“When you control your breathing, you control your mind.”
~ Word Blocked at WorldBeat Café ~
Her words and her laughter lingered long after. They eclipsed all other thoughts as I sat there, struggling with how to tell the real story of our recent sailing adventure together aboard Kalea, where mischievous gods must have delighted in gumming up the gears of hotshot Hollywood producer SlimC’s ambitious plans for a new reality-TV show.
Life of Pi meets The Bachelor was the general concept I had in mind for how I would tell my salty tale of the unusual experience afloat. I had already scribbled down some loose lyrics for a song about those rolling, yawing, enlightening days at sea:
A cast from the Mainland, sailing the sea
A second-chance story, to watch on TV
From island to island, with captain and crew
Exploring new places, on waters deep blue
Out on the ocean, with no land in sight
Questioning old ways, from darkness to light
Some spoke of power, and profit, and greed
Others of balance, and limits to heed
Oh Beauty and Wonder, left in our wake
Must be recovered, so much is at stake
Finding the balance, weighing the worth
All of us Islanders, on this Good Earth
But telling this story was turning out to be no effortless passage of fair winds and following seas. I knew it would be so much simpler to write about Captain Bob’s remarkable seamanship skills and his exquisite attunement to winds, waves, and weather during our week-long ocean voyage together, or to chronicle the clumsy antics of our passengers—a cast of comically ill-matched landlubberly reality-show ‘actors’—who gifted us with many memorable moments of humor, befuddlement, and drama.
But it was those many short, scattered, random conversations with culinary crewmate and ukulele songstress Chef Lua that had the profoundest and most enduring quality in the wake of our time together riding the tireless trade winds of the South Pacific. Surely, the story had to be about her.
We had gotten to know each other quite well in the few days we spent island hopping from Moorea to Rarotonga aboard Kalea, a beautiful handcrafted Polynesian sailing catamaran lovingly built by my old friend Captain Bob over a period of four years in Tahiti. Our minimalist crew of three had hosted six, or perhaps really five, … (it’s complicated) reality-show cast members from the U.S. mainland looking for a second-chance romance aboard Bob’s gorgeous 65-foot cruising catamaran.
As a singer-songwriter, former fellow beach-cat sailor, amateur boatbuilder, and nautical jack-of-all-trades, I was recruited by Captain Bob to serve as first mate and provide some light entertainment for cast and crew along the way. During those memorable days at sea, our humble and unassuming chef from the islands had imparted much good advice and wisdom on essential attitudes and behaviors for crafting healthy, creative, productive lives and maintaining balance and perspective when confronted with life’s inevitable obstacles and challenges.
And from her unique perspective as an islander, Lua also warned of gathering storms on the horizon—of what would surely be culturally jarring and disorienting flips and reversals in mainland norms, customs, and priorities in response to imminent collisions between our endless growth economic ambitions and hard ecological and financial limits.
Those many enlightening dialogues with Yoda-like Lua kept emerging as oases of calm and clarity in my mind as other random thoughts, scenes, and memories flailed about—like torn fragments of a storm-shredded mainsail—while I struggled to capture in words the enthralling experience crewing aboard Kalea. The more time I spent anchored in my favorite chair by the large front window at WorldBeat Café attempting to recall the events of the trip, the more my thoughts gravitated toward those rich conversations—and to how destiny brought us together from opposite sides of the world.
~ The Call ~
Most befittingly, my salt-sprayed journey of awakening began in a groggy, lazy, half-conscious state. I had just dozed off on my sofa, looking forward to a quick recharge from a short power nap before working on some new song ideas, when I got the call.
I hadn’t even been back in my apartment five minutes, drained from leading my popular Saturday morning family-friendly ‘Community Music Circle’ at the Delray Beach green market. At this interactive musical experience, audience members, particularly young children, are encouraged to pick up any of a variety of percussion instruments provided by group players and join in on the groove.
The catchy islandy jams—blending African, Arabic, Caribbean, and Latin rhythm patterns—and the humorous, interactive, singalong style in which familiar tunes and original songs are performed make this unique public event a fun, lively, and engaging experience for kids and adults alike.
But on this particular day, as it turns out, something very curious had happened.
~ Mystery Songstress ~
It had been a sinfully beautiful, breezy, cool January morning—‘deep winter’ in South Florida. A lovely young woman with an exquisite smile and wearing a simple colorful sarong, islandy straw hat, and no footwear of any kind joined our small musical group for a brief time. She appeared suddenly out of the dense crowd of sun-soaked shoppers to join us right in the middle of a song.
She sat on one of the extra chairs directly across from me and confidently strummed along on the small light blue ukulele she had pulled out of a colorful canvas shopping bag bursting with teal and magenta swirls. The adorable little baby guitar prominently featured a dark brown sculpted wooden bridge in the shape of a short, pudgy smiling dolphin. Too cute it was.
She was obviously no novice player—she perfectly blended in as we played a Latin jazz version of Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell. She was even inspired to harmonize with me at one point and did so most strikingly—and while looking right into my eyes—on the lyrics, ‘Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.’
And then, just moments before the song ended, she winked at me in a very subtle manner, graced the rest of the group with a wide, warm smile, and got up quietly and disappeared back into the slowly moving mass of shoppers with their designer baby strollers and adorable furry companions tethered on colorful rainbow leashes. Too bad. I would have liked to have gotten her name and found out if she was a local.
I’m sure I had never seen her at the market before. And I really needed to make some sense of that odd tingling sensation I felt all over my body just moments before she appeared that day—I had never felt anything like that before. She would surely stop by again next Saturday, I convinced myself. I cleared my mind and snapped back into the moment.
We wrapped up our jam around noon. After the usual post-performance banter with players, groupies, neophyte young drummers, and grateful parents, I headed home to enjoy a quick power nap before preparing for my afternoon gig.
