Aitutaki, Alone on the Sea
We were alone in the middle of the
It was three in the morning when a kind but tired voice woke me. Through my barely open eyelids, I looked up to see Mom. She wore a blue foul-weather jacket and a tiny lifejacket that inflated when wet. A dim red glow behind her broke the darkness. There was nothing I wanted to do more than drop my head to the pillow and retreat into sleep, but my family needed me; it was my turn to take control of the boat. In my tight bunk I donned a lifejacket similar to the one worn by my mom. I walked up the companionway from the shelter of below decks into the cool, black night. The relative coolness of being on deck shocked me into consciousness. Despite being so close to the equator, it was actually cold, compared to the day at least. Within a few minutes I was alert; after Mom had given me some basic information, such as our course and the weather, she went below to sleep. I was alone. The blackness was complete but for the green and red lights of the instrument displays.
I sat down on the fiberglass bench, behind one of the two helms. I observed the small area that I would be confined to for the next three and a half hours, my shift. At the back of the boat, where I was, the railing was the sturdy metal framework necessary to keep the helmsman aboard should the seas become rough and break into the cockpit. I pressed the button that turned off the autopilot, and grabbed the helm with both hands. It was wide enough that my arms stretched away from each other, but not uncomfortably so. The surface was smooth leather, gone slightly sticky with its years in the marine environment. Occasionally one of the wheels made a rubbery squeak, or the rigging would grind against itself, making strange creaks and groans. Everything smelled, mostly of the salty breeze propelling us through the ocean, but there was also an odor of mustiness and of something mechanical.
As I steered, I constantly monitored the instrument displays. The wind was from our port aft quarter, calm, at most fifteen knots. It tossed my hair about as we coursed through the dark. When I was not looking at the instruments, I stared at the compass on the other side of the wheel, illuminated red, while making small turns of the wheel. It stared back at me; we watched each other’s backs. It was easier to stay alert when the stars were out, but tonight the sky was cloud-covered. Every five minutes, I hit the autopilot button, and it beeped to notify me that the most diligent crewmember aboard had briefly assumed control. I looked in every direction from the boat, scanning to see if there were any tankers that could crush us. I leaned out of the cockpit, which was raised slightly off the deck, and scanned the blackness. The black of the abyss was unblemished; there were no other ships out there to provide a hazard. Whales and other large cetaceans were always a concern, since they (somewhat eerily, in my opinion) slept on the ocean’s surface silently, and were undetectable by radar. Large cargo ship containers and other debris might also be floating along, waiting in our path to wreak havoc upon our hull. Large objects lost at sea could sink a ship in minutes, so vigilance and a little luck were our allies in the night.
I came back into the cockpit and moved across to the starboard side. Pausing, I repositioned the harness. This cable was all that ensured I did not fall into the black ocean; fall away from my family asleep on a ship sailing itself away from me. As I moved, the harness was dragged across the floor, whispering. Again I leaned out of the cockpit, on starboard this time, to scan the blackness. With the billowing jib on this side, I lay flush with the deck to peer under its gentle curves. No lights above water. Scrambling back to the helm I saw a few green, underwater sparkles of bioluminescent plankton. I moved back to my original side of the cockpit, again unclipping and re-clipping my harness. I turned off autopilot and with another beep I resumed steering. About twenty minutes later, having performed one of my scans of the abyss, I went down below and look at the radar. The animated arm swept over a fifteen-mile radius. Like the night it scanned, the monitor was black. Mainly I looked for squalls; although small as far as storms go, on the radar they appeared as huge yellow lumps that dominated the monitor.
After about three hours, the blackness became a deep blue behind me, growing ever brighter. Eventually, the hue on the eastern horizon morphed into a pale pink. The wan light now shone down below decks onto a clock. It was 6:30; my time was up. Looking out across the breathing ocean, I sighed and hit the autopilot button again. It beeped in farewell. I descended the companionway to awaken my dad. He was asleep in the main salon, his normally neat hair rearranged by the salt and wind. It had retained its uncharacteristic shape, the dried saline serving as an unwelcome gel. Once he got up and took the reins, I curled up into a ball on the couch. Beneath a blanket, I left the lifejacket on. I was too tired to care. I needed to rest because the same thing was going to happen tomorrow.
