Sunday, January 31, 2016

Coming Soon...
By Michael

Our good friends Shane and Tina
of Vagrant, in lovely, lovely Tonga.
The cruising life is akin to the pioneer life of 150 years ago. Folks then spent a great percentage of their waking hours just meeting basic needs: getting water from the creek or well, making repairs, obtaining and preparing food, schooling and parenting, and washing and repairing clothes. Windy and I don’t have jobs, but as cruisers we spend a heck of a lot more time meeting our family’s basic needs than we ever did in a conventional land-based life. Yet we still have it good because filling jerry jugs with water, maintaining Del Viento, provisioning, schooling our kids, and getting the laundry done doesn’t fill the time that our commutes and full-time jobs used to take.

Over the past five years we’ve been cruising, I’ve used this acquired time in my life to do what I love to do: write. I’ve written faithfully in this blog. I’ve written dozens of diverse stories for magazines (including one in Canada and one in the U.K.). I co-authored Voyaging With Kids with Behan and Sara and then Lin Pardey swept it up and took it under her wing.

And this past year, I’ve given much of my attention to a new book I’m especially excited about. It will hit shelves next month. It’s already received enthusiastic pre-publication reviews from magazine editors and successful magazine writers. I’m going over the printing proof right now and I’m very excited to announce the book…in just a couple blog posts from now.

Stay tuned.

Frances on a Tongan beach, writing clues to a scavenger
hunt she made for her sister.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Video: The Swing
By Michael

When Behan, Sara, and I wrote the Voyaging With Kids book, we decided from the onset that we would not shy away from presenting differing points of view. Not only would this approach be more valuable to readers, it would save us from reaching consensus on every point. The safety chapter is where I thought we’d discover the most differences between our points of view. After all, safety is kind of at the heart everything, everyone’s biggest pre-cruising concern, something that concerns the lives of your kids. I was wrong; we were all pretty in-sync. The only real differences we had weren’t really differences of opinion, but differences of approach simply because of the differing ages of our kids.

I’m thinking about all of this because of the video I’m sharing below and a couple articles I read recently.

So the video is a fun one from this past August: our family on deck, under sail just off the coast of Moorea, Eleanor helping Frances swing from the bosun’s chair.

Note the girls aren’t wearing life vests. Is this a safety concern? Not in our book (get it?). Windy and I are strong advocates for life jacket use. We are strong advocates for harness use. All four of us own at least one of each. We all use one or both, but not 24/7, not even all the time that we’re underway and out of the cockpit. Situations and conditions vary. Our rules are firm, but apply situationally.

On this day the water and air were warm. The water was flat and the wind was light. The motor was off and we were under headsail only. The girls are strong and comfortable in the water. They had a blast.

Related is a pair of articles that I recently read on the Huffington Post. Writer Janis Couvreux was a cruising mom aboard Cowabunga. She wrote this article first, about a 30-day crossing of the Atlantic with her family. It's great. It features photos of her very young kids on deck without life vests. She got a lot of critical comments. So she followed up with an assertive article: “No, My Kids Didn’t Wear Life Jackets for 10 Years at Sea.” I don’t agree with Couvreux’s arguments in this second article—and if I remembered any of my philosophy classes, I could identify by name the fallacies—but it’s a perspective on the topic.

I know a lot of planning-to-go-cruising families read this blog. What do you think? Leave a comment or send me an email.


Saturday, January 23, 2016

Feeling Swell
By Michael

Windy atop the cliffs pointing at a large sea turtle
(I circled him in red). We see these guys often
from the boat, but this might be the first time
from land.
For a long time, I’ve realized that it can take at least a few days for me to assess the personal impact of experiences. I might tell you I liked a book after I put it down, but if a few days pass and I’m still thinking of it, I’ll then realize it meant a lot more to me than I knew. Such as it was when the swell hit Tonga.

We had the forecast: 10 meter swells generated somewhere far away were set to pound for days the eastern shores of Vava’u. They came with high winds and unsettled weather. We debated going out to see the surf. But it would have been a rough trip and we had a lot to do before leaving Del Viento for our time in California.

