Thursday, March 22, 2007

Waves of Warning 18

Chapter Eighteen – The Mariners

[ 18-Mariners.pdf ]

“Last one! Go!”

The gut wheels rolled back and forth on the parking lot pavement. L.J. Merrill and Jack Richards were in perfect synch with James Brown’s “Gravity”, the last cut of the warm-up playlist. For the past hour, and for the past six weeks, they had used songs on their iPods as relentless drill sergeants to drive them through increasingly difficult two -a-day workouts. Today, however, they were just getting in a quick session to work out the stiffness after the drive up from Laguna Beach. They were overlooking a beach in Oxnard, a few miles from their destination in Ventura Harbor where they had an appointment in less than an hour at the world headquarters of the Order of Southern Ocean Mariners.

“Sixty-one, sixty-two sixty-three, sixty-four! Ok, I’m ready.”

“Are you?” replied Merrill, “I’ve got you in pretty good shape, Jack, but have you been doing your homework on the Southern Ocean?”

“Fire when ready, L.J.!”

“Ok, Richards, twenty questions, and a hundred buck fine for every wrong answer. Cape of Storms?”

“The original name for the Cape of Good Hope. Southern tip of Africa. 15th century. Vasco De Gama, Portugal.”

“First circumnavigation?”

“1522. Ferdinand Magellan, sailing under the Spanish flag.”

“Wrong. That’s a c-note. Magellan never made it. He left Spain with five ships. Only one made it all the way, under Del Caño. Ok, here’s an easy one. What did Magellan accomplish that’s remembered to this day?”

“He discovered the Straits of Magellan.”

“When, where and why?”

“1520. The protected passage at fifty two degrees south latitude. Because he had to get around the tip of South America to get into the Pacific. He could have gone a little further south and rounded Cape Horn. Discovered by Schouten, Holland, 1516.”

“Didn’t ask you that, Jack, but glad you know it. Now what is almost six hundred miles wide between Cape Horn and Antarctica?”

“Drake’s Passage, first sailed by Sir Francis Drake of England in 1578. He was a pirate with Queen Elizabeth’s blessing to make life miserable for the Spanish.”

“What English captain sailed for purely scientific purposes through the Southern Ocean?”

“James Cook. Three voyages in the Endeavour. 1770s.”

“How did he meet his end?”

“Same as Magellan. Killed by islanders due to poor cross-cultural awareness of the sensitivities of people who’d never seen white men before.”

“Pretty good, there, Richards. Oh, by the way, what is the Southern Ocean?”

“The combined waters of the South Atlantic, the South Pacific, and the Indian Ocean south of the equator. C’mon, L.J., give me a hard one.”

“What about the mariners of the Southern Ocean in the 1800’s?”

“It’s been called the Golden Age of Sail thanks to the romantic illusions evoked by the tall ships of the era such as the clippers carrying miners from New York to San Francisco, the Sovereign of the Seas, Flying Cloud, Lightning, Cutty Sark . Later you had the Parma, Penzing, and the Cape Horners carrying cargos for the China tea trade, Australia wheat and lumber. But it wasn’t it so golden for the sailors. The captains were tyrants. Speed was everything and the tall ships were really dangerous places to work, especially when sailing through the Southern Ocean and around Cape Horn in winter.”

“Not bad, Jack. What did they call their roughest sea route?”

“The Roaring Forties. The term was first used by sailors given the constant wind blowing from east to west that roared in the rigging above them in the band of ocean between forty degrees south latitude and fifty degrees south latitude.”

“Ok, now tell me about the men who sailed the Roaring Forties alone.”

“Well, Joshua Slocum did the first solo circumnavigation in 1896. But he sailed east to west and avoided the Roaring Forties. So I’m gonna go with Vito Dumas from Argentina. He did the first solo round the world in the Roaring Forties using the winds and waves to push him west to east. He did it during World War Two, and at the time it was the longest single non-stop passage ever.”

“How about Sir Francis Chichester?”

“The classic English adventurer. Wanted to sail around the world in less than a hundred days. Wanted to break Dumas’ record. Gypsy Moth IV. 1967. Had to stop once.”

“Bernard Moitissier?”

“France. The ultimate romantic . He became a national hero in France. He was far in the lead of the first non-stop solo circumnavigation race in 1969 when he decided going back to the accolades of a fawning public was not for him. After passing Cape Horn, instead of setting his course north up the Atlantic, he simply kept going east and sailed for another three months. He ended up in Polynesia where he lived for a few years before eventually sailing back to France.”

