Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Ghosts and Goblins

The end of October is rolling around. And although we aren't enjoying turning leaves and cool nights out here in the Kingdom of Tonga, still a young woman's mind slowly turns to thoughts of Hallowe'en.

Hallowe'en has always been my favourite holiday. Christmas and my birthday are good, of course, but they sit there crammed together at the end of the year in an avalanche of revelry, and by January 3rd I never want to look at another canapé or a glass of port again. Easter also has potential, because excess chocolate is all to the good, but there is a certain reserve about Easter that comes from wearing fancy clothes that takes it out of medal contention.

Not so Hallowe'en. Hallowe'en revolves around superstition, mischief and candy – a trifecta of excellent possibilities. From the school parade during the day to treat-or-treating at night, is a holiday of good-natured devilry, when all of the normal rules of the year are suspended. Helicopter parenting and stranger-danger take a backseat to: "Take this bag to every house you see and demand candy from the monster who opens the door. Away with you, young person!" I like it.

My mom was a champion costume-maker. And everything she made was snowsuit-compatible. Astronaut, panda bear, clown – you name it, you could fit a pair of snowpants under there if need be. Her masterpiece, a Pink Panther costume that is still a going concern, was essentially winter-wear all on its own. Come hell or ten-inch snowfall, nothing was going to stop us from trick-or-treating.

Circa fourth grade, your correspondent was a punk rocker, and that was my best costume ever. I had long hair at the time, which my mother drew into a ponytail above one ear and teased into a massive lightning-shock ball. I spray-painted my hair pink and green, donned a pair of ultra-thin 80s sunglasses and my best sleeveless t-shirt, and I was off to the races. No doubt I had to wear a winter coat over the whole ensemble that evening, but, in my memories, I was bad-ass the whole day through.

Whatever the costume, Hallowe'en night followed the same pattern: 1. a very early dinner. 2. Drive to paternal grandparents. Stand for photos. Pocket candy. 3. Drive to maternal grandparents. Stand for photos. Receive a Laura Secord marshmallow-chocolate-witch-on-a-stick. 3. Go home. Trick-or-treat until exhausted. 4. Eat candy within 3 days, or into the garbage it goes. (This being dictated by the dentist in the family, and having to do with sugar saturation of the teeth and so forth. We didn't care about the finer points – it was a license to eat a sackful of candy at top speed, stomachaches be damned.)

When Stylish was small, I hauled out my little Janome and made her a ladybug costume. It fit like a cape, and, naturally, was made out of fleece to keep her warm. It actually became a late-fall-early-spring coat, she liked it so much. When Indy arrived, we plugged her into it, too. When Stylish reached school age, she wore a play-friendly costume to school during the day, and a cold-friendly costume for the evening. (This was a recommendation from my mother, the elementary school principal. There is nothing worse than a kid ripping a costume at recess – the tears will be copious and frenzied. My friendly tip to you parents out there: have a back-up.) Over the years, the girls have been bees, cats, doctors, chefs, skeletons, fairy princesses and ghost Pegasus-unicorns. This in addition to their daily costume-wearing, which is pretty constant.

I also took the girls around to grandparents and great-grandparents, and the chocolate witch marshmallows continued. Back home, it was time for the Big Event. Our old neighbourhood really got into the spirit of Hallowe'en. People built corn mazes in their front yards, set up elaborate faux-graveyards, flying ghosts, sound effects, and general over-decoration of an excellent degree. Hundreds of kids swarmed the streets, half-crazed on chocolate, mumbling out thank-yous as they raced to the next house.

All this is on hold for us. We managed to go trick-or-treating in Maryland shortly after we moved aboard Papillon, but once we left US-waters, we left the tradition behind. I suppose we could have knocked on random doors on Cartagena last October 31st and hoped for the best, but I'm not sure it would have been my greatest idea. Instead, a local pizza place hosted a kids' party, and we went to that with some friends. This year, we are in Tonga. We are out at anchor now, but friends have just sailed in and the town is only five miles away, so we will likely head back to Neiafu for another kids' party. It isn't the heady rush of knocking on strange doors, but the girls don't seem to mind, so I will try to keep my Hallowe'en orthodoxy to myself.

