The first captain Rob I knew was aboard the Canadian boat in the Panama Canal. Now I was in Tahiti, and this new captain Rob had been also at the announcement board at Marina Taina where everyone posts information about things for sale, or for services, or anything; all the necessaries of sailing and boating.
Taina Marina had many berths, and many large and small docks. There were motor boats and there were sailboats and at the far dock beyond the tall steel gate there were the multi-million dollar mega yachts from tax havens like Georgetown in Grand Cayman. One was metallic gray, a dull color but for the sun dancing among the grains of the texture, and its black boom was smooth and enclosed. The mast seemed endless.
There were two bars that sold cans of Coca-Cola for 4 dollars and spirits began at 13. The French Polynesian Franc was always jingling around in your pocket because there were too many coins, and these were never enough for anything.
Papeete was 10 kilometers away, and easy to hitchhike. Port Phaeton was on the other side of the island, and its Carrefour supermarket was newer than the one 15 minutes by foot from Taina Marina. They both had Camembert cheese and baguettes. Baguettes, those long crusted staves of bread, were in all the small stores and the price was fixed at 50 or 53 francs.
Rob began to take to baguettes and saucisson and cheese. He started to crave Camembert as well; he was falling in love with a part of French culture and it was familiar. His boat was Wild Wind, a CSY 44 cutter. It bore a bold green stripe painted along its gunwale, and the name was stitched with white thread on green canvas strapped at the stern safety lines. Wild Wind was parked on mooring ball A9.
Elene had said on the hitch from Port Phaeton in her Renault hatchback that this side of the island, the north and northwest side, was always sunny. She said that the water was always turquoise and in the evenings if you were anchored or moored over shallow water it was always a marbled teal that bent the moonbeams into watery shapes and made them dance on the coral sands below. She said that the other side of the island was clouded and windy and cool. That is why Andrew never saw the island before so many kilometers remained to Phaeton. Elene also denounced Tahit’s capital.
Papeete was not an attractive city. It was difficult to find reference points other than the super yacht and ferry terminal docks, where that Russian oligarch’s “A” was parked. It was a very wild city that moved and moved and it would turn you around and not help your bearings. There was the hill that led to Tahiti’s mountains somewhere out of view, and from Taina there was the neighbor island of Moorea that took in the sun at dusk and the last rays shot through its valleys and into the sky and made of the island a crown of light. In Papeete Tahitians were speaking French, and they rolled their Rs instead of gargling them like the Metropole French do. Papeete had women that were attractive, but it was so wild. There were copper-toned and bronze legs and these made a man’s neck wring.
I was at the announcement board at Marina Taina when Rob came up to me accompanied by a young couple. This was our first meeting.
“Looking for the good stuff?” he asked me.
“I am the good stuff,” I said, stepping back from my bulletin that I’d just taped onto the board, chuckling like an idiot.
I grinned at Rob and the couple. “I mean,” I said. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard myself say in a while.”
Rob was still smiling and he spoke merrily. “What’s your deal then man?”
“Oh, nothing, just arrived here, crewing.”
“I’m Rob from Wild Wind.”
We shook hands. He had large mechanic’s hands and a scalp of thin silver and blond hair that was tied in a pony tail at the back. His shirt was unbuttoned and there was a tatoo of a lightning bolt through a blue cloud on his right breast. He was tanned dark and the lines in his face were shallow. I guessed he was around 50 years old.
“This is Regan and Bryan. They’re also crewing,” he said.
“‘Allo,” said Bryan
The couple looked my age, and sounded Australian. I shook their hands. I was very curious about them, as a colleague is curious.
“Regan and Bryan are hangin’ on my boat now, but they’re headed out soon.”
“Yeah,” said Bryan, pointing to an advert. “We’re going with Gary on Miluina to New Zealand.”
“I know Gary.”
“Helped him on his boat in Hiva Oa. Good luck to you.”
“You know Gary?”
“Yea. He’s blunt.”
Bryan was from New Zealand, and his girl Regan from Canada. Her accent was the one you get when you spend more time outside of your country than in.
The security guard arrived in the parking lot and saw me, and motioned me over. His name was Mark and he would let me use the showers. He was very kind. When I came back to the others Rob said I should stay on the boat with them and I agreed. I had been in contact with Luke on Southern Run since Hiva Oa, but he had departed the previous day. Luke had waited 3 weeks for me, but one more day was one day too much.
Immigration was at the airport; I had to go there to check in. That is what the officer in Hiva Oa had said. You have 15 days to get to Tahiti, he had said. 40 days had passed. The officer in Tahiti’s airport grimaced at my passport and asked me why I had come to him. I said I thought I had to and he said that the stamp in my passport was the 3 month visa.
It will be difficult for travelers like me, for crew like me, in years to come. They will need an advance visa for the Galapagos, and they will need a visa for French Polynesia too, and if they don’t get one in advance, then the 15 days will be their buffer time to get one in Nuku Hiva or Tahiti. But I am lucky that it is not yet enforced.
On Wild Wind Bryan and Regan had all of their food and all of their diving equipment. Rob and they were all scuba instructors and spoke at long length about such things, and I listened but mostly I watched the dancing light over the shallow emerald and sapphire water and felt vertigo when I looked down because it was so clear to the sand below.
Why does luck happen like that, I wondered. It took me a month to get on a boat in Panama. Just one night to get on a boat in the Marquesas. And now a single day to get on a boat in Tahiti. But I wasn’t going anywhere; I was just decompressing. I told Regan and Bryan and Rob all about Andrew and the ceaselessness of his jinxing our situation. They laughed and I laughed and we were happy it seemed, and I seemed to be happy to be with them. But these days I was always anxious.
Rob knew many of the boats I knew. He had heard from someone about Sarim’s collision in San Cristobal in the Galapagos. He knew Impi and Tribe and he even knew Karaka and was in contact with Zack who might come and crew with him. I did not ask Rob if I could crew his boat. I was tired, and I was just glad to be where I could take a hot shower, eat hot food and nurse the salt water boils that had ravaged my loins aboard Athena.
Rob was a Harley Davidson mechanic, and a skier and a diver and a recovered alcoholic sober for 23 years; he was clear-minded and cursed cooly and sharply when he did, and he was a single-handler and we had shared the same storm but on opposite sides of the Tuamotus. His S was a rough S and he was pragmatic like Gary and knew the words for everything aboard his boat or made them up if they didn’t exist. It was funny going to town because he had trouble paying attention and would wander at a whim into shopfronts and I would turn and he would be gone, and I would have lost him. On the boat he was calm and spent many hours speaking on his phone with family back home.
I did work and shadowed him on deck and below. We repaired things. We removed the inner stay boom because its gooseneck had snapped. We sorted screws and replaced sheets and sewed the Yankee. Meanwhile, Bryan and Regan transferred their things to Miluna; spear guns, surf boards, backpacks, food. They were not light packers.
The CSY had a thick beam and a raised cabinhouse. The cockpit separated the aft cabin, accessed through a second companionway, from the main cabin. I slept in the V-berth after the couple moved onto Gary’s boat but I preferred sleeping on the settee.
Rob was the kind of man that speaks aloud. I stayed with him doing work on the boat not always because he needed help but because I was on the boat and I should help, and he seemed lonely sometimes. We went ashore to the packed dinghy dock beside the Pink Coconut, messing with the motor’s choke to get the thing started and running and sometimes it didn’t work and we’d float in the wind until it did. We filled water jugs whenever we could. We flaked the sails and packed them tight into their canvas bags to store under the V-berth. I was happy to call it a V-berth again and not a four-peak.
Pragmatic Rob was a man of action. He had been a tug boat captain during part of his life, delivering Alaskan tugs to Chile. He spoke of religion and spirituality and had an averse opinion when anyone cited karma in the happenings of life. Regan had a pretty face and when she was gone, conversations became wild, because men alone are manly to compensate for no femininity. But Rob can tell a story and he told many about his 4 years of sailing, getting knocked down in the Caribbean, living out of St. Croix, and working in his Vail Harley shop. Now his life was the boat. When he thought aloud he narrated what he was doing, and when there were more than one pair of hands he became a foreman overseeing and instructing on tasks normally reserved for his hands.
