Backpacker Yachties (Part One)

Sailing the High Seas on a Shoestring Budget

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Author’s Note: Come join us – three rough and ready young sailors in a tiny 26-foot steel-hull yacht — for some high adventure, at times hilarious and often precarious voyaging through the South Pacific. Braving the high seas for up to ten days at a stretch between sun-drenched, castaway islands – some so remote they can only be reached by sea. Meeting the islanders and encountering exotic cultures in these unspoiled traditional societies – all on a shoestring budget. We were the Backpacker Yachties!

It was 1994. I had completed my field research on Abandoned Children and HIV/AIDS in Northern Thailand and returned to the School of Public Health, University of Hawaii in June to defend my doctoral dissertation.

At the same time, my roommate Eddie was completing his fieldwork on Pacific Island Archaeology in the Marquesas Islands, where he acquired the small, but stout sloop “Nudge Nudge” at a bargain price from a Swedish couple who had just sailed it around the world and were eager to return home.

A third friend Hal, joined us and by July we were off to the South Seas for six weeks of glorious sailing and high adventure aboard our 26-foot steel-hull vessel. Three men in a boat – and we lived to tell about it!

Captain Eddie and First Mate Jim

Ever the historian and archaeologist, Captain Eddie had photocopied a set of charts published in 1853 by the British Royal Admiralty — a beautiful historic and artistic treasure complete with decorative coconut palms drawn in at various points along the island coastlines. We were soon to find out however, that they were not accurate – and had it not been for quick thinking and a fair bit of luck, we might not have lived to tell this tale.

We were novice sailors — day sailors at best, and it was not until we were far out to sea, alone and well beyond the point of return that the precariousness of our situation became apparent. Fortunately for us, the boat was made of steel, as Eddie noted enthusiastically: “a steel hull is safer than fiberglass because we can hit a reef and not sink!”

Keeping an eye on the wind

Hal and I flew from Hawaii to Pago Pago, American Samoa, where we met Eddie who had sailed Nudge Nudge from French Polynesia to Samoa. From Pago, our first destination was Niuatoputapu, the northern-most island group of The Kingdom of Tonga, a Polynesian island state and archipelago comprised of 169 islands, of which 36 are inhabited. 

The Niuas can only be reached by sea, and therefore have little contact with the outside world. Unspoiled and fascinating in many ways, not least is an enduring matriarchal tradition, and well-preserved archaeological sites with stone adzes and Polynesian Pita pottery in evidence.

Undaunted and eager to escape the damp, stifling heat of Pago Pago, we motored out to sea in the setting sun. Becalmed, we languished ‘in irons’ for the first 24 hours – retching, spewing over the side in the blazing heat and relentless bobbing of the doldrums. But happy to be at sea, even if we were travelling on “Captain Ralph’s Ocean Tours and Fish Feeding Adventures.”  

The Samoas disappeared over the horizon as light westerly airs finally brought us out of the doldrums and eventually gave way to the easterly trades, building to heavy seas and squalls. Thrilling sailing for novices — heading 180 degrees south, steady by the Southern Cross and Alfa-Beta Centauri. Heeled over and racing for Niua!

Catch of the day! Harnessed and clipped in whenever on deck to avoid falling overboard

It was an easy heading, keeping the mast between the twin stars of Alfa and Beta Centauri. Trailing fishing lines, fresh Mahi Mahi and Barracuda provided a steady supply of sashimi, fish soup and sun-dried jerky – as well as some exciting moments in our tiny cockpit. One spirited 50 pound Mahi managed to break the companionway door off!

On our fifth night at sea, the distant outline of Niua’s main volcano loomed suddenly through the mist. Darkness fell as we drew closer to the island. The moon had risen, turning the waves to silver. It was too dark to make out the island. But it was there – a mysterious presence as we followed the shadowy coastline. The winds died down to a gentle breeze, lightly filling the sails as we rounded into the lee of the island.

Land, ho!

I was at the helm. Eddie was below checking the Global Positioning System (GPS) and studying the charts, which indicated that we were sailing safely in deep waters. Hal was nowhere to be seen – he had been suffering badly with sea sickness and had disappeared into his berth, unable to move. 

Bam! Suddenly with an awful scraping, we were over on our side in the shallows, surrounded by coral heads – crunching, pounding on the rocks with every swell. British Royal Admiralty Charts 1853 — seems our longitude was a bit off! We should have followed the whale. All the while he was singing to us through the hull and then turned towards the open sea — which would have led us safely away from the reef.

Scrambling over the wildly pitching decks, we shined our flashlights frantically into the gloom. Eddie began cranking our temperamental engine furiously and managed to fire it up. Incredibly, a snagged fishing line astern marked the narrow channel we had entered, enabling us to back out the way we came, through a maze of coral heads.

Hal at dawn — recovering from our harrowing scrape along the reef

As we drifted under the stars, badly shaken up, but patiently motoring back and forth along a safe line of sail until daylight, somewhere in the darkness a distant roar of breakers crashing on a reef kept us on our toes – now that we couldn’t trust our charts! But we were getting used to life aboard our ‘tin can’ and soon turned our attention to the mysterious land mass in front of us, and looked forward to exploring the island in the morning.

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

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