My father lived in a rental house on the windward side of O‘ahu, a block off the beach in the town of Kailua. Dad had set up a single bed in the screened lanai and I liked it there, lying in bed at night and smelling the plumeria and listening to the geckos and feeling the breeze when the squalls blew in off the ocean.
The downside was my dad’s parties and the floozies he brought home from his favorite watering hole. Through my school years I had always earned good grades, not necessarily because I was the smartest kid but more because I worked hard. Now that I was in college, I wanted to carry that forward, but it was difficult to study when my father was home with his friends. When that happened, I started taking my rucksack with my books to the beach, where I could concentrate. One day I was walking home when a man in his yard waved.
“I see you walking by each day.”
“I live across the street, in the corner house.”
“Jerry McCoy. Nice to meet you.”
I told him I was a freshman at the university, and he said he had a sailboat in the Ala Wai Harbor, not far from campus.
“I go out three times a week, including Wednesday afternoons. There’s a group of us, all friends. You should come down after class and join us.”
Jerry’s boat was a thirty-six-foot teak sloop called Chance, and his crew was a lively lot who brought ukuleles on their weekly sunset sails. The friends included a jolly remittance man named Steve Cooke whose extended family owned a good part of the Hawaiian Islands, including most of the western end of Molokai; soon I was invited on an inter-island trip on the Chance where we spent the night at the Molokai Ranch with the paniolos, the Hawaiian cowboys.
We were cleaning up the boat when I had an idea. The teak on the sloop—the brightwork—didn’t look like anyone was taking proper care of it.
“Who does the varnishing?” I asked Jerry.
“Don’t mention the subject. Drives me crazy.”
“What if I did it for you? For free?”
“Well, maybe not free, but in exchange for living on your boat?”
I felt like I had won the lottery. Other than the weekends and Wednesday afternoons, I had the boat to myself. I was learning quickly how to sail, and I was reading books about sailing adventures that unlocked the same passions I had reading accounts of mountaineering expeditions.
I had decided to major in oceanography, but started wondering if my attraction to the subject was more romantic than scientific. I was enjoying being a college student, even though the times were tense with the growth of the antiwar movement. We had the National Guard and FBI on campus after some students burned down the ROTC building, the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps headquarters. I hadn’t joined the protests, but had let my hair grow longer, even though there were parts of the hippie culture that I didn’t fully embrace. I smoked some marijuana, for instance, but it made me sleepy and hungry, and if I was stoned I wasn’t as effective on deck or at the helm.
* * *
In May 1968 I had been living on the Chance for five months when I wrote on a 4×6 index card: “Crew Position Wanted for Voyage to the South Pacific. Experienced. Ask for Rick, Slip 742.” But when I tacked it to the corkboard at the yacht club, I was disappointed to see there were about two dozen similar notices. So I was surprised when the next day there was a knock on the side of the Chance’s cabin and a middle-aged man introduced himself as Clarke Smith. I invited him aboard, and as he stepped on the rail I could see he had a pronounced limp.
“I’ve got a sloop here in the harbor,” Clarke said. “A thirty-six-foot Lapworth called Zephyrus. I’m heading south in June, French Polynesia. I need crew.”
“French Polynesia? You mean, Tahiti?”
“Mo‘orea, the Leeward Islands. I sailed over from the mainland last year. My crew all went back to California. How much experience do you have?”
“I’ve been sailing for seven months!”
“No, I mean every day. Well, almost every day. I’m on the sailing team at U of H.”
“You from the Islands?”
“No, California. It was a tough choice, coming here to go to school. My other passion—I mean in addition to sailing—is climbing. Rock climbing and mountaineering.”
“No kidding. I’m a climber, too. Well, I used to be.”
I never asked Clarke about his limp, but in the years ahead I would learn it was a degenerative nerve disease. Clarke wanted a crew of strong young men who collectively could fill his deficiencies. He already had three guys signed up, and I immediately accepted his offer to be the fourth. He told me he was thinking of adding one more person. I told him I knew just the guy. I put a handful of quarters into the pay phone on the dock and called Rory. Two days later I borrowed a car to pick him up at the Honolulu airport.
I got another handful of quarters and called my mother. She had continued to fold a twenty-dollar bill into her letters, all in her beautiful cursive, but I wanted to hear her voice and knew she wanted to hear mine. I tried to assure her the Zephyrus was a sound boat and I wouldn’t be in danger, but I could hear her voice break when she said, “Be careful, son. I love you.”
My father drove over from the windward side of the island to see me off. The week before he had given me a sextant in a mahogany case, and said it was my birthday present in advance, as I would be somewhere in the South Pacific in August, when I would turn nineteen. My sailing mates from the Chance also gathered on the dock, and placed leis around my neck. They threw us our mooring lines, and we waved as we motored out of the harbor entrance, trimmed our sails, and set course on the first big adventure of my life.
* * *
Twenty-one days later I was coming on deck to stand watch when I noticed a fly land on the cabin. I was still sleepy, and it took a couple of seconds to connect the dots.
Thirty minutes later, we sighted land. It was a beautiful high-rise island surrounded by a turquoise lagoon inside an encircling reef. That was the good news. The bad news was, it wasn’t Tahiti. We had no idea what it was, or where we were.
Clarke had done most of the navigating, but after carefully studying a small paperback called How to Navigate Today, I had backed up Clarke with my sextant. My calculations hadn’t always coincided with his numbers, but we wrote that off to my inexperience. Now we sailed around the mystery island, close enough to see someone on the beach who waved as we waved back.
