“Whatʻs it like to live on the canoe?”
We often hear this question from people we meet, in port, at home, and now over video and satellite phone calls with students around the world. Everyone has a hard time imagining when we explain our watch system, what we do on- and off-watch, and the rhythm of daily life on the canoe. Today I share with you what today was like, a typical day on the canoe where every day is the same and yet completely different than the day before.
“Time to get up, your watch.”
Itʻs somewhere around 2 a.m. I guess, but this time of day is a fog of dream blending with reality. (The last long leg I sailed, I came up for watch after hearing the same call, only to find that I had dreamt it and was two hours early on deck.) I unclip my Patagonia jacket and pants from the line strung through my bunk, contemplating the act of getting up and out, reluctant to leave the relative dryness and warmth of my bunk. Itʻs only a 4 hour watch, how tough can it be, right? I only laid down to rest 3 hour ago, but 4 hours doesnʻt seem that long… until I crawl up out of my bunk.
The cobalt blue sea is roaring, unfriendly, sending mists and spray to meet me, brought on by waves breaking all around us. Weʻre pushing along at 7+ knots, with a 20 knot wind making the mast howl a little. The moon lights the sky enough to give some bearing of whatʻs around me as I cross the deck, but not enough to break through the thick clouds that blanket the sky.
The first question I ask the 10-2 watch captain is “What you steering with?” His response? ”Wind and swell brah, gonna be a long one.” Great, I think, no stars and moon. The next 5 hours brought more of the same – steering the canoe to keep her in the trough as we scooted along, avoiding really big swells; not one usable star visible, no moon either, and when the sun rose we did not get a good look at her until about 9am.
This is one of the hardest parts of voyaging. Our success and failure hangs in the decision made in the dark at 3 am, dead tired. Too much deviation from our course, which may literally goes unseen and therefore uncalculated on a night like this, can put us outside of our range of target to find the island. 15 days of good steering could get blown on a night like tonight. Luckily, we are all aware of this, and do our best to be present and not let the mind wander – we are constantly looking for clues that can solidify our direction.
OFF WATCH – DAY TIME
By 7am, I was off the watch, shooting as much of this confused sea and horizon as time would allow. By 7:30, itʻs time to open that Pandora’s box – this laptop – which pulls me back into this other reality that is so distanced from the one around me; a dozen logistics emails from three different committees dealing with the Voyage, all answering and asking the myriad of questions that keeps it all moving, urgent in tone else it would not be sent to us out here to contemplate and try to assess from the middle of the unpredictable sea. The staff for this Worldwide Voyage are some of the most committed people I know – some of them even match our sleep schedules to catch us between watches, when we can talk on the sat phone for a few precious and expensive minutes to clarify logistics and rapid-fire answers. Moorings, provisions, clean water, places for hot, fresh-water showers, transportation, and flights to switch crews – all arranged for ports we have never visited before, managed from desks and computers at home in Hawaii. Without the work of this support team at home, this voyage could not happen.
By 8am, all of the emails have to be answered, and the real test of all of the communications gear begins. It rests on the availability of bandwidth, 1000 miles from the nearest land, out in the middle very lumpy Indian Ocean. Jenna and Miki from our Education Team coordinated a live video conference via Google Hangout with a school in Japan for our apprentice navigator, Tomo – which requires aligning 3 different time zones, school schedules, and canoe daylight hours. At 8 am, I begin testing the video connection – holding my breath in that precarious moment where we wait for the signal to go through. The thick cloud cover and looming rain clouds can have an effect on the satellite signal as well. After a few tense moments the window pops up, and Bryson greets me from ‘Ōiwi TV, where he coordinates the daily communications flow from the canoe. Bryson patches us in to the video call, which is being moderated by Miyako and Tamiko, both native Japanese speakers and sailors, who are standing by to help host but also to step in and answer questions if our video connection fails.
Because many of these schools only have one shot to talk to the crew, our teams work really hard to make sure they have a quality experience with live crewmembers, even if the canoe connection fails. But this time – the connection is strong and clear; Tomo has a great time talking to the kids, bringing Captain Bruce in for a few questions as well. This is the single coolest thing we have been able to do with the technological leaps we have made on recent legs– bringing a group of kids to the canoe, live, to hear the excitement and see the smiling face of one of their own, sailing across the vast Ocean. Tomo brought the reality of the canoe to them, even if less than an hour, to “set the hook”, as our mentors would say. They will certainly follow the voyage, and learn how people around the world are both amazingly different and shockingly similar.
