Sunday 5th June
Sunday is a day of rest throughout Tonga. It is frowned on, virtually illegal to undertake any strenuous activity. Not so for the intrepid crew of the Sea Runner. We slammed into the notoriously treacherous seas between Vava’u and Hunga; an inexperienced crew, lurching straight into a crucible of drama, squalls, ripped sails, snapped ropes, engine troubles, oil leaks and escaped tenders.
The day started earlier than expected. With breakfast on the go as we set off to pick up a rental tender many hours off course. We had planned for the day to be a sailing training day, but need the tender, which is needed to take us in to shore at Hunga. Craig had had a very hard time getting hold of one; we’ll post a tender video. So sail training happened on route.
Carla and Michelle are impressive, ready, quick, physical, after only a few days of training themselves. Emily is fast to get behind the winch. It’s a small space, the cockpit of the trimaran, we are clambering across from side to side. Craig yells instructions in another language. Even though he explained some of the terms the day before I can’t connect the words to what is required of me, the movement of my hands, my whereabouts in the boat, at high speed. I feel like I’m in a big machine furiously turning one of the cogs with no concept of the rest of the machine.
Thank God the other girls are more aware more connected. Ropes whiz around the sails with a throaty whirr, sails unfurl with a canvas roar and snap full in the wind if a tack is successful. Despite my fluster I have a go at Leo’ing, which means letting out the rope holding the sail during a tack. Don’t rest your hand on the winch Craig says to me repetitively, fingers get de-gloved like that.
We get in to Old Harbour to pick up the tender, which is an old wooden village boat we name Gandalf for the great wooden staff resting on it’s hull. It’s pulled up jauntily, far heavier and more expensive than we need but it solves the problem. We tie Gandalf in behind and set up to sail out when the engine coughs a couple of times and spits the dummy. We’re on anchor and close to reef, the tender is jerking on the chain - the engine needs fixing fast. Craig ducks down in the engine compartment and pokes and prods like a surgeon on speed. The engine fires up the engine several times then dies.
Through the bluster of intense engine fixing it occurs to me this would be a good moment to capture on film, as the engine whirs, fires and starts a faltering purr Craig shoots upright and screams. This is on video. I mistake it for a victory scream. I’m wrong, it’s another urgent command I don’t understand. Luckily again Michelle and Carla spring into action; the boat has to catch the wind to take the pressure off the engine and get us away from the reef. The team has to pull up the anchor by hand, on a chain through the water - they pull like University freshmen team playing tug rope against their parents, it goes on and on. Then the anchor is up and the girls are exhausted but proud.
What the hell happened Captain Craig? There was air in the fuel lines, Craig had to loosen a nut to bleed the air out. The nut was at the back of the engine so he’d had to climb right to the back. But we’re off.
We set off with Gandalf in tow, straight into a squabbly squall, which spits in our faces and slaps goosebumps down our bikini clad forms. Queue intensive training session, we scramble side to side across the boat, pushing past each other, the steering wheel and gas tank, tacking, barely keeping pace with Craig’s barked commands while he steers, Leo’s with one hand and cracks the mainsail from time to time. I’m just beginning to feel that I’m being of some use Leo’ing and haven’t made any major errors when the port side Gib winch rope I’m about to Leo pops free. It whips and snaps like an enraged dominatrix, and I, clueless and getting beaten around the arms and ribs grab the rope and start pulling. Michelle, woman on the spot, darts across the helm and snatches the rope from me, doubling the reeling pace when Craig’s yell breaks through the adrenalin fog: “TACK TACK!” and Michelle is off scrabbling back whence she came and winches like prize winning log roller.
Somehow the girls nail the tack and afterwards we examine ourselves for injuries. Slightly celebratory that we’ve got the engine back in play and sure nothing more could go wrong. Nothing does for a while. I go for a nap like a good sailor. Then we reach the open sea, where the water is shaking not stirred and hands are needed on deck. We’re tacking with a little more confidence, although more wary now of how easily things can go wrong. All goes well until we furl the sails. Something goes wrong as Michelle and Carla crouch over the thinner striped ropes speedily furling the sail - for a horrible moment the gib is flapping free striking viciously against the stay sail which to our horror splits open. I don’t know how bad this is but it must be bad. Carla and Michelle continue reeling and soon the front sails are tightly wrapped away.
Craig seems relatively unperturbed, so I don’t ask him how bad this is. We can make the rest of the journey without the sail. The engine is humming, the two mainsails are furled. Michelle is at the helm, laughing about setting out towards open sea. With nothing ahead of us. Just open lines. Emily and I are below deck on our computers. Calming, chatting, looking fondly at Gandalf bobbing along behind us, when he does an extra big bob and his rope snaps. Emily and I look at each other blankly Craig’s bellow shakes us into action “All hands on deck!”. I’ve always wanted to hear someone say that. Just not to me.
Up on deck I wait for an instruction I understand, grab at ropes and try not to fall overboard. The plan is to circle back on the Gandalf, who is bobbing happily by himself, and hook him with a pole with a broken hook, and slip a rope over the towing nub. I’m struggling to keep my footing. Carla jumps to the rope, whisking it in to number 8 wire shape like a pro, the rest of us grab a fender as we approach Gandalf. I’m losing my cool at this point, Craig seems to sense it and yells “Come on Simone!” AND DO WHAT IN ENGLISH PLEASE? an inner voice shrieks.
We draw alongside Gandalf and somehow Michelle hooks him, but in the hustle to secure the rope it slips off and Gandalf is free again. We do another pass to no avail and on the third pass, Gandalf draws up too close and bangs in to us, smacking against the Sea Runner. Emily part fends with her legs and part attempts to grab Gandalf’s hood. It looks like he’s slipping away. “WE’VE GOT TO DO IT THIS TIME!” Craig yells. Again Michelle hooks Gandalf, I have no idea how. It looks like trying to thread a needle using chopsticks. At this point I’m videoing. It will be posted.
There’s a lull after this last incident. We’re all wound up. Tense, too hyper vigilant to celebrate the recapture of Gandalf. Not far from Hunga, though still choppy seas and a tiny opening in the rocks circling the bay to navigate through. Craig asks that someone keep an eye on Gandalf the whole time and I volunteer.
Sat on the aft-cabin looking back at Gandalf, the sunset behind, pulling back on the rope, his nose twisting from side to side, I realise that I am happy there, looking backwards at the open sea and this tender being towed. Not forward to Hunga with the rest of the crew, yet. The day has forced me to be immediate and the world has changed a little bit.
I’m a person who would drive out of my way to pick up mascara rather than face the day with bare eyes. Here today, I’ve been needed as a physical force, in a crew learning bravely and speedily, facing situations beyond their experience with commitment and valour. On route to meet the villagers who moved Craig to set up this mission, to take a crew of noobs through danger and stress to bring the villagers support and change their lives. Change all of our lives. This is day 2.