Two months later, in a tiny outer island boatyard, I sit in the cockpit of Swell with Rainui. It hasn’t been a smooth transition, but he’s here. We met up in California after I hauled out Swell to fly back and attend Barry’s memorial service. I was so grateful to have found a way to be there to pay tribute to my legendary friend.
A few days after returning to Swell, I became gravely ill with ciguatera poisoning after eating some contaminated fish. As the symptoms came on in the middle of the night, I was reminded of Gaspar’s description of the poison’s effects. First, a sore throat and a fever, then I was spewing violently from both ends in the middle of the night, amongst the coral rubble and crab holes underneath Swell. I began to feel a strange aching and tingling sensation in my arms and legs as the poison took hold.
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Rainui stayed by my side for the awful next few days massaging my burning muscles where the pain was most intense. He had to hold me over the bucket in the forepeak to use the bathroom because my weakened, aching legs could not support me. I had my period at the same time, and cursed my horrid luck, as my new boyfriend disposed of disgusting buckets of my excrements. We consulted with a French doctor over the phone, and his advice to drink milk caused me extra days of suffering. When I wasn’t improving, a local grandmother explained to Rainui that consuming any animal protein intensifies the toxin. Together, they made me the traditional remedy from coconut milk and pandanus root. I drank it twice a day for three days.
It’s been almost two weeks now, and I’m feeling better, aside from the bizarre prickly and hot sensation I get from touching anything cold. While I gain back my strength, Rainui builds a shelf for cookware, dividers to organize the tools, and a stowable double bed where we can sleep side by side. Thankfully, the grandmother’s remedy allows me to eat fish again right away, as not much other food is available among the sand and coral on this low-lying atoll.
Once I’m feeling strong enough, we launch Swell and sail away into the most remote, postcard-perfect corners of the islands.
The last time I was in this region, a few years ago, I wasn’t able to do much in-depth exploring of the lagoons. It was too dangerous with the numerous unmarked coral heads and the treacherous fetch that can quickly build with a minor switch of the wind. But with two, it’s possible. Rainui climbs the mast to direct me through the coral. We develop a technique to build our own temporary moorings, which allows us to tuck Swell behind some otherwise impossible sections of reef for protection.
Once Swell is secured, we dive or surf or wander on expansive white-sand beaches and bask in the sun. Even here, so far away from civilization, there is a staggering amount of plastic debris mingled with the driftwood in the high tide lines empty shampoo and soda and oil bottles, lighters, toothbrushes, Styrofoam, and heaps of lost or discarded commercial fishing lines, nets, and buoys. We feel helpless to do anything about it. There is more than we can possibly collect, and even if we did, there are no facilities nearby to dispose of it.
Rainui shares my concerns about the environment and is up for the challenge of trying to eat primarily from what we can find around us. On days we’re not sailing, we spend much of our time gathering food fishing and spearfishing, we’re careful to choose fish that eat plankton and have no chance of concentrating ciguatera poison. The mostly healthy reef systems mean sharks often lurk nearby, so we have to work as a team one shoots the fish while the other keeps the dinghy nearby so we can quickly toss our catch inside. I am able to focus better since fishing in a pair feels much safer, improving my skills with the gun.
I become disciplined about saying a prayer when we take a life to nourish our own. And I feel a responsibility not to waste it, awakening my enthusiam in the galley. Plus, cooking for two is much more fun than just for me. Meals become ceremonies, their ingredients sacred.
We use a bedsheet to collect tiny baitfish that come ashore by the thousands for a few days in a row, and forage the reef at night for lobsters. We harvest shellfish and urchins, too but only what we can eat for our next meal. Heart of palm is a delicious vegetable complement to the seafood, easily extracted from a young coconut palm. Islanders often invite us to harvest coconuts from their land or join them in hunting, teaching us new skills. It’s heartwarming to see how they consider Rainui family, always looking for ways to make sure our needs are met. An elder man shows us a small leafy plant that the Puamotu eat like salad. Rainui opens sprouted coconuts for the cotton candy-like uto on the inside, and we munch on the young shoots as well. We grate mature coconut meat, and wring the sweet milk out of the shavings, to pour over raw fish with a squeeze of lime for breakfast. On its own, the meat of a mature coconut makes an easy, filling snack when hunger calls. We sometimes even slice it thin and fry it.
