Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Shiriri Saga # 57.Noemea. The Arts: A Universal Language

The wind is gusting over Artillery Point and setting all the anchored yachts a jiggle. There are a lot of us, over two hundred, and we crowd every bay and bit of sheltered shoreline in this big harbour. We are all here for the Festival of the Arts which features dancers, musicians, and writers from all across the Pacific. For us it will be a reprise of all the islands we have visited plus a glimpse at many we slipped past.

One little yacht anchored near the breakwater looks familiar. It is the little boat I last saw about to leave Bora Bora with a young French couple on board. It looks like they made it despite my misgivings about their preparedness. Only later do we learn that the man has died at sea, not on his own yacht, but later, while delivering a yacht from New Zealand. His body was later recovered from the sea. The news, picked up so casually, still gives us a shiver: going overboard and being left behind as the boat keeps sailing on, is everyone`s nightmare. I am developing a sense of fate: the Gods will take you when they wish and they have a sardonic sense of humor. First they let this poorly equipped cockleshell survive against the odds to reach it`s goal, then end his life when he began to thing of himself as favoured by the gods.

Noemea seems like a Mediterranean city with its slopes neatly covered in white and colourful houses, but New Caledonia has a sad past as a penal colony: that lovely cathedral on the hill top was built by convicts. There is another sadness here we notice right away: the local Melanesian population (Kanaks) look down or away or through us as we pass by. We represent for them the dominant population that keeps them under control. Just a few years before, a rebellion was put down fiercely by French Special Forces. New Caledonia has valuable nickel mines and while the locals are needed to work in the mines and the refining plant they must not think of ownership for themselves. There has been a big influx of French citizens from other places so that the indigenous peoples will never be in a majority position. This is a tourist destination as well, so the big waterfront resorts increase the feeling of bright tinsel hung across dark shadows.

We go to see the beginning ceremonies and the opening of the Festival Village where big local Kanak men in grass skirts dance in a threatening way before the French administration officials. Down on the beach a couple from Hawaii dance the sexiest hula I have ever seen! At other times we see dancers from various islands including New Zealand, Easter Island and Wallis and Fortuna. Most of the performances are group singing and dancing sometimes accompanied by graceful hand gestures.

The group from Wallis and Fortuna is terrific, and I am particularly attracted to one girl in the middle. The group is telling a traditional story of a night fishing party on a coral reef. The men gesture with their spears and the women move their arms in evocative fluid motions as they sing in beautiful harmonies. The girl smiles shyly out at the large crowd on the library lawn which is situated in the middle of town. This is most likely her first journey away from her isolated island home and yet she remains immersed still in the midst of her companions and her culture. This Festival takes place only once every four years in a different location each time and provides an affirmation of the linked cultures of the Pacific Islanders.

As we prepare to leave on our last voyage across the Coral Sea to Australia we feel a pang of regret to be leaving these island cultures behind. There is something very beguiling about them. It has been thus since the first European explorers arrived; a sense that this was Eden. Certainly as we have seen, after they arrived it became less so and every new hotel built in an "unspoiled" place immediately spoils it. That girl though, singing and signing her story so beautifully: I feel she is telling our story too and describing all the mountain peaks, lagoons, starry nights and swaying palms that have attempted to whisper us their secret. Here is a translator with a long cultural history among these islands to transmit their message in a musical language closer to our own human understanding.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The humble beginnings of great musical works of art.

The close of Summer. Harvest Home.

The tall waving grasses of summer are ragged now, or beaten to the ground by the early fall rains. Because this is the mild West Coast, a new fresh green blur of sprouting seeds covers the once dusty soil. The maple leaves are still mostly green except where a tree has taken root in rocky ground and whose yellow leaves tell of summer drought. This is the season when some put on a final spurt of growth before the winter and others fall to dissolution: their seeds spread and their task complete.

Heather has been busy too all summer harvesting in our garden: freezing, bottling and drying. We picked some grapes today. Yesterday we walked down the road to a wild blackberry patch and gathered amid the prickles. Next week we pick the pears before the racoons can get them and the work of harvest will be complete. Heather stands in the basement looking up at row upon row of bottled fruit, pickles and jams with a satisfied smile.

I have had my list of seasonal duties too : the chimneys are swept, the firewood, cut and stacked to dry in the woods last winter, is now in my woodshed and starting to diminish until next Spring. Roofs are swept, gutters cleaned and repaired. Those potatoes I planted in early Spring are now being harvested as needed, the winter kale is strong and healthy. We are prepared for winter.

All this work! Don`t we take a break, a holiday in the best season of the year? Would n`t we be better off to just buy what we need when we need it? Like civilized people? The answer is that no we would not and that this work we do on our land with our hands is not work in the modern sense of the term. Neither is it the opposite, fun. It is recreation though, as in re-creation. We are following an ancient human pattern and getting deep satisfaction from our labours. We get to enjoy the results all winter long.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Shiriri Saga # 56. New Caledonia. Drawing on the Present Moment.

Approaching Havannah Pass.

"Dad, Could you come up? We need to figure out some lights."I emerge from my rest into the predawn darkness to join the crew who are looking at the chart and cruising guide and then at a collection of twinkling lights spread across the blackness ahead of us. We are nearing the end of another mostly rough passage but have been tacking back and forth slowly downwind for half the night in light airs to delay our arrival at Havannah Pass for dawn and slack water. This pass into New Caledonia has a reputation for being difficult when wind and wave meet a strong current ebbing out of the pass.

