By Vern Clinton
Originally published in Multihull Magazine 1982
It’s midnight, my watch for the next four hours. Joyce has crashed in the forward bunk and Galadriel is rushing through the moonless night like a freight train. The large stern port is propped open and, sitting at the dinette in the sterncastle, I can hear the water boiling out under the boat’s rudder. Occasionally a wave booms into the bows and the noise reverberates back here like a bass drum. It has been six months since Joyce and I have been on a long passage, and it feels good to be moving, especially now that the queasiness of the first day is over.
Hilo, Hawaii lies over the horizon 2,300 miles to the north and, perhaps, 18 days in our future. Two hundred miles behind us and one day in our past lies Huahine in the Leeward Islands of French Polynesia. A new chapter in our lives is starting as we leave the South Pacific so, now is a good time to set down some of the events of the last chapter, to write of the joy of living in that tropical garden, and of the friendships that flowered there, as well as of the tragedy for some… and of the discovery of a genuine paradise.
This account has no real beginning and no ending, yet I must begin somewhere. What more beautiful place than the lagoon of Bora Bora?
One day in August, three boats were anchored together in the lee of a little motu (Polynesian for islet) guarding the northern lagoon of Bora Bora. The weather was balmy, clear and dry, with a temperature of perhaps 80°F. The trade winds were sweeping over the motu, air conditioning the yachts and providing action for the windsurfers darting back and forth nearby.
One of the boats was Galadriel, the 40-foot Searunner which Joyce and I bought in August two years ago. We had sailed her through the Sea of Cortez, and had spent a year there exploring that cruising wonderland while we got the measure of our new craft and, of course, while she got the measure of us. In April of that following year we had sailed her down to the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Tahiti and, after five months of island hopping, to Bora Bora.
Harmony was the second yacht there that day. She is a unimaran, a Fantasia 35 center cockpit sloop. Her owners, Frank and Susan, have been cruising on Harmony for about the same length of time — and in the same places — as we have cruised on Galadriel. We had become good friends in Mexico and our paths which had crossed frequently before, had now crossed again in Bora Bora.
Frank is a young doctor who has chosen to see some of the world with his two loves… Susan and Harmony…, before settling down to find a cure for the common cold, or to become a world renown neurosurgeon. He is personable, interesting, gregarious, and has a dry sense of humor (delivered deadpan) that catches even the most wary by surprise. He gets a tremendous kick out of life, and is handsome enough to model Arrow shirts, although it might be hard to get him to put one on. Yet, for a capsule description of Frank I would have to say that he is a fisherman’s fisherman. I suspect that he would rather fish than… anything. When he’s around, you can count on having fish on the table, but you’d better be ready to get up 5 a.m. to go roaring around in his Zodiac sport boat which he operates like a test pilot. He’ll take you pounding over the waves, dragging all sorts of paraphernalia, meticulously prepared to snag some tasty monster, but you must also be patient. Frank does not give up on a fishing expedition until there are fish in the boat or, until the beer runs out. In fact, occasionally, when discouraged, I find myself working on the beer supply overzealously, to hasten our return. Frequently an evening fishing session ends up with a grope back to Harmony in pitch blackness, usually, however, with fish for dinner.
Frank seems to approach every aspect of life with the same enthusiasm he demonstrates for fishing. He and Susan are always among the first to explore whatever a new anchorage has to offer and, within hours of anchoring, will have every native or yachtie in the area as a friend. Harmony is customarily surrounded by dinghies, canoes, and swimming people. Her decks are usually draped with brown bodies, guitars and bunches of bananas. Near the boat one hears a bable of languages and sees a constant waving of arms and hands, as sign language jumps the communication gap.
Susan is vivacious, charming, and has an extraordinary sense of humor. She is very attractive, with blue eyes and luxurious long, blonde hair. Being from Florida she has a touch of the Southern Belle about her. She is alarmingly intelligent, but does not flaunt it, maintaining the illusion that she is a little fluttery. Susan charms and flatters everyone, and is adept at humorous exaggeration, and a mistress of outrageous overstatement. She glows with enthusiasm for everything, is a skilled dancer, and with minimal encouragement will improvise a very talented solo anywhere there is music and an interested audience. Altogether, Susan is one of the most delightful people you could ever meet. Together Frank and Susan are superb.
