In the dark morning hours of our nineteenth day at sea, I’m roused from slumber in the cockpit as I feel Swell accelerate. I’m now accustomed to light, short sleeps between scanning the horizon and making sure all is well. With the slightest change in motion or sound, I’m instantly awake. As I sit up from the cockpit cushion, a fat raindrop lands square on my forehead. I haul my blanket down into the cabin and shuffle around sleepily looking for my rain jacket. Before I can get an arm into the sleeve, the rain is coming down in a roar. Another gust shoves into the sails. I scramble to pull my harness back on over the jacket.
For more than a week, moderate trades have pushed us along gently. I always put a reef in the mainsail before nightfall, but with the benign conditions the last few days, I’d decided to leave the sail full last night in hopes of gaining a few extra miles toward our destination.
As I clamber out of the cabin, Swell wobbles through another surge of speed. We’re overpowered and I need to get the mainsail down immediately. I clip my tether to the jackline and make for the mast in the clobbering rain as the next gust drives Swell’s nose hard to port and twists the hull over onto her starboard rail. I’m nearly to the mast when my harness tether stops me like a dog on a chain. The tether clip is stuck on a stanchion post because Swell is heeled so far on her side. The gust won’t let up. It pins Swell farther and farther over. The spinnaker pole and headsail submerge into the sea as the starboard rail sinks down into the black water.
“Liz-z-z-z-z-y-y-y-y!” I hear Mom scream from below in terror. My mind freezes as I fear the worst. I cling to the rail on the cabin top, hugging the nearly vertical deck. The warm ocean water climbs eerily up my shins as Swell lies over, contrasting with the cool rain pelting me from above. Each harrowing second seems endless.
“Hang on, Mom!” I manage to call out. The gust finally lets up. Hundreds of gallons of sea rush off the decks as Swell gradually rights herself. I crawl aft to untangle my tether, then lunge at the mast, releasing the halyard and yanking down the mainsail with all my adrenaline-pumping might. The squall has nearly passed by the time I secure the third reef and make it back to the cockpit to find Mom at the wheel, wide-eyed, steering into the blackness with the autopilot alarm blaring.
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I reset the autopilot with trembling hands and we sit down among the wetness, holding each other for a long time.
“It was my fault. I should have reefed before dark, and I should have been on deck at the first sign of the squall instead of going below for my rain jacket. I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
“It’s okay,” she says. “We’re okay. And you’ll know for next time.”
We snuggle up on the soggy cushion for the remaining hours of darkness as Swell barely makes three knots under our heavily reefed sails. That’s enough excitement for one night.
Thankfully the following days breeze by uneventfully, until at five in the morning on day twenty-two, I open my eyes to see the silhouette of a lone black noddy perched on the solar panel, gazing ahead calmly as if he’s taken over my watch.
“A bird!” I exclaim. Land must be near! I sit up to scan the horizon as the dawn’s rays begin to halo the eastern seascape.
“Mom! Come quick! There’s an island!” I yell down into the cabin. She crawls out of her bunk to join me in the cockpit. We rub our eyes and squint, but the tiny dark smudge of land ahead remains. We beam at each other, almost speechless. I wrap my blanket around us and we watch the sun slowly rise out of the sea, digesting the surreal moment.
Around midday the winds slacken and we’re bobbing along at an agonizing three knots. The island remains a small lump in the distance. Our stomachs growl, but neither Mom nor I can bear the thought of another canned food meal. We’re so close, I can almost taste the fresh fruits and warm French baguettes the guideblogs describe. Mom digs around in the refrigerator box for a while. I hold my tongue. The batteries are low on charge and she’s letting out all the cold air. Back at home, she loved to joke with me when I’d stand at the refrigerator door, staring mindlessly at the contents within.
“Waiting for something wonderful to appear?” I finally say, teasing her with her own line.
Suddenly Mom squeals. “You won’t freaking believe this!” she cries. I leap to the entryway and peer down curiously. She wheels around bearing an enormous, proud grin, then reveals a frosty green can from behind her back.
“I found one last beer!” she exclaims ecstatically.
“Ha! Then let’s start celebrating!” I cheer.
Language Lessons in the Lost Valley
Alone for the first time in ages, with no crew or schedule to keep, I let the mystique of my first stop in the South Pacific soak in. Before catching her plane back to California, Mom continued her sailing adventure hitching a ride on another cruising sailboat 500 nautical miles toward Tahiti with some new friends. I smile every time I think of her while I’m wandering among ancient ruins, gawking at local art and handsome volcanic peaks, and bodysurfing with local kids. The fifteen Polynesian islands now known as the Marquesas are known to their native inhabitants as the Land of People Henua Kenana in the northern dialect and Fenua Enata in the south. It’s one of five archipelagos in the eastern Pacific to have been colonized by the French in the 1800s.
