The Yachties

Nowadays the majority of sailboats are driven across the vast waters of the South Pacific like those imposingly boxy motor homes cruising down some interstate freeway back on the mainland. Its occupants are on a tight schedule to complete the coconut milk run before their one season turns sour. They’re checking off things done from orderly and well-planned lists. They’re turning on the motor when boat speed drops below four knots. They’re watching movies while on night watch and downloading GRIB files while frying beacon and scrambling eggs for breakfast. As long as there’s ice in the Rum it’s business as usual and almost as good as home. Testosterone prone manliness is reaffirmed while reeling in a so many feet long bonito or tuna with impeccable equipment, the can of beer never far away from thick fingered hands. Another season of this has started as this is written. In March the hordes depart from the North American West Coast and more spew out of the Panama canal, then dart across grids of latitude and longitude, carefully selecting stops according to the services offered there so that the level of consumption on board never falls below the threshold of awareness. By November they fast approach the finish line, fan out from Fiji down South to New Zealand, or straight ahead to Australia where the market for sailboats is still relatively good. Now let’s fly back home in style and tell the folks back there how good life is in the States after all.

We’ve so far been lucky with not having been caught up in that circus without soleil. It’s worth the while to stay off the beaten track. I’m not so sure we’ll be able to dodge the bullet this time. We need to stay in this pothole for probably at least another month, waiting, as everybody else, for stuff ordered from the paradise of consumption. We might have to face and be witness to the masses before we are able to leave. They’re expected to arrive anytime. In the meantime, before that onslaught happens, we’re glad to be able to study some noteworthy exceptions in this mostly peaceful harbor. There are some really outstanding folks here in Pago Pago harbor, the off-season folks, those who don’t fit in, those who are either left behind by or staying ahead of everybody else.

There are the Russians who live on the boat with the Swedish flag we almost run into while trying to get a hold of the mooring buoy. Angelica is as thin as a stick and peeks out with an outrageous curiosity from behind thick glasses. She’s a regular at McDonald’s during the free WiFi sessions from two to eight in the afternoon, supposedly writing articles for a Russian travel magazine. With her bright green shawl wrapped around her neck while shivering in the air conditioned interior she compounds the Siberian temperatures by slurping up vanilla colored ice cream, her face ghostly illuminated by the luminescence of her laptop screen. Apparently her computer’s keyboard gave out so you see her typing on an ancient keyboard as thick as the slabs of meat in a double whopper. In regular intervals she steps outside and paces up and down the waterfront, puffing on some smoker, which on closer inspections turns out to be Dutch tobacco rolled in Pandanus leaves. While enthusiastically conversing with you she spits the remnants of the former out onto the asphalt every half minute or so. She prefers the Spanish language to the English one and some time into one of our first conversations after dark she shares with us her latest discovery: “Two funny people have arrived on a catamaran they have built themselves. They are using strange sails and their boat looks very beautiful.” Since it was her husband Alexander who came to visit us that very morning, we think this is all too funny and let her stroll in the dark just a little longer before we ask her where those people are now. Her face takes on a funny slant while apparently behind it the dots connect. “I’m so sorry, when I said funny, I meant it in a good way”, she mumbles. Alexander makes great emphasis that he’s not from Russia, but from Ukraine and he joins us now in olive green fatigue and pipe in hand. A white lighter dangles from a spiral key chain on his belt. His round face is framed by a white stopple beard that goes up in front of the ears and around the back of his head, leaving a good slab of baldness on top. “I like countries with corruption,” he reveals his cynical thinking twists, “everything is cheaper. Look, in America you pay three thousand dollars just to get your driver’s license, while in Venezuela, hey, just give the guy a hundred bucks and you’re on the road.” On a more serious escapade he described how he had been looking for residues of Marquesan presence on the island of Eiao, reasoning that if there had been regular voyages from there to Hawaii, this northernmost of the Islands must have been some sort of a jump off point. They had had apparently a bit better luck than we did and where able to stay on that island for a month. No spectacular archeological finds ensued but the month of fishing and hunting was a zero cost. The two then went on to visit the Phoenix Islands and stayed for a couple months at Kanton, another lonely outpost with maybe a couple dozen inhabitants. That island had seen its heydays during the wars with various nations occupying and fortifying its fickle shores. On one of the following days Alexander shows us a video he made about House 28, the ruins of which they visited. He’s obviously a versatile historian and the stream of moving pictures is accompanied by scrolling Russian text, while he translates it for us into heavily accented Spanish. Mid morning you can see both of them standing up in their cockpit facing the West, their hands joined over their groins soldier like. After some time they wildly draw an ample number of crosses over their forehead and chest. The latest from Alexander are his stomach problems, which he admits might have psychosomatic roots. His ex-wife has fallen into the grip of alcoholism and he feels he needs to do something about it. The remote assistance falls onto the soil of ungratefulness and his daughter and mother-in-law are now convinced that it is entirely his fault. That’s sure enough to overturn the sturdiest of stomachs. Angelica finally came by to check out Aluna. She wants to write an article about the funny people on the boat with the strange sails. She diligently studies our kitchen shelves and asks us to tell her a good piece of advise for her most faithful readers, who dream of going sailing around the worlds themselves one of these days. “I want to write about you,” she muses, “because you don’t travel like the American. I hope my articles don’t get translated into English, they’ll kill me. But they work all their lives to save money, then when they finally are able to start their journey that are old and jittery! So how long did it take you to build your boat?” Her finished article can be admired in Russian here. For a not very elegant machine translation click on the small English button in the right frame.