I could also speak at length about travel and adaptation and learning and he said that it was all new to him. But when I had been on the boat for a week he said to me “Cale, I get what you’re doing and I respect it, so if you want I’m going to head out of here soon and you can come. I can get you as far as Tonga and from there the fleet goes to New Zealand.”
I had already missed the Australian fleet, or most of them. The Puddle Jumpers, they are called. After Bora Bora, which is the end of French Polynesia, there were the Cook Islands, then the independent island of Niue, then the kingdom of Tonga, then Fiji, then New Caledonia and Vanuatu, and eventually Australia. The several hundred boats that were anchored in the same watery plain where we were moored were mostly going to New Zealand, and the window for getting there from Fiji or Tonga was from mid-October to mid-December. Rob said that he was meeting his girlfriend in Tonga in the beginning of October, and would cut around to head to American Samoa. In exchange for work, he said, he’d take me along, and I’d pitch in for food. I agreed.
It’s strange, I thought. Most boaters want crew for the long passages, but once among islands where they can enjoy themselves they want to get rid of their crew to taste the fruits of their and your labor in privacy. In Rob’s case, he preferred to singlehand for the long passages, but he wanted to share his experience with friends among the islands. This was still the beginning of the Pacific islands. The Tuamotus and Marquesas were not far away, and beyond those there were 3,000 miles of nothing all the way to the Galapagos. Now, with Rob, I would sail finally at ease and without the troubled mind that I had come to expect as a crew member. To get from Tonga to New Zealand boats would have to cross latitudes known for serious weather. They would surely want crew. Getting to Tonga seemed like the next step, and it seemed I had begun to take it.
We went to the Pink Coconut. I bought a dark Hinano beer at Happy Hour price, Rob bought a coke, and our new American friend Christian had a choppe of beer. Christian spoke of how Tahiti for the French is like Hawaii for Americans, that the locals actually dislike their overlords, but that Hawaiians would like a visiting French and the Tahitians would like a visiting American. This was my experience as well. Christian regaled us with stories of his having been shipwrecked years before in the Cooks. “My father wrote a book,” he’d said. “It’s called Beyond Courage.”
I allowed my eyes to stare at the too attractive girls in the bar and I felt anxious to be around their distraction, and I heard snippets of Christian’s story so that legs and salt capsules and tight curves and chocolate rations all melded together. Legs and chocolate accompanied my dreams that night.
Harold was an Austrian and I’d been playing tag with his boat since Panama. I knew that he had done work for Lido on Sarim and also for Gary, and so I brought him to Wild Wind, planing in the dinghy to clear the mustard yellow coral heads, and he gave me a quote to repair the gooseneck.
The cruisers in the fleet of boats that use the normal season to cross the Pacific Ocean know each other, or have at least seen each others’ boats. I saw once more the three American crew who I’d seen in Hiva Oa. I saw Norvik and Harold’s boat, and Catitudes and a whole host of other vessels that I at least recognized if not by name then by color and design. The community is familiar to itself, and cushioned from strangeness by just one or two degrees of separation. Even if you do not know the crew of a familiar boat, to see it after 5,000 miles is invigorating.
“Tunes man!” yelled Rob. We had just finished installing a new stereo. “41 days of storms, man, and no tunes. Now we got ’em!”
Rob was originally from Oklahoma but his lexicon was that of a true American workingman mut. He was at once the biker, the surfer-dude, the ski bum, the gruff mechanic, the stoic boat captain and more. “I ain’t a yachtie,” he had said once, “I’m boat trash.”
“Bryan gave me a whole bunch of music,” I said. “And all the South Parks.”
“Right on man, right on! You wanna throw on some grooves?”
“Hell yea brother. Fuck yea!”
“What kind of music do you listen to Rob?”
“All kinds, but no metal and no rap. Mostly bluegrass. Check this out.” He thumbed through an iPod he had connected to the new stereo. “Ebo Walker–old bluegrass player. Oh man this is so good, the best rendition of Stormy Monday.”
“No tunes on the crossing?”
“No, nothing but storms. I’m done with storms. I used to chase them, catch the wind on the back of squalls.”
“Shit,” I said. “Andrew would heave-to in 15 knots.”
“What? That’s looney man. Real looney.”
“You heave-to ever?”
“Not often. These CSYs don’t heave-to so well. I have 4 storm sails.”
“Wish we had had those. Took us three weeks from the Marquesas.”
“Did you guys even put up any sail?”
“Never more than half mast. We hove-to a lot.”
I spent enough time going over in my mind the three weeks, or four including Hiva Oa, aboard Athena. When I arrived to Taina Marina and had used the VHF to try to contact Luke, I’d been hailed back by a boat that had Chris aboard, who was Andrew’s old crew from Mexico. They’d all been worried about Andrew. I told them he was in Port Phaeton, but they couldn’t see me shrug.
“Suck it up buttercup!” cried Rob as he bounded across the deck. “Rock ‘n roll!”
He wasn’t speaking to anyone in particular. He’s 6 feet tall, has a hawkish nose and close-set blue eyes that have the confidence of living in them. He’s someone who is comfortable in his lifestyle, and has the secure self-esteem that comes with it. He has presence, even though at times his mind is clearly elsewhere during a conversation.
“Hey you know there are no coconuts in the palms along the seafront in town?” I said. “I went walking there. Didn’t see any.”
“They cut them off so they don’t fall on peoples’ heads,” he said. “Pretty common around here.”
“Have you been to any of the other islands?”
“No man, like I said, 41 days of storms. Big seas. Got hit by the boom once, and it swung out to the beam with me hanging off–would’ve been dead, but it swung back again. I had been attaching the preventers!”
“So you didn’t get to the Marquesas?”
“I was trying to get to Easter Island, but then changed course to Pitcairn. Bad weather there too, and when I tried to anchor, lost the whole darn thing, chain and all, and a rescue boat fucked my cap rail on the port. We’re going to have to deal with that before we head out.”
“Couldn’t get to Gambier either. But you know, a lot of boats have been having a hard time of it this year. Everyone seems to have a problem.”
We adjusted the forward and rear stays, and pulled the dinghy on deck to patch it with a two-part glue. To award our hard work we put our feet into fins to go snorkeling. I rubbed some anti-fog in my goggles and jumped in.
“It’s warm,” I said.
“Water’s warm? That’s alright, as long as it’s wet,” said Rob. He jumped in and surfaced. “I trade a motorcycle for a full set of dive gear and here I am snorkeling instead!”
“Sorry about that,” I said.
“That’s alright maybe we’ll get you in some dive equipment.”
“Not my thing.”
We swam to the barrier reef and were just a few feet above the coral heads. There was a sting ray beneath the boat, and further out the coral was alive with activity. Rob had a fish card on board and I identified the many fish I’d seen: scalefin anthias, a whitetip reef shark about as long as I was, the palette surgeon, a striped bristletooth, a Moorish idol, a big longfin batfish, a spotted boxfish that stared me down when I’d approached, the slender chevron barracuda, a longfinned goby like a trap on the floor, black damsels and chocolate dip damsels, the sixbar wrasse, blue patch butterflies and others.
“Man! So much marine life and it’s right here in the anchorage!” Rob said. “This is better than an entire season in St. Croix.”
I looked beyond him as the sun dipped beneath Moorea and drew ribbons of light high above the peaks. What beauty, I thought. The water was like jello and jiggled a marbled luminescence that swapped out the light of day for the light of night. We ate Camembert and bread and saucisson and we listened to Credence and it was good.
Rob threaded the sail twine through the steel ribs of his machine, and set the bobbin beneath the needle plate. He snapped down the foot and began feeding the Yankee through the machine and stitching it by turning the trundle. The sail was sprawled about the cabin, and we were crowded into the setee. I took over and Rob went into the cockpit to make a phone call to his girlfriend back home.
