Posts Tagged ‘Aluna’

Closing Argument, For The Time Being!

June 16, 2017

This might be one of the hardest post to write. Its duty is to fill you in on the reason for what has been the longest absence I have taken from Aluna’s Travel the World blog since we started this amazing journey almost exactly eight years ago. Change is in the air! Big change!

Almost to the date eight years ago Aluna set out to sea under the Golden Gate Bridge that connects the city of San Francisco with the Marine County headlands to the north. It was with a deep disdain for the global corporate culture of consumption that this daredevil adventure had been set in motion and a good six of those eight years have been spent away from it all, or at least so we tried to kid ourselves. We have seen, lived and learned an unmeasurable lot and the most pertinent conclusion of it all is that there is no away from it all anymore. The culture of plastic wrapped and artificially and exaggeratedly sweetened goods has reached the gloomy eyes of every lone inhabitant of even the most remote little spec of land on our aching planet Earth. There is no sense anymore in running away!

There are reasons of personal finances too, but those are not the actual mover of things as we like to conclude with ever suspicious haste. Our batteries are charged, our vision is clear, it’s time to go in and work the system from the inside. I have accepted a teaching position at a Waldorf School in Switzerland, and we will be living in Langnau im Emmental for the next couple of years, far far away from the soothing swashing of the surf, hoping to instill some of the much-needed love of life in the next generation, who will have to find ways to deal with the big mess ours has created.

But this is by no means the end of Aluna’s travel. We were amongst the many options toying with the idea of outright selling her, but her uniqueness does not make that an easy undertaking. Storing her here in Australia for such an extended period also does not make any sense at all. We would pay an outrageous amount of money pretty much to have her slowly rot away under the tropical sun. By fortunate coincidence some German sailing friends we have met a couple of years ago in Tonga and then again in New Zealand, ever since they sold their small sailboat and returned to Stuttgart, had voiced interest in Aluna in sporadic spurts of electronic communication. Sophie and her Trinidadian partner Junior, in the meantime proud parents of two beautiful kids, have just last week booked a long haul flight this coming September from Germany to Brisbane. They will be taking Aluna on a run to New Caledonia and Vanuatu to celebrate their very own escape from the lands of consumption and along the way provide their offspring with the perfect opportunity to see a good bit of the real world out there, where fear can be embraced as the vociferous pointer it is towards the very lands of freedom.

I might sporadically continue to babble on here on this blog for a good bit more. There are many open ends to be tied up here, about the meaning of it all when looking back, about the spurts of continuous upgrades to Aluna’s fitness for aquatic life done here between those two concrete piles in the Brisbane river, about our half year spent in Australia without sighting a single koala bear nor kangaroo, and of course about the strongly resonating echoes of our extensive travelling that will most certainly illuminate our temporary return amongst the settlers of houses, those badly built boats so firmly aground that you cannot think of moving them.

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Tikopia On The Move

December 15, 2016

Tikopia might seem paradise to the fleeting glimpse of an outside visitor. While its over one thousand inhabitants are living a carefully and smartly controlled life in intimate embrace with nature, modernity has carved a solid foothold right through the middle of it, and the deadly diseases of the consumer society driven by greed and systemic exploitation have grown like cancerous tumours, eating away with lightning speed at its very core. However, as in any other human society, these unfortunate inflictions are diligently hidden away, its weaknesses pushed aside by potent bragging with crippled testosterone, its dark sides kept carefully veiled by well-guarded secrets.

I had contacted Norwegian Thomas Lien by email while still in Luganville, Vanuatu, to get details about the present state of the Lapita canoe. A little over two years ago he had lived for six months on Tikopia with his family of four, hoping to get away from the perils of civilization for a time while producing a television series for kids starring his charming six-year-old daughter. His answers to my persistent questions provided some very helpful information about the technical state of Lapita Tikopia, but once I enquired about the social context and the possible reasons behind the boat’s abandonment, the conversation abruptly stopped.

The two Lapita canoes had been delivered to Anuta and Tikopia in March of 2009. From my detective work on piecing together a history of Lapita Tikopia since then, it seems that for the first three years it was managed by Ariki Tafua’s inner circle, his younger brother Pa Tilo taking on the role of skipper. Four or five trips were made to Lata and back, providing transportation for government officials amongst other lucrative ventures. Pa Tilo is an open hearted guy, with a modern mind tempered by years of working with Solomon Islands fisheries, but leadership is not very high up on his personal skill sheet. Taking advantage of a break during our first week of work on Lapita Tikopia I sat down with him overlooking the bright white sandy beach, which would be an absolutely picturesque scene were it not for the strange fact that this happens to be the Tikopia’s toilet with the dizzying amount of flies that goes along this persistent habit. His account of one of these journeys must stand for most of the others.

‘There were these government officials from Fisheries visiting our island,’ he said in his rather charming intermittently broken English. ‘They needed to return to Lata and suggested why don’t we bring them there with Lapita. They offered a good bit of money. So we went, stopping at the Reef Islands on the way there. Then coming back, I knew we had to go way out to go up into the wind, so I went almost down to the Torres Islands. That’s when my crew started to complain, asking why we go that far and why don’t we head for Tikopia. After four days we finally sighted Tikopia, but they said it was a different island. Then I was sleeping down in the cabin when I heard the sails bang about on top. I went up and nobody was looking after things. Everybody wanted to know better than me, but when it came to doing things they were hopeless. We finally made it back but then they didn’t want to sail with me anymore.’

By 2012 it appears that accusations started to rummage about in the island. That the Tafua clan was making a lot of money with the canoe, that it should be the property of all the island folks, why don’t they share the profits and other similar things. After a while Ariki Tafua, at the time the present chief’s father Edward, gave in and transferred ownership to a steering committee in the neighboring village of Saint Michael. More trips were made but the moneys earned ended up carelessly in private pockets instead of being reinvested in the maintenance of the boat. It looks as the Solomon Island disease of corruption and misuse of public funds and property has made great inroads in Tikopia as well. On one of the last trips in 2014 the foot of the main mast broke and repairing that proved to be too great a feat for the designated captain and crew. No more use was made of the sailing canoe and not only was there nobody looking after it anymore, but things started to disappear from it, probably to mend more urgent personal needs somewhere else on the island.

These two years of abandonment were now at our hands and I was doing my best to explain again and again that I had not come to do the work myself. From our first meeting with the three chiefs I had demanded working hands, skilled and unskilled, ideally from the different villages on the island, to come and help with the restoration of the canoe, so that a sense of communal ownership could be reestablished. This took a good week and a further visit to Ariki Kafika in Ravenga on a rainy Sunday to sink in to the realm of reality. By week two a small team of four of five constant helpers and a short list of intermittent appearances had materialized. The rotten wood was being scraped out from underneath the fiberglass of the decks and pieces of the miserable plywood we found at the local school were cut to be fitted back in.

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As was to be expected progress was terribly slow and the original optimistic goal of sailing to Vanikoro together with us on Aluna at our return to Lata by the end of the month soon had vanished into very thin air. But soon our new island friends were mixing epoxy with cheap Latex gloves on their big hands. Their work was far from a pretty sight with blobs of hardened glue all over the place. Pretty was not what we were after however, and at the start of our third week on Tikopia, the coaming of the worst affected hatch was being reinstalled. Locally cut timber started to appear at the sight to be transformed into new bearers for the deck platform. Ariki Tafua had generously donated a sturdy bed frame from one of his guest houses. This provided good quality timber for replacing the rotten parts in the hull sides. New pieces for the hinges were being cut out and shaped by a very tall and viscously skilled wood worker. On good days food was being prepared by nearby families for the work crew and the constant supply of beetlenut and tobacco kept things moving along.

