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An Embarrassment of Manta Rays

French Polynesia, part 1

The loud thump came from the space I had just occupied on the island trail. Before I knew what was happening I heard an army of Coconut crabs running across the tropical floor to feast on the coconut pulled to earth by gravity.

Tahiti, Bora Bora

My travel buddy landed in Tahiti 45 minutes before I did. We would be staying in French Polynesia for just over two weeks and visiting five different islands.


As I walked from the flight line into the Faa’a International Airport in Papeete, Tahiti, I heard music from a band playing local music. I watched dancers swaying in what I, as an American, thought of as hula dancing. The line to customs and immigration curved back and forth through the night time tropic humidity. It seemed forever, and my anticipation to see my partner was making me excited.
Here I was, in French Polynesia, I could not believe I had been able to arrive in one of my dream locations. My travel partner at the time was my then French girlfriend, with her first language being French, it made for more accessible communication with the locals. We had pre-planned our destinations and bought our local island-hop flights from Air Tahiti in advance.
On day two, we flew to Bora Bora.

Bora Bora

Bora freaking Bora!!! The pearl of the Pacific. I was warned to skip this island because travelers told me it was too touristy. But on the contrary, it was terrific. The season was between “tourist seasons.”

The Mai Tai Hotel was what I expected. The property was right out of a travel magazine; two restaurants, two bars, bungalows on stilts out on the water, and rooms on the mountain with a view. The temperature was perfect, and it felt like we had the dream destination to ourselves. We ate, snorkeled, drank Mai Tai’s, and played topless on the beach. Note to self, always pack dark sunglasses to reduce the chance of blatantly getting caught looking at other naked beachgoers.
One night we made the opportunity to make reservations at the Bora Bora Yacht Club for dinner. We were seated at an outside table on the dock, and our timing was perfect. The sun was slowly setting as we had a few pre-dinner drinks and admired the catamarans on anchor.

The next night we ate at the famous Bloody Mary’s. The choices of freshly caught fish are as big as the list of famous people who have enjoyed dinner there at some point. I did not leave disappointed.
The time in Bora Bora set the mood for the rest of the adventure. After a few days, it was time to hop over to the next island on our list.

Maupiti

The flight to Maupiti seemed quick compared to the long trip from LA. Maupiti is the furthest island out in the French Society Islands. The daily flight to the island makes for a pleasant welcome. The landing strip located literally beside the ferry dock was where we were going to meet our boat.

Our quarters for the next few nights were at Le Kuriri, a small Eco-friendly property of four bungalows on the motu of Tiapa’a. Here we relaxed by taking walks on the beach and napping in hammocks. The owners and staff prepared the meals, which were served to guests in a common area, thatched-roof style. The owners joined us for dinner each night. Breakfast was even more casual and served in an elevated lookout with a view of the ocean to envy even the birds perched high in the trees. Everything about this motu was breathtaking, but one thing will always stand out.

One day after breakfast, the owner wanted to take us on a boat ride. We agreed and went to grab our gear. Once in the boat and motoring to a location between the motu and the main island, he stopped and told us of the Manta Rays that seasonally frequent this area. My girlfriend translated his conversation because his English was at the same level as my French. Sadly he said that it was the end of the season, and we probably would not see any manta’s. None the less we were eager to get in and see what was down there.
Moments after we were in the water, I hear him making a commotion from the boat and pointing just ahead of us, grabbing a breath I submerged to see the most majestic creature that I’ve ever seen. If her wingspan were less then 12 feet, I’d be surprised. I’m not sure if the manta was a she, but I’m calling it “she” for simplicity. For those moments dancing with a partner who was obviously aware that I’m a lousy dancer was one of the Top 10 things, I’ve ever done. The manta gracefully allowed me those moments before disappearing into the vast Pacific Ocean to catch up with her friends. Those moments are why I travel.

In Part 2, I’ll write about the other islands I visited were the vanilla grow, the pearls develope, and a shark who got a little too friendly.

Rivieras, Rooftops, and Rockets

The Sapphire’s maiden voyage around the coast of Florida

When you are offered the opportunity to be part of a small crew sailing around the east coast of the US, is the answer ever going to be anything but aye aye captain?

Having gone through some personal struggles earlier in the year, I decided the best place to be for some ocean therapy was on a boat. And man am I glad I took the opportunity. Sailing with Captain Gary was an absolutely incredible experience that truly exceeded my expectations. And even has me redefining my life goals.