~ That Voice ~
I sat up on the sofa, shook my head a few times to snap my brain back into a semi-conscious state, and glared down at the offending phone. The small screen displayed ‘Unknown.’ Could it be the young woman with the cute little blue ukulele from the market? Had she gotten my number from someone and wanted to find out more about our lively musical gatherings on Saturdays? She obviously enjoyed playing along and seemed to fit right in with the other cheerful players who come out religiously every weekend to eagerly join our loose group of ‘street musicians.’
I would normally delegate the answering of such mystery calls to my trusty voicemail. But what if it was her? I should probably take the call.
“Hello,” I grunted.
Whoa! … that voice. It most certainly was not the one I expected to hear. I hadn’t heard this voice in quite some time. Memories flooded in. We had been weekend sailing buddies a couple of decades back (it’s been that long?), when we would compete to see who could ‘fly a hull’ for the longest time without dipping those glossy smooth fiberglass keels back in the water, or wiping out in spectacular fashion and ‘turning turtle’ the fast, nimble beach catamarans in most embarrassing, undignified ways.
Hobie Beach in Miami was the place to be on weekends back in the day. Beautiful boats and beautiful babes. It didn’t matter if you were a multi-millionaire or a beach bum (I was contentedly on the simple-living side of that spectrum), we were all equals in our shared passion for showing off wind-driven, rooster-tail wakes while flying gleaming ninja-blade hulls just inches above the choppy turquoise waters of breezy Biscayne Bay. Good times, good times…
It was a different time back then, mind you. The world didn’t feel so … ‘busy,’ crowded, and strained. And multiple threats to the oceans and beaches I loved so dearly or growing doubts about the health and righteousness of the U.S. mainland economy—offering so much promise and opportunity to so many—did not weigh heavily on me back then. But that all started to change rather dramatically at the turn of the century—a growing uneasiness I could feel in my bones. And I was just starting to figure out why.
~ Empty-world Ego-nomics ~
Physics professor Albert Bartlett, who regarded human overpopulation as a monumental challenge facing humanity, warned that the greatest shortcoming of the human race was its inability to understand the exponential function, where modest growth mutates into runaway growth over time.
Graphs of exponential growth trends take on a hockey-stick shape and shoot sharply upwards as they progress to the right. That increasingly steep incline in a trend—any trend—is usually a sign of trouble ahead—whether in natural ecosystems or in man-made social or technological systems.
Exponential growth in a finite environment simply cannot be sustained. More specifically: a positive exponential growth rate (no matter how limited) of any organisms (like human beings) in a closed, bounded system (like Earth) will eventually overpower the system (like cancer). Natural growth in the populations of organisms develops a characteristic momentum where, put simply, more produces more.
In the blink of an eye—in geologic time scales—the explosive growth of our species has begun to crowd out other species. Sadly, our concern for species diversity has been dominated more by market exploitation of open-access common resources than by responsible stewardship of our common heritage.
And our ‘management’ of natural habitats has been based too much on destructive exploitation of land, forest, and water resources with unsustainable levels of harvesting and cultivation and not enough on scientific understanding of the complexity of ecological interrelationships. Our efforts to manage and protect Earth’s ecosystems have been sadly lacking in scientific data, resource efficiency, and equity among individuals, regions, generations—and other species.
We are in a race between educating ourselves about how the Earth’s biophysical systems work and interact—with a large and relentlessly growing human population now at its center favoring an overly burdensome, land-intensive ‘western diet’—and destroying the planet through mindless acts of fear, greed, ignorance, and hubris.
Competition for dominance in our taut, hyper-competitive global marketplace continues to thwart efforts to replace economic growth and efficiency with ethical and sustainable development. Barriers to acceptance of sustainable development include well-entrenched and passionate consumer materialism—consumer culture—in developed societies and the understandable aspirations of developing countries for Western levels of material affluence.
Today, we face a set of complex, interconnected crises that threaten the sustainability of our increasingly brittle global social-ecological system, such as climate destabilization and rapid loss of biodiversity, and reduce the resilience of our global ecosystem and its ability to provide for human needs beyond the next few decades.
To anyone paying attention, the conventional grow-or-collapse economics model of the last two centuries was fashioned during a singular time when the world was relatively empty of humans, abundant in natural resources, and when growth and development held infinite possibilities. This economic model could be thought of as ‘empty-world ego-nomics’—because it was heavily influenced by personal, regional, and national self-interest and by fierce—and very often bloody and cruel—competition for economic resources and regional dominance.
But this ego-nomic growth has of late brought about a rapid decline in the richness of life processes—laying waste to the Earth and digesting the biosphere at an ever more frantic pace. ‘Progress’ today means increasingly competitive and manic consumption—driven by voracious egos at the individual, state, and national levels—that is rapidly devouring its own long-term viability.
Unfortunately, the seductive and uniquely effective (for its time) grow-at-all-costs ego-nomic model is inherently incapable of addressing the multiple crises it has created. Indeed, it encourages acceleration toward the precipice that will result in even further decline in life’s prospects from environmental degradation in the form of: climate change, ocean acidification, loss of vital rainforests, species extinction, collapse of ocean fisheries, extreme droughts in some places and flooding in other, soil erosion, depletion and pollution of underground aquifers, decreases in quantity and quality of drinking water, growing global pollution of oceans and atmosphere (even in polar regions!), continued growth of human populations, and decreasing biodiversity.
Today, the role of humans within Nature and the biophysical impacts of human activity on natural systems have changed dramatically due to the unintended consequences of our unparalleled success as a species during the recent ‘empty-world’ era. This turn of events should not be so surprising, for what we have come to accept as standard economic theory is actually spectacularly anomalous in the broader context of human history.
Only during a period of relatively few people and an abundance of natural resources, virgin global-scale waste sinks like the atmosphere and oceans, a stable climate, fertile soils, abundant fresh water, productive oceans, a diverse ecology with healthy keystone species like bees and plankton, and cheap, plentiful, high-density, fossil-fuel-based surplus energy—the master resource—could such a rapid growth and expansion boom in economic size and complexity have occurred with so few readily apparent environmental warning signs—until now.
