Island paradise? Yes, you’re in Huahine…

Entering the month of March again!  March 1, 2013

Here in Huahine, we’re tied off to the largest mooring I’ve ever seen–a neon orange anchor point to which cruise ships sometimes attach themselves.  (Within days this very mooring will cause us a few close calls as the winds shift us toward it and threaten to crush our skiff and one of our small boats, which are in the water tied off alongside the ship, between the itself and the ship!  Super fast and strong Gabe and I rushed around in the middle of one night to free the skiff from this jaw-like trap!  Now, both boats are tied further aft, but the danger looms: we don’t want the ship’s topsides to get banged up either.)  This, however, is by no means what one first notices about Huahine.  It is a jaw-dropping tropical wonderland…again!  We are a quick skiff’s ride away from the port town of Fare (a Tahitian word meaning “house” or “home”).

It seems I wanted to get into this tropical loveliness as quickly as possible: I have no photographs of Huahine from the ship’s point of view, but here are two outward looking views once immersed in its tropical lushness.

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Oftentimes, after arriving in a port and getting the ship situated at its anchor point, it’s already fairly late in the day when the first off-watch gets to go to town.  Frankly, I cannot remember if I was or was not on the first anchor watch when arriving in Huahine, but the following are likely pictures from a first night off in any case:  1) sailors clearly having fun; 2) Donald, our amazing cook, looking lovely with an island blossom; and, 3) as you can see, Brian, the ship’s doctor, is so excited to go snorkeling that after just a Hinano or two, he is already there in spirit.

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Transportation options are diverse here.  Le truck–a public truck bus, of course!  Or, the Monomoy…which, Dan, is scrupulously guarding…sails covering him from the sudden rain falls that later in the day would turn into a veritable deluge when we were on a lovely, if mercurial, day sail.  Or, a very cheaply rented tiny car…which here is pictured insofar as it is serving as a trusty tripod capturing the delicious beach grove lunch that John, Brian, and I had during a day trip around the island.

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And, here’s what we found…  Even when skies are grey here, the views are lovely and saturated with blues and greens of velvety tones.

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A place of dreams…  What do you imagine this bottle signifies, captures, portends?

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Beaches that suggest the delights that await you just off shore…

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Puddle path roads!

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On this island as well as those throughout French Polynesia, there are often metal wrappings around the trunks of coconut, paw paw, and mango trees…to keep the non-indigenous rats from eating holes through the fruit!

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Here began my sightings of house-shaped mailboxes!  I wish I had taken many more pictures of these.  They were endless in their variety, and so touching, to me: they seem to invite hand-written letters from family and friends.  One day, I hope to build such a mailbox for myself.  Would one not be invited to smile just a bit more every time one walked toward such a thing?  It is presences like this in the world that make me reflect on just how much things can give to us, can shape our world in their own ultimately rather significant way…if we listen to them.  (Dog is also wondering what I’m about, it seems.)

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This is my first encounter with a marae–a sacred and social site of yore that may have a number of ritualistic and educational purposes, as far as I can tell.  In some cases, they are known to be sites in which deities were considered to reside.  In other cases, it seems they are places for gathering for ceremonies or teaching or a place marking a spiritually significant member of a family group.  This is Marae Mananu.  Though these pictures do not reveal this, there are rocks neatly arranged that nearly entirely fill in this very large building-like structure.  Around the main formation are structures that look like graves, but typically bones have not been found it there, I have heard.  The rocks are neatly “woven” together.  On some stones, carved images appear.  Below is an example of one image that looks like a sea turtle!

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A fishing village with a centrally located church…

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Rocks arranged in the river to serve like a net for catching fish!

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A young spear fisherman waits patiently for his next catch…with no adult guide in sight.  He was entirely confident as he walked across a bridge to this fishing spot.  Moments later, I watched as he struck out at a passing fish.  Not wanting to disturb his actions, I walked away before seeing the result.  I also feel confident that he would catch a fish or many before the afternoon was out.

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As if the colors of nature were not stunning enough, people’s houses and clothing were so regularly that of the most vivid hues!  Notice, too, how nature takes over…quite quickly and with determination.

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Another instance of cultivation and artifact meeting natural growth…

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A stunning boat house, in my opinion…

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Again and again, I have been moved quite notably by the beauty of graves on this journey.  The colors of stones and flowers are so alive, and seem so deeply to honor the person who has died.  Perhaps more impressive to me is the tradition that begins to stand out very clearly from this island forward of having one’s family graves next to one’s house.  This reminds me of one of the closing passages of Heidegger’s “Building Dwelling Thinking” in which he is impressed by the way in which the peasant house of the Black Forest hundreds of years ago attended so deeply to the essential elements of human dwelling: “It did not forget the altar corner behind the community table; it made room in its chamber for the hallowed places of childbed and the ‘tree of the dead’–for that is what they call a coffin there: the Totenbaum–and in this way it designed for the different generations under one roof the character of their journey through time.”

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Pareus are perhaps the most lovely thing to wear in the South Pacific…and, really, anywhere in the world if the heat allows.  Here are Miri and Frank, painters of hand-crafted pareu.  Frank showed me many nice ways to style the one I bought from them, which features a whale of serious character as well as many traditional Maori designs and on which Frank also painted my name!

