The Magic of Landfall

A circumnavigator remembers a signature early passage in the Pacific

So many of our words and expressions come from the world of ships and sailing: taken aback, by and large, hand over fist, a wide berth, a loose cannon, chock-a-block, and landfall.

Landfall, to a seafarer, is the moment he sights land. Not the moment he sets foot on land, but the instant – after months, weeks, or days with nothing but water on all sides – that the first solid speck appears on the horizon. It might be the summit of a 10,000-foot mountain, visible 100 miles away as something a little firmer than a cloud. A mariner who makes a mountainous landfall like this will watch the peak appear to grow taller out of the sea for another 24 hours’ sailing before he reaches it. Or landfall might be a light green line on the horizon, the promise of the feathery tops of palm trees on an atoll just barely above sea level. Such a green line could first be seen only about three to five miles away because of the low elevation of that land. Our sailor would have only an hour to watch the palm trees appear to grow taller and more distinct before he’s anchored next to them.

Since humankind first ventured out on the ocean, landfall has had a magical quality. For the first seafarers – everyone from the Polynesians to the Chinese to the ancients of the Mediterranean to the Europeans – landfall was especially magical, and an enormous relief, because they did not necessarily know when, where, or even if, they would find it. Even after the world was charted, navigation by the stars and sun was a skill on which mariners’ lives literally depended. It’s arguable that today’s navigation technology, while providing much more accuracy and therefore security, has taken the wonder out of landfall. And perhaps it has; it’s certainly made navigation more boring. It has also created a certain complacence that’s produced a new set of accidents and problems. But that’s a separate issue. To me at least, even with GPS, the magic of landfall remains.

The ocean, and sailing, have defined me since before I knew what that meant. As an eight-year-old, solo-sailing the tiny boat my parents had given me, I daydreamed about the big, wide open ocean beyond the bay that was my permitted sailing grounds. The vast Pacific, stretching all the way to Japan: what would it be like to sail out there, well beyond the land, and be all alone on the heaving blue swells, with nothing but wind, water, canvas, and wood?

Out on the Pacific
Fast forward 13 years, and there I was: out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a small, old sailboat. I wasn’t alone; by age 21, my eight-year-old self’s romantic vision of solitude had been replaced by a romantic vision of male companionship, and my boyfriend (now husband) Seth and I were sailing together. On the other hand, we were very much alone. We were alone together, just the two of us, 1,500 miles from the nearest land. For the prior two weeks, and for the two weeks still to come, we talked with no one other than each other. Although the year was 2007, we had no communications equipment other than a VHF radio that could broadcast only 25 miles. On the route we were sailing, it was very unlikely that another vessel would come within 25 miles of us during our whole month at sea. And finally, each of us was entirely alone for most of each day, standing watch while the other slept.

In order to get enough sleep, we had devised a watch rotation of six-hour and four-hour segments. I stood watch from midnight to 4 a.m., then slept while Seth stood watch from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. Then we’d have four hours together to talk, eat lunch, take saltwater bucket showers, do any repairs or chores, and trade stories of our night watches before Seth went to sleep for his six-hour rest between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. After a quick dinner together, I’d go below to sleep until beginning my watch at midnight.

And so it went, day after day after day for nearly a month –– each day defined by the rhythm of sunrise and sunset, each night defined by the phase of the moon. Every evening, I’d sit on the foredeck as the boat sailed herself downwind towards Polynesia, and I’d watch the sky and sea flare orange, crimson, and purple as the sun sank into the waves to leeward. Almost every night, the sun left a tiny but searing green light right at the horizon for a brief and brilliant instant. The night that followed was always cool and refreshing, sometimes too refreshing when a squall ripped across the black swells and kicked up wind, spray, and rain. But more often, the nights were quiet and spangled with phosphorescence in our wake and stars above crisper and more numerous than anything I’d seen ashore.

The days were blue and bright, the wind-ripples sparkling with sunlight and our bodies baking in the heat by midday. Several times a day, we’d duck below to the navigation table where our chart of the Eastern Pacific lay spread out, ready for the next pencil cross of our position on our watery planet. A small black-and-white early GPS unit mounted above the chart displayed our latitude and longitude; every few hours, one of us would take a protractor and pencil and make sense of those numbers by marking our exact spot on the chart. Every few hours, those crosses got gradually further from the Galapagos Islands and closer to the Polynesian archipelagos of the South Pacific.

Life becomes circular
Despite that visual evidence of our progress, landfall never felt like a tangible possibility until it actually happened. As most sailors know, there’s something eternal about being surrounded entirely by ocean. The horizon never changes: it is always the same line of blue sky meeting blue sea, or gray sky meeting gray sea, or occasionally, terrifyingly, white sky meeting white sea, the tops blowing off the waves in the kind of extreme weather one hopes to avoid. Life becomes circular as you repeat the same actions at the same times each day. Life at sea is thus, for me, the ultimate form of meditation, of living in the present moment, of living in cyclical time instead of linear time.

