Giant Map of Dreams

6 Jan

Niall's mapIf a picture tells a thousand words, then a map is a portrait with countless stories to tell. Consider Cape Disappointment in Oregon, whose name on a map barely hints of the great and perilous journey of Lewis and Clark’s expedition. When it came to naming the place, a deflated Clark must have considered names such as Cape Lewisisanassforthiscrueljourney, but settled for the understated Disappointment knowing how difficult the alternative would be for school children to spell.

A few years before sailing away on Totem, we installed a giant map of the world, measuring 7’ x 14’, on a wall in our home. We marked out tracks of noted cruisers, and places that we dreamed of sailing to. In addition to numerous paper and digital charts on board we have three bulkhead mounted maps. A world map from 1839 is a reminder of the subjective, changing nature of human understanding. From this map’s symbols representing the “state of societies”, we’ve traveled exclusively among barbarians since 2008. An updated version would almost certainly show Australia as half-civilized. Lest we forget where we’ve been, another world map traces Totem’s route in purple marker meandering from Seattle to present location, Thailand’s Similan Island. Lastly, we like to display a regional map of the area we’re in to learn local geography. It also sparks curiosity for the tales behind the many Cape Disappointments of the world.

Thinking back to our giant map marked with places to anchor someday, we realize now that you can’t see them all – at least on the first lap. Galapagos, Palau, and Philippines are behind us, unvisited, or maybe ahead and waiting. There is magic, though, both in reaching long dreamed of locations on a map and in finding the ordinary, undiscovered places along the way.

Sailing out from the Straits of Juan de Fuca past the cape Captain Cook named Flattery offers up a huge dose of Pacific Ocean freedom. It also begs a question of the always methodical Captain Cook. Why did he pass by without investigating the vast opening in an otherwise unforgiving coastline? Perhaps Vancouver, then crewmember aboard Resolution, begged Cook to leave a few crumbs of land for ‘others’ to explore. Further South by Drake’s Bay one wonders whether it really was the bold privateer Francis Drake’s northernmost reach, or if secrets of his venturing much further north are lost to time. Further south still, the Channel Islands off of central California were discovered sequentially by Native Americans about 13,000 years ago, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo in 1542, and by the crew of Totem in 2008. They offer an amazing blend of raw beauty, rich wildlife above and below the water, and a chance to learn the art of dinghy surf landings. Cabrillo died at San Miguel Island as a result of getting overturned on the way to the shore. I was rolled by the surf in our kayak, at Santa Cruz Island, but came out unscathed sans sun glasses.

Of the spots marked as must see on our giant wall map of dreams, French Polynesia and Fiji had the most stars by them. We didn’t appreciate that French Polynesia consists of five island groups over nearly a million square miles of ocean. Having sailed some of those square miles and seen lush, jagged mountains in Marquesas, gin clear water in Tuamotus, and a kaleidoscope of colors in the Societies we dream of going back. Of many memories there, one from Baie de Controleur (Controller Bay), Nuku Hiva, the same place where Herman Melville fled tough life on a whaling ship only to be caught by cannibals and lived to write about it in his book Typee, is particularly fantastic. One dark night we watched the trails of giant mantas glide and a hammerhead shark cruise through water lit by bioluminescence that gave the entire bay a green Jell-O like glow.

Fiji, it turns out, has more coral reefs than most beaches have grains of sand. They are literally everywhere with names like Charybdis Reef. Many are nameless and uncharted. Cruising there requires good eyes and slow going, but the reward is glorious snorkeling with endless underwater habitats to explore. Fiji also offers a nice balance of remote, unspoiled islands and popular tourist spots where many cruisers frequent when in need of socialization. Food is good and inexpensive, boating supplies and services are available, and local culture is welcoming (Mbula!), making Fiji, in the best of ways, similar to Mexico.

As a cruising destination, Mexico is has areas rich with culture and others as remote feeling as the moon. When merging a route up the east side of Baja with John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez, one almost feels part of sunset chats onboard Western Flyer with Steinbeck and marine biologist Ed Rickets: drinking beer and philosophizing or discussing specimens collected that day. On Baja’s west coast is Bahia Tortuga (Turtle Bay). Its moonscape like rocky edge and grey pelicans diving into turquoise water at great velocity, made anchoring there feel for the first time like we had left the beaten path of guidebooks and information behind. Our voyage of exploration began in Turtle Bay.

The giant map is far away, having fed our dreams of sailing to exotic places. Coming from an enlightened society, according to our 1839 map, we are happy to report that the barbarians haven’t been barbaric at all. Maybe we should assign our children a school project to update the 1839 map, designating areas by their “state of cooking”. It seems logical since we’ve shared meals with people of all manner of ethnicity, language, religions and belief systems. Symbols could range from coconuts for simple fare to a chef’s toque for haute cuisine. Our children’s differing personal taste would taint objective intent, thus rendering it as silly as the original: believable only if you believe in it.

Charts aid us now, imperfect and utilitarian as they are. If companies that produce charts had suggestion boxes, we’d have filled them by now with scraps of paper with notes such as, “Suggest review of chart at location 08° 40.09 north and 97° 38.50 east. Islet shown on chart does not exist, good snorkeling there though.” Or, “Please review point of land shown at 00° 32.72 south and 130° 27.30 east. Instead of the point of land, there is a tiny unnamed bay; we suggest calling it Safeinasquall Bay or maybe just Teacup Bay.”

If you’re reading this on the Sailfeed website, the Totem fund gods are smiling at you- thank you! 

Jamie and I co-author the cruising column for 48° North, a Pacific Northwest regional boating magazine. This piece for their for January issue caught us in a reflective mood. The complete magazine is available free online from their website.

This article was syndicated from S/V Totem - a family sailing the world


  1. Vanessa

    WHat a wonderful life experience you are giving your adorable children. THat you find time to write is also amazing, but I hope you’ll keep it up! Lovely article!

  2. Behan Gifford

    * Les, I’m so glad to know it. Thank you!
    * Nita, we can’t wait to have you and Ty back on Totem.
    * Linda, I’m now looking at books on personal geographies and absolutely fascinated- thank you for cracking that door!
    * Peter, what a great story! I’m so glad you enjoy the posts.

  3. S/V Nadejda

    My grandfather built a boat, sailing it to the South Pacific when I was barely old enough to remember. He lost the boat on an atoll near Muraroa but brought all his charts home. I have fond memories of sneeking the charts out of his closet, spreading them on the floor and being transported to far away places. Now our map of dreams covers an entire wall of the coffee shop north of town where we go and spend an hour looking, pointing, and dreaming. We really enjoy reading your blog as your map of dreams continues to unfold. Thanks!


  4. Linda Edeiken

    As a lover of maps and a fellow cruiser, I loved this article!! Besides being functional, maps can be artistic and very subjective – I enjoy drawing my own maps as “personal geographies”. It is great how you use maps as inspiration/memory tools for you and the children! May your world be ever-expanding!

  5. Nita Burks

    From the time Siobhan was a baby, I am still living vicariously, through your dreams, now adventures and writing. Hoping to see you in the Med in a year or so.

  6. Les Bessenger

    Great to hear about the dreams, charts, and experiences you all have been having over the years. It’s a great part of my day to catch up on some of the “vicarious cruising” through your posts. Noting the Totem fund gods, I’ve started viewing this through the Sailfeed website (which has lots of interesting posts). Best of luck with your Indian Ocean preparations!!

    – Les

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*. Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive. For more information, please see our Comments Policy.

More from the AIM Marine Group