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It was now the last week of our stay, the end of October was approaching and with that the onset of the cyclone season. The repair of the worst section of the hull decks was almost completed and I designed a new motor bracket to mount the 15hp engine that had been donated by the Tikopia member of parliament. This in fact was a bit of an engineering challenge of its own, as it had to be done crudely without any fancy blocks and tackle. I keep my fingers crossed that it will work in the harsh reality of maritime abuse. While there was still a good amount of work to be done, a solid beginning had been made.

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Figuring out what had gone wrong in the past beyond the general notion of money and accessories of the canoe mysteriously disappearing, proved to be an impossible task. The present Tikopia society is one in disarray. Modernity is overrunning the island at a time when three of the four chiefs had to fill the shoes of their fathers at a very young age, while the fourth is clearly losing his wits to old age. With the money economy infiltrating the island’s social fabric at breakneck speed, the power of decision making is sifting through the stunned fingers of the immature chiefs towards the more astute, and discontent and distrust is growing along the fuzzy lines of clanships like mold and moss in the tropical heat. Nobody I managed to talk to had the courage to speak out against the chief’s clan or give clear cut information about the whos and the hows of the managerial catastrophe that had stifled the sound development of Lapita Tikopia.

Against all odds Ariki Tafua seems determined to give Lapita Tikopia a second life. That there may be a good deal of self-interest fueling his resolve does not matter all that much in the destined evolution of things. Given the lack of interest demonstrated by his fellow Tikopia citizen, it might in fact be the canoe’s only chance of survival. The very visible truth is that the Tikopia have made a firm step into the modern day consumer society. Money and its distorted evaluation of reality is infiltrating the merry minds of these charming island folks like a viral outbreak of contagious disease under the burning tropical sun. Maybe the burgeoning middle class haunted by their very recent stone age past will sooner or later claim some or all of the properties of the flailing chiefly clans and in a neo-liberal take-over Tikopia style realize, in appearance at least, the communal intentions of the original donors of the canoe. That can and will of course happen only once the hard work of restauration from the past neglect has been accomplished, once the profits promise to be smooth and fat and sufficiently effortless…

In The Thick Of It

December 8, 2016

A week had gone by and we were in this adventure well over and above our ears. The work on Lapita Tikopia had started with the help of some youngsters, but soon a sizeable group of workers was assembling on a daily basis. A giant green tent top was strung over the canoe to shelter it from the rain that threatened to fall any day and time. The platform slats were removed and submerged in the sea under a pile of coral rocks to soak them in salt water and rescue of them whatever possible. The rotten wood around the hatch coaming was being carefully scraped out trying to leave the outer layer of fibreglass in place.

lapitaprogress-6Plywood however was nowhere to be found on the island. The best we could get our hands on was a pile of thin wall board, a low grade plywood with one side covered with a plastic coating that looks like wall paper. I decided that three layers of it with the plastic coating rough sanded and glued in with plenty of epoxy glue would have to do. Soon pieces were being cut to refill the hollowed out parts. I then gave our Tikopia friends a crash course in working with epoxy. We set up a station in one of the hull compartments with the resin and hardener jar and their calibrated pumps and a bucket with the glue mix. The latex gloves I had brought proved to be too small for the big hands of these island people. They provided much food for jokes and laughter and some ended up as udder-shaped balloons for the school kids passing by the work site daily on their way home.

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From the very beginning of our stay on the island the idea had been floated to pull Aluna up on the beach next to Lapita Tikopia. The anchorage just outside of the fringing reef, while protected from the trades that howl out of the Southeast most of the time, promised to be marginal to dangerous should bad weather hit with a passing front that could bring nasty westerlies and corresponding onshore waves and swells. The offer of having plenty strong men available and an assortment of logs of the magic ‘slippery wood’ was too tempting to let go by and without thinking it through too much the day of the highest spring tides just after new moon Aluna slid across the reef and I rammed her into the sandy beach within a stone throw of the maritime patient we were diligently working on.

Unfortunately the promises made by Ariki Tafua and his younger brother, ‘engineer’ Dani, had trouble materializing. While a good crowd had assembled on the beach to watch the spectacle unfold, only a handful of them were able men and after much puffing and pulling the sun threatened to set and we called it a day, once the tide had retreated. Other intents were made the high tides of the following days, but Aluna proved too heavy to be pulled up the incline of the sand beach. The round underwater shape of her keels did not help either. As it turned out, we were now confined to a miserable existence with Aluna lapped on by the surf at high tides, with a slurry of coral fragments rubbing off her precious antifouling paint. To the discomfort of our vessel our own was added. As already mentioned, for the Tikopia the beach is far from a picturesque place to go for a pleasant evening stroll. Their well-encrusted habit of using it as a toilet had hordes of flies descend on our living quarters from sunrise to sunset.

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No doubt practical it was to have Aluna and my workshop right there, to be able to run back and forth for tools and pieces, but the price was a too high one to pay. We stayed there in the surf and the smell for two weeks until the full moon tides came along and threatened to dislodge our eroding comfort for good.  With a push and a shove from an at this time reasonably testosterone infused crowd, Aluna returned to her element after her interlude in the surf. It took another week to have a half way decent mooring installed on two prominent coral heads inside the protected inlet and once again we could feel reasonably safe and concentrate on the work at hand.

By the end of week two new antifouling had been applied to both hulls and able woodworkers were busy carving replacement parts for the hatch hinges and the coamings. The goal was to restore the most deteriorated hull compartment before our departure and leave a model the Tikopia could reference to while finishing up the other three on their own. Some of the workers had had employment with the Solomon Island fishing fleet and with that experience with basic maintenance tasks like scrubbing off old paint and applying new one. The work with the epoxy didn’t come across as too difficult for them and while the cleanliness of their work left much to be desired, little by little the repairs progressed.

A pleasant interruption arrived on October 14. I had just crept out of the main hatch in the wee hours of morning, shaking off the grogginess of sleep and ready to face the notorious flies, when I hear a schoolboy calling me from the beach. He points out to the horizon and only says two words: ‘Lapita Anuta’. There she was, bobbing gently up and down on anchor just off the reef. Sam, the captain, came by later for quick chat. Of short stature and with an honest face framed by a round beard he sounded a story of confidence, counting over 20 separate trips done with Lapita Anuta, most of them working for pay, like this time for instance, as they were bringing the teachers of Anuta and Tikopia to Lata, the capital of the Temotu Province, for professional workshops offered by the Education Department.

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Once again I pushed for closer collaboration between the two islands, to share maintenance chores and other know navigational knowhow. While there on Tikopian territory I received a shy affirmation from Sam, later when I ran into him again while back in Lata, the sad reality came to light instantly. ‘We have tried to work with the man (Ariki Tafua),’ he said, ‘The man cannot be trusted!’ There once again you have the human condition in all its splendor, throwing a wrench in the transmission. So close the two intimately related people live next to each other, so far they are apart when it comes to opening up their hearts!

Malakula

August 18, 2016

From the little we have seen there are some very smart people living on the island of Malakula. The highlight of our visit has been the second day of the Port Sandwich Art Festival. I’m not usually a big fan of these organized events, they mostly only present a watered down version of whatever they pretend to demonstrate and very rarely are ‘worth their money’. Well, here we happened to chance upon a delightful exception. The inhabitants of the small village of Penap proved to be quite skillful at presenting their rapidly dwindling culture to a small handful of yachties, who had arrived at the tranquil bay of Port Sandwich for that specific purpose. The admittance fee to the two-day festival, like just about everything else in Vanuatu, was rather steep and we decided to skip the first day and attend only the second. We had at that time heard the enthused comments of our friends on their return in the evening of the first day.