You’ve already met Bernie. Well, only over the radio, that is. In his physical reality his wild red beard makes him too akin to some escapee of a comic strip. He stands in his inflatable with a tiller extension in hand and so zips across the harbor waters at amazing speed. He knocked on our hull the following morning asking if we had managed to get some rest and if we wanted to join in on a shared rental car to explore the island and do some shopping at the same time. We already had some plans for that day but agreed to hop on the bandwagon the following day. Early next morning we are picked up by Bernie’s flying inflatable and meet his lovely wife Yvonne. Eric from Seattle has gone ahead to pick up the car and will wait for us at the McDonald’s parking lot. He’s the single-handed captain of SV Secret Agent Man and his imposing posture and dark polarized glasses take any possibility of a joke out of that name. He will be the designated driver for the day, that much is clear. First things first, business before pleasure, Eric has brought along his cooking gas bottle and so have we, so the initial stop is along the opposite side of the bay at the gas plant. The drive starts heading West along the South side of the yacht anchorage and then in a wide U-turn around the bottom of the bay, where the damage from the 2009 tsunami is still quite visible. Two buildings are being deconstructed here and quite many others await similar fates in the future. Other houses are clearly brand new on the flat delta plane of the Pago Pago river that flows down from a short valley into the bay. Zipping along the Northern shore now heading East we pass first peacefully anchored Aluna next to our bulky neighbor, rusty fishing vessel of glories past Alice S. Then there’s a shipyard where another not very healthy fishing boat is receiving welded upgrades to her dented underside. The buildings now grow abruptly in size and ugliness. The hustle and bustle of the Starkist Cannery with workers crossing the street in white overalls and hairnets wipes out any view of the bay for maybe ten blocks until we’re again looking at the water. Big swells are coming in from the harbor’s entrance in the South and break on the fringing reef. The street girdles the bay as it does almost the entire island. Interesting how access to the seashore has been sacrificed significantly to the smooth flow of the cars. Even at this early morning hour the traffic is quite lively, gone are the days of our one car village on the far away atoll!