We never do understand the lights, but the dawn suddenly shows the obvious picture of a broad pass with a beacon tower to starboard on Gorro Point. In the distance ahead is a hill with two range marks to guide us as we enter. Already the tide has turned to flood and even though the wind has turned against us and Shiriri is putting all her engine effort into butting through the confused waves and swirls of current we still rush past Gorro Point with the current. We look around at this new land in the almost cool air. We have been edging south ever since Suvarov atoll in the northern Cook Islands and the cool wind and somber new landscape say that we are leaving the true tropics. Still, that is a coral reef that edges the shore and ...Wait! "Did you see that mermaid?" A dugong has surfaced to welcome us. Those old time sailors were quite sure, after several months at sea. that dugongs were mermaids. The hills are dark and slashed with red. Tall candelabra pines (similar to Norfolk Island pines) line the shore.

This headwind will make it impossible to make it all the way to the main town of Noemea on the west coast to check in, especially when the tide turns against us, so we turn into a long bay and drop anchor in the lee of a hill. Ah, heavenly peace! The smell of eucalyptus and earth wafts across to us on the stray gusts of wind that reach over the hill. Time for breakfast and a rest. Nothing can feel quite so good as a successful landfall and a peaceful anchorage at the end of a passage.

Baie de Prony.

A while later I emerge into the cockpit with my sketchbook, write up the morning`s events and then settle down to draw the landscape across the bay. A single yacht is anchored over there against dark rippled hills. I use my pen and watercolour pencils to feel the push and pulls of the contours, to catch the dark reds and shadows, the rush of wind and cloud. As we have sailed across the Pacific this journalling and drawing has become more and more important to me. At first, I added funny little sketches when I felt like it, but this has now become an important part of my experience of the journey. Even in the toughest hours I have to believe that someday I will need to look back on these times. Recording the passing moment is a way to validate that it exists. I am discovering that the process of writing and drawing also makes the present more vivid. Even though, unlike today, I may not write down or draw the day until more time has passed, I know that I will and that affects how I experience the present moment. There is now a second eye that notes things as they happen and provides a synthesis of the truest aspect with all the details that support it saved and with all the clutter filtered out.

In the afternoon we row ashore to a red beach and climb up a rough red track to the top of the hill. Heather pauses to rest and to examine the strange plants: one looks like a rhododendron, another a pine with long soft needles. A few are familiar like the palms and screw pines but we know we have crossed a botanical divide and are closer to Australia. A brilliant blue butterfly flits down a tunnel the trail makes through the vegetation. Presently we can see back across the Baie de Prony and down to Shiriri in the bay below tugging at her anchor in the gusts. At the summit in a landscape of crumbling black, red and ochre rocks we discover the beacon and the guiding range marks which at the beginning of this day were some of the confusing lights that flashed at us out on the the open ocean.

Looking back along the way we have come we can follow the line of white fringing coral reef to the beacon at the entrance to Havannah Pass and lift our eyes to the rim of the ocean to the east. Somewhere back along the wind`s way is Fiji and beyond that all the islands we have visited over the past few months. All of them separated by the watery world of the great ocean that covers nearly all of our blue planet. While everyone know this fact intellectually, while living on or close to a large continent and in the midst of a busy human society, we have experienced this in a very personal way. The islands are so widely spaced, the land is so precious. We know that although we have been able to sail across the ocean, that it is land we are made for and which supports our voyages. During our nights alone under the stars we have realized that the earth itself is a precious island in the ocean of space. We have had a long thoughtful moment in our lives that will influence us forever, we are still part of it.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Shiriri Saga # 55. A trip down a palm lined memory lane.

Queen`s Wharf. Lautoka.

If Samoa reminded us of our days in Georgetown, Guyana, then the country around Lautoka doubly reminds us of the year we taught in Covent Garden village on the banks of the Demerara River. Sugar: sugarcane fields, sugar refineries and a very Indian culture and population. ( Indentured workers were brought in from the same part of India to work in the both country`s sugar cane estates.)The smell of molasses is in the air, bits of cane litter the road edge as we walk into town down an avenue of royal palms. We are almost too welcomed by the shop people who are not getting much business since the recent violence associated with a coup has put off the tourist trade. It is too bad that we have so little to buy when they have so much to sell!

Lingam boarding party.

We phone Sammy`s brother, Lingam, and visit with him and his wife and family. They are both teachers, so we have much in common and invite them back for a visit on Shiriri. While we may find their life interesting, we tend to forget that this boating life of ours is pretty exotic to land folk too. When the day arrives for their supper visit I row ashore to Queen`s Wharf to pick up the whole family in Edith. I walk up to the army post guarding the wharf to tell them I am expecting visitors to come through the checkpoint. "Are they Fijian or Indian?"asks a big Fijian soldier; presumably for identification purposes. "They are Indian." I say, and then can`t help adding that from my foreigner`s point of view all the people who live here are Fijian. He smiles and replies that yes that is the way it should be too. What a tolerant man he is toward this opinionated recent arrival considering that the recent troubles had their roots in the fight for political power between the two ethnic groups.

After a few days we leave the blustery side of Queen`s Wharf and motor down the coast past mangroves and rolling hills of sugar cane to a channel blasted through the reef which leads to a sheltered circular pond called the Vunda Point Marina. Here David and Lisa take our stern lines as we drop anchor and back up to the concrete wall. We have fresh water in a hose at last so we wash off the many layers of salt Shiriri has accumulated. We do the same for ourselves in the hotel pool. We feel vaguely uneasy as we splash and lounge around. We are unaccustomed to leisure. That feeling does not last for long as this is an opportunity to wash all our salty clothes and bedding and to touch up our paint and brightwork. Lingham and his family come for tea one day to say goodby and I take him and his son out for a sail in Edith. It is now the middle of September so even though we have barely touched what Fiji has to teach us it is time to make one more hop closer to our next destination: New Caledonia.