Ah, then there is that third yacht swinging to her anchor in the gorgeous turquoise water. Shannon Marie is the name that graces her transom. She’s a Vagabond 47 ketch. Rob is the owner, and Shannon Marie, who provided the name is his lady. Rob owns the boat as well as a good piece of Shannon’s heart, although she remains skipper of her fate. In fact, she had just left the boat a few days previously to attend college in Austin, Texas. I imagine she was wondering this very day why she gave up her education on Shannon Marie just to attend college.
Rob is boisterous, friendly, blond and bearded. He’s a rowdy exomorph who’ll drink with you, take an extra woman off your hands, work on your diesel, or give you the shirt off his back, if he’s wearing one. He’s a skillful sailor, an outstanding athlete and always good fun to have around.
This day Galadriel, Harmony and Shannon Marie were together after having all been in different parts of French Polynesia during the Bastille Day celebrations of French Independence. It was a last get-together before Harmony went on to the Cook Islands, thence to New Zealand; and Shannon Marie returned to Papeete for a few weeks before following her. Galadriel was to stay around Bora Bora until September.
We all had been spending the last couple of days windsurfing, snorkeling for scallops, fishing and telling sea stories. Mornings Joyce, Susan and myself would dinghy the one mile to the central island to jog, and to meet the bread truck for the day’s supply of super fresh, crisp French bread. Evenings we would get together on one of the boats for barbecues, and to make serious inroads on the rum supply. This particular evening the talk turned to Maupiti, 30 miles to the west.
None of us had been to Maupiti, and we all wanted to go there. I broke out the article Eric Morris did for MULTIHULLS to see what we could find out. Meanwhile Rob mixed a batch of Orange Fizzies — his own invention. They are concocted by adding rum in generous proportions to various fruit juices and adding ice, after which you fire up the Honda generator and plug in the blender for the final ‘fizzing’ operation. You must have your wits about you to mix orange fizzies.
Like Bora Bora, Maupiti is formed by a high central island, surrounded with a shallow lagoon and a fringing reef. The latter is topped by a series of motus, except to the south. When there is southerly weather and a southerly swell, a tremendous amount of water pours over the reef into the lagoon. All of that water must exit via the only pass, which is narrow and faces almost due south so, during southerly weather a swift current flows out to oppose the swell, and it can completely close the entrance. During those times the opening to the pass becomes a cauldron of confused chop, current, and sometimes, massive overfalls. The Sailing Directions say of this pass “…negotiable by small boats in fine weather with local knowledge.” All in all, visiting Maupiti seemed a pretty formidable prospect to us that evening since the weather had been southerly for several days.
Still we did decide to go if we could, so two days later the wind shifted into the east and, as the sun rose early that morning, Frank and I were busy huffing and puffing as we manually hoisted our anchors. Rob who was anchored between us, sat drinking his coffee and giving Frank and myself helpful hints on how to improve our sorry performances. When we finally got our anchors on deck, Rob reached over for the cord and button that operates his electric windlass, and with a superior grin pushed the button and hoisted anchor without putting his coffee cup down. Frank and I responded good naturedly to this display with friendly finger gestures, and imaginative imprecations as we headed for town. Harmony had already gotten supplies and had immediately left by the pass, while Galadriel and Shannon Marie stopped for food and raw materials for the orange fizzies. In an hour we, too, were outside the reef en route to Maupiti.
Once clear of the reef and the protection it afforded, it became startlingly apparent that there was still a respectable southerly swell running, perhaps 10 feet in height. However, nobody mentioned it on the air, and we all set our sails for an easy 30-mile downwind run to Maupiti.
A few hours later, as Harmony closed Maupiti, the subject of the sea state was first broached on the VHF radio.
“Vern,” Susan said “what do you think of the swell?”
“Well, it’s really a nice one, Susan, the surfing should be great at the pass.”
“That’s what we’re thinking,” she replied, “if the pass is bad, I think we’ll just go on to Mopelia, rather than take a chance.” Mopelia, 100 miles farther west, was to be their last port in French Polynesia before going on to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.