With the gas bottles filled we’re now off for the pleasure ride. A road turns off away from the coast and soon snakes up the slopes of this ancient caldera towards a pass between Rainmaker Mountain and Mount Alava. Just before tilting over to the other side we stop to take in the vista of the entire bay below us, our mighty floating homes all reduced to tiny specks of white on a murky tongue of dark green water. Soon it’s a downhill run towards the rugged bays and promontories of Tutuila Island’s North coast. Through dense jungle we rush and Bernie bugs the driver to stop at the most inconvenient locations in hot pursuit of that singular shot with his digital camera. All along we learn a little about our hosts, their long and winding roads through a life of plenty that seems to want to culminate sometimes soon. Not so long ago they were proud and busy owners of a worldwide charter business with sixty plus employees, hundreds of boats and organizing adventure tours in Australia’s wild outback. Feeling the nook of success tightening around their necks they made the moves to sell, got offered the deal of a century and once it closed saw the corporation of their buyers go belly up and bankrupt before their very eyes. They lost a ton of money, but kept their happy spirit, and some good lawyer friend managed to twist things just enough for them to extract enough cash from the disaster to buy their present sailboat, a 48’ ketch, on who’s heavy keel they’ve been roaming the seas for the last dozen or so years. Life was mostly good until a year ago when Yvonne suffered a serious stroke while too far away from civilization in French Polynesia’s Society Isles. The time it took for her to be airlifted and flown to Australia was a bit too long and the next six months saw her tied to a hospital bed, working hard on regaining memories important to her sanity. “It’s like I got a new wife”, Bernie’s healthy emotional detachment whispers in my ear so she can’t hear, “The other one was better, but I make do with the new one!” They used to be both avid bird watchers and Yvonne still names any feathered critter visible from the air-conditioned interior of our petrol powered metal cage. But Bernie feels her enthusiasm for it has vanished in a bog of oxygen starved slabs of cortex. She gets tired quickly nowadays and some other complications from an earlier bout with pancreatic cancer are reemerging and making things worse by the day. Their plan is to return to Australia and settle back on terra firme, where access to needed medical care will be more accessible than when cruising the big blue. Yvonne’s presence is acute though and she swiftly corrects Bernie’s more careless notion of times and places of their action packed past. Bernie then usually stops, takes a healthy breath of air, weaves in a admiring “Yvonne is right! It was then and there that…” into his narrative and continues the parade of comic but significant episodes from their long joint history. Her serene smile radiates a swell of inner peace and a calmness of singular beauty. After having observed diligently her surroundings now her eyelids close, her gaze travels inward and gorges on the maturity of successfully survived suffering, floating with acquired weightlessness over vast meadows of pain.

Eric on the other hand is not exactly self-aware. His wit is short lived and square. His neck seems to be fused to the shoulders and his head rarely moves from side to side. When having to look to his right the whole upper body has to gyrate. He goes jogging in the early mornings along the bayside to keep in top shape and is astonished that the Samoans seem to find this a little silly. The ten bottles of Johnny Walker he purchased at CostULess, the local CostCo like super store, seem to be causing some trouble. We won’t see Eric for almost a week and after that, the day before leaving we spot him on a last minute shopping spree. A nasty cut is healing up over his left eye. Our question about it is answered with a cynical: “Well, you shouldn’t try to climb over the locked gate to get to your dinghy on the dock when you’re drunk!” The next day he sails away with all his problems still on board.

Then there’s Roger and Norma on their super yacht Sea Fury. They are both culinary artists and produce the most delicious meals to entertain guests on board their Swedish built one-off all Mahogany interior 60 plus footer. We’ve so far been treated to an exquisite spaghetti sauce with Basil from the onboard herb garden, Italian sausage, New Zealand cheddar, and tonight to the best Pizza in the entire South Pacific. Roger emphasizes that the local franchise of Pizza Hut stands no chance whatsoever, not with the dough, which is Norma’s deed, nor with the topping for which he proclaims himself responsible. They’re both well into their sixties. Norma used to be nurse, delivered I don’t know how many babies into this world. And she doesn’t either, but now struggles to find ways with her new artificial hip joint she had screwed to her femur back in Panama. Roger looks back to a daredevil life, having grown up in a poor working class home in coal country from where he ascended to the highest military ranks flying airplanes. He served in Vietnam and came back with a clearer understanding of global politics. “You’ll never see an American flag on our boat”, he states in his raspy voice. The burden of collective guilt wears heavily on his shoulders, so today he’s a do-gooder, helping out whenever he can. He goes out to receive incoming cruisers and helps them get a first go at the tricky anchorage here in the harbor. So much so, that apparently, after learning of Dick’s assistance in our mooring dance he sniped: “This is usually my job!” Food is not the only magnet that keeps the never-ending string of guests aboard Sea Fury well entertained. Over the dining table hangs a large screen on which movies are run from a car DVD player. They like American comedy, but quickly apologize for its awkward sense of humor, which, according to their experience, the Europeans for one don’t understand. The tour of the boat will always be later, when we get together again sometimes soon, but just to “get an idea about how sturdy this boat is”, we get a peak behind one of the solid teak cupboard covers, where buried under a mound of canned food we can appreciate the top quality stainless steel connectors and rods that unite the keel of the boat with the deck. “We never have a stuck door on this boat”, Roger underlines proudly the impeccability of their floating castle. After five slices of Pizza our bellies are full to the rim, the fine boxed Cabernet-Sauvignon being the lubricant allowing us to shove them down our throats in the first place, and it’s time to make it past the waist-high tomato plants that line Sea Fury’s decks back to the aft platform where Alunita is tied next to Roger’s furious inflatable, that has been a blessing to many a boat in trouble, when he comes zipping on it over the foaming wave tops of yet another gusty afternoon in the harbor.

