Leaving Nothing Behind

I had just dragged the last plastic shopping bags with fresh provisions from the market along the dusty main drag of Savusavu town, where fancy new office buildings talk of a golden era that will never come, or if it will come at all it will do so for the precious few of a wickedly corrupt cream, who are desperately milking the last drops of dew from the distant shadows of a once tropical paradise. Abandoned and derelict buildings tell the tales of many failures of economically diligent men and women, while crowds of smiling faces on all imaginable shades of brown stage the never-ending human drama of the masses that for better of for worse have to content themselves with shaving a halfway decent living from the leftover crumbs of systematic and systemic exploitation. Their loud and lively happiness speaks volumes about the resilience of the human spirit who refuses to partake in the evilness of its own kind, and squeezes its existence through the narrow slit smack in between the hemispheres of good and bad, where mediocrity and humble obedience grow in well-manicured gardens of virtue and pride.

My presence in this land of plundered plenty, for once as a bystander, passive but never innocent, was about to come to an end. Alunita, the diligent dinghy, was now stowed upside-down on Aluna’s foredeck, raking its slimy, dirt brown, sludge green belly into the mild afternoon breeze and my good friend Curly took a well-merited break from giving his spacious houseboat of delicate health a tender facelift in preparation of an upcoming major overhaul of its rust-brittle underbelly. A bright yellow and a lipstick red plastic cup served to contain a shot each of Broken Shackle red, a concoction lacking any form of oak complexity and brewed up in the dusty outback somewhere in the vast and lonely expanses of the Australian subcontinent. Up in the air went the cups for a toast to a moment of mutual reminiscent gratitude, looking back along five long months of sharing the grieves and the joys of life’s everyday complexities. In Curly’s case those would fill at least three volumes of a detailed encyclopedia of flamboyancy, were it not for the jittery political sensitivity of his precarious present situation, which to literature’s great misfortune precludes me from delving too far into revealing the delicious drama of this extraordinary character’s bloomy existence.

All the pre-departure items are now checked off the list and the only thing left is casting off the lines, that have held Aluna tight and secure to the houseboat and its enormous cyclone-proof mooring that attaches it unwaveringly to the muddy harbor floor. Once that is done Aluna is once again free to roam the ocean and I noisily glide by SV Heartbeat for one more parting wave, where grumpy Gary coughs up one more of his slyly sarcastic lines, and Millie’s bright white smile is partially hidden behind an orange point and shoot digital camera. Next is the Coprashed Marina’s administrative building, with its stylishly renovated façade hiding so well the ruthless expansionist aspirations emerging from the depths of its shady management. Finally, just before the Nakama Creek opens out into the big Savusavu Bay, there is the rundown building that hosts the Waitui Marina. Its contrasting no-nonsense and down-to-earth management style with the friendly and ever-helpful atmosphere is currently being thrown off a cliff by a torment of human pettiness. Once I’ve left behind all these manifestations of a society in serious disarray, and am far enough away from any overpriced piece of maritime real-estate that could be damaged by spontaneous maneuvers reacting to fickle winds, I unbrail Aluna’s mighty main and mizzen sails with a deep breath of relief and pull the little plastic clip out of the engine’s ignition switch, reducing our carbon keel print to the only acceptable level of zero. Well, almost that is, I ever so conveniently overlooked the cooking gas!

lookbacksavusavu

Little ripples start licking Aluna’s hulls and the all too familiar screeching of the autopilot makes it perfectly clear that we are moving away from the comfort of living on land. The decision to set out pretty much jumped on me only a couple days ago, while studying the developing weather patterns of the approaching Southern hemisphere cyclone season. For once all the forecast models seemed to agree. They told the tale of the Subtropical ridge lazily and sturdily planting itself for the whole duration of the forecasts between 25 and 30 degrees all the way from Australia to way beyond the dateline. This promised a calm and quiet journey from Fiji to New Zealand with very light winds, which was just the sort of thing I was looking forward to after our a bit too adventurous trip coming up a half an year ago. There were, as there always are, a small number of hiccups in the rosy picture, the major one being that for the fist couple days the winds would be blowing moderately from South of Southeast, which foretold a wet and bumpy start of the journey. The closer we came to the intended date of departure the clearer it became that the window of opportunity was a very short one, and that already by Sunday the South Pacific Conversion Zone would be closing in on the Fiji Islands, making a departure a very imprudent affair. So Friday it was to be and after schlepping those environmentally hazardous plastic bags through town my last run on solid land was to the austere offices of FRCA, the ominous Fiji Revenue and Customs Agency. There I sat for a good 45 minutes in an air-conditioned meeting room, waiting for the officials to complete the many forms necessary to terminate my stay in the territory of the military usurpers.

