The Tuna Hunter Ch.9 "Wewak"

Posted on December 28, 2008

Ch.9 WEWAK

Alone on the deck, at five o’clock in the morning, Christina sniffed the salt air, and her senses shivered with delight at being alive. It was still dark, but dawn was not far away. The sea was almost calm. A slight breeze caused little more than a ripple, but it was enough to fill the sails. They were now rapidly approaching Wewak, and she was beginning to seriously search for the distant shapes of Tarawai Island or Walis Island. She studied the charts, and played with the GPS system. Carefully, the electronic digits were transferred to her chart.
Three degrees and eight minutes south…
Her pencil and ruler worked quickly.
One hundred and forty three east…
Her brow showed her heavy concentration.
…and twenty five minutes.
Her pencil marked quickly, and the thin cross showed faintly in the artificial light. The current was moving her east faster than expected. It was not a problem, but she wondered if she would in fact spot Kairiru Island first. The elevation was higher, much higher. 2493 feet…
She decided it was likely, and peered into the distance again. Not a light showed. Looking at the eastern sky, she could see the first rays of dawn, like fingers plucking gently and timorously at the silent strings of heaven. She shivered again in pure delight. The others were still fast asleep, and would not put in an appearance for at least another three hours. They had no idea what they were missing. She had tried to tell them many times, but none could match her enthusiasm for the quiet of the early dawn. She had given up then, content to enjoy her own silent spiritual yearnings. To feel… a part of this. This mysterious universe. This silent world of infinite unknowns. She gazed at the stars, and wondered if there was a God. A God who had indeed created the world. Who cared, deeply, about each and every one of his creatures. Who waited. Patiently. Biding his time…
To Christina, there was a God. She was not an intellectual, and she could never put these feelings into adequate words. She just felt it. He was there, He knew everything, and she knew very little. But it was all right. There was mystery, awe, but no fear. The soft lapping sound of waves being parted by the bow, the odd creak of timber, and the occasional ‘smack’ of a bigger wave were all she could hear.
No cars, no factories, no smoke, no confusion.
Peace only. And her thoughts.
Perhaps… it was God’s patience Chris admired the most. Not His Creation. Or his creatures, wonderful though they were. His patience. The way He was biding his time. Despite the way people…
She had tried to talk about it once, with some friends. They had mocked her most cruelly, and she had been hurt. Something inside her had closed up then, and she would never talk about it to anybody else.

Light crept onstage patiently, unhurriedly, across the Bismarck Sea. Faint colors lit up the eastern horizon.
Faint, wispy, pale pastel colors.
Christina narrowed her eyes and stared southwards, looking for a light, or a shadow. Her heart gave a jump, and she concentrated on one spot. Unmistakeably, a long, low, dark bulge raised itself up above the sea. Tarawai? Walis? No. It had to be Kairiru Island. She watched closely for a few minutes. Not a single light penetrated the darkness. She studied the map. Yet the island was inhabited. Surai was the town. Just north of Cape Ulekup. Surely…
A slight worry crossed her mind. Quickly she re-checked the GPS, but it checked out. She relaxed again, looking up in amusement as a flying fish, disturbed by their passing, whizzed by spectacularly a few inches above the water. It seemed to skip a few times, like a flat round stone thrown by a young schoolboy, torpedoed through a low ripple, and finally buried itself with a loud ‘smack!’ in the next low swell.

Twenty minutes later, the increasing daylight having permitted her a positive sighting, Christina relaxed enough to go below deck to make some coffee. She returned with a steaming mug, and pondered the lack of lights from Surai. Looking at the map again, she wondered if perhaps it was not so much a town as more of a small native village with limited lighting. Absently she sipped at the brown liquid, burnt her lip, swore in a very non lady like manner, and put the mug down. Taking up a pair of binoculars, she studied the slopes of Kairiru Island, and was not surprised to discover them heavily wooded. Somewhere she had heard that Papua New Guinea was a major exporter of timber. An independent state, with a population of four million, an emerging tourism industry, malaria, and close ties with Australia. That summed up her total knowledge of the place. Oh, and the yacht club. Wewak boasted a yacht club. Hopefully, that was their destination. With a bit of luck, they would be sipping drinks there that evening.
Half an hour went by, and then some stumbling noises from below deck indicated some signs of life, but it did not last. The "Lady Annabelle" was rounding Muschu Island, and making good speed for Wewak Harbor, twelve miles away, before the untidy tousled head of Ricky Distefiano appeared.
"Are we there yet?"
Resisting an impulse to say: "Yes, we’re moored at the dock", Chris nodded assent.
"Yes, just about. Twelve miles to go. See those mountain ranges? I’ve been looking at them through the binoculars. They’re solidly wooded. There’s some kind of mist in that valley over there, it looks like a waterfall tumbling over the mountain…"
Ricky winced at Christina’s bubbling enthusiasm, revving up dangerously, and he knew he would soon be hauled up all the way on deck to gaze and admire. Thinking only in terms of sausages and bacon, he dived away quickly, with a mumbling "Yeah… neat, Chris, real neat…"

Christina, with her meticulous advance planning, had procured the frequency of a Coastal Agency at Wewak. Although not strictly required to use them, being a private vessel, she nevertheless planned to do so. The costs involved were, in her experience, well worth the inside information on where to moor safely, where to stay, and where not to venture. Her radio call was answered promptly and cheerfully by an unmistakeably Aussie voice. A quick exchange of information resulted in arrangements for immigration and customs formalities to take place. Advice on hotels and supplies also followed with a willingness.

