Robinson Crusoe dreams became reality for Joshua Shankle when he was marooned, becoming something of a Pacific castaway
Immersed and weightless in the warmth of the endless blue, I looked down and could see only fathomless depths below me. Without a point of reference I couldn’t tell if I was two or 20 feet below the surface, the only difference to sense was the pressure of the vast ocean above me.
Maybe it was cabin fever after being becalmed for days on end that had driven me to do it. Perhaps I just couldn’t take the sound of the sails flogging and the blocks knocking one more time as our 42ft Tayana, Agápe, gently rolled back and forth on the ocean swell. But after 19 days at sea, without word or warning, I dove from the warm decks, plunging deep into the placid Pacific Ocean.
It was surreal to stare into the expanse of water and see no other life, only the silhouette of Agápe’s hull slowly drifting away. This far offshore the open ocean is equivalent to a marine desert, with little to eat and nowhere to hide. I can only imagine it’s the closest sensation I’ll ever experience to being in outer space.
Over the preceding years I’d spent hundreds of hours daydreaming, imagining what cruising would be like. I devoured books, blogs and vlogs, to feed my insatiable desire to be a voyager. Like most hopeful cruisers, I’d imagined sailing with a perfect 15 knots of warm, coconut scented breeze blowing over the stern quarter, the spinnaker gracefully pulling us along, gliding down the ocean swells while the wind vane held a steady course.
My cruising fantasies were never just about the sailing, though. Sailing was inevitably part of the allure, but my dreams always had a destination, a place that would embody my idea of paradise. My dream of cruising was one of tranquillity and solitude, I wanted to live out the Pacific castaway, Robinson Crusoe life that I’d imagined since I was a child.
My wife, Rachel, and I spent our first two years cruising and exploring the Pacific coast of Mexico and Central America, building our confidence and skillsets, and fine tuning our boat before we finally felt ready to make the 3,000 mile voyage across the Pacific. We gained experience of sailing in all different conditions, from rain lashed thunderstorms with 40-plus knots, to picture perfect spinnaker runs. We got a good taste of every type of anchoring and navigating that we thought we might encounter in the remote islands of the South Pacific.
Despite having sailed Agápe some 10,000 miles, we were still nervously excited for the long Pacific crossing, but our knowledge was greater and our abilities had been honed.
We reassured ourselves that Agápe was built for this purpose. From the first lines her designer put to paper, blue water had been in mind. She was outfitted with solar panels, a watermaker, freezer and dive compressor, everything we thought we might need to be self sufficient for months on end. Tayana means ‘belongs to big ocean’.
After years of dreaming, preparing and stressing about our first ocean crossing, it turned out to be quite uneventful and, although painfully slow at times, it was one of the best sailing experiences I’ve had to date.
We encountered the full gamut of weather, from 35-knot squalls with rain lasting for hours, to an ocean so calm it mirrored the sky. Predictably though, we had beautiful tradewind sailing for the majority of our 27-day passage and, even overloaded with fuel and supplies, managed to make our best 24-hour run of 166 miles.
What made this a truly memorable and once in a lifetime crossing, was that we made it with our long time friends and buddy boat, John and Becca on SV Halcyon. Although we left from the Galapagos, and they from Panama, we managed to rendezvous about 150 miles east-south-east of the Galapagos, co-ordinating through our SSB radios.
Usually, two boats on such a crossing will quickly be separated. Course changes, speed differences and currents can all widen the gap. Yet day after day, tack for tack, squall after squall, we somehow managed to effortlessly stay within VHF range for 21 days.
Almost every morning as I rose for my watch, I would hear John’s voice over the radio as I scanned the horizon, usually able to make out their sails. How strange to be so far from shore and still have our friends alongside us.
It was a comfort knowing that should disaster strike, our companions were no more than a couple of hours away.
We were lucky enough to co-ordinate several meet ups throughout our crossing. Our first rendezvous was under full sail and yet we somehow managed to get close enough to trade freshly caught fish for some candy bars.
It was during our second mid-ocean meet up, as Agápe sat becalmed, that I became so overwhelmed with the urge to jump ship after weeks confined within 42ft that I spontaneously dove in. As our friends motored towards us, I swam over and climbed on board Halcyon.