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And, after Frank, there was Francois, one of my favorite islanders to date…so kind and full of enthusiasm was he!  (He had his French and his traditional name tattooed rather roughly across his clavicle, and he wore an eye drawing whale tail necklace carved from beef bone.  His smile seemed to arise from a soul rooted in the lush and bountiful earth across which he bounded with endless and joyous energy.)  Francois tended a vanilla plantation, and gave us a delicious tour (in French) of the farm.  He explained just how difficult it was to cultivate vanilla: it takes decades for the seeds to come to proper fruition.  In addition to vanilla, the farm was filled with every fruit and vegetable tree you could imagine French Polynesia would have: avocado, banana, paw paw, mango, lime and other citrus fruits, pineapple, noni (a medicinally significant fruit), grapefruit and passion fruit!  He climbed nearly every tree and tossed fruits down to me to bring back to the ship.  He was entirely excited to have visitors who would speak French with him…no matter if not always excellent French.  At the end of the tour, Francois led us to an outdoor shed and opened up a black briefcase reminiscent of those seen in James Bond films, and from which I bought some of the most beautiful vanilla I have ever smelled in my life.  I seriously look forward to baking with it!  Earlier in the day, I also bought bracelets with vanilla beans woven into a grass band.  When worn, the wearer infuses the surrounding air with an aroma worthy of the gods!

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Oh, yes, and Francois has pigs that rummage down by the river.  They, like many animals on these islands, are tethered by one back foot to a tree or post, and don’t seem to mind this much.

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After some coaxing, this pig brings me great glee!

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And, simply for its beauty and breath capturing uniqueness… (one of many, many, many such glimpses during this journey)…

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From here to Bora Bora, oh my!

You are what you wear…

A history of reflections continues…sometime around late February, 2013

Currently on the ship, there are thirty-three of us.  Previously, there had been forty-three.  We live in close quarters, and for stretches of time see no other humans than ourselves.  Each of us has a rather small bounty of clothing on board, since storage is limited and there’s no need to stay spick and span.  Indeed, remaining clean on the ship seems next to impossible.  (By the by, check out the germane etymology of “spick and span.”  At least one source claims that “spikspeldernieuw,” an Old Dutch word, indicates a newly made ship; another meaning for “spick” include a newly minted nail.  Yet, like a working sailor, no nail and certainly no ship will ever retain its brand-newness.  And, let’s not get started with the origins of that phrase!)   In my case, I realized with some mirth partway through the journey that I brought along more shore clothing than work clothing in spite of the fact that we spend plenty more days at sea than in port.  Still, I make sense of this by returning to the above reflections about dirty-ship-work.  It’s a true pleasure to shower up and head into town all dressed up in heels and dress!  It’s also actually quite enjoyable really to be on the ship and not to care about just how many layers of dust and salt and grease and tar and paint are on one’s body and clothes.  Some of my compatriots claim not to have washed their work shorts for their entire time aboard!  Ugh.  I think it’s likely a strange couple of days in the laundromats of our port towns when we arrive:  dozens of bags of utterly stained and rather odorous (salt, sweat, chemicals, grime…) laundry are deposited there utter appreciation and a willingness to spend as much as is needed to have this situation rectified…as far as is possible.  The smiles on a cleanly (even if still amply stained) dressed crew are notable.  Often after laundry days (especially if they’re paired with shower days), at least one person will comment that something smells “off” on the ship; and, noses start investigating until laughter erupts when we realize that someone smells too clean.  Oh my.  Tar is king here…wrapping the ship with its lovely, earthy, mesmerizing smell.  While I don’t believe that I have gotten to the point where I can recognize a person by his or her distinctive scent (though the “bro cave” is unmistakable in its musty, dusty, just a tad rank bouquet), I do know the “outfits” of nearly everyone aboard.  Long sleeve shirts that were worn at the start of a watch are often shed as work gets underway, as the cool morning is warmed by the rising sun, or as the weather shifts from squally to clear.  A scan around the deck with one’s eyes locates these skins of crew members about the deck: the ruby colored long sleeved shirt that Niko wears to protect his many tattoos; the red rain slicker emblazoned with the training ship Danmark logo that Signe dons; the Blundstones that so many wear, but that are surely Victor’s if they’re back here on the well deck.  My two plaid (one blue and white, one various colors of pinks and purples) shirts are unmistakable at this point.  (Though my first pair of short shorts–a dirt concealing black–somehow myseriously disappeared into some as of yet unprobed recess of the ship.  Perhaps they were snatched off the laundry line by some aggressive deep sea wind?  Could they have been shredded for rags…a fate sometimes met by any not-quickly-enough-claimed-laundry-done-aboard-the ship.  In any case, I’ll tell you that it’s a shock to lose any piece of one’s well chosen and cherished work clothing–a shock that in my case meant that at the nearest port I marched out to purchase two new pairs of shorts!)  We’re at a point now where we can help each other out by returning these straggling vestments to their owners’ bunks.  Whenever someone helps me out in this way, I’m utterly grateful…as if reunited with an essential piece of myself, for as much as I am attached to my clothing in my “normal” life (and, as anyone who knows me, this is definitely the case!),  I have never been as aware as I am now of how important the proper items of clothing are for comfort and, more importantly, for success in one’s undertakings (and a bit of sartorial flare–fluorescent bandeau tops, hot pink shorts, shirts with images of Rocky or Taylor Swift (hee, hee) or cartoon panda bears, etc.) can cheer things up too!).  Be aware, however, that any item of clothing left hanging and hanging and hanging on the lines and which has been insufficiently rinsed of sea water is in danger of being voted for ejection from the ship by crew mates whose rather hearty olfactory systems sometimes reach their limit in the face of that inexplicably and utterly rotten post-salt-water smell.  Clothes are important, but perhaps not that important…

