Everyone who sets off to sail the world does so for the potential discovery, for the encounters and experiences both in the sea and on land that can’t be had at home. Majestic coral gardens, huge pelagic fish, strange and fascinating cultures, undiscovered waves pull all of us towards the unknown. But sailing the world isn’t easy. Great trials and tribulations must be overcome at every turn and at least in my experience a delicate balance is formed between the payoffs and the strife; with the payoffs tipping the scale just enough to drive us onward. For Jody, our photographer the strife of living at sea is exacerbated by sea sickness. For nearly 6 years now she’s put up with literally hundreds and hundreds of days of feeling green because of the adventure that lies ahead. The possibilities. And two things that have eluded her the most. Manta Rays and Whale Sharks.
A fast 40 hour sail from Kosrae brought us to the second rainiest spot in the world, the great Micronesian island of Pohnpei. Renowned for one of the best right hand waves in the world myself and our crew were just hoping for a bit of sun, which seemed highly unlikely considering the statistics. We’d been pummelled by rain in Kosrae and needed some vitamin D to cheer the mood.
On the day our guests arrived, Brian and Oded from California, Erik from New Zealand, and Volker from Germany; a light rain looked to be our never-ending accompaniment. We made a hasty decision to sail three hours to a nearby offshore island called Ant atoll. Thinking the rain must stack up on the towering pillars of Pohnpei the low-lying atoll in the lee might have a bit more blue sky. The decision paid off handsomely. The guests got a nice taste for brisk sailing and I lost my hat and then completely botched a man overboard drill to retrieve it (note to skipper- we need practice!)- but it was SUNNY!!!
For three glorious days we gorged in the luxury of the sun. Each of the boys got hours and hours of time on the water and a nearby spectacular reef provided plenty of underwater entertainment between kite sessions.
I’d been keeping my eye on the swell forecast hoping it would pick up so we could give notorious “P-Pass” a go. It’s a wave that has been recently featured in nearly all the major surf magazines and as I knew there were only a few surfers in town, we might be able to score the wave and not get in anyone’s way. It’s also known as a very heavy wave, capable of grinding bodies and boards to mincemeat so we called in a pro to give us some pointers, Cameron Dietrich. We picked up Cameron from the airport on day three, scored 100 gallons of diesel (the first diesel delivered by truck instead of in jerry cans since leaving the Marshalls) and headed out to the pass.
Cameron made it a few hours before busting board number one. Heavy indeed! The rest of the gang were smartly content to play endlessly in the flat water inside the reef. Oded, Brian, Erik and Volker rode for hours and hours day after day, encouraging one another to perfect their first back rolls, downloops, forward rolls and beyond. It reminded me of the earlier days of my riding and seeing the joy, hoops and hollers and smiles on the guys more than made up for my inability to share in their fun as my shoulder remains dicey from an injury sustained in Kosrae.
The sun and wind continue but with easing swell we make the move to the eastern reef, nearby a spot called “Manta Ray Alley”, where Jody hoped to realize a long-unfulfilled dream. The trip takes us by a fleet of fishing giants that you can only believe by witnessing in person. Over 30 tuna seiners and long-liners, equipped with miles and miles of nets, spotting helicopters and cargo holds capable of holding hundreds of metric tons deliver over $2 billion US dollars worth of tuna to even grander processing boats in the bay- bound for Taiwan, Korea, Japan, China and the United States. We are told the by-catch of these behemoths includes among much else Humpback whales, Dolphins, Pilot whales, and yes- even Manta rays.
And what does Pohnpei, or more accurately, the corrupt officials who negotiated this rape get for selling their only real resource? $15 million USD a year. That’s .0075% of the gross. The crews on these boats make a tiny pittance, the rest goes to the multinationals in foreign lands that own them. Scientists the world over agree that the oceans, which make up 99% of the living space on our planet and provide 50% of the oxygen we breath will be depleted beyond saving by 2050. We sail by in silence, each realizing every one of us are a part of the problem. Too many mouths to feed.
Over the next 10 days we will visit Manta Ray Alley 3 times. Jody finally gets to see the magnificent creatures on our first outing, but they stay deep and it is impersonal. Manta Rays survive on Plankton, tiny nearly invisible but crucial creatures at the bottom of the food chain (they are responsible for every 2nd breath we take). We are told that if we get the tide right they will come to the surface and feed.
Our second outing we get it right. For an hour we follow them along at the surface as they move slowly along the bottom, some 40-60 feet below. It’s possible to free dive for a closer look, but Jody can only take her camera housing to 15 feet- they must come up for her to capture the images she has longed for. And then it happens. Like someone throws a switch.
Suddenly great schools of fish are everywhere. Swirling columns and walls you can barely see through. The masses part before our eyes and reveal a Manta Ray Milky Way coming from all sides. Sideways, upside down, flipping in circles.
Sometimes we have to move to get out of their way. They take absolutely no heed of us as they feed deliriously. The show lasts for 10 minutes and then just as quickly it’s all over and we are left breathless. It is the most precious and unbelievable thing I’ve seen in all my years at sea.
The swell returns and we return to P-Pass. Cameron wears himself to the bone both enjoying the wave and being driven by Jody’s relentless pursuit of photos. Sun, wind and waves rarely align this well and the two make the most of the situation. We are invited to a bar-b-que by a couple of the local surfers which ends in near-tragedy. They guide us down into a bay surrounded by a maze of reefs and show us a place to anchor. It is dubious at best and I voice my concern. If the wind moves even 30 degrees we will swing onto the reef. I am guaranteed it is “safe” and I bend to the peer pressure and reluctantly drop the hook. This is a lesson I’ve learned in the past- never doubt your own intuition. I didn’t need a reminder of this and my folly was inexcusable.
We returned by dinghy to Discovery a few hours later and even in the moon less night from a great distance I knew something was wrong. She was high and dry laying flat on both keels, the port side raised some 6 inches above the waterline. FUCK. There was nothing we could do but get some sleep and wait for the tide. I went to bed disgusted with myself and very much doubting my capabilities as a skipper. I’ve been at this too long to make such a novice mistake.
At 0200 the boat shifted slightly and minutes later we slipped off the reef with no damage sustained. Could we get off this easy? Not quite. Jody ran forward to hoist the anchor but in the black of night we couldn’t tell how we were drifting. As I tried to get our bearings I backed over the dinghy line and stalled the starboard engine. Shortly thereafter we drifted into another unseen reef on the port side. We were playing pinball with a million dollar catamaran and I was fighting to stay calm. Brian jumped into the water to cut the line out of the prop and I jumped in with a dive light to assess our escape. Again incredibly there seemed to be no damage- but our port rudder was nearly encased in coral. We had to move fast. Jody hoisted the remainder of the anchor while Erik used the tender to pull the boat from the starboard quarter while I backed down on the port engine.
We slid free. Dejected and humiliated I put Discovery in slow motion to a safe anchorage we should have used in the first place across the bay. The guests joke that it’s all part of the “Epic”, and I too am thankful we got off so easily, but I am embarrassed and angry at my incompetence.
On the last day the rain returned, the only real rain we’d had since the first. For the guests the scale on this one was tipped very much towards the payoffs. Manta Ray encounters, solid winds, great food, awesome kiting, incredible waves, wild adventure, new friendships. But for me the scale was more evenly weighed. Thrills muted by mistakes. Fun clouded by injury. Joy replaced with frustration. But as we say goodbye to everyone the smiles and appreciation resonates and my own scale is tipped towards the rewards.
Take a moment to hear the voice of a girl who silences the world for 5 minutes.