The next day, sky and ocean were both gray. The ocean was darker, almost the blue it should have been. I sat on the wet teak; my hands clasped the helm. I rotated the wheel in a consistent pattern, one that let us slice through the swells. The four-foot wide helm was heavy in my grasp. I rotated her in a small cyclic pattern as we ambled through the waves. We were going about seven or eight knots, and we needed to do at least nine. My hair fluttered off to the right; I glanced at the sails. They luffed as they propelled us toward land, toward Aitutaki. I was forced to shift my stance slightly as a larger wave lifted us above the rough surface of the ocean. My favorite oceanography book said about every three-hundredth wave was abnormally large, up to five times the average height. That could turn a twelve-foot wave into a sixty-foot behemoth.
Mom climbed up the companionway, brows furrowed behind her shades. She looked a bit down as she crossed the cockpit toward me.
Raising my voice above the sound of the wind I asked, “What’s your weather up to, Lady?”
Her earnestness was broken by a slight smile. “Scattered squalls throughout the area with a major front coming up from the southern ocean. We need to get to Aitutaki today to avoid it.” “Showers would be cool too,” I added. We had not gotten water since
Mom lightly shooed me away from the helm. I unclipped myself from the lifeline and moved toward the companionway before she could tell me, “Go below and help your father with the engine.”
On the way I paused briefly at the chart desk where we kept all the nautical charts. I looked at Aitutaki, an atoll with a forty-foot wide meandering channel leading into a harbor smaller than a gas station. It was facing west. The winds were over thirty knots from the south, swells out of the southwest increasing to eight to ten meters. We were not getting in without a motor.
I asked Dad longingly, “Any progress?”
His face was covered in droplets of sweat and oil. He sighed, “I’m bleeding the fuel lines. I think there’s air in there. But I’m out of ideas; it keeps on leaking.”
We sat in silence for a bit, alternating between looking at each other and at the silent engine. The boat continued to pitch.
“Do you think Bruce would know?” I pondered aloud.
My dad waved a hand toward the radio. “Give him a call. See where he is. Let’s find some solution.”
Bruce, captain of Blessed Bee and veteran of many passages through the brutal
Teflon tape bound to the fuel line, the engine sputtered to life. Taking my turn at the wheel I guided us along at a sound nine-and-a-half knots. My greasy hair, streaked from almost a week without washing, was blown into my eyes. I shook my head but it found a way back. Lips pursed slightly, I concentrated on the pulsating blue vastness that lay in front of me. A gray, fuzzy thing on the horizon could be a cloud—but it wasn’t. Aitutaki had broken the horizon.
As we finally drew close, the swells began to rise to their predicted height. We rushed down the sides of the waves, climbed back up, and then stalled briefly at the crests before dropping again. The surf attacked the shore audibly; it was especially easy to hear once the deep vibration of the engine faded away and the engine died, again. Pulling out the VHF we hailed any vessel that could pick up the signal, hopefully Blessed Bee. We tacked up and down the length of the island; making short, frequent tacks in order to keep close to shore. Having abdicated the helm, I set the sails with each turn, which became more difficult as the wind strengthened to over thirty knots. We needed to buy time, walking a tight rope between a jagged reef and towering swells from the south.
After five or so cycles of this, Dad came up from below and announced that he could not contact Bruce. However, he had gotten in touch with the police, who acted as immigrations officers, fishing captains, and general services of all kinds on this tiny atoll. They were able to cajole a local boat to weave through the cut in the reef to assist us. We tacked. I set the sails. From across the growing swells came a small white craft. We pointed our bow into the wind, ceasing all forward motion to rise and fall with the waves as the small craft, now apparent to be a fishing boat, drew alongside. Pitching in the swells, we waited for this little boat to come alongside. I swayed on the deck, moving in an exaggerated rhythm to keep myself steady on deck and aboard.
