Expectation correction

For many American sailors a trip across the Pacific is something of a rite of passage, being their first lengthy offshore voyage. It’s significant in other ways as well, as it means they’ve finally escaped, leaving behind the stresses of careers, boat preparation, and hectic lifestyles. And what better place to do that than among the many islands of the Pacific that have entranced sailors for generations?

Yet from the discussions we’ve had with voyagers, a surprising number seem to come away from their Pacific sail feeling vaguely dissatisfied, as though the environment and culture on the islands they visited failed to live up to their expectations. Although typically more reticent, some Pacific Islanders have also spoken to us of disillusionment, but in their case, it’s with us, the cruising fleet that invades their islands for six months or more every year. What’s happening out there in paradise, and what can we do about it?

Images of paradise

Mental images can be powerful and play a major role in forming our expectations. Although he was by no means the first European to explore the Pacific, Capt. Cook’s experiences in Tahiti served to ignite the European imagination. Cook wrote of “a golden isle of blessed beautiful people, their wants supplied by a bountiful nature and mercifully ignorant of the burden of civilization.” Since then, Pacific Islanders have been portrayed in countless books, magazines, and movies as attractive bronze-skinned natives, their volcanic island home draped in lush tropical vegetation and ringed by sugary white beaches. The image is of carefree days, involving at most a few hours of fishing in a turquoise lagoon. In this vision, Oceania is the last vestige of paradise, a place where time has no meaning and where the trappings of the modern world are not found and do not belong.

These images are reinforced by the tourism industry. Travel is encouraged by photographs and posters showing colorful, “traditional” dress, architecture, and dances. Brochures feature handsome natives standing on sun-gilded beaches at sunset gazing out to sea, as if waiting for an incoming voyaging canoe; here is the noble savage, welcoming us to his world. The entire image is undeniably appealing, and for many it fuelsperhaps subconsciouslytheir decision to set sail.

Today’s reality

The reality is something different. Living standards in the Pacific vary enormously, from desperately low in poor nations such as Kiribati to the 4WDs and satellite dishes of French Polynesia and American Samoa. Traditional architecture is still found in some areas, but cement and corrugated metal are far more common, while Western dress is all but universal. Dances and ceremonies still take place, but it is the Christian church and the tourism industry that provide the focus.

None of this should come as a surprise: all Pacific islands have dynamic, evolving cultures that have undergone enormous change since the days of Captain Cook. We Westerners are largely responsible for instigating and influencing this change as most tropical islands and countries have been colonized or otherwise dominated by one or more Western countries during the last few hundred years.

Throughout the Pacific, islands were depopulated due to disease and slavery; islanders were converted to Christianity; a cash economy was introduced; and new laws and regulations were instituted. Traditional dress, beliefs, knowledge, practices, and languageall fundamental elements of a culturewere banned or discouraged in many societies, often by the missionaries that came to “save” the pagan souls.

Though most Pacific islands are today politically independent, cultural and economic domination by outside forces is still a reality. Between nuclear testing, mass tourism, commercial fisheries, and the mining of precious metals, larger nations have found many reasons to maintain an interest and a strong influence in the Pacific. When combined with the pervasive impact of Western (and particularly U.S.) media, there seems to be little room for any independent culture, even in the remote Pacific.

Persistent traditions

Yet despite the odds, different ways of living and thinking persist. We’ve met Solomons Islanders who are experts in the medicinal properties and uses of plants. Some can treat serious ailments such as Diabetes and malaria as well as commonplace skin infections. We’ve learned much from Micronesian fishermen and women whose understanding of the marine environment in which they live is enormous, to the point that they may know more about the habits of tropical marine organisms than a professional fisheries biologist. We’ve also marvelled at islanders’ skills in boatbuilding and sailing. We’ve met canoe builders in Papua New Guinea whose tools were simply modern steel versions of the traditional stone axe and adze, but with which they fashioned beautiful ocean-going proas 35 feet in length.

Without exception, the islanders we’ve encountered acquired their “traditional” skills the old-fashioned way: by word of mouth, often from a grandparent. All were religious, adherents to a Christian faith, who nonetheless found it important to build a fishing shrine, or carve a totem in the prow of their canoe to ensure safe passage over the waters. And each participated in the cash economy as well as practicing their traditional skills. The need for moneyto pay children’s school fees, to travel and to buy tools, food, and clothesis universal, and so when the opportunity arises, islanders make carvings, fashion jewelry, work for the nearby mission, or collect beche-de-mer for export.

In a way that few of us can truly appreciate, Pacific Islanders are straddling two cultures, working to maintain their traditions while also feeding, clothing, and educating their families. Their position is not an easy one, and it becomes increasingly difficult as population and resource pressures increase, and external, global culture penetrates ever farther.

