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Opunohu Beach Bum

September 12, 2011

“Son, we haven’t heard from you in so long; where are you; what’s happening?” Thus began–and ended–a recent communication from my mother. Answers are easy, if a little embarrassing. Except for a gentle tug at the anchor chain on a shift of wind or current, Murre’s position has remained gloriously constant for long enough that I must consult the log to recall our arrival. And as to happenings, they only lightly populate the slowing line of time. Now a row ashore to dig one’s toes in the warm sand of the near beach or enjoy ice cream at the local market or watch a sunset from under a coconut palm (only to be warned by a local that falling coconuts kill) all count as major events. Each day begins with coffee in the cockpit and ends with a jump into clear, warm water where below the boat gentle grey rays feed, attended by jacks and puffers.

I fault my surroundings for this recent lack of adventuring. I accuse them of a stunning, a rare beauty that takes so little effort to enjoy, thoughts of better islands, better anchorages, fail to organize. My surroundings accept this accusation without resentment and quietly continue in their beauty.

Opunohu Bay, on the island of Moorea, is less than twenty miles northwest of Tahiti’s minor metropolis, Papeete, but is so secluded it could be hundreds. From a chart, it has the look of an inverted triangle with the exception of two bays, deep as fjords, that cut into its northern line. The more eastern is named after Captain Cook, though he never entered there, choosing instead the western most Opunohu for RESOLUTION’s landing in 1776. And I can do no better than Cook’s best biographer for a description of our current berth:

“… [Cook] anchored so close to the shore that he could moor the ship to the hibiscus trees, with the pure water of several rivulets flowing into the bay near by. He looked on this place with a severely practical eye, as ‘not inferior to any harbour I have met with in any of the islands’ for security ‘and the goodness of the bottom’–which hardly conveys an idea of the immensity of the backdrop to the calm sheet of water; for in this dead volcano [that is Moorea] strange peaks and buttresses, fire-blasted walls of rock, reach into the sky as if here the world had blown up, and the world’s greenness were forever to fall back defeated. But below the heights the green grows thick enough, peaks sink into slopes, the curve of the bay reaches gently to the outer lagoon.” (1)

And not that much has changed in the intervening years. A paved road runs the island around; small houses are here and there gathered along its perimeter; three major hotel brands have built palm-roofed bungalows out into the crystal lagoons, but for all this, the island continues to feel timeless. Which is to say Opunohu and its surroundings are both dramatic and comfortable–a seductive combination to any mariner.

Just above Murre’s anchorage on Opunohu’s outer lip is Moorea’s second highest peak, Mount Rotui, nine hundred meters to the summit and climbable. The trail is difficult to locate, requiring the jumping of fences, the invasion of backyards and a brief scramble through rocky scree and acacia scrub before one encounters an obvious path. Per recommendation, I took an afternoon to find it, marked my way with cairns, and returned early the next morning. As advertised, the way was all up. Within twenty minutes I was on hands and knees, pulling myself along with the aid of loose rock and roots; at ten more minutes I’d crested the first rise where stood a shock of Ironwoods on a ledge and howling in the wind. Here I spooked. It was all too vertical. I admired the view only briefly and descended. Later, from the cockpit, I could see where I’d been and it seemed like nothing.

So I returned a few days later with reinforcements, two, younger acquaintances from a catamaran named PUKURI, Christine and Hannes of Austria, noted in several anchorages since Tahuata but met for the first time here at a beach barbecue. That’s Opunohu’s other attraction–I’ve made some friends. Our conversation over fire roasted sausages and red wine indicated these two were not afraid to use their legs, a rarity among cruisers. I extended the invitation and next morning we met on the beach for what was to be my third attempt at Rotui.

“Is it a real trail?” Christine had asked the night before, “We seem always to be hacking our way through jungle.” I assured her it was, but now regretted not mentioning its ruggedness, for the first thing I noted as they secured the dingy was a shoe problem. Christine wore only flip flops and Hannes’ rubber sandals looked unlikely to last the rough rocks of the climb. “Our shoes have just moulded away,” said Christine. PUKURI, a forty foot, strip-plank and epoxy, racing catamaran, forces a rustic lifestyle upon its crew of two. Her main cabin is tiny and low and entirely open aft, and her narrow hulls are only accessible from the outside. “If it rains, we get wet,” said Hannes, “and if it blows the wrong way–it usually blows the wrong way–we get wet, but we can go fast.” He smiled, suggesting that the sacrifices were well worth the gain.

The trail had not repented since my first visits and went vertical immediately. I led the way, but in my excitement, kept losing both my guests. When we stopped to rest, they leaned over their knees gasping and exhausted, and we had yet to reach the Ironwoods. At the first big boulder, I showed Hannes the easy path to one side, but Christine, to my surprise, tossed her flip flops ahead and went straight over the top.