As the petite wooden boat drew near, Bruce, a veritable tree of a man, stood with a coiled rope hanging like a whip from his hand. Lashing his arm forward, he splayed out the rope; I frantically clasped it as it collided with my face. Wet and heavy, it could have been a dying eel. I wrangled it to deck and lashed it to a cleat; then I looked toward the stern. Dad was imperious behind the wheel. Mom tied another rope between the two boats, and then the small craft began the sojourn to shore, us in tow. We were aboard a helpless twenty-three ton baby with no engine and her sails furled, since tacking within a channel as wide as Promise’s length was not feasible.
The fishing boat entered the forty-foot wide pass between the coral jaws, with only ten feet of water or so between the sides of our hull and the menacing coral. Depth was another constant concern. The tip of our ship’s keel was six feet below the waterline of our hull; this tiny opening only had six feet or more at a half-rising tide or above. The depth meter registered seven feet, but intermittently blinked to six or eight. Dad insisted we hold on to the boat, lest we hit unexpectedly and were thrust forward either onto the deck or, worse, into the tempestuous sea. The swells had only grown as we continued to be towed into the channel. The surf nudged us through the entrance. Moving with the water, we had no steerage and our normally sturdy vessel was totally vulnerable. There really wasn’t much to do other than sweat, so I took pictures. The small fishing boat’s engine buzzed ahead constantly. They guided us through a bottleneck and spun us around within the tight lagoon, stern toward the shore, bow toward the Pacific. We dropped the anchor ahead of us and tied our stern to two large coconut palms.
We relaxed for the first time in almost a week. I sat next to my dad, leaned into his shoulder slightly, and sighed. Although the wind still lashed, the waves pounding their fury on the edge of the reef could not reach us, and we floated on the calm surface of the lagoon. Across the harbor a crumbling jetty disrupted the glassy water. I ran my hand through my greasy hair, feeling both exhausted and filthy, encrusted with salt. A shower would be restorative. Normally we could find a dock hose to use for water, but not here.
I asked my dad, “How do we get water here?”
He sighed, his cheeks bulging with the exhalation, “We’re going to have to jerry-jug it over, I think.”
“That little five-gallon tank?” I groaned. “Ferry it back and forth?” He looked at me, so I added hurriedly, “Hey, whatever works. I mean, better than going to Raratonga. And I’m in no rush to leave the harbor.” A mere ten minutes earlier I had been happy to simply be alive and not churning in the giant swells of the South Pacific. Showers and cleanliness had been added to my short list of demands too.
I felt a splat on my arm. In the tension that accompanied getting into a safe harbor with the impending storm, we failed to notice the thickening, moisture-laden clouds. The next second, the surface of the harbor churned with innumerable fat drops falling.
“The rain collector!” I shouted. “We need to use it!” Not listening for a response, I ran below and returned with the boat-sized canvas in tow. We suspended it above the deck, stretching it taught to the corners of the boat. The collecting canvas was like a snare drum at first; then as it sagged with the weight of water it sounded the same as the surrounding harbor. Plastic hoses dangled into filling ports in the deck. Water gushed through the clear plastic hoses like a faucet. I bellowed into the sky, spinning on the deck. I called below, “Mom! I need the big pot!” Beaming she clanked it down for me. Our water tanks aboard at full capacity held two hundred gallons. I had about twenty gallons in a canvas above me, spilling over the sides and down into the tanks. That was enough water to cook a meal and provide some drinks. I scooped the pot into the shimmering, liquid jewel and poured the world’s purest water over my face. I did it again and again. The tanks overflowed.
The following morning I wandered out of my room late. “Morning, Chief. Time to get back to working on Bessie,” said my dad.
I nodded my head and poured myself a bowl of muesli with a bit of long-life milk on top. I ate deliberately. Less than a minute elapsed before I finished and put the empty bowl in the sink. I motioned toward my bunk. We peeled the mattress back and lifted the boards beneath to reveal the red Westerbeke engine, streaked in grease. We tweaked every pipeline and nut on that side of the system until we hit one holding a certain cap down. I went to the cockpit to get a 7/16” wrench we’d left there and realized that it was totally overcast.
