"It can't be." I double check the sun shot data and the Radio Direction Finder reading from Lord Howe Island's beacon.
"What can't be?" Freddy hovers over my shoulder.
"We can't be there," I say pointing to the place on the chart where we can't be.
"Maybe your sight was wrong." Lowell comments.
"No. Must be some strong currents out here. They've taken us far to the north. We'll have to tack right now if we are going to make it to Lord Howe Island. And we'll have to slow down or we'll get there at night."
So Lowell, Freddy and I reef the main and pull in the headsail. A big SW swell is building. Something must be coming up from behind us, out of Bass Straits, south of Australia.
I turn on the radio to get Sydney's weather broadcast. We endure a few minutes of hissing static and just as Sydney Radio comes up to give the weather, the radio goes dead. Bonk, like that. Hours of swaying, weaving, heaving while trying to trace the electrical fault leaves me weak, dizzy and in complete despair. No shortwave radio. The AM radio plays stupid songs amid endless inane chatter. When they finally give a weather report it is one of those "have a nice day" outlooks for the next 30 minutes.
At dusk, Lord Howe's jagged outline towers in the darkening eastern sky.
"Can we get in?" Freddy asks, looking at the mountainous southwest swells.
"I don't think we'd better try. It must be big surf time in the pass to the anchorage." The sky is clear and the barometer climbing with the wind 20 knots from the west southwest.
We were all looking forward to stopping at Lord Howe Island. But if we can't get in through the pass now it could be days before the seas abate. We could sit here until morning, but there is a reef about a third of the way to New Caledonia. Right smack in the middle of the Tasman Sea. We'll pass near it and if we wait and leave in the morning, we'll pass by it at night. Dangerous. If we leave now, we'll pass it during the day. We talk about it and decide to alter course now and give Lord Howe a miss.
"I've always wanted to explore one of those mid-ocean reefs," I announce at dinner. "If it's nice when we get there, we'll stop off at Elizabeth Reef for a look."
"What time will we get there?" Freddy sounds like we might hit it at any minute.
"Don't worry. We won't get there until late tomorrow afternoon," I assure her.
As usual, I take the first three hour watch. Freddy will take the second and she goes right to bed. Lowell sits in the cockpit with me and we talk about his life in France, the house where he lives, his boat the Infanito Errante. But not about Patty. I gather he has not lived with Patty since the two of them sailed from the Solomon Islands to Queensland with us in 1978. Finally, he winds down and we sit quietly as Moira cruises steadily northeast.
"What was all that about dolphins in Sydney?" Lowell asks.
"It's a long story, I really don't want to talk about it."
I look at Lowell lying back on the cushions in the dark cockpit. His huge frame barely fits on the seat. He props his head against the bulkhead. "Well, because a quick explanation sounds totally insane and a long explanation would take half the night."
"Quick one," Lowell's bright white teeth illuminate his shadowed face. "I fancy insanity."
"Do you remember the story about our mind games with the cachalot whales in the Solomon Islands? Where I felt like they implanted some sort of message in my gourd?"
"One is not likely to forget a yarn like that," Lowell chuckles. "I can tell this is going to be a good one."
"Yeah. Well, anyway, after you and Patty got off in Cairns, I went through a couple of years while the message - even if it was my own imagination - kept unraveling in bits and pieces. It was like the whole message was there, in my mind, but I didn't have the words or the experiences to bring it into consciousness. And I wouldn't accept any conscious realization of it unless it conformed to what I considered to be reality."
I stand up and scan the horizon. Empty. Lowell has his eyes closed, so I just sit back down and stare at the compass. Maybe he's gone to sleep.
"So what was the message?" Lowell asks lazily.
"Different story," I laugh. "But related. You want to hear about whale messages or dolphins?"
"Depends. Was the message real or imaginary and did you finally get it worked out?"
"It was real, although maybe it didn't come from whales in the way I originally thought. I got some of it worked out but there is more. Something important is still missing."
"Well, what's the general drift of the message? Would a Jewish slum landlord, owner of a new sailing school, retired attorney and a man of infinite wisdom give a shit about it? Or would I rather hear about dolphins in Sydney? I mean, a man has to base his decisions on a firm understanding of the subject. Don't you think?"
"There's various levels to that answer, Lowell, old buddy. You could understand the message but not get it. If you did get it, and could really apply it, it would make you a man of unreasonable power. Because the message deals with the very fabric, the very basic elements, of how life functions."
"Hey, hey, hey, none of that shit. I'm not a religious man. Metaphysics was mighty bad for the health of 7 million Jews not long back."
"True. But I'm not talking about metaphysics. More like metabiology. In any case, if your ancestors hadn't been perceptive they would not have moved to Texas so you could be a big happy unproductive wealthy man of the world."
"No doubt, no doubt. But they fled from power, they didn't use it." Seeing my grin, he adds, "Well, what can I tell you? Sure they made money and exercised that kind of power. Lets us just talk about dolphins."
"Right. We sailed to Papua New Guinea to sort of think things out for awhile, do some research on pearl oysters, get in some wilderness time, and all that sort of tropical adventure stuff. One of the places we visited was a little atoll where we met up with a school of wild dolphins. It was the first time I was able to swim with dolphins in the wild and get to know them. I learned something from them. About them and about myself.
