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Return to the Islands

The Boat that Came Home

The Boat that Came Home

The cutter I used for the Maiana trip was the pride of Betio station and the delight of every district officer posted to Tarawa. She had had a strange history up to that time, and was destined years later (if you believe in such a thing as destiny) to find as strange an end. Her story had begun for me personally one day in 1916 when, as a very green district officer, I had sailed eighteen miles across-lagoon to talk to Mrs. Grant about nothing but the renewal of her trade-store licence up at Tarawa North End. The grim old widow was strictly agin the government and had never before honoured me with anything like a confidence; so I really can't guess what led her to treat me all of a sudden to the stuff she spilled about David Kanoa and his home-finding boats.

David Kanoa was the big, gentle Hawaiian half-caste whom she and her late husband, Peter Grant, had befriended in the wild years before the British flag came to the Gilberts. She had found him one morning at sunrise, she said, senseless and bloody on the beach of their trade-store, dumped there out of a barquentine bound from Ponape to Manihiki. "The dirty cows never came back," was all she cared to add to this little bit of pre-history: "so we had him on our hands, see. But me an' me hubby didn't lose nothing on him. He turned out to be a number-one boat-builder. He built us a cutter for nothing but his keep with the lumber we give him. Over thirty years back, that was, but she's still a beaut. Look at her!"

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The boat lay moored at the lagoon embayment of a tidal passage from the ocean that cut the narrow land there. From the verandah of the Grant shanty she certainly made a lovely picture, poised like a still, white swan on the emerald flame of the outflowing tide. It wasn't her beauty, though, but her utility that wrung me with desire at the moment. I longed to have just such a craft at my call for regular visits to other islands. Top authority, however, as bone-headed as usual, had recently trodden upon me hard for daring to entertain so expensive a notion.

I was just on the unwise point of telling Mrs. Grant all about it when a swirl of the falling tide made the cutter dance and tug at her moorings. "Look at her!" said the old woman again, " She's trying to get home, she is!"

The strangeness of her phrase snapped me out of my near indiscretion: "Home?" I echoed blankly.

"Well, she was born in along there, ye might say," she replied, and that set her tongue really clacking.

The fact was, she explained, David Kanoa had had his boat-yard by the tidal passage. Not on the lagoon beach, though. No, he had located it carefully a furlong inshore, midway between lagoon and ocean, where the ebb and flow of waters drove through the thickest of the palm grove. It was a fixed idea of his that a boat mustn't on any account be born in sight of the sea. If she was, he always said, she'd never be a land-finder. You couldn't tell then when she might sink with you, miles from any shore. But build her at a place like he had chosen, looking at trees and landlocked water, and she'd remember it in her bones for ever. "Ay," said Mrs. Grant, "and she'd always come back to it, so he claimed. Even without a rudder she'd come safe back to where she'd been born, any of his boats would."

I didn't bother to enquire if she herself believed such ridiculous nonsense: it was too clear she did; also, she was doggedly launched on a long recital of the boats David had built there. But I did manage to ask her at last if any of the craft 'born'— page 60to use her own word—in the Kanoa yard had ever, to her knowledge, shown the least proof of possessing that peculiar homing instinct she'd mentioned.

It baled her up, but only for a moment. She eyed me distastefully, then barked, "You wouldn't understand, young man. You ain't no kind of a sailor," and, as if I hadn't interruped, went on describing the last craft David had built on Tarawa—a 32-foot cruiser, cutter-rigged, with a fine hold under hatches amidships and a couple of bunks below decks aft. A real ocean-going job; her stem and sternpost, keel and ribs, of local hardwoods; her hull carved-built of two-inch planks from one of those ready-dressed 60-foot pine masts from California that the winds and currents now and then tossed up on the weather beaches of the Gilberts.

