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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

French Polynesia: Sailing to French Polynesia

A distant island in the ocean
Our first view of land after a month on the sea; incredibly, we could smell the Gambiers before we could see them

The journey to the Gambier Islands was as near to a living hell as I have ever been. I had never been sailing on the open ocean before, and I discovered early on that there was a reason for that. I hated it.

No Peace, No Quiet

The first week of the trip was probably the worst week of my entire life: the seasickness was pretty severe, though totally normal according to the captain, who managed to keep his colour only because of the time he'd already spent over the years hurling his guts up over the side. As I ran for the side again I couldn't help picturing that split second when the last glass of port suddenly makes itself known, awkwardly sitting on top of too much Stilton and cheddar biscuits, and the world switches from a rosy glow to a shaky sweat. The toilet beckons, there's no escape, but once the dinner's been dispatched, it's back to the party as a great feeling of relief sweeps over you...

The Ship's Watch

The other main aspect of sailing that your average crewmember gets to know and love is being on watch. You might think that the chance of boats colliding in the middle of the ocean is minimal – and you'd be right, as the chances are ridiculously small – but it is possible that you might hit another boat and die, so keeping a good watch for 24 hours of every day of every week is essential, until you're safely anchored. It's simply not worth risking death for want of checking the sea every so often.


I also developed more cravings than a pregnant mother. I had passionate feelings for pizza, a craving such as I had never experienced before. Visions of pepperoni, ham and mushroom on a thick crust brought back memories of Pizza Huts and the exquisite pizzas in Spain, where they crack an egg in the middle just before taking it out, so the yolk goes everywhere and is still runny when they serve it. I simply adore pizza, and the fact that I couldn't get any on board Zeke made the longing even keener.

Low Point

On the fourth day Laurent and I had a full-blooded but extremely short argument about nothing at all, and I swear if I had had a gun I would have blown his head off. We made up two minutes later, but as I sat outside afterwards, sitting in the unpleasant afterglow of altercation, I broke down and cried. All I craved was peace: peace from the constant rolling of the boat, peace from the continuing sickness, peace from the mundane rigours of conversation. I just wanted to be alone, and paradoxically it was the feeling of being totally alone that brought tears. They were brief, but signalled a low point from which I hoped things could only get better.

Fresh Tuna

On 28th April we caught a tuna. I'd never seen a whole tuna before, and they are the most gorgeous fish you've ever seen, with shiny silver flanks and yellow-green tints that make supermarket tins look positively dull. They're big too: the one we caught was about four feet from tip to tail, and it tasted delicious, keeping us in fish for about three days. The fishing method? Drag a long line behind the boat, fitted with a big metal hook, shaped vaguely like a fish: this twists and turns like a little fish, luring the bigger fish to take an early lunch and become a late dinner (the system, not surprisingly, is called a lure).


It was on board Zeke that I discovered the delights of ocean phosphorescence. There I was, pissing off the back of the boat, and thinking how beautifully the stars were reflected in the wake. And then I realised that it was cloudy, and that's when I remembered about phosphorescence. There's a certain type of plankton that lives throughout the oceans of the world, and when it gets excited, such as by the passage of a yacht, it lights up like a glow worm, so the boat leaves a trail of little lights behind it at night. Most eerie, I can tell you.

The Death of Doris

Perhaps the most annoying mishap on the trip was the death of Doris. Doris, the wind vane, steered the boat automatically, using the wind as a guide and as a power source, but on the fourth day of the trip an especially heavy swell ripped off Doris's bottom part, breaking the stainless steel joint, totally removing the wooden rudder part of the vane, and rendering the whole thing useless.

Company... of a Sort

We saw one ship once we'd pulled out of New Zealand waters. Yes, one ship during the whole bloody trip. And there we were, scanning the horizon every 20 minutes, looking for potential collisions for 28 days and finding just one, one that was nowhere near hitting us anyway. Perhaps that's why finally arriving in a place with human activity and other boats was such a momentous feeling.

The End in Sight

Relief arrived on ... or, to be more accurate , because we'd done a Phileas Fogg and crossed the dateline, meaning we turned up to find ourselves a day ahead of ourselves, if you see what I mean. The final approach to the Gambier Islands was frustrated by three days of almost no wind, but finally on the last morning we saw land. The relief was like nothing I have experienced before: all the grief and stress of the last four weeks seemed to evaporate as the sun silhouetted the islands against the sky.