Thursday, July 24, 2008

A Casualty At Sea

We didn't lose Suzi, but Suzi lost it.

I think the Beach Boys summed up the trip from Vanuatu to The Solomon Islands when they sang: "This is the worst trip, I've ever been on." We ripped the headsail on the first day when the fierce winds and waves rounded the boat into the maelstrom. It turned us around and flogged the hell out of the genoa. Ok. No problem. I rolled it away and committed ourselves to sailing 400+ miles with only a main sail. The sea conditions were appalling. We had regular squalls of 40 knot winds, torrential rains which brought zero visibility, huge breaking waves, and a new leak at the rudder. Suzi's crying jag started as soon as we left the protected waters of Luganville. She was quickly reduced to a sobbing mass. She was inconsolable and incomprehensible. Something snapped, and she would tell you the same thing. She just lost her nerve. I don't know how else to describe it. She went from asset to liability in the first few hours. And this is the same girl that lived through the 5 day nightmare that was our sail to Palmerston from a year before. This is the same Suzi that sailed to New Zealand with me. It just doesn't make any sense. But we're working on it. If you feel moved to do so, give her your support @ suziroberts1@yahoo.co.uk. Although she's doing better, she could really use a pep talk.

Then I noticed a new leak at the rudder and wondered when it was going to fall off, or when the autopilot was going to quit with all the new noises it was making. We were at such an angle of heel that we couldn't pump out the overflowing toilet. We were scared, and exhausted, and unable to eat - for 4 days. Sometimes this trip just sucks.

I'm telling you, sleep deprivation while under life threatening conditions will make you dig deep. It's as if sleep and the sea are good friends because they are both trying to kill you. Like cohorts in an attempted crime. Just one little doze could be a critical mistake, but it's so tempting when you're that exhausted. It's a frightful realization when you catch yourself talking out loud to calm your panic. I'm an atheist who repeatedly mumbled "Please, no more" when the next squall line marched in from the rear. At 05:00 I could hear myself talk through the final hour of darkness with the words: "Just let the sun come up, please let the sun rise. I'll feel better when the sun comes up." Who was I talking to? Me. That inner me, the one deep inside that is all you have left to rely on when you are drained to your core. Look - some of you who read this are long haul blue water sailors, but most of you have no idea what it can be like out there. And this trip was a total anomaly, even for me. Not only did I have the seas and the wind to contend with, but I had my broken Suzi to assuage as well.

How can I possibly explain in terms that you can relate to, what this experience was like? It begins with the knowledge that you are completely on your own. Sure, you can set off the EPIRB and if you are still afloat when the helicopter shows up (if it shows up, and in time), you can get airlifted off (maybe), but short of giving up your boat, there is no one who can save you. There isn't even anyone who can help you. You have to fix every problem on your own using only the tools and materials you have on board. And you have to do it at a 35 degree angle that alters every 45 seconds. Are you a surfer? Can you try to comprehend what it is to surf a 41 foot 20,000 lb boat down a 20 foot wave: It's exciting right up until the point she gains so much speed that she turns into the trough like she's going cut back and hit the lip. Then the wave catches us on the stern quarter, spins us out, turns us wildly onto our beam and rockets us up as the white water explodes all around us. Nah - that isn't going to convey it. You need to live it. And you need to understand that all of this is happening at night, 100s of miles from land, in pouring rain with more wind noise then your nerves can handle.

In summary: The Sea was throwing everything it had in the hopes of killing us, my boat was disintegrating, my girlfriend was losing her mind and had turned against me, and I had to find a way to pull a rabbit out of a hat. It took every bit of everything I had to get thru it. I'm equal to the challenge. I just hope I've passed the test and there will be no follow up exams anytime soon.

We made a "mechanical emergency stop" in Kira Kira which is 140 miles short of the check in port of Honiara (which is where we are now, safe and sound). We just needed to sleep, check our leaks, get a real meal, and swap head sails. It was the worst anchorage I've ever been in and we stayed for 3 days. Under normal conditions I wouldn't have spent a single night there. That's how spent we were.