Showing respect

Regrettably, we voyagers don’t always make it any easier for them. Consider a simple thing, such as how we dress when we visit. Westerners think nothing of skimpy bathing suits, and for many Europeans topless women and nudity are commonplace on the beach. This was once true in most parts of the Pacific as well, and Gauguin’s Tahitian maidens remain a powerful image. But today’s reality is different thanks in large part to the “success” of Christian missionaries. Many islanders consider it offensive if a woman walks through the village in a swimsuit or short shorts, thus exposing her thighs; in some areas even men should wear fairly long shorts, unless in the water or on the beach.

Unfortunately some voyagers continue to dressand behaveas if they were at home. We were joined on a walk in Fiji by a group of men and women sailors from Europe and the U.S, none of whom wore more than thong bikini bottoms. When we tried to suggest that the locals might find their dress inappropriate, they retorted that they were simply dressing the way islanders formerly did. Such an attitude indicates no understanding of the last few hundred years of Pacific island history, and a complete lack of respect for the Fijians on whose beach we were walking.

Keep in mind that it is not just our bodies that are on display, but our way of life as well. From the moment one drops the anchor anywhere near a village, a yacht and its crew are on parade. Stay for more than a day or two and you have joined, albeit peripherally, the local community; as a result, you’ll be scrutinized, and will receive loads of visitors. Some want to talk, others just to look, but all will be curious. How we respond to them and their curiosity is important. It’s important in an immediate sense, as the “manners” and friendship we show will help determine the quality of our visit. But our response has a deeper meaning as well, one that says a lot about why we are traveling and the value we place on different cultures.

Receiving visitors

It’s not uncommon for visitors to arrive as the anchor hits the bottom. In the islands men will typically make the first contact, paddling out to welcome you, inquiring where you’re from and how long you’ll be staying. Many also come to barter. We usually welcome their arrival, although there have been times when we’ve entered a bay at dusk after a long day’s sail, tired, hot, and looking forward to peace and quiet, not to receiving a multitude of visitors. When that happens we take five minutes to exchange a few pleasant words and then explain that we’re very tired and have traveled a long way. We then ask them to come for a visit the next day, after we’ve had a chance to rest up. Most islanders are gracious and understanding.

The arrival of visitors is oftentimes announced by a bump and scrape: that of their dugout canoe or fiberglass skiff against our topsides. There’s no wish to make us angry, but most islanders simply don’t share our concerns for cosmetics. We’ve learned to set out plenty of fenders and keep extra painters at the ready, as many islanders don’t use them. This way, canoes can trail well behind the boat, and we’re able to enjoy our visitors much more.

In island societies, the water and the beach are generally public spaces, and boats are practical things used for fishing and transport. To us, of course, the boat is much more. As well as being our home, it serves as a retreat, a sanctuary that we carry along as we travel. As a result it can be upsetting when islanders come alongside in their canoes and peer through the ports. Some of the bolder folks have gone one further, climbing on deck and looking around without an invitation. Our reaction is to be friendly but firm when incidents like this take place, explaining why we object, and relating that climbing aboard or staring in the ports is the equivalent of us going through their village and peering or walking into their houses. Islanders have always understood, and we’ve usually gone on to develop a fine rapport.

Voyagers as visitors

When we’ve compared our reaction to uninvited visitors to that of some other voyagers, ours seemed quite mild. We’ve seen boats with large signs reading “tabu,” and sailors who loudly warn off any canoes that approach closely. Such a response shows no awareness of the fact that it is we who are in fact the visitorsand uninvited ones at thathaving dropped our anchors in their front yard. We try to carry that awareness one step further by inquiring if islanders have any objections to our stopping and visiting their bay or village. The best way to do this is by going ashore to meet the village chief or a village elder. We make it a practice to ask about the bay or village we’re anchored off, and include a direct query: “Is it okay to anchor here?” We’ve never been refused and usually have been given a grand tour of the village.

Visiting the chief is not only polite but also good politics. It’s one’s entree into the community, and typically ensures that you and your boat will be well treated. If something should go missing, the chief will make it his responsibility to get your property back. If you talk to the chief or an elder, ask about where it’s permissible to walk or swim. Some villages in the Pacific still have areas that are taboo or sacred, and you won’t want to offend your hosts by being somewhere that you shouldn’t.

When you’re on a walk, don’t assume that the bananas growing alongside the trail are free for the taking. In most island cultures, every bush and tree, and nearly every strip of land or beach, is owned or used by someone. What to a Westerner might appear as a hillside of wild growing shrubs and greenery is often a family garden. Islanders generally don’t plant their “crops” in neat rows but instead integrate their gardens with a variety of tubers (sweet potatoes or taro), fruits (bananas, papaya, pineapple), and medicinal plants. Land ownership on many islands is complex, and we’ve seen instances where a family’s garden plot was located deep in the bush; in another situation, where arable land was scarce, gardens were located on another island altogether. The message is simple: ask before you pick. If you do, you’ll generally be given more fresh fruit and vegetables than you can hope to eat.

