16 Solitary Sailor
I must go down to the seas again,
to the lonely sea and sky.
- J. Masefield
We were bound for Mauritius Island 2400 miles to the west. I'd expected a passage of steady trades at this time of year in these latitudes. Then, barely one hundred miles past the Cocos Islands, the wind fell away to nothing. For two days Atom drifted within a void of blue sky and water, sails snapping from side to side as we rolled on the leftover heaving sea.
A ship appeared on the horizon and I watched him make a deliberate course change to approach us. She slipped by close enough for me to see the faces of the crewmen who stepped out of the pilothouse to gaze down on our boat adrift. When later that day two other ships passed within a mile of us, I judged by their course that Atom was crossing an Indonesia to South Africa shipping lane and I kept a more attentive watch.
Within a period of several hours the calm gave way to a gale from the southeast. The finest hour of a voyage is when a new wind arrives and the boat slips quickly through calm water. Again I observed the magic of cat's paws wavelets born of the opposing forces of wind friction and water surface tension. I watch with infinite patience as they grow into majestic, mature waves, now propelled by even greater wind friction coupled to the restoring force of gravity. Science explains wave theory but knowing the formula does little to explain the magic.
As the seas built, their frothy tops tumbled aboard as they swept past. For five days we eagerly rushed before the blow. A few times each day a high swell from a distant southern ocean storm synchronized with the southeast wind-driven waves to produce an episodic wave with shocking impact against Atom's beam, skidding us sideways under a cascade of falling water. As always, Atom and I shrugged it off and resumed our course.
A wave's signature is as individual as a snowflakes and because of their relatively large scale, waves are endlessly fascinating to watch. This one building as it approaches at some fifteen to twenty miles an hour – will it break before or after it reaches us? When not staring at this blizzard of awesome seas, I mended chafed sails, read books and pumped water from the bilge that accumulated from leaking deck fittings and hatches, all the while struggling to hold myself against the boat's forceful lurching. Eventually, the rain and spray and deck leaks dampened, if not soaked, virtually everything inside the boat.
Little miseries and minor emergencies become bigger when they take place on a stormy night. On one of these nights, a steering line on the wind vane chafed through and Atom spun around in an uncontrolled gybe: a stalling out with sails pushed aback. Within a minute of being snug in my bunk, I hung upside down from the stern rail, threading a new line as my head dunked under each sea. Two nights later the drama repeated when the other line broke. The next thrilling moment came when the shackle on the jib halyard broke letting the halyard run irretrievably to the top of the mast. The jib then dropped overboard and tore a seam before I could haul it aboard. After a half day with palm, needle and waxed thread, I hoisted the repaired jib on the spare spinnaker halyard, leaving the jib halyard to be retrieved when I could safely climb the mast in port.
The next notable event was hearing the speed instrument propeller ripped from the hull, possibly by some floating debris or the jaws of a shark attracted by its spin. This speedometer was installed before electronic speed logs were common and its mechanical cable, between prop and meter, had rarely gone more than a thousand miles at a time without snapping in two from fatigue. I had spent hours repairing it, over and over again. From here on out, I could only guess at my speed, which at first frustrated the navigator. By day I judged the rate of water as it moved alongside. At night the movement of the boat and sound of the water as it gurgled past the hull were clues that eventually became as accurate as, and more dependable than, the old speed log. Even laying half asleep in my bunk I knew the boat's approximate course and speed within a half knot by the way she rode over the waves. Like a blind person developing an extreme ability to sense their surroundings through hearing what the sighted cannot, the sailor's natural senses can only fully develop when he sails without instruments.
The night's moaning gale gradually, almost imperceptibly, reduced to a strong constant trade wind that sang a less-threatening sonorous note through the rigging. As my latitude dropped to almost 20 degrees South, my daily bucket showers in the cockpit had the cool signature of the southern hemisphere winter. Another 15 degrees of longitude, or about 900 miles, passed under the keel and I reset my local time back one hour to match the new time zone. With these strong winds behind me, I crossed into the next time zone seven days later. At this point I had set my clock back fifteen times since departing Florida with only nine more hours to bring it full circle.
While traversing over the waves, I was fascinated by a contour map of the floor of the Indian Ocean. Like other oceans I crossed, beyond the continental shelves the land below me was rarely flat. Its convoluted floor held mysterious abyssal trenches between its unclimbed mountain ranges, only the highest peaks of which broke the surface, like the Cocos Islands behind me and Mauritius ahead. Those lower mountains lay flooded and unborn to us, unknown except as irregular soundings under passing ships' sonar. Again I was reminded the nearest land was only a couple miles away – directly below me, yet a world away.
The unmistakable sound of a whale spouting nearby brought me on deck in time to see him cross my track two waves behind me. It was probably a humpback or sperm whale, judging by its size: nearly double Atom's length. Its colossal beauty was partly lost on me since whales are known to sink yachts, either accidentally, or otherwise. Thankfully, I never saw a whale that large again, but the next day a group of pilot whales, half the length of Atom, encircled us, behaving like overgrown porpoises playing with a big brother. Either boredom or fatigue, at pacing us at 130 miles a day, sent them veering off in unison a few hours later.