"When we returned to Cairns, I didn't really have a clue as to what we should be doing. I still was working out the great whale message and wanted to write a book about it. But I wasn't sure how to go about doing it. Part of the whale message deals with how messages originate in a living system."
"Say what?" Lowell shifts into a more comfortable position.
"You know. You decide to shift your body to get more comfortable, so you do. Only it's not a simple business. Your body is made up of 100 trillion little animals. And then there is you, big old hairy Lowell. We know how the little cells on your ass send messages to the brain saying how they have taken the weight long enough. And we can measure how the brain sends messages throughout the body to make you move. But you, Lowell the Magnificent, the collective being, have the final say if you're going to shift and ease their burdens or not.
"You are president and chairman of the board to all those trillions of little animals. They do whatever you order them to do. We know that, but we don't know how the collective you reaches a decision and then kicks off the neural signals to get it done. How do you do that? How do you order them to do anything when, in fact, you would not even know they exist without your undoubtedly shoddy education? How does the collective communicate with the individual elements which make it up?'
"Who knows?" Lowell flips his hand, as if to say, "Who cares."
"Exactly. Nobody knows much about how collective living systems and their component parts exchange decisions. But it is one of the keys to how life functions. The same mystery applies to how the Wall Street average responds to the daily fate of trillions of shares and how that average, in turn, impacts what happens to all those shares the next day. Or how the U.S. Government interacts with the hundreds of millions of individual citizens. Everyone just accepts this process, but how it works is unknown. From the viewpoint of the individuals, the cells, shares or citizens, it all seems like fate or destiny."
"I can't believe this is going to wind up in Sydney with dolphins," Lowell laughs.
"I bought a book in Cairns about just this topic. A Chinese book maybe three or four thousand years old called the I Ching, the Book of Changes. You throw yarrow sticks or coins and the I Ching tells you what's going to happen."
"An oracle?" Lowell makes a big deal of ogling at me, "You, the Professor, consulting an oracle?"
"Just that. Exactly. I rolled the coins and the I Ching and I had an instant thing going. We decided I was going to write a book about how a dolphin gets freed from captivity, returns to the sea, and discovers the principle behind the whale's message. Kind of like a Johnathon-Livingston Seagull of the Dolphin world. We also decided I should go to Sydney. On the way, I had an astounding encounter with a dolphin one night as we sailed by Gladstone. The dolphin told me the ending to the book I was writing. Then, in Maloolaba, I discovered there was a Sydney Dolphin Cult. These people believed the dolphins were collectively sending mental communications of vital importance."
"Wheeeyow. This here is gettin downright weird." Lowell drawls in a thick Texan accent.
"Very weird. I was really excited. Imagine finding a whole cult based on the same kind of weird mental contact I had with the cachalot whales. It was, I thought, independent confirmation of my experience. When we arrived in Sydney, I went to see them. And others started to come to see me. It turned out there were two dolphin cults in Sydney. Maybe more.
"Oddly, the king-pins to these separate movements, the dolphin gurus, were ex-public relations people for large advertising firms. One of them, known as the Rainbow Lady, took me out to see some dolphins in a dolphinarium. This place was 40 kilometers west of Sydney, in the middle of cow pastures, in an African Lion Park belonging to a circus. There were four dolphins in a 40 foot in diameter swimming pool of artificial sea water and they were all sick.
"Lowell, my friend, right then and there I had a true interspecies communication. I looked into the clouded, gummy eyes of one of those dolphins and it told me right out how miserable it was. How it missed the open sea. I understood more about the way dolphins perceive the sea in that instant than I could have learned studying them for fifty years. From the first readings of the I Ching in Cairns, the Oracle predicted I'd get involved in a big public ordeal. It guided me into the dolphin book about the freeing of a captive dolphin and even to Sydney.
"I tried, for awhile, to alter the course of events. To stay out of it. Then, one of the dolphins in the swimming pool gave birth and immediately took the baby to the bottom of the pool and drowned it. That message was so powerful I could not ignore it. I tried to get the dolphin gurus to do something but they were in the never never land. So I spent the next nine months trying to get the Australian public to understand it's not nice to keep open water, big brained creatures like dolphins in a swimming pool. It's obscene to do it because we love them and want to be near them. Dozens of dolphins had died in that swimming pool. Thousands of them die every year around the world to satisfy that same perverse love.'
"I never liked zoos or dolphinaria, just because of that," Lowell grumbles. "So what happened?"
"I came up with the idea of a half-way house where the captive dolphins could be kept in a National Marine Park. Trainers would teach them to come and go as they pleased. Like that place in the Florida Keys. The Government was willing, but the dolphinarium owners refused. Even though they would get control of the whole show.
"The public relation dolphin gurus got pissed off because they were not getting any attention. In the end they and Greenpeace and the Jonah Foundation sabotaged the whole effort and the three surviving dolphins stayed in the swimming pool.
"The New South Wales Government outlawed catching any more dolphins to put on display. The Australian Government came up with all new regulations on catching, holding and display of marine mammals. The children of Sydney quit going to see the dolphins at the Warragamba African Lion Safari and the owners had to shut down. But they kept the dolphins."
"It doesn't sound as if you lost all that badly,' Lowell says.