The excellent organization of the festival’s producers included transportation from the little hamlet of Port Sandwich, where Aluna and most the other boats laid at anchor, to the village of Penap, which is situated on the outside of the Lamap peninsula, in view of the smoke spewing island of Ambryn and conveniently protected behind a vast reef running up and down the coast. That reef was laying bare and ochre brown abandoned by the salty sea at low tide as we arrived midmorning on August 6, sitting knees under chin in the bed of a white pickup truck. It had pulled into a clearing amongst a group of those majestic looking banyan trees adjacent to a village of huts with palm leaf thatched roofs and plaited bamboo walls. There what must have been a good portion of the village population was assembled to welcome us into their midst and after a brief overview of the program expecting us in the course of the day we were lead over a short path to a circular arena in midst of a garden of banana and pawpaw trees.

The first ‘number’ on the program was the women’s dance. They soon appeared from behind an entrance screened by woven palm leaves. Dressed in pandanus skirts their worn bodies started stomping the ground in circle formation while a diffuse moaning slowly turned into a retained chanting. A slight drizzle floating down from the heavy grey clouds overhead polished their dark brown skin to a charming shine. The younger girls had their breasts prudently covered and looked uncomfortable with all that public attention boring through them, while two babies sat frolicking on the ample mats in the center staring at the whole world at once and chewing on a short stick of sugar cane. Round and round the procession went, then all down on their knees and slapping the wet earth with their hands and passing green oranges from one to the other. The last dance was a hunting ritual, with a bird being chased across the circle with an imaginary bow and arrow. Then the multigenerational cast retired in impeccable formation behind the green plaited curtain, but reappeared kindly for the customary photo-op for the picture hungry toursist, just like gang of seasoned actors would do after premiering their latest comedy on New York’s Broadway.

2016-08-06 P.Sandwich Festival (18)We were now lead back to the village square where the remainder of the women demonstrated all kinds of domestic skills of old, from the preparation of the traditional laplap, which includes grating green bananas on a spiny stalk and wrapping the mash into a carefully folded banana leaf, to palm frond weaving of all kinds of handy things like roofing panels, various forms of carrying baskets, hats and a row of smaller trinkets to adorn that lovely dark curly hair of Melanesian stock.

All this curious watching made us tremendously hungry and at lunch time a buffet of delicacies had been arranged under a tin roofed shelter. We were all given a plate fabricated from a couple layers of banana leaves topped by one of a dark purple vine, which made the whole contraption absolutely water- or sauce-proof. Once again the organizers proved to be thoughtful enough to lace the culinary feast exclusively with local goodies, not like in some places where we’ve been served Asian rice with Australian corned beef at such supposedly traditional events. We all loaded up our leafy plates with morsels of laplap, kumara, yam, boiled island cabbage, tomato and cucumber salad and then gorged on the freshly cut fruits for desert.

In the afternoon it was the men’s turn to show off their dances, which they did with much pride, their bodies painted with streaks of light-colored clay and clad solely with the famed namba, which consists of a penis sheath tied around their waist with a string. Buttocks and lose testicles bounced up and down to the rhythm of their deep-chested growls, while in their midst the young chief worked the slit drum, that stood two men high and was crowned with two sculpted faces, all the while the village eldest, from what I had heard eighty years strong, kept a menacing gaze on the spectacle while gingerly leaning on a walking stick with his back weighted down by a great amount of time. The rhythmic stomping of the muscular bodies made the ground shake during the peaks of their cathartic choreography and the audience of cultured white folks hid politely behind their many sophisticated machines of mechanized memory, standing in a half circle around the dust raising spectacle, while themselves being watched by an additional circle of women and children, who seemed just as eager their guests from the other side of the world to get a good eyeful of the action while allowed to do so. We were informed that at all other times of the year these rituals happen carefully and purposefully hidden far away from their passionate gaze.

2016-08-05 P.Sandwich Festival (64)Back in the village the mood lightened with the end of the festivities in sight. A string band strummed contagious rhythms built on a box base line, an instrument, which must require a good deal of practice to master adequately. One foot stands firm on a two feet high plywood cube, from the top center of which a string is strung to the top end of a stick, the bottom end of which sits in a notch at the edge of said cube. The player pushes the stick forward with his left hand to raise the pitch and relaxes it backwards to lower it, while the left thumb plucks away on it to create the pulsating beat. All kinds of guitars join in the acoustic party, a smaller, solid bodied and ukulele like string instrument weaves in a slightly tighter rhythm while nasal tenor voices overlay the whole experience with man’s eternal stories of longing love, tempered lust and gently deferred despair.

I heard explaining that this kind of music had emerged from raunchy Bluegrass music implanted a good while ago by American troops stationed here during the fierce battles of the Western Pacific towards the devastating finale of World War II. It seemed to be an exclusively male affair, but soon enough the local women folks in their colorful dresses decided it was time to loosen up and started a gentle swirling dance, which in turn proved contagious enough for the better halves of the wind-worn yachtsmen to join in with joy. All throughout the day there had been plenty of intermingling across the racial divide, which makes me think there must be a sound solution to the mad crime of social injustice that plagues the many corners of the world dominated by Eurocentric thinking. Cultural information streamed back and forth between the care takers and the annihilators. Nature must have smiled slightly for a little while, relaxed a wee bit and lowered its wounded guard just enough for the windows of change to swing open and let a stiff breeze of awesome possibilities blow through the human mind.

2016-08-06 P.Sandwich Festival (28)A long and loving goodbye rounded up the soothing experience, our ladies received a colorful addition to their maritime wardrobe. Many speeches assured us that the dynamics of the festival, which apparently emerged half a decade ago from the mindful presence of a American Peace Corps volunteer, will continue to expand the conscious of humanity, with the hosts of next year’s edition receiving the flaming torch wrapped in a bundle of rose red flowers, promising to make every effort to improve upon the existing tradition. There was talk of reclaiming an overgrown area further down the peninsula, where a sacred place once stood before the arrival of white bearded men in blood stained missionary robes, and demonstrate the spiritual dimension of the circumcision of an adolescent male, ritual of utmost significance in all the Vanuatu tribal culture.

An eerie calm reigned in the back of the pickup truck that brought us back to our floating homes just as darkness settled down from the high crowns of the coconut palms. Most certainly it was not just borne of a long day’s tiredness. It seemed as if each one of us was obliged to look inward and witness the emptiness left by our own cultural origins. Our addiction to material things and accumulated virtual riches has deprived us of much of life’s real and raspy meaning, so much so that we have to wander endlessly around the globe in search of hand- and footholds with sufficient solidity to allow temporary mending of our broken selves.

A New Beginning

June 11, 2016

The forecast was in fact less than ideal. On the morning of Monday May 30 we were up at Christian’s house, who had been keeping his keen eyes on Aluna for us over the last two years while she sat patiently on one of his moorings. A good part of the 86 years on his square German shoulders have been spent on the sea and this is the kind of people you listen to when they speak, because their advice is priceless. “Looking at Monday or Thursday, Monday is not as bad as Thursday,” he said looking at the screen of his laptop, “but for the first two days your tea cups will not stay on the table!” I had come to a similar conclusion myself in the early morning hours and decided not to follow the contrary advice of maritime weather guru Bob McDavitt, who had recommended Thursday as the ideal day for departure.  The promised westerlies for Tuesday and Wednesday had been compromised by a trough that had materialized in the weather models overnight. It was supposed to sneak up along New Zealand’s west coast by Tuesday, then concentrate into a circulating low pressure system and chase our tail before by Thursday being sucked off abruptly to the east by the jet stream aloft. All the models however coincided in predicting something brewing up in the islands at the end of the upcoming weekend, which in turn conjured up the hope of making it into port before that if departing now, while a Thursday departure clearly meant having to deal with the disturbance half way through our journey.

