The first time I saw the vintage black steel sailboat with a rainbow painted on its side and strange flags flying from the shrouds, it was overflowing with young, handsome, bearded men in Atuona Harbor on Hiva Oa island in the Marquesas, French Polynesia.
I’d just sailed on Rapture from the northern Marquesas, Nuku Hiva and Ua Pou and we anchored in the jam packed harbor next to this mysterious vessel. I tried not to stare, but I hadn’t been around people my age for over a month, let alone potential romantic interests, so I didn’t let my pride keep me from casual ogling.
Even without the male eye candy, the small ship turned heads. She was custom built, I came to find out later, by a French man in 1979 to sail around the world with his family. Her lines stayed true to that era with an angled transom that rose above the waterline and a 45 degree bow with thick black pipe railings fortifying the bowsprit area. She evoked the Pink Floyd rainbow prism album cover, with a thick white painted band below the toe rail that enveloped rectangular portholes covered in protective plastic, silver bolts ringing each one like punk bracelets. Rust dripped across the white band and the rainbow’s lines were weathered.
A handmade looking metal support structure perched above the tiny stern held up solar panels and doubled as a storage area for a large crab pot, natural gas cans, buoys and buckets, all covered in a tarp secured with zig zagging bungee cords. Surf boards lived along one stern rail and poked out of their repurposed sleeping bag covers. A clear blue plastic observation bubble hatch cover behind the cockpit area added to Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic movie vibes.
A blue and white wind generator hid behind the giant black and white checkered flag adorned with some kind of repeating icon that reminded me of Mideival Times. Various sizes of other non-country flags were tied at different levels on the many shrouds supporting the two metal masts. One had some kind of animal on it proudly sitting atop a banner like the kind you see under I love mom tattoos.
I tried in vain to discern where the flags were from, and where the boat was from. On the transom, painted in thick white capital letters was her name with two other letters sitting below the name and to one side. Boats are supposed to fly their country flag off the stern and the country in which they are traveling’s flag at midships. These guys didn’t seem too concerned with rules.
I jumped in the water and swam closer to their boat, trying to get up the nerve to say hi. Fear held me back, so I swam away and happened to intercept a guy paddle boarding back to a different boat in the crowded harbor.
Guillome has shoulder length curly brown hair, intricate Indian style forearm tattoos and a gold hoop earring that echos the sparkle in his puppy brown eyes. After the usual which boat/where you from/where ya headed he asked “Are you coming to the barbecue tonight?” in his French accented English, sitting down on his board to chat. “I think it’s bring your own food and drink, there will be a fire,” he explained and pointed to the top of the hill near the anchorage where a metal container, the container ship kind, sat with covered picnic tables alongside. I said yes and requested a ride to the festivities with him and his two boat mates for later that night.
We walked up the dark hill together, Guillome, his Australian captain, his Israeli crewmate and me. The sailor party was calm and folks sat together in cliqueish school cafeteria groups, folks still fresh from a long crossing and perhaps not used to socializing with other people yet.
I spied the four mystical bearded men on a shadowy edge of the gathering, smoking cigarettes and huddled, discussing something amongst themselves. A tanned and least bearded member of the crew came up and introduced himself to me. Sam has curly sun streaked brown hair, a glowing boyish grin and a streamlined swimmer’s body, shorts worn as low as possible, no shirt, no shoes. Turns out they are all French doctors and friends, he explained, who sail together part of the year and work in Britanny the rest of the year. The unusual flags represent Brittany and specific towns and organizations within that region.
So they were French. Beautiful French doctors. Of course.
I mingled with other sailors, at the time putting my feelers out for the next boat I could hop on, so I networked with an agenda. Guillome’s captain decided to head back early and offered to give me a ride back to my boat. I felt tired of socializing and again too afraid and uncool to hang out with the French doctors so I headed home.
As I left the party I glanced over at the doctors devouring their barbecued meat. One locked eyes with me. He was beautiful, his gaze intense, wild, intelligent and full of vitality. We connected for a few seconds in a rare moment of wordless understanding between total strangers. And then I turned around and walked away.
A week later I became crew on Teresia and met Alex the German carpenter, my new crewmate. He had befriended the rainbow boat doctors at the sailor party and spent time adventuring with them on Hiva Oa. He regaled me with stories that made the doctors sound like Peter Pan’s lost boys, always looking to hunt, bushwhack and get dirty. “They don’t have a toilet on their boat,” he explained. “Whoa, I could never handle that,” I replied.
A few weeks later, Teresia arrived in Fakarava, a large atoll in the Tuamotu island group and a top destination for sailors. We pulled out the binoculars as we approached the anchorage to see if we knew any of the 30 boats in the harbor. “Oh cool! The rainbow boat is here!” said Alex. My heart skipped a beat.
We cruised by their boat and the doctors were all naked, jumping into the sea and doing pull ups on the bowsprit. I spotted the one who I’d locked eyes with, thanked the universe, and said to Alex “that is a present for me.” He smiled and shook his head, amused.
That night a bunch of younger sailors met up at La Paillote, the beach bar cafe near the anchorage run by a lovely ex-pat French couple. I had a scoop of coconut ice cream alongside a scoop of citron sorbet, both divine and much appreciated after many weeks without a proper ice cream fix.