“Who actually won that first solo race?”

“Robin Knox-Johnston. England. Was the first to go around the world non-stop by himself.”

“Well, Jack, you have done your homework. Now, what about modern sailing in the Southern Ocean. There have been all these races.”

“Yeah, the Golden Globe, the Vendee, the Whitbread, the Volvo Ocean Race, The Race - - -“

“What was the Race?”

“Unlimited maxi catamarans around the world. Non-stop. Six hundred and fifty miles a day. First run in 2001.”

“Now, there was one thing all these Southern Ocean voyages had in common. What was it?”

“All the voyages were made during the relatively calm months of ‘summer’ in the Southern Hemisphere, from October through March.”


“For most sailors it is suicide to attempt winter passages in the Southern Ocean. Except for the Order of Southern Ocean Mariners.”

“And if we are going to surf a reef in the South Pacific on waves coming out of the Southern Ocean, where and when are the waves coming from?”

“The Roaring Forties. In winter. June through September in the Southern Hemisphere. That’s twenty, Merrill. Now let me ask you a question.”

“Well, that’s actually only nineteen. You jumped the gun about the races. I actually didn’t ask you anything about them.”

“Don’t get smart, Merrill!” laughed Richards, “Remember, I’m the guy paying the bills, and you do work for me.”

“Yassuh, boss. But if I wasn’t smart enough to get smart with you, we wouldn’t be here. But what’s your question?”

“I wrote OSOM a check for two hundred grand to cover our passages if we’re accepted. If we’re not, I get the money back, correct?”

“Jack, you already know that. What’s your real question?”

“And you haven’t told either Atkins or Bucher what we’re really trying to do?”

“No, haven’t talked to them at all. No point in it, Jack, and you know that, too. First we have to make it through today, and if we do, the shakedown cruise is no bargain from what I’ve learned.”

“You know, L.J., this feels like we’re interviewing for a job, and yet I’m paying them!”

“Yeah, Jack, something like that. And the thing is, all your millions ain’t gonna mean spit in a few minutes.”

“I know, L.J., I know. That’s why I’m doing this.”

Charles Atkins pulled into the OSOM parking lot at the far end of the harbor near Ventura, California. His corroded ’83 Ford van fit right in with the slouching four-door sedans patched with duct tape and the pick-up trucks with beds battered and gouged. The place almost looked like a junk yard. One would never guess these street legal rust buckets were owned by men and women who, when not ashore, coursed around the globe in the most advanced oceanic voyaging craft ever built.

He went into the lobby of the OSOM HQ, signed in the day log and checked the bulletin board. Atkins smiled at the flyer announcing a tug-of-war between the Aussies and the Russians. They were two of the four crews, selected on a revolving basis from the Order’s world-wide membership of over a thousand mariners who supported and sailed aboard the fleet of Alba_Swords representing fourteen countries, that would be sailing around the world through the Southern Ocean this year in OSOM’s annual Roaring Forties Regatta. Along with the Germans and the Peruvians, they were already working on their Alba_Swords in the hangar-sized prep facility adjacent to the headquarters building, and though the event wouldn’t start for another four months, Atkins was not surprised that the energy level was obviously already pretty high.

But he was surprised when he saw a 3x5 card announcing a’64 Dodge Dart sedan for sale. He’d had his eye on Tak Kurosawa’s ride for several years, and now that the mission prep manager had traded “up” to a ’61 Ford Ranchero, Atkins had his chance. He looked around the lobby and quickly grabbed the card off the board. Fair’s fair and all that, but Charles Atkins was taking no chances when it came to a vintage straight six in good condition.

He went back out the front doors and around the corner to a double flight of stairs running diagonally up the side of the building. Just under six foot with the graceful build of a ballet dancer, Atkins had extremely fast reflexes and his aerobic capacity was second to none in the Order. As usual, he took the stairs three at a time up to a landing where, with one graceful motion, he opened a wooden door with a porthole in it to enter OSOM’s nerve center.

The main deck of the Bridge, as the command center was known, was built with an open view down into the vessel prep facility simply called the “Shed”. The Bridge was ringed by an upper balcony and tinted windows that allowed a clear view from the docks and mountains to the east all the way around to the Channel Islands and the ocean to the west. As he walked around the balcony Atkins gave a quick glance out to sea. He couldn’t see the waves breaking, but he could hear them, and with the wind offshore, he knew it had to be good. He checked his watch and knew he had to get on it if he wanted to get some waves before the orientation began in a few hours.