Having two companions shot me with unusual courage. I climbed the precipitous Ironwood section as if it were in a child’s playground and was some way along the knife-edge of ridge, leaning into the wind with arms out like wings when Christine and Hannes caught up. “I am usually afraid of heights,” I remarked by way of explaining my evident glee. Days earlier all in the anchorage had witnessed as I ascended Murre’s main mast for some much needed patch and paint. It’s only thirty five feet to her truck, but I was shaking when I got there and almost needed help getting down. “Hannes is too,” said Christine, “He’s not so sure footed.”

Hannes affirmed this only two ridges later by calling from down trail, “So, guys! Hello! What’s the goal here?” By this time he was a bit wild-eyed and spent more time on hands and knees than the going required. The path, but a few feet wide, occasionally provided nothing to walk on save the compressed roots of ferns clinging to the cliff edge. The view fell away hundreds of feet. Rain approached from the mountains to the east and our summit was in cloud. “You’ve had enough, haven’t you, Hannes,” said Christine in a way suggesting she too was satisfied. I was not.

I asked if they wouldn’t mind pausing for lunch here while I made for at least the next ridge, and before all was quite resolved, I was off. Where the energy came from I do not know. I bounded up like a deer; I jumped boulders and swung around trees with a fleetness previously unknown. I had barely been at the top five minutes when I noticed Christine’s orange hat moving along the section just below, and I was still panting when she joined me. She hadn’t stayed with Hannes, and she hadn’t broken a sweat.

Here the view took in both Cook’s and Opunohu bays (oddly, both bays contained a single super-sloop with blue hull), and the ancient, toothy jag of the far ridge was now at eye level. Finally we had escaped the sound of cars. The song of bulbuls came to the fore. Tropic birds swooped their circles near the black cliffs. Cloud just overhead whispered as it passed. And here I noticed a type of Ohia Lehua (2); on this often arid slope, its leaves were yellowing, and only a few red bottle brushes remained.

Christine had admitted to the roughness of that last stretch by wearing her flip flops. “It’s nice that the trail is dry,” she said. “When I was in Thailand, the jungle was always so wet and difficult to pass. On one hike I was trapped on a beach for a week and only eating coconuts while I waited for the rain to stop. Two coconuts a day for a week.” She scowled. She had, I learned, walked much of Thailand alone. On the descent I learned more.

She worked six years as a baggage handler for an Austrian airline because it gave her ready access to cheap flights and a schedule so flexible she often traveled more in any give year than she worked. “But then,” she said, “the company was purchased by a bigger airline that made the women wear skirts, so I quit and moved to Asia.” Christine lead the way as we climb off the mountain, and here I noticed her certain grace. Where I grasped at passing rocks with a will, Christine took her cues for balance by touching finger tip to twig end, and always she was talking. “I never wore shoes much when I was young. My parents toured all over America by car. We lived in that car and there wasn’t always room for shoes. Sometimes there wasn’t room for me. You should go to Thailand. The food is so inexpensive and tasty, and you can rent a bungalow for $5 a night. I like travel. I like seeing new places. I could travel forever. We can go a few more years, Hannes and I. Then the money runs out.”

I attempted a contribution. “That’s the first Ohia Lehua I’ve seen in all of French Polynesia,” I said. “It’s an endemic plant in Hawaii, one of the flowers most loved by the now extinct Honeycreepers.” This went nowhere.

“It’s why we always look for free food,” said Christine. “Make the money last.”

We found Hannes back at the Ironwoods facing into the wind and grasping a limb with a straight and petrified arm. He still looked worried.

That night, another fire on the beach. We are joined by Bertal and Uta from ODIN for the grilling of chicken wings and the requisite sausages. The two couples, friends since a common anchorage in the Caribbean three years past, could not be more different. Whereas Christine and Hannes are essentially back-packing aboard PUKURI, often living off the free coconuts, papaya, and breadfruit they find on frequent hikes, Bertal and Uta live in such style on ODIN that they rarely go ashore. Bertal worked in radio, was a DJ, had a show in Munich “like Jerry Springer”; Uta had a career in marketing and drove a Porche. Both are fit and coiffed and clean. Neither is over fifty. ODIN reflects their style–a 40 foot mono-hull whose sheets and halyards are worked by electric winches in white casings and stainless steel chain rolls over the automated anchor windlass. “It’s an Amel,” explains Bertal. “The designer was partially blind, and the knobs of the buttons in the cockpit all have different shapes so they can be recognized by touch–handy when it’s dark.” Everything aboard ODIN is custom, from the generator that clamps to here spinning propeller shaft all the way down to her white awnings and white bucket. The couples tease each other’s boats. Hannes can’t believe that Bertal paid $60 for a custom Amel wash bucket when PUKURI’s blue one cost $2 at the hardware store. Bertal can’t believe that Hannes and Christine choose to remain on a boat that has no toilet.