A trio of trips to the main royal…

Back in time again: February 24th, 2013

We set sail from Tahiti at 1 p.m. today.  The wind has been beautiful and steady; steering was held on course with a mere half to one full turn on to the left or right; and, the day went relatively quickly in spite of our watch being on for the full day…13 hours straight (the first hours being with all hands, and the latter being those of our regular 4 to 8 p.m. watch).  My day began with three trips up to the main royals–the first being to unfurl them, and the second two trips in service of unfouling a buntline that was catching part of the sail on the port side.  It impresses me just how tiring it is simply to climb up and down the shrouds to reach the topmost sails.  I might think that would be no different than climbing some sets of stairs.  Then again, perhaps some of the fatigue comes from knowing that holding on carries such weight (figurative and literal, I suppose) when one is roughly 10 stories from the deck below.  Do I grip the ratlines that much more?  Perhaps the awkwardness of some of the standing as well as the ascending and descending positions adds to the physical challenge.  And, then, yanking on hundreds of pounds of sail certainly makes muscles burn.  (I even growled loudly with the effort today, at one point grumbling something that sounded rather like the notorious “arghh” of a pirate.)  I never seem to notice these issues when I’m aloft, but I do seem to head immediately to the water cooler once I have told the officer of the watch that I’m “down from aloft.”  And, today, I must admit that when I learned I was to climb a third time, I inhaled deeply with a sense of an impending challenge.  Whatever the case may be, it felt like an intense day with a most intense start, and I imagine I’ll be quite tired at my 3:30 a.m. wake-up, so it’s shortly to sleep for me.  I hope it’s a restful night.

Land ho!

March 24th, 2013

And, just like that, I’m flying back to Minnesota by way of Los Angeles!  I’m struck quite seriously by the instantaneousness of air travel.  It was surprisingly shocking when my flight took off from Rarotonga just a minute before midnight last night.  The shore, the marina, the ship (which I could not see directly, but which I could feel beneath the plane as if she were imprinted in my core like some interspecial symbiotic partner-bond)–these all slipped away from the plane into the distance so quickly.  I was almost immediately transported, in feeling and place, to the next stage of this journey I’m on.  (I’m sure I will loop back there in spirit and habit soon, but for now I feel launched ahead.)  This feeling of quick transition has not happened so starkly for me for months and months.  Departing, as well as arriving, on the ship has required great and well-planned steps of preparation…some beginning days before the actual shift occurs.  And, the “moments” of getting underway or anchoring or mooring are similarly stretched out into many processes, and are then equally followed by adjustments and new steps for preparing for ongoing travel or for being at anchor.  In either case, too, the approach to the new territory–whether the open sea or the new port–takes time to unfold…and there is a lingering connection in the very activities of getting underway or anchoring to the previous reciprocal states of the ship’s life.  Except for once, I have always appreciated being on duty first when we reach a new port of call.  I like (perhaps feel I even need) the time to work my way into the new state of affairs, coming from sea to land.  Yet, in air travel, there is a marked absence of any gradual transition and certainly of any work on my part except for getting my baggage to an agent who then takes over for me.  Indeed, one can be transported by plane, as I will be today, from one climate to the next in the time it takes for a decent nap.  And, then, one simply strolls off the plane and out of a building and into a new life…with virtually no effort.  No one today even seemed concerned with what things I brought with me from foreign lands.  They quickly welcomed me home.

Wow, I’m looking at a stretching behemoth of a city for the first time in months…as we begin our descent into L.A.  How it seems to emphasize the dominance of land here in the United States…even though it may be, in this case, a coastal city.  Compared to the islands where I have been spending my recent life and certainly compared to the ship, the water here–no matter how long the shore line–does not seem to carry the weight of life here.  Instead, I see pavement, lives that appear turned toward business rather than the natural elements of one’s surrounding, and buildings, buildings, buildings.  Once again, I’m struck by how island life and certainly ship life seem to more readily encourage a connection to the elements than this sprawling urban environment I’m seeing from my plane window could easily do.  I wonder how I can keep hold of that connection when I return to my own land life.  I hope I find the way…

Though I’m back to land, this blog is not complete.  Keep your eyes turned here, if you wish, for continued steps back into the as of yet undocumented parts of my travels…and perhaps some thoughts and experiences into the future…

Tahiti, a history of dreams…

Flashback to Tahiti:  February 22nd, 2013

I’m sitting on deck after finishing my 4:30 a.m. “anchor” watch at our second docking in Papeete, Tahiti.  Yesterday, after three days of being docked nearby, we needed to move the ship, because swell that were almost imperceptible to the eye, but which hit the ship at a problematic angle, began to heave the ship back and forth violently across our hawsers.  Two of our four hawsers (each thicker than the widest part of my arm!) actually split in the middle of the night (thankfully not at the same time), and the two bits to which these were attached made horrible, cringe-worthy creaking noises and could be seen at times to be shifting slightly in the deck.  It was a good exercise to get the ship underway in port and move her to a new resting place.

