Thursday, March 20, 2008

Catching Up

Some people just live fascinating lives! My friends Judy and Bryan of the Charter Yacht Ursa Minor are a couple of those lucky creatures. Enjoy their exploits from a recent correspondence.

This has truly been a very special year for Ursa Minor and her crew. We have sailed almost 10,000 miles across the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, and out across the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean. Along the way came a myriad of new experiences, dozens of new friends and an enhanced appreciation of the vastness of this world as well as reminders of how small a world it can be.

Cruising the southern Caribbean we saw the pristine, isolated islands off the coast of Venezuela, the sophisticated islands of Bonaire and Curacao, and then the delightful San Blas Islands off Panama where the Kuna Indians live a very traditional life style in thatched huts and dugout sailing canoes. Imagine our surprise when a Kuna family in colorful traditional clothing paddled up in a dugout canoe to offer a trade of fish for our charging up their cell phone for them! We also loved the San Blas for the dozens of protected anchorages in crystal clear water surrounded by coral reefs full of fish, and for the molas made by the women – very colorful embroidery on unique reverse appliqué designs.

Transiting the Panama Canal was an exciting time, made all the more enjoyable by the company of old friends Sharon Allen and Joyce Bearse, two lady captains who were friends from our VI days. Days before and after the canal were filled with making new friends, seeing old ones, exploring Panama and provisioning the boat at fabulous prices. Heaven only knows when we’ll find rum or beer that cheap again!
Just past Panama, we had a short restful stop in the Las Perlas Islands (where the dozens of jumping manta rays made up for the murky water, numerous floating logs, and huge tidal range) before setting off on our then longest passage: 8 days to the Galapagos Islands. Crossing the equator en route we had a ceremony thanking King Neptune for his kindness and generosity.

The Galapagos Islands were a wondrous treat. The tortoises are just as amazing as we’d imagined, and our favorite was Pepe, a 300 year old family pet who came when called by name and just loved chowing down on fresh papaya. We rode horses up to an extinct volcano caldera, and then hiked down into the eerie and barren landscape. We snorkeled with sea lions, eagle rays, penguins and sharks, and laughed at the antics of the hundreds of sea lions frolicking in the harbor, as they tried to crawl aboard any boat that looked to offer a nice sunning spot.

Next came our longest passage to date, to the Marquesas – over 3000 miles across mostly fairly tame ocean, where weeks would go by without sight of another boat. It took us 22 days, and never was a landfall more welcome, especially after the final 48 hours included lots of rain and squalls and occasional winds to 40 knots. Our first island in French Polynesia, Fatu Hiva, was truly magical – fantastic rock pinnacles framing lush green valleys extending deep into the towering mountains, a very welcoming population that were far more into trading than any we’ve seen before or since (Bryan’s bright orange crocs bought a cornucopia of goodies including food and carvings), and a friendly bunch of fellow cruisers who had all proven themselves by getting there. We stopped at 3 or 4 other islands as we worked our way up the Marquesas, spending almost a month at the most populous, Nuka Hiva, where Bryan got his first “personal” Pacific souvenir – a traditional tattoo of a manta ray with a tiki embedded within.

Another week’s passage brought us to the Tuamotus – a huge group of coral atolls, very low-lying clusters of islands spread along reefs built up on the rims of ancient sunken volcanoes. The most fabulous snorkeling we have ever done was at Fakarava where several times we drifted y with the rushing incoming tide through the pass and into the lagoon, surrounded by the most colorful and varied coral and huge numbers and varieties of sea life, including dozens of disinterested sharks. We toured a pearl farm, and bought some of the famous Polynesian black pearls.

Then the Society Islands of French Polynesia, best-known for Tahiti. Our favorite isle was Huahine, where we spent several lazy sunny days in a flat calm anchorage surrounded by reefs and a long sandy beach, had dinner ashore in a beach restaurant with fancy French food and sand between our toes. Tahiti gave us our “big city” fix, and was far more enjoyable than we’d been led to expect by some who’d been put off by its hustle and bustle. The huge indoor produce, seafood and handicraft market was always enchanting. The “roulottes” (vans that rolled into the park nightly, pulling out tables, chairs, grilles and whatever else necessary to transform them into cozy restaurants) offered great food for reasonable prices. We hitchhiked the length of the island to visit the Gauguin Museum and could easily imagine the fascination these islands held for him. Stays at Moorea, Raiatea, Tahaa and Bora Bora all were delightful as well.

A 5 day passage through very rolly seas brought us to lovely Suwarrow Atoll, a national park of the Cook Islands, inhabited only by another 5 or 6 cruising yachts and caretakers John and Veronica and their 4 boys. They made our stay there very special, with frequent potlucks on the beach (including a birthday party for Bryan’s 64th), tours to various small islands in the atoll to see thousands of breeding seabirds, huge coconut crabs, and great snorkeling spots. Judy had a small stroke while there, which proved to be very minor – only a 5 hour memory loss and never any speech or motor impairment – and served as a strong reminder of the importance of regularly taking one’s blood pressure meds.