“Nice going, Susan,” I transmitted wryly. “You were the prime instigator of this jaunt. If you think you can lure me 30 miles dead downwind and then take off to leave Joyce and me with a 30-mile, nighttime beat back to Bora Bora, then SHAME on you!” Susan was silent, perhaps feeling a touch of remorse.
Shortly thereafter Harmony arrived at the entrance to the pass. When we reached it 20 minutes later, she was hove-to about a quarter mile from the pass. From this vantage point the pass looked totally closed, with surf exploding all along the southern reef. Joyce and I sailed in close to take a look and entered the confused area where the current met the swell. It was really rough, but it looked like it could be negotiated, provided one avoided the west side of the opening where the surf was really monstrous. We tacked back, away from the reef and hove-to to discuss matters.
Shannon Marie was still a few miles back, but we all got together on the radio.
“Well, Frank,” I began the negotiations, “since you were first to arrive, you’ve clearly got the honor of leading the way.”
“I don’t know, Vern, we caught a big Mahi Mahi on the way over, which we’re willing to share with any survivors of the pass, but we’re not sure we want to chance it. What do you think?”
With that, Rob chimed in. “Frank, did I hear you right? Did you say you’ve got a Mahi? Get your ass in there, Boy. You fire up the barbecue and I’ll make Orange Fizzies!”
“You heard him, Frank.” I said, “if you try to cut and run for Mopelia now, we’ll fire a speargun across your bow, board you and fishnap that Mahi.”
“Susan, TALK, to that boy,” Rob added.
There was silence for several minutes.
“Well, Vern,” said Frank after this period of deliberation. “Susan says if you’ll go first, we’ll follow.”
“Hmmm, we’ll go and have another look.”
The wind was still brisk out of the west, and the course to the pass was north, so we headed for the boiling entrance with the main and genny pulling hard and the engine ticking over in neutral. We had about 8 knots on the log. The 25 h.p. Volvo diesel couldn’t add much to that but, in a tight situation, could give us some additional maneuverability. Our plan was to go for the entrance and make a final decision at the point just before it became too dangerous to tack against the steepening seas.
As we closed the pass, the effect of the current, wind and reflected waves, as well as our 8-knot speed, really bounced us around, however, I didn’t see any waves actually breaking at the entrance.
Nearing the surf line, Joyce and I both kept looking at the narrow entrance, then back at the approaching seas, then back to the entrance again, looking for some sign to help us with our decision to continue or not. Finally, the decision had to be made.
Joyce took the initiative. “Let’s go for it, Vern,” she said. “I’ll watch behind, to see if any waves are going to break on us, and you can concentrate ahead.” We stood back to back, each of us stealing peeks over each other’s shoulders.
As the sea state got hairier, I thought of Josh Slocum and mustered a steely grin. Then, just as I thrust my jaw forward in the traditional manner of intrepid captains standing into danger, a giant wave humped up behind us and jetted Galadriel down its face. My anal sphincter slammed shut with an audible snap (it was two days loosening up). We were committed.
Our progress between the two lines of crashing surf was agonizingly slow due to the opposing current, but soon we were into the quiet, smooth water of the inner pass. The current eased, and the wind was partially blocked by palm trees on the little motu guarding the pass. We glided easily over the glassy, water, breathing deeply, feeling tremendously exhilarated after the tension of the last few minutes.
As soon as I was sufficiently in control of my vocal cords and my knees, I reported on the radio: “No sweat.” Not exactly a lie. I wasn’t sweating anymore.
Rob, Frank and Susan made their peace with the eternal powers and came on in, now with no choice. There was no chatter on the radio, but soon we were all anchored in the lee of the motu. We were on Shannon Marie, washing down the remains of our adrenaline cocktails with fresh orange fizzies while charcoal burned down to ‘white’ and the sunset began.
Rob was refilling my glass with his concoction. As he poured the foaming brew he said “All I want to know, Vern, is where is the gunny sack?”
What do you mean ‘gunny sack’, Rob?” I asked, puzzled.
“I mean where’s the gunny sack you keep your balls in, Boy. I had two waves break under me, and I like to mess up the whole cockpit!”
“No guts, no glory” I johnwayned, wondering what to do about my sphincter.
