By W.C. Moses
The suppository should have been a clue.
Crouched in the cramped bathroom of a sailboat docked at a small island in French Polynesia, I was fumbling in the darkness with a cold wax suppository about the size of a .22 caliber bullet. It was an hour before sunrise, and I was hunched over – my face shoved into an old raincoat, my knee braced against the head. One hand held the door knob for support, while the other tried to accomplish the unnatural. I remember hoping that no one else needed the bathroom.
I was trying to avoid seasickness, which for me is a brutal irony. I love the ocean, but it does not love me – I had spent most of the previous day’s sail with my head over the railing.
When I was asked to sail in the South Pacific, I immediately agreed even though I knew I was prone to seasickness. Previous cruises had taught me the wonders of prescription drugs. For this trip, I brought two different medications: transdermal patches, which hadn’t worked, and the suppositories, which were my last chance at salvation.
Thus, I found myself fumbling in the dark with a wax plug, trying to defy my own anatomy.
There were three of us on the boat: the captain (whom I knew from work), the first mate (the captain’s 65-year-old friend), and me (the cabin boy). We were going to make a 40-mile crossing on the southern coast of Tahiti, so we wanted to have an early start.
As the sun began to warm the eastern sky, the Captain ordered the first mate and me to pull in the dock lines. I hopped onto the dock, unwrapped the bowline, threw the loose end into the water and then climbed back onboard to pull it in. As I was retrieving the line, something on it stabbed my right hand. It felt like a bee sting. I grabbed the wound, pulled out a small, prickly thing and threw it in the water.
As I cursed and rubbed my hand, I realized that it could have been a sea urchin spine or a piece of coral, either of which could cause some long-term problems. I thought back to what I’d learned about native remedies for marine stings. The Polynesians squirted lime juice on wounds, but we didn’t have any limes – or lemons for that matter. They also urinated on them.
This explains why I found myself at 5:30 a.m. crouched in the head, peeing on myself with a chunk of wax up my butt.
Despite the inauspicious beginnings, the rest of the morning was really lovely. We motored easily around the coral heads, out of the lagoon and into the calm waters of the Pacific Ocean. The sun rises quickly in the tropics, and it wasn’t long before the sky was bright and the air was warm. The three of us chatted comfortably as the boat chugged its way under sunny skies toward our destination. Since there were so many miles to cover and we were headed directly into the wind, the captain decided to motor our way across. The fuel injectors had recently been replaced, and the engine hummed with confidence under the cockpit.
It was around 11 o’clock when, after a break in the conversation, the first mate turned to the captain and said, “Well, we should be there by one thirty, don’t you think?”
“We’re not there yet,” the captain said.
Sure, I thought, but with the conditions as they were and the newly fixed motor, the crossing seemed to be in the bag. We had been on the water five hours and I hadn’t puked yet, so I felt pretty good about life.
As we rounded the southwest corner of Tahiti, the wind picked up. We expected the winds to be worst at this spot, but we weren’t expecting 20 knots and six-foot seas. The boat was pitching pretty good as it plowed through the swells. I tried to remain comfortable at the back of the rocking cockpit. I hadn’t gotten sick yet, but the day was young.
Around 11:30, the constant humming of the engine ceased without warning.
“What happened?” the first mate asked, lifting his head from a nap, as if someone had turned off the TV.
“Engine died,” the captain replied over his shoulder as he climbed down the companionway.
I grabbed the wheel and tried to keep the bow pointed into the wind. Without sails or engine, it was useless. The wind turned us completely around. It was at this point that I noticed the long white line about a quarter mile to the north. Breakers.
The coral reef that encircles these islands rises almost vertically from the sea floor, 2000 feet below. Swells traveling for 10,000 miles meet up with this living wall of calcium carbonate and rise to the heights of single-story houses, sometimes two-story, before pitching their weight on the jagged reef. Sailing in and out of the coral reef is the most dangerous part of cruising in the South Pacific, and now I could verify that.
Thankfully, the wind was blowing us parallel to the shore, and under bare masts, I tried to steer the boat as best I could away from the reef. The captain was fiddling with the engine, and I don’t know what the first mate was doing. I was too busy focusing on the wind and the swells, which were pushing us at about six knots.
The captain returned to the cockpit. “Changed the fuel filter. Sometimes they get clogged when there’s a lot of movement. Let’s try firing her up again.”