The shifting, fickle gallery of radio stations heard on my portable short-wave receiver, which only picked up the strongest signals, was evidence of our progress across the Indian Ocean. Short-wave broadcasts from Australia and the singsong voices of Indonesia faded into the static. I briefly heard Sri Lanka discussing their Tamil troubles as I passed a thousand miles to the south. The powerful transmitters of Radio Moscow, Voice of America and the BBC were often in range and gave me what I needed for accurate navigational time with a distinctive beep tone at the top of each hour. The news that followed; the Holy Wars between communists, capitalists and Islamists, was less welcome within the serene cocoon of Atom's cabin and I listened sparingly to reports from that other world.
In a rising wind, I went forward to change down to a smaller jib. Rigged as usual for downwind, the whisker/spinnaker pole held the sail out to one side to prevent flogging as the boat rolled. When I released the pole's end latch from the sail, the pole broke free of my grasp and swung from its topping lift line above my head. Before I could catch it, the tip punched a hole in the mainsail. I hurried to patch the sail and just as I finished, looked over my shoulder and sighted Rodriquez Island off the starboard bow. I did not plan to stop at the island, which at the time had a poor harbor, though its cloud-capped peak proved useful as a waypoint to confirm my position. Shifting winds and rain squalls now compelled me to set a course passing south of the island.
Once committed to that course, the wind increased and shifted ahead, forcing me closer to land than felt safe. My relatively new number two jib was oversized for this wind strength, but there was no time now for changing sails. Fearful of hitting the reefs that extend five miles off the coast, I sheeted the sails in tight and beat into the wind and waves. A compass bearing on the island at dusk showed I was gaining distance to windward. Then the jib exploded under the force of the wind. We slowed to a crawl, drifting back down on the island as the pieces of sail flogged in the wind. What had been my best sail, I now retrieved in three pieces. Working frantically and mindful of having my back against the wall of reefs, I replaced the shredded sail with the smaller sail I had just repaired. The breakers on the reef were hidden by darkness as I regained my course. By dawn, the island was safely astern and out of view.
The excitement continued as a second gale arrived unexpectedly. One moment, I was putting together a sandwich of cornbread and mung bean sprouts topped with mustard and pepper, and the next, I was thrown with pots and dishes against the cabin side, as a blast of wind laid us over sharply. A minute later, wearing nothing but my harness and an anguished expression, I crouched knee-deep in waves submerging the bow as I fought to lower the flailing jib. Step by methodical step, I wrestled the jib into its bag and dragged it back to the cockpit locker, pulled the storm jib bag forward, then hoisted and sheeted it in to maintain steerage while I moved on to triple-reef the main. Even in my weariness and anxiety, I was thrilled to ride the breast of a violent sea displaying its raw power. The sea, especially in its moments of fury, demands first your attention, then your endurance, and finally your patience and acceptance. If you lack this capacity, the sea will soon find you out and make it known to you that the shore is where you should make your home.
Each day the barometer needle jumped upwards a bit more as the anti-cyclone passed over us. Between low, scudding clouds I caught the sun at least twice a day for a shaky and approximate position. Each sight tested my balance as wind vibrated and spray soaked the instrument in my hands while I worked to bring the sun tangent to a chaotic horizon only briefly seen from the crest of the highest waves. In these conditions, the delicate maneuver of twilight star sights was as out of the question as building a house of cards on a roller coaster.
On the night of my nineteenth day at sea, a dim glow from city lights on the east coast of Mauritius appeared in the distance ahead. The gale still hammered at the sea the next day as the island grew from a smudge on the horizon. Squalls raced by every twenty minutes like commuter trains on a tight schedule. If I hadn't seen the island, I could still have felt its presence as the upward sloping seabed heaped up the swells and the bold coast bounced them back to mix with trade wind-driven waves rolling unimpeded for thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean.
By evening I was on the western, or leeward, side of the island. Protected from the weather by intervening mountain ranges, wind and seas dropped to give me a calm, peaceful sail up the coast to the island's capital and port of entry at Port Louis. By reefing sails, I slowed our progress to arrive off the port at dawn.
When I pushed the starter button to motor up the port's narrow channel, the engine coughed once, blew out a puff of gray smoke, and quit. Again I knelt in front of the engine, not in prayer as might have been more effective, but with arms wrapped around that inscrutable contraption of grease, iron and rust, vainly adjusting the carburetor. As I disassembled and cleaned the rusty monstrosity, a crucial, tiny part rolled out of reach into the bilge. Turning my back on this truculent iron mule, I went on deck and noticed we had drifted in the current some ten miles back out to sea. The next several hours I spent in a more fruitful task of tacking into the unsteady breezes drifting down the semi-circle of mountains forming the backdrop to Port Louis.
