Ted, watermelon brains, a zebra shark | Va’vau to Minerva Reef

With two new crew, a boat full of provisions (including an uninvited venomous centipede named Ted) and fair winds we sailed on from the Va’vau island group of Tonga southward to the Ha’apai group.

A few hours into the sail, our bright pink spinnaker ripped top to bottom and fell into the sea. I looked at Eric and asked urgently yet calmly “What are we going to do?” He replied, “I don’t know yet.” He hopped up on the foredeck to assess the situation, and Abby and Lauren asked “is this normal?” They didn’t have blue water sailing experience, but are savvy in other fields and are quick learners. “No, this isn’t normal but we will be fine,” I assured them, remembering how often spinnakers ripped during races and folks were usually ok. Luckily, the sail fell in a way that wasn’t too hard to wrangle back on board with all four of us heaving. I was impressed and relieved to see how well the crew handled the situation, it was our first test as a team and we excelled.

Abby is as fishing obsessed as Eric so the trolling lures were out and zinging. They caught one mahi, two dogtooth tuna (unfortunately both had parasites and were unusable), one rainbow runner and one yellow fin tuna. Eric set Abby up on the transom with a cutting board and knife to teach her how to fillet the fish. Underway at 9 knots. Abby is fierce but was struggling with seasickness, so after filleting the third fish or so, she took a rest. Queasiness is one thing, but add fish blood, knives and parasites into the equation and it’s too much for folks new to open ocean life.

We set anchor off Pangai in the Ha’apai island group of Tonga just as a squall moved in. Visibility went from horizon distance to only being able to see Mjolnir, our buddy boat friends, anchored nearby. I love tropical squalls at anchor, the boat swings where it needs to, sheets of rain bounce the ocean’s surface into an applause. You can stand outside for a shower too, just bring some soap.

We went to town the next morning to check in with local authorities. The landscape was totally different from the lush northern Va’vau group. Here the land was flat, like other atolls we’d visited, with sparse coconut palms, houses clustered here and there with long stretches of dusty roads between them. We found the officials in a small office after being pointed in opposite directions a few times. The officer was pleasant but said he would need to visit the boats before signing us out of Tonga. We said fine and arranged to pick him up in an hour.

Geneviéve and Benoit of Mjolnir went to find gasoline while Eric and I walked over to the indoor outdoor fresh market that advertised ice cream. Even though Zephyr has a freezer on board, that space is for fish and meat, never something as inessential as ice cream. The young woman who worked the cash register had a weirdly familiar Californian accent and so I started chatting with her, turns out she grew up near my hometown. She moved to Ha’apai to help her dad run the market. After sailing across the ocean for months to a remote South Pacific atoll, buying ice cream from a fellow SoCal local felt surreal and cozy all at once.

The official met us at the dinghy and we took him to Zephyr. He seemed a bit uncomfortable but I chalked it up to him being a young person in a new post. He let us stamp our own passports, which was fun. We were now legally cleared out of Tonga. But after he left, Eric said the official made him pay extra fees that were not asked for on any official documents, a bribe.

We picked up anchor and sailed an hour south, away from the main town and back into peaceful coral atoll wildness. Lauren worked as a whale swim tour guide at an eco resort here so she guided us into the anchorage through the reef. Coconut palm forest hugged a long white sand beach, with blue sky above and turquoise clear water below. We all smiled, ready to relax and enjoy tropical paradise for a while before heading toward New Zealand.

Mjolnir joined us and we had the whole place to ourselves. I slipped into the water and swam up to the beach for a walk. With warm breeze and hours of sun left, I didn’t mind drying off as I walked among the hermit crabs. These tropical hermits have the most beautiful shells. Delicate pink, creamsicle orange, swirling graduated spikes, shellacked, spiral crowned—each covet worthy. But every time I reached down to pick up a shell that I thought would be a fine addition to my humble collection, it would be inhabited. The jaded part of my heart said it was like dating. The less jaded part said true, but one day you’ll find a gorgeous shell that isn’t already occupied.

