29 October 2011

Stormy Weather

My father had built two yachts in his life.  He only ever bought one.  The experience this last boat gave was a little different from the first two.

Well, the first was before I was born.  I only know that I was told that he built (I think!  Now I wonder if he bought it, too.  My brother might know) a 32-foot sloop that he and my mother sailed in when they had no children.

And then they had children - three of us - so that in 1946, the year my sister Robin was born, he laid the keel of a 40-foot ketch - in our backyard - in the near-desert town of Bakersfield.  Four years later it was finished, towed to the sea, masted, and launched as Robin - and for the next four years that we lived in Bakersfield, it was our holiday home.

In 1966 I was involved with Yapese.  I was clearly going to be involved not only with the Yapese language, but with the Yapese people - and with the island of Yap.  My father had an idea.  I think he had always rather dreamt of doing some long-distance sailing.  He would buy a yacht that could sail between Hawai'i and Yap.

I don't know which year it was that he did this - perhaps 1967.  He bought a nice ketch (I think it was) - 46-foot, I think.  Peter may remember the name.  My father may by this time already have been working at a new hotel near Kawaihae, on the northwest coast of the Big Island.  He, like me and my brother Peter, suffered from spinal stenosis, and for a number of years could not farm.  So here's the plan:
  1. Buy this boat
  2. Sail it to Kawaihae, as a sort of shakedown cruise
  3. Spend some time in Kawaihae getting it into shape for long-distance travel
  4. Go!
Well, step 1. took place all right.  In Hawai'i, to sell a boat, you have to have it 'surveyed' - inspected to make sure it is seaworthy, meets regulations, and so forth.  So, naturally, this was done.  The Hokulea (I think that was its name) was surveyed as ready for ocean travel.

In the ensuing lawsuits, I believe it was found that the surveyor who did the work was in fact a fairly close personal friend of the stock broker who sold it.  I just point that out for what it's worth :-)

At a certain date, my father, mother, brother, sister (can that be right??), Iou, and I set out.  The normal way to sail from Honolulu to the Big Island would, I think, have been to sail in the channel between Lana'i and Maui.  I seem to recall my father's saying that he was a bit worried about that, not knowing the waters well, so he would sail south of Lana'i, and then around to Kawaihae.

In the event, I suppose it would have made little difference - or, if it had, it might have been preferable that we sailed that way.

Some considerable distance south of there was a significant storm.  We were not in the storm itself - but we encountered seas that were ... well, my memory is of mountain-high seas.  Scaling that down to compensate for the fear factor, I suppose the waves were three metres or so high.

Whatever they were, it was pretty bad.  Oh, well, this is a shakedown cruise.  It is just as well we hit a bit of rough, to find out if the ship can take it.

It can't.

Later, when out of the water, one found that one could put a finger into the soft rotten timbers where the ribs (probably the wrong word; I am not a yachtie) meet the bowstem.  The bow opened up.  We began to take on a lot of water.  We had better get the auxiliary diesel going and get into some harbour somewhere.  It was, I think, a Sunday.  The nearest harbour was there.

Almost everything went wrong that could.  There was a bilge pump that could run off the engine.  It ran off the drive shaft by a belt.  The belt dropped into the bilge.  There was a hand-operated bilge pump.  We all took turns.  There was a radio.  It didn't work.  I think the only person on board who didn't appear frightened out of his wits was Iou.  I have a memory of him sitting at the tiller, chewing betel nut, staring out and not looking frightened.  Perhaps he was and just didn't show it.  I was - and showed it.

We limped into Lana'i harbour.  Lana'i is pretty much a company island.  There was a dry dock there - but this was Sunday.  Would there be union issues if workman came out and did something?  I don't remember the details, but I do recall one guy who drove off some place and came back with a petrol-powered bilge pump that he put on our deck and sucked the bilge dry in what seemed like minutes.  Other young men were diving down and hammering sheet metal over the holes in the bow.

Very humiliating, but we were alive.  The rest of us flew back to Honolulu.  My father followed with the boat being towed.  It was eventually repaired and sold - and the lawsuits got him a little of his money back, mainly because his lawyer didn't charge him.  But we didn't drown.

Oh, well, if you don't drown, you can electrocute yourself.

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