Oli and the VIP Yard

My holiday ends abruptly when the weather forecast warns of an approaching cyclone. I sail directly back to the boatyard, hauling Swell out a week earlier than planned so as not to have to weather the storm in the water. The crew tows her to an overflow yard down the street. I joke with them, asking if this is the VIP yard, since there are only a few other boats. Swell’s decks must be stripped to make her as streamlined as possible in preparation for the powerful winds. The sails, solar panels, and wind generator must all come off.

Once Swell is bare and battened, my Italian girlfriend, Simona, who lives across the street, invites me to stay at her house during the storm. For three days it blows with a ferocity I’ve never felt. From the window, I can see Swell’s rig trembling from the winds.

Luckily, Cyclone Oli passes without too much damage. While walking back toward the VIP yard, something white flashes among a pile of washed-up debris. Looking closer, I see a bedraggled baby seabird. There isn’t a tree or nesting area nearby; it must have been blown from its nest during the storm. I can’t possibly leave it here all alone, so I scoop it up and bring it back to Swell.

Oli and the VIP Yard Photo Gallery




Over the next week, I hitch to town to buy fresh fish for my little friend and use frozen water bottles from Simona’s freezer to keep it cold. I suspect the bird is a male and call him Oli. At first, I have to force his sharp black beak open, but soon Oli is eating on his own. By the end of the week he’s fluffed up and chirping when he’s hungry. After seeing the photos I send, Barry identifies him as likely a blue or black noddy tern. Little Oli stays near me at all times, needing to be fed every half an hour. While I prepare Swell for

Laurent to cut away the hull and remove the shaft tube, Oli keeps me company. He chirps endearingly as I drop out the rudder and remove the propeller shaft. He pecks at the pile of tools beside me while I unbolt the transmission from the engine. He naps in his cozy nest of rags while I dismantle the V-drive and disconnect all the hoses and wires that run through the area. Luckily, removing the transmission provides enough access to the repair area that I don’t actually have to remove the main body of the engine. Oli is pleased whenever I finish a job and my attention returns to him.

He grows steadily, feathers thickening, and I cherish his companionship the way he cocks his head when he looks at me, and snuggles up for a nap in the fold of my T-shirt. I’m the only one living aboard among a flock of fancy catamarans in the VIP yard. The one adjacent to Swell serves as a fantastic yoga platform with an ocean view. A hose in the corner of the yard becomes my new shower. There are plenty of mosquitoes around, but at least no creepy kissers!

The morning Swell is ready for the demolition to begin, the secretary confirms that Laurent will arrive shortly after 7:30 am. I start growing impatient at 8:30 am. No Laurent Another hour passes No Laurent. I find him in the workshop, glassing a damaged rudder.

“Bonjour, Laurent,” I greet him.

“Bonjour” he replies.

“I don’t mean to bother you,” I say in French, “but I thought we were getting started today?”

“Ah, en fact, I have meeny small projects in zis moment. I prefer to feeneesh zee uzer jobs first. I weel be ready to start your prrroject in about two monz,” he says and returns to working on the rudder.

Oh Moon, Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz

I mope around the yard all week, fretting over how to proceed until I receive an unsolicited email from another Cal 40 owner who has dealt with the same problem. Fin heard about my leak through the Latitude 38 article and took the time to write me about how he and his friend Doug had removed the bronze tube without cutting it out of the fiberglass.

“After removing the V-drive and prop shaft, Doug made up a slide hammer from a halfinch stainless rod approximately six feet long and threaded at each end. The rod was inserted into the old tube from the outside, and then a cap matching the tube diameter was screwed on to the inboard side. This cap is what ultimately pulled the tube out of the boat. Washers on the rod centered it inside the tube. The rod had a weighted slide on the outside end, which was used to hammer the tube out of the fiberglass.”

I forage around the yard for scrap parts to build a slide hammer. A few days later, my extracteur is welded together, but the machine shop has made the cap from aluminum instead of steel. I know the aluminum will be too soft, but I agree to try it anyway.

I borrow a massive sledgehammer from the yard, since I hadn’t found a weighted slide, and wind up for the swing. The hulking head of the hammer meets the welded plate like a bad gong and reverberates through my body. The tube doesn’t budge. By the fifteenth hit I’ve broken through the welding on the plate. I go up to see what’s happening inside and find the aluminum cap completely crumpled. I carry the broken parts to the other side of the boatyard while workers and yachties stare curiously.

“Extracteur!” I yell. I’m like a bad rash that won’t go away.