Our current ‘extremist’ market economy has effectively flattened our conceptions of justice so that only the ‘sum of individual preferences’ are included in its economic modeling. Egos, markets, and the unintended consequences of the countless small, local, daily decisions of today’s self-interested consumers rule the day.
There is ‘market tyranny’ over humanity and Nature alike, as the material scale of human economic activity now greatly exceeds the ‘carrying capacity’ of the Earth.
And the ‘free choice’ of this market economy unfairly impacts future generations and narrows safe environmental operating spaces for life to thrive. The economic subsystem has grown excessively within the global ecosystem on which it depends, and the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the global ecosystem’s sources and sinks are being clearly exceeded.
Large and exponentially growing human populations, rising inequality within and between nations, excessive energy and material throughputs, and habitat destruction are all signs of an economic model and worldview that has clearly outlived its usefulness.
And economies growing in throughput are mainly getting bigger, exceeding limits, and damaging the self-repairing capacity of the planet resulting in clearly undesirable un-economic growth—or ‘illth,’ the opposite of wealth.
Yes, my relationship with the world had changed dramatically in the short time since Bob and I would blissfully race our feather-weight beach catamarans across the clean, crystal clear shallow waters of Biscayne Bay all those years ago. Today, we face unprecedented global challenges on our warming, crowded, and ecologically stressed planet. We live in troubled times.
But it was great to hear his voice again. It brought back a flood of memories of good times, promising futures, and carefree days on beautiful turquoise bays.
~ ‘Rico’ Returns ~
“How are you, Rico?” Bob said.
Even in my just-woken, REM-deprived state, I recognized that deep, gravelly voice of his instantly. It matched the big-bear physique, which tended to severely intimidate those who didn’t know the man, an amiable and resourceful fellow of gentle demeanor with bold but tasteful tattoos and a huge heart.
Though my driver’s license reads otherwise, Bob preferred calling me ‘Rico.’ For some reason, he got it in his mind back in those days that I reminded him of that slick, stylish ‘Rico Tubbs’ character in the hugely popular TV show Miami Vice, and the nickname just stuck. I certainly looked nothing like that dapper crime-fighting character, who one could easily picture on the cover of GQ magazine. And I hated wearing suits. Wasn’t a big fan of guns either.
“Hey man, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I am now living in Tahiti … you know, that enchanted tourist island in French Polynesia. After four years of work, I’ve just completed building my island-hopping cruising catamaran sailboat, a gorgeous Polynesian double-canoe like the one you built a few years back, only much bigger. And I was just about to get the word out about my new chartering business when I was contacted by a friend of a friend,” Bob explained in his usual slow-paced, relaxed manner.
~ ‘SlimC’ ~
“His name is Sammy, though he prefers to be called ‘SlimC.’ Says he’s some hotshot Hollywood reality-show producer who wants to hire me and my ‘exotic’ boat for some strange new show he is putting together—something about a shot at a ‘second-chance romance’ for a bunch of divorcées and widowers or some such nonsense. There’ll be cameras installed all around the decks and galley to capture events as they happen. And he’s counting on me to make sure that the drama is never too long in the doldrums, if you know what I mean. He’s offering some serious cash, Rico. And I could sure use it right now.” Bob sounded excited about that.
“I could really use your help on this one, buddy. I need your skills and trust your instincts. It would be a seven-day sail from Moorea just off the coast of Tahiti to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. You, me, a chef and the six cast members of the show. Check this out: SlimC says the reality-show ‘actors’ were carefully selected after various psychological screenings to ensure they would not get along with each other very well. Man, can you believe that shit?” Bob’s voice suggested he was quite tickled by the whole thing and was looking forward to what drama that might unfurl on the high seas.
“We’d set out in early June. The critical cyclone period ends in May in that part of the world, you know. Whaddya say, Rico? You were the first person I thought to call after I got the offer. It’d be good to hang out again after so many years, no? Lots of catchin’ up to do, buddy.”
~ Captain Bob ~
Bob had been hit hard by the double-whammy financial and subprime mortgage crises in 2008 and never recovered from those twin body blows to his business. This man-made, most unnatural of disasters and the subsequent Great Recession—delivered by evil-genius ‘banksters’ who had mastered the insidious art of privatizing profits and socializing losses after lending for purchases of ‘financial instruments’ promising low-risk, short-term returns—was not kind to my good-natured sailing buddy.
When the housing market tanked, he lost his respectable and lucrative job as a general contractor and had to pursue alternate means of earning a living. Though Bob’s career took a lethal blow from the financial crisis of 2008, as a self-employed general contractor, he had had a little more control over his income up to that point than the majority of middle-class workers, who hadn’t seen an increase in real wages in decades. At least he had managed to put away some savings for the proverbial ‘rainy day.’
But that financial discipline did nothing to save his most cherished relationship from the stress and disruption of the economic implosion. Lagging not far behind a faltering economy, his marriage soon tanked.
~ ‘Mister FixIt’ ~
Back in the day when times were good, Bob used to build wooden boats in his spare time as a hobby, as did I, and we would exchange ideas and tips on our nautical labors of love. We both had a fascination with traditional wooden Polynesian sailing canoes, which were simple in construction, yet very capable and rugged sea-going vessels. And they were beautiful works of art as well. Polynesians believed each of their hand-built boats had a spirit of its own—and stories to tell. Me and Bob, we really dug that kinda stuff.
Aside from our shared interest in wooden boatbuilding, Bob knew that I was a handy and reliable fellow with a deep love and respect for the ocean, having spent quite a bit of time over the years on all manner of watercraft. I had worked as a marine electrician for a time in Annapolis and messed around with sailmaking and canvas work, sewing my own sails, seat cushions, and a rugged trampoline for a small Polynesian-style cruising catamaran.
I had built Morning Star, a 26-foot Polynesian-style sailing catamaran, in my backyard under a portable pop-up fabric-and-steel garage, to the utter bewilderment of my landlubber suburban neighbors. Perhaps they were a bit concerned that I knew something that they didn’t about accelerating sea-level rise.
