A month out of sight of land, turtles and manta rays, atolls and mountains, new friends and old: Crossing the Pacific Ocean from Panama to Polynesia comprised some of the most magical moments of the journey!
We finally left Panama, after breakdown and subsequent struggles, on May 1, 2007. Seth’s father was aboard with us for the passage to the Galapagos Islands, 1000 miles through the Doldrums (or Intertropical Convergence Zone) with its calms, squalls, and thunderstorms. We had headwinds (but at least we had wind) and made the trip in 10 days.
The ocean was bursting with life: pilot whales, dolphins, tuna, flying fish, birds, even sperm whales!
After our arrival on Santa Cruz Island on May 10 and before Seth’s father’s departure three days later, we packed in a visit to the Charles Darwin Research Center where we glimpsed Lonesome George, the last of his particular tortoise species, as well as a visit to uninhabited Plaza Island, and a 30-mile bike ride up into the highlands to see a giant tortoise in the wild.
Then Seth and I signed up for an Advanced Open Water dive course both to gain further knowledge and as a way to see multiple scuba sites in the archipelago.
We finished our time in the Galapagos with a trip to the largest island, Isabella, where we hiked up an active volcano and snorkeled among penguins and white-tipped reef sharks. Unfortunately we also got terrible food poisoning at a local restaurant and had to extend our visas before departing on our month-long ocean crossing. Not the best omen for our longest passage yet!
We left Santa Cruz on May 25, 2007 to cross the 3000 nautical miles that separated us from French Polynesia.
The pageant of wildlife continued, and I was especially enchanted by the stars and phosphorescence during my night watches.
The squalls began two weeks into the crossing, almost always coming at night and often with great force. It was nothing we couldn’t deal with alone, however, so we kept up our solo watch routine all the way until making landfall on June 20.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything so beautiful as the lush green mountains of the Marquesas Islands after 27 days surrounded by only sea and sky.
Nor did their beauty diminish in the days we spent there, sailing between islands, making new friends, foraging fresh mangoes, swimming with manta rays, doing our first dive alone together, hiking beautiful mountains, and learning about Polynesian culture and history.
When we could finally tear ourselves away, we set sail for the Tuamotu archipelago, feared and avoided by most sailors before the advent of GPS because of its treacherous low-lying reefs. (Nevil Shute’s excellent book Trustee from the Toolroom opens with a wreck in the Tuamotus.) With our GPS we were fairly certain of finding our landfall, so we set off for Rangiroa, the largest atoll in the group and one of the largest in the world.
During our week in the vast Rangiroa lagoon Seth and I did a bunch of dives with lots of fish and one manta ray, and we sailed around the huge lagoon, choosing a new anchorage each night.
When we left Rangiroa for the Society Islands 350 miles to the west, we decided to skip the capital of Pape’ete in favor of more rural areas.
Our next stop was Mopelia, an atoll with a tricky pass into its lagoon: we had a tense moment fighting the current with banks of coral on either side. But the lovely lagoon and kind people (all 5 of them!) were worth the effort. We then had a rough-ish passage to Aitutaki in the Cook Islands (actually the roughest on the voyage thus far, including a 48-hour gale with winds reaching 40 knots).
When we finally arrived, we ran aground on the fringing reef! Our chart had the lagoon’s entrance marked in a place where there was a false pass! Fortunately we could get Heretic off and we found the correct pass. Seth and I had some repairs to do to Heretic‘s sails after the gale as well as some routine maintenance, but we also made time for snorkeling and diving, exploring the island on foot and bike, and meeting the other sailors anchored next to us.
Unfortunately, Seth and I hadn’t quite realized that my year’s leave of absence from Yale was drawing swiftly to a close and that we wouldn’t quite reach New Zealand before I had to be back. So Seth and a temporary crew member sailed the remaining miles there and then I rejoined him to explore New Zealand by sea and by land!
Check out our Panama Canal fiasco and other adventures on the Towards Panama page 🙂
All text and photographs © Ellen Massey Leonard and Seton Leonard, 2015, All Rights Reserved.