Every puncture sound of the sail, which was a tough fabric to begin with, was hyphenated by Rob’s conversation. I listened to many conversations in this way and others. This time he was chatting with his girlfriend. She was a biker but not a boater. Rob wanted to circumnavigate the globe. Their compromise was that she would visit him in places or he would put his boat on the hard to return to her. The plans were always changing, and sometimes I overheard that we’d be heading to Hawaii, sometimes that we’d put the boat up on the hard in Tahiti; sometimes he was getting ready to hop a plane to do a delivery job in Panama, and sometimes I heard that his gal wasn’t coming to Tonga after all and instead Rob would go to American Samoa. Theirs must be a mature relationship to withstand Rob’s apparent disinterest: Was she coming to Tonga or not? Does she want to spend the money? Don’t spend the money if you don’t want to do it. I don’t care if you come or not, I can handle the boat.
I never heard the word. Sometimes couples use the word too often and it becomes dull. I think most people find and are comfortable in mediocrity and sex. Or intense love is brief and then it becomes that, because love is the beginning but then they learn about each other and everything down to gentle emotions is compromise. I don’t know. Maybe most people are secretly in love with themselves, and don’t leave enough for anyone else. Rare are those connections that emante their love and make you envious of it. I felt that I’d known it once.
We saw plenty of Bryan and Regan. I was not envious of their connection but saddened by it. Bryan had a calm way of poking fun at Regan, and she had a quiet way of absorbing it, but she made it seem old and tiring.
Gary had already put them to work. Often Rob would arch his brow at them and wonder aloud if Gary wasn’t taking them for a ride.
“Naw,” said Bryan. “It’s just really annoying is all. Now he has me doing some computer work. Then we have to wait for his money to come through. Then he doesn’t know if his new sail will be shipped here or to American Samoa or to Tonga. Leaving just keeps getting pushed back a day.”
I did not envy him, because I had already been in that boat, so to speak. For me Gary was a memory of Hiva Oa. Say hi to Andrew for me, he had said. No, I will not be seeing him ever again, I replied. But I’d already been back to the announcement board, and there I saw a new note:
First mate wanted on 35′ classic Cheoy Lee sloop for pleasure cruising the South Seas. I am organizing a new computer so lack of reply does not insinuate lack of interest. I’m looking for a first mate, male or female, for a long-term cruising relationship. Must be over 45, must have cruising experience, must not be a freeloader.
I had bragged to Rob that the last one was a slight against me.
“If cooking every meal every day for an old and negative naked man who breaks everything on a boat and jinxes the world, and if having the only thing that saved his and my life (my computer), means that I’m a freeloader, so I’m a freeloader.”
We listened to Cross Canadian Ragweed and Jerry Garcia while rebuilding the generator, and while wiring the new VHF for AIS through the nav station up through the binnacle at the helm. Cooking oil in the toilet frees up the pump. Rob wanted canned chicken at Carrefour but could find only foie gras, Polynesian corned beef and canned tuna. There was an aisle of chocolate bars–that’s French. Entire pigs were wrapped frozen in canvas bag–that’s Tahitian. There was no cheap beef–just reef fish on ice–that’s Tahitian too. In the check-out line we met a surfer dude and a girl, who travel on their sailboat Wizard’s Eye and are sponsored and post on wizardseye.tv; kayakers–so I asked do you know Trip Jennings? “Yea, bra, I know Trip, far out man.” And I thought of Oregon and midnight rafting with a bottle of rum down the chilly McKenzie with that guy. I remember seeing his face in National Geographic.
Rob is a perfectionist. As one coming from the ranks of pragmatic men, he has tools–more tools than Lido on Sarim. These tools each have their place. There is every kind of practical object for practical repairs, and every advanced gadget to make it that much easier. This means that the CSY 44 is filled. The compartments, the drawers, the cubbies. There is an order to the stuffing such that if you lay something in incorrectly, suddenly there is just barely not enough room for that one extra item.
“October 1st, that’s when she’s gonna be in Tonga, I can get you there by then,” Rob had said.
Bryan was saying that there would be a rally from Tonga to New Zealand. He said that it would gather in mid-October, but that most boats would head down to that last Pacific island nation in mid-November. It would work out perfectly to get there on the 1st; plenty of time not only to find a boat, but to relax on land and to be free again. And the more I spoke about Tonga, the more I learned that it was a sure thing to crew from there to New Zealand–that everyone would appreciate an extra hand in those turbulent latitudes.
I drew a map of the Caribbean and dotted in a line to show where Rob had taken his beloved Wild Wind. I drew while he was on the phone for 5 hours. I thought I should do something nice for him–he was on the phone and I was drawing for 5 hours. His nephew had died.
Shame and selfishness and sorrow came simultaneously when I heard Rob tell me that his nephew had been at a cast party in Amarillo Texas when a semi had smashed into their car and killed all 6 drama students within. Sorrow for whatever empathy a stranger like me can feel from a place like Tahiti about a place so far and a thing so common and people so unknown. Selfishness for wondering how it would affect the deal I had with Rob. Shame for thinking the latter.
10 hours later Rob was gone, on a plane back to the United States, and I was left to guard the boat. Every day I turned the engine on, switched the battery circuit and the refrigerator breaker, and every day I worked. The hatch locks had rusted and broke away, so I replaced them all. The cap rail screws would need undoing. The big project, the one that would pay my way to Tonga, in addition to watching the boat for the week Rob was gone, was the sanding of the ceiling in the V-berth and in the head. This I completed only on the last day before Rob returned.
I was alone for a terrible reason. But I was alone. I had the boat, and a hot shower aboard; I had music that Bryan had given me on my computer, and a stove, and bed, and electrical power. It was the first time I had been truly alone since March, and now it was August 14th.
I was not alone in my dreams, which showed me altered images of the past. Dazed and dissolving faces and deep wants and desires combed the inside of my scalp. I saw people and fire, and people I knew. I thought they were dead but she wasn’t: “she’s alive and you’re connected!” cried the crowd before the smouldering ruins. I woke, and felt that my eye sockets were dry as they moved around at things in Wild Wind’s cabin. There was a full moon and I rose to the cockpit and looked through the surface of the water. Moonbeam light flooded the sea and I saw the shadows of small shells on the coral sand bottom. I looked up. Moorea was a block of blackness on the line, and to the east the lights of Papeete didn’t glow high because ocean winds bore away the pollution and scattered it. The Milky Way and the Evening Star were there. It was still early in the night. I turned and went back down to the setee to sleep.
I wrote. I wrote and I wrote and soon the story of Andrew and Athena was written. I sat back and read it over several times. It was long, and I thought for a moment that it was too long. Dirk had seen my website and he said to me that it does not matter that I write things that are long, but it matters what I do to present the website so that browsing eyes that would be interested in such writing would not otherwise continue onward through some link to some other site. I edited the story and made it longer–it had to be longer. I loved writing it, and I thought that I ought to write always in such a succinct and autonomous way. Hmm.
Sanding in the V-berth and bathroom was painful, and being scrupulous made things worse. Ventiliation was out of the question since the wind would bring the particles of paint up in a whirl and into my lungs. Regardless, I was covered in the stuff, which stuck to my sweaty skin. I dove from Wild Wind’s stern, 4 feet off the water, and climbed up the ladder and dove again into the cool southern ocean. The sun was intense but I rarely burned anymore through my tanned and blond-frilled coat. I laid in the hammock that Rob had strung between the inner stay and the mast D-ring, and felt the hot light tickle and evaporate the saltwater from my skin. I swung, and the rocking boat played havoc with the hammock’s motion, and I felt like the water in a half-filled plastic bottle when you toss it into the air trying to make it spin uniformly but it won’t. Alone for the first time, and comfortable, not in my tent and not thinking about where I would be several hours later in the day, my mind was so free that it took me to see my childhood. It took me and like a curious tourist I snapped photos of myself at my grandmother’s pool, sitting there caked in sunscreen and wearing floaters on my arms as a child. It took me to high school and friends there, to welding in shop class and dicing my finger on the grinder. It took me onward to college and classes and that whole limbo and what-the-fuck-are-we-doing, and then I saw myself standing in the road with a sign that said “Mexico”. I saw those months, and Veracruz, and the temples in Chiapas, and Nicaragua. Then I saw Peru and Lima and friends and the girl and like the vaccum of a straw slurping up the last of the lemonade when it starts sucking air and hisses loudly I saw Brazil the Amazon the gun in Venezuela Medellin Chicago bricks at the wedding Portland farmland iced roads Christmas tree lights dogs’ teeth white office lights amber city lights sailboats sailboats sailboats islands green tall mountains and tall tall breaking swell. It was as though my mind had felt disused and so decided to remind me of what it could remind me of, which was everything.
