In 2016, Lily Barlow completed a ten thousand nautical mile journey across the pacific in her sailboat. Six months after it came to an end, she looked back and reflected on the lessons she learnt sailing the Pacific.
# 1 The Pacific Ocean is really huge
I know most of us know that already, but there is something about travelling over fourteen thousand kilometres, at no faster a pace than a slow jog, that really puts it into perspective. Yep, you can probably run faster than I sail.
Our average cruising speed was around 7 knots or about 13kms per hour. Sure, a boat doesn’t stop to sleep, and (thankfully) sailing requires a lot less energy than a marathon, but it’s still a pretty slow exercise.
I can now fully appreciate the quote by Arthur Clarke:
“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth, when it is quite clearly Ocean.”
Over a third of our world is the Pacific. It took us just under a year to travel from the busy tourism of the Caribbean, through the Panama Canal, and across the turquoise waters of the Pacific, into Sydney’s bustling harbour.
# 2 There are less and less fish in the Ocean
It’s no surprise to organisations like the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, who say around 85% of global fish stocks are over exploited or depleted, but to a little sailor like me, it was a shocking first-hand experience.
I crossed the Pacific for the first time in 2013. I bought a cute 30ft fixer-upper in Los Angeles and made her my home for a year as I navigated her back to Brisbane. Back then, whenever the fishing line went over the side, it meant dinner. I caught Mahi Mahi and Tuna on a regular basis, and often had to give away (or give back) what I didn’t eat since there was no fridge onboard.
Fast forward to 2016 and I was back in similar waters, sailing from Panama to Sydney. Every day we would dutifully put out the fishing line, hoping to supplement our dwindling stock of fresh foods. Every day we were disappointed. Eventually, we stopped trying. We spoke with other sailors and local islanders alike, and everyone agreed — fish are getting scarce.
# 3 Whales, Whale Sharks and Dolphins are really cool
Despite not finding fish for food, we did make lots of fishy friends. Becalmed just off the coast of Tahiti, a Whale Shark came to visit — the largest fish found in our oceans. It circled around and around the boat for over an hour. The mirror smooth surface and crystal clear waters that day made for a truly spectacular sight. We later learnt from locals that whale sharks are rarely spotted in the area.
In Niue, a humpback mama-whale and babe swam 20ft from our home while we were tied to a mooring. There’s nothing quite like a spontaneous morning snorkel off the boat to swim with these huge, majestic creatures.
In the Galapagos we saw incredible variety on just one island (Isabella), and despite a local National Park ranger mourning the severe decline of diversity she’s witnessed in her life, one can still find turtles, penguins, manta rays, sharks and sea horse living together under the sea. Dolphins playing in the wave we generated at the bow of the boat became a common welcome as we approached an island, and yet never lost its magic. Their light and silly frolicking always buoyed our spirits. Figures show that in most places, the seas have lost upwards of 75% of their megafauna (whales, dolphins, sharks, rays and turtles) but on our sail across the Pacific, we were lucky to witness the beauty of them all.
# 4 Anyone can do it
When I bought my little 30ft sailing boat in a rotting marina in Los Angeles (for $12,000) I thought I knew a lot more than I did. I had sailed on other people’s boats for a few trips and had read a lot of books. The truth is simple though: until it’s your own, you won’t get it. I soon realised that knowing how to sail is actually way down the list of priorities.
First, you have to become an electrician, a plumber, a diesel mechanic, a rigger and a sailmaker. And you better know how to use epoxy to glue stuff. The good news is you can learn that from a book. As long as you have the passion and the interest, you can fix anything on a boat yourself.
Keeping it simple helps a lot, and the motto ‘go small, go now’ is spot on. I didn’t have a shower, a fridge, or a water-maker, which meant less stuff to fix when it broke (and it will break).
Everything else you need to know will come with the miles. The inevitable tricky situations will send your stress levels sky-high, but a boat in port doesn’t make a skilled sailor. Take (calculated) risks, be prepared to get your hands dirty, and get out there! The ocean is calling.
# 5 Sailing is the best way to travel
I’m a pretty impatient person. I like things to move fast, and constant new stimuli suits me just fine. So adopting slow travel as a way to see the world didn’t make sense to me at first. Couldn’t I see and do more, if I flew, or caught a train, or hired a car? I guess we’re talking quality over quantity.
Sailing into the remote islands of the Marquesas in French Polynesia, having spent 19 continuous days at sea, tops any travel experience I’ve had so far. Aside from a handful of other boats in the bay, we were alone. No cruise ships, no tourists, no buses, no coke signs. Just 500 or so Polynesian people, enjoying the majestic mountains and endless waterfalls. It was something out of Jurassic park.
There are places like this dotted throughout this huge ocean expanse, and often the only way to get there is by sailing boat. The wild, spontaneous adventures we all crave in our wanderlust, can be found out there every day. A skinny river we dared explore led us to a hot-spring oasis, an encircling reef we risked our way into opened to a turquoise lagoon lake, a live volcano we anchored off gave us the night’s incredible light show. These pockets of the world take a while to get to, but they won’t disappoint.
*One nautical mile is 1.852km. Its unit of speed is the “knot”, which is one nautical mile per hour.
Heed the call of the ocean