Sliding down the railings on his hands he landed lightly on the main deck of the Bridge next to a multi-screen plasma display covering a large part of one wall. Sixteen individual screens made up a grid of images filling the display, but he was interested in just one: a map of the entire Pacific Ocean covered with a series of jagged lines like a small child's attempt to connect numbered dots. He touched the display, and its image instantly expanded to fill the entire grid. A row of icons appeared across the center screen and Atkins touched one. Then he stepped back as the display was updated with new downlinked data from a tracking satellite. Numerous jagged lines began to appear all over the grid. When the updates were finally in place, Atkins smiled.

Thousands of miles from land, the wandering albatrosses of the Southern Ocean were foraging to feed their young. Among them were sixty-four birds with GPS signal units delicately attached to their backs. Come July and August, he and his fellow mariners would use data from some of those same birds to help locate the most efficient courses and continuous wave trains through the Roaring Forties. The birds would be the scouts, and the mariners of OSOM would be able to use data from the albatrosses to help them voyage through the Southern Ocean in winter at the helms of the Alba_Swords, the most unique open ocean sailing craft ever built.

Atkins stepped back from the display and went up the stairs to check the surf. Another set was breaking, and he was starting to get antsy. He turned and looked down at the docks to focus on the original Alba_Sword prototypes that looked more like swordfish than oceanic yachts . They were the breeding pair for the entire fleet, and he quickly considered the different characteristics of the Serena and the Tom Swift. Though they were practically identical twins, he remembered words written long ago about mariners and tall ships.

She is more than a ship to the sailor; she is a personality. He knows her; he has watched her make her voyage. He knows what she can do and what she can't; he knows when she is being asked to do too much and when too little. He always speaks of his ship as if she lived.

Atkins decided to go with the Tom Swift. He knew she was practically interchangeable with the Serena, but Atkins liked the Swift’s steady helm when conducting shakedown cruises for candidates who wanted to join the Order. He went back down the ladder to a desk console display and called up a real-time satellite image of the Eastern North Pacific . A front was passing above Point Conception, about forty miles north of Ventura. A fresh gale was following the storm that would pass over the Santa Barbara Channel just around dusk Sunday night. With a big late-winter groundswell already running in from the deep North Pacific and a full moon rising behind them, it looked like a good set up for a very rough, and visually threatening, passage around the outermost islands on the other side of the Santa Barbara Channel.

Atkins cackled in delight. Plenty of wind and swell, and probably even some rogue waves to surprise the candidates IF they made it through the orientation. He e-mailed his “flight” plan to Ray Seranen, the chief meteorologist for OSOM, and then realized he was running out of time if he wanted to go surfing. His mind paused a second as his eyes studied the monitor before him. Then his fingers spun the track ball and the arrow pointed to the Tom Swift's icon. With a double click, the smile melted into steely-eyed concentration. Up came the internal website displaying work zone icons for every thing connected with and to the Tom Swift: electronics, structural stress, provisions, sail plans, the propulsion system, and much more . He selected ‘Voyage Preparation’, and then selected ‘Able Bodied Passenger Orientation’ about halfway down the menu. He checked the downlink to the peripherals bus, and when its integrity was confirmed, he headed down the open stairs from the Bridge to the aft end of the Shed. And as chance would have it, his timing was perfect.

“Hey! Tak! Just the man I wanted to see!” smiled Atkins, holding up the card from the bulletin board, “when can I take delivery?”

“Two grand in cash and you can drive her off the lot today!” laughed Tak Kurosawa, carrying a laptop and some rolled up blueprints on his way towards the four Alba_Swords at the other end of the Shed.

“Can I give you a twenty as down payment?”

“Why don’t you just go to the bank right now?”

“Well, I was hoping to get in a few waves across the street, and, uh - - - “

“Surfers! You guys never give up, do you? Ok, but Tuesday for sure!”

“Tuesday for sure, Tak. Say, got a minute to help set up the simulator?”

“Sure, Charlie. Scuttlebutt has it that you’re shaking down some candidates this weekend. Gonna be some fun in the Channel after this blow goes by tomorrow,” said Kurosawa with the glint in his eye of a veteran OSOM mariner, “IF they survive you today!”