The initial plan was to leave Florida and head for the Bahamas, but due to several factors (time, money, weather, visas, breakups, and rockets), the plan shifted to stay Stateside. But what a blast it turned out to be. Literally, a supersonic blast!

After a week spent at the marina helping to finalize the boat for her maiden voyage, a group of four of us – the captain, myself, and two people from France (who had never even been on a boat!) – set sail. Yep, on arrival at the marina, I found out that the boat I was joining, the Sapphire, was not the fully staffed luxury charter boat I anticipated but instead was gearing up for her maiden voyage and the four of us were to be the crew. The captain purchased her wholly burnt out from what I can only imagine was an insurance claim related to fire. He completely stripped out the entire boat and rebuilt it. Seeing photos of what the boat looked like when it was first purchased and how far it has come, I felt so incredibly fortunate to have been part of this journey. Part of the captains’ dream. We set sail 18 months to the day after the purchase – 12th June 2019. With a quick toast to Poseidon, we ventured into the big blue.

We sailed from Tampa to Key West and on our first full overnight journey hit a massive electrical storm. The captain’s confidence and skills as we approached the storm put our minds at ease. He was so chilled. We watched as he started lathering up his hair with shampoo in anticipation of the rain. What a legend. He later revealed that was a tactic to keep us calm because he wasn’t sure how the boat would handle the storm. It worked on me, not so sure about the French, though! I took the helm for my two-hour watch when another storm hit. It was midnight. A white wall of rain was all I could see and as I approached, it pounded down on me since the helm was completely out in the open.

The waves and the wind were wild. My speed got up to 14 knots (the boat is ideally designed for 7 to 10 knots), a massive fork of lightning cracked the ocean only 50ft in front of our catamaran and lit up the night sky like the Fourth of July. It. Was. Insane!!! And the craziest thing – I had a goofy smile on my face the whole time. I couldn’t believe this was my life. It was like being in a movie. One that instantly draws you in, and you can’t wait to see what happens next. Snippets of the plot line from The Perfect Storm rushing through my head. How did that one end again?! Luckily, we made it through the Gulf of Mexico without sustaining too much damage, aside from a pane of glass missing from one of the hatches where the wind had literally sucked it right out. After being treated to a beautiful post-storm sunrise, we spent a few days in Key West exploring, regrouping, and showering with more than just a bucket of seawater.

From there we sailed through turquoise waters, alongside playful dolphins and sea turtles to Miami where we partied both on and off the boat for a couple of days. Side note: is there anything better than a cucumber mojito and a rooftop pool after days of sailing?

Progress has actually been a lot slower than I anticipated since the wind hasn’t really been in our favour but I haven’t minded. At one point the wind gave up completely and we bobbed around in the ocean for an hour or so – the perfect opportunity to dive off the boat and swim in the middle of the ocean with a dolphin or two. The slow journey allowed for some great thinking time and being completely 360° surrounded by my favourite thing in the world (the ocean) has been exactly what I needed. The more I reflect on the idea of sailing as a mode of transport, it definitely fits with the concept of life being all about the journey, rather than the destination.

While on the boat we experienced the most perfect sunset I’ve ever seen. A crystal clear view of the sun sinking down into the ocean. The hour beforehand, the golden hour, really was magical. No land or other boats in sight. The colours of the sea and sky perfectly blending to form what I envisage as my eutopia. Forever I will now be able to close my eyes and be transported back to the way I felt in those perfect moments.

The beautiful sunset was followed by an incredibly clear night sky. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many stars. Jupiter, the Milky Way, shooting stars and bioluminescence guided us through our night sail towards our next adventure of passing through lock systems, drawbridges and peaceful canals thriving with wildlife.

Laying out on the bow of the boat, gazing up at a sky full of stars, I was reflecting on how perfect the time on the ocean had been only for it to be topped by witnessing one of the coolest things I will ever see – the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launch lighting up the night sky in Cape Canaveral. The sound of the sonic boom as the rocket broke the sound barrier. The sky ablaze. You can actually feel it in your chest. I have no words to describe it apart from saying that it was such a f**king cool experience that will stay with me forever!!!!!

Sailing on the Sapphire, gave me the opportunity to be surrounded by the ocean and wildlife, to explore my adventurous side, to witness things I’d only dreamed of and to make lasting connections with some amazing people. I already knew I had a deep love for the ocean, what I didn’t expect was how quickly the sailing lifestyle would capture my heart. I’ve found my happy place and am now making plans to become a full-time Aquatramp! Stay tuned…….