I implore the welder to make me a cap from steel and reweld the plate onto the pipe. In the meantime, I grind off the recent fiberglass repair job all the way to the bronze tube. With the tube now exposed on both sides, I hammer at it to try to loosen its bond with the fiberglass. With no neighbors in the VIP yard, I’m free to pound on it anytime I please, which is often. When my beefed-up extracteur is ready to go, Taputu comes over to help. But within a few swings, the cap is sucked sideways into the tube. Fail.

Even worse, my baby bird is sick. Oli eats less and less, so I load him into in my bike basket and pedal off to find a veterinarian in town. He sells me a nutrient supplement and explains that very few young seabirds survive without their mother. I give Oli a dose of the supplement, but after an hour, he can hardly lift his wee head. It’s too late. He takes his last breath as I hold him cupped in my hands. I burst into tears and stroke his still warm feathers.

The fragility of life seems cruel. My little friend is gone. Swell feels terribly empty no more chirps, no more stinky fish feedings, and no more adorable fuzzy head popping up to say good morning. Instead, only progress-less projects in this boatyard purgatory.

To make matters worse, the filthy bathroom is so far away that I’ve been defecating in plastic bags. There’s no end to the humbling around here.

On many days, I want to give up; Oli’s departure stirs my deep abandoment issues, but I when I look around, I remember I’m not the only one who is feeling lonely and unheard. The same small island kids from the rough neighborhood nearby wander in the streets every day. Stray dogs meander through, hungry and forlorn. Playing with the kids and feeding the dogs makes me feel better. I also use a technique learned from a Pema Chodron blog. It’s called tonglen: I sit and breathe in the pain and unwanted sufferings of myself and others, and breathe out feelings of relief, connection, and happiness for all beings. It’s a simple idea, but doing this meditation helps me feel less alone.

In the afternoons, hordes of young Tahitians blare music, ride bikes, play, and hang out under the coconut trees outside the new chain-link fence surrounding the VIP yard. When it cools off enough, everyone comes together on the forty-yard stretch of asphalt outside the gate where the day’s quarrels, crushes, and moods play out in a daily soccer match.

Teams fluctuate in number and skill girls, boys, women, and men of all ages mix freely. No shoes, no jerseys, no referees, but street rules and common courtesy keep the game flowing much better than one might imagine. No one keeps score. Newcomers watch for a moment from the sidelines to determine the dominant team and then join the weaker side. The stuffy French yard owner lined the fence with barbed wire along the bottom to deter them, but they play on, making sure the younger kids stay clear of the danger. I’d like to join in, but I feel shy.

I know a lot of the younger kids by now. Daily, I offer treats, give them attention, and let them use my skateboard to glide back and forth in the alleyway on the other side of the fence. Their youthful energy and sincerity always gives me a boost. They’ve stopped calling me madame, to my great relief, and scream “Leeeeeeeez!” whenever I surface from inside Swell.

One afternoon my body badly needs to move. Today’s soccer match is already going on. I finally walk out the gate and ask, “Je peuxjouer?” (Can I play?)

“Oui!” they scream, delighted, assigning me to a team.

The street games becomes my daily release. I saunter out the gate, filthy and barefoot after a day of work aboard Swell, and sprint back and forth until it’s too dark to see. Whether the clouds pour down rain or the sunset ignites the sky above, I feel grateful for the damp asphalt, the half-inflated ball, my callused feet, the warm salt-laden air, and the giggling, shit-talking, glowing faces of my new Tahitian friends.

In the tranquility of night, I often wrap up in long pants and a pareo to fend off the mosquitoes and go on deck. I don’t really know how to pray, so I tell my worries to the moon. I tell her everything: that I’m lonely, I miss my family and friends, I want to find true love, and I hate being stuck in this noxious, filthy place. And I am doing my best not to whine, to see the opportunities for growth, but it’s hard.

The first slender sliver of the crescent moon hears every word, gently reminding me to be patient and carry on with grace through the hardships. As the nights pass, she smiles wider and brighter and higher, as if it’s all some hilarious cosmic joke. The waxing halfmoon tells me of good things to come and to look at the half-full side of the story. As she nears her full grandeur, she encourages me to be brave that others are struggling too and I must use the light inside me to find my way. The waning moon advises me to stop resisting and try a different approach. I even feel the new moon through the dark starry nights, reminding me that light follows darkness go inward, wipe my slate clean, start anew. Everything is perfect, she says, so perfect that you can’t yet understand.

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