High in the rigging, I can hear the splash of the waves and the deep roar of the wind in the rigging. I can see Shiriri below me splashing swiftly through the waves and the shallow patches of the reefs.

Musket Cove.
Far across the bay from Lautoka is a little island( Malolo) that we have read about in cruising books and the resort of Musket Cove. It is the departure point for many yachts bound onwards to New Zealand or to Australia via Vanuatu or New Caledonia. Shiriri dodges among the reefs (she says she can do this on her own by now but I still insist on keeping an eye on things from high in the rigging. I like it up there.) After a few peaceful days in Vunda Point we now have twenty knots of wind that creates whitecaps on the windward side of the island and white foam on the reefs. Even in the shelter of the anchorage we struggle to row Edith back and forth to shore in the choppy waves. The grassy uplands and palms all toss and rustle in the wind that is headed still further west on a path we must travel very soon.

Musket Cove.

We meet Moonlighter here as they prepare for their crossing to New Zealand and we bake a cake for Jim`s birthday BBQ on shore. We visit with a South African yacht called Aragon who we first met in Tahiti and who like us and Francis are New Caledonia bound.

From the Journal:
Sept.21st. The forecast sounded ok this morning. A big high with 20 knots to start. We did n`t like the idea of strong winds and lumpy seas but thought this was as good as we were going to get. We wended our way north along the beaconed channel and then out to the wide channel between inshore and offshore reefs. We angled over toward the breakers and found a gap. Went over a shallow patch and then out past the surf and into a confused sea.

Here we go again. By nightfall Fiji`s blue mountains have disappeared astern.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Shiriri Saga #54 Fiji Reefs.

Among Fiji reefs.

A race with the night.

"Shiriri! Shiriri! This is Moonlighter!" It is early morning, the blue hills of Macongai island lie ahead, and we have a call on the VHF radio. They are at anchor at this island and are inviting us to join them. We can just see their mast with the binoculars up against the land. Once again they have made friends and are having a great time. We are tempted, it has been an interminable night tacking back and forth on the dark Koro Sea. We spent hours trying to get out of the bay and round a projecting coral reef. We have had no sleep and are behind on a tight schedule.

From Makongai to Nananu Pass.

We check our photocopied chart and see a maze of reefs between us and their boat. They have arrived from a different direction but say there is a sort of passage in through the reefs that the fishermen use. This looks way too tricky and besides we are swept up in the midst of a passage of our own and are in a race with the setting sun. We need all the available daylight hours to negociate a long mess of reefs and narrow passages before we can arrive at our chosen safe anchorage. We have figured it out carefully, but one extra zig zag last night has us two hours behind schedule. We say goodbye to Jim and Lindy and turn right up a steadily narrowing passage between submerged coral heads.

We now have the trade wind behind us and we foam along with all the sail set that we can safely carry. Time passes. We take turns sleeping. It`s hot and we loll in the cockpit tiredly keeping track of our progress. Our photocopied chart is a little faded and ill defined. Heather and I cannot see the buoys that mark the narrowest part of the passage up ahead. I decide one must be on that little islet up ahead so we turn slightly to pass it to starboard. Suddenly I see the yellowish brown colour of a reef just beneath us and when we look around we see we have wandered into a big nest of coral heads. Anne bounces up from her nap, looks around with the binoculars and sees the buoys way off to starboard: we have been swept too far to port by a cross current.

I jump into the ratlines on the foremast and guide us through the coral heads back into the channel and we resume our race with the sunset. There is no time to think of how close we came to wrecking our boat, we are still on a very tight schedule. The freshening wind keeps us optimistic that we might make it with minutes to spare. Now we are in open water again, so hour after hour as the sun moves closer to the horizon we do little time/distance sums to see if we are gaining a few precious minutes. At last the pass lies ahead and we check our cruising guide notes (Fiji Cruising Guide) for the entrance.

Nananu Pass.

Nananu Pass, so the guide book says, has range marks which, if we line them up, will lead us safely through the pass. We start reducing sail as we approach in the strong afternoon trade wind but look as we might we cannot see the leading marks. Finally, through the binoculars we see a stick jammed into a reef close to an island and guess that the rear mark was once in the middle of the saddle of the grassy island summit. No time to ponder, the sun nicks the horizon. We line them up and pass through the rocky pass and into the lagoon. The evening light is bad for navigating among the lagoon reefs but somehow we manage and our trusty Isuzu diesel finally chugs us slowly into the wind and to anchor behind a sheltering headland just fifteen minutes before all fades to black. That was a near thing!

Passage between Nananu I Cake to Vatia Bay.

Shiriri leads the way.
"No Charts" arrives as we take a rest day at anchor behind the island of Nananu-I-Cake. We met him first in San Diego with his big dog and little sailboat and were surprised to hear that he had decided to leave his dog to a good home and sail across the Pacific. We, after all, had spent years planning and it seemed almost indecent to just up and go without making a big deal of it. He had his sails torn up in mid Pacific and patiently stitched them back together and finally reached the Marquesas after many weeks at sea alone. What earned him his name was his difficulty with navigating without much in the way of charts. In our case we feel we are so superior with our pieced together photocopies! His passenger from Savu Savu is getting off here and he asks if he can follow our lead through the inshore reefs on the way to Lautoka.