Then I figured Tahitian rum and Mexican tequila would be a suitable digestif—a crutch to work up the courage to talk to the doctors. It worked, I cozied up to the rainbow boat sailors and started chatting up the wild one. His English wasn’t great and my French nonexistent, but we ended up sitting close and flirting. He has an old world nose and strong brow, a thick black beard and mustache making his profile look like a Roman warrior on a gold coin. His sea salty thick hair was rakishly tucked behind his ears. He had an air of contained physical energy, relaxed but present—ready to sing, dance, drink or fight at any moment.
My brain drifted into the haze that happens when a super attractive and intriguing stranger reciprocates your affections. I was in that euphoric state when Teresia’s captain walked up to us. I told him I’d be back on the boat in the morning because we were going to an after party on the rainbow boat. His face turned bright red and he yelled at me “If you want to have sex with this man then you need to pack your bags and leave my boat!”
Everyone in the bar was stunned and all went quiet, observing the scene. I oddly felt at peace, comfortable with the fact that I knew I was doing nothing wrong, that I would be fine leaving Teresia, even if that meant just sleeping on the beach, at least there weren’t many sand flies. But everyone else was aghast at the strange controlling behavior exhibited by a 68 year old Austrian man wearing short shorts and crocs.
The rainbow boat’s captain, Ethan, graciously took Teresia’s captain aside and sat him down to calm him. Ethan tried to invite Teresia’s captain to the after party, listened to the captain’s list of complaints about me, and eventually Teresia’s captain left without further incident.
Everyone asked if I was ok, and why the captain was like that? I realized I’d become immune to this strange man and his misogynist behavior, probably out of necessity because I lived on his boat in the middle of nowhere. This had been the first real opportunity to leave. Plus, I enjoyed my crewmates Alex, the dreadlocked German carpenter, and Lucio, the ex-accountant Brazilian surfer.
Anyhow. My wild Frenchman asked if I’d liked to swim back to the rainbow boat with him. I accepted. We kiss-walked on the road along the anchorage and then onto the shore. I’d seen reef sharks throughout the day in the water and knew this atoll was famous for its high shark population. But I figured at least there would be someone there to help or be eaten with me. We waded into the inky black water and started to swim towards the black boat.
We laughed like kids, looking up at the stars, trying not to splash too much which would attract sharks. “We don’t have a ladder, so we pull ourselves up. I can help you if you need,” he explained as we reached the boat. Thank goodness I’d been doing pull ups once in a while on Teresia. I kicked the water to grab the first rail above the bow, then grabbed the next rail, pulled myself up a ways then swung my leg up and wrapped it around the rail. It wasn’t pretty but it worked. He was impressed.
It was surreal being on this mysterious boat, finally, with the man I’d spied weeks ago. We had the boat to ourselves for a while before the whole after party arrived and smushed into the tiny cabin living area. They blasted romantic French music and made pasta for us, it felt like a gypsy party.
In the morning, French music traveled from the cockpit to the V-berth, the necessarily triangular shaped bed in the bow of monohull sailboats. We squeezed out of the ceiling hatch, jumped naked into the sea and joined the other crew in the cockpit. The guys were rolling their first of many cigarettes, laying shirtless along the three wood slat cockpit benches. But the cockpit was comically small, so the guys overlapped their legs across the center, wrapped their arms around each other’s shoulders, just like a pack of dogs lying together in a shady spot. The total comfort, trust, brotherhood and love amongst them was immediately obvious. And refreshing.
Ethan offered that I could join their crew, but that they were only taking the boat back to Apataki Carenage, where I’d just sailed from, and leaving to go back to work in France. So I’d only have a week and a half until I needed to find a new boat or fly on to Papeete. It was a kind offer but I said no thanks, it would be easier to find a boat continuing on to Tahiti here in Fakarava.
We hung out for a few hours on the boat, lounging, the guys started drinking beers soon after coffee. We snacked on their homemade bread and jam. I loved the atmosphere, and thought to myself, sitting amongst these interesting people on their homemade boat, that I didn’t really need to get to Tahiti so soon. I’d been there as a kid, so I knew that Tahiti and it’s sister islands were stunning. But I found that people make your experience rich. These guys were worth giving up a secure path forward on my quest, I knew I’d work something out.
“Ethan, I changed my mind, can I come with you to Apataki?” I asked the olive skinned captain, who looked like a fox with his beautiful twinkly eyes lined with thick black lashes. “Yes,” he confirmed, direct and sincere.
And so began my official time as rainbow boat crew.
Ethan offered to accompany me to get my luggage off Teresia, but I didn’t want to deal with that yet. The rainbow boat was readying to depart soon so we went ashore to provision. Come to find out that provisioning for this refrigerator-free boat meant rice, tinned sardines and lots of beer. Seeing my food fate, I grabbed a jar of peanut butter, apples and a bar of chocolate.
The Frenchmen looked on curiously as I ripped open the jar of peanut butter and started dunking apple chunks into it. It was the afternoon already and we hadn’t eaten much breakfast or lunch.
We ambled over to La Paillote to say goodbye, the rainbow boat had become good friends with the French owners, shutting down the bar every night for many nights. We all sat around a long table and everyone started drinking, rolling cigarettes and laughing—relaxing at the leisurely pace cafe-going Europeans are famous for.
I watched and listened to try and catch something I could understand with little success. I’m used to being in situations like these, you learn to laugh at the right times, to enjoy being included in the group even if you can’t contribute conversationally. The wild Frenchman translated for me once in a while in broken English despite his crewmates’ chuckling at his language skills—I appreciated his efforts.