The beach made a ninety degree turn at the end, wrapping around the other side of the island. A volcano cone rose up to break the ocean horizon line in the distance. Volcanoes remind me of the origin of all things. So I walked into the shallows and breathed, and talked with my ancestors, my grandparents. They are no longer alive, but they still teach me and encourage me as I grow.

Mjolnir and Zephyr decided to have a spontaneous Halloween party together. We had fresh fish from the passage so we set to work preparing a sushi feast. Eric has the proper ingredients and plates onboard, another luxury of catamaran life, enough space to store non-essentials. By sunset we had the whole outside table covered in sushi rolls and a carved jack o lantern pumpkin with the Zephyr “Z” courtesy of Lauren. Mjolnir surprised by dressing up in costumes and Benoit carved a monster head out of a watermelon, it’s brain exposed the sweet red flesh chunks beneath.

We all feasted and put on whatever costume materials we had, then danced all night under stars and rainbow lights spinning under Zephyr’s bimini. Geneviéve and Benoit can swing dance, and even on the boat’s smallest dance floor were entertaining us all.

In the morning, Lauren gave us a tour of the secluded eco-resort onshore where she worked as a whale swim guide. The local Tongan caretaker and his dog Rain led us into the forest so we could harvest limes and coconuts. We filled up a wheelbarrow full and to thank him invited him to a beach barbecue that night.

We played frisbee on the endless beach until the sun went down and the coals were hot enough. Marinated beef kebabs sizzled next to thick pineapple slices. The caretaker was impressed with my cooking and confidence, he offered me a job to manage the resort the following season, but I politely declined.

I took a long twilight walk down the beach, trying to shake the deep sadness that filled me. The tide was almost at its highest point so vines at the edge of the forest swayed in the waves. Even in the company of good friends I felt lonely, tired, not myself. Perhaps I was stressed about the coming passage, notorious for its challenging weather. Maybe checking my bed every night to ensure that Ted, the venomous centipede, was not joining me grated at my nerves. Perhaps I just longed to be held and for quiet companionship. For stability after almost a year at sea.

The caretaker and Rain took us out the next morning on his skiff to spear fish and snorkel on nearby reefs. We slipped over the side into super clear turquoise water, noticeably cooler than the more northern Va’vau water. Bright neon coral blanketed the ground 20 feet below us. Sun beams streamed through the ocean highlighting cobalt blue surgeon fish (like Dori from Finding Nemo), a spotted eagle ray and confetti colored parrotfish. The coral was distinct in type, structure and color from the Va’vau coral. I felt humbled again, naively thinking that tropical coral reefs within the same country would be alike. I realized that I have little experience in these environments, that endless discovery awaits me if I continue to swim in sharky waters.

Abby looked like a beautiful tropical fish herself, wearing a black, white and turquoise striped rash guard. A lethal one too with her dive knife strapped around her waist and spear gun extended in front of her as she hovered above the coral. She speared a parrotfish and swam it to the surface gracefully, her long fins arcing through the water.

The spearers didn’t have wetsuits and were shivering from the cold when we got back into the skiff. Lauren wanted to show us a manta ray spot so we motored over to another reef. The current was stronger, we had to swim with moderate effort just to stay above the shallow coral head. Even though we didn’t see any mantas, large shiny cowrie shells clustered together amongst tree-like soft coral. The shells looked like cows grazing on a pasture.

We thanked the caretaker and hopped back on Zephyr. After a few leisurely days it was time to prepare for the crossing to New Zealand. We took turns scrubbing the bottom of the two 55’ hulls. A kind of sea grass had rooted itself in an ever growing carpet, covering every part of the boat that was underwater. New Zealand has strict entry requirements so boaters don’t contaminate the local environment. The hull needed to be spotless.

Lauren and Abby hauled Eric up the mast to check for any potential issues with the rigging, all was well, he reported. We checked the weather every day to see when we should leave Tonga for Minerva Reef 348 nautical miles away.