Moments later my wife also took the plunge, abandoning Agápe. It was strange to watch our home, our dream, adrift in the middle of the vast Pacific.
This day stands out more vividly than most, maybe it was the joy of being reunited with friends, but I was ecstatic to get off Agápe, even if only for a short while. A little change of scenery lifted my spirits and reinvigorated me for the remainder of our voyage.
Back to earth
Twenty-seven days after departing the Galapagos we finally made landfall in Gambier, French Polynesia, one hour behind Halcyon.
As we sailed into the wide northern pass, the colour of the water quickly changed under our hull, from the empty royal blue, into vibrant turquoise waters teeming with life. We could easily see the beautiful coral head formations 60ft below our keel.
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But coming into the wind, as Agápe raced to the anchorage, it was not to the smell of pineapples and coconuts on the air, but rather the scent of pine trees. Although our time in Gambier would be made unforgettable by the locals who befriended us, the weather and islands were not quite what I’d envisioned French Polynesia to be like.
Instead of palm trees, there were pine forests. Where we expected to find soft white sandy beaches, we found mostly sharp calcified coral. Rather than spending our days in bathing suits, we wore foul weather gear and sweaters.
I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed as we spent days hiding down below, playing cards at the saloon table as Agápe bounced around a crowded anchorage in the 30-40 knot southerly blows that seemed to roll through almost weekly.
We did have several beautiful periods during our six week stay in the Gambier and these breaks in between the blows afforded us time to hike, snorkel, and explore. But while we enjoyed the Gambier, it was nothing like the cruising I’d imagined. Little did I know the island of my dreams lay only a few short sailing days away.
Some 450 miles north-east of Gambier is another archipelago, made up of nearly 80 low lying islands, remnants of ancient volcanoes that have nearly been reclaimed by the sea.
All but a few of the islands here are coral atolls, made up of a coral rim or barrier reef encircling and protecting their inner lagoon. Often large sections of these barrier reefs are always submerged and the motus that make up the land portion of the islands are nearly flat. Depending on your rig size the tallest thing around is usually a coconut palm.
The islands of the Tuamotu archipelago are by far some of the most wild and beautiful places that we have ever travelled to: surely this was the place I could live out my Robinson Crusoe fantasy!
It was here that I found my perfect island, one with water so calm that the sea and sky had no separation. There were coconut filled motus, bountiful reefs and the only inhabitants had feathers, shells or scales.
But I quickly came to realise that what I had envisioned for so many years was not what my soul longed for: like all things sailing related there were some compromises.
The isolated atolls and anchorages where we found ourselves alone quickly became lonely, and the vibrant reefs that I had dreamt of swimming and spearfishing on were full of sharks, lots and lots of sharks. We had spent so much time and energy outfitting the boat for us to escape the crowds that we never really questioned if solitude was what we wanted.
In March, during the height of the pandemic panic, French Polynesia implemented a mandatory confinement and all cruising boats were instructed to stay where they were. Our two week trip to an uninhabited atoll turned into an indefinite stay. Luckily, we happened to be at my favourite island, and we had two of our buddy boats with us.
Over the following weeks we slowly fell into a new lockdown routine, and I could sense my inner child starting to find his way out.
I shrugged off the schedules and responsibilities of the outside world and my creative side flourished. I turned my newfound time towards some more hands-on projects, spending days building a sailing raft and benches out of flotsam and jetsam I found washed ashore on the windward side of the atoll.
I built a pole spear for lobstering and spear fishing, and a beach oven of sorts to bake in, since our butane was running dangerously low. I made a wooden seat for the bow of Agápe and even a coconut bikini for my wife’s birthday.
I had an incredible amount of fun working on these non-boat related projects because it allowed me to use my imagination again. Finally, I was having the experience that I had always dreamed cruising would be.
I went from being petrified of sharks, to affectionately thinking of them as sea puppies, and even feeling disappointed when they weren’t around. Day or night we could usually look over Agápe’s rail and see a handful of sharks. While exploring the passes we saw dozens on each dive: huge lemon sharks, silver tips, black tips, white tips, grey reef sharks, nurse sharks and even some silkies.
We got used to them hanging around while we were cleaning the bottom, swimming, and especially whenever we went spearfishing.