In my nervous mind’s eye the fickle lure of postponing departure, which in my view promised no more than a period of prolonged anxiety, was unable to overrun the promised discomfort of having to pound our way through a beam-on sea. It boiled down to man’s archaic choice between action and non-action and life had taught me hard enough that in these critical moments there really is only one correct option. In spite of the concern shining in Beatriz’ eyes, in spite of the slight tremble in her voice and the many buts and what ifs in her speech I sternly said: “We’re leaving!”

For the last time we paddled our outrigger canoe across the Elizabeth Channel over to Opua to go and complete the check-out at the customs office, take a last warm shower and shout a final goodbye to our friends. Once back on board it was midday and it takes me a good two hours to transform Aluna from a comfy floating home into an ocean going vessel, disassembling and securing the canoe, hoisting the sails, tying down the hatches, all in a long frantic string of furious activity that soothes the mind and keeps it from going berserk. In the meantime Beatriz had cooked up a hearty meal with plenty leftovers to hopefully keep us well fed for the following couple days where cooking in a roller coaster galley promised to be great torture.

Shortly after 2:30 in the afternoon we were ready to let go of our last connection to New Zealand soil. The orange float and the rope loop of the mooring splashed into the murky green waters and after a 180 degree turn to starboard we were riding the outgoing tide towards Russell and then out into the bay with the many islands. By night fall we had watched a couple rain bands coming off the land, move overhead and then out into the darkening sky to the east and had left Nine Pin Rock, the northern sentinel of the Bay of Islands, astern. As we moved further and further away from the shore the winds started to freshen and a long, lonesome and dark night later we were getting pounded beam on by persistent Westerlies that did their very best to make our lives truly miserable.

Those Westerlies were in the twenty to twenty-five range, so Aluna with her clean, slick and freshly painted bottoms shot along, jumping from wave to wave, quite clearly enjoying the fact that she was being slapped broadside by onrushing, white capped wave trains again and again. The shudders this wave smacking action sent through the hobby horsing catamaran resonated profoundly in our entrails and food was at the very bottom of the list of desirable things, some of it  in upheaval actually reversed its intended direction! I don’t get seasick easily but there I was: green as a rat in sewer pipe, twisting and turning on my watch bunk, sliding closer and closer to the edge of the realm of impaired physical functionality. And this definitely is not a good thing to happen to somebody on a fickle boat out on the middle of the open ocean.

This devilish dance went on and on, every time the hopes towards improvement found a little spike to notch their longing into, they saw themselves dashed by a yet stepped up howling of the winds and churning of the waters. Eventually after three days of rough and tumble a cold front rumbled over us, at night of course, as fronts seem to fear the daylight and never develop the same fury when they’re being seen. The hypersonic hiss in the rigging ripped through my fatalistic state of mind, but nothing moved. “Let it break!”, my withering life energy lisped and I did not rise from the bunk to brail the mizzen sail as caution persistently dictated. My leaden arm barely managed to raise the mobile phone from the little ledge beside my head to check up on Aluna’s break-neck speed. A little number there danced rhythmically up to 13 and then down to nine, up to 12 and down to 10, up to 13.7 and down to… In the early morning hours of Thursday the howling slowly subsisted and for once my phlegmatic gamble had paid off. The mizzen sail sat faithfully up in the wind above the deck pod. Its foot had managed to dislodge the bracket where the mast passes through the roof of the deck pod and twist it to one side, but that was clearly a minor affair, and a peek up at the tell tales fluttering on the shrouds confirmed that finally the winds had shifted South of West.

The riding then got gradually easier as the winds continued to back. At Thursday noon I was fit enough to plot our position into the phone and it revealed a staggering 380 miles of our journey laying behind us. We were by now a good 100 miles to the East of the rhumb line between the points of our departure and destination, but that didn’t have me worried in the least. There was another great piece of advice from the master sea salt rummaging around in the backrooms of my mind. Christian had said it a good four times during our strategy meeting early Monday morn: “Go plenty East, almost like heading to the Kermadecs. Then keep to the East! It’ll be like money in the bank!” I did adjust our course though to now run parallel to the rhumb line and two days of nice, smooth sailing followed. The winds continued in the twenties, but running with them you could care less, their grip is considerably softened by the movement of your vessel.

Saturday evening our ritual of contemplating the color-hued spectacle of sunset was hampered by a light grey bank of clouds stretched across the western sky. During the day already a slurry of high cirrus clouds had announced possible trouble brewing ahead. They raced in the opposite direction as our surface winds delineating the meanders of the jet streams with their icy crystal maze. Sunday morning awoke with a leaden sky with different shades of grey, many of them clearly on the dark side. Curtains of rain hung from the underside of the most somber clouds and sprinkled Aluna’s decks with soft tropical moisture. The winds had returned from the good to the not so good, backing way more than needed to a good bit north of east. Temptation was imminent to renounce a wee bit of our easting to make the going easier, but I held sternly to our course, fearing that conditions might get worse. As a good Swiss I labored to keep our money in the bank!All too soon we were back to the broadside smackers, however with the waves now crashing into us from the opposite side. Salt water squirts had made their way into our sleeping quarters during the first part of the voyage finding their way up from below and under the main hatch washboard. They were now threatening to do the same on the galley side and ruin our comfy carpet flooring there. Some hastily squeezed rags had to prevent this from happening while other visits to the galley became once again a rare undertaking. At night the squalls were hard to spot under the moonless sky, but their roaring made it clear they were up to no good. This time I did heed the warning and brailed the mizzen sail to have Aluna run through the darkness of night under the number two mainsail alone. By late Monday morning the skies finally started to clear, the winds steadied but were still threatening to creep forward of our beams. By now our easting capital had matured to the point of wanting to pay out some dividends. We were approaching the latitude of our destination and I gently notched the dial of our autopilot a good ten degrees to the West. What a difference that made! Our ride smoothened out and the smacking diminished considerably. But no more than that! What if the wind turned further to the North or even to the West and transformed our final approach into a terminal nightmare?

Like an interplanetary space probe fine tuning its ballistic trajectory by midnight I did begin to fine tune Aluna’s course over ground further and further until by Tuesday daybreak we were heading due West. Out of the dull darkness in front of our twin bows, just as the twilight spread from behind our double sterns a flat shape emerged above the horizon with gentle inclines on either side and a cap of boiling cumulus heaps that soon started to gleam in rose colors, leaps above their still grey peers around them. Quite obviously revealing its volcanic origin, the island of Aneityum, the southernmost speck of land in the Republic of Vanuatu was laying before us.

With the sun breaking through the clouds and climbing higher into the sky the flattened and weathered cone became a verdant platform of paradisiacal aspirations. Bright white jets of sea salt froth lined its ragged coast, jumping frantically up into the misty air while we made our way past the southwestern tip. Here and there even blowholes puffed their shoots of spray like angry dragon’s blustered nostrils expelling prehistoric pneumonic phlegm. The treacherous task of landfall was imminently spread out before us.

At the island’s southwestern tip a massive reef jots a good mile and a half into the ocean and we had to make our way around it and then enter the natural harbor of Anelcauhat from the West. Now in the lee of the 850m high mountains the going slowed to a trickle, with time to sort out our vessel’s gear for arrival. Make sure the anchor is ready to deploy, zoom the chart plotter in enough to see the details of the harbor entrance, untie the outboard motor from its stowed position and lower the well, open the fuel tank vent, pull out the choke just a tad, give a couple of hearty pulls on the starter cord and… Nothing! Maybe in the tropical warmth there’s no need for the choke, so back in it went. Pull, pull and pull. Nothing! Not even a sputter to give me a hint that this piece of metal intended to collaborate! My temper quickly flared and a couple of wicked curses later I realized that once more Aluna was going to sail into an unknown harbor under sail alone!

