Character Study

One of the limitations of Aluna’s present rig is the lack of sufficient stiffness of the number one mainsail’s spars. There just weren’t big enough bamboo’s growing in Northern California and I was lucky to find the ones we got, which were just long enough but taper down to no more than an inch at the top. So when the wind picks up to anything approaching twenty knots the tips of the sail start wobbling and bending like a fickle reed in a good autumn storm. All across the Pacific we’ve been looking for suitable culms to improve our rig’s efficiency, but unfortunately in vain.

You’ve already briefly met Ted and over at his modified Piver catamaran “Sequester” while being served tea with delicious strawberries by his wife Karen, the conversation quickly turns to the fastest growing grass. He immediately declared that we would have to meet Peter. Peter the Potter that is, renowned clay artist par excellence, and why don’t we go and see him right away! So we run Ted’s dinghy over to the boatyard where Peter runs a workshop. Approaching the building Ted gestures to the parking lot: “The car of the artist!” A late 80’s Toyota hatchback is tucked in next to a giant construction crane, its body brightly painted in many colors like an impressionist pointillist still life set on wheels. We enter a glass door and pass through an office area into a high ceiling warehouse where in the middle of clay stained pottery wheels with freshly turned jars, heaps of all kinds of antique boat parts, an ancient wooden sailing dinghy hung overhead from the rafters, racks of pots and buckets full of all kinds of paint, varnish, lacquer and other practical and useful chemicals, stacks of timber, rolls of rope, reams of paper, boxes of tools and many other indescribable contraptions Peter the Potter stands in shaggy pants and a dusty dark green flannel shirt, holding firmly onto a supersized cup of tea with his big hands and it is quite obvious than apart from supreme pottery master he wears many other hats of creative and constructive trades.

Soon all the rest of us are also being sustained by cups of steaming tea, which is just as well, as the temperature here down under is outright chilly compared to what our tropically tanned bodies are used to. The conversation meanders from ‘have you ever met this guy on that boat’ to ‘this could also be done like that’ and then deviates for just a second to ‘do you remember when so and so did such and such in this or that movie’, but gravitational tugs magically have it spiraling slowly but steadily to the uses and abuses of the crab claw rig. Peter’s sparkling eyes of curiosity seem to delicately scan every square inch of our two recently landed aliens’ bodies and some wiggly radiolocation even tries to fathom the labyrinthine tunneling inside our practically thinking minds. He’s a skilled spinner of yarn, hopping through geographical remoteness and historical epochs like an untamed elf, engineering ingenuity on a precarious framework of humble humor and secret but sacredly obvious connections. Once firmly channeled on the bamboo theme he advocates against high-tech improvements to the astonishing structural robustness of the culms for construction purposes on land and on the sea. The natural, inborn protection if left intact should be enough to make bamboo last an year or two under the sun, after which, as long as you are in regions where bamboo is widely available, you simply replace the weathered sticks, his down-to-earth reasoning goes. I throw in my good friend Glenn Tieman’s recent experience with leaving the new set of bamboo spars for his non-compromising sailing vehicle Manu Lele soaking in the sea for too long, seeing them invaded by shipworms, tiny enemies past and present of many a brave and cowardly mariner alike. Then Peter swings the pendulum of human’s predominance over nature’s adversity towards the side where luck favors those of us who put our noses to the grindstone. “If you can’t resist the urge to apply some industrial efficiency to your project”, he muses while clinching his eyes with a good hint of irony, “a friend of mine in Myanmar simply applies some paint to the culms while they are still a bit green. This slows down the drying enough for them to lose their humidity slowly and avoid any cracking.”

