by Alice Sarah Mason
Goodbye land! – departing for weeks of open ocean experience
On the morning of Saturday 10th of September 2022 Okeanos Waa’Qab embarked on a Pacific voyage from the beautiful island of Pohnpei, in Micronesia, heading towards a final destination in Rarotonga, Cook Islands in Polynesia. Once there, the Waka would be used as a training canoe for the local community.
We waved goodbye to our friends from Pohnpei, and also to two great crew members who has been on the first leg of the ocean journey from Yap to Pohnpei but whom, unfortunately, were unable to join us for this part of the adventure. Although we were leaving, we all had big grins on our faces. We were eager to start this Pacific voyage. Waa’Qab slipped gently through the lagoon, avoiding the reefs, and just as we were entering the ocean swell a pod of joyful dolphins appeared. They seemed to be greeting us and sending us good vibes as we eased our way into their element. We hauled up a full mainsail and jib, then set a course towards the south-east. But the wind had different ideas and as it headed us our small ship was forced to go closer to the area of the Marshall Islands than we would have wished.
Despite the wind angle, for the first few days we enjoyed calm conditions which enabled all of us to find our sea-legs. We passed Mokil Atoll on Sunday the 11th just before lunch and did our first tack of the voyage. Sighting this Atoll was likely to be the last time we saw land for at least two or three weeks, it was a bitter-sweet experience.
Crew List Okeanos Waa’Qab
Jerry Seweraleiy Joseph
Steven Daniel Aitutaki
Alice Sarah Mason
16 containers of 25l
16 containers of 20l + 2 x 80l tanks full
10 cabbages, 30 onions, 14 apples, 1 pineapple, 2 sacks of potatoes
Gathering as one
The crew dynamic on this trip was interesting. Three hail from the 1km square island of Satawal, home to approximately 500 souls. These three are all family: There is our illustrious Captain Jerry Seweraleiy Joseph, plus Vickson Yalisman and Clyde Raus. Captain Jerry is the grandson of Papa Mau Piailug and it is a complete privilege to be sailing with him. Then there are three other crew members, each of whom have experience on one of the bigger Vakas, the Vaka Moanas. Two of them are from the Cook Islands: Papa Steven Daniel Aitutaki and our youngest sailor Pareu Para. The only other girl on board is Pounamu Tipiwai-Chambers who is originally from Hawkes Bay in New Zealand but currently also lives in the Cook Islands. Then there is me, Alice, from the Mediterranean Sea.
On the 13th of September we woke up to glassy waters and no wind, so it was very lucky that we had motors and could continue averaging around 5.5 knots. We put up the awning and got creative with the time we had. It became very hot very quickly with no breeze in sight, but finally by the end of the day some clouds approached and we had a fresh water rinse! Everybody was running around the deck with shampoo in their hair, wearing big smiles with the tunes blasting! We were all feeling extremely refreshed after having a little dance and a wash in the rain.
So far we had done well catching yellow-fin tuna and skipjack. We had been very lucky with our catches of fresh fish and it has been enlightening to see how it was possible to reel in these big pelagic fish on just a hand line. Every morsel of the catch got used, down to the heart, brain and eyes. With limited supplies on board, we all appreciated this fresh addition to our diet.
Sharing stories, learning lessons for life
As the days went by and we started to get to know each other, it was amazing how we all looked past the differences and started only seeing the similarities between us. We had all embarked upon this journey with open hearts, jumping onto our small craft for the adventure, all wanting to explore more of the Pacific Ocean. We shared our stories and so got to understand the different cultures of each of our crewmates. The two Micronesian boys from Satawal were very hard core having lived and breathed on smaller Vakas, spending much of their time going out fishing for their local community. On board these smaller Vakas there is no sort of cabin or place of refuge, so if it rains it gets really cold. To combat this, they used eat raw chillies to warm themselves up. I felt that from their experiences the boys were, perhaps, slightly better prepared for the trip than any of the rest of us. Whatever our backgrounds, sharing this experience together is something we will all have in common for the rest of our lives.
One of the most important lessons the Vaka created for us was an understanding of the connection between peoples from totally different worlds. We were brought together by the ocean. There were many different approaches and perspectives on board, but thanks to the limited space we had on deck and down below, we got to know each person for who they really are in a very short amount of time. We created bonds which, in my experience, can only be developed when you are out at sea.