"No. Not me. The three dolphins at the African Lion Safari. They are the ones who lost badly. I was the shining knight, defeated by mountains of bullshit. A friend of mine, an aboriginal guru named Burnam Burnam, pointed out the whole ordeal was not really about dolphins. It was about prophesies, about how the I Ching could predict events so accurately. About fate."
"Ahh yes, the Moirae, the three sisters of Greek mythology whom you have honored by naming this boat after." Lowell stretches and yawns. "OK, professor, a good yarn. I'd better get some sleep. See you in... ahh...four hours."
What a day! Blue skies, a light 5 knot northeasterly wind, long soft swells from a cyclonic low south of Tasmania. We are now at 30? South and 159? East, about 500 miles northeast of Sydney. ABC says a front is due in Sydney tomorrow but right now, right here, it is really gorgeous.
We circle round the 3 by 5 mile oval reef in the middle of nowhere. The wreck of a big steel Taiwanese fishing ship sits high and dry on the SW corner of the submerged atoll. I climb to the first spreaders on the mast and check out the pass into the reef on the northeast side. No problem. It looks wide and deep. We drop the mainsail and motor in.
Inside the water is flat calm and shallow, a labyrinth of white sand and dark reefs. We turn to port and drop the anchor on pure white sand in 20 feet of water.
"Wonderful!" In the ruby sunset we lower the Avon over the side and go for a swim. The water is perfectly transparent, cool and refreshing.
Hot showers, no rolly polly swells, a big steak dinner and the sky alive with stars. We collapse into a deep, exhausted sleep. Happy and secure.
Rick. The wind has come up," Freddy breaks into my dreams and I am out of bed and out on deck so fast my brain is still trying to figure out what I'm doing. The wind is up all right: about 30 knots. I glance at my watch. 2 AM.
"Damn!" It is completely, totally, 100% pitch black. I check the compass. The wind is from the NNE, "NNE means that front is about to clobber us," I shout at Freddy.
"I don't like this. I thought the front was still a day away," she shouts back. Walter the cat has gone into the sail locker and dug himself a little nest way in the back. This is one of his ultra panic stations. It makes Freddy and me uneasy.
"I don't like it either," I stand in the dark, holding onto the big steering wheel. The anchor. The wind is now a steady 35 knots and building. I run my mind down the anchor chain and feel the bottom. "Yipes! The anchor's going to let go. We need a back up, quick. Get Lowell and two flashlights." I tear open the gear locker and drag out my wetsuit, tank, regulator, mask, flippers. Freddy and Lowell stagger out on deck and hold the flashlights as I rig the 20 pound Danforth anchor and 50 feet of one inch nylon line. I struggle into my diving gear.
"OK, hand me the anchor from the bow when I signal," I shout to Lowell over the wind. It is now gusting to 40 knots. I release the ladder and climb down. There is a strong current. Very strong. Must be the tide mixed with the big breakers washing into the lagoon. "Freddy, throw over a line from the bow." She goes forward and I ease myself into the churning, black water. It's cold. I turn on the flashlight. The bow line streams off the port side. I reach out, grab it and let go of the ladder. It's like towing behind a boat underway. I look straight ahead so the current won't wash off my face mask and I pull myself forward, hand over hand, along the line.
Not too bad. I've towed like this hundreds of times during reef surveys. The current is about 3 knots. I pull myself as far forward as I can and lunge for the anchor chain, kicking like crazy. I grab it and hang on, the current buffeting me. Lowell is right above me on the bow. He lowers down the Danforth anchor and the nylon line. These are an enormous drag when they hit the water. I crook one arm around the anchor chain and tuck the Danforth anchor under my arm. That's better. I work my way, hand over hand, down the chain, feeling my way in the black, surging current.
Tight against the bottom the current is less. I creep along the anchor chain until I come to the CQR. I drop the Danforth anchor on the sand and switch on the flashlight. The anchor looks OK. But as I watch, I see the particles of sand moving, tumbling slowly, behind the plow. The anchor is slowly dragging through the sand. I was right, if the wind comes up any more, we will wind up on the reef just behind us. I dig out the sand astern of the head and attach the nylon line to it. Then I use the Danforth as a claw, digging it into the sand, hauling myself up against the current, then quickly moving the anchor ahead a notch. I ratchet along up current until the heavy nylon line is tight, then jam the flat steel blade of the Danforth anchor as deep as I can into the loose sand. That's it.
I let go and roll over, look up, and ascend. The current sweeps me back to the Moira in seconds. I make my approach belly-up, angling close to the hull, aiming for the ladder on her stern. If I miss, it's going to be a long, long swim. My arm brushes the hull and slides into the steel rung of the ladder and I sweep into the lee of Moira's stern. Easy.
By dawn the wind is a steady 40 knots, gusting to 50. I really don't like the way this is building, slow and steady and hard. ABC radio says something about a gusty southerly wind preceded by strong NW winds. "Let's drop the headsails," I say as we eat breakfast, thinking the extra bulk of the rolled up headsails will be better placed on deck.
"Let's get out of here," Lowell suggests, his eyes a bit on the overopen side.
"Lowell, have a look at the pass over there." He looks at the huge surf rolling in from the gale force northerly winds. "We might make it out through those breakers but it would be damn dangerous. And we can't get the dinghy aboard and would no doubt lose it out there."
