Thursday, October 7, 2010

(no subject)

As usual we were nearly the last to arrive in Misima. We anchored in the only plot of 7 ft deep water available, near the public outhouse and muddy mangroves marked with the cautionary note "crocodiles" in our guidebook. We had to satisfy ourselves with short scope despite the poor holding of the muddy bottom due to the tree stump poking out of the water to our starboard stern and the mud flats all around behind us. We had to get ready for our rafting partners right behind us. "Out There" rafted up easily on our starboad, bow to stern, and "Mico" was soon secure to our port side, bow to stern as well. With our dingy we ferried the bow anchors of "Mico" and "Out There" into the shallows behind us to act as stern anchors for the raft, to prevent us swinging into our neighbors, who were close on all sides. Everyone felt secure. Sun shade cloth went up on all boats as we prepared for a relaxing afternoon on deck cooling off in the light breeze and waiting for quarantine and immigration officials to board for inspection. When a cooling sprinkle of rain began to build into a shower I dragged out the rain catcher and collected 50 gallons of water or more over the next 30 minutes. Mico and Out There prepared to catch water from their decks as well, plugging haus holes with rags.
Then the mahem began. A call went out on the radio in a female voice tinged with a thick Eastern European accent, "A wooden dingy is loose in the anchorage. Help please." Then moments later. "All dinghies to the wooden dingy in the middle of the harbor." The Bosnian wife of Peter on "Medusa" was doing her best to relay the emergency call as her husband worked on deck to fend off pending doom. Yelling and screaming from shore and the boats in the anchorage accompanied the call. In less than 20 seconds, nearly all 23 dinghies were deployed and racing to the middle of the anchorage to confront a derelict wooden ship that was dragging its inadequate anchor through the anchorage. As the rain pelted us shirtless dimdims, we acted as tugs to protect our first-world homes from this quintessentially 3rd world phenonemon--a half sinking, motorless, sail-less, wooden battering ram barreling through a harbor. Surprisingly, the crew of the wooden derelict ship were still aboard and appeared to be calmly going about their normal anchoring and re-anchoring with tide shifts. At one point several climbed down the sides using their the tractor tire fenders as a ladder to get into the banana boat (skiff) that was acting as their inadequate tender and tug. Others were on deck alternately raising and then relowering the hook-shaped rebarb iron (reef pick) they were using as an anchor. Some cruisers attempted to climb aboard but found it hard to reach the top of the rail from the waterline, so only the youngest crew from "Engarde" accomplished the climb. They found a deck that had been stripped of planking, leaving 3 ft gaps between stringers. It was all they could do to help untie tow lines hurridly knoted to the sides of the ship as one of the cruisers was screaming at the top of his lungs for help, as he watched his inflatable tug being pushed towards sharp bamboo along the warf. They were also able to help the crew of the ship in hoisting the anchor which had hooked the anchor chain of one of the boats in the anchorage and was too heavy for the two "permanent" ship crew trying to hoist it hand over hand.
The brief yells of celebration from dingy drivers and the shore-side audience was short lived. Once we arrived back at our raft of 3 boats it was becoming clear that we were in water that was too shallow for the fin keel of "Out There" and the anchor of Australis was inadequate to keep us all in place in the building, gusting wind and rain. So we all cranked our engines and motored to relieve pressure on the bow anchor. I yelling out requests through the rain to my two trimaran pontoons asking them each alternately to go into reverse to twist the raft as needed while we maintained some forward pressure by keeping our engine in gear forward. As one squall settled down and we got a chance to assess things, we were panicked to find a fender and line bobbing just below the surface underneath our rudder. I began to don scuba gear to inspect as Larissa tried with all her might to pull the line and discover its source. Unsurprisingly it turned out to be merely the bow anchor of "Out There" that had floated free of its muddy hold as the tide rose and lifted the fender which was acting as an oversized marking buoy. We held position in another blow, but soon lifted Mico's anchor as well and went through the negotiations with our neighbors as to who would like to break free and who wanted to stick it out together. Out There got out first, chosing to protect its fragile keel in deeper water. And as we set our second anchor with the help of a dingy from our neighbors it became clear that the web of swinging boats with dragging bow and stern anchors might not easily untangle. So Mico volunteered to cut lose and let us fend for ourselves. As we maneuvered and reanchored we hailed our neighbors about their comfort level with our presence and anchoring security. In the end we elected to leave the anchorage entirely to relieve our neighbors and ourselves of the one danger we could control, collision with other boats. We headed straight for the pass to get out of the harbor. The winds built and the volume of panicked yelling between boats was increasing with the howling of the wind through the mangroves and the pounding surf at the harbor entrance. The gray of twilight was quickly replaced by the pitch blackness of a squall at night while we motored out into 10 ft seas, with waves breaking on the reef 30 ft to either side. But as we passed "Vision" we were relieved to hear them yell out to us the name of a safe anchorage on the uncharted back side of Misima Island. Later the captain hailed us on VHF and provided the precise GPS coordinates of an anchorage where we we able to blindly drop anchor in the middle of the night only a few boat lengths from reef, beach, and cliffs on three sides. But as we were approaching the windward point to get around to the lee side of the island we could hear that the drama in the anchorage was continuing. Mico and Out There had lost their engines to weed clogging the strainers. All the boats were swinging around wildly, careening into each other in the high winds and tangling anchors. Mico had attempted to follow us out the pass when their engine overheated. They were rescued by the quick reaction of the dingy tug fleet to yet another panicked VHF call. One boat registered 48 knot gusts in Misima harbor as we motored out the pass. It was turning into a wild night.