Mrs. Grant made a big thing of that pine mast. What tickled her most about it was the secret way it had arrived, with the clear-as-mud intention, she reckoned, of preventing the ruddy government (several years in the saddle by then) from grabbing it for a flagstaff. Instead of rolling itself up on the foreshore like all the rest of its kind, for everyone to see, it had deliberately shot the reef, point first, one night at flood tide, then dived straight into the very tidal passage where the Grants lived, and obligingly come to rest at the bend of the stream by David Kanoa's boat-yard. He and Peter Grant got it sawn into 20-foot lengths, levered ashore and covered up with palm leaves before another soul saw it. Turning it into planks at his leisure then, David had that last boat of his finished within the next two years or so.

"Well, I bet that was the home-findingest of all the craft he ever launched," I got in. "just fancy! even the timber she was going to be built of coming barging in on its own like that, all the way from California!" To tell the truth, I was bored stiff with that 'ruddy government' line of hers: she was always shooting it, and I'd have liked to get some change out of her if I could; but all she replied to the gibe was, "That's just what I thought meself," and then, after a long pause, "I kinda feel page 61she will come back one o' these days, though David's dead an' gone."

"Well, that'll be wonderful!" I told her heavily. "She's the very thing I want—so long as she doesn't cost the government a blanky bean." But she knew as well as I did what nonsense she was talking. David had taken his boat off to Jaluit, in the Marshall Islands, round about 1902. The go-ahead German administration up there was offering fine jobs to craftsmen like him in those days, and he had walked straight into one as soon as he stepped ashore. But dysentery had killed him soon, poor soul, and his masterpiece had been sold at auction to a local German trader.

So there she had been in 1914, away up in Jaluit lagoon, four hundred-odd miles from home, when the Japanese navy came along and occupied the Marshall group. Everyone knew what had happened then. The Japanese had taken the whole bunch of Jaluit traders' boats out to sea, blown the bows out of them with time-charges of guncotton, and left them to founder. There wasn't the ghost of a reason why David's creation should have escaped the fate of the rest, I reminded the old woman, but she only insisted stubbornly, "She'll come back. I kinda feel it."

Too absurd for words, I thought as I left her. What I can't add, however, is that the passage of time showed her 'feeling' up for the silliness it was. It did nothing of the sort. David Kanoa's boat did, in fact, find her way home. Yes, entirely on her own, as far as a merely human eye could see. There in Tarawa lagoon, in the offing of the native government station, I myself saw her floating, aureoled in the dawn-light, one morning not three weeks after Mrs. Grant had spoken.

A score of elder villagers came forward to back the old woman's identification and point out David's habitual mark, a big K deep-cut in the sternpost. She was half full of water: the Japanese guncotton had shattered her foredeck but, by some miracle, her bows had been left intact. Her mast, though page 62shaky, still stood. She had survived, by our reckoning, well over twelve months (meaning thousands of miles) of drifting, the shuttlecock of wind and cross-wind, current and counter current, through heaven alone knew what innermost solitudes of the central Pacific, to emerge out of that huge emptiness not simply within sight of Tarawa but inside its lagoon.

The odds must have topped hundreds of millions to one against her chance of ever returning, unsteered by human hand, from a point 400 miles away, to even the approximate neighbourhood of that single speck that was her birthplace. It staggers the imagination to guess at what they must have added up to against her chance of pulling off the 'double', which is to say, first the miracle of her homing and then the crowning marvel of her safe entry into harbour. In the whole twenty-mile length of the roaring barrier reef that shut her out from Tarawa lagoon, there were only two channels through which a human steersman could have brought her, half waterlogged as she was, unscathed. She either chanced precisely—just like that—on one of these passages and swam serenely in on the bosom of the rising tide, or else came swooping home superbly through the giant, charging combers over ten thousand jagged coral points and ledges, any one of which a few minutes sooner or later than the exact top of high water, would have ripped her to splinters in the crashing surf.

Mrs. Grant behaved most irritatingly about the whole thing, I thought. The wonder of it left her totally unimpressed. When I tried to bring it home to her, she only said I wouldn't have been so ruddy surprised about it if I'd been a true sailorman like her hubby used to be.