And the sun set gloriously.
Later, while finishing off a stack of barbecued Mahi steaks, keeping the Honda generator and the blender busy, the noisy Honda was suddenly drowned out by the roar of a big outboard, and a giant Zodiac zoomed up to us out of the dusk. Don, its grinning pilot, was invited on board. Don, we found, is a dive master for the Jean Cousteau Society, and was in the process of preparing the motu for a group of 40 students. He had set up tents, sheds, diving compressors, etc… His group was due in a couple of days. We got him nicely sozzled and sent the rest of the Mahi back with him for the chief of the motu. Before leaving, he invited us to come back in a few days to look over the camp when his students and staff had arrived.
We spent the next days in different parts of the lagoon, wandering through the little town, windsurfing, diving and, generally, loafing. There was a road that completely circled the island, so in the cool of the morning Joyce and I would jog around it collecting and distributing smiles and ‘bon jours’ along the way.
Finally, we worked our way back to the motu, now in use by the Cousteau Society. It was filled with snow white-skinned students from all over the United States, here to dive and cavort in the tropics with The Man, Jean-Michel Cousteau.
We met several of the Cousteau staff and were able to attend several of their lectures. By far the most interesting one was the lecture on reef sharks. We learned a lot about their behavior which we found quite valuable. Some of the information was fairly newly-acquired, and some was diametrically opposed to dogma I have lived with for most of my life.
Inevitably, the time came to part. Harmony left for Mopelia and points west. Shannon Marie left for Tahiti, to make a plane schedule, and Galadriel remained at Maupiti for a short while.
In the days that followed we stayed in touch by Ham radio.
Two mornings later I was making contact with Susan by radio.
“N6 CVW, this is N6 CEH. I hear you fine, Susan. Did you find Mopelia all right?”
“Oh, Vern, did we ever! And is it beautiful. Let me tell you it is the most fabulous place we’ve ever seen. It has everything. You and Joyce have got to come here. We’re probably going to stay for weeks and weeks!”
“Jinkies, Susan, if we come there we’ll have a 150-mile beat just to get back to Bora Bora. Are you sure you’re not just trying to suck us along, so we’ll change our minds and go to New Zealand with you? What’s so great about Mopelia, anyway?”
“Vern, there’s fish everywhere. Frank speared two parrot fish (my favorite) for dinner right under Harmony.” I began to salivate. “And there’re only nine people on the whole island. Tonight Frank’s going fishing with Calami, the chief, for lobster. We’re going to have a big feast. Oh, please, say that you and Joyce will come here.”
“Now, Susan, I’d be the last to accuse you of exaggeration, but remember how you described the white sand beaches of Manihi? The ones that turned out to be rocks whitewashed by the birds? And remember the great red snapper you told us Frank caught in Fatu Hiva? And you ate it and ended up sick in bed for three weeks? And that ‘marvellous’ bathing pool at Hana Menu where we all got eaten alive by no-see-ums and mosquitos? Susan, let me talk to Frank.”
“Vern,” Frank began, and then paused for a few seconds, momentarily speechless. “Vern, what can I say? This one time Susan is not exaggerating. She’s right on. This place IS paradise. It’s what I’ve been looking for ever since we hit the Marquesas six months ago. There are so many fish, lobster and turtles here that I can’t even begin to describe it. And, Joyce, are you listening? There’s a terrific jogging trail running the full length of the island, six miles, and there are no flies or mosquitos in the anchorage, and not too many on shore.”
Frank, the fisherman, had hooked us… but good. We decided to sail back to Bora Bora for more provisions and to join Harmony in Mopelia for a few weeks. Actually, Frank made another unexpected catch at the same time. Tom and Karen on Aura were on the frequency and heard the whole conversation. They had just arrived at Bora Bora.
Aura was a 50 ft. ferro-cement ketch. Tom and Karen built all 30 tons of her over a 7-year period. Tom worked on her full-time, while Karen put bread on the table. The boat was the epitome of home construction. Every inch of her, every curve, every detail had been lovingly crafted. In fact, Tom and Karen had transcended craftsmanship to create a work of art in their boat. The mahogany joinery was all carved. Aura was sculpted rather than built.