Dublin, Ireland

The plane landed in Ireland. It was the first time flying with Aer Lingus, and I was impressed with the efficiency. This plane was the fastest thing that I had been on in quite some time. If you can imagine moving non-stop for two weeks, but only advancing less than 10 miles per hour, that’s what it like to cross an ocean via sailing yacht.

At the Dublin Customs and Immigration checkpoint, I spotted a short line with an attractive female officer behind the Plexiglass. I figured that I would give a smile, shoot her the brown steel while handing her my passport, and I would be on my merry way. Wrong!
My passport is kept in the same pocket as I carry my Captian’s License. They are both the same shape and size, just different colors. Her keen eye saw the backside of my Merchant Mariners Credentials and quickly asked if I had an additional nationality. Not to deny her question, I informed her that I had just delivered a yacht to Europe and that I was on holiday. Her second question was more stern than her first, ” so you are working in Europe?” I realized the gravity with which answer I could give. “No,” I said, and as if queued by a director, a massive gaggle of passengers from another plane started lining up behind me.
She stamped my passport and smiled while saying that I should visit Temple Bar that night, then added that she might see me there.

The Spencer Hotel

The taxi driver dropped me outside of the Spencer Hotel, which would be my quarters for the next two nights. It is a modern hotel overlooking the Samuel Beckett Bridge, the Harp shaped bridge on the River Liffey. The Hotel had everything a person should need, attentive concierge, restaurant, and vending machines with beer! Wasting little time, I dropped my bags off in the room and hurried downstairs.

First on my list was to visit the Guinness Storehouse Factory. On-Location, you can see the how’s and why’s of making the world-famous brand. The tour takes you up floor by floor as you see a massive indoor waterfall, listen to live music and get a little bit of Irish history. The best part for me was walking into the Gravity Bar at the very top of the building. It marked the end of the tour where you can order a pint of “the black stuff” and enjoy it while taking in an impressive 360-degree view of Dublin.

The second stop on my list was Brazen Head, Dublin’s oldest pub. The distinguished list of patrons who have dined at this establishment is in regard, royalty to say the least. I feasted on the Corned Beef and Cabbage. The waiter suggested that I visit a local pub nearby if I wanted to see more Irish history. Walking in, I realize they must send all the tourists there.

I can not remember the name of the pub, but the two friends I made that night were well worth the trip. These two Canadian girls were on holiday also. We teamed up, and after a few shots of Jameson Whiskey, named our gang “The North American Hooligans.” From that pub, we took a taxi to Temple Bar Street, all the way curious if the driver was drunk.

Temple Bar is more than a place; it is an atmosphere. The party continued. Erin Go Bragh!

Two days in Dublin went by in a snap. On the third morning, I was at the train station partially subdued from a hangover as I watch a Bachelorette Party head my way. Next stop, Belfast, Northern Ireland, and the world’s most bombed Hotel!

Bom Dia- Lisbon, Portugal

The bus sighed as the transmission geared into neutral and the brakes set. Fellow travelers waited their turn before standing, grabbing overhead bags, and waddled to the door. Each one of us left the bus and immediately started stretching as we waited for the driver to unload the luggage.
I had been sailing on a relatively small sailing yacht for the last five weeks. The guys on the boat, for the most part, had become a functioning unit. To rest in the middle of the ocean, you must hand over your safety to a stranger. Trust builds. Respect earns respect.

Welcome to Lisbon. I was alone in a new country, and desperately in need of a haircut. A Tuk Tuk took me to my hotel, The Lisbon Heritage. Once I was in my chamber, I noticed the nothingness. The silence of the void of my crew was deafening. I needed a walk.
Armed with sunglasses, a map of the city, and a few Portuguese words jotted down on a folded piece of notebook paper, I headed off to the main square.
The city was active. My head was on a swivel looking at the architecture. Noticeably anyone could tell that a massive party involved the entire city and not been long past. Portugal had won the FIFA World Cup less than 24 hours prior. The country was hungover.

A few hours were spent combing the main square and waterfront before returning to the hotel to prepare for dinner. Lisbon is known the world over for the quality of fish served in restaurants. The decision on where to dine took time, and the reservations made.
Sacramento do Chiado is a respectable restaurant that is now in what was once the palace stables in the 18th-century — hidden up a stone street and a block away from most eyes. When I say up a street, I mean up a street. The city is vertical, not far from the water.