I'm bound to admit, though, that the old lady backed her convictions generously. Three beautiful spars of pinewood arrived at government station one day, with a note from her to say that as the government was holding on to David's boat, it page 63might as well have these for nothing. They really belonged to David, she went on to explain, being as they were the last of the Californian lumber Sent Along So Special (the capitals were hers) for building the craft fifteen years ago.

I snatched at her gift. The gear needed to refit the Flotsam— that's what we called her—as the ocean-going sloop of my dreams was going to cost the whole of £50, which there wasn't a hope of Headquarters letting me spend out of public funds; and I couldn't afford anything near that amount out of my own pocket. But what with getting the spars so providentially for nothing and paying for the sails myself, I found it fairly easy to scrounge the rest from government stores—the odds and ends, I mean, like manila and wire rope, and rigging screws, and copper nails, and tackle, and muntz metal sheathing, and paint, and red lead, and tar. And what wasn't in stock to scrounge, I managed to find funds for in the grand old-fashioned way that district officers know, by sweating a pound here, a pound there, out of votes in the district budget intended for expenditure on anything but a local navy.

It was a highly illicit proceeding, but it did enable the Flotsam to go into commission almost at once as a despatch vessel; and, looking back at the service she gave us over the next twelve years, at the hundreds of sick villagers she brought in to Tarawa hospital from the other islands and the hundreds of pounds she saved us on their transport by trading vessels, I'm perfectly sure Heaven will be a more merciful judge of my crime hereafter than Headquarters would ever have proved at that time, had anyone on top been bright enough to detect it.

We put her on a monthly run to Abaiang, the island just north of Tarawa. When I didn't go along in her myself, the man who took charge of her was that superb sailor and wonderful friend of the Gilbertese, Chief Native Medical Practitioner Sowani, and when this happened, he and I would agree in advance upon a day for her return.

I remember it was the day before we expected her back page 64from one of those trips with Sowani that word came in of a man lying with a smashed thigh at Buariki, Tarawa's most northerly village. It was a compound fracture by the account.

The news had been relayed from runner to runner down Tarawa's 35-mile length. The passage across-lagoon was too rough for any ordinary canoe, as the south-east trades had been blowing hard for over a week. But our station canoe wasn't an ordinary one; also, a hospital dresser was going to take twelve hours to reach Buariki on foot, wading and swimming a dozen tidal passages by the way, and it's better not to keep compound fractures waiting as long as that in the tropics.

So there we were, an hour after the call for help arrived— the dresser, the station canoe captain and myself—clinging to a capsized canoe in a wild seaway, twelve miles from our starting point and eight from our objective. The going had been tremendous while it lasted, but even the morsel of sail we carried had proved too much for her in the sudden fury or a buster we hadn't seen coming.

The first thing to do with an overturned outrigger canoe is to get it completely free of the ghastly tangle of sail, mast and cordage that a capsize always produces. That done, you mount upon the upside-down outrigger float (as many of you as possible) and tread it under water. The deeper you thrust it, naturally, the more the bottom-up hull will be levered over to lie upon its cheek; and if you can keep that turning movement going, the float, travelling down and under, will eventually come up of its own buoyancy on the other side of the hull, which will then be right side up. After that, it takes no more than a kind of seesaw jerk that the Gilbertese use to flick half the water out of the hull, so that it floats again with a few inches of freeboard. The rest is child's play. The only condition is, you have to have fairly calm water to bring it off.

We did give the method a try-out that day, and we got as page 65far as righting the hull. But nothing we could do in that steep, savage sea would empty her of water. Then the tide began to fall, and we found ourselves being sucked nearer and nearer to the bellowing maelstrom of the barrier reef. There wasn't a hope of being picked up. Nobody was out fishing on a day like that, eight miles from land. But, oddly enough, I don't remember anyone feeling very panicky about it. This was possibly because death looks fearful to most of us only when we see a hope of escaping it, and seldom when there seems no hope at all. Or it may have been because, despite all appearances, something assured us deep down inside that all was going to be well. Whichever it was, when we had been four hours in the water, and had perhaps another twenty minutes to drift before the reef got us, the Flotsam came booming along. We didn't have to hail her: she was steering straight for us when Sowani caught sight of our heads— so straight that he had to alter course so as not to run us down.