The wind was fickle and the translucent heaving backs of crashing waves were near. Still we were moving in the right direction albeit at just barely over a knot. Not for much longer however. Soon the characteristic whining of the autopilot trying to keep a still standing boat on course while it banks away from puffs of oncoming wind alerted me to the fact that radical action was needed. I dug for the 3 meter long paddle stored for just this kind of occasion on the starboard tumblehome roof and dipped it over the side. I hadn’t done this in a good while and the position was rather awkward to say the least. So it took me a while to get into the motion, but once a good rhythm is established Aluna will move under oar power alone. You can get her out of the irons in a calm or like then get her moving at a knot and a half when fickle puffs of wind tried to lure her in dire straits. But boy, good exercise it was and after fifteen minutes of it I was at the brink of exhaustion. But we had rounded the perilous corner and found a feasible wind coming down the western side of the island. It was weak and on the nose. There was no way we could make good use of it with the number two main sail up. It needed to come down and make way for the big main sail with its close to 40 square meters of pure wind power. Now we were talking! One long tack later we were sailing towards the small group of houses that huddled at the bottom of the bay that by now had opened up to the north of the reef.

The anchor dropped into the azure water and soon took firm hold in a new soil. An unknown land and people lay there in front of our exuberated senses, waiting to be explored with raging passion and caressed with bottomless curiosity!

Aluna between two worlds

Home Sweet Home

January 13, 2016

The circumnavigation of our Earth has been completed! I’m bound to believe now that our world must be round, not flat as many still believe, and the one day we will now be living longer comes as a welcome, albeit a bit expensive, gift.

I was a bit nervous, to say the least, driving down the narrow road along the ridge where the view opens out over the Waitakere Inlet beyond the little hamlet of Opua in Northland, New Zealand, the cruiser’s mecca during the austral summer in the Southwest Pacific. Every year this spacious body of protected waters gets jam packed more tightly with sailboats of every kind, most brought here by their owners to spend the cyclone season in a place accepted by the almighty insurance companies as safe from natures fury.

We had jumped off the Naked Bus at Opua Hills with our two loaded suitcases, coming up the four hour ride from Auckland, where our ocean crossing jet plane had landed a couple days earlier, and were just wondering how we were going to drag our unwieldy luggage downhill to the water’s edge, when our good and ever helpful friend Ted honked horns coming up the road in a car he had been able to borrow for the occasion. A very quick glimpse between two rows of blooming Putukawa tress is all I got on the way down the winding road. At least I was assured now that Aluna was still there where we had left her a year and seven months earlier, floating peacefully at her mooring just off Okiato Point.

Then it took some mingling with a tiny outboard to drive Ted’s hybrid tinny, an aluminum skiff that had been designed way too short and therefore had been generously extended by the master experimenter with a fat tail of glassed plywood. She handled well with the weight of all our gear and brought us across the water slowly but safely to reunite us with our floating home on the waters of the world.

Again and again during our extended absence my ever busy mind had conjured up all kinds of nightmarish scenarios with screeching seagulls depositing heaps of guano all over Aluna’s decks, the subtropical sun’s merciless rays burning deep cracks into her paint, cyclonic winds ripping her canvas and covers apart, nasty rot seeping its proliferous ways into her vital parts and so on and on, and I guess this profuse exploring of man’s innate lust for imagining worst case scenarios had created a solid platform for the screams of joy the two of us were shouting and the ecstatic dancing we were able to perform once standing on deck of this mighty vessel, and seeing how well Aluna had stood up to the elements and the nagging teeth of time!

Once the hatches were pried open we sneaked inside and found the interiors absolutely dry, a bit dusty for sure and a wee whiff of moldy air, but totally livable from the get go. Furtive memories passed through my mental eye of our hasted departure back in May 2014 with the intention to return in six month’s time. Back above the decks gleamed in the sun free of guano, only a shy coat of dark soot from the diesel fumes spewing car ferry just upstream had layered over the white paint, which did look a bit tired and clearly awaited renovation. The one massive mess of course lied under water. Aluna’s underbelly was profusely decorated with an impressive biomass of fist sized mussels, dense algae filaments and bloated barnacles, nature’s way of telling us that man’s constructions if left unattended will be claimed with an unbound fury and repurposed to foster life unclaimed by mental deviations.

So here we are, rocking once again gently in the waves and nibbling lazily on a sweet carrot, and making growing lists of chores needed to be done to ready Aluna for a mid to late May departure north towards the tropics. And once again the horizons of destructive civilization beckon and the search for the roots of human madness continues!

a hell of a view...

a hell of a view…

Coming Up For Air

December 16, 2015

Yep, the earth has swallowed me whole! Two months of living a backpacker’s life has taken its toll on my writing discipline. Since our delayed departure from Switzerland (for which I continue to owe you a description of the final details and for the swearing in the first part of it I have gotten quite a bit of heat, mainly from concerned friends…), we’ve spend some quality time visiting friends in the Caribbean and then a crazy three weeks in the urban heart of Colombia, where there was no rest whatsoever for the tranquil soul, I’m now sitting in a café inside the transit area of Santiago, Chile’s Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benitez, having suffered half way through a monster layover of 12 hours waiting for the connecting flight that will finally complete our aerial circumnavigation of the globe and bring us back to Auckland, and within a couple more days back on board of probably very dirty but hopefully sound Aluna.

I’m hoping to have some time at hand soon to let you in on the highlights of this journey, but through the wisdom of approaching old age I know better than to make any kind of promises. The real hope of course is that the new upcoming adventures will overpower the fading memories of the old ones and that there will be no time to contemplate the memory traces edged in our flesh.

The months of the austral summer will have to be spent with getting Aluna back in top shipshape, to continue her life as a true gypsy of the seas, setting her on a course Northwest in direction of the looming human masses of Southeast Asia.

Long Distance Worry

March 24, 2015

If one happens to call oneself a writer one should be able to, I guess, produce something on command, and there certainly is by now an urgency for publishing some sea-travelling related content to keep this blog alive. I better sit down, pay my dues and do my chores. Chores, which I have fallen into the nasty habit of asking my students to do at least a couple of times every single day. It would most certainly be a pity should our readership be led to believe that the adventurous story of Aluna’s travels has come to a screeching halt!

waldhofstrpan

Over the vast grain fields that stretch out in front of my office window at the outskirts of the sturdy township of Langenthal, between our apartment building and the neatly manicured row of buildings of the school up on that gently rolling hill where I go to work every day, three raptors are circling elegantly under the milk-grey sky. Their high-pitched calls enter our cube-shaped living space with a message of ancient and timeless aerial domain. They might be buzzards, although their forked tails make me tend more towards the red kite, which I have heard has displaced the previously endemic raptors I remember from my youth. The three gliders are the latest discovery in my diligent observations of the manifold processes of nature awaking from the monotone deep freeze of northern hemisphere winter. I imagine that their interest must lie in the busy stirrings of life down on the surface between the growing foliage of the sprouting stems of winter grain. Rodents of the smaller sizes must be improving earthworks there to adjust their subterranean homes to the by now definitely above zero temperatures. But there is also a careful choreography of soaring turns noticeable between the three of them where distances are kept and territories guarded. The run for the coming bounty of spring is measured by a very reasonable and well-reasoned distribution.

While here on a latitude of just over 47˚ N spring has been established beyond any doubts, in the Southern hemisphere the cyclone season is closing in on its peak. Last week no less than four cyclones were simultaneously putting up their forceful dance in the eastern ends of the Pacific. One of them especially packed a punch and was hitting a bit too close to home for our creature comfort.