But now comes the costume question, and I can't believe how blasé they are about the whole thing. Maybe this, maybe that. I suppose this is because they spend their lives dressed up. Indy has been adorned with either a plush red-velvet crown or a tiara every waking moment for the past three months. Stylish, when she got up this morning, went straight into a hula skirt and bikini top. At press time, Stylish is considering being a bandit on the big day. When asked about the specifics, apparently being a bandit means wearing a bright yellow skirt and shirt, and a black ski mask. On further inquiry, it emerged that the yellow was to blend into the desert sands, since she doesn't own anything beige. Fair enough. Indy initially wanted to be a cat-ballerina-fairy-princess (that crown is not coming off), but has now scrolled back to a mere fairy princess (see what I mean?). This will remain fluid up to and
including the moment of departure for the party.

Someday, I'll sew them costumes again. At least, I'll offer. And I'll explain about the snowsuits when the time comes. I don't think the sand-bandits will really understand in this heat.

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Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Fish Story

Twelve days and a quick hop over the International Date Line behind us, we made it to Tonga.  Thank.  Goodness.  Of course, the boat was so strangely still in the anchorage last night that neither girl could sleep, and we were packed like lemmings in the V-berth.  It was, shall we say, somewhat warmish and squishy.

Nevertheless, we must have slept at some point, because around dawn there was an earthquake (Richter 5.5) about 40 km away, and none of us felt a thing.  Another boat reported that, about fifteen seconds before the quake, all of the fish started to jump out of the water.  At least they were paying attention.

I've always liked fish, both to look and and to eat.  And, really, one of the best parts of passage is fishing.  Not for me, personally - Erik is the fisherman in the family.  But I am an enthusiastic consumer of fishy goodness, and the excitement of a catch provides some much-needed entertainment.  The girls especially like to watch Erik clean the fish.

I was spoiled on fish at an early age.  My grandfather was a diehard fisherman, and supplied the family at large with trout on a steady basis.  On the domestic front, Grandpa held sole responsibility for all things fish-related.  In this, he was the Little Red Hen: he caught, cleaned and smoked his fish himself.  (I figure my grandmother had more than enough to do already without adding in fish and I think he liked the job.)  This led to small case of culture clash when Erik caught his first tuna.  He caught it, killed it, and turned in my direction.  I raised my hands and backed away.  It had never occurred to me that I might have to do anything but eat the fish. 

Because I am pathetic at deboning a fish.  This brings me back to my Grandpa.  In all the years I ate his trout, I never found a bone.  Never.  Not ever.  The man was an artist.  But what this meant was that I grew up fully lacking any training in the teasing-fish-from-a-skeleton department.  The closest I came was doing dissections in university, but that was another matter.  Many years ago, Erik and I visited his grandmother in northern Germany.  She took us out for lunch, and, being northern Germany, we went to a fish restaurant.  I ordered a Maischolle – pan-fried sole – which, unknown to me, is one of the boniest fish in creation.  I suspect someone actually inserted a couple of extra skeletons in there during preparation.  It was a boneyard.  A bone puzzle.  And I decimated that fish.  The parts I was able to encourage away from the bones were delicious.  But, let’s face it – my plate was a warzone.  It was mortifying.

But here we are, eating fresh fish all the time, and I can't cling to my old excuses forever.  So, I've learned.  The girls and I, all amateurs in the art, can now figure out where bones will be, and which way they will point, and we slowly drag the flesh along the fish and eat it without getting a mouthful of prickles.

Day 10 of our crossing, Erik got a hit on his line in the late afternoon.  The familiar Zzzzzzz! rang out, and all of us in the cockpit started shouting, "Fish! Fish!"  The team swung into action.  Erik pulled on his lifejacket.  I grabbed his belt and chest harness (which, no joke, you need, even for the little guys.)  As he clipped in and started to reel in our supper, I prepared the spray bottle of vodka (spray it in the gills and stun the fish - insert your own joke here), the gaff, and the killin' knife.  And we all waited, with varying degrees of impatience, for Erik to reel in the fish.

Normally, we are travelling a ridiculous 9 knots when we catch something, and have to slow down, or Erik will never get it aboard.  This time, we were travelling a leisurely 4.5 knots, so we thought he'd have no trouble.

"This feels heavy," said Erik.

This caused some excitement.  The girls had visions of 200 lb swordfish flashing alongside the boat.  I heartily wished for none of the same.  Slowly, slowly Erik brought it in.  And there it was, a beautiful bonito.  The lure in the photo below is about 8 inches long, so we guessed the fish was about 20-25 pounds.  Hooray!  We are started chattering happily about making sashimi in coconut milk for dinner.  Erik brought it alongside, and started to lift it out of the water.

I am so delicious!  And not at all unhappy to be your dinner!
Then, plip!  A moment after this photo was taken, the boat shifted, the fish wiggled, and it fell off the hook.