Bryan and Regan came over one evening and I smiled as I got to play host, cutting up saucisson and offering lemon-water.
“They were out of the Camembert I like,” I said through teeth that I was using to chomp on the saucisse
“Out of Camembert were they?” said Bryan.
“Seems like everyone was crowded around wondering where it had all gone. It’s a big thing here. The other Carrefour probably still has some.”
“I see. So you’ll go get a batch then will ya? And stand outside the Carrefour here scalping them. Psst, hey, hey you–Camembert–your fix–I got the Camembert you need.”
I laughed and laughed more when Bryan kept his straight face.
“Boobies, man.” he continued. Regan had a tiny smile and observed her boyfriend with anticipation. “You can’t call them boobies.”
“The birds, y’know? The birds man.”
“I saw a red-footed boobie–landed on the boat once.”
“Man,” he said, twisting in his seat. “They dive 100 miles per hour angled into the water. You can’t call something like that a boobie, that doesn’t work.”
“How are things with Gary?”
“Oh, you know, he’s alright,” said Regan.
“I don’t like boats. I think I knew from the get-go,” I replied reflexively.
“Don’t like boats?” asked Bryan. He bid me with his eyes to follow them around the cabin. “Pretty bad at staying away from them aren’t ya?”
“I’m just tired of being an underling. You have to constantly think about what the captain wants or is expecting. Even when you’re supposedly free to go ashore.”
“People with boats. Big toys make them narcissistic,” said Bryan.
“I like Rob, for sure. But I know now how boats and people on them work, and I don’t have very positive expectations. You can’t make good friends on boats.”
“Maybe,” Regan interjected, “you should think of it as a challenge. We got kicked off the boat that brought us from Canada to here. The guy was lonely. Now we’re with Gary.”
“And you’re realizing…?”
“It’s just another challenge you know?”
“I guess you can look at it like that. I can’t. Why is accepting subservience a challenge? It’s a waste of time. Hey, Bryan, you still want to get your own boat to do charters in Tonga?”
“Mate,” he said. “I live for diving–we–live for diving. But being on these project boats like Gary’s. Shit, it is. Everything’s broken.”
“You’re always repairing stuff,” I said. “I know. I don’t usually think in the future but somehow the boat life has made me think constantly in the future. I’m so fucking distracted all the time. I feel like I shouldn’t even be here.”
“Well at least there’s Asia to look forward to like you said,” replied Regan. She looked up and I saw her pointy nose and caramel cheeks taking the glow of the cockpit lamp.
“At least there’s that,” I conceded unenthusiastically.
The bong hit me hard, because I do not smoke the stuff. But it’s damn expensive in Tahiti and as I was a guest on Christian’s boat and he was a new friend and had expectations, I partook. I listened to good stories from a happy man who knows what he wants, who has a compromise with his wife wherein he lives on his boat some days and then other days he’s with her on land at the family compound.
“I built a mooring in the water where my school is,” he said. “But I ran aground trying to get there. I have to go at high tide.”
“It’ll be good.”
“Yes. I’ll row the dinghy to work. This water is spectacular isn’t it? I saw a huge shark here last night.” Christian spoke quickly, and in such a way that his tongue would snap and lisp sometimes.
“You seem like you got it down,” I said.
“I want to build my own boat. Wooden one. With a centerboard.”
“Instead of a keel. Well, a keel that you can raise up to get into all the best anchorages. Like all the Optimists have.”
Back at Wild Wind that night I wrote a few articles, but my mind was wandering and I didn’t pay attention to their quality. Rob would be returning the following day–already a week alone on the boat had passed.
The next day Rob returned from the US and I fetched him at the dinghy dock when he called.
“My nephew is going to join us to Tonga,” he said.
“He’s a marine. Been to Afghanistan. His brother is the one who died. He’s in AA, having some trouble, so he asked to come. We’ll be a good crew–you, me, Daniel, Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.”
One evening when we were heading to Carrefour we stopped in the laundry where I saw a new announcement posted beside the book exchange. It belonged to my friend Florent, the Frenchman who I met in Panama City who had eventually gone with Zenna. We went to the larger announcement board by the bar, and there was Florent sitting alone at a table in the middle of the place, skiddish under the lamp’s limelight effect.
“Rob, my friend’s over there! I have to go say hello,” I said.
“Alright I’ll be here.”
“Florent!” I yelled. “Hey man!”
His eyes shot up and caught me. He stood then with a big grin and I embraced him. He spoke in his French accent.
“Hey what are you still doing here I thought you were long ago gone?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ve been on a boat for a while, not doing much. Going to Tonga. I don’t think he’s looking for crew but… I have to go, I’ll be back in 40 minutes, will you be around?”
“Ok wait here, I’ll be back.”
Rob and I went and bought a few items at Carrefour then returned and Florent was still there, moved from the limelight to a peripheral table. I introduced my tall slender Frenchman friend to Rob, who was quiet as I spoke with Florent, learning that he had come to Tahiti with a mutual friend, someone I had introduced him to in San Cristobal, thousands of miles east in the Galapagos.
“Dirk brought you here?” I stammered.
“Yes,” Florent giggled. “We talked about you a lot.”
“Damn it man!” I nudged him hard in the shoulder. “First you take Zenna from me in Panama, and then you take Dirk!”
“I know I know, it’s very stupid yes.”
“I’m kidding, of course, it’s great–but fuck you!” I slapped the table and looked at Rob who had a smile spread.
“Sounds interesting man,” he said.
“Florent here stole my boat,” I said. “But it’s ok because I found another boat that had a better situation for me.” I turned back to Florent. “I looked for your hotel Tuamo but couldn’t find you.”
“You were staying there, here in Papeete.”
“Te Amo Hotel?”
“Damn you, you wrote it wrong!”
“Then it’s fate that you should be here anyway.”
“I suppose,” he said. Our conversation was strange because Rob was there, and Florent was giddy and nervous. He was looking to continue his voyage on boats, and this was his first night trying to meet captains.
We spoke briefly because Rob announced that we had to go. “Why don’t you come out to the boat for some coffee tomorrow morning?” he said to Florent. “I wanna hear what your deal is.”
It surprised me that Rob said this–I thought he had been waiting for Karaka’s crew–but with a possible crewmember so close at hand, and having the vouch that I’d give him, it seemed that Rob became open-hearted to the unsolicited idea.
So it was that the next day I picked up Florent at the dinghy dock and took him to Wild Wind.
“Just remember,” I told him. “I don’t know if he’s actually looking for crew.”
“Ok, cool cool.”
“And you should know I don’t pay anything but that’s because I’ve been on his boat now working for a month. I think if he’s interested in more crew it will be because he needs money.”
“So just, listen to him.”
“I’m not a part of it.”
“I got it.”
At the boat I prepared potatoes and eggs in the galley, keeping an ear perked to the conversation in the cockpit.
“So what is the deal man?” asked Rob. “This crew stuff is all new to me.”
“Oh, I don’t know, I crew around, pay something, contribute something, work.” Florent’s accent and stops were indicative of the wile in his nerves. Rob was wily too. When negotiating the roles of crew, everyone’s always wily.
“I worked on tug boats and we worked 24/7 with a professional, paid crew. 35 bucks a person per day for upkeep.”
“Yes,” said Florent. “This is ok, but this cruising is different. I paid on the boat from Panama 13 dollars a day. Then the second boat I paid nothing.”