"I don't like all those rocks" Lowell points downwind at the lagoon reefs just astern.
"I don't like those seas," I point at the thundering mountains outside the ring of coral.
"Why can't we muscle up the dinghy?" He insists.
"Ever try to maneuver a 4 by 8 sheet of plywood in a 50 knot wind? She'd be a 100 pound 12.5 foot long kite the minute we hoist her clear of the water."
In the end, we drop the headsails, lash down everything on deck, take everything out of the Avon and secure the outboard motor on the stern pushpit.
The wind is now a steady 50 knots and has taken on a throaty moaning sound. I sit in the cockpit thinking about the anchor. I think about it again and again. In fact, I can think of nothing else. Moira is going to drag. "She's not going to hold."
"You fixed it," Freddy shrugs. "What more can you do?"
Finally, I can't stand it any longer and put on my mask, fins and snorkel. The current has slacked a little and I pump my way up ahead of the Moira, the wind hooting in my snorkel. In the clear water, from the surface, I can see the anchor very clearly. The CQR is hanging free, up-side-down, actually lifting off the bottom. The danforth holds doggedly, like a steel fingernail, in the loose sand. I dive down and grab the 1" nylon line between the Danforth and the CQR anchors. It stretches to about 3/4" thick, rubber-banding 3 or 4 inches with each surge of the Moira. I surface swimming like mad and race up the ladder.
"We have two choices," I shout as we huddle out of the 50 knot wind behind the dodger. "Out to sea or fix the anchor."
"We've held so far," Lowell votes, "Leave it alone. I've got this good saying...If it works, don't mess with it." Freddy agrees. We sit and listen to the anguished cry of the wind in the rigging.
As each minute ticks by I am more and more sure the anchor will drag. Out comes the SCUBA tank, another nylon line and 20 feet of chain. Shackles, wrench, gloves....
"Look at all the turtles," Freddy shouts above the wind. I stand up and see them everywhere, big sea turtles feeding on thousands and thousands of men-of-war. The poisonous blue-bottle stingers tack their bubble shaped sails in and out of Moira's windslick. Portuguese Man-of-wars, Physalia. Simply terrific. Nothing like a few poisonous monsters to make life stimulating.
I go on the foredeck and let out 200 feet of anchor chain. Freddy shouts out the depth as I ease it out. I slide the dog into the gypsy when she screams we are in 8 feet of water. The reef is just aft of our stern. I put on all the dive gear, walk along the deck, find a clear place where there are no men-of-war, take the chain and tools from Lowell, and leap in with all my junk.
The current is still not too bad. I drop to the bottom and flop my way up the long anchor rode, hauling the chain behind. The CQR is now on the bottom but not dug in. I shackle the new line onto the chain about 2 meters from the CQR. Then I follow the nylon line to the Danforth. As I get closer, I have to dig the nylon line out of the loose sand to find the anchor. Finally, my fingers locate the eye splice of the hawser and I carefully wash the sand away from the head of the anchor. It is about 6 inches under the surface of the sand. I shackle the new chain onto the danforth and take out my knife.
With a silent prayer to the sea kings, I cut the old line. It snaps free and the new chain slithers out and takes the load. The Danforth begins to plow through the sand! I feel a moment of helpless panic but as the CQR bites in, the Danforth slows and stops. Hands shaking, I remove the old shackle from the anchor, gather up the line and remove it from the CQR. The CQR is now properly buried. Both anchors are holding firmly. Moira now has two steel fingernails in the sand. I relax.
The surface of the water, about 20 feet over my head, is a tangled mass of blue Physalia jellyfish, their deadly tentacles dangle down, many of them caught on the upper part of the anchor chain. I let the current carry me back to Moira's stern and lie on the bottom, holding on to a small coral head just under the ladder. There is no way I can get out without coming up right in the middle of the Physalia. A sea turtle paddles by overhead, munching the blue monsters like chili peppers. Very interesting to watch.
Freddy's face appears over the stern - distorted by the swirling water and foam from the wind whipped seas. I see a broom poke into the water and move some of the jellyfish away. Now! I leap up from the bottom and grab the lower edge of the rudder. 5 or 6 man-of-wars are still in the wake of the Moira, swirling around the ladder, their tentacles writhing about in an impenetrable net. The broom head tangles them and makes a hole. I am wearing gloves, a wetsuit jacket, and jeans. I surge out and lunge up the ladder. Tentacles cover my wetsuit. Carefully, I peel it off. No stings.
"The anchors," I smile proudly, "are secure." Freddy and Lowell and I stand on Moira's deck in the screaming gale and laugh.
The wind swings round to the west and the current holds us into the wind. The anchor line is actually slack. We hang sidewise to the 50 knot wind, healing over 15? to 20? with the force of the wind.
17:45. Spectacular sunset. One gigantic red mares tail reaches from horizon to horizon. The thundering, howling wind numbs us. We sit in the cockpit and stare at the long red cloud.
"Try the weather," Freddy suddenly yells. I switch on the AM radio and it reports, "A child was killed at the Aventureland Amusement Park at Livington on the western outskirts of Sydney when he was struck by a roof blown off a toilet block. So far the highest wind gusts in Sydney have been 117 km/hr just 14 kilometers less than the highest record gusts in a September month."
