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Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Short Ship Tales

Chapter 1  Start the Clock

Taking the new pressure cooker out of its box, Bruno couldn't find its weight.

No weight, no pressure.  No pressure, not enough kerosene to last to Auckland.

"You can't go into town now!" exclaimed Shiela, "My parents are coming to see us off at 12!!"

Bruno tried to explain, but Shiela wasn't the sort of person you could explain anything to.  She was a pretty thing, but how Marc could put up with her for more than five minutes was a mystery.  Inwardly, Bruno sighed.  He had been warned about Shiela, but Marc was such a good sailor, Bruno had figured he could cope with Shiela for the fortnight it would take them to cross the Tasman.

He dashed for the bus; maybe he would make it in time.

It didn't take Bruno long to exchange the cooker for a working set, but when he got back, Shiela and Marc were gone.

Chapter 2  A Fine Old Lady

"Now, That's a boat!" said Jake.

Bruno glanced in the direction Jake was staring.  It wasn't his idea of a cruising yacht; more like a toy model of an old-time America's Cup yacht - all sail and no beam.  Like sailing a toothpick.

On land, strangers are typically eyed warily by locals - but on the sea, everyone is a stranger, so every day is Christmas; every boat is open house to birds of a feather.  Jake had no hesitation in proposing a row over for a stickybeak.

Its sole occupant was almost as tall as his boat was wide - Bruno was reminded of the famous green micro-yacht he had seen in Tahiti; just 19 foot long, and going around the world for the n-tieth time.  At 32 feet nose to tail, Solano was much longer, but it was no wider.  How Bob managed to squeeze himself into it was a mystery, but there he was, immaculate in a cowboy outfit of orange shirt, white stetson and chiselled alligator boots.  Extraordinary.  Even more extraordinary, he had come in during a cyclone - quite a talking point among the locals at the Port Vila yacht club.

Bob was a regular at the club, but he didn't drink; he was a fully paid-up member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Chapter 3   Future Past

The others had gone ashore, shopping and birdwatching (not the feathered kind).  Time for a bath. 

At sea, the air is clean, so bathing is only necessary once a week in the tropics, and never at all north of 35 degrees Latitude, as you never sweat, even when doing arduous physical exercise such as bagging a foresail on the foredeck whilst the boat jumps up and down in the waves.  From Antigua to Ireland, Bruno hadn't needed to wash even once; his normally dry and blotchy redhead's skin became flawless and healthy, almost as satin-smooth as that of a Spice Islands maiden.

But no sooner than you get within a few miles of shore, the air changes, and washing becomes a daily necessity.

A small boat on a long voyage carries only enough water to drink; Matt had shown Bruno how to bathe with just one cup of fresh: First you dump a bucketful of seawater over your head, then soap down with Fairy Liquid, the only surfactant that will foam in seawater, so it was their soap and their shampoo.  Another bucketful over the head to rinse off, scrape the excess water off your body using your hand as a windscreen wiper, then carefully moisten a handcloth in the cup of fresh to wipe away the last of the salt, paying most attention to the bum, as it can develop saltwater sores because most of a voyage you spend on your arse. 

This time, they were in port, anchored a little away from a village in one of the remoter Vanuatu islands, so it was easier to dive in starkers than fuss about with a seabucket.

The difference between swimming naked and with even a brief slip is extraordinary.   Wearing anything at all, you are acutely conscious that if God had intended man to swim, he would have given him gills (actually, he did - but that's another story).

But completely naked, the water slides over your whole body, giving you the feeling that you belong there, at one with the ocean.

But today, the usually clear sea wasn't clear - a foggy green.  Visibility nil.

Bruno felt vaguely uncomfortable, so he hopped out and used a bucket for the rinse-off.

Seated on the ocean side of the boat, he heard the others coming back, and soon there was the sound of someone playing in the water; he glanced around and saw Lucas repeatedly diving off their rubber dinghy, his dives getting points out of ten from Charlie's girlfriend.

Charlie's boat was even smaller than TR, and there were three of them aboard, plus an amazing microlight aircraft dismantled and stowed below.  That was the way to travel!

