8 Men and a Duck An Improbable Voyage by Reed Boat to Easter Island
By Nick Thorpe
Free Press Copyright © 2003 Nick Thorpe
All right reserved. ISBN: 0743243099
Can I Borrow Your Safety Harness?
I woke in the darkness, groggy yet anxious, to a sound I couldn't place. The usual cacophony of the bamboo cabin, flexing and creaking like a rabble of ancient rocking chairs, had ceased. Instead came a kind of muffled roaring.
Holding back a swill of fear, I groped for the few familiar reference points: the rounded bamboo roof beams; my spectacles hanging from a string; my life jacket used as a pillow; my harness hanging at the end of my bunk. Good: all there. It was 1:30 A.M. I lay there feeling the shift of my body against the safety rope, waiting to remember.
The noise was constant like radio static, yet swelling too, all around us, as if we were inside it. Familiar yet...
Something snatched at the canvas flap of the cabin door, flung it wetly open.
Rain. Torrential rain. A wall of rain so dense that the head which appeared, sleek and seal-like in the magnesium glare of a hurricane lamp, seemed to be suspended behind the glazed panel of an aquarium.
"Everybody up! We have an emergency!" shouted Phil, spitting raindrops into the cabin. Our captain sounded different, his voice stretched tauter than usual. At the other end of the cabin, Marco's buzz-saw snoring had conspicuously ceased. None of us spoke as we pulled on waterproofs. Was this...it? I wriggled into my harness, checked its built-in strobe rescue light, fastened my life jacket, and stepped outside.
The Viracocha was a mess. Both her sails were blown taut against the wrong side of the masts, hollowed out and hugging the shrouds and spars like skin across the ribs of a carcass. We were sliding sideways before the wind, two wooden leeboards hanging splintered in the water at a strange angle. The bundled reed hull rode the swell uncertainly, and the windward foot of the A-shaped foremast was lifting six inches from its rope binding at every wave. A strong gust might topple it.
"The wind just changed again," shouted Phil, straining vainly on a rope pulled tight as a crowbar. "We need to haul the sails round the mast or pull them down completely before it gets any worse."
Peering out into the darkness I could make out only the glittering curtains of falling rain, the outer circumference of the pool of light around our hurricane lamp. The wind had swung round to a northeasterly, the waves fractious, confused, jostling up against one another, occasionally spraying upwards over the plump gunwales. Even with the wind on our side and all eight of us pulling, we had never yet managed to change the complex sails in less than half an hour. Now we had to pull against the full force of the wind, in a storm, in the middle of the night.
"Are you sure it wouldn't be safer to wait till morning?" I asked Phil, trying to sound thoughtful rather than terrified.
"Maybe. But if the wind strengthens any more it'll be too late to do anything. Except maybe cut the sails off to save the mast." He looked haggard. "It's a tough call."
Another fear gnawed, unspoken. Somewhere ahead of us lay a rocky island with a submerged reef. In our 2,500-mile voyage from northern Chile to Easter Island, the uninhabited territory of Sala y Gomez was to have been our first and last Pacific landing before our destination. Now we needed to avoid it at all costs.
I wiped my rain-mottled spectacles and looked around at my crewmates. Lined up in differently colored raingear, Marco, Jorge, and Greg looked like damp garden gnomes. Marco grinned nervously and began drumming on the lid of a water vat, steeling us for a decision. As Phil's Chilean brother-in-law, he often assumed the role of right-hand man, though his only prior maritime experience was a summer spent towing tourists round a beach resort on a kind of inflatable banana. Carlos, on his own atop the rickety bamboo steering platform at the back of the boat, was yelling something that sounded like "What course?" as he struggled to control rudder shafts the size of telegraph poles. Phil appeared not to hear him, as he craned his neck up into the torrent, scrutinizing the reversed sails as if looking for operating instructions.
I clambered sodden and squelching astern in search of Erik, our Bolivian Aymara boat builder and the man to whom I often turned when I was having difficulty remembering what the hell I was doing on a bundle of reeds in the middle of the Pacific.
I found him hanging off the windward side of the boat, up to his waist in the boiling seas, struggling to pull a broken leeboard up before we lost it altogether. As I edged along the side of the boat to help him, sheet lightning flashed soundlessly around us, briefly illuminating a wilderness of angry, rain-pocked water.
"No es bueno -- not good," murmured Erik, with characteristic understatement. He threw a sodden rope up to me and together we pulled out the leeboard. The upper layers of totora reeds were for the first time beginning to feel spongy underfoot. "The boat's already sunk a foot lower than it was when we left Arica," he said gravely, plastering his black hair across his forehead. "But now the rain will soak the reeds from above as well as below. If it buckets down like this for much longer we may be too low in the water to continue."
Meaning what exactly? We would sink? I looked at the waterline, now barely two feet from the deck, and decided not to enquire any further.
Through the flimsy woven bamboo of the cabin walls, Marco's voice was clearly audible, radioing urgently for a weather report on the VHF. "Viracocha calling all shipping. Do you copy?" Nobody did. We had had no radio contact for days.
The only other source of weather information, a Trimble navigation system with satellite link, had never actually worked in the first place. Its egg-shaped aerial hung pointlessly upside down from the crossbar of the steering platform, a monument to our technical ineptitude. Whatever weather lay ahead of us, we weren't going to know about it until we sailed into it.