But there was no entrance we could find in the encircling reef. It was mid-morning, so Clarke and I both took readings with our sextants, calling “mark” to one of our mates who started our stopwatch. We then tuned in our Zenith portable radio to the time signal on the shortwave frequency, and once it gave its trademark “bleep” and a robotic voice announced Greenwich Mean Time, we stopped the watch and subtracted the time to confirm the exact time of our sextant readings. Going through the calculations—essentially spherical trigonometry equations—we confirmed we should be close enough to Tahiti to see it.
“I should have paid more attention in math class,” I said.
“How much water do we have?” Clarke yelled to another of our crew.
That would last a couple of days. “We could ease the mainsail during squalls, until there’s a trough at the bottom and maybe put a water bottle under it?”
We were also low on food. We had a fishing line, but we’d only caught one small tuna in the last week. We could probably get enough food and water to survive, but for how long? Where was Tahiti? Which way should we go? We continued sailing around our mystery island, and from the pinched looks on everyone’s faces I could tell their thoughts were the same as mine. This was new territory—being in a situation where we had to think through our survival.
“I’ve got an idea,” one of my companions said.
We looked at David. He was twenty years old, two years older than me. During our weeks at sea we had spent long hours in the cockpit swapping stories, and David’s often came back to the theme of electronics, especially radios. As a young teenager he had also become a ham radio buff.
“Maybe I could turn our Zenith into an RDF.”
“Radio Direction Finder.”
David went below and returned with a coat hanger that he bent into a loop and then wired to the Zenith’s antennae inputs. He turned the dial until music started playing. Drum music. Rapid drum music, like the kind you might make if you were beating a stick on a hollow log. Soon we heard an announcer’s voice speaking in rapid French mixed with what sounded like Tahitian. And then we all heard the voice say clearly, “Radio Tahiti.”
David slowly turned the radio until the announcer’s voice was loudest, and again until the voice diminished. He then sighted along an imaginary line perpendicular to the Zenith, pointed his finger and said, “Tahiti is that way.”
He straightened, turned, and pointed in the exact opposite direction.
“Or that way.”
* * *
We made a calculated guess that we were most likely downwind of our destination, and set a course for the first of David’s two directions. None of us on board was particularly religious, but we all had noted a small bronze placard in the cabin that Clarke had said was there when he bought the boat: “Oh God, Thy Sea Is So Great And My Boat Is So Small.”
Through the rest of the day, there was no sight of land. Rory and I had the first night watch, from 6:00 pm to midnight, and even though we continually scanned the horizon, there was nothing blocking the stars that might suggest land. When our mates relieved us, we crawled into the two quarter berths on opposite sides of the companionway.
I was tired, but it was hard to sleep. I listened to the water whoosh under the hull. For the weeks of our voyage I had loved that sound, but now it had a menace. The whoosh was a reminder that the hull separated us from the water, and the hull had what we needed to live in a world that otherwise would not allow us to live, but the hull only contained just a small amount of the things we needed to live.
With the light of the moon and stars through the companionway I finally fell asleep only to wake again, not sure how long I had been asleep.
“You awake?” I asked in a low voice.
“What time is it?”
I saw Rory prop on an elbow and in the light of a moon shining through the companionway, look at this wristwatch. It was a Rolex that had belonged to his father, and Rory had worn it every day I had known him.
“No sense trying to sleep.”
We lay in our berths. Neither of us said anything. It was quiet other than the whoosh of water.
Rory and I scrambled out of our berths. The sky was a faint gray, and the brighter stars were yet visible. But slightly to port we could make out the silhouette of steep-sided spires rising from the surrounding sea.
“Mo‘orea,” Clarke said. “The spires of Mo‘orea.”
* * *
We had been at sea for twenty-four days. That night, a light offshore wind filled the sails just enough that the breeze carried the rich smells of the land and the joyful sounds of the shore: men laughing, and women laughing. Women! Tahitian women! All the more intoxicating was the same drum music we’d heard on the radio.
At dawn we hoisted a square yellow flag, the international signal of quarantine. Soon we could see a small motorboat leave the harbor and head toward us. A man in a khaki uniform with a shoulder satchel grabbed our shrouds and hoisted himself aboard.
“Bonjour! Bonjour! Bienvenue a Tahiti. Comment était votre voyage?”
Between us we had only a few words of French but no words were needed to express our excitement as we handed the customs agent a cup of instant coffee. The agent made a perfunctory inspection of the Zephyrus.
“Vous n’avez pas beaucoup de nourriture.”
“What’s that mean?”
“I think he’s saying we don’t have very much food.”
In the 1960s Papeete was more village than city, and all the visiting yachts tied stern-to along the main street across from the false-fronted wood buildings with shops and cafés and bars. As we entered the harbor we passed a park framed by banyan trees, and we could smell the fragrance of the plumeria and we could see the bodies—men and women—littered on the grass where they had fallen asleep presumably after spending the night dancing and drinking. A small truck was driving slowly down the main street. In the back, three men were beating on log drums while a Tahitian woman in a grass skirt danced by moving her hips so fast it was as though she were vibrating.
No one said anything until one of us broke the spell.
“You think it’s like this every day?”
“Of course it is: This is Tahiti!”
The agent looked at us quizzically. Then he smiled.
“No, no, aujourd’hui… today… quatorze de juillet… July Fourteenth.”
Oui, oui. July fourteen. Bastille Day. Big, big fete.”