A few hours prior, in the late afternoon, one of our apprentice navigators was being put to the test in finding Swains Island from Apia, Samoa, a relatively short but challenging sail of bout 170 miles. Short because at an estimated 5 knots it would only take us about 48 hours, challenging because aside from the complexities of traditional wayfinding that alone would overwhelm the rest of us (save the two pwo navigators aboard) this was the proverbial needle in the haystack: a very small, remote, and uninhabited island harboring nothing taller than coconut trees, shrouded by cloudy skies that concealed our most reliable roadmap, the stars.
And as if this isn’t enough for our apprentice navigator to weigh and endure, she’s fighting through exhaustion, a migraine headache, and possibly sunstroke all without even a hint of a complaint. She has done nothing short of an exceptional job. But the will of all of these compounding factors is unrelenting. And as we head into our second evening at sea, we have yet to spot Swains Island. So Nainoa’s verdict at sunset: the risk is too great that we’ll sail right past it in the night. Being uninhabited, there would be no lights to act as a beacon. So in the quiet of the night, in complete darkness save the merciful company of a full moon, we wrap up all of our sails, lock up the steering sweep, and drift in a wide open sea.
My watch captain woke me at some point in the middle of the night. Of course, without technology’s convenience I’m not sure exactly when, but judging from the moon’s position my guess would be around 2am. It was wet. It was cold. It was downright spooky. I wouldn’t say morale was down, but it wasn’t up either.
Imagine floating in the blackness of sea and sky, directionless, untethered both physically and mentally. Our job is to stay awake to ensure we don’t hit anything and nothing hits us. So we wile away the hours thinking; talking in hushed tones as to not awake the others; sipping on hot cocoa; and doing anything else we can think of that might provide a thin veil of comfort. But the uncertainty of our situation looms larger than the wide open seas we randomly float upon.
Things get complicated out here fast.
The dawn of a new day brings yet another, new challenge to our young navigator: Figure out where we are now after spending the last ten hours adrift, and from this new position find the island. Imagine flying into a new country, whose language is just as new to you, and on your way to your hotel you are stopped, blindfolded, and spun around for hours, only then to be directed to find your accommodation on your own. That might be something akin to this. But that would be exponentially easier.
Indeed after hours of sailing we have still not raised Swains out of the sea. Our apprentice navigator has been able to fix our location, but the island still eludes us. Nainoa confers with her, and they have narrowed the possibilities. They know we are close so now it’s time to make a calculated guess. The apprentice is confident that our position is at the same latitude as Swains, so where to, East or West? Given all of the variables they guess West.
Our apprentice raises the island.
Almost immediately after we bear West, we spot the island, nothing more than a thin lens protruding from the sea like the iris of some sleeping giant. She has done it. She has raised the island from the sea. And while we all share in the celebration, it is the apprentice’s triumph alone.
Our voyage continues.
Shortly after spotting the island, still at a great distance, Nainoa orders a crewmember to radio over to Hikianalia for them to record our latitude. A beat later he comes careening down the canoe to pause the transmission, having caught himself just after the order. The point of clarification: have Hikianalia denote our longitude, but don’t tell it to us. The sanctity of the great experiment that is traditional voyaging would not be desecrated. This was a profoundly symbolic moment, as it spoke of these people’s commitment, confidence, and dedication to the perpetuation of this almost lost art. Even amidst this uncertainty and risk there would be no compromise.
Truly we are tested by being exposed to the elements. But after today I’m convinced that the real test is in exposing us to ourselves in discovering who we are amidst pressure, challenges, and uncertainty. Perhaps through this sail around the world, we can rediscover that we are all courageous, resilient, and dedicated in finding solutions for a more sustainable and healthier future.
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