Hope or High Water: The Voyage of a Lifetime and a Model for our Future
Chapter Four – A Living Hell
13 July 11 (Two days out)
What a lot to contemplate. I was sleeping a lot and feeling clear and quiet. I stood for hours watching the swells, the clouds changing colour in the sunset with the softer pastel greys and pinks of twilight following behind. I leaned on the mast as the bright moonlight silhouetted the crew working on the hoe. They were sailing well, a blessing that meant I could sit back and relax. The moonlight on the water lulled me, thoughts and memories trickling through my mind. Words of wisdom and warmth, generosity and grace, good people with open hearts and minds, acts of selflessness and support. Hawai’i had been huge and beautiful. So much had happened that it would take time for it all to settle. Haunui was in pretty good shape after our maintenance at METC; the crew were all partied and rested, and the sailing was sublime. Fifteen to twenty knots on the beam, cruising along at six or seven knots ourselves.
The plan was to head due north until we hit the point where the two stars at the end of the Big Dipper were vertical and the distance between the two equal to the distance from the bottom star to the horizon. We would then be at latitude 39 degrees north. San Francisco lay at 38 degrees north. A difference of just 60 miles. From that point we would turn a right angle and sail with Hokupa’a, Polaris, on our beam until we hit Turtle Island. Turtle Island is an indigenous name for North America.
I’d put a couple of my junior crew in the position of watch leaders. It’s important to help our young people step up, and this was a good opportunity for them to experience that leadership role in a safe, supported way. Hana-lee and Tyler were 18 and 19, strong and confident in different ways, and had good leadership potential.
Tyler was a rock. For a young man he had a wonderful way of sitting with different people and just getting on with them; he was calm, quick witted, good humoured, and was a good stabilising influence. Hana-lee was a rock with a few rough edges. She was strong-willed and very capable. A little quick to judge and quick with her tongue, which didn’t always help, but I was hoping that taking responsibility for the watch would give her the challenge she needed, and give her a taste of what it meant to have to think about other people and the canoe. She was one of those people who have a huge influence over their peers, for better or for worse depending on their mood.
Each of them had strong older crew in their watches to help them out with decision making and give them the guidance and support to help them succeed. The crew with them were fantastic men and women in their own right. Luther and Michelle were with Tyler. Luther was great on the canoe, loved the waka kaupapa, worked hard and laughed a lot. Michelle wasn’t so confident with the sailing, but was a teacher, a great guide for the younger crew, and cared deeply about people and the kaupapa. Murray and Brendan were with Hana-lee. They’d been on board for months of course, so they knew the canoe inside out.
14 July 11 (Three days out)
Then reality bit. Five hundred miles north of Hawai’i, 1,800 miles west of mainland America on the wide, lonely sea, plastic waste began floating past. The comparison between the relatively pristine South Pacific and what we were sailing through was like a slap in the face. My stomach clenched. What have we done?
We were skirting the Eastern Pacific Gyre, “the Great Garbage Patch.” Twice the size of Texas, or as big as France, it’s an enormous pool of trash created by currents and weather patterns in the middle of the sea. We’re told that only twenty percent of the plastic is visible on the surface. The bulk of it lives as a plastic soup down through the water column. It breaks down and disappears from sight, but it only breaks down to micro-waste, molecular level particles of plastic that attract the heavy toxins in the water, and are then absorbed into the food web, ingested by plankton, the plankton by larger organisms, then on to bigger and bigger fish and eventually to us. We all have plastic in our bodies today.
It’s become such a pervasive problem that scientists are now finding plastic particles in amoeba in Antarctica. And still we keep using it. One of the reasons for this is that the petro-chemical companies who sell plastics spend a lot of money on advertising to counter environmental campaigns. The ACC, the American Chemical Council, are the proponents for the chemical industry in the States. When the city of San Francisco, for example, wanted to introduce a ban on single use plastic bags, the ACC spent millions over a couple of years to advertise against this ban, and even had the lobbying power to have school textbooks changed in California to promote “the environmental benefits of plastic bags.” This manipulation by industries hell-bent on selling product and producing profit for their shareholders has driven us to shit in our own nest. The question now is: do we care enough to do something about it?