“Dirk’s?” I shouted up.
“Yes, Dirk’s.” Later Florent told me that his situation on Dirk’s boat was the best–he could smoke. But also he knew Dirk and I knew what he meant when he said of him that he was clever. Dirk the character of wit, the level-headed maniac and man bubbling over with life. I imagined the two together and became jealous of the match–I had been stuck with Andrew. Florent said that Dirk did not allow him to act wholly in the role of crew–which was probably the saving grace of a friendship otherwise doomed by the damning influence of the sea and small spaces.
“Well,” added Florent, “I know Cale’s situation and this I don’t expect, but if I contribute I want just as much work.”
“Hell yea, and you’ll get it,” said Rob. “Ok, 450 a month and you can come. Should take a month.”
Florent took another day to make up his mind, but I knew he would come–anyone could recognize that Rob’s open and relaxed approach, and his spacious boat, were already good matches for crew like us. It would be the first time that I’d get to be crew alongside other crew. Florent was in.
Then the marine came. It was nighttime when Florent and I boarded the dinghy and went to shore. Daniel was as stout as I had expected, and he had the puffy eyes and cupping line beneath them that one gets from certain levels of stress. Or my mind told me that was the case.
We shook hands as Rob introduced us.
“So, Daniel, this is Wild Wind,” he said when we were back on the boat.
Daniel’s sandy hair was cut shorter on the sides than on the top, and his stocky shoulders were tiny ranges beneath a shirt that read “There’s a place for all God’s creatures–right beside the potatoes and gravy!” He was reserved, and followed Rob’s commands with an acknowledgement of “Sir”.
“Now don’t be getting too comfortable with Daniel’s sir-ing,” I said to Rob. “Hell if I’m falling in.”
“That’s fine that’s fine, Dan’s a marine, he’ll handle himself sir or no sir.”
“Right. Dan, good to have you aboard,” I said.
“Good to be here.”
“Is Tahiti everything you hoped for?”
“I just arrived.”
“Quite right. Perhaps we should heave-to,” I looked at Rob, who knew I was mocking my previous captain.
“Heave her to, Scottie!” he shouted.
Daniel looked a little like Matt Damon, I suppose. Later, when we had made Rob watch Team America with us, that actor’s role came up increasingly in order to perturb the marine, who laughed at himself.
It did not take long for the jokes to begin. Anything having to do with dicks or assholes was fair game. Anything South Park-esque was expected. Any time someone did something that might be construed as sexual, there was a joke to be had. Finally the overbearing masculinity of a boat expresses itself how it most desires–a bunch of sex-deprived sailors having to see each other butt ass naked all the time, so the air is rattled with witty remarks where possible that defame the other as a ‘homo’. It was only after I reached a secure level of comfort with our new crew member that I started to pester him to make fun of himself more often, like the Frenchman did constantly. Humility, I said, and humor; these go hand-in-hand down the personable path.
Work on the boat continued; Florent and Dan found their niches, slowly felt more accepted, and made jokes all the time. I was called the First Mate, but when I tried to speak pirate-talk like the others had begun to do, I sounded like a drunk Irishman with a whistle in his throat. But I had the feigned authority of time and experience, and I enjoyed it while it lasted–eventually Florent and Daniel would see that we were on an equal tier. Still, I used the ‘first mate’ card spontaneously.
“So you did two crossings then,” said Florent after I’d finished telling the story of Athena.
“Three weeks to get to the Marquesas, three weeks to get to Tahiti. It only took Dirk one week.”
“Yea, well. I got a storm.”
“Fuck you,” he said. “I want one. I want Moitessier’s.”
“Who’s wishing for a storm on my boat?” chimed Rob. “That’s no good. 41 days chasing storms; I don’t want any more!”
“Right,” I said.
We drilled new holes for hatch locks. We painted and then acetoned the V-berth. We rebuilt the wind generator. Rob sat us down and gave a spiel about what it means to be on the boat, that he is the captain and his decisions are final. I thought about Andrew, and how little I’d heard him talk of such things until they boiled over and he would explode. I thought to Lido, and the same. I was glad to hear Rob speak of such things.
Florent was not allowed to smoke onboard. He was jittery when he hadn’t smoked. While we remained anchored at Taina, he would swim to a nearby buoy to sit with a cigarette lit, staring back at me. Then he strapped a few fenders together and would sit astern in the water smoking. I did not envy the addiction.
“It’s my addiction,” he said. “My body tells me that it wants nicotine and I say ‘ok, I will get you nicotine,’ and we have a good deal.”
“Man, too bad. I don’t even drink coffee.”
“If I quit someday, it will be because I want to, and not someone else. I like smoke. I smoke, and it’s my body I do what I want.”
“Alright alright man, no worries. How do you survive on the ocean?”
“I quit while on Zenna. Now, I will buy nicarette.”
I laughed. “Make sure you buy enough.” I turned to Daniel, who was still finding his comfort level among us, and so was quiet. “You smoke?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “Yes. In the marines we smoked a lot.”
“Thought you had to be healthy all the time.”
“Can’t smoke in boot,” he replied. “But in country cigs were game.”
In the days to come, I would hear much about the marines. Daniel had been an infantryman, and had the subtle, unobtrusive pride that places life and its experiences up against those had in the marines. Weeks later, we would be in a conversation about reverence, and I would say to him that he should not identify his whole life with the brief years of the military, no matter how different of an experience they range against others, that the world was bigger than ‘the war’. Every conversation resorted to the marines and Afghanistan for him. I didn’t want to say how little I thought of the military, but I wanted to question how he thought a bunch of fresh-faced brainwashed soldiers with guns in a foreign country could possibly think that they ‘do good’. In the weeks to come my tongue would flap and I’d feel comfortable to bring this conversation to the fore–for now, I listened.
“Lost men in Afghanistan,” he said. “Martinez got blown up.”
“What did you do?”
“I was a demolitions corporal, found IEDs. The British, they stayed behind the wire all the time, ran when shot at. When we got there, we found 2,000 IEDs in the first couple months. Marines are better trained.”
“I suppose,” I said. I didn’t know what to say in such a conversation. It didn’t matter what the world thought of the war–some men see the immediacy of their experiences, some men see the blood.
“It’s a tired affair,” I offered. But the conversation was already dead.
In between times of work, and always buffeted by crude jokes, we found time to snorkel, swim and play gin rummy. Daniel was the best at rummy.
“Spent a lot of time playing in Okinawa and on the troop ship during my first deployment. I’m good at gin rummy.”
“I played with a naked captain, in a storm,” I said. “Didn’t make me any better.”
At carrefour we provisioned. Potatoes, onions, rice, pasta, butter, hot dogs, milk, canned vegetables, canned fruit, cookies, crackers, cheese, bread, eggs, oranges, curry powder, lime juice, oil, baking soda, ketchup, syrup, cinnamon, salt, sugar and bottled water. I paid into the pot.
The next day we walked into town. Florent and Rob walked together, and Daniel and I a few yards behind them.
“I don’t get guys with PTSD who can’t handle it because they killed someone,” he said. “You know Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?”
“Yeah, you get that from lots of experiences,” I said. “I have it from college.”
“Oh, well, anyway, there are guys who can’t handle it. I can’t be in a dark place with a shit ton of people, I’ll start fighting. I’m a war fighter, that’s what I’m good at.”
“What’s wrong with the other guys you say?”
“The marines who shoot someone to save lives. That Taliban was gonna shoot you, so you shoot him, there’s nothing to cry over. These guys who cry because they killed someone. It doesn’t make sense.”
“I get that.”
“PTSD for killing someone.”
“It makes more sense to me if you get it because you lost someone.”
“Some people think more universally, I suppose. Taking life, doesn’t matter if you can justify it for some people.”
“It’s stupid,” he said.
I didn’t agree, but it was not a conversation I cared to continue. It shifted, then, to his alcoholism.
“Rob’s the best guy to help me with it. Denver was filled with bad influences,” he said.
“Sober 23 years, Rob told me.”
