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  • Writer's pictureKate

The Journey Home


Long journey home. Photo credit: Kate Ashe-Leonard

We’d always planned to get home at some point during the twelve months we would spend here in French Polynesia. Trying to get the perfect timing, taking in account hurricane season, our boat insurance requirements and deciding on the safest, most affordable way to leave the boat and then choosing the route home ended up taking longer than we wanted it to. We were in Tikehau atoll in the Tuamotus, and it was early March. If we could wait one more month until cycle season was almost over our insurance company would cover us to leave the boat in Tahiti and so that became the plan. The only alternative as we saw it was to haul out at the yard in Apataki atoll (outside the cyclone exclusion zone), but we weren’t prepared or ready to haul out. This option would also mean we would have to take a speed boat from Apataki to Arutrua atoll where the airport there has frequent flights to Tahiti and continue the journey from there. Expensive, complicated, and tiring.

The interior: Lagoon of Tikehau atoll. Photo credit: Kate Ashe-Leonard

On Monday the 6th of March our plans were catalysed when we received the very sad news that Jim’s father Peter had passed away quite suddenly. We tried to absorb this great loss, but it felt abstract and impossible to digest in a place so empty and devoid of home comforts when all we wanted was to be surrounded by family. We walked along one of the motus in front of where we were anchored until we reached the outer edge of the atoll. We watched the waves of the Pacific Ocean crash on the jagged coral. I found a rusted metal cigarette container with Chinese writing, maybe it was from a Chinese fishing vessel. A reminder we were in the middle of the Pacific, half a world away from home.

A sad and grey day. Walking the outside of Tikehau atoll looking at the Pacific waves crashing. Photo credit: Kate Ashe-Leonard

The sky was moody that day and filled with shades of grey and later yellow, blue, purple and green. I imagined that maybe Peter could see us here finally from some special vantage point reserved for those who are no longer in this world. We continued until we reached the next inlet where the water gushed in and out of the atoll’s interior lagoon. We took our time as we walked in the warm shallows, spotting tiny black tip sharks just starting their lives. Back inside the lagoon it was serene and beautiful, nobody at all, but us. The beach stretched ahead for a mile or so and we kept going in complete silence.

A time for reflection. Photo credit: Kate Ashe-Leonard

We were anchored in the northwest corner of Tikehau, an area not usually explored by sailboats, but we had been there to wait out some north westerlies. On Wednesday morning we pulled up our anchor and removed the floats that we used to stop our chain from becoming entangled around coral and thankfully we had no issues. We made our way using our satellite images, eyeball navigation and went back the way we had come to wait inside the pass until early morning the next day when we would depart. That evening we watched the ever-changing light around sunset time in awe, and I thought about what it means for a life to be over -to see no more sunsets.

Sunrise inside the pass with one other boat. Photo credit: Kate Ashe-Leonard

Departure and on-passage conditions

At the break of dawn, the sky was ablaze with all the colours of the rainbow again. We upped anchor and navigated between coral bommies until we reached the pass. The conditions we found there were benign although it was not yet slack tide, and we could see some standing waves off our portside. We continued and got through easily. We raised our mainsail and unfurled our genoa. The passage would be a short overnight one and with everything going on, we were glad we weren’t even further away from Tahiti. A few hours later there was a very intense squall which blew through. In preparation, we had reefed down the genoa and mainsail. The squall passed but it had switched the wind direction 180 degrees and we found ourselves beating almost straight into it. We were also bashing into a very big swell which had been building for days as a result of some very unsettled weather further afield. The passage turned out to be one of our more unpleasant ones in a long while because of the conditions which made it difficult to sleep and cook but it was short, and we were relieved when we arrived.