I tried for an hour to raise a tiny bit of sail, spewing my lunch on the deck, but failed in utter exhaustion in the end. We needed a backup for our engine in this lee shore rounding. We were only making 0.6 knots directly into wind and current at 1800 rpm, running just below 205 deg F, the temperature at which we get concerned about overheating. While I was on deck struggling with sail, sometimes a mainsail batten would get loose and a fold of unraised sail would catch wind, blowing us off course and downwind towards the roaring surf at the reef. Fortunately the engine proved more reliable than my sail handling and we chugged on for 4 more hours, only to die just as we tried to idle it while dropping anchor by brail in the pitch black night. It would be another 24 hours before we found and solved that problem. The calm seas of the leeward side of the island and the precise guidance from Vision were all that saved us from sure disaster during our midnight anchoring. In the morning we saw how our two first attempts at anchoring had been among coral heads precariously close to shallow water. Friends on "Pampero" were not so lucky. They succeeded at getting sail up just before the strongest winds hit. Their main was shredded almost instantly. We have yet to hear whether they were able to continue on towards the Solomon Islands or whether they had to begin a return to Australia or mainland PNG. They are not part of the Louisiades Rally, so we don't hear from them on the morning radio "sched."
By Monday we were able to work our way back into the cesspool mahem of Misima to accomplish our immigration and quarantine check-in. The gift exchange in Misima restocked our cupboards with fresh fruit and lightened our cargo of gifts--clothing, stationary, flashlights, cookware.
Eventually we did hear from Pampero on the "Sheila Net", safe and sound in a harbor to the north.
For those of us left in the anchorage on Monday morning, as the rising sun streaked through the storm clouds, we anxiously watched as the wooden ship in Misima Harbor threw off her mooring lines and was "underway" again to find a new place to anchor among the mangroves in the tight quarters of the harbor. The crew were using the same outboard-powered banana boat as her only propulsion and the same chainless bent rebarb anchor as her only ground tackle.
In a daze, I made 3 trips back and forth from the muddy trash-lined shore in our wet kayak to retrieve passports, australian dollars, US and australian debit and credit cards, and advice from fellow cruisers. I eventually found the right location (Westpac bank "branch" in a trailor with iron bars on all openings) and combination of paperwork + plastic (passport plus Visa or Master Card branded credit or debit card) and the right words (not "FPOS" or "ATM" or "purchase" but just "change money") that would allow us to purchase the local currency, Kina. This helped us pay off our debts to the diesel drum operator at the junk yard near the wharf. He'd calmly pointed out that he couldn't accept Australian dollars since he did not know the exchange rate, and Monday's paper would not be delivered until noon on the plane from Port Moresby. We were hurrying to vacate the airport flight path by 10 am. Of course the exchange rate listed in the bundled stack of unread newspapers from last week which lined the bench inside his workshop were of insufficient timeliness to be of use. When I was able to return 2 hours later with the requisite Kina, and our debts were paid off, the well-spoken attendant apologized profusely for having short-changed us on Sunday when filling two of our 25 L fuel cans that Larissa had trustingly ferried back and forth from him, only to discover later that they were barely 3/4 full. After my shade-tree fuel depot exchange, surrounded closely by five locals in the small dark, dusty, greasy shed by the warf, I hurried out into the sunlight towards the Korean grocery store. Along main street, locals were loitering or squatting on the concrete sidewalk, wallowing in the pink ooze of beetle nut spittle. With the change from my diesel purchase I was able to purchase the few consumables available in town--eggs, cooking oil, flour, Tang, popcorn, and onions. I'd already purchased the last loaf of bread at the bakery earlier in the morning.