There were a few moments of silence as we all mourned the loss of dinner.  Recriminations were few, although Erik is kicking himself for not just using the gaff.  Ah, well.  Next time.

Alas, we had no further luck on the way to Tonga.  But we'll certainly have the hook out on the way to New Zealand.  And the gaff will be ready.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Man Down

Greetings, friends, from 18 23.62 S, 162 36.77 W. We are just starting Day 7 of our Tahiti-to-Tonga run. The winds are dying and poor Papillon is suffering the whack-and-smack of sails that every sailor dreads. But, this morning, I look out upon the ridiculous swell and our unraveling sunbrella with a song in my heart. For I, good people, am once again amongst the living.

We all know that I have trouble with seasickness. (Goodness knows, I haven't kept it a secret.) But normally it is four days of unpleasantness, then I'm back on my feet again. This is why our family likes long passages - as soon as we pass the magic four-day mark, I can actually enjoy myself, help sail, teach school, cook dinner, and be the generally pleasant human being we all know and love.

This passage, I was sick as a dog for six full days.

This is a problem. All of my seasickness coping mechanisms are based on a four-day illness. I cook ahead for four days. I get some little treats and activities ready for the girls for four days. Erik knows he only has to single hand for four days. The entire crew knows that Mom is going to be glued to a bench in the cockpit, head down, eyes closed for four days. Everyone knows the score.

Although they don't really understand it; my prolonged sickness is a bit of a puzzler for the rest of the crew. Indy has never had a seasick moment in her life. Erik confines his illness to inhaling diesel fumes in 16-foot seas. Stylish is the closest to understanding, but she outgrew her (very mild) seasickness about a year ago. To them, seasickness is brief nausea that goes away again. It isn't hot knives carving your eyeballs out from the inside. (Migraine sufferers of the world, my heart goes out to you.)

When Day 5 rolled around and I was still a mess, puzzlement soon turned to irritation. Crisis #1: the fridge was empty. The spaghetti, the stir-fry, the carrot sticks - gone. And while the girls take after my side of the family and could happily subsist on Sao crackers and jam from now until the end of time, Erik cannot. I could blame this on his mother being far too nice to him growing up, or the endless good meals served to him during his working life to allow him to work twenty hours a day. I could, but the truth is, the man just wants a decent meal, and how can I argue with that? I just wish the Good Fairy would show up to cook while I feel rotten.

Reluctantly, ungraciously, I peeled myself off the bench and went down to the galley. As I descended the five steps of the companionway, I transformed from Smeagol to Gollum. During my bad days, I am almost reasonable to talk to while I am in the cockpit lying down. Sitting up makes me cranky. Standing up will certainly generate (unreasonable) complaints against anyone in the vicinity. But sending me downstairs? Look out. I'll kill you as soon as look at you.

During these times, I try very hard to remind myself that I am not processing information normally. That when Erik makes suggestions, such as telling me that he always feels better after he throws up, he is really trying to help, and there are neither grounds nor need for me to tear him a new one. I try to remember, but sometimes it is hard when your brain is telling you that everyone else is an unreasonable jerk, and why can't they just leave me alone to die, gollum?

Day 6 dawned, and things were, if anything, worse. My head felt like someone was energetically scooping out my brains with a rusty spoon. The girls planned a halfway-there party, which meant I had to make a cake. Weep. I managed to make the wrong cake (even though I've made the requested chocolate cake dozens of times). The roast chicken was nearly a similar disaster. Erik, my hero, made potatoes, which, aside from being delicious, were the only things I managed to eat all day.

The girls were a dream. I dug out a package of balloons for them, and they quickly invented a game that kept them shrieking with laughter all afternoon.

When I finally crawled off to bed, I repeated a quiet chant in my head. I feel better. I feel fine. I am going to have a great day. Around and around it went, all through my midnight watch. And whether it helped or not, I woke up this morning feeling relatively human again. Oh, I still won't set foot down below unless I absolutely have to. But I've been out of bed for more than an hour now, have made breakfast, played puppies and help construct two Sailormoon bracelets, and I haven't snapped at anybody yet.

Mom is back in the game.