There are a few innovative ideas from individuals, but governments and industry aren’t putting up their hands to clean it up. That would mean funding it. The only solution in the short term is to stop using disposable plastic, and that starts with us, with you and me. My parents never had plastic bags, the first was only made in the mid 1960s. Many countries and cities around the world have banned single use bags altogether, and more are doing so all the time. A simple change in lifestyle like taking our own bags to the supermarkets and shops would make a world of difference.
15 July 11 (Four days out)
Fluffy white trade wind clouds marched quietly across the sky. Our red/brown sails curved gracefully in the 15 knot breeze, driving the canoe along at a comfortable six or seven knots. It was beautiful, easy sailing on a gentle sea. I leaned on the rail and watched the rays of sunlight shine deep into the rich blue of the open ocean. Long fingers of light diving into the clear water. Flying fish skittering across the surface, and small waves breaking on our bow.
A radiator hose floated past. A hundred metres later the torn remnants of a sugar sack, a fragment of polystyrene, the lid off something, an unidentifiable piece of plastic, a piece of synthetic rope, an old running shoe, more unidentifiable plastic, a cloud of translucent film presumably degrading sheets of plastic. From 24 hours earlier, when we had two pieces an hour going past, we now had a stream. At least one piece of debris every 100 metres, and that was on one side of the canoe within ten metres of the rail!
In the twelve years of my sailing career around the world, there were few places outside heavily industrialised ports that had the amount of rubbish we were seeing in the middle of the vast and majestic Pacific Ocean. What have we done? Life got awfully serious all of a sudden; sailing through that volume of waste two thousand miles from land was spinning me out. I had a sick feeling in my stomach, and a growing sense of horror at the reality of it. We were on one edge of the gyre with a continent’s worth of rubbish to the east of us. It was heartbreaking and overwhelming. I struggled taking photos or video of it. Partly because it was difficult; most of the stuff floating past was small and spread out, and partly because I was in a kind of shock. I felt, at times, a little panicky, often depressed. It took a heavy toll on me. I’d never believed or even considered that we could fill the oceans of the world with rubbish.
Despite my personal horror, the crew were in good spirits, and there was lots of laughter onboard. We chased Te Matau A Māui that afternoon, but once Frankie realised we were after them he sharpened his act up and we couldn’t catch them. It was great, cruisy sailing. With all the waste we were still catching fish, and even though I was concerned about what they were eating, they were beautifully cooked and it’s hard to beat fresh sashimi and pan fried mahimahi.
The sun shone, the music rocked and rolled across the deck, we were making great speed, and it would have been perfect except …
I hope one day it will be perfect again. It’s a beautiful world we live in.
16 July 11 (Five days out)
Dawn lifted its weary head, dull and grey. Scattering squalls across the sea, it slowly worked its way into the day.
On deck we were bright and cheerful in the rain. We stripped down to shorts, soaped up and stood beneath the sails catching a fresh water shower in the pale morning light. Soon tantalising smells were emerging from the galley, and Uncle B’s special delivery kitchen rolled out pizza after pizza. They must have been magic, because the rain stopped and the sun peaked through the clouds. Just don’t ask if he can cook up wind; that’s a whole different story.
Looking out over the ocean, slice of pizza in hand, I thought it was going to be a good day. The last couple of days had been a nightmare, but we were through the worst of it, surely … then the sun came out, and the plastic waste came into view again. It was simply hidden in the dull light and the rain. There was more now. At least one piece every 10 metres. I found myself pacing the deck from side to side like an animal in a cage. It was like a bad horror movie; I didn’t want to watch, but I couldn’t tear myself away. The ordinariness of it was what got me. A disposable cup, a cigarette lighter, half a coat hanger, a child’s deflated ball like a bizarre, bright tumour on the wave, a drink bottle (enjoy c-h-oke), a disposable plate, a cotton reel, a toothbrush, a comb, another drink bottle. These are things you and I use every day. Things we throw away everyday without thinking. A plastic razor, a drinking straw, packaging.
