“Millions upon millions of years ago when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others. It was a mighty ocean, resting uneasily to the east of the largest continent, a restless ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as pacific. . . . How utterly vast it was! How its surges modified the very balance of the earth! How completely lonely it was, hidden in the darkness of night or burning in the dazzling power of a younger sun than ours. . . . Master of life, guardian of shorelines, regulator of temperatures and heaving sculptor of mountains, the great ocean existed.”
So begins James Michener’s Hawaii, an enormous brick of a book that I first saw sitting under our Christmas tree in 1997. I was 14, and had rarely traveled outside of the Midwest at that point in my life; I could hardly imagine what it would feel like, on our family vacation, to reach those lush little islands that stood defiantly in the middle of a map full of blue. Sitting in our cozy snow-piled living room in Minnesota, nothing could have seemed more fun and far away.
When my parents visited us in Banderas Bay last week, they brought me our old yellowed copy of Hawaii, which I’d since forgotten about completely. The printed dedication reads, “To all the people who came to Hawaii,” below which was added in my dad’s familiar handwriting, “including the crew of the good ship Velella—just in case you decide to turn westward. An amazing waypoint, and a novel that will enlighten your journey.”
At the end of the first chapter, I came near to tears because I know this immense watery road stands before us now. The chapter concludes, “If you are willing to work until the swimming head and the aching arms can stand no more, then you can gain entrance to this miraculous crucible where the units of nature are free to develop according to their own capacities and desires. On these harsh terms the islands waited.” And that is what the prospect of sailing to Hawaii feels like: it is an adventure both completely thrilling and utterly terrifying. . . a dichotomy I fully expect to remain in my psyche all 2600 miles across the Pacific. But Hawaii is an epic, and a place only reached by a sailor’s epic rite of passage—crossing the rolling, windswept Pacific Ocean.
Although it torments me to think of the long and seemingly endless days and nights spent at sea because I fear I’ll mentally crack, I don’t fear much physical danger in sailing to Hawaii and back. Velella is a stout little oceangoing cruiser designed to handle exactly this kind of passage.
We have all the safety gear on the market and then some. We have a comfortable sea berth, two pairs of capable hands, and a Monitor self-steering vane that works for us round the clock without complaint. Really, all we have to do is cook our meals, reef our sails when the weather calls for it, and keep ourselves occupied.
In between working out our own passage preparations lately, I’ve been devouring Michener’s Hawaii; reading about the horrific passages of the peoples who originally emigrated to the islands makes our trip seem all the more benign and fun. Way back in the 9th century, an exiled group of Bora-Borans came a roundabout 6,000 miles to Hawaii in a large canoe sewn together with twine at the joints, with only the lines of an ancient fable to guide their navigation to islands rumored to lie somewhere to the north. A group of missionary New Englanders in the early 1800s spent six horrible months cramped into a communal hold in the belly of a tiny brig named Thetis that sailed from Boston first to the Azores (off the coast of Africa), then around Cape Horn, then finally across the Pacific to Hawaii. Newly-recruited Chinese laborers later in the century endured harsh, inhumane treatment on the Carthaginian, and dozens of sailors since then have braved the Pacific alone in small craft, during the wrong times of the year, or with many other hurdles we will not have to face. In contrast, sailing out to Hawaii from the Pacific Coast, during the fair spring season, is often referred to by sailors as “the happy tack.”
As we sailed out of the calm waters of Banderas Bay last week to make our way north again, I noticed that we both started to say “when” rather than “if” we go to Hawaii—without ever sitting down and deciding on it. We also tacitly regarded our mini-passage up to La Paz as a shakedown for Hawaii, and on the eve of my first night watch I thought about how I’d feel if I was 1200 miles from land instead of 30. I decided I’d probably feel much the same. When Prescott woke me in the middle of the night for my watch, I was shocked that it was 2:30 already, when he should have woken me at 1am. Incredulously I asked him why he let me sleep so long—he’d been on watch for over 7 hours when we had agreed to do shifts of 6! He said he wanted to give me one less hour of dark on my watch, and he didn’t mind staying up on such a beautiful night. With a mate like that and a boat full of love for one another, I thought, we can definitely do this.
We reached toward Mazatlan under a hot sunset this evening, sea birds dove from dozens of feet aloft and plunged into the water. A pair of whales blew clouds of breath and curved their great backs out of the water off to our port, and our rail dipped into that same salty sea with each gust. We’re headed up to the Sea of Cortez now to explore some awesomely remote anchorages that we breezed by on the way down. But by April we’ll be back out in this big Pacific, headed directly for that setting sun.
Here’s where Velella is cruising tonight, probably digging into a hefty book:
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