The Kwai Experience

I’ve heard about the Kwai when back in Hawai’i. A cargo ship with auxiliary sail, what a futuristic idea, I thought at that time. Our friend Kiko on the Big Island told us about this enterprise. He knows every and any thing having to do with things that float on water, certainly in Hawai’i, most probably in the Pacific and quite possibly any place on the globe. He told us that it all grew out of a floating hippie commune circumnavigating the globe back in the golden 70s, combining intentional community living with a progressive business model, bringing cargo of essential supplies to places that had been left abandoned by the main stream shipping companies.

Three times a year they start their voyage up in busy Honolulu, work their way down the Line Island of the Republic of Kiribati, then weaving along the Northern Cook Islands before heading down to Rarotonga, where with fresh cargo the long return journey begins. They bring food, construction materials, clothing, tools, soap, petrol, and many other essential and not so essential goods to these outposts of humanity in the lonesome South Pacific. At that time I had little idea what living in such remoteness implied in practical terms. Now, after just about three months of living without setting foot in a store I can understand the excitement that was building up for weeks before the arrival of the Kwai. The estimated arrival date of any supply ship has this floating quality of sliding progressively into the future. It was supposed to arrive in the first week of April and then that date started creeping down the calendar sheet. Eventually it collided firmly with the date set for the final performance of our theater play at the Tautua School. A meeting of the school committee later this one was aptly postponed into the first week of the holidays. Everybody agreed to bring their children to school on Monday morning for the dress rehearsal and then congregate for the show on Tuesday morning. Now the weekend was free to be dedicated exclusively to the coming hustle and bustle with the pahi, the boat. School was suspended for three days with explicit permission of the official policy manual.

On Tuesday night we were busy trying to organize a ride over to Omoka. Rio declined saying that he had to go over there early in the morning, since he would have to head out of the pass to meet up with the Kwai and serve as a pilot to bring her in through the pass, safely around the many coral heads and to the wharf. Everybody else had similar excuses, saying their boat was full, since the entire family was relocating to the other side for a couple of days. Only Papa Saitu had pity on us and come Wednesday late morning we’re skimming the wavelets of the lagoon on an exceptionally calm day heading West and arrive in Omoka shortly before noon. At our friends place there Alex is placing the rocks onto the smoking coconut husks that fire the earth oven for today’s round of bread. We’re checking out the development of their latest grandson, who has now two lower incisors that need to chew on anything his tiny hands manage to grasp and who’s nimble legs start to straighten with amazing determination of bipedal commotion. Chatting with his great-grandmother time flies and before we know it we’re hearing screaming kids running towards the wharf. We arrive there just as the ship is tightening the spring lines tied to the heavy bollards on the concrete pier, the ever agitated waters of Omoka harbor licking her black and white painted steel hull. On her foredeck a tubular tripod stays a central mast of which I would later learn that it served in her previous life as a herring fishing boat to haul in big purse seine nets from up at its top. Two foresails are wrapped at the feet of two forestays and a mainsail is furled along the mast. As odd as the idea of a sailing cargo ship sounds to modern ears those sails look very natural and purposeful in their resting position and must look noble and slender when deployed. According to her crew the Kwai can only turn her engines off in strong and stiff winds, we’re talking about more than 30 knots. So most of the time she is motor sailed with big savings in diesel.