As we edged our way back along the side planking towards the foredeck, I clipped my harness onto the safety line. Ever since we had left Chile's northernmost port of Arica a month earlier, a single nightmare had haunted me. I knew it like an old enemy, could reach into my mind for it and feel its familiar shape like a cold pebble in a coat pocket. It was always the same:
Alone on night watch, I lose my footing and tumble into dark waters. I surface coughing and mute with shock to find the rounded stern of the boat already ten meters away, out of reach and retreating by the second, my shipmates asleep. I scramble to locate the safety buoy, trailing on thirty meters of nylon rope. Too late I see its tiny wake, rippling past, moving quickly. I thrash out for it, catch it momentarily in my palm like a rugby ball, and then a surge tugs it from my grasp. I swim in abject panic to catch up, gasping and swallowing water, but my clothes hold me back and it retreats into the darkness before me. And then, after my yelling, my cracked and feeble cries, the silence in response, comes a strange icy calm, a terrible, rational weighing up of my situation as the ocean gently tugs at my boots.
Even if someone saw me fall, the ship will be a mile away by the time they get the sails down. And if nobody saw me, it could be dawn -- thirty miles of sailing -- before anyone notices my absence. I am alone on this black ocean, a thousand miles from land in any direction, and three miles of unknown beneath me. Nobody will ever find me.
I pull down on my life jacket to relieve the growing tension under my arms, and in doing so remember my one last hope of rescue. The strobe safety light on my harness. I am fumbling with it when something makes me stop. If I switch it on, I raise the stakes, perhaps speed my own death. Even if my crewmates use it to home in on me, so too will other, more predatory life forms in the infinite waters below me, attracted by the light. And that is the decision that leaves my nightmare jammed and flickering. Which is it to be? A long, slow draining of hope, a death from thirst or worse, with nothing to guide a rescuer? Or the Russian roulette of my strobe light, every second promising either a cry of a friend from the darkness or the shock of a shark's razored teeth closing around my legs...
I shivered and wrenched myself back to the present. The rain on my hood sounded like ripping fabric, and a thin stream of water was trickling down my spine.
Whatever happens I'll stay with the boat. As long as I clip onto the safety line.
Stephane appeared, grinning and wet, swinging round a mast stay. "Excellent!" he shouted, yelping happily at the rain. "Now we see how this boat really performs!"
This was typical of Stephane. If I was the ship's Woody Allen, neurotically rehearsing the risks, he was its stunt-driving James Dean, always ready to leap before he looked. As for a harness, he would sooner be seen wearing women's underwear. Only four of us had brought professional harnesses in any case, but he had constantly brushed off suggestions that he splice his own makeshift one from spare rope. "I feel more alive without one!" he told me early in the trip, hanging from the masthead with one arm while trying to thread a shackle. The day Stephane resorted to wear a harness, ran the joke, we would know we were really screwed. What would it take? A typhoon?
Phil, an experienced mountaineer but a novice captain, had an altogether more complicated approach to risk. Standing tired and drenched on the foredeck now after a solid five hours on watch, he was still weighing up the danger to his crew of manhandling two heavy sails in pitch darkness with no safety equipment.
"We'll change the sails at first light," he pronounced finally. "It's too dangerous to attempt at night, in case someone goes overboard. As long as the wind doesn't get any stronger, we can afford to drift for a while. I've got to get some sleep. Keep an eye on the GPS and wake me if there are problems."
I swung myself wetly up to the steering platform to help Carlos. "Hey Neeky!" wailed the Chilean, his curly beard dangling like a wet mop as he struggled with the huge tiller. "I can't hold the course! What is happening to us?"
"Everything's okay," I lied. "Just let her go with the wind for now."
We stood in silence together, watching the compass swing, grunting as the twin tillers nudged us in the chest like truculent oxen. Hours merged. Occasionally I checked the small handheld GPS in the cabin, the satellite-linked global positioning system. We were still twenty miles from Sala y Gomez, but closing at about three knots on a course which should take us a few miles to the north of the island...give or take a few miles. The rain eased to a drizzle and the wind seemed to relent, with sheet lightning still flickering sporadically.
At about 6:00 A.M. I tried to snatch some sleep, contorting my body into an S shape to avoid various drips now coming through the ceiling. Maybe we had seen the worst of it.
What woke me, an hour and a half later, was the sensation of being thrown against the side of my bunk. I swung myself down to the cabin floor only to find it awash with water spattering through the roof in dozens of places. The boat tipped and lurched again, throwing me against Phil's bunk.
"Holy shit, what was that?" groaned the captain. We listened, hanging on to any available upright. The roaring of torrential rain was back again, but accompanied this time by a new noise, the noise no sailor wants to hear: the rising moan of a gale in the shrouds.
"We're going to lose the sails," muttered Phil. "Everybody out on deck!" A wave broke heavily on the side of the boat and the GPS tumbled to the floor. I cursed as I was thrown against the bunk again and felt the rinsing of fear and anger in my stomach. I thought suddenly of my wife, Ali, my family, and experienced an odd pang of guilt, guilt that I might be about to leave them for this foolishness. Man dies on floating haystack. What kind of legacy was that?
I pulled aside the canvas door flap and stepped into horizontal rain. In a malign, gray half light, enormous waves were rolling in from the south, their whitish windblown peaks level with the cabin roof before they heaved our pitching bulk aloft, giving brief glimpses of huge valleys of water striped with trails of white foam. Rain and swirling clouds cut off the view after twenty meters. Up aloft the eucalyptus yardarms were bowed in huge arcs round the masts, the taut sails quivering under the strain. It was a miracle they had not already been torn off. We were sailing into the center of the storm only miles from dangerous rocks. Could the omens get any worse?
A moment later they did. Stephane staggered through the doorway and grabbed my shoulder. "I'm going up the mast to try and free the sails," he said, avoiding my gaze. "Can I borrow your safety harness?"
Excerpted from 8 Men and a Duck by Nick Thorpe Copyright © 2003 by Nick Thorpe. Excerpted by permission.
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