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"Pacific Passage"
By John Wooldridge
March 2002 Motorboating


A five-day transit of the Pacific Ocean's wild western islands aboard a Nordhavn 40 on a round-the-world voyage brings both pleasures and perils.

It was about 4:00 p.m. local time, an hour into my day watch in the pilothouse of the Nordhavn 40, when 1 thought 1 saw the island of Kosrae. A hard line appeared on the Pacific Ocean lion/on, rising at a shallow angle from the left to (lie right. I started to say something to Dave Harlow, the Nordhavn's skipper, who was perched on a -stool, deeply engrossed in studying approaches to the island's three charted lagoons. Then the line disappeared. Five minutes later, it appeared again.

"Land ho." I said, just loud enough for Dave to hear me. I didn't want to rouse Tom Selman who stood the watch after mine. or our other crewmember. Ray Danet, not while they were trying to get some badly needed rest. The building tropical storm around us that would soon become Typhoon Faxia had blown 30 to 35 mph from the south and west over the last 24 hours. It stirred up a beam sea that had arrived at right angles to the predominantly following seas mat had car ried us here from Majuro atoll in the Marshall Islands chain over the last five days. We were all in need of a good night's sleep.

"Where?" Dave asked, looking ahead after first glancing at the Ray-marine radar screen and chartplotter"Just to port of the pennant staff." I said. Just above the lops of the breaking waves, I might have added, to be a little more specific. Follow the gray up to where the whitecaps vanish, and watch between the swipes of the windshield wipers before the next squall hoses our visibility down to zero with the efficiency and force of a fireman dousing flames. And keep looking as the next 10-footer lifts the boat up from behind, then sets us down on the face of another beam sea.

"Beam seas, I love beam seas," Tom said as he sleepily climbed the steps connecting the salon to the pilothouse, bracing his shoulder against the wood-paneled deckhouse wall of this 40-foot trawler. Before the roll could build speed, the Naiad stabilizers countered the motion and took us across the top of the northbound wave at a near-level attitude.

Moments later. Ray appeared from below just as I slid over on the raised bench seat aft of the helm to make room for Tom. Seeing the island's conical profile ahead, he looked to the GPS for information on speed, distance to go and time to go.

"Looks like an approach right at dusk," Ray said. "I wonder if the entrance through the reef is lighted?" Suddenly, everyone was wide awake. The thought of spending another night at sea in these conditions was not comforting. And very privately, I think each of us asked ourselves why we were here at all, why we would subject ourselves to these conditions and perils.

It's the experience, of course, the adventures to remember, the photos to display and the stories to tell. For me, it was the chance to revive the wanderlust of a modestly traveled youth. For my shipmates, it was a mixed bag. Dave and Ray both work for Pacific Asian Enterprises, builders of the Nordhavn line of ocean-crossing trawlers, and had signed on as point men in an ambitious plan to take the 40 around the world in 26 weeks (see page 98 for the route). Tom, a Nordhavn 50 owner from Everson. Wash., had logged plenty of time between Alaska and home in his own passagemaker.

My part in this adventure began when I jumped al the chance to join one leg of the circumnavigation. A trip chasing the sun across the Pacific Ocean, with possible stopovers amongst the 2.300-plus small islands of Micronesia that dot over 3,000 miles of sea between Hawaii and Guam, instantly appealed to me.

I joined Dave, Ray and Tom aboard in December of last year in the lagoon of Majuro atoll. I'd spent several days exploring the ring-shaped island before their arrival following an extended 13-day. 1,963 nautical mile passage west from Honolulu. Majuro is the seat of government for the Marshall Islands, with a 75-square-mile lagoon protecting a large tuna fishing fleet and, at that time, about a dozen cruising sailboats. Ashore, cruisers can find the fuel, stores and attractions they need, whether planning to linger for a while or to press on to the next island stopover.

Paved paradise
Still, the character of Majuro is indisputably island-style. You can flag down a taxi anywhere along the 20-mile stretch of road that connects the jet-serviced airstrip on the south side to the coral-and-cement ramp on the northeast side of the atoll that marks the end of the road. The taxi ride will cost you 50 cents, and you can expect other passengers to come aboard as long as there's room. Stucco over cinderblock construction is a housing standard, and every yard is shaded by tall coconut palms or huge breadfruit trees, and accented with splashes of col or from the flowers on bougainvillea, hibiscus and plumeria shrubs.

Our last day in Majuro was spent anchored off Anemwanot, a palm-studded coral islet on the north side of the atoll. In the pass just to the east, tall waves crashed loudly and spent their force on the underwater coral barrier, [hen flowed across the shallows into the lagoon. Exploring the island on foot required sturdy sandals or tennis shoes because the sand and shallows were studded with coral pieces of every shape, size and species. Beachcombing for marine biology buffs is extraordinary everywhere in Micronesia. We snorkeled and dove down to the cleaned-out, wingless fuselage of a DC-3 resting on the bottom in about 20 feet of clear, salty water. I peeked into the cockpit, remembering that my Dad flew an Army Air Corps equivalent of this very plane during the war, and felt a tug at my heart. Tropical fish darted into impossibly small coral crannies or the protective arms of anemones attached to the airplane's aluminum skin at my approach, then swam out to take a closer look at the newcomers to their world.