A year prior to this time Tom and Karen had set off cruising. We met them in the Tuamotus where they were buddy boating with Harmony. Tom and Karen are both very gregarious and very musical. Tom on the banjo and Karen on the guitar make a great combo. They leave a wide trail of friends wherever they cruise.
After our conversation on the Ham radio, Tom and Karen decided to sail to Mopelia, too. As they were already at Bora Bora they set about taking on stores, and we set off on the beat back to Bora Bora for our own provisioning.
Two days later, Aura got under way for Mopelia via Maupiti where they planned to stop for a day to trade for bananas and watermelons since Mopelia has very little fruit and vegetables. We followed the next day.
We had a fine sail all day and night. Most of the time we were wing and wing, so we were able to enjoy Galadriel’s bow nets without getting splashed. The following morning our dead reckoning had us near Mopelia, but it was nowhere in sight.
Mopelia has no central island. It is a circular reef about six miles in diameter with low islands on the north and east sides. Like Maupiti, it has just one pass which is very narrow. The pass is located on the west side of the atoll, and always has at least 3 to 4 knots of current flowing out. However, it is in the lee of the island in all but uncommon westerly weather. The highest point on the atoll would be one of the palm trees, 50 feet in height. This means one must be within about 10 miles of the island to see it and, even then, visibility needs to be good.
Joyce and I tried to raise Harmony on the VHF radio. No luck. Either we were out of range or there was nobody listening. I broke out the sextant and, by using a sun line and our distance run, established that we were about 20 miles north of the atoll. The current had evidently been very strong and been setting us to the northwest. Since the wind was northerly we had an easy 4-hour sail ahead of us.
View Mopilia, French Polynesia in a larger map
At 8 o’clock we fired up the Ham radio for the scheduled meeting with Harmony. Susan answered my call at once. Her voice, normally so cheery, was very subdued, and I felt hackles rise on the back of my neck.
“Vern, Tom’s here on Harmony, and he has something to tell you. Stand by.”
Joyce picked up on the timbre of Susan’s voice and came over close to the radio, frowning. My heart fell, thinking something might have happened to Frank.
“Vern, this is Tom. I have sad news. Yesterday at 4 a.m. Aura went on the reef at Mopelia. Aura is history. Karen and I are all right.”
We were in a mental fog for the rest of the sail to Mopelia. How could such a thing have happened? Tom had not volunteered any additional information, so we would have to wait until we could talk to him and Karen, on the island. We knew they both had their whole life in Aura and, like most cruisers, they did not have insurance. Finally we raised Mopelia.
The northern motu first appeared like a small caterpillar on the southern horizon, about ten miles distant. Its hairy back soon became a thick line of coconut palms. We altered course slightly, to sail down the western side of the atoll and locate the pass.
As we rounded the last small motu on the north, we spotted the wreck that Frank had mentioned earlier. It was that of the Seeadler (Sea Eagle in German), a German raider that had gone on the reef in 1917. Count Felix von Luckner, the gunboat’s skipper, evidently had been lulled into anchoring off the reef, in the lee of the atoll, during calm weather. An unexpected northwesterly put him high on the unfriendly coral, and there the Seadler rests to this day. Later we discovered huge sections of her steel masts lodged in the depths of the pass, breasting the implacable current still.
The Count evidently forgave the island its unfulfilled promise of shelter because in a book which he later wrote, The Sea Devil, he recounts his first vision of Mopelia: “Words fail me when I try to describe Mopelia’s varied beauty. From the blue ocean rises a mass of green palms. The sunlight flows in the green. Somehow, it even seems to turn the sunlight green and, against the dark blue of the sky, it seems to be drawing the green island out of the water, and the soft south wind carries the scent of flowers far out to sea. It is the greeting of the island, and we inhale it deeply.”
The Count claimed to have been put on the reef by a tidal wave, however, some American prisoners alleged that the ship ran aground while the prisoners and most of the crew were having a picnic on the island.
The reef is steep-to and a tsunami would not be felt at all there. The story of the tsunami, I fear, was the Count’s own way of avoiding the Kaiser’s wrath.