It was just after ten o’clock in the morning when a powered launch pulled alongside, and eight smiling men came aboard. Christina, initially taken aback by the sheer quantity of officialdom, was at once struck by their charm and friendliness. They inspected passports and stamped pages with none of the usual bureaucratic aloofness, but chatted away merrily, full of curiosity and good humor. Their English was very good, which surprised Chris, who for some reason had expected great difficulties with communication. Their accent was strong but hard to identify. Chris wondered if there were Australian influences there. Ricky too was a little awestruck. Especially when he found himself shaking hands with a large, very dark man, who introduced himself as Gabriel, from the shipping agency. Gabriel appeared to be the classic Papa New Guinean, with dark curly hair, a broad nose, very dark tobacco brown skin, and a long jaw. However, it was the teeth which mesmerized Ricky. They appeared to be a bright blood red, as if the man had just indulged in a lugubrious meal of raw meat with the warm blood still trickling out. Try as Ricky might, he could not take his gaze off the man’s teeth. He hardly heard what Gabriel was saying, and just nodded stupidly. Only when the sharp voice of Christina cut in, did he manage to avert his gaze.
"I’m the captain of this ship", she was saying, politely but firmly. "Please discuss those arrangements with me. Can I offer you drinks below?"
Ricky, delighted to be free, scampered quickly away, his peaked captain’s hat sliding over to a hazardous angle. Gabriel, if he was surprised to discover a woman captain, and a captain’s-hat- wearing non-captain, never betrayed it, and merely turned his beaming fresh-blooded smile on her. Not a trace of irony showed in his face, not even when Ricky, over eager to head down the gangway, slipped, cursed, and lost his balance, his dignity, and his peaked captain’s hat in one foul stroke…

* * *

Two hundred miles away, a different drama was being played out. To Bob Meyrick it seemed life was not treating him too well. He groaned, and frantically dashed out onto the lower deck again. The shrieks, although in Chinese, most clearly communicated urgency, and Bob moved as fast as he could. Even as he ran, he was aware of a feeling of dread
engulfing him, and his guilt caused his adrenaline to rush. He reached the control panel, and grabbed for the red shut off valve. It wouldn’t budge. Behind him, the Chinese voice wailed piteously, and Bob redoubled his efforts. It took many precious seconds before he realized
he was trying to turn the wrong valve. The one he was swinging all his weight on… went to an empty outlet. He panicked, and grabbed the other valve, reflecting miserably on his fate…

It had seemed such a good idea. The two toilet cubicles, located side by side, had the drawback that the flushing system (consisting of a plastic hose and a tap) could only be operated from number one cubicle. Bob had used number two, and seeing that number one was also occupied, he had been forced to wait until the unknown occupant vacated same. The minutes had crawled by, and Bob had grown impatient. Looking out on deck, he had noticed another hose. It was, admittedly, of a much larger diameter. However, Bob had reasoned, if he only opened the relevant tap a little way, then a small flow of water through a large hose should equal a large flow through a small hose…

Easy…

So Bob had carefully dragged the hose in off the deck, placed it in readiness on the floor of number two cubicle, and then gone back out onto the deck to operate the valve. Unfortunately he had not fully realized the fact that he was dealing with a fire hydrant, designed to pump sea water in copious quantities onto raging fires. Operating the valve a small way was in fact equivalent to ’emergency’ activation. There had been a colossal Whoosh! followed by a squeal, and Bob had wasted precious seconds by running inside. There to discover that the fire hose had gone berserk, and snaked through the six inch gap at the bottom of the partition. It must have done so in a vicious and ongoing series of whiplashes, because it had been quite obvious from the fountain of water, the gurgling noises, the banging, and the shrill hysteria, that the unlucky occupant was unable to control the unexpected invader from his oriental hunched position.

The eventual exit from number one cubicle was a cautious affair. Once the deluge had stopped, the door opened a fraction, and the second engineer’s frightened little face peered out, no doubt deciding that a careful reconnaissance was called for in case of sudden and
ferocious attack by forces unknown. Bob, genuinely sorry, started to stammer many apologies.
But it was of little use. The bedraggled, seawater soaked gentleman from China was not pleased, and vented his feelings all the way back to his cabin, leaving Bob standing there watching a trail of receding puddles. And Pooh-tsui, the captain’s dog, who, tail wagging with delight, sniffed with the greatest interest at the puddles, and was obviously trying to figure out what the big fuss was all about.
Bob groaned, wishing he could hide for a day…
Pooh-tsui, sympathetically, trotted up and placed two wet paws on Bob’s knee, looking up with a look of "Boy, you sure did it there, didn’t you…?"