An hour or two later, Mom stuck her head in the door, “Hey boys, we’re going to lunch with Blessed Be in a bit; just a heads up.” Dad grumbled at some mechanical object. I acknowledged her, “Thanks for the notice.”
We all piled into the dinghy and traversed the 100 feet to shore. I tied it to a stationary barge that had washed ashore, mindful not to let the inflatable hull get too close to the jagged timbers. I followed my parents and Lara up the rocks and made for shore. Bruce stood by a beaten red pickup, and shouted “G’day!” in his cheerful Australian accent. He huddled in his foul-weather jacket, the rain running off it. He waved us over. Bruce, his shipmate,
I shook the water from my hair as we parked under the indigenous
Bruce smiled in response, “Yeah, these kids are some of the best in the Pacific; they’re going to the international competition in a few weeks.”
Dad started to make some exclamation but was muffled by the voice through a microphone that announced, “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Tonight we’re having a show by the Aitutaki Dancers, a gorgeous demonstration of some traditional dancing. But, of course, first we got a few buffet tables to the left if you’re interested.” The growing crowd gathered around the tables. I took a serving of nearly everything, Taro, a purple root vegetable, some coconut/seaweed coleslaw and a portion of every other food from water and land.
The last of the guests found their seats and the lights were dimmed. The dancers moved out solemnly, and stood for a moment in the dim lighting. The girls were in a row close to the audience, the men in a row behind them. A wave rustled over the sand. Then the drums erupted and the ukulele flew. The girls’ hips swung, flinging their grass skirts in rippling waves. Behind them, the men’s ankles stayed together as they moved across the sand stage, their knees swinging in and out at a cadence matching the girls’ hips: fast.
The crowd and dancers passed through a few cycles of performance and ecstatic applause. At the end of one dance, as the audience roared, the dancers approached us. This was typical: the last dance of the show involved both the dancers and a randomly selected few from the audience. One girl walked up to me and extended her hand. In a moment of terrified reluctance, I professed a sprained ankle. Mom, sitting next to me, cried, “Are you kidding me? Get up there with her!”
Planting her feet in the sand, her hips swung into action as she spun around. I did my tentative best to imitate the male dancers I had seen, swinging my knees around like an intoxicated ant. I smiled at her as she came to face me. Looking beyond her blatant beauty, her features were coarser than those of French Polynesian girls. She was not as delicate; her cheekbones were higher and her jaw wider, stronger. Scattered applause began and I glanced back at her as I sat back down. The crowd stood in ovation. I smiled, staying seated. After bowing, all the dancers dispersed except for mine. She walked back to me and put her flower necklace and crown about my head, saying, “Thank you.”
As she walked away, Dad burst out laughing, “Well look at you, Chief.” He pointed the camera at me and gave me a swizzle stick. “Here’s your scepter, Polynesian King; smile!”
Back in my berth, I hung the flowers on the same hook as the inflatable lifejacket, the necklace first and then the crown. The following morning I woke up and I pressed my face to the flowers, inhaling their overwhelming sweetness. Mom walked in, exclaiming, “Wow, those babies smell so good! But hey, are you ready to go on that tour to the nature preserve? It’s leaving pretty soon.”
Once ashore, we looked over to the huge jetty jutting into the channel. A few barges traversed the channel, transporting goods ashore from the monthly supply ship bobbing outside the barrier reef. Weaving through the coral heads, their slim aluminum hulls skimmed the surface of the lagoon. A team of marine engineers from
Now almost at the barrier reef, the boat drew to a halt as we passed over the cline between the sandy shallows and the dark deep. Our tour guide, Captain Fantastic, cried, “Okay everyone, this is a great little place for some sno’klin’ if any of yous is interested,” and he tossed the anchor off the bow. Virtually all the passengers scrambled to escape the confines of the boat and catch a glimpse of the Pacific in its prime.