On top of their striking physical beauty, the islanders carry a commanding presence. Muscular, tattooed men paddle outriggers through mind-melting sunsets. Golden-skinned women shuck coconuts and bathe golden-skinned babies in their front yards. Adolescent girls stroll to the market wearing seed jewelry and floral crowns, their waist-length black hair swaying and catching the sunlight. Teen boys race horses bareback down dirt roads, hoping to be noticed, while pigs and goats forage freely nearby. Lively groups of kids climb trees, kick soccer balls, and splash in the waves. Elderly relatives relax nearby. No one hurries. Fish dries on community drying racks. Weathered stone tiki carvings squat and stare. Windows framed by woven bamboo walls are dressed with colorful floral-print curtains waving lazily in the breeze. Island music wafts from within.
I’m mesmerized by these islanders, still living largely from the rich land and abundant sea, but I can’t communicate with them. My Spanish was flowing after a year and half in Central America, but even with the audio CD lessons, my French is hopeless. The English-French dictionary does me no good, since letters have a totally different pronunciation in French. To my ear, the native tongue sounds much easier, plus it seems more respectful to speak to the Marquesans in their own language. So I start learning basic words, to the delight of those I ask.
I sail into a magnificent mountain-rimmed bay, to hole up and wait for the ferocious late July trades to settle down before hopping to the next island. I paddle to the beach on my longboard instead of launching the dinghy. Barefoot and blissful, I mosey through the valley among scattered abandoned homes and loaded fruit trees. Jumping down from a guava branch, I collect my yellow-skinned loot in my shirt, and collapse in the shade to bite into the sweet pink flesh. M-m-m-m-mmm! Chewing slowly to savor the edible treasure, I watch a rainbow fan and fade between the rushing clouds overhead.
Oops, I just ate a worm! I spit out the squirming bite and throw the offending guava into the trees as an older woman appears from behind the nearby home. I leap to my feet in respect and embarrassment. Her unrestrained chuckle assures me she’s not angry. She motions me to follow, so I stuff the other guavas in my bag and catch up. Her worn pareo flows about her ankles with each rhythmic stride. She leads me to her home, and motions for me to sit down at a gorgeous, hand-carved wooden table in the front yard. She disappears inside, then soon returns with a Marquesan-English dictionary and a tray of fruits, which she loads into my bag. I surmise that she wants to prevent me from being caught “stealing” again. We sit at the shaded table, passing and pointing at the blog to learn about each other.
“To‘u inoa o Felicity,” she says pointing to herself. “Eaha to oe inoa?” (My name is Felicity. What’s your name?)
“Liz,” I tell her, “or, Elizabeth.”
“ElitapetaI” she exclaims. It must be the local pronunciation. We continue asking questions, and with the use of the dictionary, I learn that she is seventy years old, although she looks much younger, and was born here in the valley as one of eleven children, all delivered at home by her father. She’s floored to find out that I’m alone on my sailboat. She calls me her Kaiu keapu menike oko (strong little American captain), squeezes me in her soft arms, and ushers me toward an empty bedroom. I explain that it’s important for me to sleep on the boat in the strong winds, so Felicity and her husband, Ceryl, send me home with a plate of food and an invitation to visit again soon.
“Oio‘iI” (Tomorrow!) she calls as I wander back toward the beach.
“Oio‘i, Mama‘uFelicityI” (Tomorrow, grandmother Felicity!) I call back.
The next afternoon, Felicity sits patiently across from me as I repeat the Marquesan word for hello. “K-a-o-h-a,” I say slowly. She looks at me from behind thin-rimmed glasses with a smile so loving it’s like being wrapped in warm velvet. “Meita‘i” (Good), she confirms with a nod. I repeat it and then move down the list of words I’m hoping she will teach me.
Over the next couple weeks, my language skills improve, and Felicity and Ceryl fatten me up on wild pig, homegrown roots, fresh coconut milk, shellfish, and more. I also install
mast steps up to the first spreader on Swell, watch a lunar eclipse between the racing cumulus clouds, enjoy mystical hikes to the waterfalls and float back down the river, and surf the windswell peaks breaking at the river mouth. The winds are finally settling; it’s time to move on.
Felicity and I hug one last time. She wipes tears from her eyes as she wraps the silk scarf I gave her around her neck and makes a pretentious face, pretending to be fashionable. I know she doesn’t need it, or care about material things, but I want her to remember me and know how much her kindness has meant to me. She and Ceryl walk me to the shoreline.
“A ti‘ohi, Elitapeta,” she says. “A oho te i‘i” (Be careful. Be strong.)
“Mo i e ha‘ape‘ape‘a, Mama‘uFelicity. Vai‘ei nuil” (Don’t worry, Grandma Felicity. Thank you very much!)
I look back and wave a few more times as I knee-paddle my longboard toward Swell, wearing a backpack stuffed with parting gifts of fruit.