At the very end of the harbor, a stone’s throw away from where the murky waters of the Pago Pago River enter the bay, lays at anchor the biggest and greatest of the yachts: Barbarella. This is the realm of our graceful angel and savior from disaster: Dick. After what he had done for us it seemed obvious to paddle over there and invite him and wife Barbara over for diner on our more modest vessel. From Alunita’s frog perspective Babrarella is an awe-inspiring sight. She’s a ketch with her main mast soaring probably some fifty or sixty feet above the water, a sizable pilothouse with the inevitable dodger crowns the hull and three wind generators wisp in the rigging. I’m getting a little sensation of how the Polynesians must have felt when in their dugout canoes approaching the humongous ships of the European explorers, if that’s what you would like to call them. On the starboard side a stainless steel boarding ladder dangles over the sides. We grab a hold of it and give the metal as loud a knock as our fists are able to inflict upon it. Nothing stirs. I reach my arm further out and inflict a similar beating to the hull side and we both shout an enthusiastic “Hello! Anybody home?” A flashy redhead, albeit with a collection of wrinkles softening her lines, emerges from the belly of the beast with a long drawn out: “Yeeees?” “Hi, you must be Barbara,” I go and in the sweetest tones I confer to her our appreciation of what her hubby had done for us. “Oh, he’ll be right up!”, she muses. When Dick appears and after one more demonstration of appreciation we reveal to them our plans for having them over. Barbara’s face immediately contracts and her wrinkles deepen. “No, we really can’t!”, she complains, “We’ve got so much to do!” That’s right, I remember now Bernie telling us that Barbarella is the record holder in ex-pat holdout here in the bay. Dick and Barbie were here during the 2009 Tsunami and poor Barbarella apparently went down on the mud as the waters first receded, was then picked up with the first incoming wave with a good load of mud now inside her, dropped down once again, this time on her other side and scooping up another amount of goo. The two have been cleaning up ever since and there seems to be no end in sight. Their spirit is as high as ever though, just don’t try to nodge them off their tracks. “I’m an Aussie,” says Barbara, with a wicked smile twisting her wrinkles horizontally, “and we’re said to be a little funny! But you must know that I go around like this!” With that she pulls up her flower colored dress all the way up to her bra, revealing the clad bikini and nothing much else underneath but decaying beauty. Dicks blue eyes draw a much resigned “Oh, here we go again” into the thin air and we now know that it’s probably best to desist from our intentions to reciprocate the favors bestowed on us.

So here you have it, a little glimpse into the world of today’s cruising folks, at least a speck of it that shows the more colorful creatures of the fauna inhabiting it. Some new ones come, others leave and are not seen again while a few get stuck in the muck, conjuring up all kinds of excuses and explanations for how and why life is not giving them what they would like to grasp from it. Human animals of comical and tragic proportions they (we!) are, just like our more sedentary brethrens. But the fact that we’re moving about makes us just a wee bit less vulnerable to the putrefaction of hearts that seems to befall the steady stompers mowing their manicured lawns every Saturday afternoon at 2pm in suburban middle class hell. Just a teeny tiny bit…

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