Heading back to Tahiti. Photo credit: Kate Ashe-Leonard

Preparing to depart

Back in Tahiti we were on a different kind of mission this time and were running on adrenalin. The first thing we needed to do was to find a safe place to leave Polaris before booking our flights. We dinghied to Marina Taina to ask if they would rent us one of their mooring buoys short-term. Usually, they ask for a twelve-month agreement. Given our circumstances, they agreed, and it cost just 5% of what it would have cost to pay for a marina berth for the same amount of time. The next step was to arrange for a cruiser to mind our boat while on the mooring and he too agreed. He would check our lines, run our water-maker and engines, open and close windows periodically and provide a weekly update to us during the weeks we would be away. We dived on the mooring buoy to ensure it looked to be well maintained and were satisfied although we did purchase a new very large shackle from the local chandlery so that our lines would not be rubbing off the very abrasive surface of the existing shackle. We also communicated with our insurance company who committed to cover us in the cyclone belt (but not for a named storm) based on the careful arrangements we had made.


More practicalities

With these items sorted out we then moved Polaris from where she had been anchored over to her new mooring buoy. We wanted to spend a few nights onboard on the buoy so we could monitor how the set-up was working and make any adjustments before leaving. After a night we added chafe guards to the lines. We booked ourselves onto a flight which would depart a few days later. It would leave at 8:30 am from Papeete airport to Los Angeles, an eight-hour flight. We would have three hours forty minutes stop over there and then board the even longer twelve-hour flight to London Heathrow. The last days in Tahiti were a frenzied haze of getting ourselves ready to leave the boat. We got a lift in our friend’s dingy from Polaris to the dock at Marina Taina and then another lift from a different friend in his car from there to the airport. These favours made a world of difference in terms of helping us have a smooth trip home and made us feel very supported by the cruising community here.


Acclimatising

Getting all the way back to the UK by plane in less than 24 hours is a strange thing to get your head around when you’ve spent the best part of the last four years travelling by boat, doing an average of 7 knots which is not very fast when compared to a slow travelling car. We landed and were met by a pre-booked taxi to take us back to Rye which is where Jim’s father had been living. The air was cold and wearing socks, shoes, long trousers and jumpers for the first time in 18 months felt peculiar. When we finally got in the door of our rented accommodation, we realised we hadn’t really stopped moving and organising since the day we got the news. As we collapsed into bed sleep happened quickly but was short-lived and we were soon feeling very jet lagged.


Rye

The next days were spent with family over meals catching up and making arrangements and preparations for the funeral. The funeral itself was more a celebration of life because Peter’s was a very happy one and he had 87 good years. The experience of being amongst family face to face was a great comfort and we were able to feel much more useful than from such a distance. We met lots of good family friends who fondly shared their memories of Peter and told us how proud he was of what we were doing. We looked at old photographs from throughout Peter’s life and I got a better appreciation of the many ways in which he has influenced Jim’s choices both directly and indirectly. Their appetite for adventure, both sailors and skiers, was a shared one.

Jim's stepmother Crick, Jim, Jim's father Peter and Jim's brother Adam photo taken a few years ago. Photo credit: Jim Hooper

Rye, where Peter and Jim’s stepmother had moved to three years ago, is a beautiful old English town with steep sloping cobbled streets set around a river estuary where three rivers meet. Once on the coast but over hundreds of years silted up and about two miles from the seaside today it bustles with people out enjoying themselves and has many little shops, restaurants, old English pubs of significant historical importance from the smuggling days and chic cafes. The views from across this town are stunning and I thought of happy times we had spent there visiting Jim’s dad.

Landgate at Rye. Photo credit: Kate Ashe-Leonard

Covid

After a while I started to feel very unwell, so I took an antigen test and discovered that I had covid. This was terrible news because I knew I wouldn’t be seeing anyone until I was no longer contagious. I felt dreadful. It was the worst version of the flu that I have ever experienced. Since the pandemic started, we have been fortunate enough not to catch it. We have always taken the opportunity to receive vaccines, but it seemed it was my turn. Then things got worse because Jim also tested positive the next day. Soon we were self-isolating in Rye just around the corner from family but unable to see them. After six days we decided to get ourselves over to Dublin where we had been offered almost free accommodation until we were feeling completely better. When we were, we would return to Rye before finally heading back to Polaris. Jim would do that earlier so that he could continue to support his family there.