We’re now at a locked dock, which is much quieter than our original site, and George, the ship’s cat, has taken to darting out to “land” to chase geckos and smell earthen things.  When he comes back to the ship’s gangway, he runs aboard like a bat out of hell and seems paranoid and fully wound up.  One of the most enjoyable parts of watch tonight was watching these movements of his.  Currently, George has just finished climbing up a vertical ladder (!!!) to get atop the galley house and, now, is leaping about on the awning that stretches over the hatch for sun and rain protection when we’re in port.  He is chasing his shadow, which is made by the large fluorescent lights along the quay, and which quite conveniently keeps moving and darting about as long as he is.  He is crazed.  If you run your fingers along the underside of the awning, he will similarly dart around as if he were in the world’s best kitty cat amusement park.  When he finally tires out, he stretches out and his elegant shadow looks as though it belongs in a Toulouse Lautrec painting.

The sun is rising now.  The weak milk blue sky makes a stark contrast with the ink black outline of the cliff-top horizon beyond the city.  This view reminds me of our experience coming into Tahiti–the most stunning experience I have had yet of the island.  I was on lookout as the sun was rising and bringing to light the island and our incoming ship.  It was beautiful to watch as the light began to articulate crevasses in the mountains that were initially merely silhouettes, and, then, seemed to bring to life dozens of verdant greens and sea deep blues and, finally, navigational markers that sent me back to report to the mate countless times as we made our way to shore.

Since that morning, I’ve been able to spend a couple of days wandering around the island.  It feels largely urban here to me so far.  We are docked in the central part of the largest city on the island, and, conveniently, right around the corner from the plaza of food trucks (where I have happily consumed crêpes and cider every night I’ve been off watch).

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There is a bustling covered market here with endless color-bursting fruit, vegetable and fish stands, vendors of jewelry, baskets, pareus (hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of lengths of body-draping cloth decorated by hand or press printed in rainbows of flower, traditional, and abstract designs), French pastries and Polynesian sweets, sandwiches to go, grilled chicken, fresh squeezed juices, and an entire corner dedicated to vendors of tropical flower arrangements selling, for example, for $15 here when a comparable arrangement in the states would easily be $200!  Needless to say, I did some shopping here: a lively yellow and black Tahitian-style skirt, more short shorts (!) to fill an increasingly appreciative appetite for this form of work-and-heat-friendly apparel, multiple pareus (I hope wearing these around home once state-side again will remind me of the warm spirit of these travels), some gifts for friends and family, and two stunning pieces of tapa (cloth made from pounded and dyed breadfruit) that feature a traditionally tattooed man and woman.

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I spent one day traveling by car with my shipmates Drea, John, and Brian.  We circumnavigated (can one do this by land?) the large and small islands–Tahiti Nui (large) and Tahiti Iti (small).  We saw stunningly tall mountain cliff waterfalls.  Here, I’m also holding a leaf the size of seven hands…at least.

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We (…or, at least I) talked to a sometimes whispering, sometimes screaming natural blow hole that spouts water spray in surprising bursts when the sea surge pushes water into a small channel made in the rock face (reminiscent of, though different than, the natural whirlpool phenomenon at St. Paul’s in Pitcairn).

[Video to come later!]

We wandered through a lush botanical garden (near the Paul Gauguin museum, which was, unfortunately, closed for renovations) and across black sand beaches.

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Truly how coconut trees begin…

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We visited la Pointe de Vénus–a famous site for western navigators.  Here, Cook came in 1789 to measure the transit of Venus across the sun with the hope of helping to determine (by means of parallax using a second and possibly third measurement of the transit from other parts of the world) the distance between the earth and the sun.  Though the results of the attempt were considered highly flawed at the time, it’s notable just how close, relatively speaking, Cook, his compatriots, and later mathematicians were to establishing what we now call an astronomical unit (distance from earth to sun–i.e., 92,955,000 miles (present calculation…versus Cook’s and following calculator’s estimation of 93,726,900 miles).  This very same spot on the island of Tahiti served as the landing ground of the Bounty in late October of 1788.  

Map depicting one of Cook’s voyages…  (I was lucky to be able to see the exhibit “Cook 1, 2, 3″ at Musée de Tahiti et des Îles (!)

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Breadfruit tree at Matavi Bay!!!

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Tools for preparing breadfruit…

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One must eat…and drink wine too…

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Behind me is a black lake grotto in Tahiti. Walking into the cavern is as mysterious as this photo suggests. Rain droplets fall upon you, cool light winds swirl about you, moss scents the air with earthen smells. Upon exiting, the full heat and sun of Tahiti beams down and turns your goose bumps and dew moistened skin to sweat again.  It is lovely.  (It appears, too, that I’m enjoying stretching out my arms whenever I’m in front of awe-inspiring beauty these days.)

