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Fiji Time: 10:25 AM on Thursday 24 July

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At the mercy of the ocean

Ilaitia Turagabeci
Monday, September 17, 2012

DEAR God, you were with our ancestors. Today you are with us. Guide us safely home.

With that prayer by fleet lead navigator Tua Pittman and an emotional farewell of laughs and tears after three years on the Te Mana O Te Moana voyage, the eight vaka parted ways from a Honiara beach headed home following the winds.

The Samoans on the Gaualofa sailed for Apia while the rest of the Pacific Voyagers — Uto ni Yalo in the lead, Tahiti's Fafaite, Cook Islands' Marumaru Atua, New Zealand's Te Matau a Maui and Haunui, with a mixed crew, and Hine Moana, the fleet leader also with a mixed crew — had Noumea on their radar.

They were joined by Okeanos, the Vanuatu short-based twin-hulled canoe captained by the burly and humble Ni-Vanuatu captain Thomson Massing.

In front of us on the horizon dark clouds had gathered.

The warning had been there all along. As the 120 voyagers bid their lingering goodbye on the beach close to the main venue of the 11th Festival Arts on July 11, 2012, the sun was occasionally blotted out by clouds that cast shadows to express the sadness in the hearts of the ocean adventurers.

This was the end and the start of something new.

For long, across close to 16,668km to Tahiti through the islands and back in the first voyage in 2010 and to the Americas through the isles again and back across more than 45,000km on the second, they had been a family of vaka.

Sailing within help's reach of each other, with the support vessel Evohe in the vicinity, they had revived the ancient art of traditional sailing and spread their message of love and protection for the oceans and all their species. The simplicity of it is to do that culturally and traditionally as their ancestors of the South Pacific once did.

Soon they would be sailing alone.

Spread out over the Pacific, they hoped to keep the tradition alive and inspire tomorrow's generations to do so without harming the environment — on land and sea.

Gaualofa captain Nicholas Henry, a Cook Islander who manages a radio station in his motherland and is married to a Tahitian, expressed how his crew had the jitters but grew confident on the Samoans' last day. They reciprocated the Uto ni Yalo's bole as the Fijians sailed past, daring to take on the ocean without fear, only respect.

As they opened their sails and moved across Honiara harbour following the Guadalcanal coastline to the tip across from where New Caledonia lies more than 1600km away, the winds picked up.

Twenty minutes out, Captain Jonathan Smith called everyone together for a thanksgiving prayer. They had travelled a long way and were eager to finish the last two legs from Honiara to Noumea and be home with their families.

His crew had missed theirs dearly. They formed one on the seas with their Pacific brothers and sisters, formed a close bond on the Uto ni Yalo and now longed for their blood families without whose support they would not have started the journey into the history books.

As the Uto ni Yalo bobbed and dipped out into the open, second-in-command Setareki Ledua, a 21-year-old from Fulaga in Lau, announced the watch teams.

Team One watch captain was Peni Vunaki, 27, from Solodamu, Tavuki, Kadavu, Agnes Sokosoko, 27, an Ovalau lass from Bryce Street in Raiwaqa, former senior civil servant Joe Browne (JB), 66, Nick White, 20, one of the two exchange students from the Shark Angels who joined from the Sea Sheperd's Brigitte Bardot, and myself, from The Fiji Times.

Nick's colleague Galen McCleary, 20, was put in Team Two led by Kelekele Lausi, a 22-year-old from Nabagata in Cakaudrove. It has former schoolteacher Mausio Mario Mafai (Master), 57, from Rotuma, and Filomena Serenia, 25, from Tailevu.

Team Three was led by former South Pacific champion powerlifter Iva Vunikura, 31, and had Teddy Fong, a co-founder of the Econesian Society and biogeopragher, Uto ni Yalo matanivanua and carving specialist Setareki Tukana, 29, from Fulaga, an uncle of the younger Seta, and Miss South Pacific Alisi Rabukawaqa, 24, from Namulomulo, Bua.

With Seru Saumakidonu, 24, from Bua, and Angelo Smith, 27, of Lautoka, joining Shark Angels on the Bardot, chef Ben Sorby joining the Hine Moana and the Uto's second traditional navigator, Jim Funaki, a 22-year-old from Fulaga, joining the Marumaru Atua, the Uto was down on experience.

Sailing lessons on the Uto never cease. Like she has taught over the past three years, new crew have come and gone with a deeper understanding of what she stands for and how much she can stand up to out in the open.