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Monday, October 8, 2012

Papillon Joins SAILfeed

That cut on my hand?  That's cruising, baby!
Hello, everyone.  I’d like to welcome some new readers to Sailing Papillon.  The good people at SAIL magazine invited me to join their blogging community, SAILfeed, and so I am delighted to say that Sailing Papillon will now also appear at  The blog and archives will remain on my home site (, so you can find the blog in either spot.  There are sailing blogs and shiny boats of all sorts at SAILfeed, so be sure to take a peek.  If my blog isn’t there yet, it will be soon.  (I’d check myself, but we’re currently somewhere between Tahiti and Tonga, so I guarantee your internet connection is better than mine.)

To those of you new to Sailing Papillon, welcome!  My name is Amy, aka Papillon Crew, aka Mom.  For the past two years, I’ve lived with my husband and two girls aboard a 57 foot Bill Tripp Sr custom yawl from the ‘60s.  During that time, we have sailed from the Chesapeake to French Polynesia, and we plan to reach New Zealand before cyclone season gets going this year.  I’ve written articles for SAIL and other sailing magazines, and I write this blog about our family experiences aboard.  Cruising is about more than just sailing, you know.  I may not be able to explain how to fix a marine toilet, but I can sure tell you how much fun those thirteen hours are for the whole family!  I post on a weekly basis (sometimes more often, but rarely less), whether by internet, or, failing that, using the good old SSB.  Please feel free to comment, or to drop me a note.  I look forward to sharing our adventures with you!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Reprovisioning the French Polynesian Way

The last time I did an honest-and-true proper grocery store run was the beginning of May.  Looked at another way, about 4500 nm ago.  And while I still have more tinned beans aboard than are strictly necessary, we supplement with fresh things when we can.  Some places have been easy (San Cristobal (Galapagos), which had a wonderful market), some have been hard (Raraka, which had a supply boat every two weeks).  Whatever the case, our diet was still healthy, if not especially varied.  In the Tuamotus, we lived on just-caught fish, just-baked bread, lentils and rice, and no one minded a bit.

But even the biggest fish-lover needs a change once in a while.  And so, when we arrived in Tahiti, we set off for the grocery store.

Part of the fun of shopping elsewhere comes from discovering regional items.  Here was our first clue that we were far from home:

Is it getting hot in here?

“What are those people with their delightful ‘80s haircuts wearing?” you ask.  If you look closely, it appears their stylish outfits are made from industrial-grade garbage bags.  And the label says, “Unisex Sauna Suit.”  Because apparently Tahiti isn’t hot enough – you need to wrap yourself in plastic to get a really good sweat on.

And before you think this is an isolated occurrence, ka-bam!

In four languages, so everyone can join in the fun!

Right.  The store brand sweatsuit.  And if we look a little closer...

...they have added a helpful diagram showing the sweat.

Over in the frozen food section, we saw some oddly-shaped packages.  Guesses?

"Mom, what's in there?"

Right.  Veal.  I’m pretty sure I can’t fit an entire calf on our little barbeque; Erik might have to get out the Sawz-all again.

But the true excitement came in the fruits and vegetables section.  You would have thought we’d dropped the girls in Disney World.

“Mom!” shrieked Stylish.  “They have apples!”  She picked up a Granny Smith and cuddled it to her cheek.
“Mom!  Mo-om!”  Indy was jumping up and down.  “Oranges!  Mom, I’ll get us fifteen oranges.”  She raced off to get a bag.
“Another kind of apple!  Mom, they have different kinds of apples here!

And that, good people, is how you get your kids excited about fresh fruits and vegetables.  Feed them enough lentils, and they will beg for anything that grew on a tree.

Of course, we bought other things, too.  We were giddy about cheese, dried meats, lemon juice; you would be surprised at what is in short supply out there.  And, of course, junk food.  We have more chocolate and Tim Tams than I know what to do with.

And here is where things went wrong.  Because we took all of this food home.  And ate it.

Now, there is maybe nothing biologically wrong with eating a diet of Roquefort, oranges, salami, Cheetos and baguette, but I wouldn’t recommend it, and certainly not all at once.  The heady pleasure of sampling old favorites turned quickly to indigestion, and I think all of us miss those days of fish and rice.

Today I am making one last dash to the grocery store, and I can tell you, the fun is over.  There won’t be any packaged foods in my cart this time.

Well, maybe one last bag of Cheetos.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Starry Night

From the mailbag:

“Sometime in one of your posts I wish you would describe the night sky on one of your passages as seen on a cloudless, moonless night. (…) How are your navigation skills by the stars?  (…) Please put this on your list for future description - I would be very interested.  Maybe also you could provide a description for landlubbers as to how you do navigate accurately across such vast distances. Are you ever looking for a tiny island that is supposed to be there but isn't?”

