“Get ready to tack!”
“Let go the mizzen! Nick, LET GO!”
Following Skipper’s orders, I gave slack to the mizzen line. The boom of the sail swung dangerously low overhead and stopped abruptly as it reached the limit of the slack. The sheets of the sail gave a resounding wallop as they were blown taut by the wind.
“Good, now make fast!” I held the line strong and cleated it off quickly. “Now, up to the headsail! Change the headsail!”
Keeping a leery eye on the boom, I stumbled my way up towards the bow, clinging to what I could of the sparsely furnished deck. I could see my crewmates Manasa and Kelly off of the bow of the boat, standing on the net, struggling with a wild sail whipping back and forth in the wind. As if the violent headsail were not enough to handle on its own, the bow of the boat periodically plunged underwater, drenching both of them and threatening to wash them overboard – which in this weather would mean death.
Having little sailing knowledge, I didn’t know what I could do to help out, but I noticed a loose rope ripping back and forth in the air attached to the headsail. I leaned out to grab the rope but Master, a much more experienced sailor grabbed me and held me back.
“Don’t touch that! Leave it alone. A woman on another boat was lashed across the face by trying to grab the rope like that.”
As Master and I turned to return to the stern of the boat, an unusually large swell raked over the bow and sent us sprawling on top of each other. As I regained my footing, I looked to the East and saw a large dark patch of sky approaching—a squall.
Squalls not only bring torrential rain, but gale force winds as well. We had hit a squall the previous day and within a minute, both the intensity of the wind and size of the swells had doubled. Now that we were already facing 20-foot swells and 40mph winds, I could not imagine what the squall had in store for us. I was scared for all of our lives.
“Quickly, lower the sails!” Skipper yelled. He had seen the squall too.
“Wake up the boys, all hands on deck!”
By the time everyone had been roused, the squall was already upon us. Rain pelted us and ran over our faces in rivulets, and the swells loomed high over the boat. As we struggled to lower the sails, both of them ripped under the growing strain of the wind. The steering oar, usually manned by one crew at a time, thrashed about so aggressively that not even three of the crew could get it under control.
We had just succeeded in lowering the mainsheet when a massive swell hit us on our port side. I had barely gotten a glance of it when out of instinct I threw myself on the mast and held on. A wall of water moved across the boat. Luckily, the mast protected me, but the three crew steering were not so fortunate. I looked back to see the three of them thrown to the starboard side of the boat, down against the deck box. Mr. Brown, one of the older members of the crew, took the hardest fall of all onto his hip. In the mayhem, Mr. Brown was stationary, lying on his side, nursing his hip.
Without thinking, I moved back to the unmanned oar as the other two crewmembers got up and we regained control of the vessel. Once the squall had passed, Skipper made the decision to change course back for the Solomon Islands. Turns out this was the most dangerous and hectic weather he had been in with the Vaka over the last two years, and he was afraid for his ship and crew. I knew we were in danger – I just didn’t realize how much.
When I joined the Uto Ni Yalo three days earlier, I had felt a little sad as I watched the Brigitte Bardot leave Honiara Harbor. The boat that had been my home for the month before faded into the distance, carrying away with it the crewmembers I called family. But before I had a chance to linger on these thoughts, the Uto Ni Yalo crew reached out to me and made me feel at home.
“Nick, have something to eat.”
“How are you doing Nick? Come, have a seat.”
“Here Nick, I made you tea.”
I was astonished at the depth of their kindness. They hardly knew me but they treated me like ohana, meaning family in Hawaiian. As I spent more time on the Uto, I realized that the crew were one big ohana. They spent their days looking after one another, cooking together, eating together, laughing together, singing together, and sailing the world together. And working on protecting what they loved most – the oceans. The crew swap definitely allowed us to connect, build a network in the South Pacific, and plant seeds of conservation for the future.
When we returned to the Solomon Islands to moor in Wanderer’s Bay, I was already beginning to feel like part of this family in this shared mission. Over the following few days we cleaned the boat together, patched the sails, bartered with the villagers for coconuts, papayas, and local produce , and discussed ways to protect our home. When dusk fell, we sat around the kava bowl sharing stories of hope late into the night, often sleeping out on the deck together.
One peaceful afternoon, we were chopping vegetables for dinner when a rain cloud moved in from the valley and began to dump on us. I stood up to close a hatch on the boat so that the rainwater wouldn’t get into the ship. As I untied the rope holding the hatch up, the string slipped out of my fingers and the hatch fell with a slam. “Ow!” I thought to myself, “that got my toes pretty bad!” I picked up the hatch and looked down at my toes and sure enough two of my toes were all bloody. I decided to move somewhere to sit, but as I lifted my foot, the tip of my pointer toe remained in place and dangled off of my foot.
“Oh god, I cut my toe off!” I exclaimed, hobbling over to sit on the deck box.
“What?” Galen said, coming over to investigate. “Oh god, you’re right! You cut your toe off!”
I couldn’t help but laugh a bit at the look of my toe. It was just so bizarre to see it severed from my body. Then Skipper snapped into action, grabbing the first aid kit. He sprinkled antibacterial powder into the wound, pushed the toe back onto itself and bandaged it up. Then he gave me oral antibiotics and ordered me to keep my foot elevated to help the blood clot.
After some conversation with the villagers we learned that there was a mission clinic a few valleys over in Tangarea. Galen, Jim, Iva, and I caught a ride with a local over to Tangarea first thing the next morning. Galen and Jim took turns carrying me up to the clinic located a little ways into the valley where we met a Solomon nurse. She injected me with anesthetic, then proceeded in peeling my toe back apart and clearing the large clot out. Then she prepared the stitches. Each of the five bulky stitches went as close to the severed bone as possible, sometimes scratching the bone. By the second stitch the anesthetic had worn off completely and a crowd of villagers had gathered outside of the clinic room. When the operation was over, I gave the nurse a big hug and we boated back to Wanderer’s Bay.
I must say that the whole ordeal was pretty painful, but not altogether unbearable. I was in quite a lot of pain but I was still in good spirits, surrounded by my Uto ohana. What was hardest to bear was the news that I would have to leave the Uto Ni Yalo. I was just starting to feel at home, and just beginning my adventure on the Uto Ni Yalo only to be cut short. But I realized that with my wound I was hardly mobile, and in great danger of contracting an infection. I would be deadweight on the boat and would put myself in even more serious danger by continuing. I had to head back to Honiara and then to Fiji to get treatment. Galen and I said our goodbyes, and I watched yet another boat and crew that I had come to love fade into the distance.