Finally, we went on a food mission. We climbed into the La Paillote owners’ pint sized truck bed and sped along Fakarava’s streets—coconut palms, single story bright colored homes and kids on bicycles streamed by us. We stopped at a food truck nestled into a grassy lot with a few plastic tables covered with corrugated tin roofs.
A portly and cheery French expat greeted us and said she was just closing but would of course stay open for old friends. Rainbow boat stickers were already on the food truck, they had all camped near the southern Fakarava pass and partied under the stars together.
We inhaled our burgers and fries, I was relieved to see that the guys got hungry eventually. I talked with Adam, Ethan’s co-captain, about sailing through the Northwest passage. He looks like a weathered sailor you’d see in a black and white photo from the late 1800s. With curly sun streaked tawny hair, high cheekbones and a languid litheness. He has piercing blue eyes, ones that often look far away, as if he is captaining a ship in another universe with constant vigilance. Adam doesn’t say much, but has an intelligent, dry sense of humor when he does speak. If the topic is sailing though, he opens up.
The Northwest Passage has only recently become navigable by sailboats. Climate change contributed to significant ice melt in the Arctic Circle so during two weeks of the year, a couple dozen sailboats attempt to cross through floating ice fields. It is a treacherous route—the rainbow boat was stuck for two days in the ice field. It was just Adam and Ethan onboard, with their bags packed and rifle ready in case they needed to jump ship if ice crushed the boat. Polar bears were a significant concern. They lost lots of weight during the passage because of the stress and lack of time to eat, but they made it through. It was a honor to be on a boat with folks who had achieved such a wild feat, and helped me see the strength underneath the boat’s weathered rainbow.
We bid farewell to La Paillote’s owners and returned to the rainbow boat. In the apricot setting sun light, we spotted the boat Guillome was crewing on, Dawn Treader II, entering the harbor. “Ah, we will have to stay another day to party with those guys,” said Ethan solemnly, with the ever present twinkle in his eye.
We returned again to La Paillote for all night drinking with the local dive guides and the owners. Ti’ punch is the crew’s choice cocktail. “When you offer to make ti’ punch, you make it for everyone, and not just once, you make it all night,” directed Ethan. Sam showed me how to squeeze some lime into each glass, add a spoonfull of sugar, smash them together, add some rum, then dilute it with a bit of water, top with ice. And so I began to learn that rainbow boat goodbyes are extended, and always involve lots of beer and many rounds of ti’ punch.
Our neighbor boat in the anchorage was captained by a French woman around my age, which is super rare and for me, and obviously the guys, a treat. She has long blonde tousled mermaid hair, freckles, and petite features like a sun glow ocean fairy. She often leans her head back when she laughs, her smile wide, her laugh pure and sweet. The mermaid offered to host the second goodbye party for everyone the next day.
I settled into my new cozy boat life, observing the rhythms and unsaid rules that govern tightnit teams. “We have no rules,” the guys told me. But they did: look out for each other, say how you feel, do what brings you pleasure, don’t feel ashamed, take care of the rainbow boat.
We were swimming back to the boat again from land, the dinghy was too small for us all plus crates of beer, when Dawn Treader II’s dinghy passed by us with captain and crew. My wild Frenchman yelled to them “Where’s Roxanne?” and everyone laughed.
Come to find out, ever since the party a few weeks prior in Hiva Oa where we all met at the shipping container, the rainbow boat boys would call out to the Dawn Treader II boys asking where I was, since I went home from the party with that crew. I felt flattered that they’d been thinking about me since then, and also realized the odds were heavily in my favor for catching a cute guy. I was one of a few young single female sailors navigating this route.
We all met up at the mermaid’s sailboat in the setting sunlight. More young cruisers piled on, then the dive guides joined, spent and fulfilled after a day diving with dozens of reef sharks. La Paillote’s owners dinghyed out from their tropical pink painted bar, happy about this most extended goodbye party.
The mermaid’s tattooed Tahitian surfer boyfriend went spear fishing and cleaned his catch on Alex’s new inflatable stand up paddle board. “So much for that new car shine,” I said as Alex watched parrot fish guts being rubbed into his new ride. “It’s ok,” he said, “its better to get that first scratch over with.”
We feasted on giant platters of fish carpaccio, grilled parrotfish with a sweet ginger garlic sauce and fresh pineapple infused rum. Cruisers in the Tuamotus can be spread out and isolated throughout the atolls, so we were all excited to be together in this spontaneous community gathering.
An unfortunate mishap quieted the party’s buzz—the rainbow boat’s dinghy wasn’t tied correctly and floated away into the thick night sea. Ethan and Sam went to look for it in the mermaid’s dinghy, and not only didn’t find it, but damaged her outboard motor on a coralhead so they had to row back. Dinghys are the boat version of your car, you need it to go from your boat to land without getting wet. The mermaid was gracious but the party didn’t rebound, we all resturned to our respective vessels.
In the morning, we agreed it was time to complete the goodbye process, we needed to move towards the shipyard in Apataki, a day’s sail away. Which meant I needed to pick up my luggage from Teresia.
Ethan accompanied me to my former boat. It felt awkward to board Teresia, I kept my eyes away from the captain’s and quickly packed my clothes. I signed the immigration crew list writing that I left the boat on this date. Alex and Lucio gave me quiet hugs, I gave the captain a strong, curt handshake. He had a white fury in his eyes and his face was haggard red. Thank goodness I could escape this madness.
On the ride back to the rainbow boat I felt like I had wings again, wind in my hair, going towards an unknown future but one that I was looking forward to rather than dreading. My wild man incorporated my gear into the netted shelves in the V berth alongside French philosophy books and boxer shorts. He stowed my bag under the bed atop a massive spare traditional anchor they’d found somewhere along the way. I was lovingly folded into the rainbow boat’s eccentric world.
