Guest Post by Peter Klika (circa 1969)
At dawn anxious eyes scanned the horizon for land. Nothing. The crew of the Irish Mist looked at me for an explanation. “Tetiaroa should be off our starboard bow,” I said, trying to convince even myself. I grabbed my sextant and shot a quick sun shot to establish a Line of Position. I calculated quickly by hand using the 1968 Nautical Almanac. Everything computed, but there was no island in sight.
A tropic bird flew overhead. A sure harbinger of land. We winched Billy up the 70’ main mast in a bosun’s chair.
“See anything?” we asked. “No. Nothing yet.”
Wait! I see a faint green something starboard. Holy shit. It’s the top of coconut trees!
I breathed a sigh of relief. Because of the curvature of the earth, you see only the tops of the trees at first, usually from six to eight nautical miles away.
An hour later, the low atoll of Tetiaroa was clearly visible off the starboard bow. My crew mates we’re cheering .We had been at sea for 17 day’s since leaving the Big Island of Hawaii. Tetiaroa had once been owned by Marlon Brando who tried to make it into an artist’ colony, but things didn’t work out. Too remote and no reliable water supply.
The Island of Tahiti hove into view with its magnificent emerald mountains. We dropped the sails as we entered the pass through the reef protecting the harbor of Papeete the capital of French Polynesia. We motored up to the immigration dock and Judy volunteered to be our spokesperson as she spoke the best French.
Our passports were stamped by a smiling gendarmes who directed us to our mooring spot on the quai. We managed to barely squeeze between the “Varuna,” a huge black hulled schooner, and the “Joshua,” a red hulled steel ketch owned by the famous French yachtsman, Bernard Mortissier, who immediately began growling that we were too close to his boat.
Moitissier was famous for the longest nonstop sailing voyage in history: 37,500 miles. He had entered the solo round-the-world sailboat race in 1972 and was winning, but instead of finishing at the start in England, he kept sailing and wound up in Tahiti. It’s said that he used a slingshot to send a message to a passing freighter which said he thought returning to the finish line would be boring, so he would keep sailing. Tahiti is a magnet for such eccentric personalities.
We found a plank and attached it to the stern and were now able to easily step onto the quai. We quickly headed to the nearest bar, but it was expensive and filled with boisterous yachties so we moved on to the Iorana Bar on Venus Point down the road.
Venus Point was named by the great navigator Captain Cook on his first voyage in 1769.
The Royal Observatory had determined that the best vantage point for observing the Transit of Venus was the island of Tahiti. The Transit of Venus is an event that only occurs every 120 years, when the planet Venus crosses the Sun and can be viewed as a black dot. Its significance is somewhat esoteric but was important to astronomers who were looking for a better way to compute longitude. We were just looking to find a cheap bar to drink in.
We found the Iorana Bar to be OK. There were a few Taiwanese fishermen drinking with some local women who smelled of man, a mixture of Frangipani flowers and coconut oil, which Tahitian women use black hair to make it silky. The fishermen were hunting for shark fins, a Chinese delicacy, which they sun dried on racks on the decks of their boats.
We took a seat at the bar and I ordered a Hinano beer and a shot of French Negrita Rum. The bar maid was laughing: “We don’t get too many ‘Popa’ here ( Tahitian for foreigner), except these smelly fishermen who never tip.” I slid a few Polynesian francs her way and she laughed again. She slid back a packet of two aspirin. “What’s this for?” I asked. “You’ll find out tomorrow when all your friends have splitting headaches and you don’t.” It seems the local beer is not for export and has chemicals to preserve it because there’s no refrigeration on the outer islands.
“The locals are used to it but you’re not,” she said.
I asked for five more packs and distributed them among my crew mates, who thought the packets were condoms until they read the label.
The local girls abandoned the Taiwanese fishermen and sat with us. After more Hinanos and rum shooters, my French was improving, and the girl were getting prettier by the drink. They decided I was to be called Georges, because there were too many Peters in the crew to keep straight. Three of the crew were named Peter, so we had drawn straws So now I was Georges.
We were tired and headed back to the boat. The girls asked if we would meet them at Hotel Papeete that coming Saturday. There was a dance band in a tropical garden. It was hard not to say yes, especially to the one named Atea.
We spent the next few days cleaning the boat, repairing frayed sails, and drinking cheap wine from Algeria. Our neighbors were a colorful mixture of sailboats large and small from the far corners of the globe: Jan, from the Czech Republic, sailing his diminutive Nike around the world by himself; Teddy and Bobby aboard the Mayfly, a Thames River oyster smack built in 1898, which was constantly on the verge of sinking; and Gaylord and Stuart, two Scotsman from Glasgow aboard their classic double ender, The Ron of Argyl. These two even wore tweed coats and deerstalker hats in the tropical heat of Papeete. A motley crew if there ever was one.