20:25. Walter the Cat and I sit in the cockpit. Lowell and Freddy have gone below. Moira is dark. The wind is out of the west northwest at a steady 40 knots. Off to the south I see the Southern Cross through the clouds.
Elizabeth Atoll, the megabeast, cradles us in her arms. Not 200 yards from where I'm sitting, the Tasman Sea screams in the fury of a force 8 gale. Giant waves thunder onto the reefs all around us, a bass counterpoint to the moaning tenor of the wind. Elizabeth is a tiny oasis of calm in a giant caldron of rage. Walter has his ears back, his tail tucked in underneath him.
Midnight. Lowell comes on watch and I go below and crash.
Burnam Burnam's deep aboriginal voice booms from outside the breakers, calling me. I float up off the Moira and look out to sea and there is an Orca speaking with Burnam's voice saying, "Come with me, Come with me, it doesn't matter if your boat is wrecked."
"NO!" I shake myself awake. It is 2 AM. The wind is down, but I feel uncomfortable. Something is going to happen. I get up and go into the cockpit. Lowell is barely awake. "Go on down, Lowell, I'll watch for awhile. Looks like it's over anyway."
He grunts sleepily and shambles down into the cabin to rest.
I sit in the cockpit and look at the instruments. The depth is 22 feet. The wind speed is 22 knots. The current is 2.2 knots. (!) 22+22+22 = 66 by threes. 666. The sign of the beast. I rub the sleep out of my eyes and check the instruments again. Depth 21 feet. Wind 21.3 knots, current 2.13 knots. Wind direction, 21.3? true. Exactly the direction to New Caledonia. I go below, click on the map light, and look at the chart. We are 666 miles from New Caledonia. The radio station there, the one we will home in on with our radio direction finder is 666 KHZ.
I check my watch as I return to the cockpit. 2:34 AM. The wind is blowing 48 knots again and has swung round to the west, the depth sounder is flashing nervously between 4 feet and 6 feet. It's too dark to see the reef but there is surf everywhere around us. The current is holding us about 40? to the wind. If the current stops or the wind shifts, we could be blown back onto the reef.
We could die here, tonight. Well, perhaps we could survive. We have plenty of food and water and an emergency locator beacon. But the Moira could die here.
2:45 AM. Wind speed 54 knots. I turn on the deck lights to try and see the coral patches beneath the boat. Blackness. Back to the cockpit. Flop down in the shelter of the dodger. I shake my head to clear it and then close my eyes. Amid the moaning, tormented wind I hear a voice again. It says, "Sea Creature, Sea Creature, I must let you go." It is, my sleepily brain decides, the Atoll itself speaking to me. It is warning me it can no longer hold us. It's telling me the tide is about to change. Without the current holding us against the wind we will veer back and forth, worrying the anchors this way and that. They'll let go! They will. I'm completely sure of it.
I start the engine and stand behind the wheel. I can't see anything but the red flashing numbers of the digital instruments.
"What's going on?" Lowell appears in the companionway, Freddy just behind him.
"Quiet, I'm concentrating." I don't want to speak, just feel. They come out into the cockpit and sit down. Lowell moans, "Oh Christ! This is it. I know this is it."
Now, my hands lightly on the steering wheel, I feel the current start to slack. The feeling is exactly as if the atoll megabeast has let us go. Moira trembles and begins to dance on her anchor. All of a sudden, Moira swings through the eye of the wind. I know, for sure, we are going onto the reef.
I throw the gear into forward and swing the wheel to port, playing the throttle, I bring her back through the eye of the wind. "Depth 3 feet," calls Freddy "4 feet. 5 feet." I hold Moira on the starboard tack, keeping the wind direction indicator reading exactly 30? to the wind. I balance her delicately on the wind and current.
My awareness flows out through my hands and feet into the Moira. I feel Sea rushing by my hull, the wind bursting through my rigging. My mind travels down the anchor chain - my steel tentacle, stretched tight - and feels the anchors - twin steel fingernails - dug hard into the sand holding us steady. I move my hands lightly on the wheel, without effort or thought, and the wind direction indicator holds absolutely steady.
I am Moira. I am a giant sea creature calmly, easily, effortlessly, swimming in the circle of protection of Elizabeth's sheltering coral arms, waiting for the storm to pass.
6:13 AM. The anemometer digits glow an angry 58 knots. Earlier it was 64 knots. The sea around us is a seething white mass of spray. The morning sky is blue but the clouds are whipping by out of the west. The current has come up again and the atoll holds Moira securely, beam on to the hurricane force wind. Lowell calls it a magic current.
6:25 AM. Wind 62 knots. the current still holds us. There is an uncanny optical illusion caused by the waves rushing away from us onto the reef behind the Moira. It is impossible to watch them without the sure feeling we are being swept down onto the reef. But there's a little patch of coral just under us and I can see, by looking over the side, we are not moving at all.
7 AM. A gigantic black cloud bears down on us. It fills the western sky. Looks mean. The wind is 56 knots. The noise is deafening. Waves are breaking over Moira from the side. The barometer is climbing - it's up to 1007 hpa. The atoll water is milky white and I can no longer see the bottom below the boat. The wind is 66 knots and climbing. The dinghy flaps around behind the Moira. The surface of the sea is a white foam, blown apart by the wind. The black cloud is right over us. Moira keeps 60? to the wind. Christ, I hope the anchors hold.