We returned to La Paillote the next afternoon for a final goodbye session. My brain began to pick up a few of the French words volleyed around the table. Mostly though I studied faces to understand their emotions. Deep sun leathered smile lines crinkled around the owners’ blue eyes—the handsome couple live a beautiful life together on Fakarava and are grateful. We cheek kissed, twice for French folks, and returned to the rainbow boat.
Sweet Alex paddled his board over to us with a few things I’d left on Teresia. We were both sad to say goodbye—we’d grown close playing chess together (he always won), cooking and staying up late under the stars talking about life. He would look for a new boat to sail on to Australia. We wished each other luck and hugged goodbye.
We readied the boat to set sail and the doctors hollered at the mermaid that we were finally departing. She motored over in her dinghy, Ethan had fixed it in the early morning after the party. Out of her pocket she pulled four black cord necklaces hung with one white cowrie shell each. Every man bowed his head before her in turn and she placed a necklace around their necks. They gave her misty eyed hugs and howled out her name as she rode back to her boat. All the goodbyes were satisfying and now complete.
The rainbow boat does not have a mechanical windlass, the piece of equipment that hoists the heavy anchor and chain on board. Instead they rely on the wild one, a muscly extra beautiful human windlass. He planted his feet on either side of the chain at the bow and hand over hand pulled the chain and anchor aboard.
We navigated in the last light out the pass. Large waves and strong current from tidal flow pushed the small vessel around and instead of tension rising on the boat, the guys’ eyes lit up. “Let’s get this party started!” sang the wild one. Adam steered and his faraway gaze transformed into being fully present at the helm. They all gracefully stepped over and around each other, the shrouds and other boat obstacles to raise and adjust the sails, without any hurry or stress. This wasn’t their first rodeo.
The rainbow boat doesn’t have an autopilot so everyone takes a few hours at the helm. Since I didn’t know the boat well enough yet I wasn’t in the rotation, but I stayed up with the wild one for his night watch. Dark squalls passed alongside, sending us wind gusts and gentle rain. He sang softly into the breeze as I dozed on his puffin pajama clad knee. All the guys shared one pair of pajama pants printed with cartoon puffins and the phrase “Stud Puffin” all over. If you were naked, as was commonly the case, and needed pants, these puffin pants were usually within reach. Ethan and Adam slept on the couches around the table below, and Sam tucked into the back cabin under the blue bubble hatch.
We arrived at Apataki’s South pass at sunrise, a strange feeling for me because I’d already said my goodbyes to this town. A strong outgoing current created standing waves and whirlpools in the channel. For a few minutes it felt like we just inched forward, the rainbow boat’s old motor straining under the effort. The guys became focused but there wasn’t a hint of stress onboard, just a bit of adrenaline. They work in emergency rooms day in and day out so their tolerance levels for intense situations are higher than the average person.
We successfully anchored between the pearl farm and the Niutahi town then dinghyed to shore. I was the de facto guide here because I’d spent so much time in Apataki already. We stopped by Nicolas’ house, he laughed that I was back so soon and offered the guys drinks. I ducked out of the gathering for to say hi to Chipapa and Ernest around the corner. Chipapa greeted me and we talked about the Italian we’d befriended the week before who’d been arrested. We were both surprised he was smuggling a boat load of cocaine with his friends.
I felt a different tension in town this time, a wariness from folks perhaps because of what happened with the Italian criminals. Were all sailors now suspects? The Italian said he was just a tourist, yet he went fishing, swimming and hung out with us all while secretly coordinating a giant international drug smuggling scheme. So I understood the sideways glances I got as another outsider.
The Frenchmen wandered around the quiet town—they missed La Paillote, the mermaid and wished there was a bar. Niutahi only has the Airport Bar, which is run out of an ex-pat woman’s house across from the airstrip and is only open when she wants it to be. Which was not that afternoon.
Nicolas’ son luckily invited us to go spearfishing with him and his friends in the pass. That’s where we were told not to go because of sharks. But we decided to take our chances and catch a proper dinner. The prospect of another tinned sardine meal was motivation enough.
My job was to swim a floating plastic bin between the six dispersed spearfishers so they could unload their wriggling catch before the sharks ate the bloody fish.
The water was crystal clear—coral and bright colored fish along the pass wall went from brilliant white, yellow, purple, red and turquoise to various shades of blue the deeper you looked, but you could still see the physical details forty feet away.
I snorkled along, popping my head above the surface often to see if there was a speared fish waving in the air. The guys would immediately lift the fish out of the water and swim with it above their heads so the sharks wouldn’t be attracted.
My bin shook occasionally as it filled with spotted, striped, gasping reef fish. A group of fishermen came by on their power boat and looked inside the box, shaking their heads. “Some of those fish have ciguatera,” he shouted, “this is a bad place to fish.” He reached down and rummaged through the box, throwing half back into the sea because they were likely full of the poisonous toxin. Thank goodness they checked on us, the kids we were with didn’t have enough experience yet to know the good from the bad fish.
On our walk back to the dinghy, the little girl who’d I’d danced with on the wharf the week before ran alongside me. She wore a purple princess costume, and her almond shaped brown eyes glowed up at me, then looked curiously at the different men I was with this time. “Who are they?” she asked, “New friends on a new boat,” I answered, not able to convey anything more complicated with our language barrier. She hugged me tightly and went on running and giggling with her friends in the street.