He turned the key in the ignition and, to our great relief, the engine obeyed. But something was still up; it quickly raced up to 3000 rpm and then slowly fell back to 1500 rpm, before shooting back up to 3000 rpm. The engine kept repeating this nerve-racking pattern as we slowly pushed our way back into the swells, making headway at less than three knots. Our progress lasted about 20 minutes before the engine quit again.
The captain climbed down below deck. “There’s air in the fuel line!” he shouted.
“Did you change the fuel filter?” the first mate asked without getting up from his seat.
The captain gave him a sidelong glance as he climbed back into the cockpit, where I was still manning the wheel. Even though I had already pissed myself and tossed my cookies, I began to wonder why this guy was first mate and I was still the cabin boy.
“Let’s try this again,” the captain said. “If this doesn’t work, we may have to hoist sails and head back to Papeete.”
He turned the key and the engine fired up, encouragingly. Moments later, it began racing and falling again. We managed another 20 minutes of weak progress before the motor died again.
“When do we decide if we’re going back to Papeete?” I asked, as the captain headed back down to the engine to bleed the air out of the fuel lines.
“That decision may be made for us,” he barked without turning around.
“At least the scenery is beautiful,” the first mate cracked.
“I hadn’t noticed,” the captain replied dryly.
I held onto the wheel and was able to keep the bow on course. The breakers crashed off our port side, a long white line that would stretch for the rest of our voyage. I knew there were passes through the reef, small ones; but without a good chart nor a reliable engine, trying to find them would be folly.
The captain came back to the wheel and started the engine again. It repeated the same behavior.
“Air’s getting in the lines somehow,” he said.
“Must be a leak in the line,” the first mate chirped.
“That’s usually how air gets in,” the captain replied.
I wanted to laugh but between the thoughts of dying on a reef and trying to control a pitching boat, I simply skirked and tried to focus on the horizon.
For two hours, the engine continued this behavior. It would die every 20 minutes or so, the captain would bleed the lines and start it back up. We inched along toward our goal, twhile the reef loomed closer and closer. We were making three knots, at most.
Around three o’click, we made the first sighting of the markers that indicate the channel entrance, which snakes its way into a lagoon. Eight-foot breakers guarded both sides. We were no more than a hundred yards from the entrance when I saw a group of local boys boogey-boarding. How ironic: They were safer in those waves on three-foot pieces of Styrofoam than we were in a 35-foot sailboat.
The captain killed the engine to prep it once more. He turned to me and said, “Let me know if we’re getting close to the reef.”
I laughed, “If we get any closer, I’m going to jump in and swim.”
I held onto the wheel as he bled the lines once more. He wanted to make sure we had as much engine time as possible to make it through the entrance. With reef on either side of us, this would be the worst possible place to lose power.
The first mate got up from his seat and walked over to me. “At least the wind is square on our bow,” I said. “If anything, it’s pushing us off the reef.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “I’m hungry. Do you want something?”
Food was the furthest thing from my mind.
“No. No thanks. Maybe later.”
“Okay,” he said as he disappeared into the galley. The captain restarted the engine. I was enouraged that we would make it to our destination.
We motored our way through the entrance, which appeared to be no more than a boat- length wide. We turned our way into the channel and I felt a sudden sense of relief. Now, even if the engine died, we could drop just drop anchor and take the dinghy to get help.
The first mate climbed back into the cockpit with a plate of food in his hand. “Would anybody like some cheese?”
Noticing we were no longer in the open ocean, he added, “Well captain, you really needled us home, didn’t you?”
“We’re not there yet,” the captain replied without looking up.
We made our way to the marina, the boat chugging slowly. In the channel, we needed only 1500 rpm and the engine seemed fine with that. We found a mooring ball and tied up. The boat was going to be pulled from the water the following week, so the engine would be fixed then.
As the captain and I tidied up the lines and laughed about our adventure, the first mate piped up. “I think the engine is still running.”
“Impossible,” the captain replied. “There’s no way she’s still running,” I added.
“Oh, I’m probably hearing things then,” the first mate said, biting into another piece of cheese.
We went back to the cockpit and looked down at the gauge, just to make sure. It was still reading 1000 rpm.
“Son of a bitch,” the Captain muttered, reaching down to kill the engine, this time for good.