By Gill Vance
Sundowners on the aft deck, not a worry in the world, one day blends into the next, and there are no more worries for the rest of your days. Sometimes cruising was just like that, and at other times there were storms, loneliness, boredom, and the horrors of the deep to contend with. Travel with me now as I reminisce, and you decide
When we first began cruising there was just my husband, Robin and I, and then eventually our two daughters, Susan and Mary. Time was available in vast quantities as we sailed the seas looking for exotic places to explore. Magical time to spend with the children, delving into their current thoughts, dreams for the future, or reflecting on days gone by. Our longest trip—53 days across the North Pacific, from Japan to the straights of Juan de Fuca in Canada—provided plenty of spare hours to just talk. I missed that special time when I was assimilated back into society.
Now and then a slight disturbance in the endless blue would catch someone’s eye, and there would be a call to change course. Everyone would rush up on deck and there would be a rescue mission. Occasionally it would be a floating bit of wood or an old pallet—often we could catch a tasty Dorado hanging out under its shade, and then haul the wood on board. Once dry, we would use the wood for a barbeque. Sometimes we would find a glass float, still with a bit of net attached, and wonder how long it had been floating. This we would carefully stow amongst our other treasures to form part of a three dimensional scrapbook.
Susan developed a real flair at diving for clams in Mexico and before long we had a whole bucketful. A fire was started on the beach and before long we had a potluck going—meeting new friends and sharing nature’s bounty. We would spend a whole day hiking up a mountain with our new friends, sharing wonderful stories, and discovering secret beaches and waterfalls. Then the following day, one of us would quietly slip anchor and sail off. We may keep in touch or we may never see them again. Every one of the people we met along our travels, though, has had some influence, and I believe it is through the people we meet as we travel through life that we grow and expand our horizons, thoughts, and ideals.
One of my favorite places was Raraka, an atoll in the Tuamotos. It holds many lovely memories of time spent with the locals, learning their crafts—first collecting tiny shells on the beaches, then drilling holes in them, and finally laboriously threading them onto fishing line. It seems like a time consuming chore, but that memory can be pulled up time and again and, like a breath of fresh air, can fortify my soul. The simplicity of their way of life was a wonderful thing, and although we cannot live that way all the time, it was an experience that I would not have missed for anything.
It was out there in the middle of the ocean that I realized just how insignificant we really are, and was able to totally lose myself in the realm of the universe. One can never really imagine how many stars there are in the sky. Then I see a satellite navigate its way across the sky and realize that we must move forward—it is our nature to explore and expand, discover new things, but also to take the time out to savor life before it passes us by in a blur. I feel that my time sailing around on a small boat gave me that gift.
Do cruisers sail around aimlessly from place to place? No, I don’t believe our wandering is aimless—something happened on an uninhabited island chain that confirmed my suspicions that we were right where we needed to be at that time.
My first misconception about an uninhabited island came crashing down around my ears with a mighty roar. We had just stepped ashore on the southernmost island of the chain called the Chesterfield Reef, midway between New Caledonia and Australia. I had always imagined uninhabited islands to be quiet and serene. The truth was very different. Robin and I had to shout to each other to make ourselves heard, and the look on the kids’ faces was a mixture of uncertainty and wonder. Approaching the island on the dinghy we had watched thousands of birds rise up and they stayed hovering above us, protecting the chicks and eggs that lay all about us. After a few minutes though, they seemed to find us less threatening, and the noise died down to a tolerable level.
A couple of islands up the chain we found a wonderfully protected anchorage and decided we might stay for a while. I don’t know if it was our timing, or just wonderful luck, but the turtles abounded. There were turtles mating in the shallows, and others making their way laboriously up the beach where they would dig a hole to lay their large clutch of eggs, many of which would not make it to adulthood. So intent were they on their purposes that they were oblivious to our presence as we quietly walked around them.
The shells we found on the beaches were magnificent—huge nautilus by the dozen, spiky murex, and hundreds of tiny brightly colored shells the girls would thread onto string to adorn their little sun bronzed bodies.
Unfortunately, even though there were no humans, the evidence was there. Plastic bottles and flip-flops (always the left foot) littered the broad expanse of white sand. There was no way to take it all with us, and no way to destroy it all other than to help the sun do it’s job of breaking it up into thousands of little pieces—maybe one day the earth’s beaches will be multi-colored little grains of plastic. A plastic card caught Robin’s eye and he picked it up to read the information. “Look, can you believe this?” he said with amazement. A tide card had been sent out from Cape Town with instructions to be returned when found, in order to monitor the oceans’ currents. Looking at a current chart later that evening we determined it must have taken the long way around and probably had taken just as long as we had to get here—exactly the opposite side of the world from where we had both begun.
One day another sailboat rounded the reef, anchored beside us, and greeted us with the news that our quiet days were over—there were 4 boats traveling with them. We welcomed the chance for a different sort of fun: barbeques on the beach and making new friends from around the world.
Days blend into each other and one day seemed pretty much the same as any other until one day someone called out, “There is a mayday on the radio,” sending a chill through us all.
The message sent us all scurrying in different directions—some of us on a dinghy to go out and meet the boat, others to the beach to fill sandbags and pillowcases in the hopes of being able to supports the boat once we got it to the beach. The damaged boat was constructed of concrete, and having miscalculated the reef; a fair sized hole had been punched into the hull, right at the waterline. We towed it up to the beach with the pumps going full to keep it afloat. The sandbags served to level the boat, making it easier to work on, and with the efficiency of a well-trained work crew, and supplies garnished from most of the boats we soon had another watertight sailboat anchored amongst us. Every single one of us had something to offer that melded into a well-oiled unit.
When we finally sailed off in different directions, we didn’t know if we would ever meet again, but we knew we had all touched each other’s lives.
Does all life have meaning? Why else did we all happen to be there on an uninhabited island able to save the lives of two people?
The cruising portion of my life is over, for now, but the memories still remain.