Nonetheless, moving from a Pangai anchorage back to Neiafu, we motored around Kapa island and saw the effects of the monster swell. About five miles away, we watched white plumes of spray rise from behind Luatafito, a small fringing island. Each appeared to rise in slow motion because of the distance and the scale. At its peak, each plume would freeze for a second, a massive white backdrop, Luatafito just a dark outline at its base, before slowly dissipating.

For perspective, that's Michael atop the cliff
across from us. I circled him in red too.
A few days later, we spent a few days with the Wondertime crew on Fetoko. Michael described to us watching the same spectacle from the eastern side of Fetoko, the swells crashing on the windward side of two-mile-distant Kenutu, sending up plumes of white like we saw. Given the height of Kenutu, Michael estimated the spray plumes reached about 200 feet. Even then, days later, there was still swell action, plumes rising and framing the island.

“Should we motor over there, check it out?”

We didn’t. The resort’s restaurant on the west side of the island was a sheltered playground where the kids were enjoying themselves. There was lunch and then dinner to make. We were on island time.

A couple weeks later, just days before we flew out of Tonga, we did go over to Kenutu with the Wondertime crew. It was a perfect early-summer day. We chatted, watched the kids play, and drank beer on the sandy western shore. Then we hiked up and over the small island to the other side, the rugged shoreline where the Pacific Ocean, unimpeded for thousands of miles, hits hard. The big swells were gone, but the normal swells and waves surged and crashed at the base of sharp rock cliffs.

Windy and the Del Viento and Wondertime
girls heeding the Siren calls of the tidepools.
Atop, where we stood, 75 feet above sea level was evidence of lots of water damage. The cliffs where we stood form a bowl that probably exacerbated the swell action—a convergence zone, a washing machine—and on the cliffs high above the center, a large scar revealed where earth and vegetation had simply been washed over. What must it have been like to be there when the big swells were pounding? Had we gone, I don’t think we’d have been able to get very close, but I loved standing where I was then and imagining the forces that sent spray from sea water, so far below me, up to where I was and 125 feet above me.

I wish we had rallied when the swells were up. Days and weeks have passed and I’m still thinking about what that would have been like.

Sara, Michael, and Windy (from left) finding shade at the top
of the Kenutu beach...

...and watching the kids dig on the same beach.

Windy and Eleanor.

Hard to tell from this picture, but this structure is perched right on the
cliff edge. The kids are all sitting on the bench up there, discussing
who-knows-what. Fortunately, the structure held.

This is part of the area that was apparently washed away, trees and all.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Cave Day
By Michael

Eleanor looking back towards the
entrance to Swallow's Cave.
[NOTE: For those who missed the update at the top of the previous blog post, Del Viento survived cyclone Ula unscathed. We were very relieved to hear this from friends in Neiafu. Now, from California, some more highlights from our time in Tonga.]

The rocky cliffs of many Vava’u island shorelines are comprised of limestone and elevated coral reef rock. In some places, the rock is split or worn to create fantastic caves and caverns. The largest and most well-known of these is Swallows Cave.

It’s large enough that we could dinghy straight in. That’s what we did. With our friends aboard Vagrant, with the former crew of Wondertime, and with at least one venomous, air-breathing sea krait (a sea snake common throughout Tonga, they avoid humans). There was no place to anchor outside the cave, so at least one adult hung out at Del Viento’s helm, waiting for a turn to explore.

When it was my turn, I went with Eleanor. Once inside, after the novelty of the echoed shouts died off, after we’d surveyed the graffiti on the walls left by sailors from centuries past, Eleanor got ambitious and scrambled up some rocks towards what looked like a large, dimly-lit extension of the cave. She convinced me to go with her. I secured the dinghy, she leapt off, and I followed, barefoot. At the waterline, the rock surface was sharp and I wasn’t sure I could go on. But just beyond, my feet found the softest, most foot-pleasing walking surface imaginable: hundreds of years’ of bat guano deposits. It felt like walking on a bed of something that is cross between thick, spongy moss and cotton candy. It covered the walls I used for balance. Don’t touch your face, don’t touch your face. I said to myself.