Bob surely figured I would be a great help while underway, as he knew I could always find some creative MacGyver way to temporarily patch anything up if, or rather when, Murphy came a-callin’. ‘Mister FixIt,’ he liked to call me.
I was sure Bob would ask me to bring my guitar along, in addition to my extensive collection of marine tools and gear, to entertain cast and crew while underway. What an opportunity! During long ocean passages, I could test out some of my quirkier original songs on a bored captive audience of digitally disconnected passengers, especially after the rum had started flowing. They’d certainly appreciate that.
“Wow. This is big news, Bob! I’m sure I can manage to clear my calendar in June.”
I had many gigs already booked that month, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime offer to cruise aboard a large, custom-built, traditional Polynesian double-canoe in the South Pacific. There would always be more gigs, I reasoned; they are not too difficult to come by once you’re plugged-in to the local music scene.
“I’m in!” The words burst from my mouth.
“Great! I knew it wouldn’t take too much persuading, Rico. I will call you in a few days with more details. Oh, and bring your guitar along. I’m sure the passengers would love to hear a few JB tunes from time to time, as we make our way through paradise to some exotic Margaritaville in the South Pacific.”
“Of course, “ I responded. “Hell, maybe I’ll get a chance to play for a national audience. I’m sure the director would want to keep a scraggly, salt-n-pepper bearded, beach-bum guitar player in some of the scenes. I’ll just need to find ways to stir up some gratuitous drama for the cameras while I’m entertaining, so that I can land a spot on primetime TV.”
Bob chuckled. “Yeah, right man. See you soon, Rico. And thanks. This is going to be a … well … let’s just say an interesting experience. Later!” The call ended abruptly.
His last statement brought to mind an old Chinese expression that goes something like, ‘May you be blessed to live in interesting times’ … or was it, ‘May you be cursed to live in interesting times’? Geez, … I couldn’t remember the correct version, but I didn’t dwell on the confusion for too long as I jumped off the sofa and raced for the closet where my weathered, rust-stained duffle bag of accumulated marine gear and tools was stored away.
I felt that old familiar lifting-off feeling coming back.
I was flying a hull again!
~ Kalea in Moorea ~
Located just ten nautical miles northwest of Tahiti, Moorea is Tahiti’s not-to-be-ignored little sister. With her eight mountain peaks rising up prominently from a stunning translucent lagoon, Moorea beckons Tahitian tourists with a rugged, seductive silhouette clearly visible from the western coast of her envious larger sibling.
Cook’s Bay splits the northern coast of this romantic island, auspiciously shaped—from a seagull’s-eye view—like a heart. Perhaps it is this striking quality of the little island, symbolizing love and romance, that compelled SlimC to choose Moorea as the launching point for his ambitious second-chance-at-romance reality show.
Captain Bob had instructed me to join him on the boat a few days before the cast arrived. He would need the help during the short shakedown cruise and when provisioning the vessel with all the supplies needed for seven days at sea. Kalea, as Bob had named his lovingly constructed cruising catamaran, would be moored in Cook’s Bay when I arrived.
Lua, the chef and third member of our minimalist crew of three, would also join us to help with stocking the galley. She would be the one preparing all of the meals and would know exactly what was needed for the seven-day voyage.
Bob described her as a small, slim, quiet, elderly and good-natured acquaintance that would stop by from time to time to watch him build his impressive boat in Tahiti. She was fascinated with the project. She’d come to the island on occasion from her home somewhere in the Cook Islands, she never said where exactly, to visit with some old friends.
Bob enjoyed her company, though he would often betray a mild contempt for women, following his bitter divorce years earlier. Lua would show up unannounced at his breezy, open, outdoor workshop that was sheltered from the elements by a large white canopy tent. She laughed easily at his absurd jokes, and watched with quiet fascination as he patiently constructed his towering twin-hulled ocean cruising vessel.
~ ~ ~
My travel from South Florida to Moorea was planned with an overnight stopover in Los Angeles, so that I could visit my old friend Joey, who had taught me how to body surf in the cold Pacific waters of Newport Beach when we were kids. I couldn’t wait to see him again after so many years. Westward I went.
~ Surfer Joey ~
After a long flight and short cab ride to his place, and the usual hugs and howya-beens, we headed out for a dinner of crab cakes and cocktails at the local beachside seafood restaurant near Laguna Beach. Somehow, while catching up with recent events in our lives, we inadvertently stumbled onto the topic of climate change.
“You really believe in that man-made climate-change hooey?” Joey asked me, perhaps not realizing that an innocent question like that directed my way could hijack a conversation and take it into testy territory very quickly.
Now, it seems reasonable to me that statements about how the natural world works have a higher probability of being closer to reality when coming from truth-seeking, peer-reviewed scientists than from say-anything, power-hungry politicians or short-sighted, profit-seeking business professionals. That would be my logical response to the question. But I knew from experience that these simple appeals to reason never do much to change minds— there are deeper psychological fears, desires, denials, and delusions at play here; and I wasn’t interested in a long, worthless debate over the issue.
Besides, I had a habit of getting too intense and serious with such matters and would probably get all caught up in explaining how our historically unique fossil-fueled period of ‘frontier economics’ over the last two centuries—characterized by hyper-growth, competition, conflict, and rapid expansion—has radically transformed human economies. Where once they gradually and sustainably coevolved with their natural ecosystems, they have now exploded in growth—mimicking the explosive combustion of the fossil hydrocarbons that made this anomalous material and technological hyper-driven progress possible.
After all, people historically were closer to the resources they used and in a better position to monitor the overall set of assets on which they depended. The interplay among community, environmental management, asset transfers, and sustainability have changed dramatically with globalization.
Today, for the first time in the history of human civilization, large masses of people, particularly in Western societies, have been freed from the direct and immediate negative environmental feedbacks of their economic activities—those natural cues they used to get relatively quickly as individuals and small communities living close to Nature and with limited energy, material, and waste flows.