Ahead lay a visual assault, from rolling green slopes and jagged peaks visible miles away, to the closer-in spectacle of a busy shipping port. Men labored to unload ships' cargos while others loaded sugar from quayside storage sheds. A dredger worked at deepening the harbor. An overtaking tugboat sounded its horn as I zigzagged my way into the small boat harbor on the city waterfront pier and tied alongside two other yachts on a cement quay.
I had barely finished securing my lines when an Indian man stepped aboard uninvited and thrust his business card at my face. Perhaps because it was his only card, he did not hand it to me, but allowed me to read it from the end of my nose. “Mauritian Laundry Service – Recommended by Her Majesty's Royal Navy,” it proclaimed in bold type.
“I sail naked,” I apologized, while holding up a nearly empty laundry bag, which sent him scurrying down the pier. There went my first contact with humanity after twenty days alone at sea.
Atom's yellow quarantine flag flying from the starboard spreader drew the attention of two French-speaking Indian customs and immigration agents wearing British-style uniforms. They climbed aboard with that air of mild suspicion and annoyance common to the breed, their briefcases stuffed with important documents. I scribbled the appropriate information in their forms as one of them poked about down below until satisfied I carried nothing illegal, or more importantly, nothing of dutiable value.
After a brief hello to my neighbors on two Australian yachts, I prepared a dish of rice garnished with my last onion. Only half-finished with dinner, the shot of landfall adrenalin wore off and I fell instantly asleep as I slumped into my bunk. It's amazing how a steady bunk drugs your sleep after a long strenuous voyage, particularly as it often culminates in long hours on constant alert during the coastal navigation of final approach. Finally at rest in safe harbor, your subconscious tells you the dangers are past and nothing else is of any significance. I did finally awake early the next morning to a metallic voice chanting the Muslim call to prayer from a loudspeaker located on the roof of a nearby building. Its volume was set at air-raid siren level lest any Muslims, Hindus, Christians, or heathen sailors in the harbor try to sleep through prayer time.
Stepping refreshed onto the pier, I moved past the Indians and Africans who work and loiter along the waterfront. Back then, before Mauritius grew a moderately prosperous textile manufacturing and tourist economy, strolling down the back streets and alleys of Port Louis loosed visions of old Bombay – Hindus, Muslims, Africans, Chinese and all shades of Creole crowded the streets where curbside vendors sold every kind of cooked and uncooked foods from roasted peanuts to fiery curries wrapped in tortilla-like flatbreads. As in India, labor is cheap, people plentiful, and small businessmen hawk their wares with a sense of urgency. Shopkeepers leaned out of windows and doorways imploring me to come in and inspect their goods as if our mutual survival depended on it.
Buses, bicycles and pedestrians jockeyed for right-of-way on the streets, and motorbikes considered the sidewalks their territory. Mauritians behind the wheel of cars, trucks and taxis express themselves with the same impatient jostling as the pedestrians in the crowded markets. I happily immersed myself in this revolving chaos and, with no particular place to go, allowed myself to be swept along by the human tide. Having spent most of the last sixty-five days alone at sea since leaving New Guinea, I felt as foreign as a visitor from another planet.
When I asked a local policeman on the street corner where to change dollars to local money, he openly told me the black market rate was better than the bank and directed me to the back room of a Chinese jewelry shop. With a bulging pocket of Mauritian rupee notes, I entered the chaotic Indian market where vendors shouted at me from all sides in a demanding way they knew was hard to ignore. Here I bought two bags of fruits and vegetables, some croissants and a crispy French baguette three feet long, and lunched on curry-filled pancakes known as dhal puri washed down with a glass of fresh yogurt. At the end of the day, I calculated my indulgent shopping spree cost me only eight US dollars.
Unlike the Pacific, where nearly every scrap of land was inhabited by the ancient peoples of Southeast Asia before discovery by Westerners, this 29 by 38 mile-wide island knew no men of any race when discovered by the Dutch some 400 years ago. For a long time, French settlers ran sugar cane plantations with slave labor from Africa and later with indentured labor from India and China. Even though Britain ruled the island from the time of the Napoleonic Wars until independence in 1968, the local hybrid population of over a million people from Africa, Asia and Europe have retained French and Creole as their daily language.
The noisy, colorful circus of life in Port Louis is squeezed between the sea and the surrounding mountains, each with a distinct name and shape, all beckoning to be climbed. Giant boulders balance on sharp peaks and saw-tooth cliff edges pierce the sky. The thumb-shaped “Le Pouce” stands prominently among the three-thousand-foot mountain range backing up against the city.
Two and a half hours after lacing up my boots aboard Atom, I gazed down on Port Louis from the narrow sky-piercing tip of Le Pouce. Opposite the city, to the east, small villages punctuated the checkerboard pattern of sugar cane fields, some tall and green, others harvested and brown, others burnt black. Shadows raced across the fields as puffs of trade wind-driven clouds blew past, bathing me in their fine mist as they went.