It ain't easy being free, but things are now looking up.

Next email: Betelnut, Guadalcanal, and a Japanese Bayonet

Your Captain,

Bob Friedman

"It seems to be a law of nature, inflexible and inexorable, that those who will not risk cannot win.
- John Paul Jones -

Monday, July 7, 2008

Nangol (Land Diving), Million Dollar Point and The Coolidge

How many extreme sports have their roots in the traditions of primitive cultures? The Vanuatu ritual of tying vines to their ankles and jumping off towers they've constructed from jungle scrap, gave birth to bungee jumping. I've been told 2 completely different explanations as to the superstition behind it. One involves appeasing the gods for a good harvest and the other is too farfetched to type. I don't think they know why it originally began; only that they have a cash cow on their hands and that it continues cuz their pikininis and tourists love it. They charge $85 per person and it lasts about 2 hours. In the hierarchy of authentic native experiences, this one is a bloody nose and a black eye. It felt absolutely canned. However, in terms of dramatic spectacle - the performance was an over the top jackpot. And at that price, it needed to be.

The jumping begins in April when the yams and vines are wet and strong. As they dry, they become brittle and people get hurt. A tower collapsed this year and a photographer was killed. We caught the 2nd to last performance in June (they jump only on Sat), and there were only 5 divers. 4 of which were preteens jumping from lower platforms (the pikininis love getting naked and jumping). The one adult did leap from a huge height (about 35 feet) and as with all the divers, he went head first to crash into the raked and softened dirt below (he was unscathed). Had we been here in April, we could have witnessed dives from twice that height, but now the tower is not safe at the higher reaches and the vines are drying and could snap. Chief Luc implored me to encourage my fellow sailors to come in April for the high jump spectacle.

"No can do Chief. Big winds in April, not safe for yachties."
"But we have black magic. Pentecost is safe."
"Cyclones dude. Not safe for white man."

We agreed to disagree.

Unlike the dynamic diving, the tower is static and ghostly in appearance. It looks like it was built by witches. It stands with a tenuous purchase at the top of a steep hill that over looks a perfect "bowl" of a valley. Upon closer inspection, one can see that it's actually cantilevered, and that some science went into building this thing.

I paid for the diving but I got the testicles for free. If you take a look on http://www.suziroberts.co.uk/ you can see the pics she posted. They quietly change out of their stinky hand me down clothes and don a "numba". It's a penis sheath that is anchored around their waist. It works quiet well for hiding the exact dimensions of their units, but I believe it's "numba" 1 purpose is to lift the penis out of the way so that you can see their majestic testicles. I'm working on an anthropological theory that will propose that this tribe has evolved beyond penis envy and has embraced the power of a lustrous scrotum. Being pygmy blacks, they can't compete with their African brothers so they've bypassed the size issue and moved directly to showcasing the root of their fertility. Ingenious!

Then we sailed to Luganville and the war history began. The island of Espiritu Santo was made into a US military base from which to launch the assault on Guadalcanal. The Segond channel is extremely deep and could accommodate scores of destroyers. 100,000 of our troops were stationed here. You can still see our quonset huts everywhere, and if you dig a little deeper, like I & my Kiwi buddy Miles did, you can find some fun relics. We dug on the beach where the sand meets the jungle. We were told the Americans used that area as a dump. Sure nuff - we found 3 pristine Coke bottles with the year 1944 on them, a man's razor, a fork, a flashlight, 2 padlocks, and a couple 37 mm shell casings. This was Miles' 2nd trip here and upon returning to New Zealand after the first adventure, the customs officer asked him if he was bringing anything back from Vanuatu.

"Ah just a couple of shells."
"From the beach?"
"Yep".
"How big are they?"
"Oh, about 37 mm."
The official made a funny face, shrugged and let him pass.