The two men walked over to the side of the building and swung two doors wide open, revealing an exact replica of the cockpit of an Alba_Sword supported by a series of hydraulic cylinders. The simulator was mounted on a large flat bed platform resting on steel rollers. They grabbed two handles protruding from the unit, twisted the hand grips slightly, and began to roll the Alba_Sword simulator slowly across the smooth concrete floor. They guided it through a ninety degree turn to the left and lined it up with docking clamps embedded flush into the floor. Kurosawa went around checking the alignment with the socket hold-downs. Then he flipped levers around the base and clamped each hold-down to insure the simulator was anchored rock-solid.

Atkins went to a control panel built into the wall. He touched a button and a large concave screen, flanked by recessed speakers, lowered slowly from the ceiling to partially surround the simulator.

“Ready to rock and roll, Charlie,” said Kurosawa.

“Thanks Tak, but I prefer jazz with my seasickness. How goes it with the Regatta crews?”

“On schedule – no anomalies. The Russians and the Aussies are going ateach other pretty good. Funniest one-liners I’ve heard in years. The Germans have a new watch system that they’re working on with the Peruvians. Shipshape and Bristol fashion all around.”

“Well, sounds like us gringos better get in gear,” replied Atkins. He went back upstairs to the Bridge while Kurosawa stayed below to visually check the mechanics of the simulator. From the main data console Atkins initiated the ‘Motion Sickness Stress Test’, and the simulator below him came alive. He ran it through a full routine. Everything was working perfectly. Kurosawa gave him a thumbs up before turning away toward the work zone of the shed.

Atkins powered down the simulator and went back to the computerized pre-voyage system. He selected ‘San Miguel Island’ from a menu and left the program, now directly connected to the on-board telemetric sensors and data files of the Tom Swift, to run through over a hundred system checks controlled directly by the computer. Then he climbed the ladder to the balcony with a pair of binoculars. He focused on the Tom Swift and could see that the wheel in the cockpit was rotating slowly as the computer ran the checklist on her. It was all one system now, and he did not need to be there. He put down the binoculars, walked over to the exit door and pushed it open. He saw a cloud of seaspray hanging in the air over the surf zone, and seventeen seconds later another appeared, telling him all he needed to know.

He closed the door quickly and began to tap-dance in cross-over steps down the stairs. Halfway to the bottom he reversed his step and went backwards up to the landing. There he did a Prince spin on one heel before descending all the way down to the bottom of the stairs, keeping perfect time with heel clicks on each step. Charles Atkins was happy as a lark, dancing the stairs to warm up his surfing feet, and vice versa.

A brisk wind blew offshore towards Santa Cruz Island, green and vivid fifteen miles out in the ocean across the Santa Barbara Channel. Endless swells were rolling in from the western horizon. Across the street from OSOM headquarters and two hundred yards out to sea, deep blue waves were being transformed into turquoise tunnels as they moved across a perfectly groomed sandbar. And no one was out.

It was a classic northwest groundswell, and there were hundreds of surfers in the water at other spots up and down the coast. But the surf reports had overlooked a rare sandbar that had built up next to the jetty at the Ventura harbor mouth. It was still early, and for the moment the place was empty, but not for long.

Standing on the wet sand with a high performance surfboard under his arm, a lone surfer contemplated what was in store for him. He was about to jump off the continent and enter a surfer’s dream-world.

Ken Bucher looked up at the sky and mouthed a Thank -you! Not only was the surf perfect, but his session would also be a celebration of his coming-of-age. The night before, his mother had given him her blessing, and later today he would begin his candidacy to crew for his dad on an Alba_Sword in the Roaring Forties Regatta.

“Yeah!” he exclaimed as he literally leapt for joy into the ocean as the last gasp of a wave’s energy exploded at his feet.

Bucher’s timing was that of a matador leaping over a bull. He came down prone on his board with his arms extended and fingertips just touching the cold Pacific. At eye level he now faced endless waves, shaped by the sand bottom and groomed by the offshore wind. It was a superb surfing arena.

He paddled out through the fields of foam as the broken waves swept laterally along the shore. Each one tried to push him back to the beach, but soon he was a football field’s distance from the sand. There he paused just before entering the impact zone where the groundswells became a surfer’s playground. He waited until the last wave of a set broke and its white water rolled past him. He timed his passage across the sandbar and quickly made it out to the smooth waters seaward of where the waves had been breaking.

