It’s 9:30 a.m. The sky is white with clouds. Storms breaking between. I want to sail the lagoon south, but need sunlight to see all the coral along my path. I spot a sailboat heading into the channel. I will follow them. I turn the engine on and run up to the bow to weigh anchor. I have a manual windlass and 200 feet of chain to crank up.
I crank. Juniper does some jolting movements like she’s caught on coral. I wait. I let her spin with the wind. I wait. I crank. I wait. I crank. I crank. I crank. She is free. I am off.
I tie the anchor safety line on fast. Run back to the cockpit. Shift Juniper into gear and throttle up.
I’m heading to the see the sharks of the southern pass. It’s a 30 NM ride through the Channel Balise. Downwind. I’ve decided upwind sailing is only for the birds and that a woman should never sail to weather!
I follow the channel. It’s a snake. Caution. Pearl farm buoys. Caution. Coral reefs. Caution. The depth contours are ever changing beneath me. Sapphire to seafoam green to mint to brown to sapphire to brown to mint. Some reef breaks into the channel. I give everything a wide berth.
I get to one marker and the reef appears so wide and the color of the water is so shallow, that I panic and turn around. I do circles. I ask myself if a reef would really go that far into a channel. I decide that it can’t be so. I continue onward.
I am still motoring. I tell myself that at the next channel marker I will pull out the jib. I tell myself that for an hour and six channel markers, before I actually pull out the jib. I do it. Not all the way. Reefed a touch. I turn the engine off. It’s just me and the wind and a small following sea. I’m cruising at 5 knots. It’s heaven. Me and the wind.
Squalls come and go. One brings 10 extra knots of wind with it. I shake. I spit. I surf the swell it brings. It passes. I play music. I dance. I sing loud. I want to turn my brain off and dream, but I can’t. I must stay alert. I must be here. All of me. All the way. Wide awake. That’s what sailing alone near land is like.
I’m happy because some things that were broken have fixed themselves. Like my speedo. I painted it’s paddle wheel with primer, like a ninny, and couldn’t get my speed through water to register. But I must have sailed so hard into the wind to get to Fakarava that all the paint spun off. Now I know my STW. I love that instrument. It’s the jam, cause when I compare it to my speed over ground, I know if I have current with or against me. That’s such a beautiful thing to know.
I can see the pass now. I peel off towards the anchorage to its north. The swell is strong. If I’m not careful I could end up in a flooded mouth that sucks me out into the ocean.
There are reefs all along the way to the anchorage. I swerve. I zig. I zag. There are two boats. A catamaran- anchored. A monohull- moored. Both are jolting around with the fetch of the north wind against them.
I pull up next to a catamaran. I scream, “Parlez-vous Anglais?” The three of them, “Oui.” Me, “Can I anchor off your stern?” Them, “Don’t anchor, it’s hell. Catch a mooring.” I say, “But I’m by myself and my boat hook is broken.” The youngest man among them says, “I will help you.”
I set up my lines. He swims to the mooring ball. I don’t want to hit him. I go upwind. I put Juniper in neutral. I run up and toss lines. We get blown down. We do it all again.
The sunset is spilling onto the water. Sharks are circling, lopsided with lust. Do they want to eat me or welcome me? I can’t care.
I secure the lines with an elephant of effort and invite the swimming man aboard. He’s wearing Buddhist prayer beads around his wrists and a Polynesian tattoo climbs his back. I feed him a beer. I feed him food. We feed each other stories.
He‘s a professional swimmer who is hitchhiking around the world on sailboats. Left France three years ago. The boat he is on now is run by an older couple. It sounds quite militant, they started with six crew in Mexico and the swimming man is the only one left aboard.
They are leaving the next day for the north pass. I wish the swimming man could stay to explore these pink sand shores.
The stars are stellar and the moon is out of sight. It’s 6:30 p.m. I’m tired. The swimming man prepares to swim back to his hitchhiking boat. The people of the village told him not to swim at night. They say the sharks are blind at night and they will bite anything that splashes.
The swimming man sits on the edge of Juniper. Fins and mask on. We talk about what could happen in dark pockets of water. We talk about how I couldn’t possibly save him. I offer him a berth aboard Juniper. He says it’s too early to sleep. I tell him to touch wood. He says a prayer. He jumps. He swims. After 15 minutes I hear from across the water, “I’m ok, I made it.” I fall sleep.