Next morning we both begin to sail downwind through a winding and ill marked channel among the submerged coral reefs. Anne or Heather steer or uses the binoculars to look for markers while I settle into the top of the foremast from whence I can see the white patches of reef. We cannot rely on the markers because sometimes they are missing or they can be miles apart. GPS positions do not necessarily coincide with the chart and besides this is very tight minute to minute piloting. The crew far below me keep up a regular flow of bearings off the beautiful coastline of islands that remind us of the bare grassy hills of California. I call down course corrections and provide a commentary on the ever changing shapes of the reefs. We are slipping along quickly in the brisk breeze and call up No Charts to check if we should slow down. "No, no!"comes the reply. "I am taking in my jib so I do n`t catch you up!" We smile, we can hear his busy engine noise carried down to us on the breeze.

At anchor in Vatia Bay.

The distance to Lautoka is just a little too far to make in one day`s zig zagging among the reefs. We are particularly sensitive to not overreaching ourselves after our last race with the dark and there are no more good anchorages once we pass Vatia Bay. Even so we feel the push to keep going with such a wonderful following wind that has us off Vatia by one pm. A narrow sharp edged channel has been formed by the fresh water of a creek that issues out of a mangrove fringed mud bay and in we go and anchor in fifteen feet of water with ninety feet of chain out. That will hold us against the gusty winds that whip across the grass and scrub covered hills.

After a calm night (with mosquitoes once the wind drops.) we meet some local fishermen who are fascinated with our figurehead of Miss. Shiriri and Chick Pea and we laugh as we raise anchor. Just as we begin to motor out the bay we meet No Charts backing into the bay again at top speed. I scratch my head pointedly and he yells "I hit the reef!" Oops, the flat morning light and muddy water hide the coral edges from deck level. Sure enough, by the time I reach halfway up the ratlines I can see that we too are just about to slice our wooden side against the reef. Luckily Anne catches my wild gestures from the cockpit and turns the wheel.

Once out, with No Charts sticking right on our tail we have several miles of open bay and muddy water to motor across, so Anne bakes some delicious muffins to have with morning coffee. We steer a compass course secure in the knowledge that there are no reefs ahead and chat away enlivened by a good night`s sleep and the excitement of our departure. Suddenly the VHF carries a worried and stressed out message from behind us. "Hey are there lots of reefs? I`ve been following your every move!" We look astern to see a woefully wiggly wake with our chartless companion desperately following our every turn.

Soon we are back into really tricky navigation among the reefs pushed along by the increasing trade wind that is doing it`s best to reach gale strength, but by early afternoon we have dropped anchor off Lautoka wharf and No Charts has made it safely too.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Shiriri Saga #53,A story, A story.

The Copra Shed Marina. Savu Savu. Fiji.

Just when we are glad to be back to sea, the weather turns nasty. Perhaps we have just been sheltered for too long so that life as normal on the ocean wave seems brutally real. We pass between the islands of Upolu and Sava`i with a brisk breeze (our idea of a breeze is now just below a small craft warning at home) but in the night we hit squally weather that has us reefing the fores`l several times.

Aug. 24. My birthday, and it leapt upon me as we crossed the date line and skipped a day.

Aug.25,26,27,28. Four days of 25 knot winds and wild seas. Same old , same old. Things calm down just as we sight the first Fijian islands.

Aug.29th. We zoom along on a 15 knot breeze up a deep bay toward our first port of Savu Savu and pick up a mooring off the Copra Shed Marina. After entry formalities aboard with friendly but large lava lava garbed officials (They nearly swamped Edith) including someone from the army to be sure we are not smuggling weapons, we are free to wander ashore. The Moonlighters are here and Anne elects to visit with them while Heather and I wander the main street of this little town and find an Indian restaurant for our wedding anniversary dinner. Ice cold water, no extra charge. Heavenly! We are becoming inured to this life, as we munch our way nonchalantly through this excellent meal in a new country and culture just a few hours after a week`s rough passage.

Through the Moonlighters, we meet Sammy and Rachael and their two children who will become our special friends while we are here. It is such a treat to have an entre into a new society and we appreciate their hospitality. They are ethnic Indians and have just come through some frightening times during the recent troubles, laying low in their little home and hoping none of the roving gangs would turn up their street. I am introduced to kava drinking ( Sammy sells it in the market) and find it rather blaa. It is a bit of a problem drug here as it was in Samoa : traditionally a ritual associated with religious ceremonies, it is now as common as drinking a beer at home. Men can spend a lot of time drinking this stuff. I dislike the taste, the numbed lips and mouth, and the muddy thinking. The next morning`s hangover isn`t fun either so I politely refuse any more when I realize it features at every gathering.

We are invited to a children`s birthday party and Heather bakes the cake. By the time we negociate the dinghy ride and the walk to their home the icing is sliding off but that is quickly put right. Before the supper party, the women separate off into their separate group and I am invited to tell a story to the assembled men of the street out on the front porch. "About your sailing trip." Sammy suggests so I launch into our Cape Mendocino experience and find it more fun than I would have thought:
"The waves were 30 feet high, the sea was white with foam and the wind so strong it blew your breath away!"Interested faces, a pause for Sammy to translate into Hindi, with hand gestures to indicate the height of the waves. Amazed and horrified expressions! This is very rewarding story telling! I`m part the oldest tradition in the world and I have found my place in life! Homer must have had this same experience telling the tales of the Odyssey in the palaces and around the campfires of the ancient Greeks.
Savu Savu morning.

One day though, we refuel and leave our friends as Shiriri motors back out into a dark and rainy evening to begin a difficult bit of navigation among the islands en route to Lautoka on the southern island of Viti Levu. Sammy has set us up to meet his brother and family when we get there!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Shiriri Saga #52 A Microcosm of the World.

Apia Harbour. A church.

