All At Sea
INTRO – Captain of Discovery and the Best Odyssey water home, Gavin McClurg, reflects on the ups and downs of life at sea in his regular column. It's a tough job...
WORDS - Gavin McClurg
PHOTOS - Jody MacDonald
TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS
Our chef Lars and I are scrubbing the hull of Discovery off the island of Tubuai in the Austral chain of French Polynesia. We are below the Tropic of Capricorn, 400 miles south of Tahiti and after an hour, even with a wetsuit, I am shivering. The job finished I sit on the stern and instantly taste bile in my mouth and nearly puke. I don’t recognize it at first, but I’m seasick from swimming. It’s blowing nearly 30 knots, about the average wind speed down in this neck of the woods in the middle of the Southern Hemisphere winter, and being upside down cleaning a lurching hull has spun my sense of balance. I look at the horizon to try to get my stomach to settle.
The view is mind-blowing. Tubuai, a lonely remote green isle juts a thousand metres high from surrounding depths of over 10,000 feet. It is encompassed by a massive barrier reef that shelters an inner lagoon no less extraordinary than Bora-Bora’s from the relentless wind and sea of the Southern Ocean. We are the only non-local boat down here - in fact we haven’t seen another yacht in nearly two months. It is impossible to walk the roads of Tubuai and not be picked up by the first passing car. The locals seem absolutely baffled to see us and have gone out of their way again and again to help us out. While the Society Islands to the north, which house the more familiar islands of Tahiti, Moorea, Bora-Bora and several others are major tourist destinations, the Australs attract almost no visitors. This is nearly impossible for me to understand, but we have certainly appreciated the solitude.
My stomach does another roll and I close my eyes. I have been seasick only a handful of times in my life and I’m finding it hard to believe I can’t just shake this. Seasickness is like a bad run on hallucinogens (I’m told!). If you let it go, like falling into a whirlpool- the only way to go is down. We’re supposed to head out shortly for the island of Huahine, a little over 400 miles north-northeast. I just have to get my head in a better place…
I keep my eyes closed and think back to our first month in the Australs in Raivavae, an island 100 miles east of Tubuai. Guides of French Polynesia claim it is the prettiest island in the entire South Pacific. Personally I find the entire chain, one that is roughly the size of Europe, one majestic dream scape after another and would have a hard time rating any of them above another. From the verdant towering volcanoes of the Marquesas, which held Gauguin so captivated, to the low lying ancient atolls and massive lagoons of the Tuamotos; the far-removed Gambiers, with its mix of mountains, lagoon and feel of isolation that only a place so absolutely removed grants; the Societies with its plethora of waves and French couture. But the Australs have kept us spellbound and the last thing I want to do is leave.
I recall day after day of ice-rink flat water kiting in 30 knots of wind on the translucent lagoon in Raivavae; I remember staring at the Milky Way, brighter down here than anywhere we’ve been, owing to the scarcity of light pollution. And of course I remember the whales. Great numbers of Humpbacks make the Australs their winter home where mothers nurse their calves and males seek partners. On the rare occasions when it wasn’t nuking we took Discovery outside the lagoon and simply let the current take us. It never took long; it’s not hard to spot a 20 foot geyser of water or a several ton calf learning how to breach! In time we learned how to approach the gentle giants without disturbing them and even on a few occasions piqued their curiosity enough for a bit of intimate in-the-water contact, which is an experience that is precious and very difficult to describe.
My stomach is still in knots, but we really do need to get moving. I need to give a safety brief, need to get the boat ready for the passage. We’ve got a full moon for accompaniment on the trip and a few guests who have never been offshore; everyone is keen to get underway. We’ve got solid wind and should average at least ten knots, a fast passage. I swallow a lingering taste of bile and take one final look around. Briefly I consider just swimming to shore and letting the boat go on without me. How much of this feeling stems from the nausea, I can’t be sure.
42 hours later we sail through another reef pass on the windward side of Huahine. Predictably all the charter boats and cruising boats like ours are on the leeward side of the island anchored off the main town. The windward lagoon is completely vacant, protected by small motus and reef and is just deep enough for our shallow draft vessel to move about nearly unhindered. I remember grappling with what month it was, let alone what day of the week. The temperature is noticeably warmer and the winds have subsided substantially. It no longer feels like winter. I feel like we’re in a different world.
Thankfully the seasickness has subsided and been replaced with excitement. We’ve got miles of lagoon to ride by kite and a mountain above our anchorage that looks very promising to paraglide. I call Xavier Hignard, one of the two local pilots who live on the island. I learn from Xavier two things: 1) It is Sunday (surprise!) and 2) the conditions are perfect for flying. Less than an hour later five of us are airborne a thousand feet over Discovery and the lagoon. It is one thing to kite over coral gardens and crystal clear tropical water, but it is absolutely mind blowing to fly over them. The hill acts like an elevator. We fly out over the lagoon, do a bunch of acrobatics down to just a hundred feet off the water (much to the delight of a large group of the screaming local spectators) then simply fly back to the hill and take the elevator back up for another go.
Some days later we are kiting a perfect head-high left-hander off Tahaa, an island just 20 miles west of Huahine and my seasickness no longer even seems real. Somehow even amongst all the charter boats and relative 'crowds' compared to the Australs, everywhere we go we are totally alone.
No need now to daydream or reminisce. No need in fact to know the day or the month, or even the season. Those abstract things march along regardless of our input or desire to slow them down or speed them up, so clearly it’s better to just enjoy the ride.
Follow Gavin and Jody on their expeditions at: www.offshoreodysseys.com
This feature is in issue #49