Features September 1, 1999 Issue

Offshore Log: When Dreams Change

On the tradewind route around the world, there are several places where cruisers stop to gather themselves and their boats together. Some move on. Some never get going again. Raiatea is one of those places.

Raiatea, French Polynesia, is a tropical backwater. Just 130 miles from the modern urban sprawl of Tahiti, the island is a reminder of the Polynesia of 50 years ago. Yes, there is a small, modern airport, with multiple daily flights—booked solid—to Tahiti, but this is an island of artisan fishermen and farmers. The town of Uturoa may be the second largest in French Polynesia, but it is an unsophisticated Breton village compared to Papeete’s Paris.

For the middle of the Southern Hemisphere winter, Calypso is based at Marina Apooiti in Raiatea, while I make multiple trips to the US to service the measurement needs of America’s Cup syndicates working towards their showdown in Auckland, New Zealand, just a few months from now.

Marina Apooiti is the base of The Moorings Polynesian charter fleet. The marina is neat and tidy, with long rows of perfectly groomed charter boats awaiting the arrival of guests who will take a week or so to sample Pacific cruising at its best. From the marina, Bora Bora looms on the horizon, just a few miles away. Bali Hai is calling, across the sea. For a taste of the South Pacific, this is as good as it gets.

While the Moorings fleet fills half the marina, the other half is occupied by private cruising boats. Most are French. We are the lone Americans here. With her perky sheer, fancy deck gear, and the remains of her once-gleaming varnish, Calypso looks a little out of place. Our neighboring boats are less polished, often almost ugly to my eye, even when they are purposeful.

The French boats are the usual melange: a few slightly tattered fiberglass ex-charter boats, still more hard-chined, unpainted aluminum cruisers. These are often rough, crude, even bizarre, equipped with home-grown copies of well-known equipment, second-hand masts, patched dinghies. Some are obviously intelligently designed and well-built. Others are disasters.

My near-neighbor to one side is such a disaster. I can’t tell if the boat is wood, steel, fiberglass, or aluminum, it is so roughly built and badly painted. It looks like a home-designed copy of a single-handed round-the-world racer, without the sophisticated equipment and high-tech construction.

The owner is a young, long-haired Frenchman, lean and handsome as so many are. He begins work early every day. I hear the muted roar of electric saws from belowdecks, the bang of big hammers, the ripping and tearing of wood. At the end of the day, he emerges, sweating in his overalls and heavy work gloves. He is taking the interior of his boat apart with a sledge hammer, crowbar, a shovel, and a saber saw.

A pile of boat debris grows on the quay. I casually check it out on a daily basis. It is truly junk—household cabinets, corroded wire, unidentified metal and wooden objects about whose designed function I can only speculate.

The young man walks the quay at the end of the day, cigarette in mouth, beer in hand. He stares long and hard at the cruising boats, eyeing equipment, deck layout. He is looking for ideas to make his dream come true. He spends a lot of time looking at one boat, a neat, simple aluminum cruiser. I can tell that he covets this boat. He has a faraway look in his eye.

I have seen this look before. This was me some 30,000 miles and 25 years ago. It was a joke in the boatyard back then. I would work hard for a few hours, then stop and stare off into space or wander through the yard looking at boats. My then-wife worked grimly on through our series of rotting wooden dreamboats, far more practical, more tuned to the reality. I worked and dreamed. She worked, and worked some more.

I hope the young Frenchman survives the reality he has taken on. To me, his boat has the look of a dream-killer.

The Boatyard
Raiatea Carenage, just a mile from Marina Apooti, looks a lot like any small boatyard in the off-season. There are a few boats in long-term storage, the railway is occupied by a big catamaran ferry, and the Travelift is getting spot-primed and painted.

There are several cruising boats that have been properly put away by owners who have gone back to the US or Europe for the northern summer. There are also disquieting images. In one corner, a wooden ketch stands with mainmast broken at the spreaders. Her mizzen mast leans nonchalantly against the hull, as if some giant had set aside his walking stick for a minute.

Nearby, a tired double-ender sits in chaos: broken bowsprit on deck, shattered stub of a mast. On the other side of the yard stands a big modern fiberglass sloop, her port side shattered. Her mast, too, is broken. What’s going on here?

This is a yard where many cruisers leave their boats during the cyclone season, returning six months later under liberalized French rules to engage in another season of cruising in these spectacular islands. Unfortunately, they call it cyclone season for a reason. A few years ago, a big storm ripped through these waters, tearing boats from anchors and moorings, pounding them into the coral reefs, toppling them ashore. The damaged boats hauled at the carenage are grim reminders of the downside of tropical cruising.

There are actually two small yards here, with independent hauling and storage facilities. There is also a small—very small—chandlery, an aluminum boatbuilder, a sail repair facility, welders, painters, woodworkers. It is all very low-key, however, and everything moves at the typically languid pace of the tropics.

What is different from most American yards is the presence of massive steel storage cradles. After the disaster of the last cyclone, when boats on wooden props were toppled by high winds and torrential rains, the yards began building heavy steel cradles for long-term storage. These cradles at least increase your boat’s chances of survival in a severe storm.

A surprising number of cruisers take extended breaks from their trips here. For European boats bound on a circumnavigation, this stop is almost a third of the way around the world. For many North Americans, the pause comes after two years of sailing, when it’s time for a break from the boat.

Most cruisers return refreshed after a few months of exposure to civilization, ready to pursue the dream once more.

But some of the boats hauled here may never see the water again. Or at best, hired crews will make the long slog to windward back to the West Coast of the US for owners.

This is a crossroads. Here, the pace of dreams can slow to a crawl. Here, other dreams die.

For some cruisers, the reality of cruising dims the bright colors of the dream. For the lucky ones, the light of reality brings the quiet hues of the dream to a higher brilliance.

A Dream Bends
My own dream is bent, battered, gray. Calypso still shines, but not quite so brightly. Her varnish work is nothing but a memory. Her railcap, which Maryann and I stripped less than a year ago, and on which we painstakingly built up coat after coat of flawless gloss, is peeling and lifeless. The teak decks are dirty and gray. She is intact, but a bit worn. Only three years since her launching, she needs some tender care, care which I have promised her if she will only get me to New Zealand in the next two months.

No, what is damaged is far more important than the boat on which I labored for 10 hard years. I am in the South Pacific with the boat. My cruising partner, my companion for three years and almost 12,000 miles of sailing, is back “home” in the US indefinitely, perhaps permanently.

Imagine, if you will, living 24 hours a day in a space the size of your bedroom ashore. Imagine that you cook, eat, sleep, bathe, work in this space. Imagine that you rarely leave this space.

Place yourself here with the one you love. See how your love survives. For the lucky ones, love grows stronger. For the less fortunate, the pressure overwhelms the love.

Thirty years ago, I traveled with a rock band for a year. It was day after day of driving in a tightly packed van, followed by the pressure of performance at night. The tedium of re-packing the equipment. The same people 24 hours per day, day in and day out. I left after a year. The couple who were the heart of the band divorced a year later, but continued to perform together. It was the life they’d chosen.

Cruising can be a lot like that. Without the constant interaction with other people that you take for granted ashore, you become hypersensitive to everything about your partner. Some couples thrive on this. Some couples squabble. Others withdraw into separate worlds, nurturing separate dreams. One day you are together. The next day, one is gone.

Calypso’s crystal ball is a bit cloudy right now. Somehow, I will get the boat to New Zealand. Somehow, the dream will endure. Somehow, this, too, will pass.

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