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Quiet Kauehi

August 29, 2011

July 25 – 30

Down Makemo’s lagoon the way we had come, though sailing this time. Wind fifteen knots out of the east and the full sun of midday on the cobalt water. The jib flying alone so that the loom of coral heads would approach slowly. As before, reefs were widely dispersed and easily seen by the white teeth of their breakers or the lightening of the water. Then out on a sucking ebb, great sheets of water pouring into the pass from either side and frothing overfalls of five knots at the entrance. I started the engine in case one of the numerous whirl pools pushed us toward the coral, but we raced clean out, and I barley touched the wheel.

Then a course WNW under poled-out jib and jigger. In the late afternoon, Katui’s palms brushed the horizon some nine miles to port, and two hours later orange lights winked on. I dowsed the mizzen and gained half a knot. Wind was ESE, Murre on a dead run and rolling and rolling her way along.

By midnight Raraka was ten miles to port. It was here, I would later learn, that KAYAK (see Everyone Has a Story) was lost on a reef. Brian and Kelly had struggled to find the pass in daylight, failing which, they decided to lie off and await the next day. But the charts were out by over a mile, and they drifted onto the reef in the night. One touch and it was over, one bump was a bite straight through the steel of hull. Brian and Kelly were unhurt; things were salvaged, but the boat was dead as was their cruise.

Here we began to make a turn east and through the channel between Raraka and Kauehi. It was one o’clock and dark; random lights shown from both atolls, occasionally tufts of palm would define the land. Raraka lay a mere four miles to the south. I had been dozing in shifts but now ate a chocolate bar to wake up.

Dawn found us too early at Kauehi’s entrance, the ebb still pouring out and crashing on itself like the rapids of a mountain river. I dowsed sail in the atoll’s lee and drifted for a time, then trolled a lure through fleets of noddies and had a large Dorado to Murre’s quarter before it flipped the hook. How does this keep happening?

When the overfalls had subsided Murre pushed through the pass under power and into two knots of ebb. We motored and sailed toward the village in the NE as the day’s weather came on squally and wet and climbed up through a channel of deep blue, entirely devoid of coral, dropping anchor behind the harbor’s red beacon and into the sherbet-blue water of a sandy bottom at twenty five feet.

The sky cleared; wind moderated. I put up awnings and wind scoops against the heat, napped, washed clothes, contemplated the shore where a low wharf, a large church and other village buildings were concentrated, but no people evident. To the south, shacks on stilts over the shallow water, part of a complex of farms that grew black pearls in the lagoon. In the evening I cooked lentils with polenta and read a short story about baseball by John Updike. The heat of terrestrial summer, the smell of hot-dogs and beer, that singular sound of bat on ball, a stadium whose concentration of bodies exceeded the combined populations of the Marquesas and Tuamotus–all focused on one, white dot and aroar in collective joy. I felt a million miles away.

Next day on the row into town I stopped to greet my only neighbor, yacht MABUHAY from Basel. “Such a nice place you have here,” I said on approach. A man and woman sat up in the cockpit. “Well, yes it is … and no!” said Marie-Therese rapidly as husband Paul waved. “We are stuck now more than a week with a leak in our hydraulic steering system and our replacement hose wasn’t on the Saturday plane as promised, you know there is only one plane a week, and now we wait for the next plane and,” she waved toward the town, “there is not so much to see.” I learned the couple were retired and on a five year cruise now in its seventh winter. They would spend the southern summer in New Zealand.

No signs in town suggested Tearavero, the name given by the chart, was the accepted name of the village. In fact, the one general store, shut because the owner, also the village chief, had taken his family to Fakarava for the week, announced the location as “Kauehi City” in a large, friendly script along one wall. A “center of population, commerce, and culture” Kauehi was not, except as compared to the immediate, aqueous vicinity. Through the town ran a quarter mile of paved road connecting the store with a white, coral-stone church, a post office, a city hall and a line of small, plywood-sided homes above the beach, some unpainted, non-descript, shack-like, others in bright colors with lush gardens and fences lined with shells. During the half an hour it took to stroll from one end of town to the other and back I saw a few children crouched in stoops and several emaciated, rib-hung dogs lying in the shade, but only one adult appeared, a large Tuamotan driving an old Ford Ranger toward the center of town. He waved as did I.

Passing by City Hall on my return to the wharf, I found Marie-Therese and Paul talking to this man. He had a hydraulic hose in the bed of his truck, something scrounged up on their behalf, but it too was the wrong size. Marie-Therese introduced the man as a policeman, though neither his dress (tattered t-shirt covering a large belly, shorts and work boots) nor his unassuming, almost diffident manner would have suggested it. He perspired heavily.