Once I was seated inside, the room seemed to breathe. Large red curtains draped the walls. An open-air staircase was the artery delivering the dishes from the “cozinha” to the tables, upstairs. Eating solo is not uncomfortable for me. Lots of time, the experience allows me to enjoy the presentation of the meal, the flavors, and the atmosphere.
The meal ordered in three courses arrived separately after I slowly enjoyed bread and wine.
The first plate was Goat Cheese lightly breaded, and Strawberry Jam.
The Main plate was Tuna with local wine.
Followed by Pears seared in vino.

Stop right there. At this point, I must say that this meal was absolutely worth the 10 minutes walk in the wrong direction before realizing I needed to turn around to retrace my steps.
With a full belly, I returned to the hotel and collapsed on what seemed to be the most generous bed(s) ever for the night. The next day I would grab a cab to the airport for another flight to a new country.

Guest Writer- Michelle

It gives me pleasure to introduce the first guest writer for the AquaBlog. I have known Michelle and her husband, Tim, for awhile. This article is of her first sail on Sapphire from Coconut Grove, Florida, to Cape Canerival. -Captain

Over the summer, I had the wonderfully unique experience of sailing on the Sapphire Catamaran/living the Aquatramp life for three days that went by way too fast. I hopped on board, and after a few hellos, I had instant friends. For three days, the five of us did fun things together (watching a rocket launch from Kennedy Space Center! enjoying a sunset cocktail!). And we also did mundane things together (boat repairs! cleaning up after dinner!). All done with shared warmth and mutual gratitude during all of it. It was simply amazing.

My new friend Natalie from Australia has traveled the globe by herself and with friends and sometimes strangers. She seemed so sweet and innocent. Not a being a wild child hitchhiking in Alaska or sleeping on strangers’ couches during her adventures through Europe. She had just finished a story when I read a text out loud that it was free donut day, the world traveler’s face lit up “Free Donut Day is a thing?! I love America.”

My assigned task was to make a playlist for everyone to chill to in the afternoons….. since that is about the extent of my boating skills. For some reason, the theme song from Full House ended up on the radio (everywhere you look…. everywhere you look…), and my new friend, Pierre’s head popped up from over his book. In his beautiful accent, he asked, ‘is this from a TV show?’. We learned that they watched the same Full House in France that we all remembered from childhood in the states. We all shared a nostalgic few seconds. We all got such a kick out of having that silly show in common. Who knew?

Captain Gary has a laid-back generosity and is as open as the ocean itself. Nobody feels like a guest on the boat. When you’re there, you are the crew. Everybody belongs. You would contribute with stories, chores, cooking, playing a board game, a shared bar of soap if someone forgot theirs.

I’m looking forward to making many more playlists on many more adventures with the Aquatramp lifestyle onboard Sapphire, each one with totally different songs and memories than the last.

Will you please pass the jelly?

It was several months before Hurricane Irma hit the coastal town of Tortola, British Virgin Islands, and I was flying from New Orleans to inspect a catamaran for a possible purchase. At the time, I was in the market to acquire a late model catamaran in the 40′ to 50′ range. The BVI and the USVI are home to several large charter fleets. The yachts in the businesses are shined, maintained, and regularly used by folks on holiday and vacation. The two main reasons to charter a new boat are A) It’s cheaper than owning a new vessel, especially if you are only available to enjoy sailing a limited time each year. B) Folks who will be buying a new boat may want to test drive a similar model to compare before taking the plunge.

Lagoon and Leopard both make quality products. They are built in France and South Africa, respectfully. On this specific trip, I arranged to meet up with a broker from one of the famous charter groups on the island. He and I had been in communication via email over several weeks before the trip on a modist Lagoon 420. The broker was always punctual with answers to questions and sent extra photos when asked, even making travel and accommodation suggestions.

On a three day weekend with an Airbnb booked, flights arranged, and a backpack slung over my shoulder, I traveled to the islands. New Orleans to Ft Lauderdale, to San Juan, to Tortola. With each flight, the planes were smaller and smaller until the last aircraft had seats for six passengers. Early the next morning, I woke with an island roster outside my window, crowing to announce the Saturday sunrise. Like a kid on Christmas morning, I ran down the stairs, and in this case, halfway down the mountain. The marina was still asleep when I arrived but lucky for me a bakery was nearby. Loaded up with fresh pastries, I waited eagerly.