Environmental feedbacks today occur over longer periods of time and across greater distances and are experienced collectively by many people—not by individuals—making them more difficult to perceive and to counteract. They also cross generations.
But I didn’t want to get into all this unpleasant reality-check with my friend Joey. I really liked him and did not want anything negative to diminish our short time together. “Well, we’ll just have to wait and see what happens over the next few years, I suppose. Time will tell, as the saying goes,” I responded innocently.
~ ~ ~
The next day, Joey drove me to LAX to catch the afternoon Air Tahiti Nui flight to Papeete, French Polynesia. Making our way slowly on the irritating, perpetually clogged Los Angeles roadways in varying states of disrepair, I considered asking Joey whether the severe drought conditions impacting his beloved California worried him in any way.
I wondered if he had ever considered the possibility that perhaps human-induced carbon pollution was playing a role in the water stress that was slowly creeping into his part of the world. In the last thirty years, heightened temperatures and aridity in the U.S. West have caused fires to spread across twice as much area as they would have otherwise.
Like a growing atmospheric sponge, warmer air holds more moisture, and therefore exacerbates drought conditions and flooding equally. And more trapped heat energy up there means more extreme weather-related events down here.
“Hey Joey, don’t you ever think that maybe …” I began.
“Almost there.” Joey had just merged onto Sepulveda Boulevard, the longest street in Los Angeles that passes underneath two of the runways of LAX. We were already too close to the airport. I’d save that conversation for another day.
“It was great seeing you again, Joey. I’ll try to plan a stopover in LA again on my return home. I’m sure you’ll want to hear about what happens on the high seas with this mixed-bag cast of reality-show romance seekers. And I’ll definitely keep an eye out for any great surfing beaches among the islands.”
Joey had masterfully choreographed his career so that he would have enough free time, way before retirement age, to enjoy surfing several days of the week. I admired that about him: both his work-life balance and his passion for riding those alluring ocean waves.
“Appreciate the hospitality, man,” I said as I opened the door to get out of the car. Joey popped the trunk. I grabbed my duffle bag, guitar, and backpack and eagerly shuffled off into the terminal.
~ Springy Dinghy ~
The flight to Papeete took close to nine hours. I arrived at night and checked into a local hotel. I was exhausted. The next morning, I boarded a jet-powered catamaran for the short 40-minute trip over to Moorea from the waterfront downtown. From the small, unadorned ferry terminal in Moorea, I took a bus over to Cook’s Bay Resort and, after checking in, walked over to the docks behind the main building.
There he was—a large, portly fellow with a shaggy salt-and-pepper beard blissfully a-snoozing and a-snoring in the large, scuffed up inflatable dinghy tethered to the dock. I crouched down to get a little closer to his exposed left ear.
“Eat my wake, loser!” I delivered with a loud raspy voice.
Captain Bob sprung to his feet. Unfortunately, in his groggy state he apparently forgot that he had dozed off in a springy, squishy boat with a soft floor, lost his balance, and proceeded to take a most embarrassing tumble into the water, grasping the loosely secured rowing oar on his way down, hoping to avoid the impending immersion. Unfazed, and with a big smile on his face, he quickly swam the short distance to the ladder at the dock and hauled his hefty waterlogged frame out of the water.
“Rico! Great to see ya, man,” Bob said as he scooped the floating oar out of the water. “Hopefully we’ll never need to use one of these on our trip,” he said, hoping to move the conversation along and avoid any snarky commentary by me on his inability to maintain his balance in a wide, stable boat in calm water and secured to a dock.
We hugged and asked and answered the usual series of questions one expects to hear between long-parted buddies.
“Where’s Chef Lua?” I inquired.
“You just missed her. She went out to get some groceries and supplies for the galley. She should be back in a couple of hours.”
“And your boat? Where’s Kalea, man? Where’s that fabulous floating fulfiller of fantasies?”
“Oh, she’s anchored out in the lagoon just up and around that bend over there. C’mon, let’s get you two acquainted before Lua gets back.”
He fired up the Yamaha outboard and we sped off northward to the mouth of the bay. In just a few moments, I would catch my first glimpse of Bob’s masterwork. We rounded the bend.
~ Fast Sailboats That ‘Turtle’ ~
I knew what it was like to dedicate years of your life to a personal project of that magnitude. It starts with the simple question, ‘Do I have what it takes to see this crazy multi-year effort through to the end?’ You take an inventory of your current skills and budget, and then determine what materials, time and new skills will be required. You assess worst-case scenarios. Can you accept those outcomes? Yes. Then you dive in and don’t look back. And at the other end of a turbulent planning-building-finishing odyssey, a beautiful, one-of-a-kind, handcrafted, sea-going vessel emerges—at double the cost and triple the time—if you’re lucky.
We’d be calling Kalea our home for the next two weeks. We’d be entrusting her, and her alone, with the safety of passengers and crew over several hundred nautical miles of deep-blue open ocean. She would carry us under sail over countless waves and ocean swells, through weather fair and foul, to idyllic South Pacific islands. I couldn’t wait to meet her.
Anxious for that first sighting of Kalea at anchor in the stunning blue lagoon surrounding the island, I recalled why I had been drawn, years ago, to this special category of boats. They could technically be described as ‘Polynesian-style, double-canoe, sail-driven vessels.’ Today they would be classified simply as ‘sailing catamarans.’
The South Pacific Ocean of antiquity was home to a variety of maritime peoples. The modern catamaran’s unique speed potential, greater than that of the equivalent sized monohull, arose out of two ancestral boat types from that region of the world.
Some South Pacific islanders would use very long ‘paddling canoes’ of up to 60 feet for coastal trading, fishing, and whale hunting. Their long, slim hulls, having length-to-beam ratios of from 12-to-1 to up to 20-to-1, significantly minimized drag, allowing the water to part and run along their length very efficiently. They could reach speeds as high as two or three times that of sailboats common today of comparable length but with much lower length-to-beam ratios.
But hard-paddling islanders required food and water, which contributed significant cargo weight. And even the hardiest men could only paddle for a few hours at a time.