“Would you like to show the man your papers?” Marie-Therese asked me. Not so long ago it was protocol for cruisers visiting the atolls to come bearing gifts for the village chief, a bottle of rum, some cigarettes. This practice has faded with the demise of the chief’s office, and now “chief”, Marie-Therese had explained, referred to “chief of police”. And the only form of gift-giving currently recognized was the presentation of the cruiser’s crew list and passport. But when Marie-Therese asked this man if he’d like to see my papers, his affirmation was only official. Clearly he didn’t care if I ever presented him with anything.

On my behalf, Marie-Therese asked if fish could be taken from the lagoon. The policeman said only some were safe. His discourse on specific species failed to translate into English and resulted in his saying I’d better bring my catch to him for verification. I asked Marie-Therese to inquire about a tour of one of the pearl farms. She gave me a curious look–“What is to see?” she said. “Is like watching a potato.” The man said we’d need to ask the chief when he returned. Could we buy pearls, she asked, again for me. Again, an answer would need to await the return of the chief. French decree may have abolished the office of chief, but here it was clearly still in force.

At this the man drove away and Marine-Therese tapped me saying, “Come. I show you pearls. A young man is selling them.” We walked up the street to a green house as quiet as the rest. Marie-Therese knocked on the front door but got no response. We walked around to the back and through an opening spied four men and a boy asleep on the wood floor of a kitchen, the only apparent bedding, a pillow tucked between the boy’s legs. Marie-Therese cleared her throat and one of the men started up, came to the door saying “Pearls?” with a smile. Marie-Therese nodded and we were asked to wait in the front yard. “The town is so sleepy,” said Marie-Therese, “we are always waking somebody up.”

In a moment we were greeted by a different young man carrying a clear, plastic bag brimming with small, misshapen pearls and a cloth which he unrolled onto the stoop laying the bag upon it. Inside the bag was a wad of toilet tissue that the man opened onto the cloth, revealing a collection of some fifteen larger, rounder pearls. “The big ones are expensive,” said Marie-Therese, winking, “$500 Pacific Francs each (roughly $4.90 US). The others are $200. His sister works at one of the farms.” Black market black pearls, I thought.

The man smiled but said nothing. The larger pearls caught me by surprise; some were a light gray, but most were luminous, creamy greens, blues, and ivories, and none were black. They were heavy in the hand, as if at their centers was a dense metal. I admired and played with them, but didn’t know what to do next. “How many did you buy?” I asked Marie-Therese in a whisper. “Four,” she said. I set four aside and nodded to the man. He nodded back and said, in French, “Twenty five francs.” Marie-Therese corrected him. “Twenty,” she said. The man thought for a long time, eyes looking away. “Yes, twenty,” he finally said. “Not much schooling here,” said Marie-Therese to me; “He does not need to know how to count.”

Another man approached and asked me where I was from. “American,” said Marie-Therese. “You are from New York, yes?” he asked me in English and smiling broadly. I said I was from San Francisco. “Is close to New York, yes?” he said, “I want go New York.”

Back out on the road we spied a white pig tethered to an ironwood tree near the beach. “For the feast,” said Paul. It was the only remark he’d directed toward me all day.

Late that night I woke to the urgent tolling of church bells in the village. Wind had come up out of the southeast, and Murre chawed back and forth on her chain. I could hear the rattle of palms ashore. When I looked toward the village, I saw the wharf bright with lights and stacked with tanks and crates of all sorts. Turning in the opposite direction, I saw a red freighter approaching, also lit fore and aft, cranes already active and boats over the side though she was still climbing fast toward her berth in the harbor. In the morning the wharf was as empty as it had been when I arrived, and the freighter was gone.

I remained anchored off Kauehi three more days during which time nothing happened.

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4 Comments
  1. Dan Lee permalink
    August 30, 2011 7:01 am

    Randall,

    Thanks to Dale, I have only just begun to read about your adventures on the high seas. Did anyone ever tell you that you should be a professional writer in your next career? 🙂 It sounds like you are having a blast and I am a bit envious of your adventures, though truth be told, I would be barfing over the side within the first hour and would never make it past the first day. Sail on and safe travels, and may the wind be at your back!

    Dan Lee

    • September 4, 2011 4:48 am

      Dan

      Unfortunately Randall’s internet connection allows him to post but not reply. I do however read all the comments to him so keep them coming!

      Thanks for the compliment on his writing. I keep hoping that the result of this trip will be a book, he’ll hit it big and I’ll get to go play for a year or two.

      Please feel free to forward along the blog to anyone interested.

      Jo

      • Dan Lee permalink
        September 4, 2011 7:35 am

        Thanks Jo! We have traded emails so we are all good. I know he is making preparations for a long stretch with very limited or no internet access.

        Dan

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