Once back aboard I soaked my feet and sandals in bleach, wiping my legs all the way up to my thighs to cleanse wounds and insect bites that would otherwise develop into tropical ulcers at a terrifying pace.
Precisely at 10 am, with the Monday flight into Misima scheduled to buzz our masts in one hour, boats in the flight path hurriedly raised anchor and headed out the pass. Mon Ami was the first to make the dash for the sea, but they ran aground with a crunching bang on the reef near the starboard marker of the harbor entrance. They were beginning their 4 day passage in their brand new, sleek catamaran back to civilization and work commitments in Australia. We watched with relief as they backed off the reef successfully and suffered only surface damage to their fiberglass hull, and continuing on without incident.
Several monohulls motored off into the gray morning ahead of us, chatting away on VHF about the struggle upwind to deliver their passengers, local women and children, back to their homes on the North side of the island.
We were relieved to sail out of that pass without the burden and responsibility of passengers on deck and the easy cross-wind heading towards the emerald waters of the lagoon south of Misima. Later that afternoon we motored into the calm, pristine, coral and white sand lagoon called Kamutal Island, only 25 miles from Misima. Within hours we were welcomed by Jimmy, the industrious islander that has created a one-hut "yacht club" here. His brother is even hard at work carving us a wooden paddle to replace a dingy oar that we lost in the gale two nights ago. Unfortunately, Jimmy's brother Joseph is an enthusasitc participant in the cash economy, turning down heavy box loads of stainless hardware, hammers, and chissels in favor of 60 Kina ($25 AUS), or a sack of sugar (a staple nearly as liquid as Kina). Lacking adequate sugar stocks for Larissa's coffee habit, we were forced to purchase what Kina we could find from Chris aboard Lady Bubbly. Chris is a loyal patron of the Kamatal Yacht Club, sailing hear from Cairns nearly every year. He explained why the locals are so eager for cash to pay school fees and purchase the equipment they need to live--the sea cucumber harvesting season has been closed for 3 years. This was a lucrative cash crop for the islanders who previously were shipping them off as as delicacy to Japan by the ton. Unfortunately for the environment and the locals, the sea cucumber population quickly collapsed, forcing the closure of this one source of cash for the locals. A gold mine on Misima island still brings in a trickle of cash, and some families from Broker island are able to catch enough fish and sail them by canoe to Misima quickly enough to fetch a reasonable price. But, as Mark said Sunday night during an algebra lesson in the salon of Australis at 10 pm--"Things are hard right now. Father doesn't sell many fish." He'd tracked down Australis and the rally boats in Misima, with the ziplock bag of algebra worksheets still in hand after the passage in a sailing canoe in rough weather days before. He collapsed snoring as soon as I concluded our lesson. We tucked his seemingly clean but lice-infested body into a bed in the cockpit. He didn't seem to sleep well, having woken with confused look in the arms of a dimdim and then having been reluctantly shuffled out to the enclosed cockpit. The next morning, I couldn't tell whether it was disappointment at not being adopted into our "crew" permanently, or the return of his normal frown after weeks of manipulative smiling and nodding to solicit handouts from dimdims. For whatever reason, Mark was distant and melancholy as he stared towards shore through the "glass" of our cockpit windows and ate a banana with me in the cockpit. He was all smiles and solicitous assistance once onshore. He mentioned that he'd forgotten his knife aboard our boat and I retrieved. On my return trip I offered to pay him to watch our kayak while I walked into town "... to use those computers and the Internet we talked about to get the bank to give me Kina." But Mark and his barechested younger brother didn't even get up off the rocky ground to help me launch the kayak as I paid him and repeated my refrain about using his brain instead of his muscles to "make business" or catch more fish, and not to use the money we'd given him to pay for his grandmother's funeral feast or concrete on her gravestone. "Larissa and I don't like graves. We like to see concrete used for water tanks and homes, not graves and churches." We'd obviously not given him enough, either for school fees or for the gravestone, but I wonder if that is all that lie behind the frown and downturned, angry eyes. It seemed like some confusing mix of disappointment, jealousy, greed, desperation, and resentment. I wonder if we'll see him again some day in the same red polo shirt that he's worn for the past week and a half while chasing us around these remote islands.

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