Other Pacific islanders used ‘sailing rafts’ like that of Thor Heyerdahl’s classic Kon Tiki expedition of 1947. They were not particularly fast, but with their substantial beam and weight, they were practically impossible to capsize and thus had great stability and seaworthiness.
Long ago, some peanut-butter-and-chocolate misfit innovator (they usually are, misfits that is) in that remote region of the watery world, characterized by daunting distances between islands, proposed lashing together two fast, easily driven canoe hulls into a beamy raft shape, giving a new type of sailing craft with win-win features: the stability of a broad beam raft and the speed potential of slim canoe hulls.
A raft-like deck platform could house people while providing ample room to move about safely. Early European explorers reported that crew sailed from island to island with families, friends, lovers, singers and dancers in one joyous group—the ultimate seagoing party boat!
It’s rather amusing to note the design evolution of bluewater sailing vessels, in general. It says a lot about why some technologies win out over others in our hyper-competitive, male-dominated world. The set of features one sees on today’s glossy, high-tech, fiberglass and carbon-fiber wonders was heavily influenced by racing. To sail closer to the wind, the sail rigs got higher.
Of course, higher rigs then had to be balanced with heavy ballast below the waterline—first rocks, then heavy iron, which became cheaper with industrialization. To get even higher mast heights, the ballast gradually migrated from inside the hull downward into bulbs at the bottom of deeper keels.
As a side result, and not intended by design, modern lead-keeled monohull sailboats can claim to be ‘self-righting.’ Also not intended, modern lead-ballasted sailboats find their ultimate stability at the bottom of the ocean, if their hull integrity is ever breached.
Catamarans, on the other hand, would likely find themselves inverted (‘turtled,’ as some like to say) if Poseidon got overly abusive, but still afloat. This is not an ideal orientation for a boat, where any notion of progress is limited to drifting in a favorable direction, but still preferable to a watery grave distressingly far removed from a breathable atmosphere.
~ Exquisite Kalea ~
As we were rounding the bend, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the tips of Kalea’s twin masts poking up above the treetops, closely spaced together, as if the two unseen sailboat hulls were getting close and personal down behind the foliage. A quick turn-of-the-tiller later and Kalea’s long slender twin hulls came into full view.
Gorgeous. She was the nautical expression of grace, courage, and confidence. I felt lucky to be a part of her world for the next two weeks. She was exquisite.
We pulled up just behind the large rectangular trampoline netting that spanned the twin hulls at her stern, tied up the dinghy to the aft crossbeam, released the boarding ladder suspended from the netting and scrambled aboard and onto her expansive bamboo deck.
“Geez Bob, you really built this floating football field yourself?” I asked, after retrieving my jaw from its OMG open position.
“Sure did, with the help of a few friends. Started four years ago to the day. Shall we snoop around a bit?” Bob couldn’t wait to show her off.
I noticed a small, curious extension on one of the hulls at the stern. It did not seem to serve a purpose of any kind. When I asked Bob about it, he recounted an ancient Hawaiian saga that told of a spirit announcing his desire to go along when a canoe was embarking on a voyage from Hawaii. Informed by the chief that there was no room, the spirit leapt from shore to a small projection, which he found at the stern, and rode along there. That projection has become a traditional feature in Hawaiian canoes, as a place where an invisible but benevolent ancestral spirit can hitch a ride on long passages.
Now I have never known my old friend Captain Bob to give much thought to spiritual matters—ocean sailing providing all the sublime mystery, wonder, and terror that his blessedly simple existence could take—but he thought it best to include a special place aboard for a well-meaning spirit, ‘well … just in case.’ “After all,” he explained, “it only amounted to a few extra hours of labor.”
Kalea, Hawaiian for ‘filled with joy,’ was a Wharram-designed Islander—a twin-masted sailing schooner. Her overall length was 65 feet, with a waterline length of 55 feet, which meant she could easily slice her way through the waves at 10 knots under typical wind conditions in the South Pacific.
Her beam was just over 30 feet and, with draft amidships of only four feet, could pull up close to any beach and allow passengers to hop off the bow trampoline in waist-deep water. Her sailing rig was a balanced Wingsail schooner design, a simple but very aerodynamically efficient sail configuration. Her decking was made of bamboo—Nature’s magnificent low cost, renewable wonder-fiber.
Each hull, tapering at the bow and stern, had five compartments. From fore to aft they included: a forward single cabin, a forward double cabin, a large compartment for a bathroom (in the starboard hull) and a galley (in the port hull), a rear double cabin, and a rear single cabin. Behind the last single cabin, the hull narrowed to a V-shaped stern where a beefy wooden rudder was rope-laced securely to a metal-reinforced stem.
The male cast members would stay in cabins in the starboard hull, and all the women, including Chef Lua, would use the cabins in the port hull. Bob and I would remain on deck at all times (except when ‘nature calls’ demanded a visit to the head) to be available immediately, should an all-hands-on-deck moment ever occur during our seven-day ocean adventure.
We would alternate sleeping on the bunk in the tiny, enclosed pilothouse centrally located on the expansive wooden deck. All meals would be served on deck under a large protective canvas awning. The simple furniture included portable camping tables and folding beach chairs—lashed down, if necessary.
~ Chef Lua ~
“Mister Bo-ob,” we heard sung out from the water just behind stern of the boat, as if emanating from a wave. The ‘Mister’ part was monotone and ‘Bo-ob,’ followed in a more singsongy fashion, jumping tones with each syllable, as if a doorbell was calling out the name.
“That’s Lua!” Bob said excitedly, breaking the collective trance we had drawn ourselves into—a not uncommon altered state among conversing nautical artisans induced by discussion of the finer points of boat-building craftsmanship.
We helped Lua climb aboard from the zippy, light-duty service skiff that had shuttled her over from the nearby marina and ship’s store. After the three of us hauled up the provisions for the week-long trip, the boat sped off back to the marina.