Work on the boat went slow, then slower, and then appeared to stop altogether amidst a pile of Hinano bottles, half eaten baguettes, and the buzzing of flies. Gordon, the captain, complained and then surrendered to the paralysis that infects sailors in Polynesia and joined his insolent crew.
Saturday came, and we arrived early at the Hotel Papeete, nervously waiting for the girls from the Iorana Bar. The doorman there was overtly rude to us, overcharging us for the admission fee. But we were there to have a good time, not argue about 100 francs.
The girls arrived and Atea gave me a sweet kiss. She asked how much we were charged for admission, and when we told her, she marched over to the doorman and complained, but to no avail. He said we had a “grand bateau,” a big boat, and could afford it. I told Atea it was not worth the fight. Moments later we were dancing cheek to cheek and the smell of “manoi” in her hair was exhilarating. All seemed well.
When we left the nightclub, Atea doubled back, explaining she had left her lipstick in the girls room. While we waited, the music suddenly stopped, the lights went out, and all was dark. Ate appeared out of the dark running fast, holding her high heels in one hand . She was breathing heavily. “Let’s go. Quickly. The gendarmes will come soon. No time to explain.” We headed for the Iorana Bar.
The crew sat quietly and ordered drinks while the girls visited the ladies room. We sat patiently speculating on why the night club went dark, and why Atea seemed agitated. The girls finally emerged from the ladies room and sat down to their Hinano beers. They were all giggling.
Atea was smiling like a Cheshire Cat. As she puffed on her strong Gaulois cigarette, she opened her purse and dumped out four small red cylinders that looked like small dynamite sticks with copper ends. I immediately recognized them as electrical fuses. She had stolen them from the night club fuse box! We all gasped and then laughed. A toast to Atea! No greedy doorman was going to get the best of her friends. Then she scooped them up and tossed them out the window into the surf below.
Life on the quai was pleasant enough with cruising sailboats coming and going . Their crew inevitably had tales to tell: storms, arguments, boredom and break downs, but always about the splendor of the blue Pacific in all its moods. The Tahitians we’re friendly and the French indifferent. Food was expensive, except for fish and cheap Algerian wine. And there were always fresh baguettes.
The girls from the Iorana Bar were regular visitors to the boat. They helped work on the boat, often doing more work than the crew, which wasn’t difficult. One day Atea told me about a parade that would happen the next day. She was a little vague, but told me I had to meet her at noon at a park near the quad. There was a large crowd of Tahitians when I arrived, but it wasn’t a parade. It was a demonstration against the French testing of atomic devices on Mururoa Atoll in the Tuamotu Islands to the east of Tahiti.
I was a little hesitant but I wasn’t too keen on blowing up coral atolls with atomic bombs either. Atea pleaded: “Georges, you must do this for ze people and ze leetle feeshies.” I succumbed and she handed me a sign that said: “Oppose the Bomb Atomic,” or so I thought.
The marchers were entirely Tahitian. Not a Popa to be scene. It suddenly dawned on me that this was an anti-French march as much as a “Contra le Bomb Atomique” march. Tahitians were not entirely comfortable being a colony of France. It took me a while to see what bubbled beneath the surface. It wasn’t hatred, more like disappointment that the Tahitians lacked more autonomy.
Atea kept pushing me toward the front of the marchers until I was at the front. Bystanders were cheering, but wait. They were cheering at me, the clueless foreigner who had dared to show his pale face! Suddenly a French gendarme appeared and grabbed my sign. “Your sign is obscene, Monsieur!” he said as he confiscated the sign. The crowd booed. Area shouted in my ear, “Time to go!” and grabbed my arm. We started running back to the boat. No one was following.
“Why did he take my sign. What did it really say?” Atea was giggling. “It said ‘ Fuck your Bomb’ in French slang.”
Word travelled fast about the crazy “Popa ” with the obscene sign. A blurred picture of me with my infamous sign had even appeared on the cover of the local newspaper. My curly Little Orphan Annie blonde locks were a dead giveaway. At the Iorana Bar, I was treated like a hero, but to the local French residents, I was a pariah. I couldn’t even buy a baguette from the local French-owned bakery. I was branded the disrespectful foreigner.
