At the Makemo atoll
Holly Martin, 28, is doing what fewer than 300 people have ever done: sailing alone around the world. The first woman to accomplish this feat was Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz, from Poland, who completed her two-year trip in 1978.
Holly bought her boat in Connecticut after a long and careful search and christened it the SV Gecko. The boat is a Grinde, 27 feet long and 10 feet wide, built in Denmark in 1983. She then, back in Maine, gave it a thorough, ten-month overhaul, working intermittently on far-flung research vessels to earn and save money. Holly set out from Maine last fall. Even with the travel complications that arose with the pandemic, she has sailed now through the Panama Canal and across much of the Pacific, reaching the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. She is spending the cyclone season in that area before sailing on to New Zealand in the spring. We are following her journey in Maine Women Magazine, with the help of her mother Jaja Martin, an expert sailor herself. They are able to talk occasionally by a satellite phone. Here, Jaja generously shares the news of what Holly has been up to and where.
Holly is currently working her way northeast (NE) through the Tuamotus islands and atolls. Atolls are circular islands with lagoons at their centers, or chains or reefs of such islands, formed of coral. She is headed NE in order to get away from any potential storms which can come through during cyclone season. “It’s nice to be able to stop at some of the atolls to break up the trip,” Holly said. By heading NE she is sailing directly into the trade winds, with the current against her. “It’s also fun to see the different atolls. They are each unique in so many ways: the fish and marine life, the locals, the livelihoods of the people and the settlements themselves. Plus, it’s great to get a full night’s rest!”
“When cruisers arrive at the settlement of an atoll, the first thing they must do is check in with the mayor,” said Holly. “But it’s all the honor system, and not everyone complies. There is a daily fee of 50 cents which must be paid. I love going into the office and paying my 50 cents. I get so much back for that small amount. I get to meet some locals, ask any questions I want, and they are always so welcoming and hospitable. I’ve had offers of dinner, rides around the island, and even fresh fish!”
Sailing between the atolls can be tricky. The currents are unpredictable. They change direction and intensity depending on the wind and atmospheric pressure. It’s important to be vigilant regarding your course, heading, and position. Because the atolls are ring-shaped islands, cruisers have to sail inside through a pass in order to get protection from the ocean swells. The passes, too, can be challenging because the tides and currents roaring in and out of them. It’s important to hit the slack tide so that you are not sucked in too fast. Coming in too fast puts you at risk of getting washed into an underwater coral head. “With limited engine power, it’s easy for the current to overcome my ability to maneuver Gecko,” said Holly. Conversely, if the tide is streaming out, it can be hard to motor against it.
“One difficulty of sailing alone is that I can’t have a look-out on the bow,” said Holly. “The lookout can point out underwater bombies, or coral heads. Since the bombies aren’t charted, there’s no way to know their location. Sometimes, I run up to the bow, have a look, and run back to the helm quickly, but I can’t always do that. There’s definitely a small element of risk.” Holly has learned to see where the bombies are by noticing the color of the water and the finding the “greasy look of the water just above the coral heads. On the way out of the pass, I always get local knowledge as to the best path to take.”
Once safely anchored and checked in, Holly usually meets the locals as she walks around the settlement. “Everyone stops, smiles, and says ‘Hi,’” said Holly. She describes how “fishermen often come out to the boats either to sell fish or give it away. Sometimes I’ll go spearfishing with a group of local fishermen. It’s important to find out which fish are safe to eat, and the fishermen can always tell you.”
Tropical fish sometimes have a toxin called ciguatoxin. It causes food poising called ciguatera, which is a debilitating condition. “The funny thing is that the fish you can eat on one atoll are different from those you can eat on its neighboring atoll. Sometimes, you can eat the blue spotted grouper and not the red spotted ones, and sometimes it’s the other way around.”
An exciting day on any atoll is the day that the supply ship comes in. This is the day to go to market. Overpriced but still-welcome vegetables are usually what most cruisers are after. There is a carnival feeling in town as everyone lines up to see what the ship has brought in. “It feels like stepping back into to past,” said Holly.
Holly is on Makemo atoll right now. I’m not sure where she’s headed next. Holly will be spending the holidays on her boat anchored somewhere. “I’ll probably spend the day with a few friends and locals.” She’s not sure exactly where she’ll be that day, but I know she’ll be having a good time with boundless holiday cheer!