A Letter From French Polynesia

A Letter From French Polynesia

Holly Martin’s Solo Voyage Around the World

Solo sailing in the Taumotus. Photo by Holly Martin.

Holly Martin, 29, is sailing around the world in her 27-foot-long Grinde sailboat, which she has christened the SV Gecko. She left Maine in the fall of 2019, from Round Pond Harbor on the Pemaquid Peninsula. Holly sent this letter by satellite from the South Pacific, to the readers of Maine Women Magazine.

When I tell people I’m circumnavigating, they often think this means perpetual forward motion. The beauty of cruising is there’s no “right way” to go about it. Some people set out for a circumnavigation with a time constraint. They take five years off from work and detail their trip to be combination of bluewater sailing and exploring. Some people choose to circumnavigate nonstop for ten months. However, many of the sailors that I meet along the way have similar schedules to my own: we don’t have one.

For me, cruising is a lifestyle. My boat feels more like home than any house I’ve lived in. I thrive on the thrill of travel and the phrases I pick up in foreign languages. Not having a schedule means that if I find a place I like, there’s nothing holding me back from getting to know it better. French Polynesia was only supposed to be a three-month stop on the highway to New Zealand. This is the classic route of many sailors: through the Panama Canal, a few months in French Polynesia, a few months hopping west through the rest of the Pacific, then a winter in New Zealand. This will be eventually be my route as well. However, I’ve added a stopover in French Polynesia for a year. The islands captured my heart, and who was I to say no?

Foraging for food. Makemo Atoll, Tuamotus. Photo by Holly Martin.

Three thousand miles of ocean stand between me and New Zealand. The season for arriving in New Zealand lies between October and December. The time I leave French Polynesia depends on whether or not the islands between here and New Zealand open their borders this coming summer. I could leave as early as July, or as late as October. My current plan, such as it is, is to spend most of my time in the Tuamotus archipelago, where I’m learning how to kite surf. As spring progresses, I’ll slowly make my way through the Society Islands, which include Tahiti and Bora Bora. If nothing changes, I’ll be in New Zealand in nine or ten months. However, one of my favorite parts of my lifestyle is that I’m never sure of my future location. My travel plans change according to whim, weather, and the people I meet along the way.

Even though the islands and reefs of French Polynesia lie scattered over almost a thousand miles of ocean, I run into the same cruisers over and over again. Many of them are people I met in Panama. We provisioned for our big Pacific crossing together and discussed different routes. I meet them over and over in countless bays on countless islands. Often we coordinate our locations so that we can spend more time together. Many of the destinations in French Polynesia are quite remote. Cell service is a luxury—as are stores that sell more than the basic rice, flour, and crackers. The locals are always friendly and fun, but other cruisers prove the constant in my ever-morphing landscape.

Climbing the mountains of Fatu Hiva, Marquesas. Photo by Holly Martin.

In particular, I’ve been buddy boating with another single-hander whom I met in Panama. Jarne is a Belgium sailor who left Europe on his Spirit 32-foot sloop a few months after I arrived in the Caribbean. We met on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal last March and spent three months getting to know each other during the throes of lockdown in Panama. The two of use—along with 10 or 20 other sailors—spent our time in a small archipelago of islands about 30 miles off the coast of Panama. We only set foot on deserted beaches in uninhabited parts of the islands. We bought fruit from the local fishermen and spearfished for our protein. When the Pacific opened up last spring, the group of friends I’d made in Panama all left for the Marquesas islands around the same time.

While I sporadically continue to see my other friends from Panama, Jarne and I intentionally sail to all the same places together. We both love being at sea alone, but when we’re in an anchorage with an island to explore, we prefer each other’s company. Jarne has similar dreams to my own. We both want to cruise indefinitely. We have no concrete plans for the future, and we plan to work as we sail, to be able to continue our adventures.

Kite boarding in Fakarava Atoll. Photo by Holly Martin.

Perhaps one of the reasons I’m unconcerned about my timetable is that my brain has slowed to “island time.” Individual weeks have no meaning out here, and a facetious question between sailors is: What month are we in? Our daily lives are governed by the sun. Like the locals, most sailors awaken at daybreak—around 5 a.m. in the morning. When the sun sets at 6:30 p.m., we settle in to dinner and books. Most sailors are in bed by 8 or 9 p.m. This time is ironically referred to as “sailor’s midnight.”

Climbing coconut trees in Fakarava Atoll. Photo by Holly Martin.

Last week, I sailed to an anchorage surrounded by staggeringly high mountains. The village in the valley boasted a population of several hundred people. I had just spent a month living in a nearly deserted atoll, so for me, the activity was overwhelming. Jarne and I sat for over an hour the first evening, watching the bustle of the town. There was a group playing volleyball. Kids were body surfing in the waves on the beach. A group of fishermen were unloading their day’s catch. Teenagers listened to music on a boombox and a group of older men were playing catch. We didn’t know where to look first, and we joked that it was better than watching TV. Going spearfishing for dinner can be my whole day’s task, and I find that completing one task with intention is much more satisfying than distractedly checking off a to-do list. I guess my brain and body have finally slowed down to the rhythm of life in a small village by the sea.

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Holly Martin

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