We hove-to off the pass and called Harmony on the VHF. Frank zoomed out in his Zodiac to pilot us in. The pass is extremely narrow but the water was smooth, and with the wind on our beam and the Volvo doing its share, we easily breasted the four to five-knot current.
Once in the lagoon, we tied the Zodiac astern and set out across the atoll to the windward side where the remains of Aura were being pounded to small pieces by the relentless surf.
On the way across the lagoon we heard most of the story of how Aura had met her end. At 3 a.m. the previous morning, in order to reach the pass during the time of slowest current, Tom and Karen chose to continue sailing, knowing that in a couple of hours it would be light. No way could they cover more than 12 or 13 miles in two hours. Like most of us, they customarily used a kitchen timer when on watch. If the person on watch falls asleep, the timer awakens them after a fixed interval.
A dark night, a strong current, a faulty knot log, a snooze… and Aura drove up on the southeast side of the atoll under full sail. Tom and Karen were blasted awake by the horrible, grinding impact of 30 tons of ferro-cement, stainless steel, and carved mahogany, against the jagged outcroppings of coral.
In the hours that followed they were able to get off an SOS on the Ham radio, then rescue their dinghy and contact the people on Mopelia, including Frank and Susan. At dawn everyone was helping with the salvage. By 9 a.m. Aura sank below the surface.
Much of our energy for the next couple of weeks went toward helping Tom and Karen retrieve their belongings, setting up a temporary household for them in an abandoned weather station, and in arranging (via radio) the transportation for them and their goods. Soon five other yachts arrived to help.
Now there were seven yachts at Mopelia which normally might see 10 yachts in an entire year. For the nine people who live and work on Mopelia harvesting copra, and who have no communication with the outside world except the copra boat which arrives every couple of months, this was quite an event. Since Susan and I have our birthdays on August 29 (a week away at that time), Sophie and Calami decided to have a ‘Grande Fete’ in our honor.
Calami is the ‘Chef de Copra’ of Mopelia. That doesn’t mean he cooks coconuts, but that he is the man nominally in charge of all the workers there. He was born on Bellinghausen Island, in the same group as Mopelia. He is about 25 years old, with tree-trunk legs, broad refrigerator-sized shoulders, a great cloud of frizzy hair, and the sunniest, friendliest smile I’ve ever had beamed at me. He is totally unflappable, and does not have a negative thought in his head.
Sophie is Calami’s lady. She’s about 90 pounds of petite Tahitian with long, brown hair, brown eyes, a slim, firm figure, and a golden incisor that sparkles when she smiles, which is often. She dances a graceful tamurai, can split about 100 coconuts in five minutes with an ax, and loves to cook the great mounds of lobster, fish and turtle that Calami brings home from his fishing.
Calami and Sophie work copra together. They split their earnings equally, and both have very substantial bank accounts. Calami is planning to buy a video cassette TV to go with the salvaged gasoline generator he bought from Tom.
Preparations for the Grande Fete took several days. The night before the big day, Calami took seven yachties for a night lobster hunt on the reef. All went equipped with a sack and a flashlight. Calami had a great box strapped to his back, and was literally running about the reef snatching the tasty critters right and left. Behind him trailed a bedraggled retinue of staggering Popa’aa (Tahitian for ‘Gringo’), doing their best to keep from falling on their faces while stumbling through the knee-deep water. At the end of the evening Calami had collected 60 lobsters. Seven yachties had scored a collective total of seven.
The previous day, as well as the morning of the Fete, was spent fishing. Calami caught a 200-pound turtle, 20 parrot fish, and an assortment of tuna, wahoo and jack. Meanwhile, Sophie was organizing the cooking and decorations, and was being helped by the other ladies of both Tahitian and yachtie persuasion. Decorations included some Japanese lanterns Joyce had been carrying around for two years for just such an occasion (proof that you should never throw anything away), giant hydrogen-filled weather balloons that Calami found in the warehouse of the abandoned weather station and, also, an assortment of improvised floral arrangements, and draperies fashioned from pareus. We took along Galadriel’s cassette hi-fi and a battery to provide music. Everybody brought their favorite intoxicant. Surveying the preparations, I thought of Doc’s party in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row.
