It is September 23 and a gentle wind is allowing us to set our course to East Northeast. A little triangular speck of dark blue has appeared on the horizon to the East, a bit like a solitary sharp tooth sticking out from underneath a string of convection clouds. Tikopia is now just under 40 miles away. Still it would be three more days until we will finally reach its shores after ghosting across glassy seas with little to no wind and under the scorching sun of the Southern lower latitudes.
We had started our journey three days earlier, leaving Graciosa Bay in the calm lee of Santa Cruz Island, as Nendo Island is still called by most locals. The weather forecast had promised gentle weather for pretty much the entire week to come. I was hoping this would take most of the strain out of this tedious upwind journey for 200 miles to the east, straight into the face of the normally ferocious trade winds. What I had failed to realize is that with the flailing of the trade winds and the enormous heat generated by the sun, which had just crossed the equator and was now bearing down on us on its way south, would create all kinds of local wind phenomenon. Giant squalls distorted the feeble winds around them in all many different ways, creating a aeolian labyrinth through which we were now trying to navigate Aluna amongst dark bottomed clouds with streaks of rain pouring out from underneath.
On board with us was Luke, according to his own words the ‘author of the corresponding gospel’, who had been to Lata in his function as chairman of the Tikopian church to attend the consecration of the new bishop of Temotu Province. Once that pompous event had passed, he found himself stranded there with no means to get back home until mid-October, when the monthly cargo ship would make the long journey we were about to undertake. He was a lively chap with a special wit, that we took to study carefully to provide us with insights into the refined psychology of our soon to be hosts.
The Tikopia are a tiny minority of Polynesian stock in a nation of almost exclusively Micronesian decent. They are respected for their tall bodies, their ebullient hair and their smart and efficient ways, but also despised for precisely the same reasons by the Micronesians, who tend to be shorter, have curly hair and are generally quite a bit slower to react. This wit was to be with us throughout the trip, with Luke frolicking with all kinds of predictions, about the weather to come, the ways of the currents and the habits of the creatures in the sea, and even the features of his island home as we were approaching it, with most of them demonstrating a similar degree of veracity as his introductory statement about his supposed literary contribution to the New Testament of the Christian faith. The side of our boat next to his favorite place to sit and contemplate the seascape is now splattered with rust red stains. The beetle nut chewers are not known to be very careful when choosing sites for expulsing the bright red spit accumulating in their hamster like cheeks. Our friend Luke was no exception and obviously did not care much to investigate the effect of the wind before getting rid of the excess beetle nut juice in his oral cavity. The lime induced acid in that liquid had eaten into the weathered top side paint beyond the possibility to be wiped away without literally grating away the paint itself.
Every day the winds dropped in strength and one morning we awoke to see the island of Vanikoro closer than the night before, where we had passed it and left it aft of our beams. The feeble winds allowed us to advance a bare knot and a half at an angle of 55˚ to the wind. Checking our movements on the GPS it became clear that we were not only heading directly into the wind, but on top of it fighting a considerable current, pushing our course on the port tack away from our destination, while on the opposite tack we were barely able to hold our position. Luckily it turned out that the current’s strength waxed and waned with the tides, which on this latitude are becoming defined more and more by the sun, especially around full moon, with the waters being pulled during the day in one direction and during the night in the other.
The situation improved a bit later in the day, but progress was still painfully slow, to the great despair of our friendly passenger, to whom the concept of having to tack into the wind had been stowed away in the dusty realm of distant memories, the millennia of the most amazing seafaring culture this planet has ever seen pulverized by barely a century of sedentary neglect.
A delightful interruption to the monotony of calms came on Sunday, which seems to be the fishermen’s day of blessings. Luke’s eyes were good a scanning the seas and he had spotted a floating object ahead of our course, coming closer rapidly. It took a tacking maneuver to reach it and investigate. It turned out to be a strange cylindrical plastic object of maybe four meters in length, which like any other good sized floating debris, had been claimed by the seabirds as a perch to rest and roost. That is in fact how Luke had become aware of it in the first place. ‘I’m always looking at the frigate birds’, he commented, ‘there’s always a log or something close by where they are.’ While not as dramatic as the overturned canoe with a dehydrated castaway on it, as it appeared in a wild divination of its original shape, just as our ship was approaching the flotsam, the little bell on our trolling line rang with as snap. At the end of it a beautiful dorado came reluctantly aboard and provided fresh food for a good two days.
Returning to our little tooth of hope on the horizon to the east, its appearance has been made possible by an afternoon of usable winds approaching a good ten knots. They last into the better part of the night, but once again by midnight my slumber becomes intermittent as it has been throughout the journey. I have to get up and fiddle with the sails every hour or so, and progress comes to us once again at the pace of a slug. Glassy seas with only slight ripples continue for more endless days, but we are sure to harvest every crumb of kinetic energy out of the thin air. The tooth slowly transforms into a small pyramid at the falling of night and the following morning it has grown a flat annex on its southern side.
On Tuesday, October 27 around two thirty in the afternoon our anchor drops into the turquoise sand along a wall of jungle green. A couple of canoes approach, once again with crafty outriggers stabilizing their motion. Friends of our passenger they are and have come to welcome us. They come aboard for a quick chat and then take Luke with his few belongings ashore. It is scorching hot; the thermometer reads a hallucinating forty degrees. An hour later we float in the lukewarm water, trying to hang our feet and hands down into the little cooler wet a meter or so down. We’re trying to freshen up for our first important task on this renowned island: Report our arrival to Ariki Tafua, chief of the western side of Tikopia. This visit promises to be a rather formal affair!