Herb Payson Reminisces About Sailing to Tuamotus

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Herb Payson at the helm of Sea Foam

Herb Payson at the helm of Sea Foam

In 1980, long-time SAIL magazine contributor Herb Payson published the book Blown Away, a kind of compilation of the adventures he and his wife, Nancy, had experienced over the years aboard their 36ft ketch Sea Foam. Today, Payson’s cruising friends Lin and Larry Pardey have created a new 35th-anniversary edition of the classic text, which remains as fresh and entertaining as when it first came off the presses. The following excerpt opens with Payson and company approaching the Tuamotus, Les îles Dangereuses, as the treacherous archipelago is also known, with nothing but a sextant to guide them.

It was my watch. I could barely make out the towering blackness of the thunderheads against the inky sky, and it was only during flashes of lightning that I could see the shadow of Ua Pou slowly shrinking behind us. Cozy below in warm bunks, the family slept soundly while I rigged preventers during the slatting, rolling, light airs and then hastily reefed the mizzen during a nasty squall. Between times I brooded at the helm, drip-drying between deluges and wishing I’d postponed our departure.We were on our way from the Marquesas to Ahe, one of the northern Tuamotus. Our son Philip was due back at college soon, and we had suddenly found ourselves pressed for time. As a result we were sailing to the Tuamotus—Les îles Dangereuses—with no moon. Because of unpredictable currents, about 20 yachts a year go up on Tuamotu reefs. Story after story of wrecks happening to sailors of great experience and local knowledge haunted me, and I could feel a strong case of nerves coming on.

Tucked away in paradise

Tucked away in paradise

Daybreak was dreary, squally and rolly. No one felt well. At one point we had some soup, but that was all anyone wanted. A noon sight put us a little farther north than I expected, so I adjusted my dead reckoning accordingly. At that point, my main concern was to get through the day.

[advertisement]The next morning everyone felt better. Nancy worked in the galley all day preparing a huge feast for Thanksgiving: roast chicken, mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce, fresh tomato, fresh avocado with dressing and nine loaves of bread—three regular, three cinnamon, three banana—all this while the boat was rolling wildly. The minute we hove-to for dinner, the seas calmed, the sun shone, and we cheerfully demolished the major part of what she’d made.

After dinner we raised the twin headsails. Everyone shot sun lines, and the duplication of effort served once again as a check on our results. All seemed well, and my nerves relaxed, momentarily lulled by a sense of well-being.

Picking out a tune in the dinghy

Picking out a tune in the dinghy

The day after Thanksgiving was Nancy’s birthday. The weather was magnificent. Everyone was cheerful. However, we had become certain that we would not reach Ahe during daylight on the following day. Slack water, which was desirable for negotiating the pass into the lagoon, was supposed to occur about three hours after sunrise. Consequently, we had to be near enough at dawn to reach the pass at slack water, yet heave-to far enough away that we wouldn’t be washed ashore by a freak current. At this point we seriously considered changing our destination to Takaroa, so situated that we would arrive at dawn the next day, but everyone had their hearts set on Ahe.

That evening the twilight skies were clear, I shot the stars and somehow came up with a triangle the size of Rhode Island.
I was frantic. The results were absurd. I reworked and re-plotted everything. Either I had read the sextant wrong in each case, or I had come up with the worst series of sights in the history of navigation. I finally gave up and grabbed a short nap before my watch.

On passage in the 1970s

On passage in the 1970s

Nancy was tired and grateful to see me when I arrived, scratchy-eyed, to relieve her. She kissed me and went quickly below for some much-needed sleep. Before she had time to undress, however, I called her back.

“What day is it?” I asked her.

“Friday, November 23, my birthday.”

“Are you sure?” I said. “What day did we leave the Marquesas?”

We traced our way back to a date we were certain of.

“It’s not Friday, it’s Saturday, and you, my love, have got to steer while I go below and rework the star shots. I know it’s unfair, but—”

“That’s OK. It’s too important to be put off.”

This time, with the tables for the proper day, the triangle came out satisfyingly small. We were 12 miles south of our DR. Had we turned south and headed for Takaroa, as we had considered, we would have hit it right on the nose—at 0300 of a moonless night.

“No harm done,” said Nancy generously. “As a matter of fact, if we’d tried to have Thanksgiving on the right day, nobody would have felt like it.”