We were going home. That's all that mattered when the sails filled and the Uto moved south after clearing the north point of Guadalcanal, the resource-rich mountainous island that remains mostly untouched by development.

As afternoon turned into evening and darkness crept over the universe, the Uto ni Yalo ploughed through the waves. The hull took a pounding as our watch team tried to sleep through it all.

Each time the bow lifted off the crest of the swells and came thundering down and forward, the hulls shuddered. Skipper and Teddy shared the last cabin on the starboard.

Their bunks were opposite each other at shoulder height.

Then it was me and Peni, Iva and Agnes and Alisi and Filo. At the end of the port side was JB and Galen, Seta and Manasa, Tukuna and Nick and Master and Kele.

Those in the front feel the first impact when the hulls meet the water. In the stern and centreboard, it's like you're in an upturned boat, hearing the splashing against the side. The bunk owners on the outer hulls hear the most, like in a washing machine.

When the Uto is in full flight on calm seas on a windy day, it's a buzz that can be hyptonic and put you off to sleep or keep you awake. It's how you take it.

Each shift is three hours, then six hours rest.

When the going is rough and wet, it becomes physically draining. Even the best on the Uto feel the strain.

When morning approached on July 12 and the tired Team Three four crept into their bunks, Team One took up positions on the turbulent deck at 9am.

The rain pelted down ferociously. At times, the raindrops felt like ice cubes on our faces. Visibility was poor and the wind was howling.

Watch captain Peni said we would take 15 minutes each on the uli. Learning to handle the uli for us newcomers on that leg was no easy feat.

When in such rough weather, it's important that the Uto rides along the waves and keeps that momentum to be able to time the next.

It's an art that needs precision positioning of the vaka, timing and speed.

Peni, a big burly former Ratu Kadavulevu School rugby player, joined the Uto from the second voyage and his experience on the uli was telling as the winds dictated the direction of where our bow pointed. The order from the skipper dictated the other way.

Usually, the older crew say, you should be easy on the uli. You don't fight it, just let it be in tune with you. It'll be easy on you. In such situations, when the elements have a mind of their own, you have no choice but to steer where the order is barked to avoid getting slammed by the huge swells that began to grow as the winds picked up that morning.

The radio kept crackling as the other vaka sought advice from each other. We saw two sails tacking in the distance every time we rode the crest of the swells. There was some apprehension and it was getting precarious on the fringes of the high pressure system that spun out of New Zealand.

Skipper ordered the next watch team up on deck before our time was up.

At the end of our watch, we had to stay on, ready for the unexpected. We had been "reefing" (moving on reduced sails) and he needed the boys to put down a sail and repair a tear on its lower part.

The patched-up sails tell the Uto ni Yalo's story. The winds, sun and rain she sailed through had weathered them.

After R&R when they could in Honiara in between their many engagements with the 11th Festival of Pacific Arts, the crew were suffering from fatigue.

Skipper, who thought they were a bit rusty after all the pampering by the Fijian community there, sat in the navigator's seat at the left stern, watching the swells rise about 10 feet higher than the railing he leaned on.

JB was fighting the uli to port. He had been on extended duty at the uli with everyone else at different parts of the deck, manning the ropes on the sails.

I was pulling on a rope that we had tied to the uli it to help hold the Uto steady on that course.

Suddenly the temperature dropped. Skipper jumped to his feet, yelling "second reef, reef!".

It was too late.

That drop in temperature and sudden blast of blistering wind was very little warning of the monstrous swell that was coming behind our last.

When JB and I looked up, the 30-foot swell was about five metres from the Uto. Master, who had his back to it, turned just in time as it crashed over and enveloped us.

Skipper clung to the mast, hands and legs. Master could do little. He turned looking for something to hold on to and crashed into JB and they into me.

It was lucky we had strapped our harnesses to the safety lines running the length and across the deck.

We were still holding on but sprawled to the starboard corner at the stern, looking at each other.

We would all have gone overboard had we not been strapped.

For JB, who joined the Uto in Tahiti in April, it was the first time he had experienced such weather on board. We stood up and pulled with our might to port with the help of Master, who had started to feel the pain in his ankle where the uli had slammed down on.

Peni, Kele, Seta, Gelan and Manasa were at the main sail. They had hung on to the ropes holding it and were still on their feet.

Skipper ordered the rest of the men up on deck as the Uto dipped violently into ocean, rising into the winds and speeding downhill. We could no longer see the sails in the distance.

After the sails had been reefed again 15 minutes later, a second swell rose above us and crashed into us. Smaller than the first, it was just as monstrous.