The canoe was a total loss, as we had nothing to anchor her with; but we salvaged the spars and sail, turned the Flotsam north again, picked up the man with the broken thigh at Buariki, and had him lodged before midnight in Betio central hospital, where an immediate operation by Sowani saved both his leg and his life.

Sowani had finished his work up at Abaiang twenty-four hours sooner than we had expected. That was all there was to it, broadly speaking. All the same, one or two other details do seem to be worth mentioning: especially the timing of his start from Abaiang.

He had planned to sail at 7 a.m. and the mainsail was actually being hoisted at five minutes to the hour when he suddenly remembered that I had asked him to bring me back a dozen island fowls for the pot. He lowered sail at once and returned to shore. But the fowls were shy that day, bless their wild hearts! They came in so slowly that he decided to sail at 11 a.m. with only eight. In this way it came to pass that he page 66left Abaiang neither a lot too early nor a bit too late, but at exactly the right moment, to ensure that the Flotsam would arrive, 19 miles out on her southward run, at the pin-point in space which we occupied at eight minutes past 5 p.m. after a northward run of about twelve miles followed by a westward drift of, say, three.

Then again, there was the whim that took Sowani about ninety minutes after his start, to enter Tarawa lagoon by the northern passage. He never could explain why he chose to do that: he knew perfectly well that his best course in that kind of weather was to stand on outside the lagoon, under the lee of the barrier reef, until he reached the southern entrance. But this would have brought him in five miles to south of us. So something obliged him to come the other way: or at least, this was how Mrs. Grant put it, and by 'something' she naturally meant nothing but the Flotsam herself. The craft had acquired a superhuman personality for her by that time. But for myself, I had no theories. I preferred to hug a single shining thought to my heart: the Flotsam would never have been there to rescue either our canoe party or the man with the smashed thigh if I hadn't had the good sense, a month or so before, to scrounge all that gear from the government. Heaven was obviously all out on my side against those asses at Headquarters. But I never made an official song and dance about that.

Years passed. Mrs Grant sold her trade store and retired to Australia. I had gone on to be resident commissioner, and a district officer who had better be called X— was at Tarawa in charge of the Northern Gilberts when that restless character Kaali, as the villagers called him, came cutting across the Flotsam's peaceful and industrious course.

Kaali (for Karl) was the orphaned son of a Gilbertese mother by a German trader in the southern islands. Though his father had left him nothing but a quick wit, he had inherited a considerable piece of coconut land from his mother. So, as the page 67average islander felt nothing but respect for a tincture of European blood and he himself was never fretted by the slightest wish to live the white man's life, there seemed no reason why he should have failed to settle down happily in the carefree environment of his lagoonside village. But he was always up to mischief of some kind. The trouble for him was that he was so charming about it; he was forever getting away with much more than was good for him.

He had picked up a sound knowledge of marine motors and boat-building while working for the British Phosphate concern on Ocean Island. This made him a most welcome guest when, having got into trouble with the Native Court of his home island, he was sent to Tarawa central prison for a change of air. He was put to work at once in the station boat harbour. He told me afterwards that his plan began to take shape the instant he set eyes on the Flotsam. Something inside him claimed her then and there for his own.

His first step was to tinker at the engine of an old wreck of a motor launch that lay forgotten in the boat-house, until he had it turning over as smooth as silk. That done, he proceeded to persuade X—, the district officer, that the Flotsam would be the better for a bit of auxiliary power and that he, Kaali, was the man to instal the engine. X— resisted at first, but gave way in the end. I think I should have done the same in his place: though the change reduced the cutter's carrying capacity as well as her sailing qualities, it did make her safer all round for inter-island trips in those low latitudes, where the winds could be so variable, the ocean currents so treacherous.