Over the next two days, our merry trio spent time getting familiar with Kalea and making several dinghy trips back to the island to gather additional materials, supplies, tools and to grab a bite to eat or an evening drink at the local tiki bar. During those many pleasant, pre-passenger hours, I got to know our soft-spoken chef from the remote Cook Islands a little better.
Lua possessed a powerful but relaxed confidence in her small, slender frame and innocuous manner. Somewhat introverted, she listened more than talked, but would get quite animated when discussing new recipes with fellow cooks, or ‘culinary artists,’ as she liked to say. She was particularly fond of Asian cuisine.
Lua’s clothing consisted of a collection of simple but versatile sarongs that were always bursting with bright, tropical colors. She took great delight in matching her daily outfits with the colors of the seasonal flowers of the islands. On land or on the water, her feet were rarely burdened with footwear of any kind, yet they were always strikingly clean.
Lua was also an accomplished ukulele player and loved to make up her own songs, as did I on my guitar. I had learned a few things about these small wannabe guitars from my Saturday Community Music Circle group at the local green market. The ukulele players who would join in on occasion were very fond of their light, portable little instruments and loved to share their knowledge of, and passion for, these colorfully decorated diminutive music makers. They were certainly seductive little strummable curiosities.
~ Jumping Flea ~
Ukuleles, or ‘ukes,’ are legitimate members of the lute family instruments, mind you. They have four nylon strings, or four ‘courses’ of strings, and originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian adaptation of the Portuguese machete, a small guitar-like instrument introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants, mainly from Madeira and the Azores. Ukuleles gained great popularity on the U.S. mainland during the early 20th century and from there spread internationally.
The name ‘ukulele’ roughly translates as ‘jumping flea,’ perhaps because of the movement of the player’s fingers. But according to Queen Liliuokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, the name means ‘the gift that came here,’ from the Hawaiian words ‘uku’ (gift or reward) and ‘lele’ (to come).
Considerably easier to learn to play than a six-string guitar, basic ukulele skills can be learned fairly easily. But make no mistake, a ukulele is still capable of producing an impressively wide range of notes, chords, and lively rhythms—as Lua demonstrated on many occasions.
In the U.S., the ukulele became an icon of the Jazz Age. The relatively inexpensive instrument proved popular with amateur players throughout the 1920s—evidenced by the introduction of ukulele chord tablature into the published sheet music for popular songs of the time.
Ukuleles commonly come in four sizes with the smallest being the soprano, or ‘standard’ in Hawaii. Next is the concert, then tenor, and then baritone. The open-string tuning for all but the large baritone ukulele is G-C-E-A, though reentrant tuning means the ‘G’ string is tuned an octave higher than might be expected. The baritone ukulele is usually tuned to D-G-B-E, which is the same as the highest four strings of a standard six-string guitar.
Lua’s small ukulele was a soprano, which made it very easy for her to carry around with her all the time. And she most certainly did.
~ Drone Gone Rogue ~
On one of those early pre-passenger days, Captain Bob, Lua, and I were having lunch together sitting on beach chairs on Kalea’s expansive bamboo deck after spending the morning painting, provisioning, and planning for the week-long island-hopping adventure ahead—everything had to checked and re-checked as it would be Kalea’s maiden blue-water voyage.
We were sitting around discussing a sad but rather humorous local news story about a lavish outdoor Tahitian wedding ceremony that had to be aborted prematurely. Apparently, a slick state-of-the-art semi-(or so it was believed)-autonomous drone deployed to film the ostentatious event from a seagull’s-eye view went rogue—and with blissful newfound autonomy and a malicious mean streak—launched a most sinister kamikaze attack directly on the lovely doe-eyed bride.
Our talk of the wedding blitz—a most unfortunate, but nonetheless rather entertaining robot-gone-rogue story resulting in a mournful marriage miscarriage—reminded Captain Bob of the painful ending of his own wedded bliss.
His divorce was part of the widespread collateral damage from the manmade financial catastrophe of 2008. He was still bitter about the ordeal, all these years later, and at times would have trouble managing his emotions and sleeping at night.
He had just had another restless night again and was pre-apologizing for any shortness of temper we may experience from him over the next few days. He said he would sometimes snap at people without provocation and would feel bad about the outburst later.
We both listened sympathetically to his story. After he finished, he looked over at Lua and asked for her opinion on the matter, wanting to hear a woman’s point-of-view on this mysterious emotional affliction.
Bob had already informed me earlier that Lua had been just a casual acquaintance during his years in Tahiti. The few times she would stop by unannounced to quietly watch him build Kalea in his outdoor workshop, he was usually absorbed in his work and did not bother to get to know much about her over that time before bringing her on as chef and fellow crewmate on SlimC’s reality-show project charter.
Bob had never really asked for her opinion before on anything of significance, thinking she would not have much to offer in the way of advice or interesting conversation for a well-traveled, college-educated, middle-aged mainlander like himself, but figured it might be amusing to hear what this quaint, quiet islander from the Cook Islands thought about his emotional issues. Surely, she would be clueless about the stresses and challenges of mainlanders.
Lua hesitated for a moment and then uttered with surprising conviction, “Mister Bob, you should really spend some time learning to breathe.”
~ ‘Be the Dolphin’ ~
Bob froze and darted his eyes in my direction. Before he could even get his beer down from his lips, he said, “What is she talking about, Rico?” He was staring at me in obvious bewilderment.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “You don’t look any shade of blue to me. Though I sense you are full of brown sometimes,” I joked.
After her characteristic giggling subsided, Lua said, “You know, Mister Bob, one way to break up tension and deal with moments of emotional pain is with deep, conscious breathing. I am sure you notice the motion from each ocean wave as it passes underneath Kalea’s hulls as we sit out here moored in this beautiful lagoon today—and how she gracefully rises and falls over and over with each passing wave. Our feelings and emotions come and go, rise and fall, in an endless stream just like that.”
Lua explained that emotions can be quite disruptive to our sense of well-being and to our relationships with others. But conscious breathing can be a wonderful stabilizing anchor.