There were just three boats at anchor, and Bruno and Matt had had dinner aboard Graham's the previous evening.  The third boat was a real tupperware palace; in the morning, its owners ran the engine to fry eggs for breakfast on its electric stove.

Cruising sailors are always ready for a natter, but that evening the conversation was more sparkling than usual.  Charlie, 40-something, was already retired, the lucky sod, having made a bundle as a stockmarket speculator.  But the star of the show was his nine year-old son Lucas; as bright and sharp a kid as you could ever come across.  Matt and Bruno agreed that he had a great future ahead of him.

The sound of Lucas's dives continued for several minutes, and then a much larger splash.  Had Lucas done a belly-flop on purpose, just for show?

A pause, a very brief pause, but it felt like longer, and then the most heartrending wail you could ever hear.  Bruno jumped up and hopped over the the Port side to see what had happened.

Mary was standing bolt upright in the little rubber dinghy - not something you should ever do - her hands over her eyes.  There was no sign of Lucas, not even a ripple in the water.


Stunned, Bruno just stood there, staring agape.  Matt came up from below, but it was Jim from next door who came over and took charge, insisting that they look around in his dinghy.  "Maybe there will be some bits" said Jim.

There weren't.

Weeks later, Charlie returned from breaking the news to his estranged wife and mother of Lucas.  His right hand was heavily bandaged.

"How did you get that?" asked Bruno solicitously.
"Punching a wall".

Chapter 4  Aftermath

"We noticed you always jumped back on really quick" said Bert.  Bruno's first effort at windsurfing was not an unqualified success, each time falling off within a few moments of getting the mast tip out of the water.  Eventually, he had managed to get a semblance of a posture and wobbled gracelessly back to the audience.  Bert had made it look easy, staying sure-footed high and dry whilst the two dolls playfully tried to disloge him.

Two dolls, and what two dolls!  One was his, one was spare.  She was straight out of Page Three, all tits and bum and lipstick and eyeshadow.  Bruno invited her for dinner, readily accepted, but then blew it bigtime by just rowing her over to TR instead of taking her ashore for a tete a tete, or a bit lower down.

Blew it because Matt hadn't taken his mile-wide hint and gone out, but had stayed aboard, insisting on being cook, so it was a crowd of three.  To make matters worse, Matt's mouth went into overdrive the moment he clapped eyes on her in full warpaint:

"It's so unfair!!" he exclaimed, "Dressing like that in front of two bachelors!".

Inwardly, Bruno cursed Matt, cursed himself, cursed God, and couldn't come up with a one-liner to turn it into a laugh.  That night, only the evening was fucked.

After a subdued meal, he rowed her back.  Damnation.  She must have thought they were a right pair of wankers.

Chapter 5   Asleep at the Wheel

It was a perfect day.  A steady trade wind had them on an easy beam reach, as Bruno handed over to Matt just after dusk.  Their third crewmember, the reliable Aries windvane self-steering, hadn't needed any touches all watch - all Bruno had had to do was glance around the horizon every fifteen minutes.

Six feet about sea-level, the horizon is 4 miles distant, and cargo ships usually travel at about 15 knots, so they cover 4 miles in fifteen minutes.  No ship on the horizon, no worries for another fifteen minutes.

This time there was just one green light a fair way off, and Bruno had set a course to cross behind her stern.  He pointed out the light to Matt, and ducked below for his own sleep.

They were on alternating watches, 6 hours during the day and three at night.  It was Matt's idea of a sustainable regime, and although a regular 4 hours on and off was easier on the biorhythms, it had worked well throughout Bruno's couple of months aboard TR.  Matt was a fine sailor, the most together skipper Bruno had sailed with, apart from the incomparable Tiger, whose ship and company had ruined Bruno's life completely, opening his eyes that there was more to life than Artificial Intelligence or Software Distribution.  It was such a pity that Naomi was afraid of the sea; Bruno would gladly have had her with him for keeps, but no man can serve two mistresses.

On the spur of the moment, Bruno decided to call up the nearby ship for a position check.  They hadn't been able to get a fix for a few days due to cloud at dusk and dawn, the only time of day you can see both the stars and the horizon.  Unlike TR, Cargo ships had SatNav and Loran and radar and all kinds of  gadgets, so it was handy to have one within VHF range.

