Boats take you places you never planned to go. Sometimes to once-in-a-lifetime places where you cross paths with once-in-a-lifetime people. That's how I came to meet the legendary Captain Nancy Griffith—a woman as bold as Amelia Earhart, but who survived her crossing and crashes in the Pacific.
We met in the Cook Islands, 1994, in a place I was never intending to go. on I was sailing double-handed, on my second long ocean voyage. The south Pacific trade winds refused to shift much south of east for our east bound sail from Australia to Hawaii. We made New Zealand in 19 days, 10 days hove-to. Now, two weeks into the second battering ram passage against the wind I woke up to a strangely quiet boat hearing a happy Captain and relieved guest. We were at the entrance to Aitutaki, Cook Islands. From the deck of the 32-foot boat, me and the other women discussed our options. According to the tossed lead line, the water was deep enough for our six foot draft right up to the reef, but what about that entry channel?
According to the charts, the entrance between coral heads was deep enough, but the water looked awfully light. For those of you who've heard my talks about cruising in the tropics, think 'darker is deeper'. The white coral sand was especially bright and the darkest water in the channel looked minty green. My gut said no. After more than an hour hurling the lead line and calling out depths, weighing risks, tacking back and forth on the leeward side of the atoll, the Captain came to her decision—too shallow.
Her husband’s notes in the log ship's log confirmed that the boat's last trip to this atoll almost ended in disaster. The captain at that time, the infamous Dr. David Lewis, had risked the entry, hitting bottom and several coral heads hard. It's never good to bounce a ferrous cement boat, but if you know Dr. Lewis' previous adventures (Ice Bird, Icebound in Antarctica, We the Navigators, to name a few), you'll understand why that barely raised his eyebrow. The Captain of our journey, the current owner of the boat, his anthropological research colleague, co-captain and fourth wife was now taking the boat - "her turn" - back to windward. She wasn't as inclined to risk.
Since tides only vary six inches max in that part of the Pacific, time wasn't going to help us gain depth. We decided not to risk it and instead began a 100-mile course to Rarotonga. After sunset, the wind died. Hand starting the 10hp diesel Sabb (the kind built in Norway, not the Saab in Sweden), we chugged through an inky sea that was so calm the stars and night sky were impossibly blended with the ocean phosphorescence.
Arrival and tie-up at Rarotonga is not for the faint of heart. The harbor is tiny, has little protection from the trade winds and is full of moorings. We needed to drop an anchor between some of them - without wrapping the variable pitch propellor - and take a line to the shore. With more drama than I prefer, we did. Once settled, we went ashore for drinks and to find a place our crew member could stay. Her sea sickness on the passage had been debilitating. She had to get off the boat. We celebrated island style, with all night drinking and traditional island foods.
The next morning, a freighter that seemed too big for the harbor plowed in, rolling us out of our bunks with a bow wave, then expertly warped itself over to the concrete wharf. Most of the island was gathered in the marina to help as family, boxes, crates of chickens, pallets of building material and barrels of who knows what were hoisted by crane or rolled down the gang plank. Bronzed, muscular arms and legs maneuvered things on and off the boat and then, I noticed a woman with wild blonde hair step out of the pilot house. She'd blown the ship's horn and was now out giving someone on land directions.
It was Captain Nancy Griffith. Making our way to the ship, we waited until the crew was finished. When it seemed polite to ask, we asked one of the crew who looked official if we could speak to the Captain. Cook Islands are fluent in English and over decades of administrative links to New Zealand, speak English with a Kiwi accent in addition to their traditional Cook Island Maori.
Ten minutes later, Captain Nancy Griffith waved us aboard for coffee. For the next four hours, she told us her story, from three circumnavigations with husband Bob to the loss of her wooden trading schooner Edna to the purchase of this current ship, proudly operated by a Cook Island crew. Salty, strong and warm as the tropical sun she loved and lived in most of her life, Nancy was one of a handful of woman circumnavigators who could Captain a boat and the only woman I've ever met whose circled the globe three times. I'll never forget that day or that woman. She died in 2013 at age 79.
Should I be surprised that her & Bob's boat was called Awahnee, meaning Peace? Or that six months later, I'd go on from that meeting to start a circumnavigation and twelve years later buy a boat named Pax (peace)? Not anymore! It's a small, small world for women boaters. For all boaters, actually. The ocean brings and keeps us together.
To listen to some of Nancy Griffith's tales (which is what prompted me to start this blog post), check out this video. There are 5 videos, filmed in the kitchen of her cousin's house during a family reunion. Thanks to the Hirsch family for recording and sharing these videos! A treasure!