I try to get the weather. Static. Hissss. Nothing. Something faint about a depression developing somewhere near Lord Howe Island.
9 AM. The wind finally drops and swings around to the south south west. Looks like we've made it. The radio announcer reports a long list of accidents and catastrophes caused by the storm; accidents, he says, that could have been avoided with proper forecast warnings. He proceeds to give a "detailed" weather forecast, the bulk of which consists of the water levels in the rivers of New South Wales.
"What a day," Freddy stands on deck in a little bikini. It is a magnificent bright new morning. "Let's go swimming. Let's go see that wreck."
"Let's eat," I come up behind her, grab her around the waist, and nibble the back of her neck. The storm has passed.
Over breakfast, Freddy and Lowell talk about exploring Elizabeth Atoll but my mind goes back to the night, during the storm. I felt, so clearly, so perfectly, I really was the Moira. I was the consciousness of the yacht and it was my body. When I felt like that, it was easy, natural, to balance the helm against the wind, tide and anchor chain. Some of that feeling remains even now. Tendrils of thought link me to Moira just as they tie together my own arms, hands, legs and feet. I have lived at sea for more than half my life, over 22 years aboard my own boats. And last night, for a few hours, I was a 15 ton sea beast of fiberglass, steel, dacron and flesh swimming lazily just inside the lips of an even bigger beast, a circular megabeast, five by three miles around, perched on top of a volcanic peak in the northern Tasman Sea.
After breakfast, while Freddy and Lowell get ready to go, I climb to the spreaders and look out over the southernmost coral atoll in the world. I can see the ring of breaking waves dumping billions of gallons of sea water over edge of the circular reef. A reticulated pattern of coral reefs line the shallow lagoon like convoluted folds of a gigantic stomach.
Turning, I see the deep blue slice in the reef: the narrow ocean pass. The pass is the mouth of Elizabeth's lagoon/stomach. Like the billions of tiny coelenterates which built her, Elizabeth is radially symmetrical with a single opening into the digestive system: a combination mouth and anus. She has two different layers of tissue, an outer, hard, epidermis making the spur and groove buttresses to withstand the hammering of the waves. Inside the reef there is a delicate, convoluted endoderm made of delicate branching corals, like papillae, lifting into the sea water from the convolutions of the vast stomach wall.
Like a big up-side-down jellyfish, Elizabeth has billions of small motile tentacles, fishes and crabs and echinoderms and mollusks, roving here and there; taking food from this portion of the animal to that.
From up here in Moira's rigging, I see patterns of life building in nested layers, bright and hungry in the morning sun. Coelenterate cells, using a pattern of behavior they've found successful over billions of years of living, repeat the behavior one level higher to form this atoll. The atoll is a harmonic of coelenterate behavior. How do all the creatures coordinate to form a harmonious and functional whole?
"Come on, let's go," Freddy calls, squinting up at me in the rigging. I climb down and the three of us pile into the Avon. We head off towards the wreck on the southwestern rim of the reef.
The water is perfectly clear and the day calm with a blue, blue sky. As we skim over the lagoon reefs I say, "We'd better hurry or we'll get trapped out here at low tide." Unfortunately, none of us are listening to me.
About mid-way across the lagoon I slow to a stop and spin the dinghy around in a tight circle to clear the surface. We look down onto one of the folds in the lagoon's digestive system. It is almost entirely Acropora. The long delicate branched antlers of the stag-horn coral tangle into a thicket of soft colors and shapes. We put on masks, fins and snorkels and splash into the water.
The density of living coral is phenomenal. No oceanic plankton swept into this lagoon by the waves could possibly escape the zillions of tiny filter feeding tentacles of the corals. The Acropora thicket is a fine sieve of grasping tentacles and hungry mouths. Each thicket forms a ridge reaching almost to the surface of the water. At low tide the branch tips of the coral will come out of the water. Every drop of sea water dumped into the Atoll's stomach by the ocean waves will filter through a maze of miles and miles of folded and papillated coral sieve.
Turtles and fish swarm in the lagoon. I swim right up to a large green turtle and it looks at me but is not especially concerned. A big grouper examines me closely, coming within inches of my mask. A small shark glides over, wondering if it should try to reduce our bulk to smaller size so Elizabeth can digest us, too. But I speak to it firmly and it agrees we are not suitable prey and serpents off.
Oddly, there are few mollusks and echinoderms. I don't see a single starfish or crinoid and only a very few sea urchins.
Reluctantly, we slither back into the Avon and continue to the wreck. It is a rusted Taiwanese fishing ship. Looks like it might have been here 5 or 10 years. The boobies perched on her rails peer down their beaks at us as we climb onto the wreck. From her deck I can see the top of the reef. It is mostly bare pavement-like algal rock. Calcareous algae cement the corals together and forms a hard, enamel-like coating along the leading edge of the atoll's jagged teeth. A few low, encrusting corals dot the reef top between the big chunks of rubble tossed up from the windward side during storms.
Far over the lagoon Moira is a tiny white dot. Very shallow reefs lie between us and Moira. The tide is dropping. I mentally plot a return path through the maze of reefs and scamper back down into the dinghy.