After the video call, I typed this, desperately trying to get ahead in this essay before my mind shuts down and forces me to sleep, surrounded by the smells of Garyʻs amazing creations. As Gary finished preparing the meal, he began thinking about what he needed for the coming days – it turns out the food for tomorrow is in my part of the hull under my bunk. I have to unpack the bed, fold it over, open the hatch, remove all my equipment piled up to the top of the hatch and get 4 green provision boxes labeled 29A, 29B, 30A and 30B. This will be all the food for us the next two days. I repack everything in the reverse order and take the opportunity to grab a few snacks out of my dry bag – the dehydrated bananas, a gift from an aunty who lovingly prepares each batch, are now famous and immediately consumed by the crew when I bring them up.
The watch changed a while back, which signals only about four hours left before I have to be back on watch. Time to rest.
I get up to the howl of the wind, and pitch and yaw of waves tossing us about. I feel so much better having slept a few hours. Watch is just starting, and we have the biggest gift of gifts – the sun has found the energy to push past the bleak, gray clouds and show herself. Bruce sets the line, and asks me to spot for a few hours. He, much more exhausted than I, can now sleep, knowing we can hold a straight course. The next two hours are mostly overcast, but the sun is a frequent visitor and comfort; more certainty about direction brings relief to all. We have an uneventful afternoon watch with speeds of 6 and some times 7 kts as we push through. Gary comes up to make the dinner – fried rice with spam and tofu, a winner. Our watch is always on at dinnertime, so the three of us – Doc, myself and Wally, our watch captain – take turns eating while one of us steers. Its always a battle of trying allow the others to eat first. Tonight, Doc relents and gets off the steering sweep to allow me to steer while he eats first; I had to guilt him into it because he made me eat first yesterday.
Watch finishes in a lackluster show of a non-sunset. The sun is unable to fight against the might of the clouds on the horizon, who stand firm and in solidarity, carrying in them the wealth of fresh water. After checking for water in the hulls, we three are free to do what we like for the next 8 hours before our watch begins again at 2 am.
OFF WATCH – NIGHT TIME
My routine is pretty set now. Get off watch and try to shower before it gets too dark and cold. Most days that’s a sound strategy. Directly after washing off all the sunscreen, I head back to clear email for the last time, begin to process the dayʻs shooting, finish off the to-do list from the boss (my role also includes administrative assistant duties to the Captain), and then finish this writing. Tonight is a bit more complicated – its about to rain, so I’m writing this in my bunk which is relatively dry, but am constantly peeking over at the salt water swamp a mere 12 inches away from the computer. I push my leg out of the bunk to check for rain. It’s not actively raining but itʻs waaay colder than it was 20 mins ago when I came in here. The wind is gusting, and big wind-born waves broadside us as we go, causing the hulls of this canoe to shudder in unison. The steering is hard, I can hear it. The jib luffs as the wind clocks around us forward of the forward sail, losing foil and cracking about. I’m certain the steersmen are pulling on the sweep to try to drive the canoe back down off the wind.
And so the process goes. Our turn to battle the squalls and elements will now be here in 6 hours. Time to end this day in the life story; closing with how thankful I am to be here. These raw elements are gifts – this canoe will not travel this path again in my lifetime, of that I am sure. We 11 have been gathered here, now, meant to share this gift with all of you through the methods we have access to. Today we were able to do it live via satellite; the pictures captured today will be avail on the web soon, and this writing, through the magic of the interwebs, will be waiting for you when you wake in your different time zones all over the world. And another more ancient method, the path that this canoe carves through the sea, is one that may easily be forgotten by the ocean and sky who witness us today, but will never be forgotten by the crew and those who follow us. This canoe, this crew, and those still on board from time past, will reverberate this story and lessons learned here. And one day, many days from now, people will be back here, on a canoe – to sail in our wake, the wake of the ancestors. The journey continues.
Me ka ha’aha’a,