There he stopped and sat up on his board. Though resting, he was absolutely alert and observant. It was not long before he saw what he had come for. A set of swells began to unload its power upcoast from him. Less than a minute passed before the first of six waves formed up where Ken Bucher waited. He was sitting in water too deep to be able to catch the first wave and he made no move to position hims elf to ride it. He was, for the moment, not studying its form as a surfer, but as a photographer.

Bucher had an old Nikonos waterproof camera slung around his neck. He brought it to eye level and examined the wave even more closely through the viewfinder. He saw it begin to break gradually from right to left. Abruptly it hit the sandbar and the tube opened wide into a deep tunnel. Ken could see directly into the innermost limits of the wave as it sped towards him with perfect shape.

He sat poised on his board not thirty feet from the maelstrom of energy clearly visible through his viewfinder. He floated up the steep face of the swell, ten feet high and threatening to break, without moving a muscle. His patience was rewarded. Through the viewfinder, Bucher saw a vivid rainbow arc to the left in the spray blown back as the peak of the wave pitched forward.

In the center of the frame there appeared the elliptical eye of a perfect wave, and to the right he could clearly see, though many miles away, the peaks of the Santa Ynez Mountains covered with snow. The composition was perfect. He clicked the shutter and captured an extraordinary vision, and although the combination of such beautiful elements was very rare, Ken Bucher was about to see it again and again.

For the next five waves of the set, and then for another three sets, Bucher constantly maneuvered his surfboard to position himself in and around the impact zone, snapping image after image of natural perfection from all angles. Sometimes he filled the frame with the wave’s blue face set against the white snow. Another angle displayed nothing but floating crystal droplets with the arc of a rainbow slashing through the spray.

Once he got so close to the energy that he slipped off his surfboard, after snapping a shot, and dove through the wall of water to avoid the crushing force coming down towards him. He emerged unscathed as the wave rolled over him, his board firmly connected to his leg by a long leash. He reeled in his board, got on it and started paddling to get out of harm’s way, though he had the presence of mind to snap another picture of the on-coming wave while he was paddling, with the nose of his board in the foreground to create a point-of-view perspective.

He finally lost count of how many photos he had taken when a large set stood up outside, the biggest of the morning. The water around him was now a golden gun metal blue as the tide was beginning to go out and the waves were dredging up sand inside their cylinders.

He made a quick assessment, paused, then paddled his board straight towards the highest peak of the first wave. It stood up ten feet tall in a solid wall that offered no escape. The crest threw out into space over his head. The pointed nose of his board pierced through the face of the wave as he pushed his board underwater to let the energy roll over him. He held on tightly, feeling the wave try to suck him back towards shore. But his duck dive was deep, and his timing was lucky. He emerged out the back of the wave. The cloud of spray enveloped him and he couldn’t see a thing for a second. But then the air cleared for an instant, revealing a perfect rainbow ring five feet in diameter to his right lit up by the morning sun behind him. It seemed almost close enough to touch, and he was transfixed for a second. Then he quickly brought his camera up to his eye and tried to take the picture before the vision disappeared. He clicked the shutter, but nothing happened. He looked at the camera for a second, and then he ralized he was out of film!

He shook his head and remembered what his dad had once said, “Don’t always use the camera to record what you’re seeing. Just use your brain.”

Then he realized he had no time for such thoughts when he looked up to see another, much bigger wave about to break directly in front of him. He dove off his board holding the camera tightly to his chest. The camera was protected, but not the surfer. The wave crashed down on Bucher and his board, pushing him underwater and tumbling him like clothes in a dryer. The buoyancy of his board caused it to be pulled away from him and his leash stretched almost to the breaking point.

But the leash held, and a moment later he surfaced. He put an arm through the loop of the camera strap, and with the camera now safe and secure behind him, his arms were free to swim as hard as he could. He grabbed a lungful of air, and dove again under the white water of the next wave. Up for air, another wave, another dive, and then once more before he could finally reel in his board and lay at rest on its deck.