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It was stunning to consider that these forces of history walked on the same ground as I stood.  

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That said, I noticed that it felt harder for me to connect to history here than it is for me on the ship or than it was when we were on Pitcairn.  The island as a whole feels so contemporary to me, and its style of building reminds me so much of what I have encountered in Quintana Roo, Mexico.  So, the history I know intellectually of this significant place seems dustier, harder to feel viscerally.  I find myself straining to find it.  So, instead of pushing too hard on that front, I am trying to enjoy Tahiti in its present wonders…many of which, for me, have to do with its French immersion.  I have been enjoying plunging into eating French food again here, and especially to be continuing on my expeditions into speaking French.  Each conversation brings me one step closer to actually enjoying (rather than being nervous about) partaking in a language that is only fleetingly and partially my own.  Indeed, this journey seems very much to be getting me in touch with the experience of becoming “comfortable” being on the quite valuable edge between uncertainty and certainty.  It is here that we learn, no?

Valentine’s Day in the heart of the South Pacific seas…

Sailing back in time (now that Internet speeds are higher again)….February 14th, 2013

Following an afternoon of helping to sew on the rope cover for the new royal, I had one of the most delightful and playful evening watches (which is only made more notable given that that evening’s watch before this one, I was invited with a few others to dinner in the captain’s mess).  Today’s watch began at 4 p.m. with a hurried tidying up of the deck, cleaning of paint locker materials, and, then, preparations for a swim call!  The wind has been next to nothing for a day and a half, so we had powered up and were moving under the power of our engine.  Just after our watch commenced, the captain ordered the engines cut and the ship to be “hove-to,” a setting of the sails that keeps the ship at as near of a standstill as possible.  Three lookouts were posted on shark lookout!  (Apparently, in the history of the ship, only once have swimming crew been called back owing to a shark sighting.  Still, one takes this responsibility seriously.  When I was aloft on lookout, standing on the foremast trestle tree, the only non-human object I saw in the sea around the ship was a lightly bobbing beer can…surely a contribution of someone celebrating the novelty of a swim call in the deep sea.  [Yes, we throw overboard almost all non-plastic, non-toxic trash when out in the deep sea, per accepted regulations.  It's a strange practice, to begin, to chuck any number of things--food waste, bits of rope, paper, aluminum cans, etc.--over one's shoulder and into the blue waters; now, it seems like second nature, and I can imagine that it will feel strange to me not to be able to toss something by the wayside when I return to land again...just like it is very odd to need to pay attention to walking on sidewalks and to remember to put shoes on when going ashore!])  We dropped two rope ladders over the starboard side for climbing back aboard after jumping from the ship’s sides or the jiboom.

Here people are jumping in from the edge of the foc’sle head.  (I’m hoping in the future to copy some photographs from friends who captured people jumping from the jibboom (including ones of me!) and also of people aloft on shark lookout.)

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Endless blue…

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Brody climbing back aboard

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I jumped in from a spot three-quarters of the way out to the end of the jibboom.  It looked very, very far away from there down to the water.  I felt a rush of excited tension throughout my core as I contemplated what it would be like to leave this structure.  This sensation made me realize just how much I don’t, thankfully, relate in this way to being aloft…much, much higher from the surface of things much, much harder below me.  When I’m aloft, I feel up there, securely working.  But, this wasn’t the plan for my current walk out on the forward rigging of the ship.  I called out in something not quite a scream, but certainly more than a mere commentary, as I jumped into the water below, joining a gaggle of others already enjoying the water.  Some people had no fear in this activity, and did flips with twists and turns from the very tip of the jibboom.  (Sometimes we rig up a swing ladder from the fore yard, and people do similar cringe-worthy tricks.  Somehow my history in gymnastics never transferred to much comfort with diving.)  The water was warm, unbelievably clear, glistening like blue shiny velvet.  Once again, I tried to feel the immensity of the fathoms beneath me and almost endless miles of sea around me, and, once again, I simply felt at home, part of this ship, part of the bobbing group of crew enjoying a nice afternoon swim.  I drifted softly with the sea, concerned not a bit that my body might part from this microcosm we are on this ship.  The swells were so tall that, when lying starfish-style on my back, it seemed like I was going to be delivered right up to the yard arms when the peak of each swell rose up toward the ship.

After this glorious swim in the middle of the deep, deep sea, the festivities continued with a Valentine’s Day marlinspike to which people came dressed very nicely!  Parties aboard the ship usually gather us on and around the hatch, but this was taken up by a small boat on which we are working, so up we went to the quarter deck.  It was a treat in and of itself to be on this deck outside of a watch, since typically one doesn’t venture there unless for work duties.  The marlinspike was a fruity punch laced with bite-sized pieces of pineapple, well spiked with Ron Abuelo rum, and labeled “Love Potion No. 9!”  I wore a black flapper-style dress decorated with sequins and tassels–a perfect dress for dancing to the old-school music that rung out for us after a very pleasing dinner of roast beef and plentiful accompaniments.  The weather was beautifully warm, and the sunset, as if coordinating itself to the day’s color schema, spread itself out in the richest pallet of pinks, roses, and crimsons.

The dress on helm!