At her taff rail ODIN flies a large German flag, and when I remark the oddity of putting a black stripe on top of the red and gold, Bertal explains, “It’s so that we first remember with sadness those lost in the war.”

“You mean the holocaust?” I ask.

“NO!”, says Bertal with a kind of shock, “the wars of independence.” Germany is even younger than the United States, he says, and the flag’s stripes commemorate the struggles to unify middle Europe’s various fiefdoms.

But Bertal has followed my remark. “That little man with the Charlie Chaplain mustache was no German,” he says later, “He was Austrian!” Neither Hannes nor Christine so much as flinch, and it is clear that none of my companions identifies seriously with the great war. I had thought that being a contemporary German national would carry with it an obvious shame, that the people of an entire country would somehow heave with a subtle hang-doggedness resulting from such a profound defeat and the world’s rebuke. But on consideration, why would this be so? Images of holocaust and a specifically American victory, a perennial theme of western entertainment, are unlikely to get such play at home. Germany is again prosperous and at least ostensibly unified. So fast is the pace of current events and the seduction of denial that dissociation is a reflex. A profitable reflex. A universal reflex. For example: the tortures at Guantanamo were not perpetrated by my people; the responsibility for those acts, not mine.

I am not, however, afforded the same dissociative privilege. “I lost so much money in the stock market because of **your** Bush!” says Bertal. “Such a stupid man. All of Europe was ashamed when you elected him, and twice!” Uta roles her eyes at the approach of a not infrequent diatribe, which I move to divert by explaining that Mr. Bush’s I.Q. was, in truth, quite high even if he lacked the ability to communicate it and that he has not been the president for some years now. But facts are anathema and the conversation quickly moves on to more congenial topics–like why cruising Austrians usually choose catamarans and Germans, the mono-hull.

Or this. “Take your Austrian,” says Bertal pointing at Hannes with a chicken wing. “Your Austrian is not a fighter. Have you seen the Austrian war flag?” he asks me. I have not. “It’s a white dragon on a white background.” He waves the imaginary flag above his head and cowers, grinning. “Austrians don’t fight; they marry; their motto, ‘Not war but weddings!'” Hannes smiles thinly but does not argue. In his former life he was a computer programmer; he’s thoughtful and patient and knows better than to engage a German on a soap box. “But Germans,” continues Bertal, “are fighters and we have lost two world wars proving it. Stupid wars, but at least we show we have courage. Your French, your Italian, he is always running away. But Germans have courage–Americans too. I suppose…”

Uta shoves a sausage in Bertal’s mouth, creating a brief moment of silence which Hannes fills with, “So, what do you think of your little ketch? Is the rig really as inefficient as they say?”

The oddity of this kind of talk around a bon fire on the beach of a small island two thousand miles from anywhere strikes none of us, and we continue till midnight.

Next day I rejoin boat projects in progress and am discouraged that, again, none have advanced in my absence. That I am currently a beach bum is a bit of a fiction: in fact, Murre is making me ready her for our next big jump. Jobs are minor but important: patch the wooden main mast where the baton hardware has worn through the paint, patch the main sail where the mast and rigging have worn through the cloth; tune standing rigging that has relaxed this last five thousand miles; check the running rigging for chafe and swap where necessary; grease the wheel to ease the working of the wind vane; test-install the emergency rudder my wife brought from the states; change the oil; scrub the bum; replace the zincs. Under normal circumstances these jobs would take but a few days–at Opunohu, and surrounded by such perfect conditions, I’ve successfully spread the work over two whole weeks. But available tasks are dwindling. Deciding where to go next is really all that remains.

(1) THE LIFE OF CAPTAIN JAMES COOK, J.C. Beaglehole, Stanford University Press, 1974, P. 557. (2) Hawaiian common name; similar, New Zealand Christmas Tree.

One Comment
  1. September 13, 2011 5:04 pm

    What a lovely spot to anchor and spruce up Murre for the next leap out to sea, Randall.
    Excellent descriptions of the terrain and your companions on the beach.
    I sailed into Opunohu Bay a few years ago on the Robert Seamans, without being told about “Red Left Returning” in Polynesia. I casually asked the skipper as we headed into the pass (while frantically searching for my life jacket) and he filled me in on the local markers. Whew! That’s a relief!
    By the way, did you know the Ohia Lehua is one of the flowers most loved by the now extince Honeycreepers?

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