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Return to the Islands

Sleepy Navigator

Sleepy Navigator

I eventually got my lands commission started at Butaritari, up in the northern Gilberts. But while waiting at Tarawa for a ship to take me there I took a run down to Maiana, the next island to southward.

It was stupid to risk that particular crossing in a sailing boat without auxiliary power. Although the gut between the southern tip of Tarawa and the northern tip of Maiana is under twenty miles wide, it is a forever shifting welter of currents that sweep crisscross over and under each other from ocean to page 53ocean. Once the land astern is out of sight (and, from a boat, you lose the tree-tops of an ordinary atoll at less than eight miles off shore) an engineless craft caught in the wrong stream can be whipped eight miles to leeward of its course before those on board begin to think of looking for the tree-tops ahead; and by the time they have realized that nothing but a thousand leagues of empty ocean lie before them, another five miles of leeway will have been lost. Failing some miraculous change of wind or current then, not a man of them will ever see land again.

But we were lucky that day. When we raised the north end of Maiana we found we had been set a few miles to east-ward of it. Some eddy, in fact, had swept us not to leeward at all, but upwind, and the rest of the trip was a quick run downwind to anchor under the lee of the lagoon reef.

It was only when, some days later, I sat talking to old Kimaere the navigator in his canoe-shed by the weather beach that I heard how easily things might have been different. According to him, only a pack of fools who hadn't a notion of how to look at the sea would have chanced the crossing the day we had.

"But we got here perfectly safe, Kimaere," I protested.

"You got here on te aira-n-anti (a ghost current)," he replied cuttingly, meaning that our eddy had been nothing but one of ten million tricks the sea was forever playing in those twisted waters and never repeating.

"Very well, we had the luck of fools, which can't be expected twice," I said: "so, now that you've got me nicely frightened, please tell me what I'm to do about getting back to Tarawa tomorrow."

"Tomorrow, Kurimbo?" The old man swept a hand dramatically seaward—"Look at it! Tomorrow? You can't mean what you are saying."

The sea looked perfect to me. A moderate surf on the reef's edge told of swells not too towering in the vast blue-black expanse beyond it. The great dome of the sky was page 54sparkling clear. A smart, steady twenty-knot wind was blowing from the south-east. There couldn't have been more promising conditions for the homeward run, by my reckoning, and I said so.

"But look at it, Kurimbo … listen to it!"

His voice was so full of shocked reproof, I simply had to make an effort to see and hear what he meant. It seemed that what he wanted me to see was something significant about the angle at which the breakers were charging the reef; and what he wanted me to hear was a kind of low screaming note behind the mild roar of tumbling waters—tangi-n te air a (the cry of the current), he called it. All that was children's stuff, according to him. But, despite his careful directions and repetitions, my dull eyes and sluggish ears totally failed to register. It soon became clear he found it hard to put up with so crass a pupil. He forgave me, though, when at last I offered him a fee to pilot us home and left the fixing of our sailing date entirely to him.

It wasn't until nearly five in the afternoon four days later that he came and reported all currents fair for a getaway. I went with him to inspect the sea and, while he explained how dead right the look and sound of it were, I stood wondering how a five-ton cutter was going to stand up to it: a tremendous surf was crashing on the reef and the wind was blowing half a gale. However, you can't appoint an expert one minute and go summarily rejecting his advice the next (not outside the Colonial Office, anyhow), so I said unwillingly at last, "All right. Sunset's on us now, though. We'll start at dawn tomorrow."

But that wasn't soon enough for him; the currents, in his opinion, were due for a complete change three hours after sunrise next morning. As the thirty-odd miles we had to sail from anchorage to anchorage would take us, say, seven hours in that wind, our safest plan would be to start not later than twelve o'clock that night, he insisted.

We got away at 11.30, an hour before moonset, under a page 55double-reefed mainsail and a single jib. Even so, the cutter staggered a lot too much for my liking when the big gusts hit her. But the old man stood easily balancing himself in the bows as he conned her west and north past the reefs we had to skirt before the way to Tarawa lay open. He didn't seem to need any handhold even when we came lurching out from under the lee of the land into the dizzy heave of a monstrous westward-running swell.

A compass was another of the things he could do without. He had his guiding stars for every night of the year and every state of wind or current, he said, and these, with his sense of smell, made him independent of white men's inventions. The only thing he did say he needed, after telling us to steer what my portable compass called E.N.E., was a bit of shut-eye. Yes, just as the moon set and my thirst for his moral support reached its most feverish pitch, he left me sitting in the madly plunging bows and, crawling into a coffin-shaped shelter called the pilot's dog-box on the foredeck, went quietly to sleep.