In succeeding days I climbed to the tops of Le Pouce's neighboring peaks, often inching my way along finger and toeholds ascending the vertically crevassed rock faces. As I carefully made my way up a tricky route, a group of cane cutters paused to watch me, then waved as I emerged looking almost straight down on them from an overhanging ledge.
Between rejuvenating sorties to the mountains, I tended to necessary maintenance and repairs on Atom. I climbed the mast to retrieve the lost jib halyard. In those days, instead of having a helper hoist me aloft in a bosun's chair, I preferred the body-strengthening task of free climbing by gripping the rigging with my hands and clamping my thighs against the mast to inch-worm my way up and down. Halfway up, I could sit on the spreaders for a rest and further up, I could stand on the upper spreaders to work at the masthead.
With hacksaw and hammer and chisel I worked to cut an inspection port into Atom's dirt-clogged fuel tank. The tough monel steel of the tank resisted attempts to cut it with dull hand tools. My noisy struggle with the tank attracted the attention of a tall, rail-thin Creole man about 20 years old who leapt off the quay into Atom's cockpit. “Permettez-moi,” he said as he grabbed the hammer and chisel from my hand and struck the tank top with vigor.
How can you not be impressed when someone fishing for a job sees a task and begins work without negotiation? I hired Anthony for a few days at the local labor rate of about a dollar an hour to help finish the two-man job of removing and recaulking leaking deck fittings – a never ending task when the core of the deck is waterlogged. Instead of making a long walk home each night, Anthony chose to sleep stretched out on Atom's cockpit bench.
My conversations with Anthony were all in French, or I should say, he spoke to me in a French Creole and I blathered like an unselfconscious idiot in phrase book French. I guess Anthony had known other sailors before me since he asked if I wanted him to find me a five dollar girl for the night. I acknowledged the price was fair but Anthony smiled knowingly when I said I preferred a woman with a less mercenary approach.
Once our work was done, Anthony took me to his family house in the Port Louis suburb of Roche Bois for dinner. “Tonight I will introduce you to my cousin Dolores. She's single and almost eighteen,” Anthony said as we walked the dirt road past decaying houses, little more than shacks of timber and tin. His numerous relatives lived on the same street in adjoining shipwrecks of houses.
Inside their house I met the generations from grandparents to grandchildren, including Dolores, her Indian mother and Tanzanian father. Dolores was tall and slender with gorgeous dark almond eyes that shyly met mine as I frequently looked her way that evening. To her family she spoke Creole in musical tones. To me she used her schoolbook French to be more easily understood. She would have been in her final year of high school but was forced to drop out when the family could not afford the tuition. Now she borrowed friend's books and studied on her own at home. While Anthony's mother served dinner of rice and spicy curry that brought tears to my eyes, Dolores moved around fussing over her grandparents and younger brothers and sisters. I could see why they seemed to love her so much.
With dinner finished, the table was pulled away and the guitar came out. We sang and danced in the small room as Dolores and her sister laughed while teaching me the hip-swaying steps to a Mauritian Creole dance. As I left the house, the grandmother handed me a bag of leftover desserts and Dolores kissed me innocently on both cheeks, the memory of which distracted my sleep that night. There is a richness and joy within these people that remains undamaged by the poverty surrounding them.
“Be careful you don't fall in love,” Anthony warned me the next day with another knowing smile.
“Your warning may be too late, mon ami,” I replied. “I'm invited to Dolores' house for dinner tonight.” When I asked her that night to come visit me at the boat, I quickly learned that in this family there would be no loose American-style romance. I saw Dolores nearly every day after that, at her house, my boat, picnics at the beach or mountain, the botanical gardens, and for the first few weeks, always with at least her mother, grandmother, or sister as chaperon.
My frustrated passions found a useful diversion when I got underway on my long walk across the island's tilted terrain. I planned an unhurried, foot-paced tour of the southern half the island, some forty miles or more of twisting roads from one side of the island to the other, including a detour to the island's highest mountain, Piton de la Petite Riviere Noire.
Dolores and Anthony joined me for the first day of the trek, starting with a bus ride to our starting point at the coastal village of Grand Case Noyale. Along the way we crossed the central plateau where Corps de Guard, an impressive flat-sided mountain rose over flat fields of sugar cane. At Tamarind Bay we passed rubber-booted workers sweeping up piles of salt from terraced clay and stone-floored tidal ponds where a strong sun continuously evaporated seawater.
From Grand Case Noyale we set out on foot for the next village of Chamarel, three miles to the east. The road bent mostly upwards with occasional welcome, breath-catching dips. Higher up we rounded a bend and Dolores pointed out the seacoast in the distance. There on the southwest corner of the island stood Le Morn Brabant, a massive square-shaped mountain thrusting out like an island-size nose sniffing the salt air. Because its cliffs are nearly unclimbable, it had once been a refuge for runaway slaves. When the British abolished slavery on the island, they sent a detachment of police to climb the mountain and tell the slaves of their freedom. Seeing police coming, the slaves assumed they would be caught and hung so instead they threw themselves from the cliffs. The sad ironies of ancient history seemed of little consequence to my companions who, unburdened by a heavy backpack, teased me for my slow progress uphill.