If you really want to find remnants of our war effort here in the South Pacific then you need to go to Million Dollar Point. Here's the story and it's all true:

The Americans had won the war and were pulling out of Vanuatu. The French and British were going to continue to "condominium rule" the New Hebrides (that lasted until 1980 when the locals gained independence and changed the name to Vanuatu). We offered all of the material that we had shipped into the island to the Euros for 10 cents on the dollar. Pretty good deal right? Well the Euros decided that the Yanks would leave it behind anyway, so they declined to pay for it. And why shouldn't the Euros take advantage of us - I mean, we had just saved their little countries from the Nazis at the cost of a staggering number of US lives. It seems fair to me that they should quibble over more of our generosity. F--king ingrates. But they were right; we did leave it behind, even though they wouldn't pay for it. We built a jetty and we pushed it all into the sea. Take that you unappreciative bastards!

There are tractors, trucks, boats, cranes, fork lifts, steel girders, jeeps, office furniture, and about 1,000,000 Coke bottles lying in shallow water. We snorkeled it, and boy was it spooky. It's a sunken time capsule rusting beneath the sea. I can't post the video on the website due to the slow connections, but thanks to Todd Girouard's underwater cam that he traded me for pearls I can show it to you when we meet again.

MDP is one of those spiteful pollution sites that tickles me with the history and bravado of the American spirit. We, as a people, are wonderful villains. We are noble and cruel. We are vengeful heroes who make selfless sacrifices, sometimes morphing into self-serving blunders. We are, at a minimum, a dichotomy that is rarely boring. Here in this part of the South Pacific, where we fought and died to save the world, (and we accomplished nothing short of exactly that) I've decided that the Yank bashing will no longer be tolerated when it reaches my ears. I've been listening to it for 2.5 years now and on these beaches it will not stand.

There - I went public with my own nationalistic fervor. It's my trip, it's my dispatch and I'll rant if I want to.

Wanna here about my dive on the President Coolidge? First a little history: It's the largest accessible shipwreck in the world, and it's just down the beach from MDP. She started as a luxury liner and when war broke out she was converted into a troop ship. She hit 2 sea mines entering the Segond Channel in '42 and the Captain ran her up on the beach to save the lives of his men. He lost 2 but saved 5000. She then slipped back into deep water and all 600 feet of her is now lying on her side in 80 - 200 feet of water. I saw a 3" gun and the shells that it fired, jeeps, half tracks, gas masks, bombs, rifles, and more jeeps. The ship is so big that most people do 10 or more dives and still only see a small portion. Most of the dives require decompression stops because you go so deep. That danger, and the problems my left ear give me, ended my dives after the first one. They aren't cheap either.

I fixed the battery monitor, flew all 3 flags on the 4th of July, cleaned the sprayers, went aloft and checked for chafe, remounted the radar reflector, and bought 6 lbs of vacuum packed filet mignon (they sell this beef to Japan who repackages it as Kobe beef. It's that good). We are now checking the wx for our departure to The Solomon Islands. It just keeps getting better.

Your Man on Point,

Captain Bob

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Kava, String Bands, and the Suicide Jumps

We anchored in a bay that was unpronounceable and immediately upon going ashore, met John. He taught us how to avoid Chief Alan and his anchor tax of $50. He also forced his wife to give us veggies and her handbag (Suzi would tell you it was voluntary). Then they came out to Barraveigh for some snacks and cold drinks. We put the hospitality ball back into their court as they marched us up the hill to a nakamal (meeting house) in the midst of a kava plantation. The party was the celebration of a 1 year olds birthday. In the hierarchy of authentic experiences you hope to experience as a traveler, this one was the equivalent of winning the brass ring.