JB and I were still at the uli, I pulling on the rope tied to it from the seat on the starboard. When it crashed and swept JB off his feet, landing him heavily on his hip on the deck, the uli went free and wild. The first instinct was to make a grab for it and hold on while we both lay on the deck. It was still pulled towards port.

Then Peni ran from the bow, took control and steered us safely clear. I got up but JB lay still on the deck. He felt excruciating pain in his hip. It was fortunate he had not slammed his head on to a dumbbell that had rolled to the stern.

Skipper rushed to the stern to check on our direction and JB — who had signed on for this adventure from his farm to where he retired after years in the civil service — tested himself up on his elbows.

He had defied the advice of his family not to join the voyage. He understood the risks but was committed and determined to face life's challenges and be inspired.

When JB did not rise from the deck, skipper ordered him, "stay down Joe, just stay down", while he moved around the deck to check on the sails.

Traditional navigator Seta was in the hull trying to cut meat when that wave hit. He suffered a minor cut on his finger while preparing dinner.

It had been a long time since the Uto had sailed into treacherous seas and encountered powerful winds that now seemed too strong for the sails to withstand. The last time the Uto had sailed into one, it stayed in it for 20 days. This was during the 29-day leg from New Zealand to Fakarava which the older crew on board remember only too well.

There was little cooking, mostly biscuits to keep them going. This time, while it was not as bone-chilling in the testing 24 hours, it was squall after squall.

In the three years since the voyage began, the sails had endured the winds of the world's oceans. They had never been changed.

The red patches on them could not hold much longer.

The radio crackled alive. It was Admiral Magnus Danbolt of the Hine Moana, the vaka with the biggest sails and coping better than the rest.

The admiral, a Swedish skipper known for his daring and challenging exploits in the ocean, was checking on the fleet and advising them to return to Guadalcanal if it was too rough.

No risks going home.

After conquering the rest of the world where they had been, the South Pacific Ocean showed these islanders it was still in control. Just as it did when our forefathers sailed from island to island hundreds of years ago.

When the order came from skipper to change direction, the crew worked overtime in the rough seas to keep the vessel steady while it turned around.

For the first since she set sail, the Uto would not fight the storm.

JB got up and headed straight to his bunk to lie down while we stayed on waiting for something to do when required. The fact that he was able to stand was enough assurance that it was only muscle injury to his lower back. He is the tallest, oldest and one of the two matua.

By the time our watch team went down to rest, not even the violent motions and shuddering encounter of the 14-plus-tonne vaka and waves could keep up awake.

The bodies were spent, the minds exhausted. We had to be fighting fit for our next watch. Strong winds and rains continued to meet us as we headed towards land. By morning, we could see birds, sign that land was near.

By midday, we could see the outline of Guadalcanal on the horizon. By late afternoon as we entered Wanderer Bay, spelt as such on the map but spelt Wandra by the locals, it was a relief.

Everybody wanted to rest.

We had sailed 465km south into the open towards New Caledonia and tacked five times to the safety of the southwestern part of the island.

The sight of the Marumaru Atua, captained by Peaia Patai and Te Matau, captained by Frank Kawe, anchored close to shore was a big welcome for sore eyes after that experience.

They too were overjoyed when the Uto came alongside. It seemed the fleet found it hard to split.

Skipper, a sailing veteran at 38, was glad he made the call to backtrack to Guadalcanal.

It was for the safety of the crew and the vaka.

"Our sails would have been ripped apart in those winds. They haven't been changed in the three years since the voyage started," he explained.

The Hine Moana, Fafaite and Haunui continued on the through the storm and took shelter at Lughughi Bay on Renell Island, about 314km southeast of us.

When they arrived, the Okeanos, which travels best upwind, was already there. The Vanuatu crew of the single-sail canoe, built for inter-island cargo transportation, were fishing for their meal.

There was something about this vessel that the sailors had a lot to learn from. Its design was much different from the world-travelling fleet.

In Wanderer Bay, the crews waited for the high pressure system to move away before attempting to cross the ocean to Noumea.

JB returned to the deck after the soothing massaging hands of Peni and Tawiri, the Tahitian sailing with the Cook Islanders on that leg.

Tawiri,who won the cere race and the tabua from the women of Levuka-Vaka-Viti when the fleet passed through the old capital Levuka in June, had brought his own "magical" bottle of Tahitian oil from the Marumaru Atua to help JB recover.

In no time JB's pain was soon forgotten. The real test was ahead and it was on board as much as it was in the ocean.


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