“Yeah, and he also did AA–Alcoholics Anonymous.”
“So, I guess, if you drink around me I should get upset?”
“Don’t get upset, just, I’ll try not to. It’s a disease, and the 12 steps are the best to help you admit that you’re helpless against it.”
It’s not a disease, I held from saying. It’s having an addictive personality. I suppose a man will do what he must to convince himself to stop doing damage to himself. AA is God saying you can’t help yourself without him and others to aid you–so be it, for those who it helps.
We arrived to the airport and checked out of the country. When we arrived into town on foot I separated from the others to go to Socredo Bank, there to get my bond money back. The building was air-conditioned and should give a sweaty walker pneumonia. I left there frustrated to have to return to the airport because I needed the exit stamp also on a pink slip that the bank had given me.
At the airport I got the stamp and found a Socredo branch there. I got my money back after being told I could only get 500 euros’ worth of American dollars; charming, complaining, threatening until I had all 1,500 dollars in my pocket. Stuck with more money on me than I spend in a year–great. One hundred dollars was lost in translation. Oh why hadn’t I just made the fake ticket? This was a great headache that would follow me until the money would disappear from my person.
“We’re checking out of here because I can only get my custom tax back that way,” said Rob. “But we’re still going to Bora Bora.”
That evening we found the three bulky American crew and spoke with them briefly. Later we found other crew walking the docks and we made conversation with them. A girl had contacted me, had found my crew slip on the announcement board, and had said she was on a boat called One World, and I ought to stop by. One World, I thought, I know that boat.
Daniel and Florent came with me. One World sat in a berth; a 50 foot Lagoon cat with a blue light emanting from between its hulls and into the fishy water. I know this boat. I knew this boat. It’s been 5 months but I know this boat! Oh shit and there he was, the captain, the young Pole!
“Martin!” I yelled across to the group sitting around the table inside.
“Hello?” he said.
“Martin it’s me Cale, do you remember? Come out here man!”
“Cale?” he came trodding across the gangplank.
“Man! The last I saw you, I was carrying you with Toby and Dirk and your face was all fucked up,” I said.
“Cale! Hey man!” We embraced and shook hands with smiles coating our expressions. “How are you? I didn’t expect to see you again.”
“Likewise, man.” I introduced the others. “You see the Swedes?”
“Not since Panama,” he said.
“Me neither. Just their posts from Tonga.”
“I think actually that they probably sunk that boat and are posting fake updates of their journey from Sweden.”
“Not unlikely, Toby hates sailing.”
“Well, man, it’s good to see a familiar face.”
“It’s good to see your face healed,” I said.
We met Iris, the French girl who was now crewing on Martin’s boat. I was of course jealous, because I remembered Martin in such a happy and intoxicated light, and among my favorite people that I had thus far met on this trans-Pacific jaunt. And the jaunt was trying my patience, so it was good to see a relic of its beginning, when I didn’t know what I was getting myself into and instead I was just drunk with friends, and distracted.
Martin was heading to Tonga, and to New Zealand. I told him to pick me up if I was stuck in Tonga, and he laughed and said it could be probable, that his new crew was not what he’d expected.
We weren’t worrying about crewing from Tonga. Florent and I had discussed it–everyone was going from Tonga to New Zealand. Dozens of boats, or more. It was storms to the south–there’s no way we wouldn’t be able to crew, it was almost guaranteed if we’d already made it this far. We said our farewells to Martin.
Two familiar catamarans were anchored beside us in the morning. I remembered them from Hiva Oa. Tribe was the boat of the South African I met in that little bank who had suggested that I ask Lido to pay my bond. Impi was the other South African who had told me to go ask Andrew for a ride to Tahiti. Rob happened to know both of them as well–he had been rafted up to them through the Panama Canal. We were all connected somehow.
“Cale? No! Is that you? I can’t believe it!” I had taken the dinghy to Impi to see Brett, and his reaction was surprising, to say the least.
Brett’s wife Ana emerged and came over to us. Her expression was marvelous when she saw me. “Oh! You’re alive, in the flesh!”
“Yeah of course,” I said.
“Man,” continued Brett. “We were very worried about you mate.”
“Yeah! We thought you were lost at sea.”
“Yes! We heard that Athena was lost. We just got in here last night, and the authorities were on the radio out there, asking for Athena, just yesterday”
“…No,” I said again. “It has been a month!”
“Yeah, man, but they’re still looking for Andrew. Everyone thought you guys were in trouble.”
“How did you find that out?”
“In the Tuamotus everyone heard about it. Andrew had made a call or something near Rangiroa and then no one heard from him, and he never made it to Tahiti.”
“He’s here. He’s in Port Phaeton, if you want to see him.”
“I think I’ll leave him alone for a while. You know, we were with Lido on Sarim in Nuku Hiva, and the Tuamotus. When we heard that a boat was lost, and when we heard it was Andrew’s, we were worried about you mate.”
“Yeah, I’m the one who told you to go with Andrew, and you remind us of our son. We bought extra fuel and zig-zagged here from the Tuamotus looking for you.”
“Yeah of course! Lido was going to too but they decided to put their boat on the hard in the atolls.”
“So Sarim stays in French Polynesia after all?”
“Yes. And Lido said not to worry about you when we spoke of the situation; he said you were not meant to perish in the sea.”
“Sounds like Lido,” I offered.
“I can’t believe you’re here Cale, this is a very good thing– everyone was worried.”
“Andrew just hasn’t checked in. We ended badly because I asked about when we’d go to the authorities,” I said.
“And there were a lot of problems. It took us three weeks to get here. We hit a huge storm and his computers were destroyed, we had no gas, the solar panels crapped out. It was bad.”
I looked up from the dinghy at Brett and Ana, who were both radiant with joy. It surprised me; I had only spent an hour or so with them in Hiva Oa before motoring over to meet Andrew on Athena. It was flattering that they cared so much about me, and when I left to go back to Wild Wind, I took back a bit of their radiance.
Rob saw it, and Daniel and Florent as well. I told them about the situation, and Rob fumed and raved about how irresponsible Andrew was; that he would waste the navy’s resources simply because he didn’t feel like checking in was giving other cruisers a bad reputation.
The next morning it was time to leave. We waved to the friend boats. We weighed anchor and motored to the pass. Moorea grew before us, and Tahiti fell into the haze of near-distance. Rob and Daniel were gung ho about fishing and released 3 trawling lines astern. There was no wind, and we motored through the meter waves for 5 hours until, fishless, we came into the pass at Cook’s Bay in Moorea. It reminded me of Fatu Hiva with its dominant rock cliffs. Apparently James Cook had arrived to this bay and declared it to be personally his. We opted to continue to the second bay, where we anchored in clear turquoise water.
There are the pragmatic of us–doctors, engineers, mechanics. But I am not of their ranks. I am intrigued far more by those things that pragmatic endeavors cannot explain. The big picture. The mind and art–the philosophical. So when I’m with people whose passion is the practical things that are the what of life, I crave the people who deal with the why.
But when my muscles are distracted, I am present enough. Snorkeling. Surfing on Rob’s longboard behind the dinghy. These were fun.
Our anchorage in Moorea sat abreast a thin stretch of white sand. Palm trees shaded the picnic tables, and there was a road just beyond the trimmed grass beyond the water. There was a sailing school with hobbie cats and optimists, and a few residences dotted along the road. From the boat we could see a few miles away the thatch huts sitting on their pilons out in the water, which is the typical layout of the hotels in Polynesia. One rents out a hut, on the water, and then they can say that they rented out a hut, on the water.
Florent and I hitchhiked into the town, and bought a few more provisions, Camember prime among them, and baguettes. We would have to take advantage of such a supply, for outside of France and French territories such as this, baguettes and Camembert are non-entities.
We snorkeled and it was better than anywhere else. I stood beside Florent on a head of coral when he called me over, and I emptied my mask because the water entered through my moustache. Then he grabbed me and pulled me back and I looked under the water to see a plume of coral dust where the green moray eel had lurched at me. I saw it staring at us with an open mouth and those violet button eyes from its lair, and it was as big as a greyhound.