The guest list included Calami and Sophie, Celestine and Lena (two teenage Tahitian maidens), a couple of other Tahitians from Mopelia, and all the yachties, including the Harmonians and Galadriens. A late arrival was Dave on his 31-foot Searunner, and his crew Terrance, a wanderer from England.
Sophie and Calami’s house is a cement and galvanized iron structure which I imagine was originally a copra warehouse back when there were 50 or more people on the island. It makes a very comfortable house with good ventilation. In the yard there are a few papaya trees, as well as a breadfruit tree and several banana trees. Also in attendance are several dogs, and about a half a dozen pigs which, in addition to keeping the area ‘clean,’ occasionally serve as the main dish for a fete.
In the late afternoon we assembled at the house. The table was piled high with boiled lobster and coconut crab. There were also platters of turtle steak, four different kinds of poisson cru (marinated fish), baked fish fillets, beans, rice, jugs of wine, and two big birthday cakes.
Waiting for everybody to show up, we early arrivals immediately began to get into the spirit of the occasion and everywhere you could hear the little popping sound of brain cells being destroyed. Soon all were present and Susan and I wheezed out the candles on the cakes, and then repeated the feat for those who had forgotten to wind their cameras.
We fell-to and all debauched in our individual and collective fashion, some of us having been out of practice at that sport for some time. Those great mounds of food finally were reduced to piles of fish bones and lobster shells.
After dinner, those who could still maintain an erect posture danced the tamurai, or at least attempted it. Susan did a great disco-jazz-tamurai solo, then Frank accompanied her with the ‘shiver.’
The shiver is a dance Frank invented. He performs it by finding the most comfortable chair available, then settles himself in it and fixes his gyrating partner with an intense stare. Next he extends both arms in her direction with fingers spread wide and tense. With his arms and hands thus at full extension, he vibrates his fingers rapidly. It is moving to watch, and very exhausting for Frank.
Dave from Sandcastle, one of the two eligible bachelors present, had (by this time) reached an advanced stage of fun seeking. When the dancing started, he was well ready to participate. He produced a veritable maelstrom of flying elbows, knees, blond hair, and Incredible Hulk-type blue eyes. Celestine thought he was just great, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. Soon Dave was frantically trying to learn the French phrase for “Let’s go see my boat now,” but he never could quite master it. Celestine solved the problem by dragging him away from his language lessons to take him for a walk along the beach. Cupid bridged the language barrier. Little did I know that evening that shortly Cupid would deal me a hand in the drama that followed.
Dave left for Pago Pago two days later. A couple of days after that, Susan stopped by Galadriel with a folded piece of paper, and a request.
“Vern, Celestine wrote this letter to Dave and wants me to translate it into English so she can recopy it and send it. I’m getting plum tired out from the translating chores.” I took the letter and agreed to do the job.
Celestine’s French was colloquial, and my French is about as fluent as my ancient Hebrew. The result was that while I did not totally understand her letter, I was able to get the drift. Moreover, I realized that one as young as she could not possibly have the grasp of the potential of the love letter as an art form as one of more mature years would, such as myself. So, to help the girl out and to serve Cupid’s noble cause, I translated freely, maintaining the gist, mind you, but couching Celestines’s thoughts in phrases of poetic beauty. I knew Celestine would appreciate my efforts. I also thought that Susan would, perhaps, referee my interpretations a bit before giving the translation back to Celestine.
When the recopied letter was returned to Galadriel to be mailed upon our return to Bora Bora, I was astonished to see that no editing had taken place and, for the most part, my modest contributions had survived intact. It does give me great pleasure and satisfaction to know that Dave received a love letter from Celestine, largely composed by me. How excited he must have been to read: “The night you left I cried a river over you,” or “Alas, what folly to let the man of my dreams leave on the east wind,” or “I fear by now you have lost your heart to some Samoan chippie.”
About two weeks after the letter was sent, I had a conversation with Dave on the Ham radio. Most of the yachties of our acquaintance in the South Pacific had, by this time, heard of Dave’s Mopelian Alliance, and had been razzing him about it constantly. None knew of my ghost writing participation in the letter.
“Dave, this is Vern. Did you get Celestine’s letter okay?”
“Yeh, Vern, I did. Thanks for mailing it.”