From Chamarel, Anthony and Dolores returned home by bus and I walked alone up out of the valley, stopping here and there to pick a ripe guava from roadside bushes. The road brought me to a clearing at Seven Coloured Earths, a field of heaped bare volcanic residue where I caught view of my target, the low-sounding summit of Little Black River Peak. A few miles on I turned onto a trail and could tell I was moving up along a narrow ridge, but thick bush prevented measuring my progress until I came out in a last steep scramble where I pulled myself up onto the island's most skyward point. Below me the Black River gorge cut deep through the central plateau, the river cliffs punctuated with waterfalls in a verdant miniature of America's Grand Canyon. My route behind and ahead of me was clearly visible as were the jagged peaks surrounding Port Louis standing as distant castle spires to the north. I sat on this perch a few minutes chewing on a baguette while listening to a family of monkeys chattering in the bushes below.
With precious few hours of daylight remaining, I descended the mountain and walked east through a pine forest planted years ago in orderly rows from seedlings imported from France. In a fit of homesickness, the early colonizers named several towns on the island after corresponding French cities. With a sense of humor a mapmaker named a nondescript hill Cocotte, meaning “Prostitute.” Another was named Montaine Duex Mamelles (Two Breast Mountain), and more remarkably, Tres Mamelles.
As daylight faded I picked up the pace to reach my planned campsite at the crater lake of Grand Basin. The fresh soreness in my muscles reminded me how far I had traveled in just one day. A chill rain began as I unrolled my tent next to an ornate dome-roofed Hindu shrine. Across the pond stood another temporarily-deserted temple. During February, at the Festival of Maha Shivaratree, Hindu devotees carry flower-covered wooden arches on a pilgrimage to the lake. Here, the largest percentage population of Indians outside India comes by the thousands to collect holy water in a scene reminiscent of the rituals on the banks of the Ganges.
Because in my quest to travel light I had not brought a blanket, I was kept awake by the cold night air of the high plateau. Rain pattered lightly on my tent as I lay under my raincoat until dawn when I packed my backpack in the gloomy fog and scampered off for other places. The road descended into finer weather as I entered emerald fields of tea plants. The pickers bobbed as they moved among the low bushes, pulling select leaves from the top and tossing them into cane baskets tied to their backs. The closely spaced bushes, as even in height as the pile of a carpet, only just allowed the pickers enough room to push their way through.
Beyond the tea fields, the road led past a string of dreamy sounding villages: Bois Cheri, Grand Bois, La Flora and Beau Climat. At each settlement I received friendly greetings from the people I met and they, correctly assuming I was not stopping at their particular bend in the road, offered unsolicited directions to the next village. It was perhaps the people's incongruous speech that fascinated me most, especially French-speaking Indo-Mauritians that predominated the interior. As I stood in a little country store drinking chilled soda water, a woman in a multi-colored sari dress came in for baguettes. The red dot on her forehead indicated more boldly than a ring that she was married. She wore her wealth as a solid gold ring through the side of her nose. Her correct French speech indicated she might have been to school in France. Next to enter was an African boy who called out his request in the rhythmic Creole patois to the old Chinese shopkeeper who conversed with us all in Mandarin-accented French.
Back on the road, sun-darkened men slashed at stalks of sugar cane with long-bladed knives and filled truck beds and mule carts with the raw ingredient of the island's main export of sugar. Since cane planting began some two hundred seasons ago, these fields have been cleared of large and small boulders that now stand in pyramid-like piles in the center of most every field. All roads in this region converged at the stone arch gateway of the sugar cane processing plant where mechanical crane claws plucked the towering piles of harvested cane from trucks and creaking over-burdened oxcarts.
Hot, sun-baked cane fields rutted by oxcart wheels stretched to the horizon as I walked through the dusty village of Rose Belle. Past Duex Bras, a village so small and nondescript it barely broke the horizon, I marched out of the cane fields and crossed a river on a bridge of hand laid stone arches. Walking down a steep one-lane street in Ville Noire, I confronted a cane truck moving up from the bottom. It was loaded so heavily that its overhanging cane scraped the stone walls on either side of the road. He could not stop on his uphill run and I could not back up in time. At the last moment, I dropped to lay flat in the shallow gutter. I turned my head to see if the driver noticed me near his front wheels. The unconcerned look on his face seemed to say he often saw pedestrians lying in the ditch when he passed.
Another mile and another elegant old stone bridge passed under my boots and I was suddenly at the coastal town of Mahebourg. The briskness had gone out of my step. My leg muscles now ached continuously and my pack grew heavier with each step. I sat next to a fruit seller's stand and bit into a sun-ripened mango while my eyes feasted on the rich scenery of people moving through the outdoor markets and fishing pirogues drifting inside the reef line. A bus brought me back to Atom in Port Louis before nightfall where my three-inch-thick bunk cushions had never felt so luxurious.
