Samoa Map

The Paddler’s Song

Chris and I sail out of the pass simultaneously. He is headed southwest for Samoa, and my course for French Polynesia is almost directly south. We plan to talk on the SSB radio every day at noon to check in and exchange positions. A few hours later Elise’s sail is only a fleck of white on the western horizon. The weather is glorious. I sigh with relief. After the flurry of departure and my exasperating “teachers,” this caliber of solitude and tranquility seems more precious than ever. The wind presses into Swell’s sails like a kiss from a long-lost lover, gently persuading us south.

I’m not breaking any speed records, but four to five knots feels just right. The sea and sky demand so little, and I’m grateful to catch up on some rest. I take advantage of the calm seas to splice a new snubber for the bow anchor and replace the power wire to the refrigerator. It’s enough work to merit a dance party once the tools are put away. I turn up the stereo and head out into the cockpit to dance in my underwear. Arms fly and hips bop in wild, unchecked movements. I don’t feel alone. The sea’s surface sways, the sunlight’s glitter leaps, and the surrounding clouds rise up in a standing ovation. I dance

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on, shaking my head to feel the wind in my hair.

That evening, as the heat of the day subsides, I lie on a cockpit cushion and reflect on what became of the cyclone season. It wasn’t exactly the peaceful time I had envisioned, but I certainly feel that I made progress on my personal lists and learned a great deal, especially from the rugged and genuine people of Kiribati. The experience with them has left me pondering my idealized perception of individuality and autonomy.

It takes great strength of both body and mind to survive on those islands. No one gets by without the help of family and community. The collective good naturally takes priority over personal desires. Unlike in the developed world, they have to figure out how to get along, help each other, and forgive.

I recall the rhythmic melody of a paddler’s song as he stroked his outrigger past Swell one afternoon, straight into three-foot wind chop. I heard the tenacious spirit of human survival in his steady, recurring refrain. He stroked on, never hesitating as waves splashed him and the wind and sea pressed against his canoe. I wrote to Barry about him: “With the shift from subsistence living to a cash economy well underway, will the paddler’s grandchildren know that song? Will the skills and wit of a people tuned-in so intimately to their surroundings wane when modernity arrives? What will the I-Kiribati eat when the foreign fleets overfish these waters imported Cheetos and hot dogs? And, most sobering of all, what if they are displaced altogether due to climate change and rising sea levels?”

The questions riddled me while I watched a cargo ship deliver two hundred orders of personal DVD players. Lying awake some nights, I bemoaned the loss of the old ways, then rolled over in my comfy bunk and thought, Why shouldn’t these people enjoy the comforts and thrills of modern life? While I would never wish to deny anyone access to modern healthcare, comforts, education, and choices, I cringe to think of the cultural and environmental degradation that come hand in hand with westernization.

Barry agreed that the situation is distressing, and went on to reply, “I find it incredible that humankind has become globalized to this degree, and even more so, powerful enough to fiddle with the Earth’s climate systems! Indigenous wisdom on living in harmony with the Earth will become more and more imperative as humanity seeks to restore the planet’s climate balance. No place will go unaffected if the temperatures rise as predicted. What a terrible irony that peoples of the Pacific, who contribute so insignificantly to this problem, may be some of the worst afflicted.” For more than twenty years Barry worked on his PhD thesis about the risks and hazards of oil production and transportation in the Santa Barbara Channel. He was always pondering nondestructive alternatives to fossil fuels that could meet society’s energy needs.

I sigh as my own “energy needs” pull me from my deep reflection. I go below to fish around for something to eat.

For Heaven’s Sake

Our easy gliding ends abruptly the fourth morning out. I lift my head at dawn to see the sky bruised and swollen with bulbous clouds. I stay horizontal and pick up reading Moby-Dick where I left off yesterday, but not long after, Swell is swallowed into dreary grays. Indecisive winds swirl around us like mini tornados. I can almost feel the atmosphere lifting as we enter the doldrums again, properly called the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). The mood turns downright gloomy, as if the air is sad to be going up instead of continuing its long oversea journey.

Sails in, sails out, up, down, rain, no rain, motor on, motor off, no wind, wind. “Okay, I get it, the joyride has officially ended,” I call out to the peaks of the confused waves.

They continue to scurry in every direction as if there’s been a bomb scare. Swell and I waltz onward with the help of the engine until the ITCZ finally spits us out on the other side around 10:30 pm into fifteen knots of east-southeast winds and clear skies.

I set the sails, plot our position, write in the logblog, and wipe down the cockpit cushion. I lie back, grateful to see the spacious galaxy above. I pull my headphones over my ears and find the Starry Night playlist on my iPod. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is still my favorite. I relax and dissolve into the exquisite notes and the multitude of twinkling lights from billions of light-years away. The same questions that the night sky usually evokes come to mind, but instead of feeling small and alone as I once did when I looked up, I feel expansive, powerful, and happy to be a part of it all. A warm tear rolls down my cheek. A surge of gratitude pulses through me for whatever force is at work helping me along this marvelous journey.

Without thinking, I find that my hand reaches down and I begin to touch myself slowly at first, with my eyes to the sky. No sense of guilt or secrecy surfaces in me as it sometimes does. The act feels reverent and sacred, as if I’m honoring the heavens, and making love to the entire universe. The cool wind caresses my bare skin and twirls my hair. Beethoven’s mystical notes transport me. I’m in love with this beautiful mystery.

And then I am suddenly flying through the stars, planets, and seas all at once boundless, ecstatic, satiated, as the line temporarily blurs between I and That. An evening of divine pleasure fit for a goddess. No man necessary.

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