While Cyclone Pam wrecked havoc on the island chain of Vanuatu, stripping the leaves off trees, flattening vast villages, obliterating entire human existences and generally leaving no stone unturned with angry lashings of its fierce 300km/h winds, it became clear that once it was going to be done with all that devil’s work it had to turn its eye with a very clear definition in the direction of New Zealand, where our Aluna gently rocks fastened to a mooring ball after having survived one whole winter without too much of wear and tear. And what is one to do if nature threatens to throw a major disaster at ones treasured property that just happens to be rather far away, something like on the other side of the earth? Can one grow a pair of hyper-long arms that extend around the globe and snap the vulnerable vehicle away from the approaching menace just in time to avoid its deadly blast?

With today’s digital surveillance of our every environment we have obtained the privilege to sit like our very own private version of god up in the heavens and watch the situation unfold below us from a very safe distance. And of course there are these never-ending predictions. The weather people with their machines always seem to have things under control. For once, fortunately for us, they had done their job well enough to predict the correct development of monster storm Pam with astonishing precision. Cyclone Pam was heading for colder waters and with that straight into its doom. But the enormous amount of energy accumulated over time in its spiral movement had to be spent and it continued to pack a serious punch. Pretty soon in the game the forecast models all agreed, that Lady Pam’s navel would miss the northern tip of New Zealand and pass well off to the east. Still its roaring arms continued to develop winds of hurricane strength and some of those were going to tickle the East Coast, if not up north then most certainly toward the North Island’s belt line where the country’s westernmost extremity jots out into the South Pacific Ocean like a spike on a spindle dry desert rose.

We do have to thank the universe for the privilege of having made some good and sturdy friends during our visits to Aotearoa. They keep an eye on our floating travelling home while it slumbers quietly and while it patiently awaits the eventual return of its blissful occupants. So should the worst ever come to happen, well, maybe it won’t be avoided, but at least we would come to know about it without major delays and could initiate a string of suitable actions. And while we are busy thanking the universe, there is that burning question about what it might be that steers those ephemeral atmospheric phenomena? Who sits there and reckons benevolently: Well, let’s spare these guys for this time, let them get away with if for now and steer the thing just a bit to the left, will ya? For the time being I think we have wrecked havoc enough up there in the lower latitudes.

While our misfortunate brothers and sisters in Vanuatu are picking up the million pieces into which their humble homes have shattered, we are on the side of the fortunate whose accumulated wealth has been spared the imminent destruction of our ever-moody Mother Nature. Watch the following loop of a lonely weather satellite’s sequence of observations very carefully; I have been known to do it for long stretches of time without ever getting bored. You will see the determined dynamics of life in their chaotic beauty spreading across the vast spherical space below you. You will catch the intricate and highly elaborate patterns of heat exchange turbulence weaving hedges on your visual cortex enough to make you lose your sure footed certainty with dizzying determination.

pam

See how dramatically once the storm crosses the path of the screaming jet streams that meander at high altitudes around the globe at the latitudes of the tropics, it gets its top blown off and literally turned to shreds. Thereafter it puffs at a much much lower frequency with what seem like a broken heart. Fact is, the system practically came to halt once it had slowed enough to transform into a typical tight low-pressure system of the roaring forties. It stood still for almost two days more just to the Southeast of New Zealand’s East Cape before finally heading out for its waggling journey across the Southern Ocean.

One of the soaring red kites, one of those three in front of my office window over the fields of sprouting winter grain has dived down toward the tilled field and his claws snapped something from the surface. The peace is broken and for a moment tumult takes charge. A hot pursuit ensues with highly skilled acrobatic maneuvering. The catch seems to be too small for sharing. But soon it also becomes too small for throwing any more energy and enthusiasm at it. The two peers of the lucky hunter let him get away and have its minute meal in relative peace atop a skeleton tree with almost bursting buds, where a verdant explosion of foliage is about to unfold. They calmly and serenely return to their artful circles of lustful vigilance up under the by now brilliant afternoon sky of spring. And that spring has just sprung from a premature Easter egg no longer hidden, no longer shackled by the crystals of winter’s frozen frost.

It is good to be alive and partake in the awakening. The songbirds are returning from their long journey south across the snowcapped mountains. Spring flowers spread vibrant colors across the many manicured lawns and meadows. The days grow longer, the shadows shorter and change is as usual not very far away from our paths. Some unforeseen circumstances with my work are pushing our return to New Zealand back further into the future, which lets it slide very close to or maybe already trespass the cutoff-point set by the onset of the austral winter, where a departure from the land of the flag with the Southern Cross with our small sailing vessel could easily transform into a major undertaking in need of a very great portion of luck. After almost a full year now living huddled at the bosom of civilization with such luxuries as a bathtub with unlimited hot water and bubble bath a la discretion, we might no longer be willing to lend our lives to such risky and rowdy behavior and will have to decide if it won’t be better to let another seasonal cycle pass before heading out. Could this be the wisdom of age gaining traction against youth’s despair, or has the spirit of adventure allowed itself to weaken? I’d cautiously say, let’s not be too judgmental here and lets let things run their natural course. Those things, by the way, should most certainly clarify sufficiently within the next couple weeks to come to feasible conclusions and make suitable decisions. Boredom might just spring from knowing too much of what the future will bring!

Bamboozled by Bamboo’s Beauty

March 10, 2014

Oh, the subtle elegance of bamboo! Its slender culms, its lush, green foliage, its supersonic growth, its dry rustle in the slightest of winds, its ever-expanding rhizomes underground, its million practical uses, its formidable stiffness, its poetic representation in Japanese ink drawings, the simultaneous flowering of a all members of a species across the entire globe, well, I could go on and on and never even approach the essence of this simple grass, witch obviously has clear aspiration of wanting to become a tree.

As you must be aware, bamboo spars are an integral part of Aluna’s aeolian propulsion system. The slender pine saplings from the dense Humboldt County forests I originally tried proved to be not only heavy but much too bendy to give the crab claw sail an efficient shape. The stiffness of the bamboo culm is essential to make it all work, and its minute weight makes it practical to wield the bundled sail across Aluna’s heaving deck and raise it up the mast without breaking your back. The dimensions of our main sail are so big that not just any bamboo will do. Its vertical spar is a good thirty feet long and the lateral loads on its top third are substantial as the wind increases. To find a bamboo culm that is still at least four inches thick at thirty feet of height has proven to be a serious challenge. Only thanks to last year’s mishap while sailing close-hauled into stiff south easterlies with Aluna’s hulls a bit too fouled for comfort are we now closing in on achieving this goal.

You must remember the mainsail’s vertical spar breaking at the point where the halyard attaches and the following temporary repairs from last year’s post in mid-May. At the time our good friend and master ceramic artist Peter Yates had kindly donated two splendid specimens of phyllostachys latiflora culms. That species happens to be one of the best timber bamboos available on the face of the earth. After carefully cutting them down with minimal lesions to its naturally protective waxy coating, we had put them to dry slowly in the shady twilight under Tony’s porch, right up the hills of Opua and overlooking the almost always windy Kawakawa Inlet. A good half of a green bamboo culm’s weight is in the water it contains. But that water has to be extracted slowly. If the culm dries too quickly it will split between the nodes, which would immediately compromise its lateral stability.