I had walked the island and stood on its highest point, but there remained one other peak that captured my attention. Visible from Port Louis, this slender peak was capped by a massive rock looking like a man's head set on the shoulders of the mountain. It seems too delicately balanced and artful to be a natural formation. At first I attempted this climb alone and found myself hanging from my fingernails on the wrong approach and unable to move up the vertical rock wall. On my second attempt, I took a bus to the village of Creve Coeur (Broken Hearted) and wandered around looking for a local guide. I checked first at the general store, where idle old men passed the time conversing in Hindi while sari-wrapped women came in for daily household supplies.
I found my guide when 23-year-old Pareep Singh attached himself to me as I walked past his family's stone house directly under the mountain. Pareep said he had guided tourists up the mountain “many times” and we agreed on a price of 50 rupees, or about three US dollars.
I followed Pareep down a path along a maze of old volcanic stone walls erected around family-sized plots of land. Above the cane fields the path forked in several directions. Here my guide proved indispensable as we made long strides, quickly working our way through the labyrinth of interlocking trails and up the wooded ravine. We continued up a steepening dry stream bed that showed eroded signs of turning into a waterfall on days of hard rain. The valley opened up below us, but my attention stayed focused on the narrow ledge we crept along. As slight insurance against the unsure footing, we gripped handfuls of grass sprouting from cracks in the rocks.
Once we emerged just below the peak on the shoulder of Pieter Both, we paused to sort out our climbing rope and eat our lunch of oranges and bread. As we gazed down on his neighbor's gardens, Pareep told me the legend of this man-shaped mountain: “An Indian milkman came upon an angel one day while making his deliveries. They made love after he promised the angel he would never speak of it to anyone. Of course, the next day, he boasted of his conquest to his friends and soon the whole town knew about it. In her embarrassed anger, the angel turned the milkman into this mountain. We are standing on his shoulders here and you can plainly see his neck and head above us.” Pareep pointed straight up to the head and then added, “Our Creve Coeur (Heartbreak Village) is named after their misfortune.”
The overhanging head of Pieter Both, frozen in a geologic moment, is poised to tumble down one day on the houses in the valley below. They used to say here that when the head fell it would portend the end of British rule over the island. Independence has come and still it teeters, buffeted by storms and rumors.
We tied ourselves together with my fifty-foot safety line and crawled up the neck for a final ascent. Pareep pointed out a bronze plaque placed on the rock as a memorial to an English family of four who were killed here in a lightning strike several years earlier.
The final pitch up the face was only possible because the Royal Navy had years ago cemented iron rungs into the overhanging rock. These essential handholds had since rusted dangerously thin. When I mentioned my concern to Pareep, he calmly said, “Never mind.” I wondered if by that he meant, “It's okay,” or maybe less convincingly, “Don't think about it.” With me below him at the end of a taut line, Pareep surprised me by looking down and saying: “I think 50 rupees is not enough. Maybe you could pay a little more?”
With feet dangling in air at times, I pulled my way up the rungs of this very rusty ladder hanging over a nasty drop, and finally stood on the head of Pieter Both. “You're right Pareep, 50 rupees is not enough.” The view was worth the small terror of the final pitch and the last-minute price negotiations. Below us to the east lay a quilt pattern of cane fields and puffs of smoke from factories processing the cane into sugar or rum. To the south were the buildings and horse racetrack of Port Louis and beyond it, in the distance, stood the island's highest peak at Riviere Noire. Off the northern coast, I picked out four islets lying like a fleet of ships anchored on the blue sea.
After our descent from the mountain, Pareep invited me to his home where we drank the cool water pulled from his well by a bucket on a rope. Together we filled my pack with cabbages, carrots and ginger root from the family garden.
The remainder of my days on Mauritius were spent with Dolores either at my side or in my thoughts. In the cool of the morning just after sunrise, she awakened me with a tap on the cabin trunk window and a soft call of my name: “Je-mees.” We returned again to the shady and sprawling Royal Botanical Gardens at the town of Pamplemousses. Hidden among the leafy Raffia and stubby Bottle Palms, we picnicked on the grass at the edge of a water-lily pond. We spent hours here, sometimes leaning back on the scrambling roots of the Bo Tree of Ceylon with Dolores coaching me in French and the Creole patois. Here I came to view English as the masculine language; descriptive, precise, exact as science. French is the feminine; mellifluous tones of romance and sensuality, especially as spoken by an island girl. To compensate for our lack of fluency in a common language, I also grew to learn the unspoken language expressed in the emotion of the eyes, the knowing smile between friends, the unconscious gestures of her body and the rhythm of her breathing.
Once we had the long-awaited permission of her parents, Dolores joined me for a day of sailing around those islets off the north coast and then to anchor in Grand Bay. Her first day on a sailboat proved her natural abilities as she learned to hoist and trim sails and steer a compass course without a tinge of seasickness. Away from the dirt and noise and prying eyes of Port Louis, we swam and played off a powder-soft beach fringed with coconut palms and casuarinas until the sun set behind mother-of-pearl clouds. Then we hurried to a taxi stop in Grand Bay village and negotiated with a driver to return her to Roche Bois before her parents began to worry.