" I`m waiting for my husbin`."says the young woman at the head of the bank line up when I enquire if she is next in line for a teller. I have been watching the little group of mother ,daughter and new American husband as we have slowly edged forward toward the tellers. The mother is very insistently asking about his money through her daughter translator and he replies over and over that he has no more to give her. He and his new bride are off to America very soon and mother is feeling that things are not going as per agreement!

There is not enough information to understand what is really going on but a good guess would take into account the drive of Samoans to marry a foreigner and settle down in an affluent country. Anne has been proposed to by a security guard who brushes aside any objections she raises; " I don`t know you, I don`t have a job, I`m not religious, I have no money...."Then, when he asks if Lisa is married, and is prepared to switch targets, Anne does n`t know whether to be put off or to laugh! We do know that much of Samoa`s income is derived from money set back home from it`s citizens abroad and that a persons responsibility is primarily to family and clan. Does he know what he was getting into in a moment of romance? By marrying her, in Samoan eyes he has become part of an extended family with responsibilities to care for all and in marrying an American she has, in his eyes, cast herself off from her family responsibilities. So I can see the problem of cross cultural misunderstanding, but do not feel sorry for him. He looks like he knows what he is doing.

He is around forty, dressed in an Hawaiian shirt and oozes slime from every pore. Perhaps he is simply hunting a young foreign wife but I have the uneasy feeling that she will soon be working as an illegal in the sex industry in America and all her proceeds will stay with her "husbin`."The trouble with having worked in social services for a while is the jaundiced and usually accurate view one develops about the drearier side of human beings. "You call that thing your husbin,` girl? I do feel sad for you!"

Little interludes like this tell us we have left French Polynesia and are definitely in a new foreign country with it`s own history and development. Samoa is fervently Christian, hence all those village churches we saw as we approached Apia, and has been since the missionaries sent some Tongan converts ashore to spread the Word. When the old heathen shrines were thrown down and taboos broken with no terrible results the locals switched to the more powerful Gods and adapted them to their culture. Now, on Sunday morning there is a haze of smoke across the harbour as the pit ovens are filled for a feast later in the day. Long, very long, church rowing canoes with over fifty men at the oars circle the harbour to the beat of a drum. Groups of men sit in open sided houses drinking Kava all afternoon. Later, all traffic will be stopped from passing through villages while church services are in progress. This is an interesting place and we easily accept that civil strife in Fiji is keeping us here a little longer until it is safe to sail on. Heather is glad for the rest too as she goes on a course of penicillin to vanquish a persistent bug.

One day, Heather and I share a taxi with Andre, a French sailor, for a ride into the highlands to see a Baha`i temple that stands in it`s own little landscaped valley. The peace and serenity of the place shows us another possible face of this busy little island, but back down the narrow road at the waterfront things get depressing again as we pass a great pile of wood chips and learn later that Samoa`s pristine forests are being turned into chips and shipped off to feed Japan`s voracious need for raw materials. An incongruous modern office tower on "Cape Horn," a promontory in the harbour, is a gift from China; no doubt with political and economic strings attached. This island is a focal point of all the currents of the outside world and absorbs them all willy nilly just as we do at home in Canada. Forests ,fish, people, economic and social independence, all sold to the highest bidder. That is the point of course: in the small compass of this island nation we can see clearly all the forces set loose in the world that offer short term prosperity to a few and leave cascading social and environmental destruction in their wake. That girl in the bank was just one example of how local people are making hurried bargains to solve immediate economic problems that will lead them even deeper into trouble in the long term. In the days of the old religion, the gods and a complex system of taboos would have maintained a balance between peoples wants and the environment`s needs but the new replacement has none of those built in checks and balances. I feel sad for Samoa, and for all the rest of us in the world. Time to go back to sea!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Shiriri Saga #51 .Samoa. Home is the sailor....

Apia Harbour. Mt. Vaea.

The first hint of dawn is in the sky and somewhere ahead is a flashing strobe light. We ghost along on the last of a fading trade wind and find a little twin hulled fishing boat near a flashing fishing buoy. Ahead is the high mass of western Samoa and the chart tells us that we are still sixteen miles from the port of Apia. With the dawn comes a wind shift to dead ahead so we start the engine and splash along parallel to the shore. We can see villages along a shoreline road, each with it`s large church. Every landfall is thrilling with a combination of interest in a new land and relief that we have found land at all after a stressful passage.

By afternoon we are through the easy entrance to Apia harbour and tied alongside an inter-island trading boat called the Tokelau while we are visited by a variety of officials all dressed in traditional skirts called lava lavas. Anne thoughtfully averts her eyes as they climb over our rail. Next day we are at anchor in the bay among a fleet of yachts who, like us, have chosen the route close to the equator rather than going south to Tonga. Most of our friends have chosen Tonga (and later, New Zealand) and we will not see then again but that is the nature of the game. Friendships are made rapidly and then we part again to meet new friends in new harbours. We can be sure that we will have a lot in common with any yachts we meet.

One thing we seem to have that is different from our neighbours is the literary interest that has lead us here -Robert Louis Stevenson. We have found ourselves in harbours he has visited (he wrote that Anaho Bay was the best in the south seas) and Josua Slocum visited his widow here in 1897 on his circumnavigation, but mostly it is a poem in a grade 12 English textbook that has captured our imagination and brought us to this harbour at the foot of that mountain (Mt. Vaea), to feel and see for ourselves the place where "the Writer of Tales" is buried. But first we row ashore in Edith, leave our laundry at a laundromat and walk along the sea wall toward the market.

