In the Taumotus

Notes from the Southern Hemisphere

Holly Martin lifting her chain over a coral head as her boat swung into the wind. Photos courtesy Holly Martin

Holly Martin, 29, is sailing around the world, on her own, and she is at present on the other side of the world—the warm side. With the help of satellite phones and occasional Wi-Fi connections, she is sharing her experiences with us armchair travelers back here in Maine, who are sailing through the depths of winter.

The boat on this voyage, the SV Gecko, is a Grinde, 27 feet long and 10 feet wide, that was built in Denmark in 1983. After buying it in Connecticut and giving it a thorough overhaul, Holly set out in the fall of 2019 from Round Pond Harbor on the Pemaquid Peninsula in Maine. Last March, she passed through the Panama Canal only to encounter the unexpected—a pandemic. Understandably, travel restrictions increased, and resupplying became more difficult. After a stint in quarantine off the Perlas Islands, she was eventually able to get underway again. She made the long voyage alone across the Pacific. Her destination: Nuka Hiva, one of the small, isolated volcanic islands in French Polynesia. For most of the 41 days of that stretch of sailing, she was out of sight of land. Now exploring a remote archipelago in Tahiti, she is waiting out the cyclone season before heading on this spring to the next destination, New Zealand, about 2,600 miles away.

I was able to send some questions, and Holly sent back the following thoughtful and thought-provoking responses. Thank you, Holly!

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Mary:

Do you see evidence of ocean pollution or climate change? We hear so much about this subject in Maine.

Holly:
Ocean pollution and climate change are two major topics of worry in the Pacific. I’m currently in the Tuamotus archipelago of French Polynesia. The Tuamotus are a large system of reefs that lie a couple
hundred miles northwest of Tahiti. The average elevation of these reef ecosystems is a few meters. Many of these reefs have passes that are accessible by sailboat. The passes have extreme current, so it’s
important to enter at slack tide—unless you want to try to fight up to 12 knots of current and standing waves. Every atoll has a small town with a local population. Some scientists have estimated that by
the 2100s, many atolls will be impacted by sea level rise. Many will begin to be uninhabitable. Where will the residents go? As I sail between reef villages and meet the friendly and generous locals, I’m
saddened to think that I might be witnessing the ending days of many villages and ways of life.

Inside the coral reefs, there is a relatively small amount of trash. The locals are clean and respect the environment around them. However, the outside of some of the reefs are speckled with the usual water bottles, flip flops, and other bits of plastic debris that litter most beaches around the world. There are also hazards to navigation in the form of containers that fall from ships. At the beginning of December, a cargo ship near Hawaii lost approximately 1800 containers overboard in rough weather. There are no ways to detect a lurking container in the ocean. Often only a small corner sticks above the waves. Containers don’t show up on radar and there’s no way to track them, or even to know how long they float after they fall from a ship. Hitting a container at sea can cause extreme damage to your boat that often leads to sinking.

Mary:

Have you noticed any differences between how you navigate versus how sailors in the French Polynesian atolls navigate? For example, I have read about people of Micronesia who are able to sail without instrumentation, using constellations that differ from the Western ones that reference Greek and Roman mythology (Perseus, Andromeda, Cassiopeia, Pegasus, Hercules, etc.) or the Cross.


Holly:

When I was in Tahiti, I had the pleasure of touring a re-creation of one of the traditional sea-going boats that Polynesians have been using for centuries. I had tied my dinghy next to it on the dock and
was waved aboard by a crew member who was tensioning the rigging. There were no official tours going on, but he was interested in passing on the mostly forgotten knowledge of his ancestors. He
explained that this particular boat—a large wooden catamaran—had made several ocean passages from Tahiti to New Zealand and Hawaii. When underway, the crew only navigated using the stars, the winds, and the currents. He explained that the captain had a hand-held GPS for safety, but he never gave hints to the crew about their course. They never got lost.

Carved into the deck around the tiller was the Tahitian compass. Each point that we would call North, South, East, West, was represented by a different Tiki god. The compass points in between each had a
different carved symbol. I learned that the Tahitian word for this kind of boat translates to “village” because everyone has to work together to keep it running.

Mary:

Have you seen or encountered on your travels any high-speed racing vessels like the trimaran MACIF, which is about 100 feet long, used to set speed records? What are your impressions of this high-tech “need for speed” approach to sailing?

Holly:

I haven’t personally encountered any large ocean racing boats, but I have met sailors who competed in high-speed races. Having worked on many different kinds of boats myself (traditional schooners, charter
boats, school boats, research ships, and others), I’ve come to find that each type of sailor tends to glorify their own brand of sailing. I’ve heard pretty much every kind of sailing called “not real sailing” by one
group or another. Having these sentiments poured into my ears for years has caused me to make up my mind: Every type of sailing is real sailing. I’m happy that the beautiful ocean has so many different ways
to be enjoyed. I believe there’s a type of boating for everyone. Whether you prefer a rowboat or a Volvo ocean racer, the important part is that you’re experiencing the best 71 percent of our planet.

Mary:

Airline pilots often refer to invisible but well-known routes in the sky that are like roadways to them—that is, well traveled and much-used direct routes that pilots and air-traffic controllers rely on for efficiency and safety. Are there similar shipping lanes in the ocean that you are using, and if so, do you have to watch out for tankers and other types of boats? Or do you not use those routes, to avoid tankers and other types of boats?

Holly:

Invisible shipping lanes crisscross the ocean, bisecting every major ocean. Much like the skyways or sky highways, the shipping lanes are also well-known to marine traffic. Most charts have these shipping lanes marked clearly. For a sailor in my type of sailboat, it’s wise to steer well away. Cargo ships average between 15 and 20 knots, and a collision would sink a little boat in minutes.

Once you get more than 50 miles away from land, however, these shipping lanes begin to blur. The ocean becomes a giant canvas of ships and sailboats worming around in all different directions. As a single-hander, one of my most important tasks is to spot ships and avoid collisions. I have a system called AIS [automatic identification system] on my boat. All commercial traffic is required to transmit their position on the AIS network. My VHF [very high frequency] radio picks up signals from these ships. I set an alarm that beeps if a ship is going to get within 5 nautical miles of my boat. Luckily, most sailors also transmit AIS signals as well. Knowing that I have this guard alarm allows me to sleep much more restfully at night.

Mary:

Any New Year’s Resolutions?


Holly:
I don’t have any giant New Year’s resolutions. I’m already living the life of my dreams. The past 10 months have been my happiest ever. I believe self-improvement is a lifelong process, and I give it
attention almost every day. This year I’ve learned many lessons from the Polynesians. I’ve never encountered a more generous and gentle group of people. A small family living on an atoll spends 250 US dollars a month on food. The rest is supplemented by fish and fruit. Many of the men go fishing every day to provide food for their families. Some have small skiffs, but many free dive with a spear gun. I’ve been gifted so much fish, fruit, and eggs by the countless people I meet along the way. I always try to find something I can give in return—freshly baked cookies, sunglasses, a story. However, their gifts are given freely and with joy. They expect nothing in return; they’re giving because it’s right and beautiful. As soon as I set foot on a new island or in a new village, I know that I have friends waiting to be met. People here are friendly and open. They’re as interested in my culture as I am in theirs. From them, I’m learning to give more, to slow down and talk to the gang of little kids on bikes, and to copy the women by plucking the fragrant frangipanis and tucking them into my hair.

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