Messages from Above
Arriving in a rather exposed little bay on a new island a couple of weeks later, I set both fore and aft anchors before swimming ashore to walk through the small hillside village. I’m admiring the tall trees that cover the road, when a handsome local guy out in his front yard repairing his canoe says hello.
“Kaoha nuil” he says with a smile. His muscles are wrapped in gorgeous Marquesan tattoos and thick dark hair falls around his face.
“KaohaI” I return.
“My name Hiva,” he says, “Where you from?”
Before I can answer, a mango falls from the tree above, splattering the earth between us. I leap backwards. He recoils too, then hurries over to wipe the bits of mango from my shins with a rag. He offers to show me around later in the day. He’s charming, and I certainly have no other plans nor have I heard much from Gaspar so I nod in agreement and continue wandering down the road.
That afternoon Hiva arrives at Swell in his newly repaired canoe. He invites me to climb on the back and he paddles us toward the shore. We explore the east side of the bay, leaping across the smooth, dark reef and boulders to peer in caves and tide pools. Hiva wrangles eels out of their holes and cracks open urchins to show me how to suck the tongue-like meat out of them. When we leap in the sea to cool off, he points to fist-sized live cowries and a fluorescent purple starfish clinging to the dark rocks. Next, he wants to show me where the royal family once lived. We wander back into the valley, where he cuts a path through overgrown ruins with his machete. We pick starfruit and oranges along a steep trail to the peak, where we break out of the foliage for a beautiful view of Swell in the quiet bay. Mysterious rock spires tower behind us; clouds whip around their tall, domed peaks. When he leans in and caresses my hair, I pull away gently.
“Hoa?” (Friends?) I say. He nods in understanding. I figure we should wrap it up for today.
The next morning around 7 am I see his canoe approaching. “You come?” he asks politely. How can I resist his bright smile, golden skin, and broad shoulders? And, why should I?
I gather a few items and climb down to perch again, backwards, on the canoe’s rear. He strokes south, out around the next headland. I’m enchanted by the silent, rhythmic advance of the slender canoe until we land on a white sand beach lining a sharply ascending valley. A pack of wild horses looks up from their drink at a nearby freshwater stream trickling into the sea. Hiva heads off to harvest avocados up the valley; I stay put on the empty beach, happy as a sand crab.
Back at the village later, he invites me to come for lunch at his parents’ home. After meeting his mother, father, and nephews, I follow him to an open-air garage, where he bows his head to say a prayer, then picks up a shotgun. I must look startled because he puts down the gun and starts making animal noises and lowering his upper body as if head-butting. Oh, okay, I think we’re going goat hunting. I have mixed feelings of dread and excitement as we tiptoe through the wild acres of his family’s land. An hour later, he fires at an adolescent black billy goat. It’s a perfect shot; the goat instantly falls dead. He then strips the bark off a branch, and uses it to tie the back legs of the goat to a tree branch. He guts and beheads it, then lets the blood drain. The black fur gleams in the bright midafternoon sun as the carcass spins slowly. My emotions spin too from sympathy, to disgust, to appreciation and admiration. When the blood stops dripping, Hiva stuffs what’s left in his backpack and we walk back to the family home on the cliff overlooking the bay. Goat for lunch, no big deal.
At home Hiva skins the goat, while his mother heats a large pot of water and shucks a pile of brown coconuts. Three structures and several large trees surround a grassy yard area. An open-air kitchen lies opposite a tin-roofed house, and there’s a hangout area with palm frond thatching for shade in between. I play tag with the two nephews until Hiva’s mother yells something that must mean the food is ready. She removes the boiled goat meat from the pot and drizzles it in fresh coconut milk. When she’s finished, the boys and I take the pressed coconut gratings to the chickens behind the house, then we all sit around an outside table under the shade of a gnarled old mango tree for a feast. Breadfruit pounded and mixed with coconut milk into kaaku, watercress soup, and manioc root accompany the goat. Ripe mangos and sweet, mutant-sized grapefruits are stacked on the table for dessert. I stuff myself, enjoying every bite of the delicious fresh food, since I find limited motivation to cook alone, mostly eating from cans and packages.
I slowly chew each bite of goat with new respect. Meat in Southern California grocery stores never had a face, family, or fur.
Over the meal, Hiva’s father, who speaks good English, explains how their people were decimated by diseases brought by European sailors during colonial times. The small population that survived has endured, but is in desperate need of genetic variation in their offspring. “This is a good reason that you should stay in the bay and marry my son,” he says with a smile.
Suddenly a mango falls from the tree above, landing square in the middle of the table, bursting open to expose its pulp and sweet golden juice. Hiva quickly says something to his father in Marquesan, who then turns to me and says, “This is a very impressive sign! Hiva says a mango fell between both of you on the first day you met, and now this!”
The table goes silent; everyone looks at me. The nephews tug at me from both sides. I blush awkwardly and fidget in my seat. If there were a decent wave to surf nearby, I would totally consider it.