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Tim sampling “Love Potion, no. 9″

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Dkembe imagining in his mind’s eye what the potion might bring him in Tahiti!

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Sam and Allison looking very dapper

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Gary and DB looking mischievous

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More mischief!

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The doctor sharing some love with Victor, and/or even more mischief!

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Jo sharing her smile with the world, and the sun beginning to share its pinks…

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The captain, Tammy, and Dawson enjoying Valentine’s day on their ship!

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Let the dancing begin!

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The beauty of this moment was only matched by my night watch’s brilliantly clear star watching and a sunrise that burst out in rays from above an almost bizarre land-like shelf of nobly clouds that lined the horizon on our stern.  This was one of the many days on which I feel so lucky to be on the 4 to 8 watch, the sunset and sunrise watch!  Never, ever in my life have I witnessed so many comings and goings of the sun in close succession.  This is simply part of my routine now, and, yet, it is a routine that is never “routine.”  My breath can be caught, my steps slowed, my mouth turned into a smile again and again as I witness the world transition from light to dark and back again.  (I hope to describe this experience more slowly at a later date.)

How glorious to have a square-rigged ship as a dancing partner this Valentine’s Day!

Mood change…

Today, March 17th, 2013

I’m sitting on a lounge chair at Samade on the Beach in Aitutaki.  The water is a stone’s throw away from me, and I’m watching small fish swim about that are just the color of the white tan sand beneath them.  They move about calmly, it seems…eating perhaps.  They sway this way and then that way in a leisurely looking pod.  Then, all at once, something changes, and they dart definitively in one direction, appearing to swim for their lives.  And, perhaps that is just what they are doing.  In any case, I’ve been noticing how much their world (or whatever sense of reality they may have) seems to shift so dramatically…from calm to danger to calm again.  Though under much different circumstances, I am experiencing something of a similar sort.  Two days ago, I began feeling sick, and since that time, the color of my world is entirely different.  I imagine it seems impossible for this to be the case, but at some points in the last 24 hours, I have been able to look out at this island paradise and wish that it were not there, wish that I were in a room with nothing beautiful about it except for the simplicity of a solid bed, a comfortable temperature, food of one’s choice and at the time of one’s choosing, and a washroom of one’s own.  Indeed, those things are entirely luxuries here…at least as a crew member on a tall ship.  Things that have otherwise been exciting, easy, or non-events to me are now repulsive, utterly challenging, and notable.  I spent 18 or more of the last 24 hours sleeping, and today I feel as though I could sleep again.  It is one of the few things that seems desirable…that and lemonade.  Well, I will admit that I’m feeling a tad bit better today, and a floating “swim” in the ocean renewed my happy relationship with the sea again…for now.  This world shift makes me think heavily of Heidegger’s discussion of mood.  We often think there is a world out there, but as the fish and illness (and boredom and anguish, as Heidegger discusses, and eros and fear and hope, etc.) reveal, there are many worlds to be seen before us.  I think often, too, of how different this journey would be if certain friends or family were with me, or if the crew had even a slightly different consistency.  The shape of the world would change along with its possibilities, to be sure.  And, it with this thought that I’ll note that I’m beginning to be ready to return home…wherever that may be for me.  I feel a certain mood change that tells me that I’m ready to allow this part of my journey come to a close soon.  That said, I’m fully aware that something might change, just as it does for those sand white fishes, and I may be leisurely sailing about this South Pacific world again.  Time will tell, but my mood is homeward bound at the moment.

Three hours and a scooter ride around the island later, things already look so much more lovely as my body comes back to me again…and the island speaks for itself…

Shift work…

Getting closer to the present: March 11th, 2013

It’s 8:32 a.m.  I’ve just finished a breakfast of biscuits, sausage, baked beans, and grapefruit.  I was stood down from watch (official command: “watch below”) at 8 a.m. after a watch muster and debriefing beginning at 7:50 a.m.  I’ve been up since 3:30 a.m., and working since 3:50.  The night began with a fair bit of excitement.  The previous watch had encountered quite an intense squall.  According to their reports, lightning left white blind spots in their eyes for minutes.  Everyone was ordered to put on thick rubber bottomed boots.  The accompanying thunder was the loudest I have heard in my entire life, and I was tucked deeply away in my bunk below.  Those on watch described their chests as palpated and shaken to the core by the thunder.  By the time my watch emerged on deck, we simply had rain squalls and a fair bit of sail handling to do.  We spent the first hour bracing the yards and taking up on loose lines and coiling and hanging, coiling and hanging, coiling and hanging the many lines.  We had no lookout posted during these hours: the mate was the ship’s eyes, and she needed our hands.  I was, however, sent on a ship check after the first hour (the usual end of the lookout shift job).  The middle hours of watch involved keeping warm and as dry as possible in full foul weather gear, and, for me, “third helm.”  This was one of the most mercurial helms I’ve had: the ordered course changed at least six times to keep us in front of the very shifty wind.  Sometimes a turn toward port would be enough to move us a point on the compass; other times, I would need to put a full four turns on her.  There would be brief moments of calm when the ship seemed simply to glide at ease, having no cares in the world.  Until, she did again, and then my arms would be at work again, my eyes scanning the horizon, the clouds in the distant sky, the compass, and the flags on deck and aloft to make sure I was keeping on course.  Many, many a time, I would need to respond to the call “Mark your head” to let the mate know exactly where we were heading so she could judge if another course change was in order.  After my stint at helm and filling out the weather log and charting our position on the map, it was time to set the t’gallant sails, which had been taken in when the squall broke loose during the night.  Gear was singled up, the royal sheets cast off, and when the order was given, we sheeted home the main t’gallant.  Then, we hauled down the halyard, and tended to the braces.  Repeat for the fore t’gallant.  Coil and hang, coil and hang.  Now, we only had twenty odd minutes of watch remaining.  I cleaned up a bit in the scullery: we had produced a pile of tea and coffee mugs, and bowls from ramen noodles and cereal–common mid-night snack items.  And, with four minutes to go, I was able to nip up a loose coil I had noticed on a life ring during my earlier ship check.  Return to the second sentence of this paragraph, and you have this shift’s tale in short form.

