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A Rapture at Makemo

August 15, 2011

One feature that attends my current occupation is the lack of access to world news. Newspapers in the villages, when available at all, are regionally focused, and only twice in the Marquesas did I encounter a television in a public place. A long, sleek flat-screen hung from the ceiling of the better grocery in Atuona and flashed with the bright colors of European football each time I made a trip in for bread and cheese. Another was in a one-table pizza restaurant, itself within a larger (four more tables) restaurant on Ua Pou. The television, small and ancient, sat on the counter and had its rabbit ears pinned to the wall; the images jumped and were obscured by snow but the program was obviously a French soap opera. Locals pulled their plastic chairs closer and pointed.

I do, however, hear snippets. “That Obama is still the president!” reported my dad when I once asked what was happening out there. When similarly queried, my wife described the marriage of Prince William and Miss Catherine in grand detail and then called it “a small affair compared to Diana’s”. And from some cruiser along the way I picked up that we were all recently to have been raptured. The cruiser scoffed that “only Americans could be such end-of-worlders”, from which I surmised that the date had come and gone, again. But I’m not so sure.

On July 19th at around seven in the morning I took a break from writing to make a second cup of coffee, ponder a transition, and stare out Murre’s cabin window at the turquoise water turned frothy by the wind. Even four days after making Makemo Atoll I couldn’t get over the strangeness of the place. We were anchored inside a snaking ribbon of sandy beach and palm forest that stretched as far as the eye could see. Never wider than a city block nor higher than the tallest tree, this thin barrier alone separated us from the big ocean, and my only company ashore–hermit crabs and rats.

When I sat back down to the laptop, its blue screen began to flicker. As I watched it slowly brightened and brightened until it was entirely white and without detail. In my memory of the event, soft ethereal music accompanied the fading away–the angelization, the rapture of my computer. I tapped it thrice, turned it off and then back on, removed and reinserted the battery, closed and opened the lid, shook it gently as one might shake someone from a deep sleep, and each time the computer woke, it was but a shell of its former self. My coffee grew cold, as did my heart.

 No, I don’t mean to suggest that this machine was a person in the way that Murre is a “she” and my wind vane, Molly. Even at its best, even when we were getting on just fine, the thing was far too finicky and unpredictable to warrant the affection of a name. That said, a laptop is my link to my wife, to my friends, to family. It serves me in a way I very much enjoy, and where weather forecasts are concerned, in a way I cannot duplicate. Given this I had anticipated failure and planned redundancy. When I left San Francisco I had two laptops. The first was expensive and powerful and sexy and into it I managed to spill an entire bottle of beer before I had got it further south than San Diego. I have been using the cheap, backup computer ever since.

I retrieved my laptop repair kit from the cupboard, a small screw driver and a dentist’s tooth-cleaning prong, and set to work. Within the hour I had stacked neatly to one side of the salon table seventeen screws and most of the laptop’s casing that, separated into its various pieces, looked like the disassembled fuselage of a large insect. Outside the wind howled in the rigging and a tern croaked complaint as it gave up a fish to a swooping Frigate. The keyboard snapped out whole as did the screen itself, and some further digging revealed the screen’s wiring path into the main unit. This I followed until it disappeared below a trap door held down by two silver screws, which I removed. The door popped up and there I saw what I had been seeking, the socket that connected the screen to the computer. Covering the socket was a section of clear tape imprinted with the words DO NOT TOUCH in the big red letters of four languages. I peeled the tape back, unplugged the screen from the computer, and plugged it back in. It was all I knew to do. It had no effect. This took all afternoon.

Let me be clear–I don’t need the computer; I just like it. Summer backpack trips and weekends on Murre excepted, I estimate I’ve spent time with a computer on most days for much of the last twenty five years. Booting is as normal as checking the time, as habitual as reading. It’s a useful tool that I’m use to, and as they say, “sailors like what they are use to.” But not to all. Some take pains to “unplug” during their cruise arguing that our generation has become addicted to connectivity, that the virtual world we have built is a barrier between us and the raw nature we cruisers have set out to experience. OK, but only to a point. Barriers to raw experience abound and can be quite handy. My skin is a barrier, my clothes, the glasses I now ware, the metaphors I use. Makemo’s thin reef crushes the ocean swell. Even the boat is a barrier between me and the raw experience of drowning. I’m rather fond of that barrier.

Granted, I spend an inordinate number of hours out here tapping away and wouldn’t that time be better spent in gathering more experiences? Maybe, but how many experiences can one remember? Only a few months after my first crossing of the Pacific from Hawaii, I was shocked how many of its details were beyond recall. I had wanted to store away every last moment but found I was left with only a few scenes of waves and wind, snippets of conversation, the feeling of fear and of being seasick, and the untrustworthy recollection that the passage had actually occurred. Have I reacted too strongly, jumped too far the other way on this cruise?

More to the point, when my computer vanished without so much as a goodbye, I had been in conversation with Joanna. She was expecting a response, my list of needed supplies from the States and specifically where we would meet when she landed in Tahiti two weeks hence. We had discussed many times how to react if my emails just stopped; that is, don’t panic!, but I knew she would worry, and I for worrying her. The village at Makemo’s western entrance was only peopled during copra harvest; the one other boat I’d seen was the pleasure ship just inside the pass, now ten miles away, below the horizon or likely elsewhere by now. So when I switched on the cell phone it was more out of a sense of duty than hope. From the galley it connected, but without bars. I went on deck. Still nothing. I stood on top of the cabin and got a flicker. I climbed the main mast to the winches, into the free-flowing trades, and from there I called my wife.

Murre and I remained ten days at Makemo before sailing overnight to Kauehi Atoll where we anchored off the sleepy village of Tearavero for another four days, departing for Tahiti on July 30 (more on which later). Joanna arrived as scheduled and with two suitcases, one for her and one full of things for me–including another laptop. From our mooring outside the Tahiti Yacht Club in Arue I can see the lush mountains covered in cloud and with Cook Island pines so thick on their lower flanks the vista could be mistaken for one in the Pacific Northwest if it weren’t for the trades and the temperature. Apartments and homes blanket the hillsides giving the general impression of disarray. To my right is the blinding white of a huge cemetery; each plot is covered by a small roof structure and has a view to the North. I can hear the rush of the boulevard just beyond a row of palms that leads traffic into the city of Papeete. Coot plonks quietly at Murre’s side while I type. We are now nearly three months in French Polynesia and it feels but a moment.

  1. Cap'n K permalink
    August 15, 2011 9:27 pm

    Well, there you are! I was just about to call the Mounties to track you down (they always get their man). Thanks much for the update, Randall. Glad to hear you are continuing on your voyage. All the best to you an BWW.

  2. August 16, 2011 10:19 am

    Great post, Randall. Keep writing.

  3. Dan Lee permalink
    August 30, 2011 6:41 pm


    I half expected to see you pull out an old ERB salvaged from the Fleur de Lys fire! Glad that the story eventually has a happy ending and that you are back online!

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