W e had crossed the line and land was around the corner, nothing could take it away, or so I thought. I awoke at about 2 o'clock and suddenly realized we were about to make landfall, I was annoyed at having drifted off on such a monumental night. Like waking late on Christmas morning as a kid, devastated that after a year of waiting I blew it and missed Father Christmas once again. I hauled my aching body out of the berth and rushed up the companionway steps into the cockpit. Jen was relaxed and simply said, "I see Hiva Oa on the radar at about 1 O'clock". I pressed the button to bring it off standby and increased the range to 24 miles, and sure enough there was the blob I had dreamed of. Surrounded by squall blobs, there was one more solid, more persistent, blob. Land. I peered out around the windshield into the darkness, knowing the island wouldn't be visible, but somehow hoping physics and logic would be wrong for once. Nothing, just huge ominous black patches in the sky separated by some persistent bright stars, fragments of constellations fighting to peer through the gloom.
Jen was fading, the work of the previous day to prepare the boat for landfall, and the late watch had finished her off. The radar blob was insignificant when compared to the heaviness of ocean tiredness. The longing for the berth, the release from responsibility and the luxury of time passing quickly. I tucked her in, thanking her for keeping such a good course. The boat was skewing wildly through her watch as the following seas and squally wind were combining to test the limits of the wind vane and her patience. Constant adjustments to the control lines and sail sheets were necessary to prevent the boat rounding up into the wind as the gusts went from 20 Kts to 35 Kts in seconds. The rain would pummel the boat for minutes, then stop instantly to allow her to re-group. A constant cycle of adjustment, shelter, sail trim, then steering. Within seconds she was asleep, her body relaxing and allowing the ocean to roll it from side to side, submitting to the motion rather than bracing.
Back in the cockpit I sat through the squalls and violent short seas from astern, eventually disengaging the self steering to do it manually. As if the effort would make land visible more quickly or the sun rise sooner. The vane had steered us 99.9% of the way, but I still felt better hand steering - a futile effort to make sure the land was where it should be when the sun rose. Mentally I begged the sun to rise; I stared over the starboard beam so hard at the black sky that I argued with myself whether the sky was lightening. I should have looked the other way for an hour then looked back to see the grey of morning, but I couldn't. I felt as if the sunrise was late, as if it was the final blow to this epic crossing in my mind. Actually it was late, the sky was so thick with squalls, the usual faint illumination of the horizon was obscured. That heavenly sight that had comforted me so many times on this crossing. A subtle shade of grey across 20 degrees of sky, that grows to encompass the eastern quadrant with a bland, but comforting, grey blue. Clouds become backlit, then gradually ignite with pastel yellows and oranges, bursting into fiery purples and reds as atmosphere refracts the sun's rays from below the horizon. A cycle that had kept me sane for 29 days; a cycle as inevitable as birth, death and taxes. Yet it was late, agonizingly late, but I knew it would come.
Then I saw it, the grayness, the subtle hue of morning superimposed with angry dark clouds. How could I doubt morning? Something so inevitable even the slightest doubt is ridiculous. But this is the ocean, and we have learned that no absolutely no feeling is ridiculous. We had rounded Cape Matafenua by radar, and were almost downwind of land, but it still wasn't visible by my unaided eye. It taunted me; I would soon smell land without having seen it, the suspense was eating me up. Then, the increasing grey blue between two squalls gave me a glimpse, a silhouette of Mt. Ootua against the sky. Goosepimples covered my entire body as I strained to confirm the visual cues. The silhouette was immense and jagged, violent peaks penetrating the squall clouds in vertical faces of volcanic rock, so young even the weather hadn't smoothed the edges. In the dim light the rock faces looked black and ominous, crashing deep into the Pacific with no coastal plain. The morning glow illuminated the foaming cliff bases and the roar of the surf penetrated the wind around Sojourner. Adrenaline began to pump as I heard the first sound of surf against rock for almost 30 days, a sound that can bring terror or tears into any sailor's eyes. For me it was tears, the sound of sea meeting land and the end of a journey I had dreamed of making since I was a young boy. To cross an ocean in my own boat. I flashed back to the days in Plymouth Sound, England, as a 12 year old looking out toward the Eddystone lighthouse 7 miles away on the horizon. My young imagination running wild as I thought of all the round the world racers that had passed the lighthouse at the start of their epic adventures across the worlds oceans. How they would battle the seas, encounter whales, storms, sharks and distant tropical islands as they raced around the world. My boyhood dreams were formed there in Plymouth, and tucked away for many years as I pursued my Ph.D. in Oceanography subconsciously trying to satisfy my yearning for adventure. Now, 27 years later I was living the very experiences I had imagined Sir Francis Chichester and Chay Blythe had lived. Landfall after 30 days at sea; there are no words to describe the feeling, just the goosepimples and the huge lump in the throat and the elation in knowing this is just a beginning.