Another 5 day passage to American Samoa where Judy got a CT scan and other tests, as well as some additional meds, and we spent a month waiting for everything we needed to arrive in spits and spurts. The inner harbor, unfortunately the only place on the island to anchor, was filthy and frequently subject to strong nasty odors from the two fish canneries, and received more rain fall than anywhere we’d ever been. Mildew grew rampantly, but at least our tanks stayed full. The people were very nice – a couple we met at the hospital invited us to their home, the American ex-pats welcomed us at the Yacht Club and ferried us around shopping and eating. Here was a small world incident – within 15 minutes of meeting ex-pat Brad Rhea we discovered that one of the memorial services for Judy’s deceased nephew Teddy was held at his daughter’s house in Washington State. Bryan got his second Pacific tattoo, an ankle band in a traditional Samoan style, at the Tattoo Fest held at Tisa’s Barefoot Bar, a delightful beach bar strongly reminiscent of Foxy’s at Jost Van Dyke in the BVI. Our tour of the Chicken of the Sea cannery was an eye-opener. It’s hard to believe the ocean holds any more tuna when you see how many tons of fish they process in a day.

On to Wallis, a small French island that’s ringed by a fringing reef. Surprisingly, many people spoke English, as they’re quite isolated from other French-speaking islands but surrounded by many island nations where English is the predominant second language. Hitching was the only means of land transportation, and brought us into contact with many friendly locals and French ex-pats. The French cheeses were a treat!

Funafuti, the capitol of Tuvalu, brought us back to the world of coral atolls. Our first day we made friends with Sylia, an energetic young business woman who seemed always to be nearby when we needed advice or help, and sent us off with a nice gift when we finally left. We arrived at the Saturday market after most of the produce from the Taiwanese Aid farm was gone, but after a nice chat with the Taiwanese Ambassador, he graciously sent some boys back to the farm to freshly pick some for us.

Crossing the equator once again, we returned to the North Pacific at Tarawa in Kiribati. The atoll was in the process of some major road works and painfully dusty. We were only able to stay a few days so had to put off our tour of the infamous WWII battle site until we return there next spring on our way south. Our only other stop in this widely spread nation of atolls was Butaritari, which had far and away the most traditional life-style we’ve seen in the Pacific. There were numerous extended family compounds with multiple thatched-roof structures with distinct functions: separate houses for sleeping, cooking, eating, and even dish-washing. Interspersed among the compounds were several maneabas – large community meeting houses. Known as the garden island of Kiribati because it gets much more rain than most, it was full of flower, fruit and greenery. Strolling one day, a family befriended us and took us to their home for refreshing drinking coconuts, and then delivered a bag of more to the wharf for us the morning we left.
In early December we arrived at Majuro, Marshall Islands, where Judy lived for 5 years 25 years ago, and where we’ll be spending the next 3 or 4 months. It’s been a very pleasant “home-coming” with lots of old friends. The cruising community is very active, with a morning radio net announcing races, dinners out, potluck picnics, and this weekend we all hosed a potluck lunch for a group of young American basketball players known as the Harlem Ambassadors who were on a goodwill mission across the Pacific.

That evening we watched them have a fun and goofy game with a local team, much to the amusement of the hundreds of school kids who were admitted free.
Christmas here provided lots of music and festivities, with good friends old and new. We went to a huge party at “Wallaby Downs”, otherwise known as the Australian compound, with the houses of the three Australian navy officers who are here with their families helping with the patrol boat that Australia gave to the Marshalls. Their compound has great party space, clearly a high priority for Aussies, and easily held the few hundred party goers despite lots of rain throughout the evening. On Christmas Day we had a large potluck with about 50 other cruisers and some volunteer teachers and a few other assorted ex-pats, with a gift exchange game in which several gifts changed hands several times. Afterwards we went to watch singing and dancing in the nearby church. Next comes a rollicking block party of thousands for New Year’s Eve.

Judy spent the last week extremely busy practicing law, after agreeing to take an election case. The November election here was beset with an unbelievable number of problems, in large part because of several changes in procedures that were not well thought out. The courthouse still showed me as licensed to practice, even though it had been 25 years, and it was quite nice to be able to add a few bucks to the cruising kitty.

We’ve seen some of the family here of Baide and Taranga, the girls Judy informally adopted here almost 30 years ago who now live in New Jersey. Now that the election petition has been filed, we’ll have the time to find the rest of them and several other of Judy’s friends from long ago.

In the new year we hope to make some trips to outer islands, where life is much closer to traditional Marshallese lifestyle.

With lots of love, Bryan and Judy of the s/v Ursa Minor

Web: See for photos and more about our trip.

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