Friday, May 13, 2011

The Land, She Moves

The dinghy dock did not look promising. Tidal surge and wave action made the concrete extension a moving target. We approached very slowly, arms out to fend off the dinghy. The last thing we wanted to do after getting the dink all the way from Mexico to the Marquesas was to pop the thing on our first landing. Jaime went ashore first. With the mass and the strength to handle the painter, she could hold us steady against the waves while the rest of the family scrambled ashore.

I stumbled up the rock stairs towards our French Polynesian contact. It looked flat, but my feet kept tripping over non-existent bumps and rocks. With some difficulty I made it to the side of her jeep and braced my feet apart against the inexplicable movement of the island. I smiled at the agent wanly.

"Bonjour!" Sandy greeted us cheerfully.

Weakly I replied, "Uh... Bonjour." I looked around, my head started spinning, "I need to sit down."

Sandy laughed merrily as I thunked down in place. Apparently, her customers do this routinely. Thankfully, closer to the ground and seated, the island was considerably less active. I stared at the boats bobbing reassuringly in the harbor. Everything slowly stabilized. I took deep breaths of the very green, very wet air detecting jasmine and gardenia on the wind. When we were all gathered, DrC gave me a hand up and folded me into the van. The nausea was under control, just barely, as Sandy set off screaming around hair pin turns on a wild ride into town and the local gendarmerie.

It took nearly three hours for my stomach to completely settle. I'm afraid as a result, my first visit into Atuano was a bit of a bust. At least I fared better than David of s/v Imagine who apparently lost his breakfast more than once on his first trip ashore. It's called "land sickness", and it is surprisingly common. Sailors who have been out to sea for long periods of time, particularly on smaller vessels with considerable wave movement, find that their bodies have completely acclimated to the movement. Like a parent who is able to tune out entire categories of voices and sounds but who can detect the sound of breaking glass from anywhere in the house even through closed doors, high volume stereos and video games, the sailor brain tunes out all movement of the boat that indicates typical, safe operation. Now if the boat were to slew sideways, beam on to a wave, surf unexpectedly, or suddenly jerk in a way indicating a loss of rudder control, or wind shift, the sailor is instantly aware of the change in movement. Otherwise, crew happily read, watch TV, cook, and sleep while in constant, irregular motion.

But the downside to this human tendency to tune out anything that isn't important means that sailor brains are trained to automatically "level" the world in amazingly bouncy conditions. Remove the bounce, the brain takes awhile to stop leveling. And so, the land, she moves. Seriously, I would swear the entire island was bobbing up and down and sideways. On our first day, I returned to Don Quixote with relief. The anchorage was very crowded. We were anchored in a less than ideal position on the edge where swell rolled behind the breakwater and caused us to bob and weave on our double anchor. Good! It felt great! I think if Don Quixote had been settled into a crystal clear, calm anchorage with no movement, I would have spent the evening hugging the head. Not a great welcome to land, I say.

Now, some cruisers who are prone to land sickness actually prepare for this condition in advance. Yes, the day before making landfall, they begin to take anti-nausea drugs such as meclizine. Obviously, we did not take such a precaution. I will, however, seriously consider doing so after our next long passage. It's not polite to throw up on the customs officials.

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