On board we had food, fuel and water all rationed, so we had to be very careful in the way that we consume. Normally the menu was either fish and rice, or rice and fish! Whenever it rained we danced around with buckets and filled our water containers so that on our night watches we could have some warm “chocolaté” or anything that could chase away the coldness once the moon was crawling through the sky.
Visitors from the deep
What an amazing experience it was in the first quarter of my night watch with Clyde when I heard a blow on the port side. As I looked over I could see glistening in the moonlight the outline of a family of pilot whales who had decided to join us for about forty minutes. They sang and played with the Waka, jumping through the bow wake and surrounding us. It was a magical display and it seemed as though we were being blessed again by the ocean. It was incredible to realize how these marine mammals are attracted to the Waka and seem to feel safe around it. I have had this experience in the Mediterranean, too.
Some reasons to celebrate
On the 19th of September we were cruising further through the North Gilbert Group and inching our way towards the Equator. The anticipation about crossing this invisible line on the globe kept our spirits high. It would be the first time for everyone on board to pass over this part of the ocean and we couldn’t wait to celebrate. However, our progress slowed and it was not until the end of the 22nd of September that we finally drifted across the zero degree point. Crossing the Equator was definitely a highlight of the week and something to tick off the bucket list for everyone aboard.
We continued on a south-east course, averaging 5.5 knots and on the 24th of September, as our hulls passed between Tamana and Arorae, it was Captain Jerry’s birthday so we got on a mission to gather as many ingredients as we could to make a “cake” for his special breakfast. The criterion was that it must not have even a hint of either rice or fish! With a stack of pancakes and the addition of the half-jar of jam we had been hiding for the past few days in preparation, we unveiled our creation and cracked open a can of mixed fruit whilst cooking up some bacon which had also been saved for the special occasion. It was challenging to try and light the candles in 6 knots of wind as we rendered a full chorus of “Happy Birthday to you…” There were smiles and laughter with happy morning stomachs full of gratitude, especially as the wind picked up directly afterwards.
By the 26th of September we were to the east of the islands of Nanumea and Niutao. Although there were still many miles to go, we had begun to anticipate the delights of our first stop at Apia marina in Samoa. We were very much looking forward to some fresh fruit and vegetables … and also some pizza and ice cream!
At the beginning of the trip everybody had been a bit dubious about cooking large pots of rice with our precious rationed water, but by this point in the voyage we were officially experts at cooking up rice and not burning it, so we no longer had to spend hours scraping the pot clean. Another useful life skill learned! Normally cooking rice involves a two to one ratio, but we put in about four cups of rice in a big pot, filled the pot to just over a fingertip of water above the rice and then we put the lid on it and let it cook really slowly – trust me you can save a lot of water and do it perfectly this way.
Sunday 2nd October, Day 22, our course was 170º and our speed was 3.2 knots. This was officially the longest continuous voyage for the majority of people on board and the adrenaline was slowly wearing off. The aches and pains were felt more than before and our rations were slowly running out – like coffee for example. The jam, peanut butter, tomato sauce and mayo were distant memories. However, on the plus side we just crossed the International Date Line, which may not mean a great deal as the days of the week had become a bit hazy, but it did signify we were getting very close to our first port of call.
We had had some beautiful skies at both dusk and dawn and stars for the majority of the time on our night watches. How gorgeous to experience the southern hemisphere stars while Pounamu has been pointing out constellations with a very powerful laser, allowing us to learn about the Southern Cross and how Pacific voyagers have been using the stars for traditional navigation for centuries.
A week-long ocean voyage is necessarily a detox of everything that land has to offer. Although we were missing our little comforts of home, we were all constantly reminded that this was one of the clearest spaces for our minds on earth, without tempting distractions such as alcohol or social media.
On the 4th October we had one of the most epic nights. I began my watch on the stroke of midnight, a big squall was brewing and the wind was already picking up. Shortly afterwards the call for “All hands on deck …” was made and reef one was put in. The rain was falling like icy needles on our skin, the waves crashed over the side and the wind whipped our hair in every direction. However, with the great guidance of Captain Jerry, and whilst working as a team, using all of our strength, we got the first reef in place. It was a wet but a great watch. The sea state had been very choppy as we were surrounded by banks, a three meter swell pounding us.