The moment land appears, the moment you make landfall, the circle breaks and time becomes linear once more. There is a destination, a mountain or island or coastline towards which you are sailing, by whose bulk and height you can gauge your progress very tangibly. Always, this is a bittersweet moment. The calm and centered quality I’ve achieved at sea is broken. Yet it is always a thrilling moment: all those pencil crosses really meant something; all those hours I spent adjusting the wheel to stay on course to an imaginary destination produced something; all the little puncture wounds I suffered stitching sun-rotted sails back together hundreds of miles offshore were worth it. My mind races ahead to all the things I’ll see and do ashore in this new land: what will Australia, or Fiji, or South Africa, or Alaska be like? What new interesting people will I meet, what new birds and plants and animals will I see? What new food will I try or fish will I catch? But then there’s an underlying, conflicting current of trepidation, too. Emails I’ll have to respond to after weeks of a blissful lack of connectivity; a bank balance lower than it was thanks to auto-paid bills, or, worse, a (virtual) pile of notices for unpaid, overdue bills. Fears, irrational or rational, over Customs and Immigration officials in a new country. The knowledge that land usually means hardware stores and marine parts and so, as soon as the passage ends and the anchor is down, that never-ending list of boat maintenance projects must begin again.

Landfall after this first ocean crossing, however, wasn’t like that. I didn’t have time for all those thoughts. We sighted the Marquesas Islands when we were practically on top of them, just after sunrise on a rainy, misty day. Darkness, and then the low, heavy clouds and sheets of fine rain had hidden Hiva Oa from us until we were within just a few miles of its sheer cliffs and green mountains. One moment we were at sea in a gray, misty, purely oceanic world, and the next, we were there, close to land for the first time in 27 days. Verdant peaks towered into the shifting clouds and the pungent smell of wet, tropical earth wafted over the waves. The air was suddenly warmer, coming off the land.

Strongest impression
This was the landfall that made the strongest impression on me among all the landfalls I’ve made over the 14 years I’ve spent sailing offshore. It is the one that has stayed with me. My heart sank and soared all at once. I’d crossed the Pacific Ocean. I’d sailed across the biggest ocean on Earth, on my own rudimentary cutter. I’d turned a dream into a reality. And I’d done it with my best friend, the person I’d fallen in love with. But now it was over. Those magical days of stolen time, of circular time, of life in the present, were gone. Land, with all its joys and sorrows, goals and failures, people and expectations, lay ahead. The challenges of the sea are, to me, more straightforward: the physical challenges of sailing the boat, dealing with all the elements Neptune can throw at you, the mental challenges of solitude and isolation on a very small boat on a very large ocean, and the requirements of complete self-reliance in what is perhaps our planet’s most wild wilderness, devoid of outside help.

Seth and I reached the anchorage, furled our sails, set the anchor, and the boat was suddenly still. Quiet and calm after a month of constant motion. In the sudden quiet came new sounds. The songs of land birds, the rustling of trees in the wind, the rattling of palm fronds, the lap of small waves on a sand-and-pebble beach. Laughter. Laughter from a human voice that was not my own and not Seth’s.

We launched our dinghy, which had been lashed down on deck for a month, and rowed into shore. As soon as I stepped out into the shallow water, I fell over, so unaccustomed was I to a stationary surface under my feet. We had only a mile to walk to the village where we’d clear Immigration at the police station, but that mile took us more than an hour. Once we’d gained our land legs again, we still couldn’t walk ten paces without marveling at the abundance of color, smells, and sights. Hibiscus blossoms, allamanda flowers, an immense banyan tree, a grove of bananas with stalks of ripe fruit hanging among the huge, green leaves. Myna birds, a ubiquitous small brown bird of the tropics, but so very different from the white and gray seabirds we’d grown used to. The red, fertile earth between our toes. Moss and rocks and mangoes. It was joyous and overwhelming.

Subsequent landfalls have been glorious too – the glaciated peaks of Alaska’s Aleutian Range, dusted golden pink in a sunrise alpenglow, Atlantic puffins fluttering around the bare boulders of Matinicus Rock in Maine, the rugged Diomede Islands, Russian and American, hunched side-by-side in the Bering Strait – but that first South Pacific landfall will always hold a special place in my memory, crystallizing as it does, so well, the magic a sailor feels upon sighting land. n

Contributing editor Ellen Massey Leonard is a circumnavigator, writer and photographer with more than 60,000 ocean miles. She and her husband Seth were the 2018 recipients of the Cruising Club of America’s Young Voyager Award.

Categories: Ocean Voyaging, Offshore Sailing