We are no longer in the French islands and Heather and I have a strange sense of deja-vous: The sea wall, the old shuttered wooden houses, the busy markets, all remind us of our youthful CUSO days in Georgetown, Guyana. We can`t help but smile at everyone and everything we see. That is, until we return to pick up our laundry to find that the manager has tacked on an enormous extra charge for watching our clothes spin around. We are back in the world of sharp practice toward sailormen - an ancient tradition in ports around the world but one we have been lucky not to find until now. The warning is almost worth the price and we will re-sharpen our shore-side survival skills that we learned so well and so reluctantly all those years ago.

David and Lisa arrive from American Samoa and anchor nearby. They are as impressed by this Samoa as they were depressed by the American version. One morning bright and early we all share a taxi to the foot of the mountain and hike up the steep red earth trail between flowering bushes and tall, buttressed tropical trees. Even in the early morning it is hot and humid in the shade but up ahead we see light at the top of the hill. We break out onto a grassy knoll in brilliant light. In one direction is the harbour with Shiriri a tiny dot below and the far curve of the ocean all flecked with white topped waves. Behind us is the white concrete grave of Stevenson and his wife. We read the famous lines on the side and ponder mortality. We all lead lives now that make us close companions with death so what is a remote and repellant idea to those who live more sheltered lives has a different, more familiar feel for us.

I feel the wind ruffling my hair, as it murmurs among the leaves and brushes the ocean surface. Is it the sun only, or do I feel the warmth of his glance? Is it the wind only, or is this his touch and his voice? The time that separates his life and ours seems not to exist in this vibrant moment on the mountain top.
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
R. L. Stevenson.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Shiriri Saga #50.Breezing Up.

July 23rd. En route to Samoa via Suvarov atoll.
This morning on my watch I watched Smaug the dragon spitting out a long jet of flame: or at least that is what my imagination supplied from a big cloud caught in the rays of the rising sun. Our imaginations fill the quiet hours alone with all sorts of images in cloud formations. Later, Anne spoke with Feisty Lady, who we could see in the distance, on the VHF radio: they too are en route to Suvarov Atoll. It is rare to meet another yacht on passage but in this case we are on the same course and they are motoring so they leave us behind, ghosting along in a light SSE breeze.
We have had some rough weather since we left Bora Bora five days ago and are still appreciating the rest that these calm seas give us.
Francis is somewhere south and ahead of us and is experiencing lots of thunder storms: they must be on the edge of a convergence zone where all those southern fronts are meeting with this flow of air blowing more or less parallel with the equator. Finally, we too start the engine as the wind drops still more and even reddy cannot hold the wind. We need to recharge our batteries really well anyway after that long stay in Bora Bora.

July 26.
We have had good sailing in 15 knots of NE winds but now it is calm seas and on with the engine. Seventy-five miles to go to Suvarov where Francis is now at anchor in the lagoon. They report a lovely uninhabited atoll and we can`t wait to get there. By evening we are only thirty miles off and will have to hang around off the entrance pass until morning. The cruising guide gives good directions but warns boats to get out if the wind really gets up as the waves will then break right across the encircling reef. Francis reports a wind shift.

At three am. a big black cloud comes up from the south so down with all sail except the storm trysail and the fore staysail and along comes a massive gust of wind. We run off, waiting for the squall to pass but it just settles down to thirty-five knots plus and we steer to pass Suvarov well to the north. After wishing to get near all day, we now must watch out we do not pile up on a reef while running downwind as so many yachts have done before us. We worry about Francis trapped in the lagoon at anchor and they worry about us blithely sailing along and getting caught with all sail set. Once we are sure we are clear of the reefs we want to stop and not get blown too far past the atoll, so we experiment with heaving to and setting the storm drogue, that we bought in San Diego, off the bow. Without it the waves are throwing our bow to leeward but once set it exerts just enough drag to pull the bow back closer to the wind. We drift at an angle of 45 degrees to wind and wave and create a good protective slick to windward. This is the first time we have used a drag device since Cape Mendocino and are a little nervous but really a lot of water has passed under our keel since then and we are a more confident and experienced crew.

Shiriri drifts away from Suvarov at two knots or so and the only pain are a few nasty thumps when our counter stern drops into a trough with a jolt. By morning it is still windy and the seas are big but we retrieve the drogue and try to sail back toward the island. Francis reports they are ok at anchor but have waves breaking over their bow and a lee shore right behind them. They say the pass looks like it might be alright. After several hours of tough slogging we can now see the island ahead: we could struggle to the pass but what then? Charlie`s Charts says to get out of there in these conditions so why go in? We had so looked forward to a rest at this midway point on our journey but we shrug and ease off into a long reach for Western Samoa.

Lowering the storm trys`l.

From the Journal.
July 28th.
The wind is down to the twenty knot range and the seas are ten feet or so -a swell up from the southern ocean, with wind waves on top. We are sailing at four and a half knots under forestays`l and trys`1. Still a rough ride. Bilge water has sloshed up under Anne`s bunk damping her mattress and bedding. We roll scuppers under on a regular basis.

Lovely sunny weather. These are reinforced trades; 15 to 25 knots, and are predicted to last for at least another two to three days, but they are keeping our course clear of the convergence zone which is a plus! Meals are difficult to prepare, steering is difficult, sleeping is difficult. Heather is dreaming of the camper we will buy to drive across Canada. Flat at all times, ( no more serving meals in lidded tupperware containers) a little fridge, maybe a bathtub?

July 29th.
Last night was a continuation of before: strong SE wind and big seas. I took the try s`l down at midnight - steering was getting difficult and Shiriri was slewing around on the tops of big breaking waves. Heather called me just before my 6am time - she was falling asleep standing up. Now at lunch time Anne
is baking soda bread, Heather is steering. I`ve just woken up from a nap. Supper tonight: green beans, beef slices in gravy on cous cous. Very nice!