Gordon , the owner of the Irish Mist, was none too pleased. It’s a small island, and there isn’t much real news unless you’re interested in the price of copra ( sun dried coconut meat used for soap ).The boat had become sort of a local attraction with Tahitians milling around and laughing. Eventually, even the Iorana Bar lost its welcoming glow. The police had evidently told the girls to avoid the crazy Yanqui boy.
Time to set sail, we thought. But to where?
After an alcohol-fueled night of discussion the crew unanimously chose Ahe, an impossible-to-find, tiny atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago to the east of Tahiti, also known as the “Dangerous Islands.” We chose it because the buzz in the harbor had been that it was an unspoiled island paradise with comely native women and a lagoon full of tasty fish, and was seldom visited by “yachts.” The only problem, it seemed, was that nobody could find it, and nobody had really been there.
This was years before the Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite network and push button navigation. I was using a brass sextant, a WW2 vintage chronometer, and a wine spattered paper chart that showed Ahe as a horseshoe shaped atoll marked “position doubtful- beware of strong currents.” Gordon asked if I could really find it. “ No problem,” I lied. I was nervous, but the boat was well insured, I reasoned. And I was young and cocky.
I walked the harbor the next day trying to glean some information about Ahe: Never heard of it; I hear it’s got dangerous currents around it; our yacht insurance excludes sailing to the Tuamotu Archipelago; etc. I finally found Stuart, the friendly Scotsman aboard Ron of Argyle, who thought he had sailed by Ahe when sailing west from the Marquesas. “It’s two nautical miles southeast of its charted position,” he said. He actually showed me the entry in his ship’s log book and on his chart. It was reassuring. But was he right? I kept my doubts to myself.
We sailed the next day. The girls from the Iorana Bar came to say goodbye with flower leis , kisses and crocodile tears. The other yachties wished us luck. Monsieur Motissier seemed glad to be rid of us and managed a tepid bon voyage. I felt like one of Columbus’s crew about to sail off the end of the earth.
Celestial navigation, more art than science, requires spherical trigonometry, precise timing, and luck, because you’re trying to use a sextant and get a “fix” on a celestial body from a moving boat that refuses to stay still. I started by shooting the sun, the moon, the stars, and even Venus, and then consulting arcane lists of tables that solved the celestial triangle. I was getting more confidant each day as we sailed northeast to our holy grail. But I was worried about clouds.
So far the weather had been relatively clear with the sun, moon, and stars all visible. But a cloud cover could change this in a matter of hours. Without a celestial body to measure, I would be reduced to “ dead reckoning,” which is speed and direction traveled. In other words a hopeful guess.
The night before our estimated arrival, I was able to shoot three stars and get an accurate fix at twilight. It was a good omen. I estimated we should sight the island at about 7 AM, dead ahead, which left plenty of time to locate and negotiate the narrow passage into the lagoon.
As I mentioned, when approaching from the sea, the first evidence of a low lying atoll is usually the tops of the coconut trees because of the curvature of the earth. Since the average coconut tree is about 65 feet high, you can usually detect their green tops from about six to eight miles away, assuming a clear horizon, and fortunately, we did have a clear horizon that morning. All eyes were peeled dead ahead as the sun began to rise.
My mind was still spinning with doubts as I heard the magic words: “Land Ho!” I detected a small raft of green that appeared to float on the starboard bow. Coconut trees! We were an hour ahead, and a few degrees off of my estimate , but no one was complaining.
An hour later we furled the sailed and motored cautiously through the narrow entrance to the lagoon. We could just discern the thatched huts of the main village on the far side of the lagoon and the masts of another sailboat, but crossing a shallow lagoon strewn with coral heads is dicey business. We slowed to one knot and sent Billy up the mast and Peter to the bow to warn of coral. We zigzagged through massive coral heads, some barely submerged, and anchored in five fathoms near the other sailboat. It was a steel ketch- the “Archiv” with a home port of Liverpool.
The village was still asleep. A lanky bearded figure emerged from the sailboat, dived in, swam over and greeted us with a smile: “ Welcome to Ahe.”
Warwick was his name, and he was single handing around the world. “How did you find Ahe?” he asked me. “I didn’t,” I said. “It found me.”
I poured some whiskey into Warwick’s coffee. We were sharing breakfast when a small skiff pulled up with a uniformed gendarme and his aide, both Tuamotuan. He checked our passports and ship’s papers and grinned that all was in order, and that we were free to roam the island. I hadn’t slept in 24 hours, so I settled in for a nap.