Kaali found it fairly easy after that to get approval for a new suit of sails and, while he was making them at his own pace, he cannily followed up the idea of all-round safety. His very reasonable suggestion, which X— immediately accepted, was that a case of bully beef, a couple of crates of navy biscuits and a dozen tins of petrol should always be kept in the hold as a reserve against every possible emergency.

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The stores safely aboard and the new sails nearly finished, it was time for him to organize his getaway. The main point about this was that it had to be in the dark. He must be not only out of the lagoon but also over the horizon before day dawned to proclaim the Flotsam missing. So he got X— to decide in advance that, when the sails were ready, both these and the engine should be tested out on a trial run to Abaiang and back. His reason for choosing Abaiang was that X—, methodical man, always started his trips to that island at sunrise precisely, so as to arrive in comfortable time for lunch, and for this purpose he invariably had the Flotsam moored out at the end of the jetty the evening before.

Little remained then but to make sure of not being locked up in the gaol on the night of nights. He managed that simply by developing engine trouble, the evening he and Maamau took the cutter out to her moorings. Maamau was the policeman who acted as his overseer at the boat harbour all along, and had also been, incidentally, his willing slave and fellow conspirator from the beginning. While Kaali kept the engine making realistic noises at the jetty-head, Maamau came ashore and extracted authority from X— for both of them to go on looking for the defect all night long if necessary.

X—, whose house was down by the lagoonside, got so used to the sound of the engine that his ears gave up listening at last. It was the same with the sergeant-major of police and the chief warder of the prison. Not a soul noticed—probably everyone was asleep—when the noise stopped altogether. The moon set. In the dark of the night, the Flotsam vanished from Tarawa lagoon as secretly as she had entered it twelve years before.

When dawn revealed the flight, it was found that two girls of under twenty from Betio village had gone with them, persuaded, poor children, by heaven knows what glittering hopes of felicity and fortune down under the western horizon. Even Kaali, that bold planner, was never able to say exactly what he expected to discover in the blue beyond the blue.

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Sailboat in stormy seas

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Only, his pitiful ignorance was haunted by a dream that, in some western fold of space between the white man's country and his own, there was a land where things were different, where nobody would ever find him, where the mere ownership of the Flotsam would assure him and his party a position of authority and wealth forever.

They were unlucky from the start. The S.E. breeze failed them as soon as the first day dawned, and the engine began to play tricks on them. When it stopped, they were swept back by a heavy eastward set to within sight of the tree-tops of Betio; when it started, it carried them barely beyond view of the tree-tops, only to stop again. For the better part of a week they toiled to lose the land, but could not. It was as if the Flotsam was fighting against their struggle to get her away from her home. The battle lasted until their twelve precious tins of petrol were all consumed. By then the two girls, terrified, were begging to be put ashore again and the boys were doing all they knew to get them there. But it was too late. Wild weather blew up from the east and north-east; they were driven for five days and nights before it, four hundred miles and more deep into the solitudes where no land was. There the wind left them. They lay swooning for uncounted days in the fearful stillness of a sea of oil ablaze under the equator's savage sun.

They finished their last drop of water. Very quickly, one of the girls died. A torrent of rain came not an hour later to save her friends, but only for further days and weeks of torture. They thought no more of navigation; the mainsail was draped over the boom for shade; the fore staysail was rigged as a water catchment; only the jib remained standing. Drifting so, doomed puppets of the winds and currents and blistering calms of the doldrums, they came to the last few pounds of their navy biscuits. They were nearly dead on their ration of a crumb or two a day when the Flotsam found her end after eleven weeks at sea, smashed to splinters nearly a thousand miles from home on the reef of an island in the Banks group. The three survivors page 71were rescued living from the surf, but the girl and Maamau died a few hours later. Only Kaali, the cause of all those deaths, came through. I never was keen on retributory justice for the simple-minded, but I can't say I much regretted seeing him shut up for three years on his return.