The thought of leaving a completely motorized and digitized boat to join a wooden sailboat that looked to the stars for guidance was intimidating. Yet being on deck and sailing out of the sight of the Brigitte Bardot was a comfortable and inspiring experience. It was nice to be in the hands of a crew who has sailed with traditional navigation for two years straight around the Pacific Islands. And even better to be with the Fijian crew who were ecstatic to be on there last leg of the journey returning home.
The catamaran we sailed on was called Uto Ni Yalo, meaning “Heart of the Spirit” in Fijian. It is a 60-foot boat made primarily from wood with intricate carvings about the deck that they have slowly accumulated over their journeys. The boat has a very simplistic and comfortable feel to it and after even one day I felt welcome enough to roam the deck freely and chat openly with any of the crew members. By the time our journey was cut short because of a few severed toes, I felt that I had become extremely comfortable and close to all 16 people on board. I also felt I had learned a lot about the South Pacific, its culture and the marine environment – including the threats it faced. By the time I left the Uto I felt as if I was leaving an extended family behind.
While my experience with the Uto Ni Yalo was nothing but positive, it wasn’t exactly a smooth sail the whole time. The night before we left one of the Sea Shepherd Crew members said jokingly, “Well I hope you don’t get in a storm on this boat cause you will never get dry.” Thirty-six hours later I climbed up out of the hull for my watch and found myself in the worst seas I had ever been in. Not only was it pouring rain to the point where you couldn’t see ahead but the swells had also risen to about 20 feet and were washing over the top of the deck.
While on watch you not only have to man the sails but you also have the duty of steering manually with this large wooden rudder, called the Uli. So for about a whole day we were stuck in this storm strapped in on the deck and trying to tack the boat up-wind. After about 2 days of fighting the wind and multiple injured crewmembers from the storm, the skipper made the decision to take cover for a couple days on the south side of Honiara in the Solomon Islands. Here three of the boats, or Vakas as they call them (also known as Va’as, Wakas, or Druas), met up and anchored in a small bay.
The first day we pulled out all our belongings to dry, repaired the sails that had ripped in the storm and started to wind down and recover from the journey. The bay we were in was very calm and on shore was a gorgeous valley that had a couple small fishing villages tucked into it. Unfortunately we couldn’t go on land because we had officially checked out of customs already, but we got many visits from the locals on their dug out canoes who brought us fresh fruits and vegetables to buy.
For the next three days we passed the time by exchanging stories, talking about the oceans, drinking Kava at night and chatting with the locals. During this time I not only became closer to the crew on the Uto but I also got to know the crew on the Maori and the Cook Islands Vaka as well. Then a little over a week after leaving the Pacific Arts Festival in Honiara the other Sea Shepard crew member who made the swap with me, Nick White, dropped one of the hatches onto his foot severing one toe all the way and the other to the bone. The day after the accident we paid a fisherman to take us into a small village and got his toe sewn back on for 3 U.S. dollars. Then since there was a major risk of infection on the boat it was decided that it would be best if we made our way back to Honiara to take a flight to Fiji and get it examined by a real doctor. I decided it would be irresponsible to send him alone because he couldn’t even walk let alone carry his own bags. So the next morning we took off on a fisherman’s boat to go back into the town and to the airport.
Leaving the Uto Ni Yalo behind was a major bummer. I had felt as if I was just getting to know everyone well and starting to come up with some great ideas - and they were getting to know me and the real Sea Shepherd when we had to abruptly pack up and say our goodbyes. I got everyone’s contact info and still look forward to seeing some of the guys again on their various home Islands hopefully as we continue in our shared fight for the oceans. But it was sad knowing that I would probably never see them all together again. Nick and I both left feeling a bit robbed of not having our full three weeks on the boat but their wasn’t much we could do about it. After all we still got an amazing experience aboard the Vaka and with the crews. Between aggressive swells, big squalls, good idea and cultural exchanges, and getting to know the various characters who make up the spirit of the Uto Ni Yalo—I got a greater experience than I could have ever asked for.