Setting out from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 2018, Jeff Bolster and his wife, Molly, hoped to circumnavigate on their Valiant 40. After port-calls in the Caribbean, Panama, Galapagos, French Polynesia, Cook Islands, and Tonga, they were in New Zealand waiting for South Pacific cyclone season to end when Covid-19 broke out, interrupting their voyage. Dealt lemons, they made lemonade, cruising New Zealand’s northern coast for 19 months, until leaving their boat and flying back to the U.S. Jeff and Molly will return to the boat in late 2022. Jeff’s thoughts on pulling off the voyage of a lifetime will appear in a few installments. This is the third.
As Molly and I saw it, our passage from New Hampshire to the eastern Caribbean just set the stage. We love those islands, as familiar and comfortable as an old pair of flip-flops. But we had sailed to them, and through them, frequently. So after a month in the Caribbean, we “began” our long voyage, psychologically at least, at Isles des Saintes off Guadeloupe. We hove up the anchor and bore away toward Panama, 1,400 miles downwind. Big step, that—our first leg due west in the trades. We set the mainsail and with the boat rolling deeply, poled out our genoa, wing-and-wing. Dolphins frolicked in the bow wave. This had been the dream, to sail into the setting sun, and as Chanticleer rose to each sea we allowed ourselves smiles of satisfaction. We were doing it.
At sea we maintained a scan pattern, never allowing ourselves to fixate on any one thing. Weather, navigation, traffic, sail trim, pumps, mechanical systems, crew well-being: each must be considered before there is a problem. Someone was always on watch. Our routine included an hourly bilge check and log entry. Except in bad weather, I walked the deck before dark each day looking for problems with the rig, or chafing sheets, or for surprises ranging from odiferous flying fish lodged in a Dorade box to the boom’s gooseneck getting loose. We could then relax because we were vigilant.
With Guadeloupe astern, we began what would become our routine for the next year: an offshore passage followed by island-hopping and local exploration, followed by another offshore passage. When not at sea or in a marina, we swam each morning before coffee, a luxury. After a nine-day passage, including the notoriously boisterous stretch north of Columbia, we spent a month in Panama, initially in the San Blas Islands, where Kuna Indians live on tiny islets, paddling dugout canoes to the mainland each day to tend gardens, cut firewood and fill water jugs. It’s a complicated place, semi-independent from Panama, vulnerable to sea-level rise, and as fascinating as it is sobering. The Kuna live in grass houses, often with solar panels for phones and lights. Their specialty are intricate molas—beautiful reverse-applique sewing crafted by women but sold by men. Surrounded by poverty, we hardly wanted to bargain over prices.
I replaced our old Edson steering cables in Panama and we hired a Raymarine technician to tweak our balky auto helm. Long-distance cruising means routinely fixing your boat in exotic locales. We weren’t the first boaters in Panama shaken down by customs officials, nor the first awed by wondrous birds, big crocodiles in the marina and the jungle’s proximity. From our bunk we could hear Howler Monkeys. Panama’s real marvel, however, is the Canal. Our traverse of the isthmus—
ascending three locks, then descending through three more— took a day. Then it stretched before us, the widest sea in the world. We took time to take a deep breath.
Our faith in the boat and in each other never wavered, making the prospect of a long voyage more exciting than daunting. After a little more than a week of fair wind and no doldrums (sailors’ curse), we crossed the equator at 0140 on April 4. Sea turtles galore surrounded us by mid-morning, a hint of the abundance once found in the ocean. We had never seen so many. As our anchor went down off San Cristobal that afternoon, we were a bit giddy. We were in the freaking Galapagos. There were high fives all around, before a celebratory glass of wine and a long sleep.
Some cruisers skip those enchanted islands, discouraged by regulations and steep fees. We would not have missed them, and spent a memorable month at five distinct islands. The interior of Santa Cruz is a Dr. Suess wonderland, with prehistoric-looking ferns and stunted trees covered in moss. Isabella’s lava-flows are a lunar landscape. This equator-straddling archipelago, through which the cold Humboldt Current flows, is otherworldly.
From the Galapagos to the Marquesas would be our longest passage, more than 3,000 miles to Hiva Oa, and not a speck of land between the two. It’s largely devoid of ships, boats and birds. So began three weeks of sunrise astern and sunset ahead. The trade winds never died. We reeled off the miles. Our days took on a rhythm that became familiar, but never repetitious. Moment to moment the weather dominated, and we marveled at the daily shows: cloud formations, stars, the moon and the sea itself, with its ever-changing wave patterns and shadows.
A New Hampshire friend posted later on Instagram that we were “insane.” Yup. A little insane. We lived primordially, often naked, somewhat unwashed, eating creatures that we caught and killed with our own hands. We were out of touch with other humans. We existed at the sufferance of the weather. Mundane tasks such as making coffee or washing dishes could be challenging because the boat was moving constantly, occasionally downright cranky. But compensations abounded—the night sky, the majesty of the sea and the deep satisfaction that came from pulling this off together.
Following 21 days at sea, we spent three months in French Polynesia, whose storied islands, including Tahiti and Bora Bora, span 1,600 miles, flyspecks in the Pacific’s vastness. There, and in the Cook Islands and the Kingdom of Tonga, the South Pacific’s culture and scenery worked its magic on us, more beguiling than we had imagined. Polynesian women’s flower-crowns and brilliant textiles reflected their joy for life. Outrigger-canoe races spoke to tradition. The heart-rending choral music during church services emphasized the centrality of faith and family in island life. White beaches set against green mountains, with the constant boom of surf on the reef, became our daily backdrop.
As cruisers we wanted the voyage as much as the destinations. Pulling it off meant wrestling with the whisker pole on the foredeck as the boat rolled, and a hundred other routine issues associated with offshore seamanship. Not always easy, those challenges made us appreciate aspects of being alive and working together that otherwise we never would have confronted.
Six days from Minerva Reef, with no threatening weather, we sailed into New Zealand’s spectacular Bay of Islands, 23 months and 14,000 miles from New Hampshire. Every inch of the way we gave thanks for a strong boat, good health, supportive family at home and the commitment that let us pull this off after 34 years of dreaming. We had planned to sail onward, but then Covid broke out to interrupt our voyage. Hopefully, there will be landfalls in our future. Nothing quite matches the thrill of a tropical island off the bow after a long passage.
This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue.