The French Polynesian Crossing
Three years after my first big crossing and there I was again, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no land in sight.
Last night at sea, I had slept on and off and got enough rest. But now while I was deflating my bed and strapping the gear bags tight to the board, I felt seasick again. The 3 different cross swells didn’t really help. Two minutes later, the little breakfast I had, was back in the ocean again. I better start to put myself back together again, get some food and liquid in, to strengthen a little bit, otherwise this was going to be a long and very tough crossing.
I took one of my prepared muesli bags, poured some water in, prepared a bottle with electrolyte drink and lay down for a few minutes before I could put myself to eat something. My plan was to eat little by little and drink as much as I felt like, while paddling. I knew when I would paddle I would get used to the motions very fast and could eat myself strong again. That feeling was still far away.
Although this was probably the low point in my crossing, I knew it was me, who had chosen to do this. I wanted this form of pure adventure. Solo and self supported also means lonely and tough sometimes. But victory would be even sweeter.
Many ask why I do these crossings. I have several reasons and I will try to explain. I would call it, the call of the ocean (as in call of the mountain). The challenge is there and asking me to do it. I also like these challenges because it makes you humble, appreciate everything you have in life, your friends, family, food, nature, many things we take for granted. If you go through something hard you come out slightly changed and I hope for the better.
Early in the night I had send a message to my wife via satellite, to tell her how I was. She knew, I was a little disappointed with the progress, I made the day before. I expected to do more than the 30 nautical miles, I did. The wind came more from the side than I had hoped for and the cross swell made the water slow.
My Starboard expedition worked really well, specially the front rudder, slightly bigger than in the past, kept the board on course and I could paddle both sides equally, even with the wind from the side. The new compartments kept the weight of the water low in the board.
I started paddling again and slowly started to feel better, I could feel the energy with every bit of food and drink I took, my body gracefully excepting every calorie. Progress was still not great but I was moving in the right direction. Tom Hammerton, my weatherman in Hawaii, wrote me a short message saying the winds would turn little by little in my favor, which kept my spirits high.
In the afternoon, I made myself a warm dinner. On the menu today was freeze-dried beef stew with potatoes. To be honest they turned out to be not my favorite but some solid food felt good anyway.
While I was eating, some birds (blue footed boobies) came by and checked me out from up close, before they continued dancing in the wind, effortlessly gliding from wave to wave.
The wind picked up a little just before sunset. I made sure that everything was secured to the board and the rope around the board in case I would be turned over by a wave.
This trip I used a dry suit by Supskin made with the latest materials and very light. A great suit. The only problem I encountered was; how do I put on dry clothes and make it into the suit without getting a wave in my face. Although very challenging, I managed to stay dry while getting in the suit.
Later I was laying in my bed looking at the GPS with today’s progress. I took a relatively Northerly route, although a little longer, also saver, in case the wind would set me more South. Especially at night I drifted a little more South than I had hoped for, which I had to make up for during the day. At 4 o’clock in the morning I though I would wait another 30 minutes to get up so I would be ready at sunrise and use a full day of light.
I had just dozed off again when I bigger wave rolled me over. I basically woke up under water with the board flipped upside down. I came up next to my board in total darkness with still both leashes connected to my board.
Since I knew this could happen I wasn’t even surprised and didn’t panic. I flipped the board back and first checked if everything was still there. Although not everything was on the board, it was still all attached. Tracker, GPS, check, food bags check, paddle check, gear bag check. It all looked ok. Good thing, I had got a waterproof headlight this time.
Another day, another chance.
With a little luck I would see land again today. It is always nicer to paddle towards an island than just looking at the compass all the time. I had my muesli breakfast with plenty of liquids and was on my way again. Later in the morning I saw the outline of Huahine, still far away but clearly land in sight. I expected to see dolphins and maybe even sharks but apart from many different birds and a few schools of tuna, no big fish. At midday I had a good warm meal, teriyaki chicken with rice, which proofed to be a real winner. You can’t imagine how good a warm meal in the middle of the ocean can taste. I saved a little for the night and started to notice the wind was turning in my favor. I was finally getting some glides.