Instead of going to the grocery store, we’d hop in the sea to seek out dinner. Landing a fish after nearly losing it to the jaws of a hungry shark was always an incredible adrenaline rush, ensuring we’d never take another meal for granted.
Instead of opening a can of coconut milk for a curry, we’d husk, shred and strain the milk from a coconut ourselves. When time becomes apparently infinite, such mundane tasks become more enjoyable.
Doing everything from scratch also gave us a sense of accomplishment. Plating a dinner of homemade coconut rice and fresh fish that we had caught ourselves was immensely fulfilling.
Floating the chain
Our little group of castaways would go on excursions, venturing into the heart of the lagoon looking for new bommies to dive on. Bommies are massive coral spires that can reach over 100ft from the lagoon floor, usually stopping just a few feet, or even inches, from the surface.
The structures are full of beautiful corals, teeming with all kind of brightly coloured fish and life.
But the same bommies that made spearfishing so great, also made anchoring a challenge. With some practice we became proficient at floating our chain, a technique new to us that we needed to learn to keep our home safe in these atolls.
Like most cruisers who hear about the technique, we were sceptical at first. Once in the Tuamotus though, it is almost impossible to find completely sand bottoms and you usually end up anchoring around coral heads.
Even if you can find a good spot to drop the anchor, the chain will inevitably wrap a bommie or get tangled in the coral when the wind shifts.
Many cruisers we met preferred to anchor in fairly deep water, usually 30-50ft, where the coral heads lie 4-5ft off the bottom and are scattered with patches of sand in between. They usually drop a bunch of chain, perhaps back down, and are done anchoring.
This is a perfect way to badly wrap the chain, damage the coral and endanger your boat. If the chain gets wrapped around a rock or bommie near the boat, you no longer have the catenary effect of the chain that works as a shock absorber when the wind blows or the waves build. You can snap your chain or break bow rollers and windlasses in this situation.
After riding out a fairly large storm at anchor here, we were very thankful we’d taken the time to float our chain, as we were able to raise anchor and move into deeper water.
Several crews in a neighbouring atoll had to abandon their anchors and ground tackle after it became badly wrapped in the coral, in order to save their boats. One boat even had their chain wrapped so badly that the brand new 12mm chain snapped and their beautiful boat, and home, ended up on the reef.
Sadly, this is not an uncommon occurrence. We’ve heard of half a dozen boats that have ended up on reefs because of chains snapping or windlasses failing. Most people think it’s the weight of the chain that holds your boat, but when a storm or large squall rolls through with 40 knots of wind and fetch, your chain no longer rests on the bottom. It’s the angle of the chain to the anchor that holds it, and the smaller the angle, the smaller the chance of dragging.
We usually leave about one and a half times the depth of chain on the bottom, then start tying on floats (we use old pearl float buoys that you find washed up on virtually every windward beach in the Tuamotus, but you can also use fenders).
We always put out a minimum of four to one, and if we do wrap the chain within the first section of chain lying on the bottom, we can always let out more scope with floats if the wind picks up.
We’ve also found precision anchoring in shallower water where we can see the bottom to be easier. In deep water you can’t always see where your anchor will land, or if it gets stuck and you don’t have dive gear you can damage your anchor or chain trying to get it unstuck.
Floating our chain is not only about protecting our home and ground tackle though. An anchor chain sitting on the bottom can demolish everything in its path as the boat swings. Even small, seemingly dead bommies are home to many animals. It’s heartbreaking to snorkel and see damage done by other boats that could have been easily prevented.
Search for community
Back on our untouched paradise island the weeks turned into months. Our little tribe grew accustomed to living life as a small community.
There were communal laundry days and beach bonfires under the full moon. Over the quarter of a year that we would be confined I realised it was not the solitude of voyaging that I’d longed for. It was a like-minded community, finding my real tribe, and the return to a simpler life that had called me.
We had the honour and challenge of living how the Polynesians always have, in harmony with and reliance on the sea, the land, and the sky.
Sailors’ love and respect for the sea comes from deep within, so what a privilege it was for us to learn this in Polynesia, the birthplace of long distance voyaging. My dream turned out not to be of a destination, but an experience.
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