July 30th.
Steady progress overnight. Easier wind and waves. At 2:30 a.m. a boat that had been coming up astern came alongside, swerved toward us and turned it`s spotlight on us. Anne called them up on the VHF in her fiercest navy voice "What vessel is that? What are your intentions?"And back came Lisa`s squeak "This is the Francis vessel." We had a good laugh; they were not attempting to board us after all but were just trying to see if was us. They had managed to get out of the lagoon and were on their way to American Samoa. For us, they were the "Francis Vessel" for ever more!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Shiriri Saga # 49. Bora Bora. The Global Village.

Strange Customs.

A motor launch is roaring up astern of us! I hate this nasty habit of people in fast boats who aim at our stern and then pass close to one side at the last minute. Dangerous, and downright rude! This one flies a French flag and is a customs launch bound like us for Bora Bora. Uniformed men solemnly survey us with binoculars. I do my best to return a frosty stare, but really it has an Inspector Clouseau air about it and the more I try to stir up resentful feelings, the funnier it seems.

The Pass.

The trades have decided to blink as a small front blows through from the opposite direction so Shiriri is reefed down and motor-sailing very slowly along the southern edge of the extensive reef that surrounds Bora Bora. Eventually we wallow around the corner, get a better slant of wind and sail along beside crashing waves whose tops blow off sideways in the gale. There`s the pass! We slip between the buoys and run across the still choppy lagoon and, helped by David of Francis, pick up a mooring close to land . It has been a nerve jangling all day struggle against wind and waves so we quickly stow all our sails before the next raindrops arrive and let out a long sigh of relief.

The walk.

Heather and I have lots of writing and boat chores to do so when David and Lisa of Francis offer to take Anne with them around the Island for a few days it is a happy answer for Anne. When we are not busy below during the rain squalls, we walk to town along the shoreline path. It is hot in the sun so we become good at dodging from shade to shade. Walking the same path several times, we notice more and more: there is the family who specialize in turning palm fronds into prepared basket weaving supplies, down by the water a father and son work on rebuilding a wooden skiff, and further along toward town a group of men are building a concrete-block house. To these men we wave and say bonjour and indicate we admire their work. In a week we have become a small part of this village world and appreciate it as can only those who are constantly on the move. One day as we reach the edge of the little town, we meet a woman encumbered with recently bought souvenirs scurrying toward us with an harassed look on her face. We recognize a typical cruise ship problem; too much to see, to much to buy and too little time. She looks up at us and says,"Is there anything down there?"What she means of course is whether there is anything consumable behind us along the waterfront path; anything to buy, or see in fifteen minutes or less before the launch will take her back to the ship. We shake our heads and she thankfully turns back, satisfied now that she has got her moneys worth from this stop in paradise. We know that there is a whole special village world down that path but it has taken us a week to see it clearly and months of sailing to prepare for truly appreciating it.

Sailing in the bay with Miss. Chick Pea.

There is enough of a kinship with that woman on the edge of town though, to remind us to take care as we skip from island to island across the Pacific. Our differences are only a matter of degree and we could not keep living this kind of life forever. We are thankful that we have not sold everything back home and committed lock, stock and barrel to this peripatetic life as some fellow cruisers have done.

The big guns.
High on the hillside above our mooring at the Bora Bora Yacht Club ( a restaurant) are some WWII guns which once guarded the only pass into the lagoon: at that time one of the US Navy`s bases during the war with Japan. While I was a very little boy in England, this little Island was host to thousands of single men and their ships, planes and weapons of war. Michener, in "Tales from the South Pacific" describes it well, even if his Bali Ha`i was in what is now Vanuatu. Imagine the dislocation of life for the islanders as North America arrived with all of it`s way of life, machinery and lonely men.

It is a magnificent view from up here on the hilltop: several groups of tourists drape themselves over the guns as they pose for photographs and if I turn away to look across the lagoon there is another cruise ship off the town disgorging more people on the shore where a crowd of modern day Bloody Maries will sell them items to remind them that they have been here. Across the lagoon a collection of luxury"beach huts" stand on stilts over the shallow reef. It is obvious that the invasion is still in progress and is profitable too for the locals who dance, produce items for sale and work in the service industry. Surely though, they must become dazed by the sheer pressure of numbers of visitors and their need for a quick fix of this luxurious, imported vision of paradise.

One evening we take Edith along the shore to the town to see a hula dancing competition. We have heard a percussion band practicing near our anchorage and now hear one in full swing as we join the mostly local crowd sitting on the ground around a central lighted stage. There is some excitement as a local girl and her partner shake it all about. They are very proud! But what is this? A French girl ( dental tech.) begins to dance and someone has taught her very well. The crowd begin to stir uneasily. What if she wins? Will the locals be beaten even at their specialty? Fortunately the judges are aware of some finer points of technique or perhaps catch the mood of the crowd and the local girl wins. Later that night we head back out in Edith into a nasty chop and are well wetted by the warm salt water out in the darkness before we can clamber back up the side of our Shiriri home.

As we try to fill our water tanks at the Club in preparation for departure I give a dinghy ride to a French couple who seem to have no dinghy to get out to their very small and shabby sailboat. She speaks some english so we make conversation. They are headed further across the Pacific to New Caledonia where they expect to find work. I shudder to think of this ill-found vessel heading back out to sea. It is at the other end of the scale from the mega yacht we last saw heading out of Papeete with it`s shipping magnate owner ensconced in his special chair and I fervently wish them luck. What is a casual remark back home seems full of power and portent in these conditions. Maybe it will make a difference!