The smell of land
On the 5th of October we were able to see the lights of Samoa in the distance. On my last watch the glow of land was growing brighter and brighter as we headed for the safety of Apia harbor. Suddenly a gust of wind came from land and we could smell civilization! It was one of the most exciting moments of the trip. It was amazing how our sense of smell had heightened from being on the water for such a long time. The wonderful earthy aroma kept me on high alert for all of my three hours on deck. Everyone was very excited about going on land and meeting the people from Samoa.
Thursday 6th of October: Wow, I had never experienced such a welcome anywhere before. Touching land again was very emotional after having spent 27 days out on the ocean. On the final night we had been forced to anchor – so close, but so far – but eventually this morning we were able to come into Samoa and check in with the authorities, go through customs and present our COVID paperwork. It was a time I can hardly find the words to describe; the feelings I experienced of entering a foreign land, being a total stranger, yet receiving such amazing hospitality. Everything we could have dreamt of was provided for us – fresh coconuts, a big feed, hugs and huge leis around our necks. We had landed in paradise.
Tuesday the 11th of October 2022: Course 132º, Speed 6.6 knots.
Again we found ourselves on this vast expanse of ocean, the South Pacific, the wind pushing us forward at between 6 to 7 knots towards our final destination of Rarotonga. With the wind finally on our beam, for once we had no need to tack.
My mind was still occupied with the amazing send-off by the Samoan Voyaging Society and the Cook Islands community, waving as we slowly moved from the dock. As we had left, they had given us more leis and Okeanos Waa’Qab was looking very beautiful after some tender loving care involving oiling and giving her a nice clean up and finally coving her in the beautifully woven decorations that had been given to us.
Upolu was slowly fading in our wake and after going down to the galley and having a look at what we had for this leg of the journey, it was incredible to see all the shelves filled with provisions such as fresh fruit and vegetables, big bunches of bananas, pumpkins, garlic, ginger, potatoes, lettuce, loads of aubergines, tomatoes … this was heaven! We had a wonderful lunch with fresh bread and lots of leafy greens and some cheese, it was perfect to give us loads of energy for this last leg of the voyage. It is quite amazing to see the number of snacks we had been given. Everyone in Samoa had been so welcoming and kind, taking such good care of us. People had been coming down to the canoe with bags of extra food so that not only did we have fresh veggies on board but also chocolate and biscuits, plus taro and banana chips. Our watches were going to be a very different experience on this leg especially as we had filled all the water containers and so would be able to have hot drinks. Yay!
On this last leg of the journey, everybody was really looking forward to arriving in our final destination. The wind had treated us well, we had 3 days of a perfect breeze on our beam, but as time went on the wind came round to head us and we were close hauled again.
Sunday 16th of October: For the last three days we had been continuously tacking to ensure we wouldn’t go too far south and end up in New Zealand! We celebrated Pounamu’s birthday on the 13th and I made her a scrumptious pineapple and chocolate cake. As the sun went down we brought it on deck and all sang her “Happy Birthday!”
Sighting Rarotonga for the first time, we were all extremely excited. We had to go into the marina and wait for clearance so we would be arriving on Monday 17th October into the welcoming arms of the Cook Island community.
Looking back I can definitely say that our shared journey was a life changing trip that nobody on board could have really prepared for. What an amazing opportunity to learn, to connect to the marine environment and to establish friendships with so many wonderful people. Arriving in Rarotonga, it dawned on us that after five-and-a-half weeks together, we would soon be going our separate ways. Like every voyage, you take the memories and the moments with you, never forgetting those who have shared them. We truly had become a little family on board and I already felt the sadness of the goodbye ahead of us, hoping we would get to voyage together again in the future.
By the time we arrived in the marina of Rarotonga, it was about one o’clock in the morning and we changed the Bermuda boom over to the traditional one in preparation for coming in to our welcoming party. It was lovely to have the traditional sail up as we went forward and we again enjoyed another amazing welcome to land. Everybody was very happy to be there and we got fresh coconuts and leis and lots of hugs before going our separate ways. Later we had a wonderful dinner that was provided for us by Peia at his beautiful house. Here we had a final pleasant moment when we could remember our voyage together whilst sharing a delicious farewell meal.