With just a mask, I held my breath and traced the contours of the deepening seabed as I approached the coral metropolis. Clouds obscured most of the light, imbuing this realm with a ghostly beauty. My brain needed oxygen, but my mind needed to feast upon the vibrancy so rarely witnessed. The sparkling surface seemed distant as I surfaced. Having replenished myself, I returned. About twenty feet below the surface, the silky sand rested. Rising from this granular sheet were countless coral structures, edifice-like blocks of life comprised of a mesh of hundreds of corals penetrated by a plethora of fish drifting. Each of these coral mammoths rose far from the floor, leaving about five feet of open water above each—ample room for snorkelers to pass over. Not constrained by a snorkel, I continued to free dive on the coral. I wound around the outer corals and swam further into the labyrinth.
On the sand between the corals, several more static creatures lay, each about three feet across and mostly grey, highlighted with a blazing blue streak: giant clams. The grey shells were coarse and rippled, and between these hemispheres of armor were the fleshy blue lips. From one end of the lips protruded a little tube. I put my finger close to it, tentatively, and resisted the perceptible flow of water into it. That was the siphon feeder. As I surfaced, I felt a tap from behind. I whirled about, forcing myself not to scream; my minor phobia of sharks had continued to dwell in the back of my mind. Dad reminded me in pantomime that a giant clam was an amazing but surprisingly dangerous creature, one that had the power to literally suck in an entire arm if it got too close to the siphon. He then tilted his head off toward the left. I followed him in that direction, examining the coral in detail. As we drifted past, he pointed to a crevice in the coral. It was not too special, so I gave him a look. He pointed more fervently at the same spot. Then I saw it. A one centimeter, bright yellow, rounded cube, covered in black spots. Its disproportionately small fins spun perpetually, keeping it from drifting. Dad and I stuck our heads above the surface.
He spat his snorkel out to ask, “What is that little bugger?”
I responded, “No clue! He’s pretty cool though.”
Dad shrugged, “He’s a pumpkin fish, then.”
The tourists filed back aboard, each giving their limbs a shake to leave the excess water in the bottom of the boat. I was the last up, tossing the salt water from my hair. The process of losing that valuable cleanliness had begun. Captain Fantastic did a quick check to ensure we were all aboard before opening the throttle. Less than a minute passed before the aluminum bow nestled into the sand of a motu.
Fantastic called out, “I’m going to make us lunch. It’ll be ready in about thirty minutes.” He went to an open shack to cook. As we paraded ashore, I traced a large SOS into the sand with my feet. We had learned from some of the islanders that this very spot had been used in the TV show “Survivor” the previous season. We hadn’t known that, or ever even seen the show, since TV really was not a part of our lives.
I asked, “Hey, who has the camera?” Mom handed it over. I swiveled it across the sky in a vain attempt to capture a picture of an elegant white bird soaring overhead. It could have been a type of tern except for its tail extending a few body lengths behind it. Snap: another fuzzy shot of the overcast sky. The bird dove into the impregnable brush. Stumbling through the sand, I made my way toward where the bird landed. I gasped and, putting my index finger to my mouth, I beckoned my family over with the other. My mom peered into the brush and then spurted muffled exclamations. I smirked. Kneeling in the sand I pointed the camera at the bird and its fluffy offspring nesting on the ground, behind some branches. The adult bird peered at us and then back at its offspring, a compact white creature with tufts of white protruding from its head and neck. It resembled some lost Muppet creation of Jim Henson. Its jet stone eyes did not move. I looked at the pictures I had captured of the two and stepped back, trying to give them their space. It was too late. The adult bird hopped from the nest on the ground and began to limp away from the nest. “Oh, no! She was flying just a minute ago!”
Captain Fantastic handed us each a banana leaf with some fruit and parrot fish on top. “So, this is the food of my forefathers, and unless you brought your own forks, we’ll be eating in the manner of my forefathers as well.”