The women had prepared an earthen oven and began excavating it shortly after we arrived. They removed a layer of palm fronds, then hot rocks, more palm fronds, more rocks, and then after the final layer of fronds, we finally beheld the taro and pig parts. The men were busy making the kava. They had conical tools made of coral that they've chiseled with stone (truly a stone age culture) to resemble teeth of a gear so as to make the rasping of the kava more efficient. One hand twists the tool while the other forces the meat of the root unto it, as it's reduced to a pulpy mass. It falls into a wooden bowl and they add water and mix with a high powered electrical blender (Not really, they mix by hand you numpty. This is the part they used to do by mastication. That means chewing and spitting. Thank god they don't do that anymore). They then strain it repeatedly thru the husk of a palm tree. It's tantamount to nature's cheese cloth. It worked perfectly. I could probably filter my diesel through that bark. As the male guest, I was offered the first coconut shell full of the greenish brown elixir. The crushing stupor was quick to follow. John drank his next and within 10 minutes we made eye contact from across the dirt floor. He gave me the eyebrow-rising-head-shake that universally means "Dude, I am wasted." He's a native and he was grilling his melon, can you imagine what it did to me? I can only say that the effect reminded me of college. It was as if I'd ripped way too many bongs and knew I'd be skipping every class.

Even without the frost that was encroaching on my consciousness, I thought the string band was one of the most interesting things I've witnessed in Vanuatu. The drink amplified the bizarre performance. It consists of 1 ukulele (it starts every song), 4 guitars, and one bass. Now let me explain what I am calling a bass: It's a wood box about 2 feet high and one foot square. Out of the center of the top comes a rope. That rope is tied to one end of a stick. The other end of the stick is wedged into a brace that is built into a corner of the box. The player puts 1 leg on the top of the box, pushes the rope away from him by using the stick and plucks the rope. He adjusts the tension on the rope as he plucks and thus alters the pitch of the bass. Ingenious! Then there's the singing. It's a cross between what a cat would sound like if you stood on its tail and the "Soggy Bottom Boys".

Vanuatu has turned out to be the primitive village experience we were hoping for. Their standard of living is 100 years behind Fiji. It's easy to tell that some of these pikinnis haven't seen many whites. No one can fake that expression of astonishment mixed with fear. The homes they live in look like they came directly from the set of Gilligan's Island. They're nothing more than woven bamboo shacks with palm frond roofs, but the job they've done of weaving designs into the wall paneling is fantastically ornate. Ditto for the bags everyone, men included, carry over their shoulders. They're lovely people. They have nothing and are eager to give. On some of the islands, that's how you get to be chief; throwing lavish parties to redistribute your wealth. It's called "taking grades" and is similar to the NW American Indians and their potlatches (Another US Indian similarity is in the pidjin English that the natives here use, and how it sounds to my ear like the syntax I used to hear in Flagstaff: "me wannem big heap smashed potatoes"). I'd spend more time with these people except for 2 reasons - 1.) Let's face it; they are the island equivalent of uneducated hillbillies. 2.) They stink worse than the Czechs. (However, Prague still holds the world record for "most waiters with b.o.")

The conversations are short because . . . well, their worlds are microscopic. I thought I ran out of things to say to the beach dudes back in SD, but it happens faster here. Every conversation follows roughly this outline: Agriculture, clan hierarchy, what to trade, and then we go back to agriculture. Sometimes you get a little superstition thrown in, but that's a complete dead-end. Further questions on that topic all wrap up quickly with, "It's our kastom."

I was told by Samsam that they only need money for kerosene, clothes, and soap. They might need it for those 3 things but empirical evidence proves they are only spending it on kerosene. The clothes never change so even if they wash with soap (not likely) they're still going to reek. And god do they reek. 3rd World Reek - new band name.

Then there are the runny noses on the kids and the communal lice picking from their afros. I think what we're beginning to see, are the first stages of real poverty. Now I feel like an asshole.

I'd like to tell you about the Land Diving at Pentecost Island. This is where the wire haired freaks jump off towers of scaffolding with vines tied to their ankles. Insane. However, this dispatch is long enough. It'll be on the next one.

Your Ugly American,

Bobby

P.S. / Suzi has posted a lot of new pics at http://www.suziroberts.co.uk/