Departing Majuro was bittersweet, but we were ready to push on to Pohnpei, a popular island in the Caroline Island group seven days to the west. But a string of westward-moving, low-pressure cells just north of the equator had other plans.

It had rained intermittently with constant 10- to 20-mph easterly winds every day in Majuro while we were there. Clearing the deep-water pass on the northwest side oft' the atoll, we encountered 10- to 12-foot waves on the beam for about an hour before rounding the northernmost portion of the atoll. Luckily, Dave had deployed the towed, passive stabilizers before clearing the lagoon, giving us the look of a commercial fishing boat on its way to harvest the locally bountiful yellow fin tuna. Together with the Naiads, they made the ride steady and comfortable, although somewhat slower due to the increased drag. Finally, we turned west and put the full fetch of the Pacific Ocean behind us.

Atoll life
The Nordhavn 40 proved to be a comfortable and reliable home afloat. It's the smallest of Nordhavn's Heel of motor vessels. Yet its modest size/.e does not limit its nonstop cruising range. Thanks to a highly efficient, modified lull-displacement hull design-the result of over three years of development and tank-testing-and a fuel capacity of over 900 gallons, a heavily loaded 40 can cover more than 2,400 nautical miles at an average speed of 7.4 knots while burning a miserly 2.6 gph.

A little more than a day out of Majuro, we diverted to the island of Ailinglaplap, a low-lying atoll typical of the region that is solidly covered with coconut palms. The weather ahead was questionable, so we opted to find a quiet anchorage. A small number of families lived here, harvesting coconuts and splitting them open to let them dry in the sun. The dried meat, called copra, is a significant agricultural industry in Micronesia. Dave and Tom went ashore to check in with the local authorities and found friendly people and happy children in a setting right out of the movies.

Two unfortunate instances occurred shortly thereafter. The weather changed for the worse, making our anchorage increasingly untenable. And one of the locals who claimed to be the acting legal authority tried to scam Dave for $1,050 for clearance. We had paid approximately $100 to clear into the Marshall Islands at Majuro, but Dave was prepared to pay local clearances as needed and within reason. The local finally admitted that he had no clearance forms, no office and no credentials. And since he also had no boat, he didn't bother to swim out to where visiting boats anchored-in some of the most beautiful water I've ever seen-to press his case.

We left Ailinglaplap with plans lo make the island of Pohnpei our next slop. We were hoping to miss the tropical storm that was forming to the northwest, about halfway between Kosrae and Pohnpei. But the storm would have none of it, spreading its counter-clockwise-tuming arms until it encompassed Kosrae, Pohnpei and our good little ship in one giant blow.

Roughly four days later, the storm forced us to divert to Kosrae. We all found a place in the pilothouse to watch the radar, check the chartplotter and visibly scope out the opening in the reef. It was dusk and raining on and off. With a pair of starboard-side day marks spotted and the ends of the reef defined by breaking waves higher than those breaking down the channel, Dave lined us up and started into the channel. Suddenly, a rain squall obliterated visibility. Without a moment's hesitation, he abandoned the effort, spun around lo face the 10- to I2-footers and began climbing them slowly, making just enough headway to hold station yet keep away from the reefs astern.

Volcanic in origin
I left the pilothouse and went aft lo open the cabin door and gel a breath of cooler air. As I looked to the south, light increased-the last low rays as the angle of the sun dropped down. Amazingly, the rain let up at the same time. I turned and yelled to Tom in the pilothouse companionway to take a look. By the time 1 had scaled the door and made my way forward, Dave turned the ship and faced the reef once more. This time we all spoiled the markers to port and starboard and Dave wasted no time surfing through the cut.

Between the whoops and hollers, we dropped anchor near two cruising sailboats in the lagoon. That night, we celebrated. kept an anchor watch and made plans to sleep in the following morning.

Like the island of Pohnpei that we had hoped to reach. Kosrae is volcanic in origin, with a high central peak and slopes covered in rainforest growth intermittently revealed and obscured by scudding rain clouds. Kosrae also has a considerable protective ring of coral built up around its submerged volcanic structure, making it another attractive destination for the sport-diving enthusiast. There were plenty of things to do and see, but since most of them were outside or in the ocean, and the storm's ferocity continued to increase, I settled on reading, writing and a little photography to carry me through until my flight to Honolulu arrived.

I had to leave the Nordhavn 40 in Kosrae, but I left with a new appreciation for the details that make a long-distance cruiser into a safe and comfortable passage-maker. Dimensions in the cabins, companionways and the pilothouse were generous, but not so wide that you couldn't brace comfortably against a change in pitch, roll or yaw. You could go on deck in the worst weather and he protected by a high Portuguese bridge, stout safety rails and high bulwarks. One of my favorite memories is taking a soothing freshwater shower while seated in one of two built-in transom seats. With big saltwater waves on every side that never came aboard, the Nordhavn 40 moved predictably and steadily as I rinsed off a good lather.

Climbing out of (lie taxi at the airport, 1 heard wonderful music. Three women were sitting on a bench behind a small fruit stand waiting for business to [lick up as the next round of passengers arrived. As one strummed a ukulele, they sang a gentle song in harmony that revealed both island and religious influences. It was a soothing and wonderful send-off for a weary traveler. I looked out at the ocean, remembered my shipmates in the lagoon on the other side of the island, and found myself wanting to leave and to stay.

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