“Fuck!” said Florent. “That thing came at you. You have to worry about those more than sharks, they’ll tear your hand off!”
“See, there’s no reason to be afraid of sharks.”
“Beg to differ.”
“Until they test you.”
“Eels are worse.”
We stayed in the anchorage in Moorea for 4 days instead of the 1 or 2 I’d expected. The wind had died so we would be adrift anyway if we left. So we stayed.
With Florent and Daniel I hiked up to a waterfall that was skirted by a forest of huge waxy leaves two of which would alone create a blanketing canopy. We spent time on the beach, playing gin rummy at the picnic tables. Florent and I took the dinghy and a tubular net and gathered coconuts for the voyage to Bora Bora, 150 miles away. The old grey ones are the best for coconut milk.
It took three loping days to make it to Bora Bora. I chewed sunflower seeds to remain awake during night watches. Nothing happened. The large mahi that took the lure probably tore its lip in order to escape. Instead I’d cook a sweet turmeric sauce with Anchor cream cheese to lay over the pasta. I cooked fluffy pancakes and potato hash browns. Daniel spoke of Afghanistan and the jiggy jiggy chai boys, and I liked some of his stories.
“You should write them down,” I said.
“I’m a proponent of keeping memories. Stories are the best way to do it.”
He wrote some stories. I enjoyed the one about the 500 pounds of marijuana they found in a cave.
“We pretended to draw straws but really we rigged it so that the two guys we didn’t really like had to go outside the cave to stand guard. Then we burned it all, and got high.”
“That must’ve been a trip.”
“It was stupid, actually, cause then we had to walk all the way back to base. Man if we got attacked it would’ve been bad.”
Florent spent most of his time perched on the bow with his iPod. He was a bit crazy without cigarettes, and very irritable. I enjoyed jostling him, and Daniel too. Everyone was moody.
By the time Raiatea came into view we were already two days at sea. Huahini and Raiateaiti presented themselves. Bora Bora’s vertical gum drop shape popped up on the horizon just a few hours later.
Rob called it the whisker pole, but I knew it as the spinnaker pole. It was an extendable aluminum rod that we attached to the mast’s D-ring on a halyard. The other end clipped onto the sheet of the headsail, and was pulled up with a topping lift and was held below by the downhaul line that we drew through a scupper. All four of us had a job to do when we raised the pole. Once it was up, we could head directly downwind, thereby making our heading exact.
I had the 4am watch, and saw the sun come up from behind Bora Bora. Few thoughts entered my head. Bora Bora is a household name that sounds exotic but really we don’t know. Is it a separate country? Where is it? What is it? Why do I know the name at all? It’s a cat call for the rich and famous. It’s Bora Bora, after all.
Bora Bora is an island surrounded by an atoll reef. Actually it’s several islands within the reef. The central island stands above the rest with a jungle moss pinnacle that looks huge but which is actually accessible (Though, apparently now one needs a guide to climb it, since a tourist fell to his death recently). Bora Bora is the last administrative island in French Polynesia. We were already checked out of the country, and technically our presence would be illegal, but no one cared.
By the time the sun was up, so was the rest of the crew. We motored through the pass, and were each in turned stunned to see the extent of the island’s beauty. We went before the main town, around a secondary island, and circled about its point to come back north through water that didn’t look like it was there. We passed the stilted huts of the Hilton, and just a bit further down we dropped the two bow anchors. I didn’t bother helping with the anchors, since for some reason it was the only time that made Rob and Daniel into frustrated yelling lunatics.
It was clear to see what made Bora Bora such a name. Maybe it was the marines that were here during WWII who fell in love with it and brought its name home–I mentioned that to Daniel. I would like to believe it’s simply the fact of its unrivalld beauty that has made it so desireble a destination.
We were anchored in about 10 feet of water, among various collections of populated coral heads. There was a channel nearer to the shore where wave runners and dive boats cut the water. There were a few other sailboats anchored near us, one of which was Geronimo, a boat I’d seen in Panama’s Las Perlas when I’d been with the Canadians. It’s a small world, here.
But the most astounding feature of this place was the water toward the reef. Not 20 yards away the coral bottom suddenly became so shallow that its teal aspect was made brilliantly reflective by the interplay of white sand and tropical sun. And it went on and on, all the way to the reef several football pitches in the distance. There was a lonely island that we later visited, and it too was surrounded by liquid crystal, glimmering at all hours under sun and moon.
Florent, Daniel and I jumped into the water with our fins and swam to the shallow water in the shadow of two courting rays, where we stood with our chests at the waterline. They prepared cigarettes and smoked. Above us the sky was blue, and in competition with the water for purity.
Back at the boat Rob was preparing things. Like many captains, he was always busying himself with the boat. “I like it,” he would say. “This is what I do, I like repairing things.” Sometimes, though, the vibes would become tangled and confused, and where we were said to be free and urged to go have fun, sometimes the obvious thing to do was stay on the boat and either help or watch whoever was working work.
The second day, we were released to go explore the shore. We had already visited the main island, where we walked through the Mai Kai Marina bar, and saw the grocery store and the main town, which was dusty and small and busy. Now, Florent, Daniel and I took the dinghy to the shore of the island aside which we were anchored.
We locked the dinghy to a tree, and walked down the beach toward the Hilton. Eventually a woman signalled where there was a path up the nearest hill. “La-bas,” she said, “beside that fenced area. the Hilton used to dump their garbage there.”
The path took 20 minutes and suddenly we were on a rock outcrop at the top of the hill, overlooking the hut complex of the Hilton down below, and behind us the town at the base of the gumdrop mountain, and all around us the thick ribbons of various grades of depth inside the reef. Beyond the reef, a line was drawn in the shallows where the translucent teal met the candy blue of depth. The teal was immense, and where on other islands I’d witnessed such colors, here, they were collected into wide bands that were twice, or three times the size of other circling reefs’.
I sat to draw the scene with colored pencils. Florent and Daniel sat beside me. Daniel had packed his binoculars and began scanning the Hilton.
“There’s one,” he said. “11 o’clock. Hottie. Fuckable.”
“Yea?” asked Florent.
“Let me confirm,” I said, stealing lingo to flatter the marine. He handed me the binoculars, which I peered through. “Where?”
“The girl walking on the boardwalk, main building.”
“Got her. 10-4 on that remark.”
He swiped the binoculars back.
“Let me see,” said Florent.
“What do you see now?” I asked.
“Got another, golf cart, 9 o’clock. Oh she’s definitely hot.”
“Confirm,” I said. “Let me,” I said.
“What the hell,” Florent interjected, giggling. “‘Confirm’!”
Daniel handed the binoculars to Florent.
“Ah, oui,” he said, biting his lower lip and pretending to jerk off.
“Damn, man,” I said as Daniel wrenched the binoculars once more from the Frenchman. “Smoke.”
“I did smoke.”
“No, I need to be fucked.”
“You are fucked,” said Daniel.
I rubbed my chin. “This is pathetic,” I said.
“It’s really pathetic,” Florent agreed. “Give me the binoculars.”
In the evening Florent prepared a coconut. Rob threw chunks into a blender with a bit of water, milk, salt, sugar, curry powder and cloves of garlic. The meal was exquisite.
“So how was it?” asked Rob. Florent beamed, and Daniel wore a smirk.
“We spied at girls with their boyfriends through the binoculars,” I said.
Rob shook his head. “You guys are strange cats.”
“You’d-a done it yourself.”
“It’s really beautiful up there, though, you should check it out,” said Daniel.
“Yeah, beautiful.” Florent said, sarcastically.
“It is,” I insisted.
“Yea, but there are too many people.”
“Tourism, I hate tourism.”
“Well what do you expect?” I put a spoonful of curry rice into my mouth. We were in the cockpit again, and dusk had turned to night. There were no mosquitos, and no chirpping sounds.
“I want natural place,” continued Florent. “All these fucking hotels, these fucking cars and this fucking garbage. Did you hear the lady? About the Hilton dumping?”