“I think it would be helpful for you to have a more intimate relationship with your breathing, Mister Bob. Be more conscious of your breathing.”
While the stunned captain was trying to understand how the mundane activity of everyday breathing could have any possible effect on his emotional states, Lua explained that most people assume that we breathe with our lungs alone; but breathing is actually done by the whole body, with the lungs playing a relatively passive role in the whole process. They expand when the thoracic cavity is enlarged and they collapse when it is reduced.
Proper breathing actually involves the muscles of the head, neck, thorax and abdomen; and therefore chronic tension in any part of the body’s musculature interferes with proper breathing, which interferes with our feelings of well-being.
Everyday breathing is one of the basic pleasures of being alive and the one that is taken for granted more than any other. At its most basic level, the simple act of breathing provides the oxygen for the metabolic processes—it literally fuels the fires of life.
While she still held the stupefied captain’s attention, Lua described breathing as a rhythmic activity, like a series of ocean waves. The breathing rate is higher in infants and in states of excitation and lower in sleep and in depressed persons—and like all types of waves, breathing can vary greatly in wave height.
The depth of our breathing also varies with emotional states. Breathing naturally becomes shallower when we are frightened or anxious. It deepens with relaxation, pleasure and sleep. The quality of our respiratory movements determines whether breathing is pleasurable or not.
We live immersed in a fluid—just like fish in the sea—in an ocean of air we call the atmosphere. By our breathing we are attuned and intimately connected to our surroundings. If we inhibit our breathing, even mildly, we isolate ourselves from the medium in which we exist. Perhaps that is why breath has a strong connection with spirit or soul.
Chef Lua was a big fan of Asian cuisine and had learned a good deal about Eastern cultures and philosophies while pursuing her passion for the culinary arts. “Did you know that in all Oriental and mystic philosophies, the breath holds the secret to the highest bliss? Breathing is the dominant factor in the practice of yoga and, if controlled effectively, has a powerful calming effect,” Lua informed us.
She said our breath is our essence. The Chinese know it as qi, the ‘life force’ or ‘energy flow.’ Hindu sages encapsulate the universal life force as ‘Om’—the sound of all that is. Both physically and spiritually, it represents life.
“Practice more conscious breathing, Mister Bob,” Lua advised. “Whatever you are doing and wherever you are, I think you will enjoy a more calming stillness and better control of your emotions if you become more aware of your breathing and learn to control it better. When you control your breathing, you control your mind. Be like a dolphin—unlike humans, they breathe consciously, you know.”
Bob appeared rather confounded following Lua’s impromptu mini-sermon on the simple, mindless act of breathing. “Be like a dolphin, huh?” he responded. “I’ll have to think about that a bit, since you did just kinda take my breath away for a minute there, Lua.”
We continued our lunch with a discussion about what was left on the day’s to-do list. Perhaps I was more sensitized to notice, following the conversation, but it sure seemed like Bob was taking deeper and longer breaths when he wasn’t doing the talking. In any case, he appeared more relaxed by the time we finished lunch and got up to resume knocking off our long checklist of tasks for the day.
I made a mental note to remind Bob of ‘conscious breathing’ whenever I might catch him alone over the next several days at sea. I’d use a simple motto that would surely annoy him to no end, to my great delight: ‘Be the dolphin, Bob … be the dolphin.’
~ One Fine Piccolo ~
“Hey Lua, ya wanna hear a funny song?” I asked her one afternoon, while we were working side-by-side painting the forward bulkhead of the pilothouse. I loved re-purposing well-loved pop songs and coming up with what I considered to be much better stories to tell with those marvelous melodies. I had a humorous version of Just a Gigolo to offer my fun-loving, uke-playing crewmate.
“Sure, I’d love to hear it!” Lua replied, not breaking the steady rhythm of her smooth, graceful brush strokes. She seemed to naturally enjoy the relaxing, meditative, beautifying act of painting.
I gleefully put down my paintbrush, grabbed my guitar, and sang my lighthearted little ditty with all the emotional depth of a hopelessly love-struck troubadour:
I’m just a piccolo
And everywhere I go
People say I’m short and skinny
I wish I were a flute
That would be a hoot
And then I wouldn’t sound so tinny
But there will come day
When things will go my way
When all the lower notes retire
And when the end comes they’ll know
I was one fine piccolo
Just like a flute, but higher
Lua clapped enthusiastically. “That was great, Mister Rico! How did you come up with that?” Lua asked, giggling with delight.
“Well, that classic tune has a great melody ripe for repurposing, but the only word that I could think of to rhyme with ‘gigolo’ was ‘piccolo.’ So I had to imagine myself as a piccolo and wonder what would go through the mind of this sad, slender, squeaky little wannabe flute. Now Lua, wouldn’t you agree that a poor little piccolo, having only a very limited selection of weak, wimpy high notes to offer a big-bass world would have significant self-esteem issues and be dreaming of a day when all the lower notes retired?”
I had barely finished my explanation before she lost her composure in a fit of contagious laughter that drew me in like a helpless cork in a whirlpool of merriment. We both laughed together for a good long time.
~ ‘Laughing Lua’ ~
Now any salty, savvy, seasoned boat captain will tell you that great food is vital to the morale of passengers and crew at sea, especially when the going gets unpleasant or downright dangerous. Chef Lua would certainly provide that.
But laughter—with its fearlessness and solidarity—can sometimes be the most effective way to release the pressure from the mounting stress of a difficult situation. Lua was one of those special class of people that laughed easily and often, a trait that I lack, but greatly admire in others.
There would surely be many extraordinary challenges crewing for a bunch of ill-matched landlubberly passengers dealing, many for the first time, with the tight quarters and daily discomforts of living aboard a relatively small vessel with few modern conveniences; Kalea was no luxury cruise liner, after all.
I made a mental note to myself to keep ‘Laughing Lua’ in mind for when the time comes, and most surely it would, that a rapidly deteriorating situation called for the magical mood-saving power of a timely and well-thrown lifeline of humor.