Towards the end of our highly technical intermingling of ideas our “Would you want to come and have a look at our boat?” is quickly contested with a “Why don’t you come over to my place for diner?” and before we know it we’re back on Aluna under light drizzle with Peter on board, taking off the sail covers we had put on just a couple days back. The anchors come out of the mud, dragging enough of the yucky stuff all over the foredeck and here we are sailing away into a grey late afternoon. Half way across the inlet we manage to run aground in spite of all the local pilotage we’re hosting in our pilot house, coming to a gentle halt in the soft mud. Luckily the tide is coming in and it takes only half an hour of further animated conversation for Aluna to float off. Sailing straight through the vast sea of moored sailboats we arrive at the northern shore of the Waikare Inlet less than a mile away. Peter is all happy to see the simplicity of the crab claw rig in action and directs us into a small bay that is delimited by a wooded promontory towards the East where Peter’s dwelling is located. “No road access!”, he muses, “we had to bring in everything on the water. When we bought the property forty years ago we wanted to make sure that boating is not just a weekend hobby but a way of life!” He usually commutes to work and back on his skiff powered by a rare Chinese diesel outboard. Already from afar we had been able to see the giant stands of bamboo right next to a waterfront cabin. “That’s where my daughter lives with her hubby and kids”, Peter explains, “I live up in the woods!” He points up to the completely forested hill that crowns the little peninsula and stands in soothing contrast to the well-groomed cultured landscapes of the surrounding farmland.

We land our canoe at a small floating dock and walk past the cabin to the base of the bamboo stand. Impressive dark and healthy green culms shoot up into the air like streamers pulled up by a fleeting rocket ship and frozen in place by a nick in time. Some stalks where a good five inches wide at the bottom. Vertical height is always a little hard to gage, but there are definitely enough candidates standing in front of me to renew Aluna’s sailing vigor with a brand new set of spars for the big main sail. But Peter and I have not yet bonded enough to simply ask when we could start cutting down the bounty. The business of the day is simply to share a meal and interweave some of the many stories that have given texture to our lives. After all, Peter happens to be the first specimen of local non-feathery Kiwis we have the opportunity to examine at close range!

He takes us past a lush vegetable garden to a trail that leads up the steep slope of the hill. Steps are cut into the bare orange clay while weathered bamboo sticks make up a handrail that accompanies the serpentine path on its ascent. Towards the top of the hill we arrive at Peter’s little cabin, which quite frankly could fit perfectly into any of the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tales ( There is no Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel nor Snow White anywhere in sight, but soon enough the rustic interior, its ceiling and walls blackened by years of wood fire smoke, warms up with another cup of tea, while outside the daylight quickly fades and the rain thickens. Peter’s life seems to have been a fairy tale all by itself. From arriving with his parents over forty years ago on a big ocean steamer that took six week to arrive from England, through bringing up a family in an enormous tent structure suspended amongst the trees on his property, to teaching pottery at night classes for the local community college and spicing up the Northland’s music scene in the mean time, it’s one wavy trail of intense excitement that seems to recreate itself bubbling out of freshly stirred remembrance and intelligently interspersed with snippets of clearly original takes on contemporary issues. All the while he’s stirring up a tasty rice on the wood stove with fresh greens from the herb garden just outside the by now steamed up windows.

Some more tender and passionate conversation flows back and forth to the glasses of Chilean red wine and the sweet semolina desert that topped it all off. A deep almost spiritual kinship reveals itself without being in any way obnoxious. A subtle feeling hovers in the little cozy room that, a sense that we’re part of the same tribe of human wanderers, eternally curious, passionately laborious, perpetually defenseless, diligently building bridges between the gaping cracks that separate one man from the other and make us enemies to ourselves. Words tend to get in the way of understanding and I will not remember the content of our conversation, but when it comes time to part there is no pain, no separation, no hypocrisy, no jealousy masked behind over joyous friendliness. With a simple “Go in peace” we’re on our way down the hill in the dark under the now pouring rain. The flicker of our flashlights dances gingerly with the raindrops and bounces off the wetted vegetation like loose stardust whirled around by cosmic winds. The floating dock has come to rest on the exposed mud for most of its length. At the very end of it is a little slither of water left. Just enough to float of our canoe, paddle back to our double hulled mobile dwelling on the water and then quickly fall asleep to dream extensively about human brotherhood and sistership.

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