Every shady place around the pier is occupied with curious onlookers and we mingle with the different factions, seeping in the latest gossip of town. Once fastened securely the Kawi’s mainsail boom and gaff transform into a giant crane operated with steel cables pulled by hydraulic winches. A short sun burnt guy operates skillfully the long levers that move the crane in the three dimensional space, lifting the barrels of gasoline and diesel up over the railing and depositing them gently on the pier. From there those are loaded onto small pickup trucks and disappear from the public eye. The crew count on Kwai comes to eleven. Captain Kim, Canadian, had been on the Kwai on her initial crossing of the Atlantic in her early years, but it’s his first trip commanding her in the Pacific. His pointy nose leads him along the cargo hatch to the fo’c’sl, where he seems to be responding to some worry of the local agent. His grey hair sails in all directions whenever he lifts up his beige cap to scratch the patch of boldness that makes sure his head does not fall forward. Evi from Israel monkeys up the mast and tightens the spiral wrapping that furls the mainsail. Don’t underestimate his almost undetectable smile, we’re told, he works twice as hard as everybody else and is next in line to become captain once Kim has had enough. Dressed in a yellow flower skirt and her very own Penrhyn hat, Leslie flings her slender legs over the railing obviously eager to try her sea going equilibrium on the firmness of the coral mound. We catch up with her a little later at the beach behind the customs building, where she sits puffing American cigarettes surrounded by a dozen of the local kids staring at her blond hair and white complexion. She is the well-weathered cook of the ship and self-declared Mama of the crew. Originally from Santa Cruz, she’s been with the Kwai since forever, has a definite air of self-assurance and soon explains to us the dos and don’ts of growing sprouts on the sea. Magally and Lizzie are the young kitchen helpers from Kiritbati, where also the two dark skinned deck hands are from. All four of them are newbies and part of the ship owner’s urge to train youngsters from the island in the trade of seamanship. Whizzing through the cargo space there’s the blonde called Heidi, not from the Alps though, but from the rounded hills of Cornwall in Southern England. Her title of supercargo only barely hints at her constant business. Notebook and pencil in hand, or clenched between her impeccable teeth, she distributes more than half the content in Kwai’s belly in the course of the four days she spends on the island with a fiery smile and a crackling joke for everybody. Is there anybody on this ship in a bad mood? Kansas is the perfect reincarnation of Santa Claus, complete with white mane and beard flying in the wind, eagle nose and skinny legs. His pink potbelly is as proud as the original Santa Claus’ would be too, should he happen to live in the tropics! He only appears after some time on the afterdeck, his rose skin covered with black slurs of used engine oil. He signed on as Kwai’s engineer, when he read on the web page that the previous one had quit.

Once relieved of her cargo for Omoka on Saturday, the Kwai comes sailing across the lagoon to Tetautua and anchors a stone throw away from Aluna. She had taken on the building materials for renovating the school, so those are unloaded first and brought on the aluminum skiffs to the small wharf at the community center. Bags of rice, ramen noodles, huge bags of pampers, sugar, flour and stacks of gumballs are next and are channeled to their new owners. We row across on Alunita who looks weary at the rusty steel skin of her mighty sister as we pull ourselves up on the rope ladder dangling over the side. Some flour and milk powder accompanies us back home and Kansas is definitely in need of some fresh air. He’s happy to come and check out Aluna and over diner he vents some of the accumulated frustrations of living the densely ruffled life aboard this one of a kind vessel of experimental business, combining fun and feasibility, need and nurture, running a precarious lifeline from the outpost of development up North to the specs of life in delicate suspense between an evaporating ancestry and the conglomeration of modernity. Like all the other messengers of the outside world before it that have come to render service to the jovial folks who call this place home, the Kwai will weigh anchor soon and disappear over the horizon into a blood red sunset and as soon as its shrinking visibility has diminished to nothing the accumulated mounds of nourishment left by her on the island will start their inevitable process of shrinking, always with the potent potential of ending way before the next opportunity of replenishment appears. Life on the island can teach you many savvy things!

One Response to “The Kwai Experience”

  1. Glenn Tieman Says:

    My first reaction to hearing about the Kwai was delight at the use of sail on a cargo vessel. The whole scene has a fabulous alternative flavor.
    There is a point that is important though even if not so much fun. Refering to white rice, flour, sugar, canned food etc. as essentials and nessesities is not just incorrect but harmful. Pacific islanders do not starve when they can’t, for whatever reason, buy food. Instead I’ve been told by a remote islander, the number of patients at the health clinics diminishes as health improves. Without well intentioned charity, islanders will eat fresh, healthy, delicious local food; breadfruit, coconut, banana, papaya, citrous, pig, chicken, crab, clam, always fish, high protein taro (rock taro on high islands and swamp taro on atolls) as well as various yams and tapioca, and get a little exercise as well. Instead of the now universally obese polynesian getting diabetes and dying young they become the well known strapped samoan. So why do they ever eat cargo junk food? Because they are exposed to the same programing and designed subliminal social pressures as the rest of us. Note that these foods all come from “big ag” a part of the multinational corporate oligarcy. The oligarcy transfer their marketing messages via the media, which they pay for, including the internet and sailing magazines. Yachties, peacecorp, crew on sailing cargo ships etc, so programmed, go to the most distant inhabited islands on earth and teach people, through their own beliefs and behavior, that to rise above the word “primitive” one must buy nessesities and learn to like it. If anyone was sincere about creating a post industrial society; sustainable, carbon neutral, non-nuclear, more creative and liberated and less neurotic, then he would show respect by being a student of what traditional subsistance remains instead of acting the rich advanced aid giver.
    Nevetheless, I enjoy your observations and ideas Beat and Beatriz. Keep the process going!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: