Bobbing at the far end of Avatiu wharf was Danika, from Sitka Alaska, a 15.4 metre cutter carrying 755 litres of fuel and 755 litres of water. It also sported 665 watts of solar panels and a D-400 wind generator – making the vessel all set for coping with the Pacific’s unpredictable weather.
The ocean-hardened boat and its equally toughened owner John Larsen, a 71-year-old career sailor from Alaska, are on the cruise of a lifetime.
Larsen was a ship’s pilot in the US for 30 years and a captain on ferries for a further 23 years. In his spare time up until his retirement he enjoyed sailing Danika up and down the east coast of Alaska and Canada, down to Seattle.
After almost selling his yacht, he “changed course” and decided to head down to the south to the Pacific for the first time on one final voyage, all the way down to New Zealand.
“I almost sold the boat but then decided to take it south for one last big trip.”.
He first spent two years in San Diego prepping the boat and equipping it for South Pacific conditions.
That was the start of an intrepid voyage for the retiree who has ended up crossing paths with other adventurers from around the world.
Larsen explained that sailing season is now in full swing as skippers of all skill levels and backgrounds from around the world take advantage of 15 – 20 knot “trade winds”.
Boats sailing from the west coast of the US, Mexico, or Panama head east across the Pacific to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, in what is otherwise known as the “puddle trip”. The crossing involves around 40 days of solid open ocean sailing.
Boats then usually continue on down towards Papeete and on to Rarotonga, before heading east again to Niue, Tonga, or Fiji, then New Zealand.
On his voyage south Larsen picked up crew along the way to help with setting sails and lookout duties.
“As well as getting him sandwiches”, jokes Oceana Phoenix, 23, from Canada. She joined Larsen’s boat as crew in Heva Oa, Marquesas Islands.
“We had got booted off the last boat there, and were camped out for a couple of days until we were taken in by the community. I joined the local band, and stayed with a teacher there for a month. I had such an amazing time there, made lots of friends” said Phoenix.
She has been travelling since leaving high-school four years ago. After visiting Peru, she headed north seeking passage as crew in Panama, with the goal of reaching New Zealand this summer.
Though she has never sailed before she’s now well skilled in setting sails and taking on extra lookout as well as sandwich-making duties.
The other crew member, picked up at Bora Bora in French Polynesia, was Mohena Bergier, 29, from Toulouse France. She’s escaping the New Zealand winter while on her working visa as a horse trek guide and waitress.
Apart from getting away from the cold of Alaska, Larsen said the social aspect of the cruising community was a big highlight for him.
“We play music a lot, we meet up with other people that play. We had 15 people on board the other night, people taking turns leading the songs. Oceana plays drums, I play guitar. It’s very social.”
Phoenix excitedly recalls seeing a pod of dolphins following their boat in the early hours sailing into the Marquesas Islands, jumping in and out of bioluminescent water. “They were glowing.”
For Bergier, going to French Polynesia was a highlight – it was like going home.
While the yacht was in Papeete, Larsen’s wife and family flew out to visit him.
“I think we stayed almost too long in French Polynesia, stuffing ourselves with baguettes, beer and brie cheese. And then you think, ‘gosh, I’ve got to go back sailing and I’ve got to get back in shape’,” said Larsen.
For Phoenix, a highlight was the friendliness of the people wherever they went.
“There was fruit growing everywhere, it was hard to leave. We traded treats with locals. Until we got to the Society Islands we were living off canned food and frozen vegetables.
“There’s always a small desire to keep going, even though every place is so special, and you question why would you leave, but there is just this little urge to keep going.”
The only rough part of the journey so far has been sailing through what used to be known as the “doldrums”, now referred to somewhat less romantically as Intertropical Convergence Zone ICZ, said Larsen.
“From 10 degrees north to 10 degrees south, encompassing the equator, the winds are normally dead. So that’s when you have to time it right and look at the weather as you are going down.
“It’s my first time down here. And I have been reading up on it, talking to as many people as I can. There is a Pacific seafarers network, and every evening and morning at 8 o’clock we check in and give our position and talk about the weather and our circumstances.
“Everybody keeps in touch, with other boats travelling in the same direction”, he says acknowledging the other ocean-going yachts spread out in Avatiu harbour.
After reaching Rarotonga the trio were not in any particular rush to leave and were planning to be in New Zealand sometime in November.
From Avatiu they planned to set sail for Palmerston island, Niue, and then down to Tonga and possibly Fiji.
“We have a big purple spinnaker we call “Jimmy Hendrix” and the main sail - you put that out with the wind vane and set the auto pilot and it just takes it.
“And we just sit back and enjoy the ride”.