There is something sublime about a tropical lagoon. I had been captivated as a young boy by those old Pan Am Clipper posters with the Tahitian girl in the red sarong, provocatively lying under a coconut tree. I slept deeply amid the soft lapping against the hull and the faint smell of copra. I had found Ahe, and this had dispelled my own self doubts about my navigational skills. Time to relax, or so I thought.
After the nap, we strolled the beach, greeting the few inhabitants. Ahe has about 150 people and 30 families. Most knew a little French, enough for basic communication. We were given papayas and pomelos, bananas and breadfruit, and colorful reef fish like red snapper and blue parrot fish. No one wanted money, just a smile. I had brought a case of honey bears, the cute plastic bottles in the shape of a bear filled with wild clover honey. When I first brought them on board in Hilo, the crew had laughed at me. But they weren’t laughing now. I was the most popular guy on the island dispensing one bottle to each family.
The chief got a larger jar with a giant bee on the label. He grinned his approval. The chief’s son, Renui, invited us on a walking tour of the atoll. He spoke French fairly well, and Judy translated.
The village gets a supply ship twice a year from Papeete, which picks up the latest copra crop. There is a short wave radio with the gendarmes, a rudimentary school, and electricity from a single diesel generator two hours each night. Each family gets one light bulb. There is no hospital, general store, or entertainment of any kind except singing. A lot of singing. Many of the young people travel to other islands to search for a spouse or more economic opportunity. There was a pearl farm on Manihi the nearest island with a few coveted jobs. Most young people wanted more economic opportunity, but family bonds were too strong for most to leave permanently.
Half way around the lagoon, Renui scrambled up a coconut tree and knocked down a few “drinking nuts” with his machete. He expertly knocked of the top and began to hand each of us a nut. Then it happened. As he raised his head to smile at Judy the machete glanced off the top of the nut and hit his knee cap. Blood spurted everywhere. I could see the white of the patella and fragments of bone on the rusty machete. Renui fell over on his side writhing in pain.
I had received some basic medical training in Vietnam, and I knew how dangerous tropic infections can be, and how fast they spread. We had a very good medical kit on the Irish Mist, but it was about a mile down the beach. Time to think fast. “Billy run down the beach, grab the medical kit, and come back in the dinghy,” I shouted. We tried to comfort Renui, who was stoically handling the pain. I recquistioned Judy’s scarf and gently pressed into the wound. Renui grimaced he was OK.
Billy arrived with the gendarme and our large medical kit. He wanted us to treat Renui because all of his medical supplies were outdated and he didn’t know how to use them anyway. I opened the kit and out tumbled several pamphlets: First Aid at Sea, Dentistry at Sea, Emergency Surgery at Sea. But this was no time for reading. I grabbed some saline solution and irrigated the wound, then applied some antiseptic, but it was obvious to me this gash was way beyond gauze and bandages.
I gave Renui some Tetracycline and a pain pill, and took out the curved needle and sutures. I barely knew how to sew, but I injected a small amount of Novocain around the perimeter of the wound and began to stitch up the wound. My hand was shaking badly and Renui’s skin was tough as leather, but I managed six crude stitches to hold the flaps of skin together. Billy had fashioned two splint from dried palm fronds and we stabilized Renui’s leg and gently carried him to the dinghy. Billy and the gendarme motored down the beach to the village while we walked somberly back to the boat.
We sat in the cockpit waiting for word from the village. My hands were still shaking. The gendarme arrived and said Renui was resting comfortably in the chief’s hut, and the pain was subsiding. We breathed a collective sigh of relief. Gordon brought out a bottle of Negrita Rum and a few cans of coke. No ice, but it didn’t no matter. It went down like velvet and my hands stopped shaking. However, I was still worried about infection. Had I cleaned the wound enough? Would the sutures hold? Was he allergic to any of the medications I gave him? I was navigating in uncharted waters.
I changed Renui’s bandages that afternoon with Judy’s assistance. Renui was smiling at Judy. No sign of redness or unusual swelling. I told Renui he couldn’t walk for several days and gave him more Tetracycline, but no pain pill. He didn’t object. His mother and father thanked me profusely. I explained it was a collective effort, and that I would be back in the morning. His mother grabbed me around the waste and wouldn’t let go. There were tears of thankfulness in her moist brown eyes.
Thankfully, Renui’s leg healed quickly. He was young and strong with a good immune system. The stitches came out after 10 days, but he was still discouraged from walking or bending his knee. By this time the village had adopted the crew of the Irish Mist. The cockpit was always full with a few villagers singing , playing ukuleles and telling jokes. We spearfished every day in the lagoon and sometimes trolled offshore in the dinghy for small tuna. There were chickens on the island, so we had eggs. A few scrawny carrots and onions made a passable omelette.There were a few pigs and a dog too, but these were saved for special occasions.