The next day Dolores, her relatives and friends, arrived in Grand Bay by bus carrying cooked food in baskets, blankets and guitars. I joined them for an all-day, all-night party on the beach. The older folks ate and napped while the younger ones swam and collected driftwood for a fire. After dark, two sets of leather-faced wood drums appeared and guitars were tuned up and the Sega dance began.
Originating from slave-era Africans, this pulsating folk dance is a combination of fast-paced shuffling and hip swaying, while the extremely flexible dancers lean back on their feet to rest the top of their head in the sand and thrust their hips suggestively. The provocative and yearning Creole lyrics and uninhibited, erotic movements are like a voodoo party without the dark side. I was pulled in and clumsily followed Dolores' lead while the party-goers circled around clapping hands to the music and shouting encouragement. Sure, I looked the fool, but a happy fool at least.
Later I walked the beach with Dolores under the faint light of the Milky Way. A warm wind brushed the bay, sending wavelets to lap at our feet in gentle strokes. We sat in the sand in a secluded spot leaning against a large rock. The moon began to rise as I listened to Dolores sing in Creole to the beat of the distant music. Then she asked me why I had sailed so far alone. “I came to find you,” I said. And at that moment, it was as simple and true as that. There was nothing else I felt I had to do.
She threw her head back and smiled at my silliness. Then she looked at me and asked, “Do you know of the Chagos Islands? I've heard they are not so far away and nobody lives there now. But the gardens are still there and fish are in the lagoon. Maybe you and I and Atom could sail there one day, yes?” She smiled again and I instinctively reached out and pulled her dark body on top of me.
From other sailors I heard of the charms of those palm-lined atolls in the Chagos Group, offering wide lagoon anchorages and seagirt tranquility. The idea of us going there together was powerful. It was no small thing for Dolores to leave her family to maroon herself with me on a distant island. No woman had offered themselves so completely and unconditionally to me before. But if we went, I would be here through the next cyclone season and it would be a year later before I could leave for Africa. Regardless how I interpreted their Sega dance, I knew her family expected us to get married before we spent one night alone together. I didn't ask her yet but felt maybe I should marry this girl and give up the role of solitary sailor.
I was many miles and moods from America when I wrote and told my parents of these thoughts. I was an independent adult and could make my own choice, but I was unsure of the right path. Perhaps I said too much, too soon, because the reply I received from home came as a shock. “How can you even think of marriage to a girl you've known less than two months who doesn't speak a word of English?” and adding, “You don't have the money or job prospects to support a wife and she would feel out of place in this country so far from her family. Don't be so foolish and selfish.”
Their message was clear – it's all right to have your romance over there, just don't bring it home with you. I was shocked back to reality and sad to realize they were at least partially right. It was true, Dolores would not be happy where I had to go. Taking her away from her family would be selfish of me. I now wondered if I even wanted to return to America. Would I ever be content there again? I certainly could not run with the same close-minded group I had known and even imitated. A storm of emotions brewed inside me. This was not the time and place to settle down. I knew it – but could not bring myself to speak to Dolores about my inner turmoil. In Mauritius, tomorrow is a lifetime away, and we contented ourselves with the moments that rushed past.
Bill Tehoko, known also as Tonga Bill, was my age and my best friend among the yachts in the anchorage here. He had little advice to give about my predicament other than to lend a sympathetic ear and advise me not to worry and “do what you feel and it'll work out just fine.”
Bill and his new French bride Nicole, that he found on the neighboring island of Reunion, lived aboard Mata Moana, a little 18-foot plywood and fiberglass sailboat he built himself on his home island in Tonga. The year before, he sailed it alone across the Pacific and Indian Ocean. He was the only modern Tongan voyager I ever heard of but I wasn't surprised he was here on his tiny boat, since his Polynesian ancestors were the greatest seafaring people in the world a thousand years ago. The truly surprising thing is that there are not more Polynesians sailing the seas. Bill supported himself working as an artist, doing carvings and sculpture and making jewelry from whatever was at hand. Nicole and Bill often came aboard Atom for dinner with me and Dolores, where there was more room to stretch out than on their little boat.
One of the many humorous stories Bill told was about a Swedish Navy boat that invited him aboard for dinner in some remote Pacific port. The captain was impressed by Bill's voyages alone in his small craft and asked him to speak of his experiences to his officers. At dinner, the curly-haired, dark-skinned Tongan said in a straight face, “Did you know, captain, that I am part Swedish?” With that he had everyone's attention. After noting the raised eyebrows, he continued, “Yes, my grandfather ate the first Swedish sailor to land in Tonga.” Bill said the Swedes didn't know whether to laugh or throw him overboard.