And, yet, this isn’t at all what I meant to write about here.  What really struck me this morning at 8:30 a.m. is the fact that I am currently doing shift work!  Twice a day, four hours a stint, I work.  I do so every day of the week without change save for the unusual times when I’m taken off watch to serve on galley duty.  I’m struck by the perhaps not surprising mood shifts one sees around this structure.  There is the hustling to finish projects or to wake up before the start of the day watch, and, prior to night watch, the groggy attempts to begin moving about deftly on a rolling, dark ship.  There is often a clear mixture of people who are wishing they were back in bed and those who, for whatever stroke of good fortune or cultivated attitude, are cheerfully ready to get to work.  Typically the last hour of watch finds an upswing in everyone’s mood: we have almost completed half the day’s work!  A bit of sans music dancing as we muster at the very end of watch and wait for the mate is not unusual.  Indeed, the first hour after watch often has a party-esque feel to it.  People eat or kick back or dive into a project of choice or get ready happily for the next round of sleep.  I think, though, that often after this initial sense of respite, people begin to become aware again of the fact that another shift is soon to come.  This is not a “bad” thing, just an element of reality on the ship…like the necessity for sleeping and eating and breathing.  It is good to become well disposed to this reality.  I know for me this has been quite a shift in how my life proceeds.  Yes, during the school year, I have classes to teach at specific hours, but certainly not every day of the week.  And, my work beyond my teaching hours, even if it often takes up more than 8 hours of my day, can occur when I feel most ready and enthusiastic for it.  The ship, however, does not wait.  It has and needs its rhythms, and I am a part of those rhythms, the 4 to 8 part of those.  My life takes shape not only by the stretches of time within that watch, but also by the equally set “negative space” outside those hours when my own life needs and desires must be met.  And, as an earlier post described, it makes quite a difference to the character of one’s life whether one’s shift life on the ship is 8 to 12, 12 to 4, or 4 to 8.  8 hours here is not equal to 8 hours.  I’m certain that a shift can feel quite different depending on the particular makeup of the crew assigned to it at a given time, but there are some features that seem largely consistent to me.  The 8 to 12 shift is the most normal for sleeping and eating; 12 to 4 is the hardest with respect to both of those life issues; 4 to 8 is the sunrise/sunset shift, and pretty reasonable for sleeping and eating.  8 to 12 is the domestics shift with ship’s work to follow; 12 to 4 is ship work central; and 4 to 8 is the clean-up- and deck-wash-the-ship shift.  Each shift is exciting and interesting in its own way: 8 to 12 gets to see the ship as it gets strongly underway in the morning and slows its pace in the evening; 12 to 4 is the shift on which you most learn about and get to accomplish the jobs that keep the ship sailing and working; and, 4 to 8 has the glory, as I have mentioned many times now, of seeing the ship and sea at sunrise and sunset–times of utter beauty that can fill one with awe and gratitude for the fact that one is here and now.  Regardless of the specific shift, I am perhaps most interested, in this moment, by the way that this approach to work channels one’s life into such regularity.  Days and weeks pass quickly; it can be hard to remember what happened when; the future and the past seem less articulated than usual; and, there seems to be far less to worry or wonder about.  All is set in its place in time and will come to pass in due order…give or take a little.

These feet were made for seeing…

Just a fathom and a half or so back: March 10th, 2013

I have lived at least 95% of my time aboard the Picton Castle barefooted.  A few lightening-filled squalls have called for rubber bottomed footwear; the first couple of times I climbed aloft demanded shoes so that I could concentrate on something other than the intensity of ratlines and foot ropes digging into my bare soles (something that ceased to bother me after about a week of later acclimation); and, a short string of chilly nights early on found me donning knee highs and my foul weather boots.  Other than this handful of circumstances, my feet run free on this ship.  It is such a normal thing to do here that my shipmates and I will regularly need to be reminded to grab shoes when we head ashore.  And, sitting out at a bar or cafe, it is entirely common to find half or more of a group of our sailors to have kicked off whatever flip flops, tennis shoes, or, in my case, heels they may have worn to get there.

