This week’s features about women mariners struck a personal chord with me.
Growing up in California, I have always lived around the ocean and boats. When I met my husband, Brian, he took me sailing on our second date. I think I knew then that he would become my life partner due in part to our mutual love of the water.
After we found our dream boat, a 42-foot-cutter-rigged sailboat, we began to plan our grand voyage to the South Pacific. Brian took navigation courses and I attended “medicine at sea” courses. We read all we could find about weather patterns, safe passages, and gear needed for ocean crossings.
In January 1987, we left our home port of Newport Beach, CA for Mexico. After spending six months exploring Mexico, we “jumped off” from Manzanillo to the Marquesa Islands and French Polynesia. I could spend hours describing the beautiful beaches, islands, exotic foods and animals we experienced. But looking back 30 years later, what really stands out is the people we met.
Each time we arrived in a new port, we would recognize boats from previous anchorages and seek each other out. Comparing notes on our passages, helping each other with mechanical issues, and passing on tips for the best groceries, water and good restaurants made for quick friendships far from home. For every new friend made on our travels, we also experienced many good-byes to new friends as they ventured to different countries fulfilling their own travel dreams.
In larger cities, we eagerly checked the post office for any mail sent general delivery. News from home was precious and sometimes made us homesick, but closer to family and friends all the same.
This was in the era of pre-cell phone and laptop. GPS had just come out right before our trip commenced, but we could not afford it on our budget, so Brian navigated by the sun and stars with pencil and paper charts. I was always amazed and proud of his skill each time we approached a new destination successfully!
Our passage from Mexico to the island of Hiva Oa took 27 days. This was our longest ocean crossing without any contact with other humans. We always kept evening watches in case a ship happened by, but we never did encounter another ship, plane or even any type of flotsam in the sea. The days passed slowly for the majority of the trip.
We had been married for 6 years at this point, but with so much time together without distractions of the outside world, we discovered new things about each other that perhaps never would have come to light otherwise. Being on our own for so long made us more trusting in each other’s skills and support aboard and when ashore in new places. When routine maintenance and chores were completed, books became our entertainment. Reading aloud to each other made for an intimate exchange and discussion of the book.
Each evening we would have happy hour and enjoy a glass of wine and snack while watching the most spectacular sunsets alone on the seemingly endless Pacific Ocean. Whenever a bottle was emptied, I would record our latitude and longitude at the time with a short note about our trip and a request to write to us if our message was found. I threw at least a dozen bottles overboard.
When we spotted Hiva Oa on day 27, the promise of a freshwater shower, meeting up with fellow boating friends and a hamburger soon filled my thoughts. The message bottles were largely forgotten and we stopped the practice as we were too distracted by exploring the beautiful islands of the Marquesas, Tuamotus and French Polynesia.
When our visas expired in the island of Bora Bora, we reluctantly left and headed to Pago Pago, American Samoa for the hurricane season. Anxious to be in an American territory where English was spoken and ice cream readily available at the local grocery store, we made the island our home for 4-1/2 years. Samoans are some of the friendliest people in the world and we felt at home on this lush, tropical island with its deserted beaches and endless waterfalls cascading down its mountainous peaks into pristine waters.
It was during this time that we received a letter from Papua New Guinea dated March 1, 1989.
A bottle I threw overboard emptied in celebration of crossing the Equator was found by a teenage boy off the edge of the Coral Sea! Our humble bottle traveled about 20 months and 5,000 miles to its final destination. And you thought snail mail was slow!
A boy named Benals wrote a brief note describing his family and their home life. I quickly wrote back thanking him for responding and asking more about their life on Papua New Guinea, but I never heard back. Looking back now, it must have taken him some time to perhaps translate our note and his letter to us, which would explain the lack of further response. Even so, I like to think that the ocean made us another friend from an exotic place in a most unlikely way!
Recently, a friend on the East Coast showed me a photograph of her grandchildren on her porch reading a message they found in a bottle on her beach this summer! It made me smile to think that a message in a bottle still persists in a romantic way even today.