Bill's four-horsepower outboard motor was even less reliable than Atom's inboard motor, so we decided to build a sculling oar for each of our boats. This way we could at least maneuver our boats in and out of calm harbors if the engine was not working. Bill picked out two planks of African hardwood at the lumber shop that we shaped with handsaw and plane into 14-foot oars. For a finishing touch, Bill carved an auspicious Tongan motif along the blade of my oar. After practicing the twisting figure-eight sculling motion with an oarlock on Atom's transom, I was able to propel the boat across the harbor at about one knot; not fast, but dependable when the wind went too calm to sail.
Bill and Nicole were preparing to depart in Mata Moana for a voyage up the Red Sea to France, a hard trip even in a much larger boat and I worried to myself about their fate. On the morning of their departure, Dolores and I escorted them out of the harbor with Atom. With blustery trade winds astern we sailed side-by-side several miles out to sea, gliding over the waves like two wandering albatross. The twin jibs set out from Mata Moana's tiny mast contrasted starkly with the empty sea ahead. The contrast grew even sharper as we waved farewell and turned Atom back to Grand Bay. The next time I looked back they were a spot on the horizon and then they were gone.
Ten years later, when I met them on Reunion Island during my second circumnavigation, I found out that they had encountered a storm off Madagascar, had taken some damage to their boat and diverted to the Seychelles where they lived for several happy years before returning to live on Reunion Island.
With Bill and Nicole gone, I fell into an unlikely friendship with a local Indian named Sunil who anchored his wooden sailboat next to Atom. Sunil had two French tourist girls living on his boat that he claimed were both his “girlfriends,” and when not occupied with them, he spent most of his time trying to swindle everyone he met. Somehow he had traded a few hundred dollars to a down-on-his-luck visiting sailor for this old and leaky engineless boat that he now used to take tourists out for a sunset harbor sail. The first day we met he left with my spare mainsail and broken VHF radio under his arm, saying, “Not to worry, I'll trade you something very valuable.”
The next day we went to Port Louis to his friend's antiques shop to get my valuable mystery gift. I gave Sunil 50 rupees for our taxi after he insisted we shouldn't take the cheaper bus. “You're a tourist but don't worry, I know how to bargain for the Mauritian taxi rate,” he said. Like in much of south Asia, everything is priced in two tiers, local and tourist.
As I got out of the taxi in the busy downtown street, Sunil began arguing loudly with our Indian driver. “But he is a tourist, so it is 100 rupees,” the driver pleaded.
“Oh no, you filthy thieving son of a whore, he is with me and I am no tourist you can rip off,” Sunil shouted in English for my benefit. I shrank onto the sidewalk as Sunil sucker-punched the driver in the face and ran away after saying, “You tried to rob me and now you get nothing.” I noticed Sunil kept my 50 rupees for himself.
At the friend's shop, I was presented with a ninety-year-old reconditioned gramophone, a couple of old records, some spare parts, and a repair bill for 300 rupees. I decided I'd pay the bill and keep the gramophone rather than risk a punch in the nose for being ungrateful. That night the anchorage was entertained with the scratchy, tinny sounds of Perry Como drifting over the water from the gramophone's enormous brass horn sitting on Atom's cabin top. Hearing it actually play and thinking it might have some value after all, I boxed it up in the forepeak with my other hoarder's collectibles picked up throughout my voyage. The gramophone still sits as an ornament in my mother's apartment and as a testament to my own bloody-minded stubbornness at not leaving it in the shop where I found it.
The day was fast approaching when I had to depart Mauritius in order to make it to South Africa before the cyclone season. A few days before I left, Dolores and I made one more climb together of Le Pouce Mountain. We moved easily upward, each step putting the crowds of Port Louis farther below. Soon the forested upper slopes dropped below us in a feathery blanket of green. We sat on the grassy ridge a few steps below the peak and let the wind rush over us. It was warm on the mountain and I noted the nearly indiscernible change from tropic winter to tropic spring.
I wanted to tell Dolores I would send for her to join me when I reached home or that I would try to sail back to her the following year. But these options were more like trying to squeeze and stretch a rainbow than real possibilities. I was as Captain Bligh to my inner Fletcher Christian in Tahiti. Finally, I spoke and told her I would soon sail alone for Africa, that I would write her, but did not know if we would see each other again. When I looked at Dolores I realized my words had been carried away on the wind for I had been speaking in English. Still, she understood I was leaving alone. With a smile capable of melting mountain ice she leaned on my shoulder and whispered in French, “You'll come back to Ile Maurice and I will be waiting for you.”
It seemed it was not paradise I was looking for. Maybe it was just the search for paradise that feeds this wanderlust to explore. Returning to sea, I hoped, would untangle the knots in my mind. With Atom back in Port Louis and ready for sea, I said my goodbyes to Dolores and her family the night before my early departure. Dolores wished me a safe voyage and promised to write, then turned away with a tear on her cheek.
At the first sign of morning twilight I sculled Atom out of the calm harbor. As the morning breeze wafted down the mountain I hoisted sails and gained the sea. Looking back at the seaward end of the breakwater I thought I could see through misty eyes the dark silhouette of a girl waving goodbye.