story by Rufus Kimura
photos by Monte Costa
We should have listened. It is not good weather for sailing, the villagers said. Go back to bed, sleep in, come and drink some kava tonight. The storm is about to get worse.
Mike Spaulding (rear) and
Bill Crook do a little channel
surfing in the Pailolo.
We were in Fiji, six of us, into our fourth week of sailing a waa, an outrigger canoe, between islands. Now we were watching dark rainsqualls sweep across the ocean. Seventy miles out to sea lay the island of Gau—our destination. All we could see of it was a blip on the screen of our handheld GPS. Mike, our captain, believed we’d find it. I had my doubts.
I don’t remember if we voted that morning or if Mike simply decided we were going. Either way, we set sail. By noon, we realized our error. The storm had arrived in full force, and we were too far from land to turn back. With each squall, our hopes of making landfall before dark diminished. If we missed the island, it was 1,200 miles of open ocean to Australia. Our small four-horsepower engine was the only thing that kept us plodding against the headwind.
Mike was the first to notice the outrigger breaking. The front fiberglass riser cracked; then the whole outrigger broke free and started floating away. Wave after wave crashed over us, flooding the canoe and killing the engine. We began to list. We were minutes from sinking.
While the crew desperately bailed, Mike and I grabbed whatever rope we could find and jumped overboard. We swam to the outrigger, towed it back and lashed it as best we could. We went to work on the engine. We were still thirty-five miles from shore—too far for most of us to swim.
The storm continued to pound our crippled boat. I watched Mike calmly throw his dive weights overboard, then a few other heavy items, and it dawned on me that he actually thought we might go down. At that point, any one of us could have panicked, but nobody did. We got the engine to sputter to life, dug in with our paddles and slowly closed the distance to shore. Our captain had kept us alive thus far—which was the best a crew could hope for.