We bear to starboard where the water looks deeper and circle round the lagoon. The water shoals and I slow to put the engine up into shallow water running position. We motor along getting closer and closer to Moira but the tide is now dropping quickly, too quickly.
"Damn," Exclaims Lowell as the outboard hits a coral head.
"You said it," I agree, stopping. We've run out of water. I put on my flip-flops and step out into calf-deep water. "I see a way to float us through, you guys stay in there. No sense in more than one of us taking a chance with stonefish." I take the painter and walk ahead of the boat, towing it behind me like a toy. Carefully, to avoid stepping on a venomous stone fish and to keep the inflatable from being cut on the sharp coral, I thread my way along the pathways of sand between the now emerging coral heads.
"It's not far," Freddy says, standing up in the dinghy, "Go left here. Maybe another 200 meters."
"That's too far to carry the damned thing." I grumble.
I begin to throw loose, dead coral heads out of the way. Lowell gets out and pushes the dinghy through the path I clear. It's slow work.
"Not much further," Freddy encourages us, but the water is now only a few inches deep and the coral heads thicker than ever.
"This could be a problem, old buddy," Lowell pipes up from behind the dinghy. "We could be here until tonight when the tide comes back up."
"Yeah, and we didn't leave on any lights and there's no moon. If we can't get back before dark, we may not be able to find Moira at all." Furiously, I throw coral rubble left and right, thinking Elizabeth Reef may not have been entirely altruistic holding us in its arms last night. It is really trying to hold us now.
We drag the Avon the last few meters, hoping the bottom will not tear, and emerge into deeper water. Lowell and I jump in, start the engine and we race back to the Moira in the gathering twilight.
"Let's get moving again, tomorrow," Freddy suggests as we get aboard. "On to New Caledonia." After dinner, Lowell takes a shower and retires to the forward cabin with a book. Freddy and I plan the voyage to New Caledonia, then take a quick shower and go right to bed.
About 2 AM I wake up from a strange dream. A dream of creatures of the sea. Not a dream about sea creatures. A dream by sea creatures. A dream common to all forms of life. It begins with a phrase, "We voyage this magic sea, bound for destinations of knowledge and understanding...."
My mind is full of thoughts and ideas about that extraordinary feeling I had during the storm. The awareness of extending my mind outward, through a complex web of interactions, becoming something more than just me. It isn't a new idea, but its one made fresh and ..... different by the conscious realization that I really am a kind of giant sea creature. On a voyage of discovery.
I need to get some sleep. I turn over, force the thoughts out of my head, and listen to Moira. Small lagoon waves lap her hull. Reef animals, shrimp and fish, make soft crackling and popping noises. Their signals thread out into the darkness of sea, telling all the living entities in the area ... telling them what? About what they are doing? About how to be part of a megabeast tens of thousands of years old?
My body is tense. I can feel Freddy is awake, she senses I am awake. Probably from the tiny signals and sounds I make as I lie here thinking. My mind refuses to shut up. I slide out of our bunk and take my notebook out into the cockpit so I won't disturb her. It is cool and pleasant with stars glittering from horizon to horizon. I sit and write about the dream of the sea creatures, a dream which is true for corals, fish, atolls, and for me:
We voyage This Magic Sea, bound for destinations of knowledge and understanding.
We exist within This Magic Sea; an awareness seeking knowledge of ourself and of the myriad others voyaging alongside.
Each one of us is an awareness, perceiving, remembering, reacting our own unique position, our own perspective, our own memories and actions.
Each one of us is different from any other yet, on other levels, we are related - intertwined in ways beyond our understanding.
Each action, our sum of memories, every perception, exists within complex webs of communications between all the other beings within This Magic Sea. For all, the wind that propels and gives direction and stability to our voyage is Survival.
I stop writing and stare at the stars. The words are not what I see. I am writing about something I can actually perceive, but can't quite figure out how to say.
The Sea is a magic place, filled with ancient memories moving like giant shapes just beyond our levels of perception. We are limited, consciously, to the time we spend under the surface of this magic sea. To think about it we must relax, breathe deep, hold our thoughts, dive down, and quietly observe.
What our conscious mind perceives in the depths depends on past training and experiences. The shadows of ancient memories we've seen moving just beneath the surface glide away from us when we begin to delve into them.
The secret of life hides just beyond the horizons of our conscious perceptions, in Sea's bewildering panorama of living beings. Sometimes, after focusing past the sheer size and beauty of it all, we discover what we can not see or touch, but know only by its behavior. By examining the behavior of the creatures, we can, for a moment, discern larger patterns within the restless movements of Sea's beings. Rarely, in brief glimpses, the patterns of behavior dissolve into even more designs of behavior, one nested within the other, ascending and descending a scale of complexity like symphonies of life built from harmonic notes, stanzas, and passages.
These nested patterns of behavior are one of those ancient, yet elusive, understandings. When This Magic Sea is especially clear, I can see the way the behavior of Sea's myriad parts combine to form whole new levels of being. Molecules combine to form bacteria, bacteria communicate to form cells, cells communicate to form multicellular polyps, polyps communicate to form coral colonies, coral colonies interact to form reefs, reefs interact to form atolls. Once perceived, the nested pattern of behavior reveals itself as a harmonic of life. Selves join to become new selves and these new beings behave in totally unexpected ways.