Dublin

The view of Dublin from the air is usually of either a very lush green island or of thick clouds accompanied by turbulence. My view was the latter however once we broke through the persistent dreariness, Dublin was there waiting for me as if I had never been away. We took a taxi through town, and I was struck by all the ways the city had not really changed. When we recovered from covid we went out for dinner with family. My brother came over from London and we had two special evenings together. I was able to spend time with my stepsister and stepbrother and their families, and to see my nearly two-year-old niece again, much bigger than last time. We went to my stepfather’s gig that he plays regularly in Dublin’s oldest pub, The Brazen Head. We spent easter Sunday at my dad’s house catching up with him and my stepmother as well as my stepbrother and stepsister. Easter Monday was celebrated at my mum’s house with more family.

Dinner with my mum and stepdad Don.

The summarised version I had stored in my head of how everyone was, only represented the tiniest fraction of the truth, and standing with them -actually being there with them in the flesh was something that no amount of phone calls could ever replicate. I noticed too the uniquely friendly way that Irish people tend to communicate. I had this taken for granted growing up in Dublin; it is emotional and filled with sincerity, concern, joy and mischief, sometimes it’s downright harsh but it’s usually from the heart and there are a lot of lively discussions. I also heard the Irish accent I didn’t realise I was losing come back to me naturally. I felt truly myself again.


While in Dublin people kept asking me how we deal with the isolation of being on a boat in remote places. How do we overcome loneliness? But I didn’t seem to understand the question. I thought, how did I cope with living in a city? -more detached from nature and full of distractions and commercial temptations. Nowadays, if I feel lonely, I really feel it. I sit with it, and I deal with it. I might talk to Jim or a friend. I pick up the phone. I go for a swim or a paddle. I don’t run out and buy a coffee or go shopping as I might have done in the past. But maybe what they were really asking was -how do you deal with being so far away from us? That, I do not know. It is sometimes very, very difficult.


The last few days in Dublin

Jim returned to the UK, but I stayed on for five more days before joining him. During that time, I was able to spend more time with family which I badly needed. Before I left Dublin there were some important last moments towards the end: to see best friends and close long-time family friends, to spend a full day with my mum having lunch, a swim, a massage, dinner -just the two of us, to talk for some precious hours with my dad over a lovely lunch and to drink tea and walk with my aunt and her new puppy. I would miss all of this terribly. My people.


Leaving was something else. Every goodbye felt like a bruise on my heart, they all took my breath away, a solid lump formed in my throat making it hard not to cry. And every single time I thought to myself, what the hell am I doing? How can I? I felt both weak and ruthless at the same time. I felt guilty. But I believe in what we are doing. I know it makes me stronger and I know that all our important people are behind us and cheering us on. I left Dublin on a sunnier day than when I’d arrived feeling satisfied with the visit and ready to take on the next steps in the journey: back to the UK, back to Polaris in Tahiti and beyond in our adventure around the world.


Back in Rye

The pain of losing someone hurts in different ways at different times and back in Rye where I re-joined Jim, the place just felt so empty without his father there. Reminders of him everywhere. But there were things to be done and I am so glad I got some more chances to spend time with Jim’s brother, his mother and his stepmother. The day came then to fly back to Tahiti. Painful goodbyes were made more so by the loss that the whole family had just suffered and leaving felt unnatural. With our six bags, we got into our taxi to Heathrow Airport. Twenty-four hours later in the tropical heat and driving rain, we climbed into our friend’s dinghy, and he dropped us home to Polaris. Had we been in a time machine or a spaceship? Had all that happened really happened? Being back didn’t seem real.

Sunset in French Polynesia. Photo credit: Jim Hooper

While we slowly recalibrate ourselves, we also begin to turn our attention to boat jobs that need to be done and to the planning of the next leg of our adventure. It’s very strange not to have Jim’s father at the other end of the phone to share those plans with. The more time that passes the more things we will miss telling him about. From a sailing point of view, Peter’s enthusiasm, inputs and support were significant, and he was a key member of our shore support team. On a personal note, his belief in me even as a complete novice and his encouragement helped give me confidence and I will always feel glad to have known him.

Jim's father Peter. Photo credit: Jim Hooper.

In loving memory of Peter.

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