I filled my lungs and, as we had promised ourselves, screamed "Land Ho" at maximum volume. Jen leapt out of the berth and stumbled into the cockpit to peer over the rail. The bags under her eyes not preventing them opening enough to see the incredible spectacle of Hiva Oa.. As the orange lining to the clouds became lighter and the light diffused enough to illuminate the cliff faces, we were stunned at how lush the vegetation was. Even the vertical faces were covered with life, thick tropical jungle of a thousand green hues. The squall clouds clung to the vegetation and swirled amongst the peaks and ravines, as if the trees themselves were exhaling moisture. It was a primeval sight, every inch of young volcanic rock hosting a myriad of south pacific plants, each occupying its own tropical niche. As the eddies of wind reached us we breathed the sweet smell of wet foliage mixed with the scent of a million tropical flowers. After months of salt spray and ocean wind that bore no smells, our olfactory nerves came alive as they were assaulted with a barrage of organic compounds. We inhaled deeply, holding our breath before exhaling as if to absorb the taste of the foliage. Tears welled in our eyes we realized we were in a different land, a tropical garden of Eden in the middle of the enormous Pacific.
We followed the shoreline about a mile off, safe in the knowledge that the rock plummets to hundreds of feet just yards from the crashing surf. All the time the light intensity growing and the thick jungle showing more incredible detail. The volcanic spires were separated by ravines and gorges of such steepness that water free fell in white streaks down the faces, leaving scars where the vegetation was reduced to mosses and lichens. Making the turn into Taaoa Bay, the breaking chop was dead astern making its last attempt to poop us before entering the harbor. Then, tucked in behind a rocky point were masts, white sticks swaying violently from side to side and partially sheltered by a tiny breakwater. It was Atuona Harbor and we both looked at each other in dismay. So tiny and so many boats jammed in after their long crossing from Mexico, California and Panama. The masts seemed to be swaying so much that, from our distance, it seemed incredible they didn't entangle each other. I could see Jen's face saying "30 days in a plastic tub for a rolly harbor with 30 other boats...." I tried to focus on finding a place to drop the hook, tearing down the sails, and finding a dozen cold beers. As we motored toward the entrance, we were engulfed in a huge squall cloud that seemed to reach sea level. The rain fell in sheets so thick within seconds my T-shirt and shorts were saturated with warm tropical water, and they hung heavily from my body. Entering the harbor in the gloom, we did a half circle and were greeted by a sailor who looked so weather-beaten he'd been there for a hundred years. "Welcome to Hiva Oa" he shouted and motioned to a spot inside the breakwater. I was numb with sensory overload, live people, other boats, buildings, safe refuge and a bottom to which we can attach ourselves via a length of 3/8" chain and a 40lb hunk of steel. Our boat, like most full keel boats does not steer in reverse, and the other boats were anchored bow and stern so close they could almost shake hands from their decks. With the rain slamming the decks, I dropped the bow anchor and shoved Sojourner into reverse, running back to the bow to let out 200 feet of chain. I had never practiced double anchoring this fast with Jen before, and there was no time now. The wind was blowing, there was surge and no space. I kicked the stern with the prop and rudder to point between two big boats and stretched the chain to the max. while in reverse, then throwing the 35lb danforth over the stern, put Sojourner in forward and ran to the bow to pull in some chain while the stern line paid out. How it worked I don't know, but we ended up nicely between two huge boats, just yards away, firmly anchored pointing toward the breakwater. The rain was still trying to drown us, and instantly a wave of exhaustion hit me. I sat down, staring at the incredible surroundings, for the first time not having to think about sails, steering, navigation or waves. The tears mixed with the rain, hiding my emotion and washing the perspiration from my body. We were anchored in the Marquesas.
The aromatic smell of flowers and vegetation is what remains clearest in my mind long after the first view of Hiva Oa. Just over the starboard beam was the deep, lush green of our first tropical landfall. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, yet was almost too exhausted and numb for them to fall. The twenty-nine days at sea were long. Incredibly long. And they were filled with a mix of emotions, experiences and challenges that I had never in my wildest imaginations anticipated. Now, after 2,800 miles at sea, we would soon be stepping foot once again on solid, dry, non-moving ground.
The numbness continued as we rounded the breakwater into Atuona Harbor. The number of boats were astounding, and we were not mentally up to negotiating the anchorage. In literally seconds, Steve had us positioned, dropped the anchor and set it, all while I stood with mouth half open, never getting the chance to say "just tell me what you want me to do." The three sailboats tailing us scrambled for their positions, and it was akin to the last few people squeezing their way onto the New York subway before the doors close. The rain fell hard, and although the words were unspoken, I know we were both overcome with disappointment. All this way for a crowded, gloomy anchorage? Where was our tropical paradise?
It happened only moments after the anchor set. The clouds cleared, the rain stopped, and as I glanced upward into the clearing sky, I could see the rim of the 3,570 foot volcanic crater enclosing the harbor. The greens became vibrant against the bluing sky, and I noticed waterfall that must have been at least 1,000', cascading down a sheer volcanic face in the distance. The nightmare had ended, and we were here. My God. We were here. We had finally made it.
We heard a dingy motor, and what sounded to be two very familiar voices call out, "Hey, Sojourner!" It was Gail and Mike from "Salt Air", our mid-ocean therapy partners! How great it was to finally put faces to voices, and we joked about how none of us looked anything like we sounded on the radio during our "Equator Net" sessions. Despite being drunk with fatigue, Steve and I were determined to set foot on land before succumbing to sleep. So we grabbed some beer money, pumped up the dingy, hoisted it over the side, and in a state of numb eagerness, rowed toward the volcanic shores of paradise..