My wife (Dagmar) was following my progress with the satellite tracker, which was working very well. It would send a position every hour and the best part was, the ability to send and receive 160 character messages. I know my expeditions and crossings are not always easy on Dagmar. She, being far away on the other side of this ocean and just seeing a little dot on a screen moving very little by very little. After seeing how hard the Hawaiian Crossing was on me, she knew this time exactly what I was going through. So I kept my messages honest but always positive.
By nightfall I was just around the island of Huahine. From now on I could go a little more South, with winds almost from the back. Finally this night my drifting would be almost in the right direction.
When I laid down, I looked at the GPS to see how far I still needed to go. The distance was a lot more than I normally would cover in a day. Gilles, the local cameraman for the France television asked me to come in during daylight, which would be a difficult task. So I decided to make a really early start at 3 o’clock in the night, which would make it possible to get in the pass of Bora Bora by sunset.
Again the current had put me a little more South than ideal but I got 7 miles closer to my goal while I was laying down, so no complaining there. The moon was out and the winds light, when I start paddling in the night. I was aiming for the next island, Tahaa, which I would round just North of it. Progress was slow and the current was still putting me South. I adjusted my course and worked hard for several hours until I finally made it around the breaking reefs of Tahaa, a beautiful island with very little inhabitants, pristine blue lagoons and white sands. The story goes, that all the Polynesian paddlers explored the Pacific starting between the pass of Raiatea and Tahaa. It amazes me that the early Polynesians travelled as far as New Zealand and Hawaii with only the simple means they had many thousand years ago.
I made a very brief break, ate some food and drank a lot. The wind had picked up a little and I looked like I could make it in time for sunset if I kept at it. For the next five hours I was paddling hard and even got some glides. My board was finally getting a little lighter after drinking 2/3 of my water. Finally after 13 hours of paddling I reached the North side of Bora Bora, which gave me a false feeling of achievement because it was still a couple of hours around Bora Bora to get to the pass to Vaitape, the main town.
Soon after, the French TV, and 2 of my Tahitian friends Jean Claude (Starboard Importer)and Stephan (Iron Mana organizer) welcomed me with a boat. I was starting to feel tired, very tired. But the feeling that I had almost reached land gave me strength to keep going. Just before sunset I got to the pass and thought I was almost there. I could see the small harbor and smelled small fires and fried fish. Almost, but not yet.
Something was wrong I paddled hard but the pass markers seemed not to get any closer. There was a strong outgoing current in the pass and on top of it; the wind was now straight in my face. With all the effort I still had in me, I pushed as hard as I could through the pass moving inch by inch and on to Vaitape.
Finally after 84 hours, just after dark, I got to Vaitape. A small crowd welcomed me with the traditional leis and honored me by calling me a Tahitian ‘Aito’ (Warrior).
I felt exhausted, crawled on to the pier, had a drink and had to sit down to adjust to the land before I could stand up and walk. It is a funny phenomenon, at sea you adjust so well that as soon as you arrive and do your first steps on land it seems to be moving extremely, so much so, that I fall over in the first few minutes. After 15 minutes I just walk like a drunk.
Arriving is always very emotional, tiredness combined with a sense of achievement. Later that night, I would sit on the beach eating a huge Tahitian Mahi Mahi salad in the beautiful Sofitel Bora Bora, not saying much, just enjoying the moment.
In the next days I came to meet a lot of the people of Bora Bora. Paddling here is in their blood and is the national sport. For them it is identity, culture, friendship and respect. The youth is training hard every day in the Va’a as they call the paddling canoes here, but SUP is also growing fast. Many Va’a champions start paddling SUPs now. They are very serious in their training, expect a lot from the Tahitians in the future.
2 days later I flew back to Tahiti in the small 2-propeller machine.
Only 50 minutes what took me 4 days and 4 nights! While looking down at the sea below me I wandered off, thinking; “still so much more to explore”.
Special thanks to Starboard, Sofitel Bora Bora, Supskin drysuits, Maui Jim, Patagonia, Black Project Fins and Kanaha Kai Maui