For our last fun mission in Tonga, Lauren suggested we visit a snorkel spot north of Pangai. She tempted us with the possibility of seeing the gorgeous and rare zebra shark. I felt like we were in The Life Aquatic, nearing the end of our epic journey with a search for a mythical sounding shark. We made the short sail over and anchored near a resort, just in time to squeeze in an afternoon snorkel.

We walked through the small resort to enter the reef pass on the opposite side of the anchorage, the current here would sweep us over the coral and back to our dinghy on the other side.

We kicked hard against the current through wind choppy water to make our ride longer. Boulder sized coral hedges materialized a few feet beneath us, unique still from everything we’d seen. Fish flitted through architectural coral structures, arches and canyons. We let the strong current fly us over the reef, once in a while resisting the force for a closer look at the one of thousands of detailed diorama scenes.

Lauren and Eric were ahead of Abby and me, so I looked up once in a while to make sure we weren’t getting too far away from one another. Lauren motioned for us to join them, she’d found something of interest. Her underwater instincts are keen—last time she had called me over was in a reef in Va’vau. She’d spotted a hard to find octopus. I swam down to it and watched it change texture and flash colors like an extraterrestrial being—better special effects than anything Hollywood could create.

This time she had found a zebra shark! It was lying still on the sandy bottom, 15 feet below us but through the crystal water I could see every one of its beautiful spots. Yes spots, not stripes. No, it’s not a leopard shark.

It’s long thresher shaped tail gently swayed in the current. Lauren elegantly swam down beside it for a closer look, her blue and purple wetsuit disguising her humanness. But alas not well enough, our mythical zebra shark rustled up the sand and zoomed away.

It was almost the end of the snorkel, much longer and the current would sweep me far beyond where I wanted to be. A swimming pool sized mesa shaped reef came up in front of me, with only enough room for me to swim over the table top with the smallest fin flicks, so as not to touch the rainbow colored corals beneath my belly. I watched the tiny tropical fish busy themselves about their day under my nose and relished the extravagant luxury before my eyes.

In the morning we needed to leave for Minerva Reef, weather was coming in. Eric is flexible and relaxed as a general state of being, but when it is time to go due to weather, it is time to go.

Lauren and I left for a quick snorkel in the morning at the same reef pass. But as we were putting on our gear, my fin strap snapped. I looked around the dinghy and found an elastic bungee with a loop at each end, I tied a knot in the middle to make it the right length and fixed each end around the posts on my fin. I thanked my Oaxacan farm coworkers who taught me how to be resourceful with what is around you.

We saw three eagle rays gliding in formation up one side of a coral canyon. One peeled off from the group as I followed along. It flapped gracefully up the side of an adjoining balmy. We were glad we made the effort to get in tropical waters for the last time.

We sailed back the few miles to our previous anchorage to say goodbye to Geneviéve and Benoit on Mjolnir. They too were heading for Minerva Reef, but their boat is slower and they would leave later than us. We gifted them a bag of fresh provisions, they gifted us delicious dried fruits and spices from Mexico. We said goodbye, planning to meet up but also knowing how unpredictable cruising is, I felt it was indeed a real goodbye.

photo by Eric

Eric wrote up the watch schedule and bestowed the watch bracelet on Abby. He has an assortment of funky beaded bracelets, for each passage a bracelet is selected and whoever is wearing it is on watch. For this passage, the bracelet had a turtle charm, wooden trapezoidal beads and a turquoise stone. It’s a good idea because it helps the wearer remember they are on watch, it helps others know who to direct watch questions to, and it adds a sense of gravity and transfer of responsibility when the wearer passes it on to the next person.

We sailed through the last of Haapai’s reefs as I came on watch. I checked the charts frequently because I saw waves breaking far from shore on the bits of reef close enough to the surface to do us damage. Once we passed the final reef, I steered further south so we’d pass the active Hunga volcano island by a wide margin at night. Everyone went to sleep and I settled into passage mode, keeping an eye on the charts, the horizon and the sails. I could barely see the black mass of the volcano against the night sky as we sailed pass. Later on the charts said we were sailing over water where volcanic activity had been reported. It felt eerie and I was glad to leave the area after an hour.