The Papillon Crew aims to please.

Long-time readers may recall that we visited Cape Canaveral during the early days of our voyage.  We met an astronaut, saw a rocket launch, touched moon rock, and generally sucked the marrow out of the Kennedy Space Center.  More recently, we followed the Mars Curiosity landing with avid interest.  (In fact, it was the one bit of “news” we’ve shown any interest in since we moved aboard two years ago.)  We are keen on space.

I'm holding the space shuttle!

I have two clear memories of the night sky from my youth.  Once, we were staying with friends at their cottage in Georgian Bay.  It was August, and the Perseid meteor shower was in full force.  We lay on the dock for hours watching the shooting stars, and trying to forget the terrier-sized dock spiders lurking below us.

The second time was my sole experience with winter camping.  In sixth grade, my class went north for a handful of days in February.  We played a game of hide-and-seek one evening, and were perfectly able to navigate the camp using the light from the stars shining on the thick piles of snow.

In both cases, but particularly in the second, the stars filled the sky from horizon to horizon.  No city lights spoiled the view.  It was purely marvelous.

Offshore, the stars are not only beautiful, but serve a practical function.  On passage, I take the midnight to 4 am watch.  My first act, after checking for other boats in the area, is to see which stars are out, and to make sure they are where I expect.  Aside from being fun, it is a handy check that we are still sailing in the right direction.

Of course, we are mere dilettantes in this regard.  For the real deal, search out a video called “Inside Outside”.  It was made by two Frenchmen (twins) who built themselves a tiny boat, then sailed it 4300 miles across the Atlantic from the Canaries to Desirada in Guadeloupe (an island only 6 miles long).  They had no systems or instruments aboard – no fuel, no GPS, not even a sextant.  They navigated solely by the stars, knowing that keeping certain constellations in a certain part of the sky would let them maintain the correct latitude.  Even cloudy nights didn´t get in their way, and they hit their tiny target bang on.  Now that is hard core.

But I have strayed from the original question.  What do the stars look like at sea?

No doubt many of you are, like your correspondent, opthalmologically-challenged.  I got my first pair of glasses during university.  I thought I could see pretty well, but the board was a little fuzzy from the back of the lecture hall.  After getting my new glasses, I walked out of the optician’s and the first thing I saw was a tree.  And I could not believe how many leaves there were on that tree; suddenly I could pick out every vein on every individual leaf.

Seeing a sky full of stars is much the same.  It is mind-boggling the first time – there are so many more points of light than you had imagined, and in so many colours, too.  It is such a glory that you begin to resent the moonrise because it obscures some of the stars.

How, then, do you pick out constellations from such a field?  Much like moving to a new town, things become much easier once you make your first friend.  For me, that was the Southern Cross (as ably introduced to me by Stylish).  Not only does it show you south (and never underestimate the value of a hint like that at sea), but it is very close to Alpha and Beta Centauri.  From there you can build the Centaur.  Then off to the side is the Scorpion, and on we trot.

Stylish got a telescope for Christmas last year.  We can’t use it at sea because the boat isn’t steady enough, but we had an excellent time looking at the craters of the waxing moon while we stayed on Olivier’s motu.  Thankfully, there wasn’t much light pollution in the Tuamotus.

And, finally, our questioner asked how we navigate.  This being the modern age, we use electronic charts to begin with.  We have navigation software on a computer, and a stand-alone GPS unit with excellent charts.  We have paper charts as a backup for the inevitable day that we lose our electrical systems completely (due to lightning or what have you).  When we plan a route, we set our course such that, if disaster occurred and someone fell asleep on watch (or was injured, or there was another emergency), we wouldn´t hit land if we failed to make a turn at the right time.

It is worth saying that, as wonderful as those tools are, you must use your own eyeballs.  We always check that islands and lights are where they belong.  We are vigilant about spotting reefs.  We´ve had our electronic charts be off by 60 meters or more; sometimes, the computer claims we are sailing on land.  We don´t enter new ports at night, because even a small coral head could get us.  As we navigated the lagoons of the Tuamotus, I stayed up the mast in the bosun´s chair.  I wore my polarized lenses and helped Papillon to avoid the shallow reefs that were everywhere.  Trusting the charts would have run us aground long ago.  In short, charts are good, but eyes are better.

So the night sky at sea is a case of, “I once was blind, but now I see.”  As much as I look forward to visiting the Hobbit country sometimes known as New Zealand, I don’t look forward to losing the stars.  Maybe we’ll have some luck on top of a mountain somewhere.