After three flights (Vancouver to LA, LA to Tahiti, Tahiti to Raivavae) it was pretty amazing to arrive at the tiny airport and see Doug, complete with an amusing amount of hair, waiting for me. Henriette, whom Doug had met a couple of days earlier, sorted us out with a ride to the other side of the island where Illusion was moored, and I was glad I’d made time for a practise French session with my friend Cristina the day before leaving Vancouver. Our hour of chatting had slightly prepared me for the first significant French-speaking experience since finishing my A-levels, seventeen years ago. (Aaaaack! I can’t believe that was 17 years ago!). Then we were alone, at the quay, and there was the dinghy waiting to take us out to the boat. I guess I hadn’t really thought about how we’d get there – that was a pretty cool moment. So we headed off onto the water, for my first meeting with Illusion and my first experience of living on board a sailboat.
I’d like to say it was idyllic and romantic and perfect. It was, in a way. Swimming off the back steps, drinking morning tea on the deck, watching the sunset, being awed by the stars. And all of it together, after five months apart. But it was also terrifying and crazy and frustrating. Boats take a bit of getting used to. I was constantly banging my head or tripping over or just feeling even clumsier than usual as I tried to work out how things work. I’d seen plans of Illusion (on this very website) and a few photos, but it’s not the same as being there. I didn’t really arrive with any expectations, just the knowledge that she had been pretty messed up by recent years, floating in New Zealand and then more recently by the stormy passage to Rapa.
Luckily I am a girl of fairly simple tastes – my idea of a top-notch holiday is weeks in a scruffy caravan in Wales in the rain, getting washed in the icy stream, walking down the field to the toilet. In fact, that’s what we did for most of my childhood, staying at the best farm in the world, Tal-y-mignedd in Snowdonia, where Mr and Mrs Jones were as ageless as the sheep that covered their land. Quite a few times on Illusion over the next few weeks I said a little prayer of thanks to the Joneses, the Barnards and the Hales (another family crazy enough to return every Summer) for ensuring we learned to find adventure and fun in what could have been the most miserable of experiences. Campsite flooded? Time to race the plastic boats! Tents blown down in the night? Time for a 2am hot chocolate with the other campers! Another rainy day? Perfect moment for a game of cards! Illusion felt enough like a caravan to be familiar and exciting, rather than just a bit of a mess and intimidating. And she was on the water! All my years of loving the sea, and now I got to wake up on it.
Which I did, at about 3am my second night there, because of the stormy weather. Rain and wind and a whole load of strange noises. Doug got up a few times to check everything was ok – this was the first storm he’d had at this anchorage so he wanted to make sure everything was doing alright.
It wasn’t, it turns out.
Everything seemed fine, however, though as I couldn’t sleep we were thinking about watching a movie. We’d just started when we decided it would be better with headphones as the roaring wind made it impossible to hear. A lucky delay. It meant Doug was standing in the galley a few minutes longer than he would have been otherwise, while I found the headphones. Which meant he looked out the window one last time before coming back to bed. Which meant he realised we were a lot closer to the only other boat in the bay than we should have been.
Just a reminder: I had arrived the day before. I’d never spent any time on a sailboat. I didn’t know how any of it worked or what anything was called. (It was hard enough remembering to call the kitchen the galley and the toilet the head). Suddenly Doug was all action. “Oh my god” were his exact words. Followed by “we have to get dressed”. Which we did, pretty quickly. The next thing I knew, he was in the dinghy racing over to the other boat, and I was standing on the deck of Illusion, storming towards the other boat too, and beyond that, to the rocky shore. He was banging on their bedroom windows, as I fast approached.
So, normally, if the anchor dragged, you would just either drop more chain or I guess maybe start motoring to move in a different direction. We didn’t have a working motor, and we couldn’t drop more chain, being so close to the other boat. In the time it took Doug to wake them up and start making a plan, we were almost next to them. I leaned off the back of the boat, trying to push them away. There was a tiny bump. And we whizzed on past them, towards the shore.
As soon as we passed them Doug was back on board, letting out anchor chain and calmly giving me instructions. I became pretty familiar, pretty quickly, with the inside of the anchor locker and its contents. Then he was off again, with Anton from the other boat (a total hero!) in the dinghy to drop our second anchor to hold us in place. Obviously this was the moment our dinghy motor decided it wasn’t in the mood to help us out. So the two of them rowed off, paddling furiously into the crazy waves and the lashing rain.
Eventually they got the second anchor in place (with the help of Anton’s dinghy), so we all headed back to bed and a restless rest of night. We set an alarm on the GPS chart to go off if we got within a certain distance of a certain too-shallow depth, which happened various times during the night. The thought of that pinging alarm will always fill me with dread. The first couple of times, I jumped up, starting to get dressed. By the third or fourth time, Doug explained that he’d set it on a stricter watch than necessary until we got a sense of how far we’d move around in our new anchorage. So there was no need to panic on hearing it. But I still did.
A few hours later, it was light, still raining, and, while Doug stayed on board just to be sure that we weren’t going to be moving any more, I headed off to church, via a much shorter dinghy ride than the day before. The 40 minutes from the preacher in the local dialect didn’t make a whole load of sense, although I’m fairly sure we were being told off, but the incredible singing – from both the modern group with ukeleles and guitars, and the traditional singers, with amazing harmonies, all with colourful outfits and flowery hats and garlands – definitely lifted my spirits. As did the fact I was able to buy a whole tray of eggs from the shop next door, plus a cabbage and some sardines, before heading back to the boat. Especially as Doug looked about as happy to see them as he had been to see me at the airport two days before.