The Tuamotans still ate dogs and they were not treated affectionately or considered pets, but that was not our concern , or so I thought. Two weeks passed, and Renui was now walking on crude crutches made from a set of old wooden oars. It was time for us to sail east to the Marquesas, high unspoiled volcanic islands with Melville’s famed Typee Valley and Gauguin-like landscapes. The chief reluctantly accepted our imminent departure. But! He wanted to hold a special feast for us. Very special. He would personally roast the last dog on Ahe in our honor.
When the gendarmes informed us of this, the crew protested in unison. Judy tried to explain “We don’t eat dogs in our culture, we treat them as family members and pets. We love them.” But the gendarme was not persuaded. “You are here and this is our custom. It is a great honor to have a dog roasted for you, especially our last dog. It is the chief’s gift for saving Renui. He will lose face and be angry if you do not accept this great honor.”
We were glum. We were guests here and logically should honor their custom. Or should we? It was not much of a Happy Hour aboard the Irish Mist that afternoon.Gordon was on his fourth rum and coke, and the rest of the crew was not far behind. Gordon spoke first: “If you had just let the gendarme sew the kid up, we wouldn’t be in this dilemma. You should stick to navigation.”
“What was I supposed to do? Leave the kid bleeding on the beach?” I snapped. Billy chimed in. “ Everybody in the world eats something weird. Like the French eat horse meat. I ate a guinea pig in Peru once. We shouldn’t be so judgmental.”
Judy was near tears. “I can’t eat a dog. I’m even having trouble eating the parrot fish because they look like parrots. I’ll vomit.” Marie took a long sip. “You don’t want to offend these people. They used to be cannibals. We could wind up in a big boiling pot or worse,” she said half seriously. Warwick looked at me with icy blue eyes. “It’s simple. You caused this. You eat the dog, and we smile and clap in approval.”
I swallowed hard. “OK. I’ll eat the dog. For all of us.”
The evening arrived. We could smell smoke all day as the stones in the underground oven were heated with burning coconut shells. Then we heard it. The yelping of a single dog, then a piercing squeal, then nothing. I felt ill. Maybe if I start drinking now I wouldn’t feel guilty, I thought. But it was no use. My guilt about soon eating a dog was beyond any amount of alcohol.
We were seated cross-legged in a circle around a smallish fire whose flickering flames sporadically illuminated our pensive faces. I sat to the left of the chief, and Renui and the gendarme to the right. Warwick and the crew and a few village elders completed the circle. A wooden platter was brought to the chief with a large banana leaf on which lay some charred pieces of meat. The chief looked at me solemnly while the gendarme translated. “ I, Teavanui, chief of Ahe, honor you for saving my son with the flesh of the last dog on Ahe.” Judy began to sob softly. The rest of the crew squirmed uncomfortably. The chief handed me a charred lump with a smile. I picked at the morsel and tentatively nibbled . I began to chew. Warwick began to laugh. Marie poked Warwick. “ It’s not funny asshole.” I chewed some more.
“It tastes like pork!” Warwick was doubled over in laughter. The chief , Renui, and the gendarme were starting to laugh. “It is pork , you numbskull. The chief decided to spare the dog when I told him about your concerns, but we decided to have a little fun with you.”
The crew was laughing now. I was laughing. The whole circle was laughing . Billie dashed back to the boat for more rum and cokes. The feast had just begun: BBQ pork and Cuba Libres followed by coconut pudding.
The morning we left Ahe, the village came down to sing farewell songs and present gifts of fruit and dried fish. We were supplied with leis of cowrie shells because the atoll had only a few flowers. The chief arrived with Renui still hobbling on the crutches we had made. The chief invoked a short blessing in the form of a chant for our safe passage. Behind the chief trotted a floppy eared gray dog who immediately sat on the edge of the dock on his haunches panting in the warming tropical sun and sniffing the breeze. He had a peculiar canine grin . Or was it a knowing smile directed at me? Whatever it was, it was fitting for the last dog on Ahe.
Peter Klika is currently “rewiring” after working for the U.S. State Department, NASA, the University of Hawaii, the Governor of Hawaii, and the law firm of Klika, Parrish & Bigelow. He has sailed both around the world and the rim of the Pacific Ocean, led several Himalayan expeditions, and walked solo across Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. He has contributed to such diverse publications as National Geographic, Arts of Asia, UCLA Pacific Basin Law Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He participated in five documentaries on Tibet including “Finding Shangri-La” which was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.