully filled goodie bags. They found MORE children to join them! Everyone under the age of 13 piled into the main cabin to trade candy, and watch "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." Here we are, thousands of miles from home, but the fundamental goodness for the kids in celebrating a holiday are preserved.

I think we'll let the weather angst slide.

November 1, 2010

Haven't we seen enough underwater?

With the weather delaying our departure from New Caledonia, we've had the chance to do a little exploring. Our first foray: the aquarium!

The aquarium? After spending day after day after day snorkeling in pristine, world-class reefs these last six months? What could we possibly see? We piled onto a bus with Mike & Hyo and Allan & Alison (s/v FlyAweigh) and headed off to find out.

The answer, it turns out, is "a lot." We see some incredibly cool stuff on our own forays, but the fish there have a real knack for swimming *away* from you. We could sit in one place and stare at these for as long as we wished.


Having the luxury of going on a weekday, we had it nearly to ourselves: there's not much more peaceful than room a softly lit by light shimmering through the water... even if that water is a big tank.

it's still cool...

And of course, when you're IN the water, there's the whole pesky breathing business. I have been having more and more fun freediving, but what I can do is still limited. It's hard to hang as long as you want, as deep as you want, when you're using snorkel gear... and the glimpses of beauty are sometimes pretty brief. Here, we could linger - or move on. Siobhan was almost a taskmaster leading Alison around the displays.

Siobhan's new best friend

And of course, even if I was a star freediver, you just won't see these critters without special gear.

Here's one

Besides, I have to admit: it's nice to have a plate of Plexiglas between your bare skin and this guy.


The leopard shark (a.k.a. zebra shark) has been one of Niall's favorites sea creatures. Seeing it glide by triggered the one of the best insights of the whole journey: hearing the kids oooo and aaahhh over it, and then reflect on how much better it was to see one in the wild.

Yep. The book is pretty much always better than the movie, too.

Niall's favorite-