To be sure, in most kinds of bad weather, a small craft is generally safer riding the enormous surges of the equatorial Pacific than caught in the cruel, short, smashing seas of an angry lagoon. Nevertheless, a really big ocean swell with a high wind right behind it does hold certain dangers peculiar to itself. In the valley ahead of each towering crest there is a windless space where the driven water boils up in directionless pyramids around you, and your small boat, her sails empty and thrashing, can easily wallow herself under. And when the rushing mountain swings her reeling from the depths up, up into the giddy heights, there the full fury of the gale suddenly slams her, and you will have her capsized in a second unless you have thought in advance to ease her up for the blow.

I can't say that my capacity to bear these shocks in silence was improved by the howling blackness of the night. Hardly a guiding star was to be seen for the racing clouds. I had a page 56gnawing conviction, too, that our course had far too much cast in it. What with this and that, I have to admit that I succumbed after about an hour and a half to a wild wish to hear the old man's voice again. I went and woke him up.

"What do your stars say now, Kimaere?" I asked him.

He poked his head out of the dog-box and, after sniffing at the air for a few seconds without even a glance at the sky, told me we were only just through the worst of the tide-race round the north end of Maiana.

"Keep her heading always well to the east," he reiterated, as if he had divined the nervous question trembling behind my teeth, and, adding a firm intimation that he would prefer to wake up all on his own the next time, withdrew his head like a snail's into its carapace and went to sleep again.

I stayed in the well-deck aft most of the night, sharing tricks at the helm with the boat captain. A hurricane lamp slung low on a shroud to windward threw a flickering light over the foredeck. It wasn't very bright, but it kept the dog-box well in view from where I sat waiting and watching for the old man to emerge. "Surely he'll be taking another look round now," I kept saying to myself as hour after mortal hour ticked by; but never a sign gave he.

At four o'clock I crawled forward and put an ear to the entrance of his shelter. I couldn't believe he intended to pilot us the whole way, on a night like that, in his sleep. There he lay, though, breathing as deep and placid as a fed baby in the cosy darkness, and there he stayed for another eighty minutes without a move. It wanted less than half an hour of sunrise when he suddenly awoke, clawed his way aft and took the tiller from my hand.

"There is Te Rawa-ni-Bairiki straight ahead," he told me, pointing over the bows as if everything was visible through the night. "Now drop the peak. We will jib sail then and run downwind to Bctio."

Te Rawa-ni-Bairiki is a tidal passage, connecting lagoon page 57and ocean, that cuts through the ribbon of Tarawa's main-land about three miles to eastward of its south-western tip.

But I was full of mistrust. "You sleep all night, then come and say, 'There's Bairiki passage ahead!'" I exclaimed. "How can you possibly pretend to know that for sure? Did a ghost tell you?"

"Not a ghost, Kurimbo … only the smell." It was too dark to see his face, but I heard a smile in his voice.

"What … the smell of Tarawa? Impossible. It's downwind from here."

"Not the land-smell … the sea-smell," he corrected me gently. "That was the voice that said to me as I slept, 'Wake up!' And then, when I was awake, there was the pull of the waves."

According to him, the alarm-clock smell he talked of was peculiar to the sea along the whole length of Tarawa's south coast: no fisherman worth the name could possibly miss it. And the pull of the waves, it seemed, was a kind of jerk or twist or impulse or something that the state of the current imparted to a craft from its keel upwards. This pull was a much more localized affair than the smell, I gathered. If we had been farther to eastward—opposite the Eita passage, for example—the feel of it would have been quite different. He tried to make me understand what the feel of the Bairiki one was actually like: "As it were, a hand plucking at the keel from below the forefoot," he said of it. But it was no good: I was half asleep after the night's vigil, and what was awake of me felt only the wild yawing of the boat as the racing mountain-tops chased her, and all I had inside me was a desperate longing for the sunrise. And on that thought I was of a sudden wholly asleep, slumped there by the tiller.

"Look!" said the old man touching my shoulder a quarter of an hour later. I woke to find day breaking. The sun was not yet up, but in the east, the whole firmament from horizon to zenith was a single translucent flame of daffodil yellow that page 58merged overhead into another flame of unbelievably tender green. But it wasn't the wonder of the dawnlight that he wanted me to admire. "What did I tell you!" he said, pointing north over the wine-dark waters; and there was the purple line of Tarawa's palms, with Bairiki passage two miles away under our lee counter as we went scudding down the coast to Betio and safety.