Most voyagers are always on the lookout for sources of fresh drinking water. You should, of course, collect rainwater at every opportunity, but sometimes one gets caught short. If you need to take on water, ask the locals if there is a river, spring, or cistern where you can top off, but be aware that islanders are typically very generous. We were at a small, arid island in southeastern Papua New Guinea once. It hadn’t rained for months and we were running quite low on drinking water. When we asked if there was a spring, we were directed to a tiny algae-covered watering hole, which the entire village used for both drinking and washing. They were on the brink of running outwhich would have forced them to rely solely on coconutsand yet they were still willing to share what little they had with us. We thanked them for their kind offer, and waited until we could obtain water on another island where the drought wasn’t as harsh.

While you’re asking questions, inquire about fishing. Most islands in the Pacific have some sort of fishing regulation. In Fiji, most village chiefs forbid the use of spear guns, and some allow only handlining inside the reef, while permitting trolling in the deeper waters outside. In many parts of Papua New Guinea no strict rules seemed to apply, other than a request to take no more than we could eat. Be sure to also ask local fishermen and women about any fish that are unsafe to eat. Ciguatera is present Pacific-wide, and islanders know exactly which fish are “poisonous.” If you’re not certain about a fish you’ve caught, take it to shore and ask someone.


Many islanders offer fruits, vegetables, handicrafts, and fish or lobsters in exchange for something they need. In the western Pacific in particular, cash is still rarely requested. Instead, islanders ask for practical trade goods, such as fishing gear, fabric, batteries, soap, reading material, seeds, and clothes. Kids will sometimes come out and ask for “lollies” or some sort of sugar treat. We don’t like to hand out candy so instead offer up balloons, color pencils, or writing pads. Men will sometimes ask for tobacco or alcohol, but we’ve made it a practice not to trade these, and have always found a substitute.

It’s important to be fair in your trade deals. Being too stingy is insulting and certainly won’t win you any friends, while being overly generous may lead to problems for future visitors, who will be trading in a climate of vastly raised expectations. Most important, be honest and don’t misrepresent the goods you’re offering. We’ve known more than one voyager who knowingly traded damaged electrical tools, radios, and tape players for beautiful handicrafts that undoubtedly took time and care to make. Needless to say, the islanders who received the goods were less than pleased.

Interest and sensitivity

Much of the pleasure we’ve derived from visiting remote regions of the Pacific has come from developing an understanding of how islanders live. We read about places before we arrive in an attempt to get a broader, historical perspective. More important, though, we ask our hosts to talk about themselves, to explain how and why they do things, and to share with us what they know.

We have a small boat, and not a lot of fancy gear, but our radio, GPS, and even our charts are very foreign and modern to many islanders. While we’re happy to show visitors our boat and explain how it is we sail across the ocean, we try to do so without showing off. While there’s no question that we’ve got some nifty toys, it’s also become clear to us that many islanders have been much more successful than Westerners at retaining a cohesive and supportive family life, and a culture that values quality of life over quantity of goods. So after they’ve shaken their heads at all our neat “stuff,” we try and steer the conversation to what they have that our society lacks. These are messages they won’t receive through the little Western media to which they’re exposed, but which can be very important in determining how they’ll think back on usand the culture we representwhen our visit is over.

Our responsibility to be sensitive doesn’t end when we sail away. During our travels we’ve met voyagers who consider themselves “cultural connoisseurs,” swapping experiences and stories with one another in the yacht club or over the radio. We’ve listened as cultures are ranked and graded, with scores compared to see who had the more “traditional” experience with the natives, who received the most fruit and vegetables or handicrafts, and who could count the most friends. The number of smiling faces and proffered banana stalks seem to tip the balance for any given culture, and more likely than not the “winner” will have sent another fleet of yachts scurrying off to that favorite island. Listen closely, though, and one finds the island in question has been called “new potatoes.” The result is a sad mockery, both of true friendship and of a name given to the lovely Tongan island of Niuatoputapu.

How can we best avoid the disillusionment that we spoke of at the outset? At the risk of suggesting that we all learned it in kindergarten, it’s by showing interest in, respect for, and understanding of the people and places we visit. Capt. Cook’s world is gone forever, but not everyone has joined our virtual version. Set sail ready to accept people for who they are, rather than what you want them to be, and seek to understand and appreciate their uniqueness. Both you and the islanders you visit stand to benefit.

Kim des Rochers and Mark Smaalders have been sailing in the tropics for the past 12 years, logging some 30,000 miles aboard their 35-foot wooden sloop Nomad.

By Ocean Navigator