We made a proper dinner on the rainbow boat that night, fresh grilled fish, ciguatera free. Strong winds screamed through the boat’s rigging all night, accompanied by rain storms, but I didn’t mind.
Ethan and Sam padddled their surfboards out the next morning to try their luck at the break outside the pass. We snorkled through the pass to pick them up a few hours later and the wild one towed the dinghy behind him. Schools of fish glinted in the midday sun adorning the coral covered wall. We swam with our fins against the strong current while reef fish tucked in amongst protected crannies to keep from being swept away.
Turns out the surf was small and Ethan bashed his board on the reef so they were more than ready to leave. We shopped for provisions—beer, canned fish, tobacco—at the only shop in town. Most of the local women shopping there wore huge single black pearls hung on gold necklaces and an assortment of pearl stud earrings, pearl rings and bracelets. I tried not to stare at the shiny gems and grabbed a few more chocolate bars from the fridge.
The beautiful windlass pulled up the anchor again, his back muscles beading with sweat from the effort. Then we started sailing across the calm inner sea towards the Carenage, the rainbow boat’s final stop in this leg of her adventure.
I posted myself at midships, leaning out from the shrouds to see what obstacles lay in our path. The guys took turns steering, basking in the sun, happy to be sailing—the flow was set right again after a stagnant stay in Niutahi.
“There should be a reef off starboard, one mile away, let me know when you see it,” Ethan directed. I peered out onto the sea, with the same sweeping motion and intensity that I’d practiced on Ernest’s fishing boat to look for birds. I spotted the reef and let the captain know where it was. After I cautioned him about pearl buoys in our path, the captain was ready to trust me with his ship.
Ethan asked if I’d like to steer? Yes, I did. The boat was heeling a bit from a steady breeze so they showed me how to brace myself on the high side and steer with my feet so I could see the horizon in front of us. The helm was a small kid-sized wheel set near the floor of the cockpit, almost flush with the bench so you had to either have your legs on either side of it to steer with your hands or sit far to one side and steer with one hand or your foot. A wonky compass sat on a handmade pedestal in front of the wheel, they covered it with half a coconut shell when we were at anchor to protect it from the sun. More reliable was the navigation software the guys had running on their iPad in a waterproof case. Thank goodness.
I surveyed the route they had planned and saw where the next closest reef was. The guys were giddy to have someone else steer, it was rare for the four of them them to be relaxing at the same time because someone always had to be at the helm. They celebrated the occasion with beer, not a usual ritual for them while sailing. They’d crossed the entire Pacific without drinking. A lot of sailors I met dialed down or didn’t drink at all while underway, there aren’t rules about drinking and sailing so it’s left to individual discretion.
“Where is your wind gauge?” I asked, looking to the top of the mast for the arrow that I always use to find out where the wind is coming from. “We don’t have one,” Ethan said, “we use the flags tied at different places around the boat, and the feeling across our faces,” he explained.
I spotted the flags and stuck my head out further to feel the wind but wasn’t practiced at that method, so instead I kept my eyes on the sails. When they started to luff, or flap, I steered back away from the wind a bit to keep them full and didn’t overcorrect so far that the sails would need to be adjusted.
It was fun. I felt the water push along the rudder through the steering wheel’s movements against my hands. It is a feeling I loved ever since growing up on my parents’ sailboat. You can feel the sea’s power in your palms. As the sea and wind push the boat one way, you resist those forces on the helm just enough to keep yourself on the same course.
Most boats use autopilot all the time so you don’t get that visceral feeling. These guys wanted to feel the sea, wind, waves, rain, heat, cold and ice. I remembered that sailing wasn’t just a way to travel between points, the sport itself was enlivening, requiring your full attention and interaction with the elements.
The wild one mixed me up a fresh limeade since I don’t drink much these days. I focused on sailing, at once enjoying myself and also trying to do my best as the newest crew member. This was my first chance to show them I can sail and I didn’t want to blow it.
“Ok let’s tack,” said Ethan, meaning we needed to turn across the wind to get to our destination. “What do you guys say in the states to tack?” he asked. “We say, ready about, tacking!” I explained.
“Ready about!” “Tacking!” I bellowed, as we were trained to do, to make sure everyone was ready for the boom to come across the boat, a horizontal beam that can knock someone unconscious if they don’t get out of the way. The guys adjusted the sails and ducked. Once we were on the new course they all laughed at my American style call. For the rest of the trip they’d randomly yell “Ready about! Tacking!” and we’d all laugh.
Gradually the wind picked up and the guys let out more sail to go faster. “Is that ok?” asked Ethan, because the more sail they let out, the more force there was on the steering wheel. I said yes it’s fine, and they let out all the sails. We moved at a nice clip, I was in the groove with the boat, learning how she responded to my steering. The wild one crouched behind me and said sweetly “Good job, mate.”
Right then the fishing line zinged with unmistakable vigor. “Fish on!” someone yelled. “Do you want me to slow the boat down?” I asked. “Nope, stay on course,” said Ethan. I focused on the sails and listened to the guys reeling in the fish behind me on the stern. They gaffed it and brought it on deck, a beautiful silvery trevaly ridged in glowing periwinkle blue.
At the same time Adam looked up from the cabin with an amused expression while slowly operating the manual bildge pump with his foot. Someone forgot to turn off the salt water pump in the galley (kitchen) so as we sailed the water flowed through the faucet and pooled on the foor.