Once in a while we find bananas or papayas or vegetables in a village. I sprout lentils and mung beans, make yogurt from powdered milk, bake bread, and haul out a bag of rice or pasta when we are desperate for extra calories.
Instead of using the watermaker, we haul water from land to fill Swell’s tanks, kind villagers offering to share from their rain catchment. Each morning we leap overboard, to dive down and check that the anchor chain isn’t snagged on coral. Boat maintenance,
passage-making, meals it’s all easier with four hands instead of two. Sharing the workload and the simple wonders helps me fall in love with life afloat all over again. Through Rainui’s enthusiasm, I rediscover little things that have become routine over the years. We sleep on deck under the massive atoll sky. The Great Shark as the Puamotu people call the Milky Way stretches magnificently over us. We even spot a moonbow one evening as I lie in his arms.
Occasionally we stumble upon waves with no one around, indulging in the surf until our arms can’t move. On other days, we dive and hunt in the thriving passes or forage ashore. Gradually I feel as strong and wild as our surroundings.
I’m thrilled to have Rainui’s chivalrous help with the heavy lifting, not only because of a nagging knee injury, but because it feels good to explore a more traditionally feminine role. Although I’d felt ready to be more feminine years ago, it made me feel vulnerable when I was alone, so I stuck to my tomboy ways. Now I feel free to wear my ponytail up a little higher, and dig to the bottom of the plastic storage bin that serves as my closet to pull out a skirt or dress. I finally feel safe in clothing that actually flatters my body instead of hides it.
Beyond my attire, I sense an inner transition, too a letting go of needing to feel in charge. I’ve always been so intent on doing it all and showing myself and everyone else that I am as capable as a man, but nowadays, I don’t feel as much need to show my strength on the outside. I know very well that it resides within me.
When all is well, Rainui and I make a fantastic team, but toward the end of our third month together, he starts acting like a light with bad wiring occasionally going dark. It’s like a short circuit occurs in his mind and he goes silent and inward, and then I can’t connect with him anymore. He explains that he has a terrible mistrust of women because his first girlfriend left him for his best friend. We spend hours talking out his fears. With both my words and actions I try to convince him that I’m truly in love with him and want to make a life together. As situations arise to trigger him, I go into detailed discourses on the wisdom I have learned through blogs and experiences, about being present, staying positive, and focusing on the love, not the fear.
Sometimes the switch flips back quickly, and his wonderful, loving, talented, and fun self lights up again. Other times the blackness drags out over an entire day, even two. Every incident seems instigated by jealousy, or fear of losing me. Gradually, I stop calling my male friends. I go back to dressing like a tomboy. If I can just show Rainui how much I love him, maybe he’ll feel more secure.
Part of the problem is that he doesn’t have his own income, and it’s killing him to use my money to continue voyaging. I explain over and over that all his help is actually earning us cruising money, because it frees me up to write blogs and articles, contact sponsors, and sell photos, in addition to allowing me more creative time for writing, thinking, yoga, and meditation. I teach him to use my camera and he takes photos for the blog and sponsors. He fixes, paints, hauls, fishes, and cooks, but it still doesn’t feel right to him to use my money to buy dish soap or diesel.
After some island friends show us how to chop and dry copra, we come across an uninhabited islet perfect for the task. I help Rainui gather fallen coconuts and he splits them open and places them in the sun. After he dries six burlap sacks’ worth, we haul the copra twenty miles across the lagoon to sell to a cargo ship headed for Tahiti. He earns 65,000 francs. But by and by, even with cash in his pocket, his darkness resurfaces. I start marking his bad days on the calendar to try to discern a pattern. I don’t want to send him home, but boat life quickly becomes hell when you’re sharing a tiny floating space with an unhappy human, no matter how heavenly the surroundings.