Which was true, of course, but it didn’t make me feel much better as a navigator. The wrong day! Good God, I thought, of all places—the Tuamotus—to pull such a stunt!

At twilight the next day we were 18 miles north of Ahe, precisely where we wanted to be, and we hove-to for the night. In the morning I woke before dawn to shoot the stars in order to find out how far the current and wind had pushed us. Radio WWV, Hawaii, gave me the exact time. I started the stopwatch, went on deck, got some good shots, returned below to work them out. Then I realized I had failed to write down the time as it came over the radio. I knew the hour, and the stopwatch gave me the second, but there was no way to know for certain what the minute was.

Furious at myself, I solved the problem using the minute I thought I remembered and worked out a position. A one-minute difference in time would move our position 15 miles east or west, so I bet on the position 15 miles west of the past night’s position; although we had been hove-to, I figured that the equatorial current added to the trade winds must have pushed us west some.

An early sun line would lie nearly north and south on the chart, giving me our longitude and determining which of my possible positions was the right one. At 0730 I got a good sun sight. I wrote down the time. I verified the date. I took the sextant reading and wrote it down. (I’ve been known to take a reading, then change the sextant to fit it back in its box and forget what the reading was.) I worked the problem and had Chris verify my arithmetic. The line of position showed that from the time of our evening fix to our fix the next morning, Sea Foam had not drifted at all. So much for hunches about the capricious Tuamotu currents. Finally, a thin line of treetops appeared on the horizon, seeming to grow right up out of the water as we approached. We’d managed to find Ahe.

These two blunders taught me some important facts about myself and sailing. I am not the same person at sea that I am on land. At sea I tend to be nocturnal and sleep restlessly. Working arithmetic in a pitching cabin is likely to make me giddy. Pressure, absent on shore in a learning situation, impinges and accumulates at sea with each stupid mistake. All these factors combine to make me far less sharp at sea than I normally am. Not realizing this at first, I tended to trust myself as I would on land—to my chagrin.

Tucked away in paradise

At anchor back in the States

Hunches are apt to be downright dangerous when it comes to navigating. It’s best to check your navigational instruments regularly, and then trust them, no matter how strongly your intuition dissents. I learned this once and for all in the Gilbert Islands in 1977. We were approaching what we thought was Tarawa, middle island in a north-south chain of three close neighbors. Tarawa, however, was a port, and as we drew near we could see no boats, no pier. It had to be the island to the north or to the south of Tarawa. The lay of the land and the fact that we couldn’t see Tarawa to the south (the tip of the island was blocking it from our view) had me convinced that we’d raised the southern island. My conviction was undeniable and dead wrong. Even though a sunshot put us north of Tarawa, indicating an incredible 3-knot northerly set, the illogic of that possibility blew my cool. As a result we wasted three hours sailing north instead of south, and finished by spending an unnecessary and unpleasant night at sea trying to keep a lighthouse in sight while hove-to in 30 knots of wind. Had I trusted the sextant, we’d have been comfortably in port that afternoon.

There was no slack water at Ahe when the Sailing Directions had said, but we didn’t care. We started the diesel and, making 7 knots through the water, inched our way in the pass against a 6-knot outflow. Once inside, the serene, stunning lagoon made it all worthwhile. We dropped anchor near the pass, and swam and dove among coral heads in water of such transparency that one could see clearly for 150 to 200 feet. Then we motored south to the village. That night I slept 14 hours straight.

[advertisement]In 1977, for the first time, the number of yachts that visited Ahe during one year equalled the number of the village’s inhabitants—something under 200. In earlier years, a visiting yacht was a rare occurrence, and each one was celebrated with a feast. When we visited, they were getting several yachts a month, and were throwing one feast a month in honor of whatever yachts were there. Our feast was special. In addition to the six yachts anchored by the village, the Aheans were hosting some French dignitaries in celebration of an agreement reached regarding pearl farming in the lagoon. The project promised to bring Aheans additional income far in excess of what they earned from selling copra.

Payson and some new friends in Fiji

Payson and some new friends in Fiji

Spruced up in our slightly mildewed best, we rowed ashore to the town meeting hall. Forty of us sat down at tables laden with lobster, pork, poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice), cooked fish, rice, banana poi, coconut bread, punch, and coffee. The French contributed bottles of rum and wine. Musical groups using guitars and ukuleles played dinner music during the meal, dance music later. The singing was first-rate. In terms of gaiety, fare and entertainment, it was the best native feast we’ve been to, before or since. (I am told that in spite of their intimidating numbers, Aheans still warmly, cheerfully and impartially welcome all visiting yachts.)

