Springing From the Past Straight into the Future

On our first walk on land after arriving at our present anchorage in Tetautua, still with a slight wobble of sea legs in our knees, we headed south out of the village to stroll along the mile and a half of narrow gravel path towards the tip of the motu. Maybe a hundred yards past the last house we happen to come upon a beautiful outrigger canoe lying upside down on the side of the path towards the beach. A quick first inspection reveals a twenty some feet long hull, plywood side planks are joined to a timber sole all held together with bulkheads composed of two joint Ls made from tree forks cut flat on the outside. The ama is made from a heavy log, its green color giving it the appearance of a utility post.  There is a long oar resting under the hull. Looking at the canoe from close up it’s obvious that it has been sitting there idle for some time. The timber sole has weathered substantially and has a number of cracks. But the structure seems sound and a little epoxy and paint would certainly get this baby rocking again! Our stroll continues past pig stalls with a half dozen grunting residents surrounded by squeaking piglets, lonely outhouses on stilts inviting for lofty sessions of human bowel discharge directly into the lagoon to the understandable horror of the local health professionals, heaps of clam shells in front of abandoned houses from back when the pearl industry was in swing here, burrows of Tupa crabs who have spotted us and gone in hiding long before we are able to spot them ourselves, little baby black tip sharks patrolling the shallows beyond the white coral beach where much tinier crabs carry acquired homes of pink and orange snail shells around, making them appear like little hovercrafts floating a couple feet across the fine rubble, then rest, then undertake another stretch of seemingly effortless floating.

It takes us the bigger part of a month to track down the owner of this intriguing sailing machine and it once again brings us to the house of Penui’s family. It was his dad who had built her, probably some five years ago. He was a skillful carpenter, overseeing amongst many other things the construction and maintenance of the elaborate woodwork in Tautua’s church. We watch a series of photographs documenting the construction, launch celebration and maiden voyage of the canoe. Unfortunately Penui’s dad passed away shortly after completing the project so the canoe never found real use. Apparently there were some issues with the sail being to heavy and awkward to handle, which was enough to have the builder’s sons loose interest, which explains the present state of neglect. I’m assured that the sail and rigging is still all there, so I ask to see it. Penui’s elder brother, fittingly called Big Tom, comes along and we stroll along the churchyard past the Sunday school building and one of the five cemeteries of the village towards the beach. A couple more cousins have joined us along the way and now we’re turning the canoe right way up. I’m looking at the ama, the outrigger float, and it takes me a while to understand what I’m looking at. Both ends of it are pointing down, it doesn’t make any sense, unless… It’s a proa! The answers to my questions about the rig confirm that the sail is changed from front to back when turning and what forward is now backward, bow becomes stern. That turning, which in “normal” sailboats is called tacking, is called shunting, when you’re riding a proa. Proa’s amas are heavy since they are always to windward and help counterbalance the force of the wind blowing into the sail and wanting to push the canoe over. The downward facing tips provide the same service by digging into the water when the craft picks up speed.

I’m all jazzed up by now and the thought of getting this beauty back in the water easily makes me commit the sin of proposing a donation of some of our preciously low supply of epoxy to fill the cracks of the timber sole. The donation is matched by half a bucket of exterior paint from their part and we proceed to move the canoe under the shade of a coconut tree in front of Big Tom’s house. Within four days the canoe get’s a veritable facelift. I suggest to add a little mini keel of a 2×2 timber I see lying around, which should help it to track just a little better and also protects the fragile bottom when dragging the canoe up the beach. Soon it gleams in bright white, the name is freshly retraced in black and the gunwales accent its lines in an elegant purple. Thursday is the set date for the glorious re-launch.

Thursday unfortunately sees me crossing the lagoon to begin our hospital holiday worrying about being able to re-launch my leg before losing it to gangrene! It is not until we’re back on Aluna two weeks later, still under the doctor’s restriction of keeping the bandaged leg dry, when I see over at the beach some activity. I had noticed previously that the canoe was now kept there, carefully covered with palm fronds to protect it from the hammering of the tropical sun. Soon I can see it floating on the water and Big Tom, recognizable from afar, and what must be his brother Penui are raising the sail. It’s a dirty looking rag, that’s for sure. The couple years in storage have stained it badly and there seems to be still an issue with setting it up correctly. Once they get under way, the lower corner is dragging in the water. But it sails! I’ve been trying to get the bug in their minds, that sailing is not something of old, but is the future. There are of course, as anywhere on the planet for that matter, complaints about rising gas prices. The supply boat is late, as it always is. Not only is flour, sugar and milk powder in short supply, gone from the store shelves altogether, it’s been months since everybody’s last spoon of ice cream, and now petrol is also on the short list of scarcity. No more gas intensive tuna turns out on the ocean, no more quick runs across the lagoon to visit friends and family. Gas is rationed, only used for essential necessities, and some kept as reserves in case of a medical emergency.

So here comes the first working trip of the newly restored canoe. I will learn later on that they had done a first joy ride while we were away, but this is the first trip with a payload. They are heading north, to the motu with the fishponds, where they are farming milkfish. Milkfish is the domesticated cousin of the mallet, which is fished with nets in the lagoon and outside too. It is a mandatory part of any of the local kai kais, Maori for food feast. It is sliced into half-inch thick rounds, marinated for a day in coconut milk spiced up with limejuice and diced onions and eaten raw. Delicious, let me tell you! Its supple bones resist the chewing and bend easily, so they’re not piercing your tongue and gums like they would if you cooked it. Once all the tender meat is chewed away, you spit out a crumpled ball of bones and your fingers head for the next morsel. Yes, that’s right! People here eat with their fingers. I’ve gotten tired of asking for a fork or a spoon and remembering the hallucinatory journeys to India in my tweens diligently use my right hand for feeding. It’s fun! Beatriz doesn’t think so and keeps looking for a piece of silverware before digging in.

Five hours later I’m sitting below deck busy scriptwriting for the theater play we’re doing with the kids at the school, when I’m hearing some shouting outside. I pop my head up the companionway and see the canoe coming back. The sail has been reversed, pointing now back home. They apparently had to do two shunting maneuvers while fighting their way back into the wind and are now peacefully sailing past Aluna towards the beach. Two adults and three youngsters have made a supply trip of a good four miles round trip without burning a single drop of petrol. If that doesn’t smell like the future I’ll have to call myself Fred Flintstone!


3 Responses to “Springing From the Past Straight into the Future”

  1. boatsmith Says:

    what fun, glad the leg is doing better

  2. Paz Says:

    Uds. estan en el paraiso!

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