So while we were basking in the tropical sun up in the Fiji isles, that excess water evaporated little by little out of Aluna’s new spars, and when I went up to see Tony and the long and skinny temporary protégés of his under the porch, I was pleasantly surprised to see the two culms dressed in a splendid yellow. I pulled the first one out from its shady winter nest. It was light! We easily carried it down the hill through the winding path in the bush underneath his house. Though turning corners with a ten meter long stick in dense underbrush isn’t exactly a piece of cake. We ended up down on the old railroad track, where in ancient times meat was ferried from the abattoir in Kawakawa to the Opua wharf. That track had also had its subtle transformation over the winter. Now covered with a layer of thick metal it had been converted into a bicycle path. For those of you unfamiliar with the quirks of Kiwispeak, metal here refers to grey split rock, which is used extensively as a road surfacing material. I had brought Ted’s bicycle there previously. All that was left to do now was to strap the long stick on its side and I could walk it the half-mile or so to the shop. I must have looked like a kind of present-day Don Quixote, stubbornly spearing invisible windmills while riding his tired old mare!

So here’s how you transform a simple bamboo culm into a high-tech sailing machine: The waxy top layer of the bamboo, as beautiful and naturally protective as it may be, has to go. Epoxy does not like it at all and will refuse stubbornly to adhere to it. Out comes the belt sander and with a good 80-grit belt and many swaying sinusoidal movements of my forearms that outer layer is completely removed and while doing that, the crested ribs at the nodes are also shaved off. Before the end of the afternoon a first coat of neat epoxy is painted on. With energetic brushstrokes I slap the sticky liquid onto the culm but all of a sudden I notice with horror that the couple hours of naked exposure to the burning New Zealand sun had been enough to initiate splitting in three or four places. There are fortunately only slender hairline cracks, but they are growing fast. I turn the culm over half way every ten minutes or so to distribute the heat, and hurry on with the epoxy coating. Soon enough the sun has moved overhead and down to the east. The long stick is now safe, resting in all its splendid length in the shade.

bamboo01 bamboo02There are many ways to skin a cat and many ways to glass a spar. The fiberglass socks I had used to glass the pine saplings are definitely my favorite. Once cut to length you bundle them over your forearm, slide it over the spar and then pull from both ends. The diagonal fibers now squeeze tightly around it for a perfect fit. But here in the New Zealand hinterland I had no access to such refined materials. A leftover roll of 6oz cloth left over from the building of Aluna still lives on in her bellies, so that’s what has to do. I cut the meter-wide cloth into four strips of a little less than a foot wide, with the idea to spiral wrap those around the spar with just a small overlap. For that to work without ending up wrapping that strip of epoxy soaked fiberglass cloth all around yourself in despair, the spar needs to rotate freely, so that you can apply the cloth always on the top. I screw a plate of scrap plywood to the bottom end of the culm and insert a strong screw into it at precisely the pivot point. This screw I then suspend in a notch on a stand, while the upper end of the culm is free to roll on a horizontal one on the other end. Yet another quickly fabricated stand serves as a helping hand to put down the roll of fabric while epoxy is applied.

bamboo05 bamboo07 bamboo06Good fortune is it that Tony had offered to come and help with the operation. It would have been a heck of a challenge to do this on my own! Once we have worked out the methodology of it all, it works beautifully, just like a charm. A soon as we have covered about a third of the 10 meters with cloth, and the epoxy starts to get tacky at the beginning, my very own cellophane trick needs comes into play. A roll of simple kitchen wrap is spiral wrapped tightly over the still wet glass cloth. This not only squeezes the epoxy down through the cloth into the underlying wood, but also shortcuts the laborious process of fairing and sanding. If done with sufficient dexterity it leaves an almost smooth surface behind once peeled off after the epoxy has hardened. On a flat surface the perfect tool to apply the fairing mix is a stiff squeegee or a trowel. I’ve experimented with many different things to be able to do the same thing on a rounded surface. This time I stumbled upon the ideal tool for the job. A simple length of round electrical cable of about a foot is held with both hands and pulled along the top half of the spar with the fairing mix spread on irregularly. Once again a certain amount of dexterity is needed, and practice creates the master. If you do it right one, round of fairing and sanding is all that is needed to make a good-looking finish. I was so enthused with my new invention that I used it also to apply the primer. I’m never after a glossy finish in anything I build, so I’m quite happy with how it has all turned out without having to sweat excessively and waste too much time for jus the looks. Two coats of white enamel paint should provide enough longevity to our new spars to justify the quite taxing workout!

bamboo03 bamboo04 bamboo08 bamboo12 bamboo11 bamboo10 bamboo09Once the spars are coated and painted I carry them on my shoulder down the same new bicycle track to the little beach under Tony’s house, where little Alunita is waiting to play the role of a tugboat. Both spars have a rope tied to one end and I slide them into the water. Before the little wavelets push them over to the rocky shore where their still tender enamel paint would be scraped and scratched, I paddle out with the canoe and the two long white sticks in tow. I’m unsure of what literary figure I might resemble now, but soon they pulled up over the hullsides and come officially aboard their new home on the decks of Aluna.

Business unfortunately calls out again for another stint down south to Auckland soon. Beatriz will take a course there to become a certified Pilates instructor, transitioning from the wild performer she used to be, to a diligent reformer of human bodies. I therefore do not have time to assemble the new mainsail before leaving. I’ll have to report back to you on how it all ended up. But there is just enough time to tackle another little project that has been sitting on the list for what seems to be approaching eternity. It all comes out of nowhere and is finished in a fleeting moment.

Surfing the Exclusive Occlusion

January 18, 2014

That fiery glow of all imaginable reds and oranges was the last we were to see of the sun for the rest of our journey. A thick grey blanket of overcast moved in and annihilated our spectacular rainbow plus any other enjoyable celestial phenomenon by pushing them away to the east. Throughout the morning of that 2 December the wind slowly but steadily increased, slowly raising the pitch of the hum in the rigging, the pressure on the sails and of course Aluna’s speed through the water. Whenever that last one’s peaks start tickling the lower double digits I’m getting itchy, because I know action is required from my sea-worn body. Something’s got to be done to reduce sail, which must bring down the speed to a bearable rate! At that stage the mizzen sail was next in line to be stricken.

The last time that had to be done was back on our pretentious trip from the Hawaiian Islands to the Marquesas back in 2009. Then we were going upwind, beating furiously into the Northern trade winds, and once they screamed at us with over thirty knots we put the little shred of our number two mizzen up on our smaller mast. At this time we were lucky enough to be running with the wind just aft of the port beam. Once the brailed sail was wrestled down and stowed securely in the groove between the deckpod and the port tumblehome, there was no need to put anything back up into the howling winds. Aluna continued to race through the frothy waters at a good seven knots under just the number two main sail, which clung to the foremast and its aft starboard shroud like an overenthusiastically ironed and starch-saturated bed sheet.

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Periods of heavy rain steamrolled over us. Their horizontal downpours painted streaming streaks of water across the narrow windows of my secluded cocoon in midst of a marinated turmoil. From my resting position on the watch bunk in the aft portion of the deckpod I stared out dazed into this world of a million shades of greys in a dervish dance of fusion and confusion. The mind gets weary and reason retreats when nature manifests its over-potent dominion. Thoughts therefore become like flimsy and worn-out rags strung carelessly on a fickle cloth line into the fury of the gale. They rip and shred, degenerating into fluttering fragments of language with its meaning torn to a million homeless splinters. They bounce off the shuddering shocks induced by foaming wave crests smashing into the hull sides. Those in turn travel acoustically through dense material and into my backbone. They traverse carefully calculated and engineered composite structures of timber sections and sticky petroleum derivate polymers turned rock-solid. Those end up being highly transparent to this troublesome package of brutally pure energy and each impact of yet another waver train leaves its native imprint of commotion in my defenseless awareness bound only by splintered remnants of my shattered self.

