The best part of any circumnavigation isn’t planned nor foreseen – it happens by rare, weird happenstance. “Life is what happens while you are making other plans” is a truism that applies equally well to offshore sailors and dirt dwellers alike. The True Magic of Offshore Cruising is entirely unpredictable, and yet always lurks nearby, just beyond one’s peripheral vision.
You have to be in the right place at the right time, and there is no predicting either. Thus, maximizing your “highs” is impossible, isn’t it?
No, it is not. There are ways, dear reader, of consistently finding the rare magic – the impossible combinations of fate/time/place which make ocean sailing so impossibly pure and cosmically wonderful – and the first rule is as simple as pie: don’t attempt to rekindle it.
Sometime in the late fall of 1999, a nameless sailor on an unknown boat tied his dinghy to a palm tree on the tiny island Kauehi, in the low-lying Tuamotus group of French Polynesia, and went in search of a loaf of bread. We don’t know if he was French or English or Spanish, nor does it matter.
What matters is that a seven-year-old local youngster hopped into that dinghy to play. He knew he shouldn’t have, but did so anyway. The engine was still warm. The youngster had seen his father pull the cord of their outboard many times … suddenly, the outboard roared to life! The youngster fled, horrified.
The outboard sucked sand into its impeller, which ruined it. The engine also ran out of gas, forcing the unhappy yachtie to row back to his vessel after cursing out a few of the puzzled locals.
The youngster was found and punished by the villagers – not too harshly but harshly enough.
My wife Carolyn and I had nothing to do with any of this. It was just some small incident that happened in a far-away land, a tiny insignificant act of no large consequence.
And things, especially justice, move slowly in the South Pacific. It wasn’t until the spring of 2000 when, during a Council of Chiefs, the leader of Kauehi confessed the incident to the rest of the far-flung group. Frowns appeared. This simple act, the elder felt, had tarnished their reputation for hospitality, which is a core-value to a Polynesians. “Something must be done,” intoned the Chief of Chiefs. “We can’t allow this to stand – a stain on our islands! We must make it up to the yachties … we must atone!”
Various ways of doing so were discussed, but the tried-and-true traditional Polynesian method won in the end. The entire island of Kauehi was “sentenced” to throwing a huge party for the yachties – to collectively make up for the one lad’s rudeness with the outboard.
In June of 2000, I just happened to be piloting Wild Card, our modest Hughes 38, through the Tuamotus in company with two other yachts. We hadn’t really planned to sail together. Nor were we particularly going to anchor in the same place. We had just randomly picked the same weather window to Tahiti and fallen into chatting on the VHF.
Little did we know, we’d found our South Pacific cruising family.
Late in the afternoon, as Carolyn and I were poring over the Charlie’s Chart in search of a protected anchorage, we saw of flash color on the horizon, and were soon surrounded by milling, open Polynesian fishing craft.
“Your party is tonight,” said the leader (who turned out to be Paul, son of the chief). We’ll help you anchor and guide you through the cut in the reef – no problem!”
I tried to explain that it couldn’t be my party or our party, as none of us even knew we’d be here, or exactly where we were, for that matter.
But Paul and his Poly Cowboys – whipping their waterborne steeds around like frisky mustangs – were equally sure that it was our party, and that the pig had been slaughtered upon the sighting of our sails, and that we were expected by the whole village.
After a brief VHF conference, it was decided that, hey, why not see where this strange invitation led? There were three of us. We could always fight our way back out to sea if required … why not kiss life full on the lips?
Bo, the Danish skipper of the lovely double-ender Lisalotte, was a rakishly handsome grandfather-on-the-prowl type. His Euro manners were superb; he was an extremely gracious and considerate man. Within moments, I was under his spell. He embodied all the cosmopolitan sophistication (and kindness) I aspired to.
His Swedish girlfriend was – I’m not sure how to put it politely – hot! Elizabeth was blond and blue eyed and laser-beam-sincere. Both of them were fun to be around, particularly Liz. She was a professional mid-wife (mostly in Greenland) and would approach each island lady to immediately inquire about her vagina. Traveling Polynesia in her company was almost a continuous gynecological examination, with babies dropping onto the sand like red-faced, crying punctuation marks.
“Isn’t she something?” Bo would beam as he watched her tour a small tropical clinic. “She really cares about each woman, about each baby. They are her world-flock. Our boat is filled with medical supplies she’s gathered from the West. Everywhere she goes, she just matter-of-factly asks, ‘How is your vagina? Sex life? Baby? How was your labor? Any health issues? Is there anything you want to ask, that you need to know?’ ”
I began to think of her as a waterborne Madame Curie who liked to paint watercolors when she wasn’t professionally peering under pareos.
Joshua Sutherland, skipper of the steel junk Lorca, was as boyish as Bo was fatherly. He looked up to Bo as a man and me as a writer. I was comfortable with the duality of my role as both father (to Josh, in a way) and son (to Bo, in a way).