"Just a sec" said the voice, "I'll check".  A pause, and suddenly he came back on, shouting hysterically: "Turn left! Turn left!!".

Ordinarily, when ships are on a collision course, each alters course to Starboard, so they will pass Port to Port.  But this was no ordinary situation.

Bruno dashed up the couple of steps to the cockpit, and saw with horror the bows of a ship, taller than their mast, bearing down upon them.

"Turn left!" he yelled at Matt, but Matt adjusted the wheel a little clockwise, altering course to Starboard, an instinctive reaction.

"TURN LEFT!!" screamed Bruno, grabbing the wheel from the cabin side.  Matt did so, reluctantly, with Bruno's hand on it too, a full 180 degrees hard-a-Port.

A wall of steel slid past their starboard bow quarter, missing them by inches.

"What the Hell were you doing?!" demanded Bruno, "I told you about the ship!"
"You can't give way to them every time" said Matt quietly.

It was only then that Bruno realised Matt was still half-asleep.  He had seemed his usual alert self when they had changed watch, but evidently looks can be deceiving.  From then on, Bruno always made a strong coffee for the next watchman, and always hung around for 10 minutes to make sure the bugger was really awake.

Chapter 6   Missed Opportunities

As they motored cautiously in to the tiny harbour, a dinghy sped out towards them.

"The buoys are the wrong way round!" warned its driver.  Left and right, it depends on your point of view.  You see my left on your right, and i see your right on my left, so marine navigators never talk about left and right, but about Port and Starboard, or Red and Green.

The international convention on port entry direction markers adopts the convention that the deep water channel is indicated by a succession of coloured markers - buoys - red on your port side and green on your right.

Except in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea.

Our guardian angel mused that it was the locals' way of putting visitors on the rocks, so they could claim salvage. 

PNG is supposedly a signatory to IALA 'A', with only USA and a couple of its former colonies (Japan, Korea, and Philippines) still clinging to the opposite way round, a relic of the US War of Independence, when they switched the colours  on its Eastern seabord to misdirect British warships.

Two hundred years on, US is still at war with England, even though UK has been its European lapdog ever since the Yanks bailed them out over the Krauts.

The Milne Bay locals, however, were anything but Rascals, much more friendly than Darwin Customs had been to Bruno when he had stepped ashore without a visa: "You turn our blokes around at Heathrow, so we're gonna turn you around".  The Queen of England was head of the Government of Australia, but only she and American tourists were allowed into Oz without a visa; HRH's Pommy Bastard subjects weren't.  That's how he had washed up at the Backpackers' in New Caledonia, where TR's crew had appeared, highly distressed.

"He's a crazy man!" she cried on his shoulder.  "He won't give me back my passport!!".

A pretty damsel in distress pushes all the buttons of a white knight, so Bruno was on the case.

Most girls at sea know what they're there for - mostly they go there looking for it.  That's only natural - but this one hadn't been bothered by her Captain; was that part of the problem?

He went down to confront this satanic thug that had treated her so badly.  To his surprise, Matt wasn't the unwashed criminal he had envisioned, but an unthreatening type who spoke rationally.

Well, sort of rationally...

Seems she had, in Matt's eyes, legally contracted in New Zealand to pay him 3 months' B&B, but had broken her promise by running away the moment they docked in Noumea.  So he was entitled to full payment, and permitted to retain her passport until she did so.

"She hadn't expected the sea to be rough" said Matt.

Ten bucks a day for three months sounded like a trifling sum to make so much fuss about - it could only buy the favours of two Singapore ladies for 3 nights.

Bruno didn't put it quite like that, but his legal argument seemed to sway Matt, who somewhat grudgingly agreed she could come and get her passport.  And her clothes.

Quite how Bruno ended up taking her place he can't quite remember; maybe it was because he was sick and tired of the wanker at the Pacific Research Institute who was giving him a hard time because he didn't clock in precisely on time every day; maybe it was because there were no other boats looking for crew, so it was either hang around Noumea indefinitely or take a chance... surely anyone who was also a classical guitarist couldn't be all bad?