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After savoring for a good while the delicious chaos of the grey and senseless mayhem around us, I pulled myself together to contemplate the rational side of things. The low-pressure system to the west of us had deepened considerably and trailed an occluded front along its eastern flank, which a bit further away from the center of that system forked out into a cold front chasing a warm one in a text book demonstration of maritime weather dynamics. That warm front was the one causing our misery, but its natural wish to progress to the east was blocked by the stationary high-pressure system that given us our previously peaceful ride south so far. Its route of travel therefore was precisely parallel to our own and I knew that we would be enjoying its company for a good long while to come. The weathermen were obviously under the impression that this front would eventually catch up with us and come to swallow us. But reality mocked their efforts as it so often does, and for the remainder of our trip Aluna was to be bravely surfing the froth churned up along the frontline maybe sixty miles or so to our west. Not that it didn’t try and make an effort to come and get us with its bullyish game of wedging the life out of its cooler companion laying lazily in its way! The winds kept getting stronger and towards the following morning our mighty vessel shot down the by now majestic faces of waves peaking at fifteen knots. Again there was an urgent call for action.

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I scrambled my limpid bones out from underneath the side flaps of the deckpod cover, crawled forward over the heaving deck and started to tug on the small mainsail’s brailing lines, which I had previously fastened to the legs of our sturdy workbench with a piece of practical foresight, with the pressing notion that things might get a little rough. I pulled on the line and pulled and it felt like I was pulling on slab of solid rock. The sail was glued solid to the shroud by the immense pressure of the wind, which by now must have increased to a good forty knots. I was in need of some helping hands, somebody to gradually release the sheets, while I was to inch in the brailing lines in miniscule increments. I had to go and extract my sturdy first mate from her bunk where she had been spending her own version of wave-induced commotion inside the cocooned protection of Aluna’s starboard hull. I opened the companionway hatch, holding onto it with all my strength so that the howling winds could not rip it out of my hands, and announced my need for help. At amazing speed Beatriz transformed herself from her seasick and bedridden existence to a sturdy old salt in full foul weather regalia, and her head popped gingerly out of that same companionway.

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Her ever-sparkly eyes were the size of a high roller’s favorite golf ball, once she had taken in the furious scenery around us. After all this was her very first heavy weather experience, and she did later confess that a good amount of naked fear was pumping through her veins while climbing up the seven rungs of those stairs that brought her up to the level of the heaving deck. But there she was! Gripping the bitter end of the port sheet in one hand, the starboard one in the other, shaking them lose from their grip in the cleats and slowly paying them out. With whatever strength I had left, I pulled like a madman on the brailing line, while wedging my lower limbs against the workbench, and inch by inch and with a minimum amount of uncivilized verbal expressions we got the crab claw to loosen its fierce grip on the hyper energized air. Little by little the boom rose along the slanted line of the shroud and approached the vertical spar. To my great relief the sailcloth decided to bundle up quite nicely without flapping furiously in the wind, as I had been afraid it would. Once the two spars touched, only a slender portion of it formed a funky looking belly on the upper part of the sail, but the pressure of the air made it stay put as if sculpted in gleaming marble.

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We gave ourselves a relieved high-five and retreated each to our private quarters of misery in hopes of weathering out the rest of the storm in relative peace. Beatriz back down onto the relative comfort of the main berth, me under the flaps in the deckpod in the trusty company of the ever-noisy autopilot, which once again shone by mastering the tumultuous seas without ever missing a beat. Now under bare poles Aluna continued to hurry towards the Bay of Islands through the rest of the day and later the entire night all the while averaging a good six knots.

What next? I silently wondered while trying to give my body some rest stretched out on the watch bunk. Running before a storm is always a bit of a risky strategy, but quite an obvious one whenever it blows you towards where you want to go. Should things get out of hand though, you could find yourself surfing down ever more monstrous waves at breakneck speed, wishing you had turned your nose around into the wind before that maneuver risked your vessel toppling over sideways by a breaking sea. Anticipating a possible worsening of our situation my mind started assembling warps to tow behind the boat, which would be the next logical action to slow down a boat running wildly before an increasing storm.

Fortunately it did not come to that. The morning of December 5 found us about forty miles away from the wide entrance to the Bay of Islands and the winds had kindly decided to diminish a good bit. Confused seas still ran under Aluna’s hulls from behind, lifting her tail up high before foaming away towards the still invisible shoreline ahead, before tilting the bows up into the sky. The swells were now clearly mixed with reflected ones coming towards us. Even when fifteen miles off there was nothing visible whatsoever of the land we desperately longed for. But nothing at sea answers our wishful thinking for a linear and logical sequence of events.

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One last intense rainband slowly approached from the west and once it had wrung itself out all over us, the wind, which had been furiously lashing out at us for a full four days, shed itself now of all its awesome powers and all of a sudden Aluna was bobbing up and down with her progress towards our destination slowed to just under a single knot. Gradually though it was kind enough to build up again a bit, after it had backed to the northwest. So the final stretch into the mouth of the bay was slow going, to say the least. It took a good two hours and the added exercise of putting the big main sail back up to bring us across the imaginary line that stretches from the famed hole in the rock at the foot of Cape Brett to the jagged rock of Ninepike Island. The by now familiar coastline had started to appear out of the grey mist and just as we were finally entering the bay the sky cleared up in the most spectacular fashion. A sharply demarcated line of convective clouds that separated sad greys from very happy blues slowly drifted over us and away to the southeast before disappearing altogether behind the rugged ridgeline trailing inland from Cape Brett.

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Once in the calmer waters of the Bay and basking in the austral summer sun, there were a couple of important chores we had to pay our attention to. Our loyal companion the feisty warm front had helped make our passage a quick one. We had left our winter home up in the sultry tropics of Savusavu just under ten days ago and over the last couple days done daily runs of 169, 151 and 120 miles. This and the fact that when the weather is nasty you don’t eat that much when under way all meant that there was quite a bit of perishable food left in our fresh air fridge in the corner of our deckpod. We knew well enough that all this would end up on one of those heavy-duty black trash bags of the New Zealand biosecurity guy waiting for us on the Q-dock at the bottom of the Victoria Channel straight ahead. Especially the two beautiful pumpkins bought in the twilight of the colorful town market in Savusavu we were not willing to give up without a fight. Then there were the two flying fish! Obviously aware of our humble suffering the sea had decided to grant us a little parting gift the last night of our trip. That same morning a joyful me found the biggest flying fish on our center decks I have ever held in my hands, plus a smaller cousin of his. All these goodies went now down the companionway into the galley and while Aluna was peacefully sailing through the final stretch amongst the picturesque shapes of the bay’s outer islands a fresh pumpkin soup was served accompanied by lightly sautéed fish.

We jumped down onto the concrete floats of Opua’s Q-dock at precisely 4:45, the perfect time for a smooth and efficient check-in to the country. The officers are all very friendly but also very anxious to get through the procedures fast and call it a day. They appreciated all the filled out forms I had prepared and printed before leaving our last port, but did claim the second pumpkin, for which there had not been enough space in the cooker, and half a dozen of happy Fijian eggs. A quick run from the Q-dock back towards the bottom of the inlet brought us to our temporary resting place for the day. The anchor dropped into the soft mud, invisible underneath the murky waters, and within a couple hours we were trying in vain to find the soothing slumber of the tired sailors who have once again made it safely into port.

It’s like a big, heavy concrete door had slammed shut behind me with a deafening thump and I was left with all but memories of grey skies, foamy crests, hissing winds and the ever elegant petrels on their sinusoid trajectories of unperturbed bliss. In vain I was trying to drift into the sweet realm of peaceful sleep. The mind was set on staying awake at any cost. It had done so for the last four days and nights, once things had started to shift to the ugly side. The trip had started out very nice, with perfectly smooth sailing, although not without excitement.

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