“What’s that?” asked Rob.
“A lady showed us where the Hilton was dumping waste,” I said.
“Yes,” said Florent. “It’s shit like that. I want a pure, unspoiled place, yes?”
“Well,” I said. “Maybe it’s a good thing.”
“How is it a good thing? People come, they fly 15,000 miles, they spend 5,000 dollars, and what? For a few days swimming with turtles. It’s not sustainable.”
“I agree with you there,” I said.
“That’s why I have my boat,” added Rob. “I couldn’t afford it the other way.”
“Well you know, it’s the avid adventurer who wants to see pristine places that makes tourism begin,” I said, staring off into the water. I could feel the others’ eyes on me then.
“What do you mean?” asked Florent.
“How do you think this place got so popular in the first place? Someone told someone about it and that someone wanted to see it.”
“I mean, you care about keeping these places natural right?”
“Yea,” he said. “They should be nature reserves.”
“Yea but tourism always has an impact. A bad impact, usually, if we’re talking about natural environments.”
“Like the Galapagos.”
“Yea. The Amazon. I always say I’m a good type of person to protect the Amazon because I have no interest in going there, ever again. I can’t possibly make an impact, I can’t take anything from it, poop in it, or drop trash in it.”
“I’m not interested in the Amazon either.”
“But my point.”
“Yea, what’s the point?” asked Rob. Daniel was focused on the curry.
“My point is that as long as you’re interested in seeing that pristine, unspoilt place, it’s going to get spoiled, eventually.”
“So my point is, can you be satisfied just knowing that a place more beautiful than Bora Bora exists? Is it enough to know that it is unspoiled? Can you stay away, and just be happy that it’s protected? Because that’s the only way it is going to be protected—if all the travelers are kept out. That’s what the Galapagos has to be.”
“Good point,” said Rob.
“But it won’t work,” I said. “The only reason we protect places is because we’re curious about them–we want to see them. Galapagos, yea? The money that protects them is the money gained from letting people come and see them. And yet they’re still being affected aversely! It’s a catch-22. No one wants to spend money on a place without being able to see it. The curiosity of the human race will be the world’s undoing.”
“It’s a high wind event,” said Rob one day. “We won’t be able to leave until it’s over.”
As is wont to happen everywhere there are boats, there was yet another delay. So, we moved to the Mai Kai marina, and took up a mooring ball. Rob asked for money, but I reminded him about our deal, which meant that I would not contribute for boat costs. It was not the first and would not be the last time Rob would forget that.
Florent, Daniel and I went ashore to the marina. We’d organized with Rob the day, and it seemed that he wanted to stay on the boat. The three of us hitched a ride to the south side of the island, where we treated Florent to a birthday meal of pizza and coffee. The public beach there was dotted with bikinis. When we returned to town several hours later, we had to walk. We found the famous “Bloody Mary’s” bar, and stopped to read all the names of famous people who had been there.
Finally we returned to Wild Wind, and there, I received something I had not expected.
Rob was fuming, gesturing at us from the boat to get back immediately. When we had tied up, I had not even entered the cockpit before Rob began to yell. He was not yelling aimlessly. His narrow stare pinpointed me in my seat, and his anger was spilling from his eyes into mine.
“That is NOT ok that you stayed away from the boat all fucking day. What the FUCK am I supposed to do here without a dinghy to get ashore? Why the FUCK am I gonna do, you tell me that, tell me that.”
“Rob, man, we thought you wanted to stay on the boat.”
“Don’t you fucking cut me off. You use double negatives to put the responsibility of your opinions on someone else. You do exactly what Andrew says you do!”
“Like today, with the anchor, when we moved. You said ‘don’t you think it will be windier on the other side?’ If you think something, you fucking own up to it. If you piss me off I will put you on a boat back to Tahiti I don’t have a problem with that do you understand?”
I was sitting now on the edge of the cockpit, staring into Rob’s furious eyes, and wondering why, again, I was being yelled at. Maybe it was because his nephew was unpredicatable and might not take it. Florent was new. Rob knew me best, and maybe he decided I could take it. There had been miscommunication, again. All three of us thought Rob wanted to remain on the boat, and yet here he was exploding over being left alone, and all of these new complaints were turned on me.
After he had calmed down, I said that we were sorry. Daniel and Florent were looking at me, and the sympathy in their eyes made my chest rage with anger. Rob was still wide-eyed and unblinking.
“You’ve had five hours to let this stew,” I said. Florent nodded.
“Ok, I guess I’m being intense,” he said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “It’s fucking cruel, Rob.”
“Ok.” He looked at the others and back at me. “Ok, yes. I overreacted, and I’m sorry.” He took my hand to shake. “I’m sorry, I was wrong to do that, ok?”
“Fine,” I said.
But it wasn’t fine. I retired to the bow, and sat staring at the hill that had turned dusk orange. What the hell is the matter with me that every captain eventually yells at me. It’s not that I couldn’t take it, but I was sick of taking it, because taking it meant not yelling back. I was already tired of crewing. I was tired of boats. I was sick and tired of being an underling, of being submissive, of allowing someone the pleasure of their screams. You think someone is your friend, but then the authority comes out in the arguments and you realize you are at the mercy of someone else’s bad humor. Perhaps there is friendship there, but it’s something that is at least questionable.
Florent came to the bow and I sent him away. Then Rob came.
“Talk to me,” he said.
I turned to face him. “Rob, I see what bugs you. I am sometimes a passive-aggressive opinionater. It’s because I do not feel comfortable in some opinions I might have. It’s a form of respect, for your opinions” I said. “At least that’s how I see it, and getting pissed at me is totally unwarranted.”
“I can’t help it,” he said. “It pisses me off sometimes.”
“Fine,” I said. “I’ll try to ‘own up’, as you say, to those opinions. I’ll tell you ‘I think we should stay anchored here because the wind is blocked by that hill,'”
“Good, that’s what I want.”
“Ok. But there’s something I must say.”
“Do not yell at me again. If we’re underway and there’s something urgent with the sails, fine, go ahead and yell. But if you yell at me again in such a way, for such a trivial thing, then I am done, with everything. Do not yell at me ever again.”
I knew that it was bold to say these things. I was doing what I had done to Lido, in order to initiate the process of throwing myself off the boat. Now it was Rob, and I was risking getting myself marooned again. But I didn’t care. I’d had enough of being treated by captains as though they feel entitled to treat their crew like shit. I went on to tell him that I didn’t like boats, that I just wanted to fill my role and be calm about it, but that I was not excited about boat travel. I travel on boats only to get from A to B, I’d said, and that’s all.
His lips were parted and his brow raised, irises glowing in surprise. I didn’t know what he’d say. I hadn’t thought about what I was going to say, it just came out. His riot act had been so unanticipated that I was thrown into a similar mood. So now here I was, checked out of the country, sitting on the bow of a boat in Bora Bora, uninterested in the surrounds, uninterested in other boats, in the water, in anything at all. And yet I’d continue with the boat if he wanted me to. It was akin to mild torture. But what the hell did I want otherwise? I didn’t think, I just watched, and waited for the verdict.
“Alright,” he said. “I respect that. Ok. Fine, I will not yell.”
I did not sigh for relief, because I hadn’t cared. If I’d been marooned, I have no idea what I’d do. But it didn’t happen. Wild Wind would have me yet, and so I would stay.
The wind kept up, blowing through at 25 knots. I sank back into the status quo of crew. The guys and I, we got along alright I suppose, we went snorkeling again, we walked up one of the smaller hills to the other side of the island. The interchanges with Rob were friendly, and sometimes I’d be glad. But the opinion had been expressed. It would happen again, and again. Crew can’t always express their opinions in response–you have to be careful. And being too careful is a great way to smite your own peronal authenticity. I wasn’t interested in Bora Bora, in the people. My mind was thinking about the boat. Beautiful scenes happened with the sky and the water, but I was indifferent. We met the bulky American crew again, and we met other people at the bar, and I used the internet connection, and nothing happened.
The closer I get to Asia, the further away it feels.