Photo by Eric

With full sails out and steady 15 to 19 knot winds from the east, Zephyr zoomed along at 9 to 10 knots of boat speed. Near midnight Lauren woke up to relieve me of my post. From her bathroom I heard a loud whisper, “Roxy, is this Ted?”

Ted, the venomous centipede, who’d boarded Zephyr in Va’vau, hidden inside a juicy bok choy. A bok choy I should have washed before bringing it inside the boat. But I’d become complacent. And then we had all lived in fear of being bit by this molokau for the past couple weeks. That Ted.

I walked down the three steps to look at what she was holding in her bathroom. It was the small oval wastebasket, empty inside except for a 4 inch long Ted. Trapped by the slick inner surface of the bin. The outer surface was slightly textured so he had been able to climb in but now, not out.

“Yes, this is Ted,” I looked at Lauren, relieved. “What do we do?” she asked. “We throw it overboard,” I replied, clear headed and sure that this would be the end of Ted. There was no way he could escape. I felt my wise years of dealing with critters and dangerous situations fortify me as I lifted the wastebasket in my hands. Ted was presented to us on a silver platter by the universe. We were saved. We could sleep in peace. I was going to be a hero, my ego panted. Lauren looked at me with eyes full of trust and respect.

I turned to walk up the first step, Ted moved slightly. Not even in an “extremely aggressive” manner, as Wikipedia described the creature’s attitude. No worries, I thought, I’ll just shake him back down into his failsafe trap. Wiggle, wiggle and then I dropped the trashcan. It felt like forces beyond my control, from the underworld, sapped the strength from my experienced fingertips. Lauren’s eyes filled with dread as the can crashed to the floor, inches from where Ted had escaped into weeks ago.

She instantly laid flat on the ground, crying out for her quality of life, her sanity, and wailed on Ted, or where she thought Ted was, with the now truly empty wastebasket. Ted escaped, again, into the wiring conduit, with full access to Zephyr, and the shadowy recesses of our minds.

When I die, and a loved one asks me if I have any regrets, I will respond that I wish I had killed Ted that night.

photo by Eric

We sailed on at a fast clip, and had completed 194 nautical miles in our first 24 hours at sea. The following night we all gathered round the table to watch Moana. There is a scene where princess Moana descends into the underworld realm of monsters, and we paused the movie there so Lauren could take a bathroom break.

Violent, blood curdling shrieks came from the port bathroom. We all knew it was Ted. Due to my utter failure the night before, we’d all agreed that at the next opportunity I wasn’t allowed to try and kill Ted. And whoever did kill Ted would become defacto owner of Zephyr. Eric and I looked at each other for a long beat, communicating without words while Lauren continued to scream. He picked up her pink steel water bottle printed with baby seal cartoons and descended into the port hull.

I stood near the steps to watch. Lauren huddled towards the bow, perched on the sink counter. Eric lifted up objects on the floor toward the stern to see where Ted was hiding. Abby pushed past me wielding a dish sponge, ready for the fight. More blood curdling high pitched screams, this time from Eric. A pink yoga mat whizzed past Abby’s face as Eric chased down Ted who slithered lightning fast over the floorboards. He slammed the water bottle down again and again on the molokau. Finally it was subdued enough. Lauren screamed “Get him OFF THE BOAT!”

Eric wadded toilet paper and picked up the writhing beast, inexplicably still a moving threat after being fiercely beaten. And he threw Ted and our fears into the black ocean.

dead Ted

We all joined hands around the outside table together and screamed “TED IS DEAD!” to the heavens. Giddy with relief, our home was safe again. And Eric remained captain of his boat—he would see no mutiny from us.

2 thoughts on “Ted, watermelon brains, a zebra shark | Va’vau to Minerva Reef

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