We have checked out of French Polynesia and are headed for either Samoa or Tonga, both some 1200 miles away, but the weather is once again sending westerly wet winds our way so we motor across the lagoon and pick our way very carefully through the coral reefs to an anchorage between an island and the edge of the fringing reef. We wait here for several days and visit with other yachts caught in the same situation. Arahina has a fantastic watermaker so we go alongside and top up our tanks.
One morning we are called on deck by Lisa of Francis. She asks for Anne`s help to take David across the harbour to the hospital; he is having chest pains. They zoom off in their inflatable. When we pick Anne up later in Edith we are relieved to hear it was just a inflamed pectoral muscle, but as we motor back to our boat we imagine what a major problem this would have been if it had been his heart and if it had happened several hundred miles out en route to Samoa. It is always at the back of our minds of course, and we are more cautious than many we meet who seem to have forgotten or not focused on how vulnerable they are as they scratch themselves on coral or eat reef fish with no thought as to the possible deadly consequences. An added problem for many boats is that a division of skills often makes the male the specialist in boat handling and navigation and if he should become ill or injured at sea, there is no one able to sail the boat to harbour. There are plenty of dangers out here that we cannot avoid, so it is important to be prepared to deal with them when they arrive. As they will.

Listening on the radio we follow the daily reports of Sawleeah, Wylie E. Coyote and Scaldis as they sail toward Hawaii. They are chased by a hurricane but will manage to make it in to Hilo OK. Other friends are en route to Tonga and having a rough time of it, as they are receiving the same westerly gales as we are with no reef to give them shelter. One is knocked down on it`s beam ends. We check on the winds closer to the equator which are light but steady trades and decide to go for Samoa!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Shiriri Saga # 49.Canada Day.

Canada Day, July 1st Dockside, Uturoa, Raiatea.
It is one of those peculiar things that we never feel more proud of being Canadian as when we are far away from home, so we decide to dress our ship in all her signal flags and our biggest Maple Leaf ensign to celebrate Canada Day. This soon lures a couple of Canadian ship`s officers from the cruise ship moored nearby and after they leave, Heather and Anne go shopping. I sit on deck and eventually meet three American men who are off the cruise ship. A little older than I, they are on a retirement cruise with their wives (who are also shopping). They stand on the dock and take it all in: varnished wooden masts and bowsprit, the shiny figurehead, the upended dory on the cabin roof. Shiriri is most men`s ideal image of a sailboat in the South Seas and represents many long lost dreams of youth.

We get to talking and they are so interested in our voyage and boat that I ask them aboard to show them how the boat actually works with all its systems designed to support us and to allow us to move across the ocean with the wind. I tell them that Shiriri and all the sailing ships of the explorers of the past are themselves the prototypes of the spaceships of the future, that have to be self supporting across the great oceans of space between the stars. My audience is fascinated by the gaff sails, watermaker, steering vane and" how we manage to keep sailing all night!". They thank me as they step back on the dock and one says wistfully, "This is the first real thing we have seen on the whole cruise!"

The three old men walk back toward their luxury cruise ship and another round of fine food and entertainment. They have bought a fantasy and are feeling that they have missed out on something big. I blink to realize that these elderly guys are maybe just five years older than I am so why the difference? The difference is not something they could buy or would actually care to experience except in a movie presentation; in the final analysis it is all those daily experiences as we have struggled to get to this place that give our lives validity and vitality. They have been flown here and stepped into an orchestrated group experience where all the real stuff of life is filtered out. A life spent drinking cream without doing the milking is bound to kill you after a while and seem very dull while it is doing it. This is something I have been telling myself for some time ("This is good for you, Billy!") but only now, thanks to this meeting with an alternate version of myself if I had chosen a different life path can I see it so plainly. I must remind myself how fortunate I am as I fight to get the sails down during the next big squall!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Shiriri Saga #48. Raiatea. The center of the world.

The offering.

It was a nasty time in the chaotic waves off Moorea overnight, then a gentle breeze all day that too slowly carried us toward Raiatea, so that now we must find a pass quickly and anchor if we don`t wish to drift around all night. Just ahead at the south end of the island is a motu and our chart says there is a pass there as well. We sail between the breakers into a large bay and find a bottom for our anchor in a hundred feet just as darkness falls, as usual, with a decided thump. We are tired; these short one day passages can wear a person out!
The cliff.

Morning again and we see an interesting cliff beside us and forest covered mountains at the head of the bay. For an emergency overnight anchorage, we have lucked out. We splash Edith, row for the beach below the cliff and walk down the road toward the point of land that forms the north side of this bay. This we like best of all, an unknown road leading to who knows where. Around the next bend we find a group of Polynesians in traditional dress gathered on the point that we can now see has several stone platforms set among the palms. We have stumbled upon a rededication of this ancient Polynesian religious site by representative groups from all over the South Pacific. This is no tourist event.

We ask, and as long as we keep out of the way it`s ok for us to watch. We feel honoured to be there as people dance and sing and make offerings to the gods. It is only fairly recently that the hula has been allowed and the Polynesian language used in the school system. It is good to see the people taking back their culture as they also prepare for their independence from the colonial power.

The end of the ceremony ends in a purifying bath in the sea and we feel how right this is that the great world ocean that we have ourselves been so moved by ( in both senses) should be acknowledged in a religious ceremony. We later learn that this marae complex was the center of religion for all Polynesia- a very significant place.

In company with Wylie Jim who also has heard of this ceremony and sailed down for the event we dodge north among the reefs in the lagoon to the main town of Uturoa where there is a brand new boat basin beside the cruise ship dock. Shiriri tucks in to a real dock for the first time in months. How extraordinarily secure we feel as the wind and rain rattle in the rigging.