My foot twitched as a hermit crab clawed its way over it. I addressed Fantastic, “Hey, Captain? I didn’t mean to hurt her or anything, but I was taking a picture of this one bird, big white bird, and its baby, and then the parent started to abandon the chick. It was limping away, but I had just seen it fly to the nest.”
He laughed, “Yeah that’s normal. She’s pretending she’s hurt so if you’re a predator, you’ll go after her, not her baby.”
Pausing from her food, Mom smiled and commented, “Amazing what we mothers will do for you children.”
Later that afternoon, after Captain Fantastic’s boat docked, we made the short walk to the grocery store. I stopped beneath a ficus tree arching over the road. The majority of the mass was on the left side of the road, but the tree had grown over the road and its vines had grown down to the ground and formed another trunk on that side of the road. I wandered into the matrix of vines dripping down from above. The vines went into the sky indefinitely and formed a solid alcove around me. Running the thinner filaments through my fingers, I stepped back out to keep up with my family as we continued to get provisions.
We walked into the dank store. The lighting was poor, and the floor, dirty concrete. Although small, the refrigerated section was full of relatively fresh produce, the fridge stocked with frozen meats from the monthly surplus provided by the infrequent supply ship. My mom and sister, Lara, took a basket and scoured the aisles of packaged foods while my dad went next door to purchase oil for the dinghy’s outboard motor. I took a bag to get produce. Although comparatively fresh, I still went over the whole rack, carefully turning all the fruit over and feeling them to determine which the best were. Of each fruit type, I took about five. Of those, two would be great and three closer to marginal. I searched for Mom and Lara. I found them debating over whether they should get cabin bread or sweet crackers, the two types of crackers available. “Why don’t we get both?” I posed.
Mom shrugged, “Fair enough.”
We walked up to the counter and greeted the girl behind it with, “Kia orana.” She smiled, and Mom asked, “Do you guys have any toothpaste?”
The girl said, “I’m not sure; we might have some from the last shipment but we haven’t finished unloading this month’s yet.” After a pause she continued, “But if we did it’d be in the aisle closest to the door.”
I walked over and looked. There were a few faded bottles of shampoo, some bars of soap, and at the back of a shelf, a bottle of toothpaste. It was a foreign brand, but the exaggerated cartoon smile on the front could not have been an advertisement for anything else, so I brought it back to the register.
The cashier giggled, “Guess you got lucky then.”
Across the square was a local market where we reconnected with Dad. He had been visiting with a local craftsman who procured a ukulele. We had a guitar aboard but had not added an instrument since our steel drum in the
That was our last afternoon in Aitutaki. A full week had elapsed since our dramatic arrival, and we all agreed that our time there had been far too brief. Aitutaki was one of the most scenic of the islands we’d seen recently, both above and below the water. Although we had taken an extensive tour of the lagoon and driven about the island twice, this left us with only a marginal understanding of the gorgeous and unique idiosyncrasies of the island. Each island has such unique features, in fact. However, in our brief time there, we were able to pick up some of the common trends. The most notable of these, by far, was the hospitality of the Maori people. This was evident in their readiness to assist if we ever needed a lift somewhere or even just the warmth shown in ordinary exchanges with them.
The very act of sailing the Pacific was a gamble—of precious resources, of time, and of our very lives. Of course, we wanted to play safe, especially with the last article. The following day high tide was at eleven a.m., and we were anxious to hit the open sea for Palmerston Atoll. Wanting to get an early start and calculating the rise of water in the narrow channel, we left at 9:30. Even so, we scraped the bottom twice on the way out. Fortunately, the shallowest part of the egress we knew was sand not coral, and it merely cleaned the protective anti-fouling paint from the tip of our keel. With the weather about to turn foul, a massive front surging north from the Southern Ocean, we needed to move on and out of the way. Palmerston was scarcely better sheltered, but it was going to escape the temper of this storm.
Despite our reluctance to leave Aitutaki so soon, we possessed an undertone of zeal and excitement for the unknown before us. We shared an intense craving for the horizons yet to be crossed and the waves yet to be traversed.