A few weeks prior they left the boat for a couple days to adventure in the mountains on Hiva Oa. They’d forgotten to close a through hull that allows sea water to circulate in the engine, there was a leak and they returned to a half sunken boat. There were many hours of pumping the manual bildge pump. All the guys laughed at themselves because their boat was filling with water again so soon. This was another reminder from mama ocean on their last day sailing who is boss.
I felt fully happy in this moment. In an easy, engaging merry go round of laughter, wind, fish and sweet beautiful men. After sailing the boat for a few hours I felt like a proper part of the crew and they treated me as such for the remainder of our time together.
I asked Ethan to take the wheel because I had to pee. With no toilet on board I walked to the bowsprit, took off my boarshorts and leaned my butt through the bow railings, like hanging on monkey bars over a rushing ocean below. It wasn’t so bad, peeing in front of a bunch of new friends, liberating even.
The wind calmed as we neared the protection of the Carenage. A quiet sadness overcame the rainbow boat and her crew as they took down the sails for the last time. The late afternoon rays highlighted the white canvas sail folds, rigging whipped gently in the breeze, an applause for a trip well made.
We inflated the dinghy and went ashore to check in with Tony at the Carenage. The last time we’d seen each other we were helping the Italians tie up their damaged boat in Niutahi a week ago. He recognized me and explained to the guys in French what had happened. The French SWAT team came into the Carenage to apprehend the drug smugglers and tore apart the sailboat to confiscate the 428 kilos of cocaine. Tony still looked a bit shaken and tired from the whole ordeal. Life is usually calmer in Apataki.
We bought WiFi codes and caught up, very slowly, with our friends and family across different oceans. Back on the rainbow boat, the guys began to prepare a fish feast with the trevaly as ceviche and grilled fillets, rounded out with rice and salad. They sang together as the mood struck, usually when their favorite French love songs came through the queue. We had a few more days of being together at anchor before we needed to drive the boat on land and into storage at the Carenage.
In the morning, the wild one and Sam went to Tony to explain how the Austrian captain had mistreated me and asked if I could stay on their rainbow boat while it was in storage. Tony said of course, and I felt relieved to have a home while I figured out my next steps. He invited us all to join them for a barbecue that night.
We geared up to go spear fishing so we could contribute to the barbecue. We piled into the small dinghy and headed for the coral heads near the Carenage. Ethan dove to look under coral shelves for grouper. White and black tip reef sharks slowly came to check us out. Whenever I swam apart from the group to look at something, the sharks became bold and came closer to me, so I returned to the group.
I started shivering in the water after a while, the wild one noticed and came up behind me in the water to give me a big bear hug and rubbed my back to warm me up. It felt good to be taken care of and bittersweet because I knew I’d be on my own again soon.
Ethan said the fish were scared because of all the people in the water so Adam, Sam and I left him with the wild one. We started trolling for fish with a hand line, keeping an eye out for the spearfishers who held their catch out of the water and away from sharks until we picked them up.
Adam drove the dinghy, one hand casually on the wood piece they’d fashioned as the tiller, hand carved with the boat name, like a kid’s sign for their secret treehouse. He had that faraway look in his eyes again. I noticed Ethan and the wild one standing and sitting on a coral head in the distance with a fish above their heads. We drove towards them and I burst out laughing. Ethan was delicately picking coral branch bits from the wild one’s longish hair that was half tied up in a bright blue hairtie. Like monkey friends.
Our fish contribution to the barbecue was small, but we made up for it with beer and fancy roasted nuts, which both go for high prices in this part of the world. Luckily, Tony had huge chunks of marlin collar and belly on the grill, pieces he’d frozen from a marlin he caught a few weeks ago.
Tahai, an extra bronzed and fit young Carenage worker with a sly secret smile always on his beautiful lips, took care of all the fish on the grill, basting them with homemade sauce, moving them above the smoldering coconut husks to get each piece caramelized with juices bubbling to perfection.
We sat on long benches, our bare feet rested on the coral gravel, under the stars around the grill. The particular smell of smoldering coconut husks swirled by our noses. Finally the fish was ready, Tahai loaded up platters and put them on the set table.
Here it is customary to eat at the end of the party, after you’ve drank, sang and played music for many hours. Which means the food is room temp by the time you eat it. Taking earlier tastes seemed to be alright and I couldn’t resist trying the hot marlin belly.
It was the best fish I’d ever eaten. Juicy sweet fat permeated the flaky succulent layers, infused with coconut smoke and sweet, savory caramelized sauce. I closed my eyes. When I opened them I saw the wild one sneaking a taste too, we looked at each other with the mutual understanding that this was incredible, special food. We kissed with marlin fat on our lips—just the right combination of pleasure, fulfillment and surrender.
Tony brought out his guitar and bass made from a plastic bucket, fishing line and driftwood stick. Tamatoa, another young Carenage worker started strumming his ukulele. Ethan went wild on the bass, plucking with abandon. There was ti’ punch, music until folks were half lidded from sleepiness, then dinner and a satisfied stumble back to the dinghy and the rainbow boat.
Time stretched with the rainbow boys, each day felt like a rich week. They were all soaking up their last adventurous days before returning home. So I basked in their living-in-the-present glow.
Every morning began with a naked swim in the sea. I still couldn’t get up the nerve to poop off the bow, so I’d just go in the water and swim against the current. That attracted scavenging remoras to me so it was a bit of a scene, I could only laugh at myself.
