The Heartbeat of the Vaka
Grace, bliss, humility, exaltation…these are the sentiments that course through me as I merge into the rhythm of life on the vaka…and as I begin to align my pulse with hers, in essenceI uncover her heartbeat. Even my dreams have turned to magic, actualizing moments I have never truly experienced but sought after only in my imagination. Last night I was swimming alongside a humpback whale and gazing deeply into her eye.
I am romanticizing the fervor of the sea, and although she warrants it, know that this voyage is not, by any means, easy. It is one of the wildest things imaginable, to emerge from below onto deck at midnight, when the cloud cover is thick and pervasive, and we are in utter, pitch black. I can vaguely make out the silhouette of a person on the hoe (the steering sweep) and the whole canoe rocks from side to side fiercely. The wind howls and the brightest illumination is the breaking of the waves around us. We can see absolutely nothing and, yet, there is trust. These moments bring my appreciation of the bravery, courage, and dedication of these Pacific Islanders to an entirely new level. The wild weather started early in our voyage from Honiara, Solomon Islands to New Caledonia….a distance of only 800 nautical miles but the wind is right on our nose, and the necessity to frequently tack will add hundreds more miles to the journey. I am beginning to get accustomed to the rhythm of life on board, of 3 hours on watch, and 6 hours off,in a constant rotation. Days merge into timelessness and I love the fact that the most frequent question of the crew to one another is ‘what day is it?’ What a blissful space to be….
We left Honiara with large, towering cumulus clouds on the horizon, and soft wisps above the mountains of shore. As we departed, local canoes came out to greet us, including a beautiful traditional canoe called with woven sails.We sailed from the yacht club, together as a fleet, to a nearby beach where we would say our goodbyes. Since leaving Aukland in April of last year, this fleet of 7 vakamoana has sailed 24,330 nautical miles together, experiencing adversities and joys that create an unparalleled level of family, with bonds irreplaceable. Today Gaualofa, the Samoan vaka, will be parting from her sisters to stay in Honiara for a few more days before heading to Tokelau. Magnus points out that this is the end of one journey but the beginning of another, and that this is the way of nature. At the beach we gather in a large circle, and Tua’s voice resonates with emotion, ‘you are powerful people, every one of you.’ He echoes the words of Kalepa in Hawaii before the vaka left Molokai when he said, look around at each and every face you see, and remember this moment for it will never again be recreated as it is right now, with these same faces. We know that at our next meeting, our Pacific Voyagers family will grow but not all of us will be here and we will never again stand in the exact same presence of hearts. Tua emphasizes the courage and the hope, exampled especially in youth…people like Mercy, who at 18 years old has already sailed the earth and shows so much initiative in education and his ability to connect with children. Gaualofa offered stones from Samoa, wrapped in afa, to each of the vaka so that we might all carry a piece of her with us on our journey. Tua reminds us that when we go home it will be hard, for we will no longer hear the laughter and the cries of our crew members, voices that have become the narrative of life. “Hold this moment in your hearts”, he says, and remember, “care for your vaka and she will care for you” – a statement that has ramifications beyond what his wordsmight suggest, but encompasses our relationship not just with our vaka, but with our Earth.
I have only joined the voyage for a brief leg, but time is irrelevant and the insight is profound. I realized quickly that I had not truly stopped to consider what it truly means to be on a vaka with only your crew, a tiny dot amidst the vast blue. From our moments of goodbye on the beach, I jumped into the dingy to head back to Hine Moana without a second thought, without realizing that I was about to launch into a parallel world, where this tribe of people gathered on land would be miles away from one another at sea. Nature was far more attuned to the significance of the moment than I was. As soon as the first dingy leaves shore, and we begin separating from the whole, the rain starts to fall. My crew performs their haka on the deck of Hine Moana for Gaualofa as we drift away from shore, the whole canoe vibrating with the emotion of respect and farewell. As we head out to sea, a shift happens inside me, and suddenly, I look around the canoe and realize, it is only us here, and these people are now my family.
Once we are a reasonable distance offshore, the first squall hits. I feel a pang of guilt, because I actually asked for this. I love rough seas and I had hoped we’d get caught it the biggest of squalls, even though I know that the old saying ‘be careful what you wish for’ has been spoken again and again over the ages for a reason (sorry about that everyone).We are in the midst of changing our traditional rigging to the offshore rigging, which is no simple task and actually involves changing not only the sails, but also the boom itself, when we are enveloped in crashing rain and strong gusts of wind…. the other vaka quickly fading into ghostly, distant figures. The crew seems to love it, hooting and hollering with an energy that is infectious, if not intense, as we rush to get the rigging up in far from ideal conditions.
