In September 1985 we untied from our slip at Maple Bay and set off. The idea was Mexico, then “we'd see”. Only a day or two out, we ran into the gale that seems to sit for most of the year off the coast of Washington State; the captain was horribly seasick, and we would probably have turned back were it not for all the farewell parties we'd had, which would have made returning highly embarrassing. The good news was that we found the crew never gets seasick, and after a day or so of experimentation we were able to persuade our Navik self-steering gear to do most of the work anyway.
Over the subsequent next four years we edged our way around the world, always choosing the easiest route, always staying in port when the weather threatened.
After a euphoric sail through San Francisco's Golden Gate, where port control delayed the exit of an aircraft carrier on our behalf, we explored the Channel Islands then, as conventional wisdom demands, waited in San Diego until December before heading further south. At Catalina Island Tarka suffered what was to be her only significant mishap; an inexperienced cruiser, with his engine out of service, attempted to sail out of the anchorage and collided with us as we swung quietly at anchor; fearful lest we litigate, he paid for all the damage and also threw in a complimentary berth at Shelter Island.
There was no marina at Cabo San Lucas in those days: you anchored off the beach or squeezed into the small harbour and moved whenever the ferry boats from La Paz came in. But the cruising fleet at Christmas was large: a hundred boats or so. For a good number, the dream was already over. Every morning, on the VHF net, male skippers – their spouses having deserted them and flown home – were advertising for crew, while others were disconsolately rowing around distributing frozen steaks gratis, their jam-packed freezers having already given up the ghost. Classes in celestial navigation were popular: if you were headed to the South Pacific, there could be no more hugging the coast.
In March 1986 we cast off from Las Hadas, Manzanillo, bound for Hiva Oa in the Marquesas Islands, For 27 days we barely trimmed the sails: a glorious downwind sail, with wind speeds rarely exceeding 20 knots. Every morning around nine we would take a sunshot, another at local noon, a third before sunset, correlating them with the reading from the spinning log we trailed behind us; each sight took about twenty minutes to work out, and it was a satisfying ritual when every evening we were able to mark a small “x” on the chart, indicating another hundred miles of progress.
We saw no ships, no sailboats, so it was especially satisfying when the spectacular green peaks of the Marquesas appeared on the horizon when and where they should have: what if we had been making some consistent error in our calculations, and in reality were hundreds of miles away from where we thought?
As many boats did in those days, we skipped the Tuamotus and made straight for Tahiti. A number of boats had SatNav, but at the best of times this aid to navigation gave you a fix once every two or three hours, and that might often not be good enough when negotiating the narrow, current-prone gaps between these low-lying islands; with celestial navigation the risk was much greater.
After the rural tranquillity of the Marquesas Tahiti was overpowering. As the sun rose and hit the green 2500m peaks of the main island we could see a silver ribbon along the shoreline. Surf on the reef? No: just the morning jam of traffic trying to get into Papeete. But there was some romance; by now it was June, the festivities of July 14th were looming: and every eveneing young men were out on the lagoon practising for the canoe races. We booked phone calls home (it was a two-day wait to get a line) but, as soon as we could, moved west to the smaller islands of the Societies: Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Bora Bora.
By now we were getting to know a few of the other boats going the same way: Companion, a Pacific Seacraft from Seattle with Jeff and Mary aboard, an old rustbucket called Malulu from Australia, a beautiful Swan called Zeevogel, hailing from Canada's Yukon. We found that Tarka was towards the small end of the boats out cruising but we were by no means the smallest nor the most basically equipped: few boats had refrigeration, almost all relied on windvanes rather than electronic autopilots, and while there were a few with ham sets, most people had only VHF radios for communication. The average size of vessel was 30 to 32 ft and a good number of the cruisers were also in their thirties, taking a year or more away from the rat race. There were almost no multihulls; with the exception of the many French boats in aluminium or steel, fiberglass was the preferred material of construction.
We had a brisk run downwind from Bora Bora westwards and, one week out, hove to at dusk in a position that we estimated to be eight or ten miles upwind of Suvarov, an atoll that is part of the Cook Islands. The night was tense: we could easily be three or four miles out in our longitude, drift could be as much as a knot, and ninety percent of Suvarov consisted of sea-level reef, with no palms. It was with huge relief that as dawn came up we made out a line of palms in the distance: with the 70ft-high trees just visible, we must be about six miles off. A “customs” and an “immigration” official, both in tee shirts and shorts, came oit in their launch to welcome us and, with a knowing wink, suggested we would need several days to “fix our engine”: this was not an official port of entry but yachts were legally entitled to stop over in case of emergency. We spent a week diving, walking on the reef, and exploring the main island, where the hermit Tom Neale had spent years living alone. At night you could see the bottom of the lagoon, thirty feet down, by starlight; by day reef sharks circled (but didn't bite).
En route to American Samoa, we had squally weather. With hindsight it was the South Pacific Convergence Zone but that term did not seem to be widely used in the eighties, at least by cruising sailors. For weather forecasting we had NOAA's trusty pilot charts to give us an idea of average condition, plus the one-minute summary of cyclone and storm warnings put out by WWV from Fort Collins and Hawaii once an hour, on the hour. A few vessels did have weather faxes, but reading the blurry satellite photographs seemed to be an arcane art, and few had mastered it.
The harbour at Pago Pago was spectacular but crowded and very smelly; huge offshore tuna boats, with helicopters on deck occupied the choice spots and several tuna canneries emptied their waste directly into the sea. And of the half-dozen yachts there, several warned us of all manner of junk on the bottom that might foul our anchor, from bicycles to long-forgotten power cables.
As soon as we could, we hurried on to the much more tranquil bay at Apia, the capital of Western Samoa. The policemen wore skirts, the old trading company Burns Philp ruled the economy, and up the hill, behind his rambling former home, was the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson, on which someone had left a red carnation: Home is the sailor, home from the sea
Tonga, 400 miles and four days to the south, was old-time South Seas as well, except that Morris Hedstrom dominated the main street of Neiafu. All the men wore basket-woven cummerbunds, and “nobles” could be distinguished by their grey and black skirts as they went about their business below the arcades. It was harvest festival time, and the enormous King came visiting in a white toy jeep, with a New Zealand military escort; all the yachties in port were invited as honoured guests to the celebrations – but only as long as the men could find ties to wear. Twice we went to the movies in a clapboard cinema on the main drag; the seats were faded and grubby red velvet and the audience participated energetically in every on-screen development; one show was the Wizard of Oz, but with a reel missing, the other The Hills Have Eyes.
Navigating to Fiji, across the 180th meridian and through the unlit Lau group, was another tense passage; for several miles we sailed through an eerie seascape of floating pumice-stone, from some unseen underwater eruption. In the Kandavu group we were adopted by the local chief, who rounded up some of the village's young men and organised a special musical show for us. We spent days beach-combing for exotic seashells. From here it was fifteen days downwind, past tiny uninhabited Hunter Island – glimpsed one evening from 25 miles away – to Brisbane in Australia.
More: Australia to South Africa