I’d like to think the human race can raise its head, dull and grey with the oily smoke of generations, a little heavy after years of over-indulgence, to scatter clean-up groups across the planet working slowly into a new day. There are enough of us who want it. For this to happen, mainstream media must be brought into the game. They paint a picture of the world that people believe is real, and they show a very slanted slice of life. There’s an old understanding seen clearly in sports psychology today that the images we hold in our minds are the future we’ll create. If you want to clear the bar, you don’t focus on how high it is, you see yourself going over it. In the same way, if we don’t show our people the truth both negative and positive, they have no basis for judgment. There are disasters inherent in our businesses and lifestyles, and there are thousands of people doing amazing things all over the world. We just need to hear about them.
17 July 11 (Six days out)
It was a gentle day with more easy beam reach sailing in a steady 15 – 20 knots and flat seas.
We had a double hook up at first light. Both hooks pulled out, so good luck for the fish – not such good luck for us. But there was no shortage of kai onboard and we were still eating well. We were entering that eat-all-the-fresh-food-before-it-goes-off stage. Pumpkins and aubergines, kale and capsicums, avocados, tomatoes were still looking pretty good after a week at sea, but there was an end in sight. Our pile of fruit had steadily disappeared. Oranges, mandarins, apples, pineapples, Hawai’ian mountain apples with bright red skins and crisp, white flesh, soursop, which is kind of like cotton wool with melon flavouring, but better than it sounds. And, of course, bananas.
Early in the quiet afternoon Hana-lee’s scream pierced the air. Everyone jumped. Gorohu came dashing up the ladder with her wet weather pants shouting “Knife! Knife!” He swung them over the side and started shaking them like a madman. From somewhere in our pile of fruit and veggies, possibly the bananas, a large centipede had emerged and found its way right through the hull, past me and Waka, past Murray, ignored Brendan and hidden in Hana-lee’s towel. It gave her the fright of her life when she went to dry herself, and considering the reputation they have for a nasty bite, she was lucky and fairly warranted in her scream.
There were a few of us a little nervous when we went to bed that night. I slept with my feet next to the open hatch where the fruit and veggies lived. In the half light of early morning there was another scream from Hana. “Uncle B! Uncle B! What’s on that bottle?” There were big water bottles on the floor between their bunks.
“Bloody hell!” Brendan shouted and grabbed a torch. There, on top of the water bottle was a large, crudely drawn centipede in black ink.
“Got you, that one, didn’t it?” Murray beamed. I could see him in a school uniform playing pranks on his classmates. He was right, though, got both of them.
Still we sailed through a sea of plastic. Three days sailing, maybe 500 miles, and although it had started to thin out, there was still a lot of it and the damage was done. You can’t undo knowing something. We have a serious problem, one of many that needs to be addressed, and ignoring it because we can’t see it is a terrible mistake. We are filling the oceans with waste, and make no mistake about it, our seas will not take everything we throw at them. It is possible to clog them and poison them and deplete them, and we’ve made an excellent job of it so far.
18 July 11 (Seven days out)
The high spot of the day came when we first encountered Hine Moana. A little behind them, we were gaining steadily when Murray came over grinning, “As we come alongside we’ll crank up the stereo, all start dancing around the deck and no one look at them. Then when we’ve sailed past we can call up and ask where they are.” That was the cunning plan. To add spice to the performance, a conga line was added along with the Marquesan Bird Dance, and finally a “Dead Ant” (everybody drops on their backs and waves their arms and legs in the air). The things you do for fun. It all went off without a hitch, except for the bit about “don’t look at them.” They, and we, were laughing way too much not to. It brightened the morning up anyway.
Later on we found the fruit. After a routine sort through the fruit and veggies, we had a modest pile that were at the end of their lives. Over-ripe and starting to rot. So what to do with them? Obviously the only reasonable thing to do was to sneak up close to Hine Moana again, and catapult all that squishy ripeness at her crew. What else? It’s long been understood by those in the know that catapult technology is one of the most important aspects of fleet sailing. Mind you, having a good throwing arm goes a long way too, ‘scuse the pun. With a little over-enthusiasm and complete disregard for the outcome, we pulled up broadside, downwind. While our devastating funnel and rubber band catapult scored a few excellent long distance hits, the strong arm tactics of Greater Polynesia (multi-national crew on Hine) did significant damage with rotten bananas and mandarins before Magnus put the pedal down and took off.
