LIFE as the steerer on board the Uto ni Yalo can often be a rodeo.
With the rope straining against your pull, your legs bracing on the little grip provided by the carving that fills with water pouring from the heavens, or the massive walls of water that rise and rush at you from either side of the ocean-going canoe, the steering oar turns into a wild bull.
It is no easy feat handling the uli in a rough sea.
One wrong move, one misjudgement and the vaka is vulnerable to the waves and the wind whipped up in a storm. You become an example of bad oarsmanship and navigator.
It's tougher getting the 14-tonne canoe back on track than keeping it high, like a skilled surfer riding top speed on the crest of a wave for as long as the wave and the wind will allow until the next one rolls towards you. It is a skill that comes with experience and understanding the elements that dictate the ocean.
This primitive rudder is all that is used to steer the canoe. Usually one person is assigned to the uli for 15 to 30 minutes during each three-hourly watch.
Sometimes it takes up to two or three people to control the uli, which bucks and tries to wrest itself free of the hands that grip on to it when the sea is heavy.
When the squalls hit during the Te Mana O Te Moana voyage — which started in 2010, taking the fleet through the Pacific following the trade winds all the way to San Francisco, San Diego in 2011 and on to the Americas and back home to their respective countries in August — the crew was always ready for the fight to keep the vaka steady.
They used lines lashed to the huge uli's steering end to keep the Uto ni Yalo on course.
The old crew who first sailed her into the unknown in 2010 advised those who followed not to tie it down.
The uli — they believe — has mana.
"The uli needs to feel you, to feel your heart, your fearlessness before she can be in tune with you," said Captain Jonathan Smith, a third generation seaman and son of Lovoni in Ovalau.
Tying it down risks breaking the heart of the Uto, which was modeled on an ancient voyaging canoe and updated by a naval architect to meet safety standards and efficiency. But it is something the crew turned to when it became impossible to keep the vaka steady.
For three years during the adventure, the Uto ni Yalo was the only canoe in the fleet that did not have a back-up uli.
The bole of the crew tells of their faith in its only one, a heavy one-piece steering oar cut from a tree in New Zealand where the fleet of vaka were built.
" ... Ke ramusu na uli au na sega ni rere (if the uli breaks I will not be afraid)."
The uli of the Uto ni Yalo is testament of her union with her spirited, robust and committed crew that come from all over Fiji.
"Just like a wild bull, it will not let you control her. You'll just grow tired trying to fight it," said Peni Vunaki, one of Uto's three watch captains on the last leg home.
"Once you feel the essence of the Uto, you are in tune with everything, the boat, the ocean and the elements that drive her and which she depends on.
"It is an amazing thing to realise this. You can only have respect for the Uto and the ocean which she stands for."
After the Uto ni Yalo pulled out of Wanderer Bay on Guadalcanal five days after being forced to run from the storm brought on by a high pressure system spinning out of New Zealand on July 12, work had been carried out to strengthen the knots which held the uli in place.
At times when the waves seemed to grow and the winds pushed against the course skipper had set for Noumea, there was apprehension (and jokes) on whether it could hold for the rest of the voyage.
It had become increasingly difficult to steer in the direction that had been mapped out and the uli was a constant fight and the cause of Long John Silver's curses. "Stay high, stay on course," skipper barked. But it was no good.
The sails continued to luff (flapping of the sail after the sheet controlling it is eased so far past optimal trim, disrupting airflow over the surfaces of the sail) but Captain Smith, Captain Peaia Patai of the Cook Islands' Marumaru Atua and Captain Frank Kawe of the Te Matau (New Zealand) were not laughing. In the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Uto ni Yalo and the other two vaka were at the mercy of nature.
It was the toughest ocean in the world in all their travels. Despite all the modifications and equipment — radio telephone, GPS (Global Positioning System and the latest weather system on board — they could not sail in the direction of Noumea.
The more the sails luffed and the winds pushed them through the downpours towards Esperitu Santo, the more the Uto's crew smiled. The ocean had heard their prayers.
With food and water stocks — packed beneath the eight bunks squeezed into the sides of the hulls — running out fast on the fridge-less Uto, the winds pushed them towards land closer to home. When the decision was reached between the three captains to stay on the same course towards Vanuatu — and relayed to the captains of fleet leader Hine Moana, Fafaite of Tahiti, Haunui of New Zealand and Okeanos of Vanuatu — the winds and the uli became friendlier.
The sailors had been through winds reaching roughly 60mph, and seas up to 30-feet high, during the voyage and were now steady on course. Relaxed at the uli, the conversations became serious debates on issues ranging from the ocean, education, love and ancient sailing methods of our forefathers.
How did they do this using just the winds, waves, sun, moon and stars and not go off course like us with our all our gadgetry?
Teddy Fong, our biogeographer, explained how lost knowledge on the different seasons that governed what was planted on land and when and what they meant for traditional sailors — when was the right time to sail and in what direction — should be revived to ensure our future generations understood their environment.
Captain Smith lamented on traditional knowledge that had disappeared and why sailing the Uto ni Yalo was just as important as raising one's family.
As the Fijian spirit came alive to overcome the lack of food, and the wet (it rained for most part of this leg), Watch Team Two tried to beat the record on the good old uli.
Watch captain Iva Vunikura, a Fiji powerlifting champion and South Pacific gold medallist, had held the record of three hours until Setareki Laveti of Fulaga refused to let go over three watches to notch five and half hours. His attempt to break his own uli record failed because we had all queued up for our turns and pestered him to give up.
Brothers and sisters we had become. Bunk buddies looked after each other and stood ready for everyone else. Such was the comradarie and fellowship on board.
On days when the sun filtered through the heavens, we had a baby mix to the tune of the Gregorian Chant, George Veikoso, music of yesteryears and today's sounds that reminded us parents and grandparents sailing with the young crew of our little ones who could do the boogie-woogie and dance those gyrating "boneless" moves from MTV.
The spirits were high and the hands became one with the uli. Homeward it was with the bull riders in control.
The arrival of Okeanos, first in from Lughughi Bay on Renell Island where she had sheltered, showed there was something special about the Vanuatu cargo transporter.
The fleet missed something. The shorter Okeanos was a smoother operator.