It is usually the women who bond in this manner, but perhaps because of Liz’s egalitarian world view, we men bonded in way which isn’t typical in Western Society. Perhaps I should put it another way: it was as if we were instant family, with all the admiration and mutual respect that entails. (Twelve years on, we still keep in close touch via e-mail and Skype.)
To say that the island-wide party that the lovely people of Kauehi threw for us was magic is to make a vast understatement. Each of us – as a party favor for showing up – received a giant pearl (so large I had Carolyn sew up a separate PFD for mine). The seafood was exquisite. Even the coconut beer was drinkable if you closed your eyes and held your nose as you gulped.
Flic, the retired cop from Papeete, allowed us (under supervision) to gather oysters from his pearl farms – the ancient equivalent of scratching off lottery cards. (“We have a winner!”) Monique, his gracious wife, answered our every question about pearl farming, fishing, and island life. They held us to their bosom, and wouldn’t let go.
When we left after a month, the Chief and his son both cried as they brought us our final gifts of coconuts, heart-of-palm and dried fish.
To this very day, when I hear the word ‘Polynesia’ I feel the coconut beer spilling down my sweating chest as the pearl farmers cheer. I think of it every time I’m faced with a hard task on my boat – that no matter how hard or lengthy or expensive the boat job might be, it is nothing in cost compared with a few moments on the paradise called Kauehi.
Fast forward five years:
“What do you mean no?” Carolyn asked, the puzzled outrage plain in her voice.
“Which part don’t you understand,” I shot back. “The ‘n’ part or the ‘o’ part?”
“Damn it, Fatty,” she said. “We’re only 100 miles away.”
We were having a rare argument. She wanted to return to Kauehi on our second circumnavigation, and I did not. I knew that the Chief had passed away. That Flic and Monique were back on Tahiti. That the famed inter-island Outboard Incident was long forgotten.
It had been a pivotal, life-changing moment for us, but not for them. Sure, we could go back and stir the cold ashes, but why? We’d had our Perfect Memory. We’d had our Perfect Moment. Why muddy it? Why visit a Memory of Magic when we could create a new one instead?
We pushed on to Makemo where we met the famous pearl-carving Becko, survived the storm of ’05, and were assisted by the physically ugliest (and most beautifully natured) sailor I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet – a gracious, hardworking boatman who helped save Wild Card, and was so busy doing so that I failed to learn his name. He will always be revered as the Polynesian Seafarer to me.
Oh, what memories! Singing with the church choir on Sunday morning. Teaching the local youngsters blues guitar. Eating ice cream brought by the famed inter-island Tahiti Nui. Riding the island’s Harley a couple of sandy feet this way, and a couple of sandy feet back. Bringing ashore the bag full of Duracell Bunnies (grabbed for free at some urban product promotion in Chicago’s loop) to the amazed and delighted children. Distributing giant plastic bags full of warm popcorn in appreciation.
More perfect memories. New ones. Ones which don’t diminish the previous ones in the slightest – only further burnish them.
The reason I write these words is because I am in St. Barth’s, which was, and is, a nice place. In fact, in the 1970s, I believed (and still believe) that St. Barth’s was the finest aquatic rock on the Planet Earth. It was pure magic. Jimmy Buffett was on Escapade, stern to Gustavia. The Friths on Moon. The young, dashing handsome Lulu on Pluto. Paul Johnson on Venus. The Pirate Queen on Life’s a Beach. Uncle Foot on Blue Water. Tango Two had just circumnavigated with the shady Cap’n Green aboard. John Smith was tacking off Cock Rock in Mermaid. The Madonna boys where there. The Hairy Brothers, too. Harrison Ford. Mad Murphy. Leslie of Marquerite T. Bernard Moitessier. Stevie Wonder. Timothy Leary. Bob Dylan.
I can see on the beaming, glowing faces of the patrons of the Le Select that the magic is still there – that for many, St. Barth’s is still the coolest, trendiest place in the universe. But not for me.
The cruising life is all about change and growth and evolution, and I’ve been in the Caribbean too long to be surprised. This is as much my fault and personal shortcoming as much as anything else. But I need completely new and empty horizons to stir my blood – new canvas to be ‘writ large upon.’
If I hear the word ‘reservations’ on my VHF, I hoist anchor and sail far, far away. The Internet was supposed to enhance life, not substitute for it. You will never be a click away from happiness. Video voyeurism is not living.
Empty oceans beckon me. Adventure awaits.
Thus I coil my ropes, stow my gear, and squint to windward. It is time to chase the horizon again, to feel my vessel dip and curtsy to a building sea. I long to be off offshore, off the grid, literally off-my-rocker. I can smell the salt air. Land holds no attraction. Money and maggots seem one and the same. The world news is pointless; People magazine is a carefully-crafted indictment of our entire culture.
No, I couldn’t go home. It was not there anymore, not in any meaningful way. It is just another fading memory – yet another dreary port to be avoided.
Once again, I hear the Sirens call.
Cap’n Fatty and Carolyn are getting ready to set off again – where to, is anyone’s guess. http://www.fattygoodlander.com/