“Eleanor, don’t touch your face, your hands are really dirty.”

“Okay,” she called back. “Dad! This is soooo cool.”


“You’ll see.”

Then I saw. It looked like I’d stumbled on the set of an Indiana Jones movie. The bone props were scattered about. The obligatory shaft of light shown down through the ceiling. Bats flew chaotically, their squeaks echoed around us.

Windy circling Del Viento outside
Swallow's Cave.
“Stand in the middle of the light, like you’re a goddess.”

After about 40 minutes, our turn in the cave was up. I rowed back to Del Viento. Sara and Leah from Wondertime followed.

Because it was cave day, the 10 of us aboard Del Viento headed for Nuapapu Island for another, very different cave adventure.

When we arrived at Mariner’s Cave, there was nothing to indicate we’d arrived. The rock and scrub brush cliffs here looked just like the rock and scrub brush cliffs that stretched for miles. Mariner’s Cave is special in part because it’s hidden. The only entrance to the cave is underwater and there is no evidence of it visible from above water or on land. But GPS waypoints are published in guides and handed down from cruiser to cruiser. We were there.

The cave is named after William Mariner, a writer who lived in Tonga for four years beginning in 1806. Mariner wrote a popular story about this cave. Apparently, a young noble once hid his lover in this cave, fearing that if he didn’t hide her, the king would kill her. Day after day, the young noble would bring his secreted girlfriend water and food to keep her alive. Ultimately, he built a craft and sailed her to safety in Fiji.

I would not want to spend much time in Mariner’s Cave.

I swam down first, trusting that the pitch dark hole in the rock, about seven feet underwater, was an entrance to a passage that would ultimately bring me to a cave in which I could breath. It was. And it was an experience I wanted to share. I swam back out to get the girls.

They’d been practicing for this. They were eager to do this. They knew some adults were uncomfortable entering Mariner’s Cave and I think they both wanted to test their mettle. A month earlier, Windy had worked an exercise into their school curriculum that would prepare them.

“If you guys can swim from the surface on one side of Del Viento, underwater and under the keel, to the surface on the other side of Del Viento, you’re good to go.”

Now treading water above the entrance to Mariner’s Cave, I asked Frances if she was ready.


“Follow me.”

Eleanor standing in bat guano
among the bones.
I dove down and then rolled on my back so I could watch her, swimming behind me. Soon I was in the hole, kicking my fins and moving past the sharp coral reef rock about 8 inches above my face. Frances was still behind me. Then we weren’t moving. I was still kicking and I could still feel water moving over my body, but I was stationary, fighting an outflowing current. When you’re holding your breath, and you still have a ways to go to your air source, and your progress towards that source is thwarted, it’s not comfortable. Frances kept kicking. I hoped she wasn’t aware that she wasn’t going anywhere. Then the outflow slowed to a stop. We started to move. Then we moved faster, caught up in an inflow current. The rocks sloped up. I swam upward and broke the surface. Frances popped up next to me.

“You did it!”

She laughed, “Yeah. Why is it foggy?”


The thick fog inside the dark cave disappeared. Twenty seconds later, it reappeared.

“Dad, my ears are popping!”

“Yeah, this cave is sealed. As the surge comes in, the water level inside here rises, raising the air pressure—that’s what’s making the fog come and go.”

Down below us, the underwater entrance that had appeared pitch black from the outside now glowed like blue neon.

“Ready to go get Eleanor?”


Frances following me in to Mariner's Cave. (courtesy Michael Johnson)
Some very old graffiti deep in Swallow's Cave.

Sara and Leah kayaking out of Swallow's Cave.

A gaggle of girls on the bow as Del Viento passes through
a cut on the way to Mariner's Cave.

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