"If you see something that needs doing, do it" said Matt.

Now that made sense.

Their first stop was Isle des Pins, possibly the most beautiful island in the entire Universe; soft white sand, swaying palms, and, best of all, a socially responsible Mayor who had thumbed his nose at Club Mediterranee, stopping them building a ginormous monstrosity that would have ruined the pacific ambience of this subtropical paradise.  And who gave them, instead of the couple of bananas they asked for, an entire stalk, cut with his own machete, fresh off his own tree.

Only trouble is, bananas are like nuns - they all ripen at the same time - so unlike vaselined fresh eggs, you can't store the bloody things for very long and they ended up having to chuck most of them into the sea.  Still, it kept the fish happy, i guess.

From there to Ouvea, the best place to live in all the parallel Universes of the cosmos.  It even had a street with a shop, although the shop was closed because it was Sunday.  Bloody missionaries - they despoil everything they touch - and they sure hell touch a lot.  As they say in Philippines: "Sweet Sixteen, Never been kissed,... But totally damaged!".

Vanuatu i already mentioned, and now it was cannibal-land.  Actually, Vanuatu was too once, i believe, although the current edition of the British Admiralty Sailing Directions was calming, stating "The natives are friendly".  It probably still does say that, if you care to look it up.

Milne Bay was a busy little place, with its own market where old men with red teeth spat betel-nut spit everywhere.  It tastes awful, although maybe not as awful as tobacco leaf - but the locally-grown, locally hand-rolled cigarillos in newspaper were miles better than the dehydrated plastic drugs John Player sells.

It even had a movie theatre - a hall with a tin a roof and a noisy projector.  The best movie theatre in the whole world, whose audience didn't just watch the film, they became part of it.  The shrieks and squeals as Steve McQueen turned the tables on his pursuer were infectious, the whole place jumping.  And to make it even better, God joined in on the fun by sending down the most enormous crashing rain to beat a heavy drum on the tin roof as the hero flew over the humps and bumps of San Francisco.

One evening, there was a school concert.  Bruno had been to school concerts in England, and this one wasn't much better.

Until the Trobriand Islanders did their dance.

You could cut the electricity in the audience with a knife - from geriatrics to babes, the whole place throbbed with sexual energy.  Some school concert!

On his knees, Bruno begged Matt for them to take in the Trobs - maybe the only place left on Earth that hadn't been polluted by missionaries, where unmarried girls were encouraged to have all the boys they wanted, so they would know which was was the best for them to marry.

But Matt had his plan and when Matt had a plan, that was the plan it was.  He  tried to baffle Bruno with bullshit about wind direction and diesel fuel. 

That's the trouble with Captains; they want to be Captains on shore as well as at sea.  Oh well, c'est la vie.

It was little consolation that someone who had been there told of toothless grannies knocking on his door in the middle of the night.

Bruno's ennui wasn't so deep, so when Matt suggested a walk across the peninsula to visit another village, he didn't object.   A couple of local fellows Matt had met would guide them; it would only take a couple of hours, and maybe it might take his mind off the tantalising Trobriands.

The idea was to follow the course of a river, which would take them straight there.

Sounded easy enough.

Off they went, following the two young giants along a path though the thickly-wooded jungle to the river, where it was explained that the idea was that you hop from stone to stone along the edge of the tumbling water - you couldn't walk along the riverbank path, because there wasn't one.

Water is funny stuff.  On your skin, it's as soft as silk, until you fall of your water-skis going ninety miles an hour and smash your bollocks on its concrete surface.

Oil and water don't mix, but rub water over a boulder for thousands of years, add a little invisible resilient algae, and it turns the rock slicker than a Teddy-Boy's Brylcream.

Three steps and he was off.  Three more, and off again.

The two Papuans were puzzled that this Howlie couldn't walk properly - and he had shoes!  Matt explained the technique was to keep moving, looking two rocks ahead.  He was coping fine.

Bruno tried it - it worked for five rocks, then off again.