When the squall passes, we are skirting around the western side of Guadalcanal. Wisps of luminous cloud rise from the valleys after the rain, and just beyond the island, the light on the horizon is golden, as though the fleet is skirting around the edge of the squall towards a promised land of sorts. In the beginning we are all within sight and it is inspiring when there is a voyaging canoe in every direction you look. Finally the sun emerges, illuminating a pathway so silver it could be moonlight, but only for a moment. Our home is beautifully carved, and I love watching the juxtapositions of ornate wood against the softness of light over water.
Wind whistles through the day and night, a constant and eerie sound and the weather continues…at its height are winds of 40 knots and swells of 4-5 meters. Before departing, a decision was made amongst leadership that we would use modern navigation devices for this leg, due to the nature of the winds and weather. The violent rocking of the canoe, squalls of beating wind and rain, and waves washing over the deck feels pretty intense to me. I keep asking the crew, “is this considered rough?” and “no, not yet” is always the response. Apparently, you experience 40 foot seas, and that is rough weather. The crew talks about a leg from New Zealand to Fakarava, 29 days of rough seas, at times so intense that they had to close all sails and strap themselves to the deck with their safety harnesses. Wow, amazing, I think (but not with too much desire, lest the universe hear me…!)
As dusk unfolds purple streaks of lightening color the horizon in spider webs emanating out from the center.
Words skirt the tip of my tongue about the beauty of it all, emotions impossible to articulate. Sometimes when I am down below, catching up on sleep, I hear the crew calling out in exaltation at a large wave crashing over the deck and we roll this way and that, at complete mercy to it all…abandon, wild, beautiful abandon.
After days of heavy rain and wind, the sun starts to peek from behind the cloud and I am reminded of a spring day in Paris after a long, hard winter. Indeed, life on the canoe brings one to appreciate all the small things in life that we take so for granted on shore. A single cashew nut is a bite of bliss and a warm cup of tea is years of a mother’s comfort in one sip. I am sitting inside the deckhouse typing and occasionally glancing out at the scene. There is something about watching the crew as they run around in synchrony, many hands working together to bring the canoe into a tack. There is also something about watching the crew go about life, one filing her nails, another doing his laundry, others guiding us to our destination, a something precious and hard to convey in words. The only other voyagers visible are migratory seabirds, pausing on their long journeys to look down at the vaka with what appears to me as curiosity.
Being out here, I truly realize the enormity of the blue, that we are indeed a blue planet. We have been at sea for days and with no sign of another ship in sight, you could almost feel that we are alone in the world. There are the moments when I come up on deck for my 3 to 6am watch, utterly exhausted, but then I hear the gentle song of the ukele strum as a cresent moon rises from the horizon, and as the awe takes over, lack of sleep is quickly forgotten. Now that the weather has cleared, the magnificence of the sky that blankets us all becomes clear. The Southern Cross is the first constellation to emerge brightly, much higher in the sky than I am used to seeing her, then trillions of stars fill in the spaces all around. It is as though we are caught between two mirrors, of the stars above and the bioluminesence below, both so dimensional they bring us to question our purpose in this world. Sometimes, when I am watching the glistening of illuminated life in the sea rushing past the canoe, undulating with the waves, I feel like I am diving head first into the milky way.
We are a diverse crew, hailing from Tonga, Vanuatu, Fiji, Sweden, Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Samoa, Hawaii, Mexico and then there is me, a bit from Hawaii, a bit from New Orleans, a bit from England, a bit from France, but mostly just from the Earth, as we all are. Of our fifteen crew members, only 4 are women but in their strength, they stand for hundreds. One is Aunofo, captain of the all women sail from Bora Bora to Rarotonga and the first female skipper in her homeland of Tonga. She has taken me under her wing so to speak, and what a phenomenal mentor she is, for her story makes you feel like anything is possible. She began earning money by cleaning houses, and when she did the work of three days in one, her employers asked her to come and work on the boats. She began again, with cleaning, then went on to cooking, and eventually she became a skipper and was the first woman in Tonga also to earn an operator’s license for whale watching. Many of the crew work in whale watching back home and they all echo a similar story…first of being afraid to go beneath the sea with such a large animal, and then of being transformed by the whales. Many mention vibration, wonder, and complete tranquility.Aunofo tells of feeling their presence before she sees them, and of dreaming of their location the night before she sails, and every time, she finds them exactly where they told her they would be in her dreams. She emphasizes how respect for the whales is the priority of everything she does in her work, for watching a humpback whale mother with her calf is just like a human mother with her baby, she says. Other crew members talk about our kinship with all life in citing how the voyage has changed them. Siaso says that when he saw a fellow crew member take a fish for dinner and say, “I am sorry, thank you”, something shifted inside of him forever.
I could go on for pages about the inspiration this crew brings to me, they are a powerful people and they will transform the world, but I’ll stop for now, as I sense I may have written too much already. Life is so rich out here in its simplicity and I feel very, very blessed to be immersed in it all.
Karen Holman, Pacific Voyagers