Ethan and Sam had left early on Tony’s motorboat to go to Niutahi for more provisions—beer, canned paté and limes for ti’ punch. So Adam, the wild one and I lounged for a while. The wild one had to stoop in the cabin while he prepared coffee, his weathered hands elegantly poured the brew from a battered aluminum pot. Adam, half awake from his hangover, wore boxer shorts that looked like they’d had multiple encounters with a cheese grater, rolled a cigarette in the cockpit and eased across half the space since the other guys were gone. The wild one gingerly placed the half moon breadloaf atop his boardshorts printed with photos of bikini babe butts. He sliced off hearty pieces, crumbs gently cascaded onto the cockpit floor.
After this most leisurely brunch we decided to go spear fishing. This time at a different, beautiful coralhead, one I’d snorkeled before. The wild one caught a grouper, we came back to the boat and ate chocolate and rested, I flopped into the dinghy in the water, it was the only shady spot I could find to escape the intense afternoon tropical sun.
When the guys returned, surprisingly with some bok choy in addition to beer and rum, the wind had calmed down so it was time to bring the boat ashore. Tony drove a backhoe connected to a special haul out trailer down a concrete ramp into the sea. The Carenage workers guided the boat to line up with the trailer, then connected lines from the boat to the hitch area. They started diving to dig out sand from underneath the rainbow boat, she was just a bit taller than what they were set up for. After thirty minutes they hauled her all the way onto the trailer and up onto land. The rainbow boat was now “on the hard.”
Tony laid a tall ladder against her so we could get up and down. He invited us to join them for lobster hunting that night and have a bonfire on the outer reef. We gladly accepted and changed into proper reef going shoes, a strange sight to see since the guys were usually barefoot.
The rainbow boat was parked next to the maintenance garage that doubled as a the worker hang out area. The guys brought out their newly stocked provisions, beer and ti’ punch fixings, and laid them out on diesel barrels to share with Tony, Tahai and Tamatoa.
I felt an overwhelming sadness fall on my chest and shoulders—the guys were leaving the next day. When I’m sad I eat, so I grabbed spoonfuls of peanut butter and leftover rice from the pot. And some chocolate. Even so I still felt like crying, so I walked out to the beach and onto the short wooden pier. Tears quietly rolled down my cheeks, the party’s distant laughter disappeared into the soft lapping waves.
I sat cross legged under the stars, took a few deep breaths and closed my eyes, resting my hands on my knees. After a while, wood creaked behind me and I felt the wild one’s chin on my forehead, his arms wrapped around my back, his hands warmed my wrists. He held me as I cried, then showed me constellations he knew. “We are still here, come have fun with us,” he said.
We rejoined the crew who were now properly juiced for a late night hunting mission. We packed up the ti’ punch materials and followed Tahai through coconut groves towards the outer reef. Part of the group stayed in a semi protected sandy area to collect driftwood and start the bonfire. The rest of us continued out towards the crashing waves to find dinner under the stars.
Tahai was in charge of making sure Adam and I didn’t hurt ourselves. The reef is made of coral layered together over many years, worn away on top by the elements. It is like walking over a razor sharp slice of Swiss cheese, in ankle to shin deep ebbing and flowing water. I joked that it made total sense to get drunk and then walk over a razor sharp reef in the middle of the night. Total sense. Adam laughed and continued to tromp through the sea in his sneakers.
Tahai showed us which golf ball sized snails to collect, we weren’t in the advanced lobster hunting party because the waves were too dangerous. I was happy to be on the snail team. Once my eyes learned to spot them in the headlamp glare I became a proficient gatherer, Tahai was impressed and smiled wide whenever I plopped handfuls into his backpack.
Adam wandered off somewhere, disappearing into the night. I focused on snails, Tahai said to follow in his footsteps so I wouldn’t fall. Little did he know this was just like hopping around tidepools, which I’d done with my family since I was a tot. I spotted baby mullet fish trapped in shallow depressions and asked Tahai if they were good for eating. Yes! So I tried to grab one with my hands but it slipped away. Tahai showed me to place my thumb and forefingers around the fish head so it couldn’t wriggle away. I caught two, into the backpack they went. This was fun, the hunt was on. Then I spied sea urchins, Tahai put on gloves and carried them all the way back to the fire.
We’d been gone awhile, the fire crew looked hungry and the lobster crew looked defeated, they’d only secured one and it was small. Alas, Tahai and I were the dinner heroes with our snails and fish. Tony placed a grate over the fire and lined up handfuls of snails. They burbled and spit, the fish sizzled, I took off my wet shoes and warmed my feet.
We sucked down briny snails, cracked reef crab shells with our teeth and stared at the fire. The wild one delicately helped me open the urchins with his bare hands but they weren’t tasty, not the right phase of the moon he said.
It started to get chilly and the guys were properly drunk so they retired to the boat. The wild one wanted to stay at the fire so I layed with him as he slept, and gathered more wood to keep us warm under the stars. After a few hours, it was cold and there was no more fuel nearby so I woke him up. I had no idea how to get back through the darkness to the rainbow boat, but he did, and guided us home.
In the glaring morning sun the boys were sluggish, not wanting to pack up their boat yet. The rainbow boat felt different out of the water, the ocean had protected her and was our naked playground. Now we were attached to land with a ladder and had to wear clothes again. We also had a still pond nearby which harbored fun mosquito neighbors.
Tony came by and told the guys to be ready by early afternoon, he would take them all to Niutahi to sleep at his house there, then wake up early the next morning to motor to the next atoll where they’d catch a flight to Papeete. He said I was welcome to join them if I’d like. I was relieved to not have to say goodbye yet and packed up a small backpack.
