I stare into the broken sea, wind lifting waves against the outgoing tide. White spit from the peaks dribbles down the faces. Lemon-grey smudge of sun peers through the reluctant cloud. Our boat swings back and forth, jagged, disorientated. I can’t unmix the happy and bad memories.
We’re still in Fiji: Musket Cove, a tourist island off Lautoka. Dad calls me down to look at the chart, arm stretched across the navigation table – leathery brown skin sprouting curly-white fuzz. The problem is the reef surrounding Fiji. His fingers have grown thick from a lifetime fixing things, electrical, mechanical and metaphysical, from tending sails and anchor chains. He used to train primary school teachers in the natural sciences, but retired in his fifties to go sailing. I can’t help noticing his thin stubborn legs, peeking below shorts pulled up too high. I don’t like that he is shrinking inside his clothes. As he turns to make sure I understand, the sea-sprayed contours of his face roll into mountain ranges and his gentle eyes disappear under bushy-white eyebrows.
‘We’ll leave for Vanuatu today, as soon as you’re ready. If we get good winds, we could arrive at Port Vila in four or five days.’
I follow his finger. ‘There are several narrow passages through Malolo reef. Vanuatu is five hundred kilometres due west.’
I pull up the anchor and unshackle it from the chain, lug it down to the stern of the boat, then dump it in the lazaret. We motor out through a small reef circling Musket Cove into a choppy sea and set a course for the passage through the outer reef. I mark an ‘x’ on the chart, our position from the GPS, and run the ruler to the gap. I transcribe the angle of the ruler to the compass rose on the chart, make an adjustment for the magnetic deviation, and call up the compass heading to Dad. We soon come close, but we can’t tell whether the passage through is directly in front of us, or slightly to starboard or port. A great hedge of billowing white foam spreads out in both directions.
Dad keeps staring up and down the wall of breakers, looking for a clue. The depth sounder is blinking towards single digits. I recalculate our approximate position and mark the chart again. We’re getting very close. I feel the power of the waves leaping up into breaking foam over the coral. The shallow water colours turquoise, splashed white with foam. We motor slowly along the outer edge, looking for a change in colour. The deep water of the gap will be dark blue.
‘There it is,’ Dad shouts.
Sea piles up around the edges and crashes down into the boiling centre. Surely Dad doesn’t think we can get through that. He sends me up the mast to see if the dark colour goes cleanly all the way through. It does. We turn and head straight in. The boat rolls and pitches and I scream down to Dad where the dark water is. He noses Dream-maker in further, until she’s bucking like a wild horse. I hold tight. The mast swings in wild loops. I cling with my whole body. It looks okay from up here. The sea is still dark under the churning water, dark blue all the way through.
Dad calls up, ‘I don’t think we can do it. I want to turn back.’
I yell back, ‘It’s okay, keep going, a little to the starboard.’
I scramble down the mast to reassure him, and tell him how dark the water is, all the way through, then rush back up to yell our course. We keep heading straight into the thrashing sea. On deck you can’t see anything but mountains of water. Surely it would be too dangerous to turn around now.
Dad panics. ‘I want to go back, I don’t like this.’
We’ve ended up at the wrong exit, and he doesn’t know if it’s safe. We only have to scrape a bommie and that’s it – matchsticks and shark food. Bommies, flat heads of coral, lie under the water. You can’t see them, but the water on top is lighter and if the sun is directly overhead you can tell.
‘No, no,’ I yell down bravely, ‘we’re fine. I can see the way is clear from up here, you can’t tell down there. Keep going, a little more to the port.’
My boldness comes from adrenaline. I haven’t done this before.
He turns the boat, following my directions, through the churning foam.
‘Stay at that angle, we’re almost through,’ I shout down.
The reef is very close both sides and we don’t know the tide or current. We see-saw up and down, inch by inch, waiting for the coral, waiting for that terrible noise to take us by surprise.
‘We’ve made it,’ I finally get to call.
I slip down the mast and stumble over the dropped sail. The reef falls behind. Dad shivers into his feet, and leaves me at the wheel so he can check the GPS and the chart. I don’t notice the strong current sweeping us back towards the reef, a strong subterranean current, a hidden threat.
‘Keep away from the reef,’ Dad shouts up. ‘Head straight out to sea.’
I think we can keep to our course and head due west, but we can’t, not with the current against us. Again, he calls up to head straight out and I turn to see the reef looming up behind, the detail of the foam coming back into view. I finally do what he says, until we really are clear.
‘You can pull up the main now.’
He takes over the wheel, brushing a leathery brown hand through his white shock of hair. We’re safe.
‘Take it up to the second reef.’
Squinting into the sun he turns the boat up into the wind so the sail will stay loose while I raise it.
‘Now you can pull out the headsail.’
I find wind vectors challenging. The wind is coming from the port side, so I need to pull out the headsail on the starboard side. Dad waits patiently, possibly puzzled by my ineptitude. I slot the handle into the winch, make sure the sheet goes in the right way around and then pull. I heave the handle around and around, back and forth, until my muscles are jumping, and I’m breathing full in and out, and my stomach is like a knotted plank of wood.
I love this part of sailing best: the workout. Dad tails the end of the sheet and steers.
Dyana plans to finish her “Living Exploration” novels and have them published during 2016. Fill in the subscription form on any page to stay tuned for updates.