Two hours later, the broker and I had preformed our walk around on the boat. Peeking under floorboards and behind engine parts, we were ready to untie the dock lines and go for a sail.

The sail and inspection did not disappoint. It was a beautiful day, the boat handled as expected, and the broker was respectful. We returned to the dock and secured the small ship. The rest of the day, I wandered the town taking in the sights, sounds, and flavors. A famous establishment most sailors visit is Pusser’s. The name comes from the historic British Rum once rationed on HMS ships. Notably, the Painkiller should be on your drink bucket list.

That night as I pondered of the possible purchase, I danced and made friends in town, I was even introduced to and shook hands with the BVI’s Premier, The Honourable Orlando Smith. Everything seemed right, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on a feeling that was in my gut. It wasn’t the plantains that I had for dinner, it was something else.

A week later, back in the states, it was time to decide on buying the boat. Still, my gut was telling me to wait. I phoned the broker and passed on the deal. Remember I mentioned Hurricane Irma? Not many weeks after my decision to explore other boats elsewhere, the weather system took a violent turn slamming all of the northern islands and leaving destruction from the infamous Irma. Who knows what the fate of that vessel would have been if a different decision would have been made? Note to self, always trust that inner intuition.

What is your fondest memory of Spanish Meatballs?

Dolphins playing tag while we sail across the Atlantic Ocean.
Dolphins playing tag while we sail across the Atlantic Ocean

Seriously? A guy was sitting behind me on a bus to Lisbon, Portugal, and this pickup line was his final attempt to pick up a girl across the aisle. 

But this isn’t where the story begins. Let us go back five weeks and 3600 nautical miles to Jacksonville, Florida, USA. We were loading stores onto a private yacht that would soon be making way across the Atlantic Ocean. The owner had asked a friend, who in return asked me to join in the trans-Atlantic crossing, four of us in all would be on the 47-foot sailboat during the voyage.

Every journey has its pulse. I have commented before that long-distance sailing is 90% boredom and 10% panic, but this trip was of note to be different.

The First Leg

Bermuda, Isle of Devils

After finally leaving the mainland and out of the sight of land, we had the perfect sail to Bermuda. Along the way, dolphins rode our bow waves, Gin and Tonics let us know before dinner was ready each evening, and the stars, the night sky while at sea, always impresses.

Sailors enjoying a cookout in Bermuda
sailors enjoying a cookout in Bermuda

The first leg took five days. We planned to stop long enough to replenish the fresh galley necessities. However, the weather had us cautious due to a hurricane possibly crossing our path.

The storm came and went while we made friends at places like the Swizzle Inn listening to Bil Krauss’s talents, and enjoying Dark and Stormy’s at The White Horse. This was the last time we would see land for the next thirteen and a half days. Next stop, Azore Islands.

Horta

Cold drinks, Whalebones, and more Friends

Horta, Faial, is a port city on the western part of the Archipelago of the Azores, and a rite of passage of sailors making a West to East trans-Atlantic crossing. The first mission was to find a historic pub named Peter’s. The pub was serendipitous with burgees lining the walls and ceiling, live music wafting out the front door, and beer flowing to yachtmen from around the world. We smiled, laughed, made more friends, took turns buying rounds of drinks, but most importantly knew the accomplishment that we achieved. 

Sadly it was time for a crew change with my close friend Dave flying back to the states for business. Dave is a sailors’ sailor; he is a racer. One who is always watching the wind and tweaking the sails to squeak out another fraction of a kt. I learn from Dave every time I sail with him.

“Uncle” Rick, Owner Tony, and I welcomed the new Brit on board for the final reach to Lagos, Portugal.

Land Ho!

Mainland Europe, Dryland

We arrived in Lagos during daylight hours and tied up to a dock at a marina downtown. That night Portugal won the World Cup. Horns blasted through the city after the win. I joined in the festivities and helped the locals celebrate in a proper sailors manor. The next morning with a sizable hangover, I said my goodbyes to the crew and boarded a passenger bus heading to Lisbon. Sitting around me were travelers from different points of the compass. During the two hour trip, I listened to a guy behind me try over and over to start a flirty conversation with a girl across the aisle. During the last fifteen minutes, he asked her the question that still makes me smile, “What is your fondest memory of Spanish meatballs?’