One evening Papa Toa, Ahe’s chief, and Peri, his assistant chief and interpreter (he spoke French), came out to Sea Foam to visit. We sat around the saloon drinking tea and coffee. Peri had to interpret everything Papa Toa said. Small talk wound down to a halt. Nancy yawned a couple of big ones. It was time for them to go, yet they stayed.

Finally it came out. We were going to Papeete. Peri’s wife and their grandchild were flying there, but Peri couldn’t get on the plane. Would we take him with us?

Sea Foam under full sail

Sea Foam under full sail

“We’re already five on board,” I said.

“I can sleep on deck or on the floor. No problem.”

I looked at the others. Peri had told us he’d done some sea time. It was only a three-day trip. The Aheans have given more pleasure to yachts than we could ever repay. To hell with the inconvenience: take him.

A couple of days later, Peri was back. His wife, Te Va, couldn’t get on the plane either. Could she come, too?

I had seen Te Va. She was quite stout. But once you’ve been persuaded to say yes to something, it is easy to be talked into saying yes to a little more. That’s what they taught us in Fuller Brush Men’s school.

“I guess so,” I said. “Craig and Philip can double up for three days.”

Peri left. Nancy looked at me, a sudden panic in her eyes.

“Do you suppose that means she’s bringing the baby, too? She sure as hell isn’t going to leave him here.”

The Sunday we were to leave, Peri arrived aboard three hours early. No way were we going to be allowed to leave without him. With Peri were: Te Va, 300 pounds and a bad knee; their grandson, barely five months old; seven large cartons of pearl shells to be sold in Tahiti; three suitcases; a bag of clean rags to be used as disposable diapers for the baby; and three cartons of food, including coconuts. We all gulped, moved over a little further, and managed, somehow, to get everything stowed for sea.
We left the pass just before 1700, passing two other yachts as they entered. Lose one, gain two: good luck, heroic Ahe.

The pass between Arutua and Rangiroa is about 20 miles wide. The coconut trees on the northwest corner of Arutua were our only landmark as we approached from the north. Currents made the pass dangerous, so we wanted to negotiate it in daylight. In order not to arrive before dawn, we just loafed along due west under mizzen and staysail, barely making steerageway. At 0100 we turned and headed south.

We raised all sail, and even though the wind was very light, on a broad reach we were making 5 knots. The seas were flat. Te Va stayed in her bunk except to go to the head, once daily. The baby stayed there with her. No matter what time of the day or night the baby woke up and cried, Peri was there, instantly. He changed diapers, discarded used ones over the side, and once a day warmed up a thermos-full of formula on our stove. He slept on deck and sat up with me on my watch, taking half the helm time. I couldn’t have asked for more considerate, helpful passengers.

Herb and his wife, Nancy, in more recent years

Herb and his wife, Nancy, in more recent years

The baby delighted Nancy. She dandled him, cooed at him, gave him his bottle, hugged and patted him for burps. At one point I looked at her with my eyebrows raised a concerned, questioning quarter-inch.

“No chance,” she reassured me. “Grandchildren only. But isn’t he cute?”

He was. The son of a Tahitian mother and a Chinese father, he was a piquant genetic cocktail of the sort that gives many Tahitians their striking physical beauty. His features bore no clue, however, to the mysterious origin of his name, and I was hard put not to laugh at Nancy’s doting, “There, there, Pedro.”

After we passed between Arutua and Rangiroa, the wind dropped to nearly nothing. During the next 20 hours we made only 40 miles. We had barely enough fuel to make the rest of the trip under power, but I was determined to get to Tahiti as quickly as possible while the calm weather held. With Te Va and Pedro aboard, rough weather would have been a nightmare. We powered all day and all night. Philip sighted Tahiti at dawn. A breeze came up, and for the last 40 miles we suspended our love-hate relationship with the engine.

We reached Papeete Harbor by noon, tied up to the quay, and managed to get Peri, Te Va, Pedro, the seven boxes of pearl shells, and the three suitcases ashore without mishap. And every second day, for the next two weeks, gifts of fruit appeared mysteriously on our fantail.

For a copy of Blown Away, which is being published by L&L Pardey Publications in paperback or in electronic form, go to landlpardey.com


July 2015

For more sailing adventures, click here.


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