Strategies of being, the essence of life, the basic laws of nature swim within This Magic Sea. For us humans, locked into language designed modes of thinking and sensory limitations enclosed by the brief intervals of our awareness, these wonders are difficult to comprehend. Yet they are the foundation of our existence and, in the end, the explanation of being.
Through my binoculars, I see the tall white spear of the South Pacific's biggest lighthouse nicking the dawn horizon. It is the lighthouse on Ilot Amedee, marking the Bulari passes through the barrier reef of New Caledonia. It's been a rough week, with the wind blasting at 30 knots out of the east. We've sailed with just the staysail and double reefed main and are soggy, miserable and pooped.
"Hey, Lowell, come up here and see a welcome sight. We've made it."
He climbs out the companionway and comes on deck. We are closing fast and can see the lighthouse with the naked eye now. I hand him the binoculars and he squints through them in the direction I point. "OK, little buddy, your navigation is right on the money. Lets unreef this baby and truck on in. I'm a yearnin after some of that good French wine."
"Let's do it. You get the tie downs aft. Freddy, get ready to bring her into the wind, we're going to unreef the main." Lowell works his way aft and I go to the mast, undoing the forward ties on the way. I look aft and Lowell signals to hoist away, the main capsizes onto the dodger cover. I signal Freddy and she turns off the autopilot and brings Moira's bow into the wind. Moira cleaves joyful bursts of spray over her foredeck.
I release the reefing line and the tack and hoist away on the halyard. The main and staysail flog heavily in the wind and we slow down to a crawl. I haul until the sail is too heavy to lift and whip the halyard around the winch. Using both hands on the handle, I crank as fast as I can. Then I hear a shout and I turn aft. There's something wrong with the sail. Moira is falling off. The wind catches the main and I see what's wrong. One of the aft ties is still secured. That one reefing point is taking the full weight of the boom and the pressure of the sail. Lowell tries to reach it as I pull the handle out of the winch and let go the halyard. But it's too late. The main tears from one end to the other, ripping right across the middle.
"God DAMN! Hey, damn, I didn't see it." Lowell says as we stand around the torn sail. Fortunately, the tear went under the other reef points. We reset it tied off to the upper reef points and continue on our way, much deflated. We can repair it, but it means we'd better start thinking about a replacement. About $2500. That's what I think about as we sail the morning away, beating toward the reef; $2500.
We breeze past the lighthouse. It looks very French, proud and defiant on the outer reef. The pass is broad and easy and by late afternoon we drop the hook in the harbor of Noumea. Noumea is a very beautiful city. Lowell says it looks like a little Mediterranean town from the south of France perched on the mountainous green island of New Caledonia.
On shore, right next to where we anchor, Freddy spots a sign for a sail repair place. Once we clear in we'll take the mainsail in for repairs.
Freddy fixes us a terrific meal of fresh tuna in a spicy sauce over rice. After dinner Lowell offers to help Freddy clean up the dishes. "No thanks, Lowell, the galley is too small for you. I never let anyone in my galley anyway."
Lowell and I sit in the cockpit and look at the lights of Noumea. "You know, Richard, you have one hell of a lady there," he says after awhile. "We've sailed together now for what, two thousand miles?"
"Something like that, counting the Solomon to Australia run," I reply heavily, almost asleep.
"And we knew each other for a year or so in Key West before that. In all that time, I never once heard you and Freddy argue about anything. Don't you guys ever fight?"
"Sure. Sure we do. Sometimes. Not often. Not like..." I remember almost too late how he and Patty used to fight all the time. "Well, see, Freddy and I, we're kind of like one person. Sometimes you argue with yourself about something but in the end you don't really fight with yourself too hard. In the end you both want to do the best thing for yourself. So you work it out and don't get pissed off or think the other half of yourself is threatening or stupid or whatever. See what I mean?
"We don't gripe about who does the dishes or the cooking or laundry or general cleaning up. Freddy does those jobs. We don't argue about who is going to fix the engine, change the oil, grind the bottom paint off, navigate, repair the freezer, work on the electronics, or the other repairs and maintenance jobs. I do those. There are thousands of other odd tasks to keep Moira healthy. We do what we do best and help each other whenever we need help."
"Some people would call that sexist," he's thinking about Patty. Patty would have called that sexist. "Of course I'm all for sexism, even a bit of slavery." He laughs so I can take it as a joke if I want to. I'm so tired I don't even care.
"I know. But when there are only the two of you, and you depend totally on each other to live the way Freddy and I do, you have to give up some things to gain others. We have no country, no old age pension, no residence, no car, no weekly paycheck, no insurance, no permanent friendships, no protection from criminals or the elements. But we are free to go where we want, when we want. We have no mortgages, we make new friends easily, we have lots of interesting adventures and learn about how the world ticks. That sort of thing."
"What are you guys going to do now we've arrived in Noumea?" Lowell asks.
"Leave," I laugh. "We've had enough of civilization for awhile. I want to go somewhere wild. Some friends have agreed to meet us at Ouvea Atoll in the Loyalty Islands. We'll go there, do some diving and come back to Noumea before the hurricane season."