All these and many other pains of civilization are now happily behind me and there’s just under an hour of time left in the calm waters of the Bay before Aluna will round Point Reef and the struggle into the wind for a good eighty miles begins that will hopefully lead us safe and sound out of Fiji’s treacherous reefs. Time to cook a light diner to be enjoyed once the going gets rough and the light of the day fades away for good.

point reef

An hour later I’m in the thick of it. I have shoveled myself through a light rice dish accompanied by sliced and diced fresh tomato and cucumber, while watching the big landmass behind me being swallowed up first by thick dark grey clouds and then by the darkness of night itself. Only a feeble shine of light remains from the populated area of Savusavu and the Cousteau Resort at the tip of the peninsula that jots out to Point Reef. Aluna is hard on the wind pointing into a stiff breeze but unable to lay the required course of 190˚ true to head towards the five mile wide passage between the Wakaya Reefs and Bakini Island about sixty miles to the South. Fact is I’m heading towards a finger of reef sticking out into the Koro Sea about fifteen miles away. This means that I’ll have to do some tacking rather soon, which is much more exciting in the darkness of night than it is on a weekend outing on the bay. It dawns on me that I haven’t done any sailing or navigating for the last five months and it takes my mind some time to work through the mechanics of it. Shortly after ten o’clock it’s time to go through the motion. I turn on the compass light, switch off the autopilot and crank its dial 110˚ towards the east. After releasing the autopilot’s clutch I turn the wheel one full turn to port and retighten the clutch. Now Aluna starts to turn into the wind and everything needs to go fast! I undo the starboard mizzen sheet and pull hard on the port one, bringing the mizzen sail into the wind just past the centerline of the boat, which helps to bring the boat through the eye of the wind. Now I quickly make fast both mizzen sheets and after returning the wheel to the center position and turning the autopilot back on, I jump forward of the deckpod to uncleat the starboard main sheet. The main sail by now has been caught by the wind of the opposite tack, it’s backwinded, as this is called in the mariners jargon. There’s a good bit of tension on the line. Hand over hand I give out enough line to ease the big main sail just past the centerline too and then crimp the line back into the cleat. Almost done! Lastly I pull in the slack in the port sheet and make it fast just tight enough to flatten the sail. There follows a period of observation. Depending on the wind and sea state that tacking angle may turn out to be just a tad optimistic and then I have to let Aluna fall off a couple degrees, but tonight she’s doing just fine and I’m ready for my first one hour slumber on the watch bunk.

Shortly past midnight I’m far enough East of my course line again to put Aluna back on the port tack for the rest of the night. Faint starlight shines through gaps in the thick dark clouds overhead and provides a hint of luminescence dancing on the water. Not enough to see if I’m speeding towards a reef. For that my trust is concentrated on the miniature screen of my handheld GPS, which I diligently contemplate every hour or so, whenever my navigator consciousness level pulls me out of the exhausted slumber. It seems that the path we’re on is clear of such dreaded obstacles for now.

At the crack of dawn it dawns on me that we have once more deviated from our due course to such an extent that another tacking maneuver is in order. Once that is done the sun has burnt its way above the horizon and as if infused with the energy of so much light the winds pick up to the point of deforming the ends of the main sail’s spars alarmingly. It has to come down and this will be the first time I’m doing this by myself in critical conditions. To reduce the pressure on the sail I turn Aluna downwind to brail the sail and then upwind again to reduce the speed, since when lowering the big mainsail its foot dips for a foot or two into the water. With a bit of shouting and swearing it all works, although it does seem strange to swear when one is alone. There’s nobody there to upset or impress! Raising the smaller main is a piece of cake and we’re under way again, albeit at a slightly reduced angle. Aluna doesn’t want to hug the wind quite as tight with the smaller main unless it is blowing really hard, which, thank god, for the time being it is not.

portrait cloud

Koro Island, which we had passed during the night, is still visible to the Northeast and to the South I can now make out the island cluster through which I will now have to thread Aluna’s wake. By noon a single marker to the North reveals the Southern extremity of the extensive Wakaya reef. That marker slowly makes its way aft of Aluna’s beams while to the South Bakini Island’s verdant hills also inch by in terribly slow motion. The morning’s sun has now retreated behind a veil of leaden clouds and Gau Island a little further South is big enough to create a zone of almost no wind through which we have to pass. A soft and soothing drizzle wanders over us during that time and a container ship steams past us a good two miles away, slowly diminishing in size towards the Eastern horizon.

ovalau

I twist the autopilots well-worn dial a notch further to the South. We once again need to hug the wind as tight as we can to make it around the eastern side of Kadavu Island. With the winds still South of Southeast I can just barely lay the course to do so. But we won’t be there until the next morning. There’s another restless night ahead surrounded by treacherous waters. Invisible just beyond the horizon to the West lurks Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, with its noisy and boisterous capital Suva maybe twenty-five miles away from my present position. While up North the gloom of Fiji’s historic capital Levuka on the round island of Ovalau is visible once the darkness has again settled in.

chart1

Aluna manages to just barely hold on to her course throughout the night and by the morning light the ragged grey-blue profile of the Kadavu island chain wanders along the horizon to the West. It’s not until the late afternoon that the last stretch of Fiji’s land begins to sink beneath the horizon.

kadavu

By that time I’m utterly exhausted. Two nights with little sleep and really no substantial rest, the jerky motion of the short, steep seas we’ve been pounding into and the five months of lazy harbor life that left me unfit for such strenuous living all raise their voices now and slowly but surely lure me down the companionway into Aluna’s master bedroom, where I collapse solidly onto the now extremely cozy bunk. Without any earthen obstacles to worry about I let Aluna fend for herself and the mattress holds me tight for a full fifteen hours, before I groggily stick my head out the hatch again to see what are the latest and greatest happenings on the vast waters of the South Pacific Ocean.

portrait sun

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One Response to “Leaving Nothing Behind”

  1. Beatriz Restrepo Says:

    Excellent work!!! All the goddess of nature were with you.

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