Instead of hiding, he made his way up to the helideck, situated towards the bow of the ship, on top of the bridge. It was a good vantage point, which afforded a good view all around. There were often times when Bob would go up there, lean his back up against a helicopter float, fold his arms, and ponder deeply. He would wonder about many things, not least of which was why he was there. What motivated a man to spend months on end on a foreign fishing ship, doing a lot of hair raising helicopter flying, in the certain knowledge that maintenance facilities were limited, first aid and medical capabilities were poor, and -worst of all- that search and rescue feasibility bordered on the non-existent. Was it just money? Greed? He was well paid, no doubt about that. But… there was more to it. A lot more.
It had something to do…

…with the clear, open horizons.
He had lived and worked in Dublin, London, and Los Angeles. Where the view into the distance was always obstructed by tall buildings, towers, skyscrapers, cranes, aerials, and other man-made obstacles. Where it was simply impossible to ‘dream in’ the view, to breath out properly. He had felt hemmed in, cramped, threatened, stifled. But on the ocean, you could stand on the helideck, or climb up to the crow’s mast, and strain your eyes for miles and miles in every direction of the compass. You felt open, free, in control, at peace. Somehow your place in the universe, small, insignificant, a little human in a huge cosmos, was now correct. There had been times, when, in desperation, he had climbed up onto the roof of his London house, or his Los Angeles apartment, simply to try and see at least some of the horizon. He would spy perhaps one tenth of the horizon’s total circumference – if he was lucky – through the buildings and the clutter. Not to mention the rain and drizzle in London, and the heavy smog in Los Angeles. Even then, with that one glimpse, he would feel better, refreshed as an incurable alcoholic taking his first swig of bourbon after leaving a drying out clinic.
It had something to do…

…with the stunning cloudplay.
Especially at daybreak, when he would stand sleepily at the helicopter, preparing for yet another dawn patrol in search of breakfasting fish. When the interplay of darkness and light, color and reflection, would combine to really make him feel privileged to be alive. When he felt that each new day was indeed a gift. When he would feel profoundly grateful for the privilege of Life. Or at sunset, when he was tired, but thoughtful. When he could rest, and think, and immerse himself in the Universe. He would watch the first stars come out, and the last rays of the sun slowly burn themselves out. Sometimes there would be violent storms, lashing rain, and lightning would flash around the heavens, illuminating clouds from the inside with energy incalculable. He would shiver in awe, knowing his place in the Creation. He would feel humble without excessive sentiment, awed without being frightened. Then he would shudder at the memories of the streets of London and New York, with wall-to-wall people, the headlong rush of the lemmings, the no-time-to-smile passage of thousands of folk, the constant invasion of body space, the jostling, the bumping, the treading on your toes, and the graffiti soaked sardine cans they called the ‘underground’. But worst of all were the eyes of the zombies. Their gazes saw through you, with a peculiar fixed, unregistering dullness. It was as if you didn’t exist, were invisible, and not at all a creature of flesh and blood, with feelings and fears, with hurt and memories. No, you didn’t exist, and if you tried to assert your existence, by speaking, or touching somebody on the arm… ("Excuse me, can you tell me please the way to Grosvenor Square?")… you ran the risk of instant suspicion…("What does he want?… what’s he after?… does he want my wallet?… will he attack me?… will he rape me?"). Some of the lemmings would refuse to speak. They would cling desperately to the zombie look, their protection from strangers. They would pretend not to hear, brushing past, ignoring. Other lemmings would feel imposed upon, resentful, angry. They would give you minimal directions, quickly, and rush onwards, ever on…
It had something to do…

…with a low stress level.
Despite the risks, the deck landings when the ship heaved up and down, sending showers of spray crashing over the decks… the take-offs when you had to time it correctly, just as the ship rolled the right way… the unexpected headwinds when you were an hour and a half flying time away, trying to get home… despite the risks of mechanical failure, when the winds were blowing, and the waves reared up with foaming whitecaps… despite everything the life of a tuna helicopter pilot could throw at you, the stress level was low. Your mind could rest. You could reflect. He could read. He even wrote a bit, and had tried his hand at a little novel that lacked much luster, but which had given him much creative satisfaction. Somehow his mind was the most relaxed it had ever been. Some days he would fly five or six hours. Then he would be tired in a satisfied sort of way, and flop into bed early, without a shred of guilt. Other days he would fly only one or two hours, depending on the captain’s wishes. Then he had plenty of time to read, write, relax and ponder.

Why… was he a tuna helicopter pilot?
He would have found it hard to put it in words.
Did he have any regrets?
He smiled to himself… quietly, but not unkindly.
He knew he had, yes…

F.M.
(c)

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on December 28, 2008, 1:57 pm


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