There are many nice things I can say about this free footed experience.  First, it is a sign–at least for me–that it is warm where I am living now.  Second, one regularly has the beautiful, smile producing experience of having one’s feet suddenly bathed in a wash of sea water when a swell sends a wave in through the scuttles to rush across the deck.  And, at night, if one is lucky, phosphorescence from the sea swirls around one’s toes, highlighting the eddies between flesh and deck before returning to its watery home.  Third, and most significantly for a sailor, in my opinion, is the added sensory reach that bare feet allows a person.  When I first came aboard (especially in my two week stint this summer), my legs were like a battle zone of bruises.  For the most part, I was wearing shoes at that time.  As I settled into my experience here and began leaving my shoes in my footlocker, I found my feet became quite sensitive feelers…warning me either directly or, eventually, in advance of upcoming obstacles that my busy working self might otherwise miss.  My bruises decreased significantly in number.  My feet tell me the story of where I am in the dark.  On night watch, we rarely use lights, and, if we do, it is a red light and turned for a specific task…largely not for navigating about the ship.  Under a brightly lit moon, I now feel as though artificial light would be luxurious and wasteful.  Still, there are many places on the ship (the hold, the engine room, the chain locker, the salon, etc.) and many new moon or cloudy nights that bring a darkness that is less easily penetrated.  Before reaching for my headlamp, however, I regularly find my feet narrating my way for me.  I can tell when I’ve crossed certain parts of the deck or a compartment by changes in the flooring, by steps I encounter, by a regularly water-drenched swath of deck, etc.  My feet light my way, I could say.  My feet also warn me quite quickly when the ship has become slippery, perhaps even a tad slimy, rather than merely water covered, and then my feet become like brakes for the otherwise quite quick passages my body makes across the deck and up and down her companionways and ladders.  Fourth, and perhaps most notably, my bared toes are important extensions for my body’s balance system.  I have been also mesmerized watching shipmates’ toes (and, to a lesser extent my own, because watching them seems to demonstrate some version of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle…one cannot observe without also affecting the observed), and their amazing ability to move one or two or three at a time and sometimes in contrasting ways to help their bearer secure his or her place on the deck and particularly in an upright position relative to the deck’s then current horizontal, which is so constantly shifting!  Toes almost seem to take on a personality here.  They reach and grasp and try earnestly at times; sometimes they look so relaxed, at bay; other times, they are downright discombobulated…and the whole foot then often follows, picking up to claim a new ground altogether.  As a bonus fifth for this list, I find my feet on board to be quite convenient third and fourth hands.  Many a time, I have, while working with my “real” hands, picked up a piece of line or a tool I needed and brought it up closer to me, and those same “hands” are excellent trash collectors and depositors when a discardable piece of chaffing gear or strand of rope needs throwing over board–a move that also throws in a bonus stretch and balance exercise as my foot needs to rise high enough to lob its goods over the height of the ship’s bulwarks or rails.  And, last, but definitely not least, it is downright fun to move around the world bare footed!  Isn’t it?  What a wonder that I spend most of my life outdoors these days (and, I continue to be amazed that this is so given how inside this outside feels) and that it is a strange act to look for a sock or to consider what pair of shoes befits my outfit of the day!  I wonder how these feet will return to my “normal” life…

Come on, feet…!

The colors of the sea…

A couple of fathoms back: March 9th, 2013

Forgive me if I have already quoted what will follow: the number of times this sentence has traveled through my mind’s eye on this voyage far exceeds the average looping of a sung stuck in my head, so perhaps it’s only fitting if I am repeating myself here.  I’ve been reading Merleau-Ponty’s essay “The Intertwining–The Chiasm” (from The Visible and the Invisible), and thinking, as I know I have written before, of the interweaving of the sea, the wind, the sky, the ship, and her crew.  In my musings on this topic, I have spent a great deal of time paying simple, but deep attention to the “elements” around me–the wisps and sighs and pushes and slaps of the wind, the starry maze or the paint brush stroked globe covering of the sky, the woosh and upwellings and glassiness or, alternatively, the hashed choppings of the waves.  Again and again, I sink into the raw color of the ocean.  And, here, pops up the insight attributed to Claudel by Merleau-Ponty: “…a certain blue of the sea is so blue that only blood would be more red” (132).  Yes.  Simply, yes.  What is this cobalt color that is so saturated nothing else can fit within it?  A color so complete that there is no need to search for sea creatures or admire the waves that pass through her or do anything other than attempt to meet the fullness of this color.  It’s a color you feel in your mouth, chock full of everything.  This is the element that is water.  No wonder the Greeks identified her as one of four.  They must have seen this blue, as red as blood, as essential as life.

As if this were not enough, the sea decided to turn a regal purple last afternoon, and then, as the sun began to set, the sky, as if in symphony with her, changed to the color of a field of lavender…the lightest soft and hazy purple specked at the edges with greens and yellows that wished they were green.  Lavender skies, royal seas!  What dreams are made of.  These hues lap a person into a state sweeter than sound sleep, to a waking ease in which cares are met, souls aligned, futures always possible.

If this is too optimistic, alas, this is how the moment felt!  And, it stands so in my memory even though not long after my hands and feet were covered in red paint spilled accidentally by a watch mate and my eyes were filling with chemically-induced tears after an hour of diesel use had still not cleared away all traces of the mayhem.  I breathed in and out, remembering that sea so blue that only blood is more red.