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Ocean Watch
Susan Scott

Friday, March 11, 2005





Fanning trip is
no gentle, easy cruise

Farewell, Palmyra. It was hard leaving my friends and that beautiful atoll behind, but leave it we did. We are currently sailing to Tahiti, 1,500 miles away.

Tahiti is upwind of Palmyra, meaning we have to tack back and forth to get there. For nonsailors, that means we are plowing into wind and waves, the boat is heeling, and doing anything, even sitting still, is work.

Upwind is slow. It took three days to sail the 191 miles from Palmyra to our rest stop at Fanning Atoll.

We started out on course, but as we traveled, those rascally tradewinds kept inching around to greet us head-on.

Eventually, 36 hours after our departure, the wind settled on southeast. Fanning was southeast. And so I had a good lesson in sailing tactics.

First, I tried brute force. Yes, the waves were kind of big, but they had few whitecaps. We would simply motor upwind until we were back on course.

The ocean won. Those 10-foot waves rose up like blue walls to pitch the boat, slow us to 3 mph and spray us with annoying irregularity.

It took only an hour of that to go back to sailing.

We were still beating, an apt name for going upwind, but sailing suddenly became quite tolerable.

Seeing Fanning in the distance was a grand moment that turned joyful when a pod of melon-headed whales rushed to the bow to escort us in.

And then we reached the channel into Fanning's lagoon. I knew from the chart that a 4 1/2-knot tidal current ran back and forth through the narrow opening, but had no way of telling when it went which way.

As we approached, it was easy to see the current was coming out, which meant I could steer the boat. In I plunged.

Soon I was motoring into 3-foot standing waves, and at full throttle my GPS (global positioning system) read zero. The current was running a shocking 5 to 6 knots against us.

I inched left and right, looking for less push, but the nearby reefs gave me the willies.

Just when I was about to let the boat drift back to sea, I began making headway. It was agonizingly slow, but I got the boat into Fanning lagoon.

Then, just as my shakes were disappearing, an oar went overboard while launching the dinghy. And off it went with amazing speed toward the open ocean.

Wren, too, took off down-current in the dinghy, but with only one oar, he had little power.

"Jump," I shouted to Alex, yanking his shirt over his head and practically shoving him off the deck. "Hurry. Swim, swim."

Alex retrieved the oar and got into the dinghy with Wren, but the current was too much for them. I stood watching my crew drift out the channel, around the corner and out of sight.

"Weren't you worried when we disappeared?" Alex asked me later.

"No," I said. "I knew you knew what to do."

Alex had rowed sideways out of the rip, into the back eddy, and then walked the dinghy up the beach.

We laugh now about our Fanning adventures, and I'm sure there will be plenty more on this voyage.

That's why we're doing it.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Marine science writer Susan Scott can be reached at http://www.susanscott.net.



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