After our 2000-mile journey together, Jim asked us to write about our time on Akela. We, Dan and Emma, are two sailors from San Francisco looking for more ocean crossing experience before taking the plunge and starting our own bluewater adventure.
Our journey started when we met Jim online after answering an ad for crew. He was looking for two people to sail with him from the Marquesas Islands, in French Polynesia, to Hawaii. We were looking for an experienced captain who could, quite literally, show us the ropes. We video chatted only a few times before deciding that we would likely be a good fit. In retrospect, signing up for a crossing based on a Zoom meeting may be crazy, but at least we’re all the same type of crazy.
Although the trip was originally planned for April, Covid delayed our departure until August. Many sailboats wouldn’t attempt a summer crossing because the North Pacific hurricane season runs June through October. This added an extra layer of tension and excitement to the trip. To be safe, Jim had two separate satellite systems for weather and had hired a professional weather router to help guide us along the way. Thus, we would know about any big storms far in advance, but we had to be prepared to wait a week or more in the doldrums while a hurricane passed to our north.
Even with these uncertainties, we were excited to set sail. We had spent a week repairing, cleaning, and provisioning Akela and we were feeling confident. The water maker was working, the sails were mended, we’d replaced the engine alternator twice (don’t worry about why we did it twice), and we had 40 days of food crammed into every corner of the boat.
We also had also developed a sense of Jim, and the hats he wears on the boat. One minute he’s the captain, who knows every inch of his vessel and has repaired every single component twice. The next he’s the professor, talking through the intricacies of optics and computer-generated holograms and telescopes. And then he’s the father who has hundreds of silly games to play, where the stakes are high and the rules are vague. It didn’t take long for us to realize that he was exactly the right person to teach us to cross an ocean.
We left the island of Nuku Hiva on Tuesday, August 4th, sailing nearly due North. We had 8 degrees of latitude before we would reach our first objective – the equator. But before that, we had possibly the most nerve-wracking moment of the trip: our first night on watch.
That first night was exhilarating. Try to imagine it. You are completely alone on deck, wearing a harness and tethered to a nearby cable. You become intimately aware of the dark sea water rushing past on either side of you, and the boat seems narrower than you remember. There is a power in coming face to face with the knowledge that your actions alone will determine your own safety. The emotions of that night shift from nervousness to fear to empowerment to finally a relaxed calm, a rapid series that foreshadows the shape of the overall trip.
Despite the boat rocking, interrupted sleep, and new sounds, over those first few nights we each adjusted to our new life at sea. We sailed through a few rainstorms, but in general the seas were peaceful. We saw dolphins alongside our sailboat and a few birds, but they disappeared after a couple of days and then it was just the three of us, alone with the ocean. Each day looked the same in a hypnotic flow that was only broken up by meals and repairs. And before we knew it, we were approaching the equator.
Before we left shore, a neighboring sailboat crew warned us about equator crossing ceremonies. Poseidon, as the King of the Sea, judges those who wish to cross the equator. Those who have not yet proven themselves worthy are lowly pollywogs, while those who have passed his trials are esteemed shellbacks. To cross without completing his trials is to risk his wrath.
As captain, it was up to Jim to decide which trials we would face. He decreed there would be a trial for humility, a trial for respect, and a trial of brine dumping (which he called the spouse douse). In the morning, he let us know of the first trial. We should show humility to the sea by dressing up as a sea creature of our choosing and embodying its persona. For the second trial, we were to write and perform a song which demonstrated our love and respect for the sea. The third trial was for us to be doused, by our spouse, with a bucket of seawater. Jim agreed to do the first two trials with us, but chose to abstain from the third (I wonder why).
That day was magical. While we wrote lyrics to music and scrambled to create a makeshift costume, a pod of melon-headed whales intercepted us. They were traveling east while we went north, but they opted to change their course and join us for the rest of the day. There were hundreds of them alongside us, jumping into the air, surfing waves together six whales at a time, and bow riding in front of the boat. Perhaps Poseidon sent them as a welcoming party.
That night, we dressed up in our costumes – Emma as a blue ringed octopus, Dan as a sea lion, and Jim as a manta ray. We each sang our songs, at first nervously, but then loudly. Emma wrote a spoken word poem about middle watch and life at sea, with a musical chorus. One line in particular, “Our dot keeps moving, it keeps going north, the boat leaps forward as we flop back and forth,” was sung anytime someone was thrown about belowdecks during the rest of the trip. Dan sung a lovely tune about traveling to Hawaii together, which brought forward thoughts of relaxing beach waves and beautiful sunsets. We still sing his song sometimes, since it so easily gets stuck in our heads. Jim performed two songs set to Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers tunes, revealing that this is not his first rodeo and that he’s secretly a musical professional. And then we dunked each other in sea water.
The days after the equator crossing quickly became routine: make breakfast, watch the ocean, plot our noon position, make lunch, check the weather on the satellite, watch the ocean, make dinner, drink rum and watch the sunset, sleep/keep watch. We frequently read during the afternoon; Jim frequently broke things on the boat so he’d have the chance to repair them.
Underway, all activities are either moderately or significantly more difficult than on land. Preparing a meal without a stable work surface transforms cooking into “extreme cooking.” (Translation note: extreme is pronounced as if spoken by a wrestling announcer.) Showering while crouched between the sink and head, without visual reference to the horizon or ready handhold, is “extreme showering.” Getting dressed, maneuvering around the cabin or on deck, and even sitting down all become extreme versions of themselves. The mental load of thinking through every action before completing it and the physical strain of constantly exercising balance muscles – even while asleep – becomes a real factor as the trip wears on, hour after hour and day after day. To this there are two responses: give in and laugh, or resist and suffer.
We laughed. We joked about our bruises on top of bruises and perpetually wet butts and salt-encrusted limbs. We ate food that found its own way to the floor and admired its gumption. We played silly games and told dumb jokes and restricted our bitching to between the five minutes before and after the top of the hour – mostly we bitched about not remembering what we were going to bitch about.
Our reward for grinning through the difficultly was to experience moments of pure joy: the fierce, nearly manic, intensity of helming the boat through a squall; the relief of finding steady wind, calm seas, and sun behind the last rain storm of the doldrums; the excitement of watching the boat speed climb through 7kts after days of motoring and no wind; the visceral act of catching a fish and the thanks we gave just before it became our dinner; and the singular beauty of the galaxy above, phosphorescence below, and the red-footed booby perched on the bow as your only companion with whom to enjoy the feeling of wonder at this little boat, sailing alone through the darkness.
And so the days progressed until the night before we reached Hilo, when we encountered the only other boat we saw during the entire trip, a fishing vessel out of Oahu, operated by a guy with a surfer’s drawl and seemingly no care in the world. The next day we spotted the island through the haze and then watched as it became more and more real, finally pulling behind the breakwater in Hilo and mooring in Reed’s bay. When we had finished tidying the boat, we poured ourselves a drink and toasted Akela for bringing us home safely.
After 16 days at sea we were ready for solid ground and any beer other than Hinano. But after a few days ashore, we’re already back to missing the ocean. Do it again? In a heartbeat.