Shoes!  That was the problem.  Matt was wearing his plastic reef-walkers, but Bruno's thongs didn't have ankle straps.  And besides, he reasoned, the flat sole of a thong didn't make enough contract with the rounded shapes of the rocks.

That was it! Barefoot is best!

Thongs in daypack, Bruno tried again.  Much better.  Confidence surging, he increased his speed.


Murphy stopped by, and applied his Law.  The strong current whipped Bruno's pants right off him, and away they went.  They would get to the village long before he struggled to clamber back onto a rock, pantless and with no spare kit.

It was already getting dark, and they weren't even halfway there, due to Bruno's slowness and stoppingness.

Go back?

Matt wasn't one for backtracking, but one of the Papuans had a brainwave and said they should change plans and put up at his cousin's house, which wasn't far.

During the debate, seated on the rocks, Bruno noticed the soles of his guide's feet.  They were the size of dinner plates, and thicker than cowhide.  No wonder they could rock-hop so fluidly!  He vowed to never wear shoes again, to harden up his own soles.

It was soon pitch black, but the guides knew their stuff, and very soon they came to a little hut in the middle of nowhere.

A roly-poly woman, as broad as she was tall, greeted them warmly, bade them sit, eat and drink, while her young children gazed wide-eyed at the ghost with no trousers.

Her house was the most wonderful house Bruno had ever seen.  It was a masterpiece of engineering, the gaps in its loosely-woven walls precisely measured to let air through for ventilation, whilst being just too small for a mossie to slide through, so there was no need for smelly smoke.  Brilliant design!

Not a single nail was needed to hold the walls up, nor to keep the banana-leaf roof on.   It was a masterpiece.

Thirty years later, Bruno was able to apply some of its design principles to his own house, by fitting an eBay sparkly plastic bedroom decoration of hanging strips to his patio door, so air could come in but mossies, moths and flies wouldn't, partly because of the strips, partly because they were sparkly, which makes compound eyes think it's a waterfall.  $2, all the way from China.  How the hell they made a profit at those prices he would never know.

In the morning, it transpired that the marvellous ecohouse wasn't in the middle of nowhere after all, for just down a dirt road was a shop, where Bruno could buy some exotic pleasantries - candles and suchlike - as a thankyou gift for his hostess.

Matt's next great idea was that they should hitch-hike around the corner to Lae, from where there was a road to the Highlands, the last bastion of civilisation on the planet untouched by Western "democracy" - ie plutocracy and consumer commercialism - where people still lived in the Stone-Age (or so they thought...).

Bruno had hitch-hiked by sea before - from Singapore to Darwin - but he had never considered trying to thumb a lift from a cargo ship.  Yet it was all so easy, the very first one they asked agreeing to take them for the short ride, even providing a cabin and endless hot water - an unheard-of luxury for sailors of a 1930's small boat designed for crabbing off the Essex marshes, trying to cross oceans in it. 

The ship's crew were presumably bored stiff with the monotony of being stuck in a tin can on a tight schedule, so her captain must have figured that a couple of exotic strangers would add a little light relief to the social scene onboard and keep crew morale up.  On any ship, from a bathtub to a tanker, crew morale is it's captain's first priority, for without a cheery crew, life becomes unbearable if not downright dangerous, as Captain Bligh found out the hard way.

 be continued

Chapter n

Customs insisted Bruno leave, as the 6 months allowed for a US yacht to stay in Australian waters was up.  Not leaving would mean impoundment; out of the question.  She was just about shipshape, Bruno having invested a good chunk of his savings in vital maintenance work and buying the several essentials Solano was missing: charts, a second anchor, spare sails, a sextant, HO249 tables, a liferaft, a working depth sounder and a few other things.  Bob hadn't had any money, which was why he had had to fly home to Hawaii, promising to pay Bruno back when he got her there.

You can't go from Australia to Hawaii in a straight line, as the prevailing wind direction and ocean currents aren't favourable, so other than going all the way round following the milk run route, your only choice is to get as much Easting as you can in the Variables, and then heading North.

The Tasman can be bumpy, especially late in the season, and they were already well past that, but Solano was a good sea boat, her long keel and narrow quarters able to cope with most of what the sea could throw at them. be continued

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