Thinking Forward

Last Sunday we left the Ha'apai Group of Tonga and arrived in the
capital, Nuku'alofa. Our friends flew back to France on Tuesday, ten
days after their boat had hit a reef. Back to France to start a new
life. Leaving their beloved home, their previous life, on the ocean floor.

In all we spent six nights and seven days at the site, working hard to
make it both physically and environmentally safe. During that time
friends from different boats, as well as locals, helped enormously.
Everyone had a role, and everyone had a different motivation. The trick
was to interweave them, like a dance, a tapestry, for the best possible
outcome.

Some wanted to lift the boat, and breathe new life into her.
Resurrection. Certainly an option worth considering.
Those who loved her most wanted to let the boat rest, dissolve into the
sea floor, let her become one with Nature.
Locals wanted food, clothes, and tools. Things of practical use.
Others were pirates, interested in what they might find. Objects of
value. Anchors, chain, the engine.
Men of the Sea wanted to ensure that the boat wasn't a navigational
hazard, that the masts wouldn't shear off and become a danger to other
boats.
Friends of the owners wanted to remove equipment that might have resale
value after all that they had invested.
Environmentalists wanted to protect marine life where the boat lay.
And the owners, understandably, wanted to say goodbye and move on.

You can imagine the discussions, the tensions, the organisation. The
sadness.
On the night when the owners returned, our new local friends killed two
pigs and hosted a roast on the beach. Thus, it was also a time of
community. Of working together for many best outcomes.

I wrote a mountain of words describing events during that week but now
is not the time for such stories. Now is a time for respect, and learning.

We are driven by our passions, and though the week was sad we were
passionate about the task we were faced with. Sometimes it seemed
mammoth, at other times straight-forward, and always necessary. We
couldn't walk away. I couldn't, he couldn't. It wasn't right. I would
hope someone would do that for us, and for the environment, if we were
spent.

I was overwhelmed by the concept alone: that it was even possible to
sink a boat and leave it. That we are even able to be here, all of us on
private boats, without so much as an exam, an insurance document, or any
proof of our ability (or liability). Who do we think we are? But isn't
that also a beauty of the life,- one final place in the world where
we're not subject to continual rules and assessments. Where you just
need to go out there and do it, try it, take a risk, and learn along the
way.

An incredibly unfortunate combination of incidents occurred that led to
this conclusion. How often so many of us have had a close shave, and
lived to tell the tale. Or to not tell the tale. How many of these tales
go unsaid. No-one (with cruising experience) told me – be careful out
there, be prepared, be aware, it's a constant risk. Stay alert. Never
become complacent. No, they said –go for it, you'll have a great time,
you'll learn so much, you'll pick it up as you go along, good for you,
live the dream.

All I could think of was stuff, and getting it out of the sea. So Much
Stuff. Not just on that boat, but on every boat, on our boat. It got me
thinking, and swimming. Plastic bags, bottles of glue, acids and paints,
plastic tubs, medicines, cosmetics and shampoo. Chasing after cotton
buds, straws, disposable latex gloves (the cardboard box dissolving on
contact), and multi-coloured spatulas. Recovering cans of diesel and
petrol, epoxy paint and contact cement. Chasing after plastic bottles,
and a cupboardful of plastic bottle lids. Yoghurt pots. Disposable
contact lenses. Insulation. Mattresses. Kitchen equipment. Bags.
Cleaning utensils. Foods, spices, and individually sealed plastic
sachets of dried coconut or parmesan cheese. Jars of olives. Not even
food will decompose the way our culture packages it.

Andy first wanted to float the boat. When that decision was rejected, he
was focussed on making the boat safe and retrieving equipment. His
combination of impressive freediving skills, foraging expertise, and
willingness to give away treasure made him a local hero. A symbiosis
quickly developed between us and the locals: in exchange for much
treasure (tools, food, clothes, pots, pans, solar panels, a
generator…) they also took away lots of rubbish and hazards to the
environment. We kept only deck fittings and other boat-specific objects
with potential resale value.

When joined by other boats, larger tasks were approached. With the crew
of Taee and Jangada, both masts were taken down and floated to the
shore. Quite an epic task, from the dismantling of the masts themselves
to floating them so carefully that the beautiful fan corals in shallow
water near the beach were not so much as scraped. And the rig no longer
a navigational hazard.

In the afternoon, the environmental clean-up mission began. That was the
day that the owners joined us. After a respectful and sad goodbye, it
felt terrible that they then should witness so much stuff being pulled
out of the boat. But it would have felt even worse leaving it in there.
With time and hindsight, they'll be glad to know she was emptied as much
as possible. That the fish can make a home in her cabins, unpolluted by
leaking fuels and solvents.

After Taee and Jangada left, Andy continued the salvage mission by
freediving with local boys. Mostly tools, chain, anchors, rope, and
remaining solvents. In the afternoon we were joined by our friends on
Bamboozle who made possible a second full day of diving (Taee and
Bamboozle carry scuba gear), the focuses being on salvaging deck
equipment and removing final contaminants and plastics. Over a soup
lunch, Jamie told me with a wink- this morning's dive was for the
owners, the afternoon will be for you. – Not for me, I cried… for the
sea! Cringing and hitting him with a pillow as the words tumbled out.

The nights were the worst. Treacherous anchorage, godforsaken place.
Barreling surf breaks frame the entrance to the pass, not something you
wish to navigate through at night. Wind shifts from every direction
pushing us towards ominous coral heads in the dark. Rain pummels down
hard. When it began I imagined, romantically, that the powers that be
were crying with the sunken boat, the lost dreams. Not so, they have no
empathy, no love, no hate, they are just what they are, and they are
full of power. They are the Elements, and elemental. It's up to us to
understand that, and read their signs.

Every morning at 5am we said – we're out of here, this place is
horrible-. But each day the sun brought calm and more opportunities for
retrieving items and making safe. Every bag saved was one less bird choked.

And the work got done, amazingly quickly. And finally we left.

I know of three other boats that, during that week, hit coral nearby in
treacherous bays. All three are still floating, but in each case it was
a close call. One was a catamaran with a very shallow and flat keel.
Another, a monohull, also made first impact with their keel and had
friends anchored nearby who came to the rescue before the boat fell over
and received a punctured hull. Friends who joined them in the depth of
night and rain to pull the boat off the coral, diving in a storm,
setting anchors, winching the boat out of danger just in time. The third
was just hold-your-breath damn lucky.

Luck aside, there are always lessons to be learnt. We learnt that our
satellite phone stops ringing after two rings, and struggles to call
other sat phones. And that we didn't have all the right emergency
numbers programmed in. And that we didn't have anyone programmed in (or
even written down) who might be able to talk me through a tricky
situation in an event that I didn't think I wanted a rescue, but equally
didn't know what to do. And that often people break before the boat.

The result is new changes aboard Zeph, and we keep learning. And I dream
of steel.

Now in Nuku'alofa friends on boats have been continually helping and
feeding us. We are fuelled up, watered up, and are energizing up. We are
finding buyers for some of the salvaged equipment. And we are starting
to contemplate the next step, the final leg, Tonga to New Zealand. It's
a long one, about 1000 miles, and will take us back to colder, windier
places. After the events of last week all complacency has gone. No
longer do I think 'we're nearly there'. We won't be there until we're
there. Tied up. Safe. Laughing. Feet on land.

Meanwhile, the highlight of my day today was waking up, for the first
time in over six months, snuggled up under a duvet. Bring it on. We're
going South.

One thought on “Thinking Forward

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