It had been clear to me that what we were going to see once finally close up to Lapita Tikopia was not going to be pretty. I had agreed with Ariki Tafua that work on the ship should start on the coming Monday and that on Friday and Saturday I was going to inspect the boat to get an idea of the scope of the work ahead.
We found Lapita Tikopia resting on round logs we would later learn are of the local ‘slippery wood’, ideal for dragging heavy boats over them. Her two hulls were each covered with a long strip of green tarp while a wider one loosely covered the center deck. Removing that one first we found a dilapidated cooking box resting on the platform timbers, a pile of inflated life vests with corroded cartridges and a heavy blue bag containing a life raft sitting next to it. The platform timbers flexed precariously when I tried to walk across them. Some pieces of it had broken off and rot hat gotten the best of others. Examining the hulls from the outside showed no major damage. The antifouling paint had worn off and two small cracks revealed a tiny bit of rot along the drain holes of the cockpit.
After gingerly removing the long tarps covering the hulls we encountered the first serious trouble. The hinges of the enormous hatches of James Wharram’s Tama Moana design were badly worn, their ropes lose and whole pieces of the hinge mounts on the decks of the hulls were missing. The latter had resulted in cracked and holed areas where rainwater had entered. Rot had progressed from there underneath the fiberglass to the point making the deck areas feel mushy. Beatriz’ not very careful step on one area had her foot going straight through leaving a gaping hole. Fortunately, no serious injury resulted.
Once inside the hulls the extent of the damage became hauntingly clear. The plywood of the decks was reduced to a spongy mess in those places, rot extending as far as the top strips of the side planking and into the hatch coamings. White ants and wood rot go together in the tropics, and in addition there were dark brown knobs of as spongy fungus happily at home on the teak. There was water in almost all the bilges, fresh water, as the famous lick test soon revealed. About half of the removable floor boards that give access to the bilges were rotten to the point of no longer bearing the weight of a person standing on them. The floor of the starboard cockpit and the bulkhead around the entrance to the hull were also soft to the touch.
Three of the beams were of a little smaller diameter. They had obviously been replaced, while the one that supports the mizzen mast showed small pockets of rot close to the port inboard lashing. The two masts had been leaned against a corrugated iron shed next to the boat, their wood severely weathered. The foot of the main mast had been crudely repaired with a string wrapped around it. While the two smaller sails looked decent, the big main sail’s vertical spar was reduced to a bare bamboo pole, weathered and split. Most of the rigging rope was missing. A crudely assembled motor bracket hung precariously from the aft beam.
The general impression was one of neglect. There’s a certain aspect emanating from a boat that has not properly been looked after, and Lapita Tikopia’s aura was impregnated with it from nose to tail. I began to wonder if anybody had even seriously looked at the boat prior to our arrival. All the descriptions of the damages I had heard prior to our arrival had been misleading, and I wondered if with the materials I had brought with us on Aluna we would be able to mend the worst of it and restore functionality to the boat. Most importantly there was going to be a great need of plywood to replace the rotten decks, and I had brought none. It could easily have been arranged with time, had there been a clear reporting of the facts.
But my task here on Tikopia is not only a technical and engineering one. Many people have invested their energy in the two Lapita canoes and a great deal of money has been spent. In order not to end up trying to refill a bucket with a giant hole in its bottom, I had to find out why it had come to all this. What went wrong on Tikopia? What is the social background that allowed such a precious and well-intended gift to waste under the sun? What kind of politics derailed the clear purpose of the donors and the original sound desire of the recipients?
Of course not all was work and despair. We did some exploring with our young friends. A terribly steep footpath leads up from Saint Michael’s village to a small gap in the mountain range visible from our anchorage. Descending on the other side our expert guides led us along the peaceful shores of Rongo Lake, the brackish body of water that fills the crater of the ancient volcano that created the island in the first place. Of its southern rim only two pinnacles are left standing. We learned that in 2013 cyclone Zoe had breached the sand spit that separates the lake from the sea and flooded the lake with salt water. Apparently Tikopia gets hit by cyclones almost every year. Our excursion then led us behind the village of Ravenga to a point where the footpath rounds a rocky promontory where the main crater rim descends down into the sea. From there we returned to the western side of the tiny island that for a couple weeks was our fragile home.