“What did you think of it?” Eagerly I awaited the words of praise for my prose.
“Well, I was really surprised at the depth of feeling she showed. It was a very nice letter. It made me feel a little bad, though. You know I didn’t really promise her anything, or anything like that.”
Dave seemed like he might be feeling a little guilt so to put him totally at ease I said: “I don’t know, Dave, I feel you were a bit of a cad. That poor girl may suffer for months.”
I thought he would pick up on my kidding, but he seemed to take what I said seriously. Before I could clarify the matter reception faded, and I have not yet had a chance to tell him the story. Dave, if you’re reading this, I owe you a beer.
One day Frank came by and asked if I’d join him for a scuba dive outside the reef. I went, and the dive was spectacular, with crystal clear water, hundreds of fish, a few reef sharks, and a couple of giant turtles. I poked around in the coral while Frank shot a roll of film. When our air was expended we climbed back into the sport boat, took it to the outside of the pass and anchored it just to one side of the channel, barely out of the current. We hung on the side of the boat to watch the action in the stream of water rushing out of the lagoon. The water was literally teeming with life. Fish of every description milled in the current, maintaining their positions like squadrons of aircraft flying formation. As we climbed back into the Zodiac, Frank suggested that we make a drift dive, that is, we would enter the water at the inner end of the pass with scuba and drift with the current while someone would accompany us with the inflatable by drifting along at the surface. Frank is a completely intrepid diver. I, being much more trepid, was a bit leary about the idea of being at the mercy of the current, but the idea was fascinating, so I said I’d think about it a bit.
The next day I wanted to show Joyce all the sea life at the pass, so we took our dinghy to the lagoon side and drifted the one-third of a mile length of it, holding on to the little inflatable.
Hanging there at the surface was like flying, soaring over the fishy world below. We watched thousands of parrot fish, dozens of huge grouper, schools of jack, and one of the largest barracuda I’ve ever seen. Near the surface there were clouds of pompano fish and needlefish, so close we could almost touch them. Then, near the seaward side of the pass, we saw a sight I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.
Have you ever really seen a can of worms? Can you imagine them all crawling over, around, and under each other? We were drifting over a can of sharks. Never, never, never have I seen anything like it. There had to be at least thirty grey sharks below us, lazily swimming to maintain their position in the current. They ranged in size from six to eight feet, although I struggle not to estimate their size as much larger. One or two of them detached themselves from the group to come up and look us over. I followed them with my eyes by looking under the dinghy and, as they neared, saw Joyce’s legs slurp up out of the water as she had decided that was enough marineland for a while. I was much braver than she, and stayed in the water another two or three seconds before obeying my own legs which were yammering to my brain to get them ferchrisakes out of the water — now!
Later, it hit me what the result would have been had I gone on the drift dive with Frank. We would have been down there near the bottom, sixty feet below, cruising along, inexorably moving with the four-knot current, and marveling at the fish life. As we neared the end of the pass we would have found ourselves being swept into that swarm of sharks. Because of the current we would have been unable to avoid swimming right through them. I do the ‘shiver’ every time I think about it.
Again came the time for parting. We had to return to renew our visas or leave for Hawaii, otherwise. A few days before, Tom and Karen had departed with their salvage aboard a large power boat. The yachts that had come to help them had likewise departed. We still had Harmony to say good-bye to, and also Calami and Sophie.
Saying good-bye was not easy. On the day of our departure we rowed in to see Calami and Sophie who had stayed home from work to be there. They were both dressed in their finest, and there was none of the false gaiety about them that we customarily inject into our good-byes. This was a sad occasion for us all. The good-byes we exchanged in Popa’aa French, Tahitian, English, and ancient Hebrew, were stilted, but all understood their meaning. We presented each other with gifts and leis, and were kissed on each cheek and bear-hugged by both Calami and Sophie. When we parted and shoved off in the dinghy, perhaps for the last time, there were tears in all our eyes as there are tears in my eyes right now, looking up from my typewriter. The shell leis that Sophie placed around my neck that day are now hanging from a peg on the bulkhead, and they are swinging with our motion. I watch them and smile.
And Galadriel rushes through the night toward Hawaii.