We still had scraps of rubbish, large and small floating past. It’d thinned out a lot, but it was there. Eight hundred to a thousand miles of open ocean filled with waste. We watched from a distance as a juvenile albatross tried to eat a plastic bag. Plastic bags look a lot like jelly fish, but when animals eat them they sit in their stomachs and block the digestive tract, eventually starving them to death. Uto Ni Yalo crew rescued a turtle once that had a small piece of plastic sticking out of its mouth. When they got it aboard and gently pulled the plastic out it was a metre square piece of heavy plastic sheet. The turtle was skinny and weak, but very lucky … for the moment.
Thankfully, while my mind was overflowing with garbage, the sun shone and the crew were sailing the canoe well without a lot of direction from me. It was what I’d worked towards from day one. A time when I could leave them to the work, and be confident in their ability to sail well and keep us safe. It was very rewarding, and I was again proud of the way everyone had stepped up. Gorohu had settled back into canoe life. He’d been delighted to find fresh stocks of betel nut in Hawai’i and was merrily chewing the stuff to his heart’s content. It was a minor concern for me, even though I’d been assured it was a bit like coffee, a mild stimulant and harmless enough. I didn’t know a lot about it. Ihaia had slipped effortlessly into the group and seemed to be loving the experience. Sailboats were a different thing for him, but his seaman’s skills were a bonus. Even little things like whipping lines were new to many of the crew, and he was right there doing it and teaching others at the same time. David was producing mixed feelings amongst the others; he was a little older, a little slower and had different ideas about how to do things.
19 July 11 (Eight days out)
The tanoa (kava bowl) sat on the deck as Waka mixed the kava. Half coconut shells balanced on the rim and the muddy looking liquid symbolising the peaceful sharing of ourselves and our ideas sloshed gently with the roll of the waves. In the pale light of the overcast afternoon Waka chanted a karakia opening the space, setting intent, asking a blessing on us for our kōrero. Hands clapped as coconut shells of kava made their way round the circle, joining us in the moment.
All our minds were occupied by images of the pollution we’d seen, trying to come to terms with it, finding solutions. Keahi put it succinctly, “To lose [the ocean to pollution, etc.] would be to lose a family member. It’s really, really sad to even have to think about something like that, because it nurtured all of us as a people, it made us who we are.”
Michelle posed the question, “What am I prepared to do to preserve the ocean so that when I have grandchildren they can go sailing, they can go fishing, and they can have the things that I enjoy? With everything we’ve seen out there [the trash], it’s still beautiful, it’s still magnificent and we have a chance to make a difference.”
Luther’s eyes welled up as he spoke, “Since coming to the canoe, my mind, my attitude, even my conscious decisions have been altered a lot … it’s opened my eyes and my heart to things I would never have been able to understand. Everyone here has the same feelings, same thoughts, and it comes from different cultures, that is the amazing part … We come together with the same line of thought, how can we take care of our ocean, how can we take care of our people, how can we take care of our land.” The strength of feeling was clear. There was a lot of emotion as the crew spoke of the importance of connecting with their ancestral past, of providing a foundation and healthy world for the children of the future. It was powerful and moving to have people open their hearts so freely.
Later that afternoon, and not for the first time, Haunui was the victim of a combined, albeit poorly coordinated assault by the unscrupulous Marumaru Atua, who offered bread and threw flour, and the cowardly villains Hine Moana, who swooped in under power, lobbed a few poorly aimed pieces of fruit, then motored upwind to safety as fast as they could. Having weathered the attack, we collected ingredients from the broad shoulders of our fearless crew and made a banana cake. Nothing if not practical.
I’ve had the honor of traveling and filming with Captain Duncan Morrison and the Pacific Voyagers as they sailed a fleet of seven voyaging canoes across the Pacific to share a message of ocean stewardship. Dunc, a true craftsman of the written word, shapes a story that not only enlightens, but will make something shift inside you.
– Gianna Savoie, US award-winning writer/producer