As the hours counted down, the guys stuffed their waterproof luggage with gear, folded up the sails, put the surfboards inside and took their flags down. Since I was going to live on the boat for a while they didn’t need to close it fully up yet. I lowered the bucket of dishes to the ground by rope. The wild one took my arm softly and said I didn’t have to do the dishes, he knew I’d prefer to do other more interesting boat tasks, but I assured him I didn’t mind.
The rainbow boat didn’t have water tanks, we’d used salt water to wash up at sea, so I carried the bucket to the nearby beach. I grabbed fistfuls of coral sand to wipe out the grease and watched the fish nibble at the rice bits I threw into the shallows. Turquoise water extended out beyond my toes, filling my field of vision with sparkling calm ocean, bordered at the edges with coconut palms and pale pink beaches. This wasn’t the worst place to be stranded for a while.
The doctors heaved their gear onto their shoulders and took a last look at the rainbow boat, now surrounded by 20 other sailboats and catamarans in a clearing amongst coconut palms. They would return to this weather protected lot in nine months to sail her onward. She was their only proper home—three of the four doctors bounce around at friends’ and relatives’ homes in Brittany to save money and hassle.
We motored across the atoll in Tony’s worn red speedboat with Tahai and Tamatoa, making our way to Niutahi in a half hour compared to the half day sail it took us a few days ago. As per rainbow boat tradition, it was time to party, a proper extended goodbye.
We dropped off luggage at Tony’s house then stocked up on beer and the local canned favorite called Tabu-beer mixed with tropical flavored vodka. I splurged on grapes, $12 for a bag of the luscious sugary globes. Then we piled back into Tony’s boat and jetted out into the dark sea for another tipsy hunting adventure—this time flying fish was the object of desire.
Tahai connected a spotlight to the boat’s battery, and readied the multiproged spear nestled into a holster alongside the steering wheel at the bow. Tony explained that the sleeping flying fish rest near the water’s surface at night so all we had to do was find them then throw the spear into them. Tahai arced the spotlight over the black sea, slender fish flashed their silver sides at us, but over and over it was the wrong species of fish.
Sam, Adam, Ethan and I sat together in the back of the boat, keeping warm and enjoying the stars. No luck with the flying fish so we returned home and Tony opened his chest freezer—it would be burgers and fries for dinner, with chilled grapes for dessert.
We were all tired from the bonfire night, I felt loopy just from fatigue. While the guys cracked beers outside I rested in the warm kitchen, with the hot oven sending out buttery potato smells. Sun faded pictures of Tony’s family blanketed the tropical print walls—photos of beautiful girls sorting through piles of black pearls, family gathered around tables laden with food, all smiles huge and warm and full of love. There were also photos of mushroom clouds over tropical atolls, a reminder of how the French military did atomic testing in the region.
The wild one brought me his warm Tunisian blanket cloak with a hood, so I could rejoin them outside and stop shivering. A few days without proper sleep and food had taken its toll on me. Tony and Tahai brought out platters of butter roasted fries and burgers with all the condiments. We devoured them and joked around the table for a few hours until each doctor dropped into sleep one by one, on the grass, in their chairs and some on the mattresses Tony had laid out for us in a large room with airy shutters.
I crunched sweet grapes in the now quiet night and woke up the wild one from his chair to cuddle with me for the last time.
Soon after dawn we loaded into Tony’s boat and headed for the neighboring atoll Arutua. We sped over the chop, slamming down in the rhythmic way motorboats do. The wild one stood near Tony at the helm, surfing the ride, smiling and taking in his last day of tropical ocean spray and wind.
After an hour and a half of open ocean, Tony swooped into the Arutua pass, waved at pearl farm workers and guided the boat into a protected area in front of the airport, no need for parking lots here. It was a beautiful wooden open air structure, small but with extravagant tall beamed ceilings with Polynesian wood carved signs. My stomach dropped. I’d had emotional airport goodbyes before, but it had been many years.
Both the wild one and I have personalities that joke through sadness, so we sat outside together for a bit, not saying the things we wanted to say. We joined the guys inside for fried chicken wings and coffee. Their plane arrived, it’s turbine engines blasted sound through the terminal, erasing the place’s tropical ease.
I hugged and double cheek kissed the doctors goodbye. I promised Ethan that I’d send him photos of the rainbow boat before I left it. Adam told me with gravity to take care of the rainbow boat, I promised him that I’d take care of his home. Sam, ever jolly, thanked me. The wild one picked me up and spun me around, kissed me firmly and smiled wide. I smiled back, aching to hear words that he didn’t say. He reached out again for a final kiss and let his hand run down my arm, our fingers connected like dance partners then separated as he walked away.
They walked out to the tarmac together and disappeared into the cheerily painted Air Tahiti plane. I breathed deeply and sat back onto the bench behind me, it felt like the strength had drained from my right leg. I sat there for a few minutes, watching people arrive from Papeete, little kids rejoined with their dads, returning sailors were excited to board their boats again in Tony’s shipyard.
I walked out to Tony’s boat and he gave me a hug, tears rolled down my cheeks, predictably. He comforted me and I climbed aboard. Tropical paradise surrounded me, azure sea and sky, endless. I sent a sneaky air kiss to the departing plane and felt alright, grateful to have met the rainbow boys and glad that I got to stay here, with the promise of fresh adventures around the next reef.
*i changed the names of the doctors and withheld their boat name to protect their privacy*