He looked across the smooth sea surface towards the horizon, only to see a new group of waves coming on strong. The photographer now became a surfer. He paddled out into deeper water and waited in perfect position for the third wave. He pivoted his board towards the shore, paddled two strong strokes, and stood up to glide down the slope of water golden in the morning sun. He turned hard off the bottom, not a muscle flinching, standing fully erect and ready to enter a sunlit tunnel of liquid light. He bowed his head at the last instant as the crystal ceiling came over and around him. He disappeared from the world for almost five seconds before coming out of the tube, his body arched slightly forward with his hands held lightly over his head. It was a moment to savor, and although the wave kept going, Ken Bucher turned his board back towards the horizon in a graceful exit.

A sharp whistle broke into his trance. He turned to see Charles Atkins sprinting across the beach with a board under his arm. Kenny gave him a double whistle in return as he paddled back out to the take off zone to wait for his godfather – and the next set.

Atkins timed his launch perfectly between the pulses of waves and paddled directly to the take-off zone, his powerful arms and shoulders pulling him out to sea with surprising speed.

"Nice barrel Kenny!" Atkins exclaimed as he slowed down and drifted towards his best friend’s son, "Does your G.P.A. look that good?"

“Straight A’s Uncle Charles! Hey, here come some waves!”

Bucher spotted a set lifting up out to sea, and the two surfers instantly pulled their boards around and began paddling rapidly toward the oncoming waves. These were the biggest of the day, rolling in like a convoy of eighteenwheelers.

“Which one do you want?”

“Nu mber two! Thanks!” said Atkins.

As he paddled into position, Atkins noticed a couple of SUVs had pulled into the parking with boards stacked high on the roofs.

Well, he thought, let’s give these guys a show.

The wave steepened and began to pitch out as he caught it and took off down the face. In that instant, Charles Atkins, husband, physiologist and sailor, turned into Charlie Atkins, arguably one of the most stylish and perfectly choreographed surfers in the world. He transformed a wetsuit, surfboard and wave into a tuxedo, dancing shoes, and a polished wood floor. He was the surfer as dancer extraordinaire, moving with the grace of the original Temptations, emulating their smooth moves on a smooth wave.

Charlie Atkins got in rhythm by surfing just ahead of the wave’s backbea as it broke down the line of the sandbar. After an initial run to come up to the speed of the wave, Atkins carved a cutback like an octave change before weaving through the next section of the wave as if it was eight bars of solo space. He was the epitome of nonchalance as he set up a final statement going into the shorebreak. Atkins drifted down into the heart of the energy just as the wave, born thousands of miles away in the North Pacific, began the last moments of its life.

The climax solo passage came right on time as he turned his board in synch with the multi-plexed curves of the liquid crescendo building around him. And then, just as a musician will leave a clear note hanging in the silence at the end of a song, he exited the wave with a virtuoso’s touch as it finally collapsed on the sand. And for a few seconds, he paused with his hands flaired out for style before lowering himself gracefully back to a prone position on his board to quietly culminate a ride intended to be nothing less than a perfect statement about one man’s version of soul surfing.

He looked out to the takeoff zone and saw that his godson had caught a great wave. He watched Bucher’s every move with keen attention. Initial drive off the top of the crest. Perfect set up to gouge a turn off the bottom. G-force catapult – absolutely vertical. Launch into mid air, a full meter between his fins and the pitching lip of the wave. Land it. Charge down the face. Extend out a turn with a cross-over step, then backstep to carve a drop knee cutback thirty feet in diameter.

Atkins was not surprised with Bucher’s performance, but the next thing he saw made his jaw drop. Ken brought his high performance short board around in a complete 360 degree turn. It was not the tail-slide trick often seen in surfing contests, but a true carving circle few surfers in the world have ever executed properly.

Bucher went speedsurfing towards the last vertical section of the wave ahead of him. He glided down the face and used all the g-force of a hard turn to launch once more into midair off the exploding lip. A full three seconds later, he landed on the back of the swell just as it died on the beach. He stood poised on the board, as the water drained back to sea, and then stepped lightly to the sand.

Bucher and Atkins looked at each other. They snapped their fingers in unison and cracked up with laughter.

“Oh yeah, that reminds me Kenny, do you have my Sam Cooke tape?”

“Right up there in the parking lot. But you can’t have it back until you return my Pearl Jam!” They both laughed even louder.

"So you ready for today?" Atkins shifted gears a little.

"Yeah, I’m ready. My paper work’s in the van. You want it now or what?”

Atkins smiled at Bucher’s attitude. Only yesterday Kenny had been playing with blocks and riding around on his first bicycle that his uncle had given him for his sixth birthday. Now he was, without doubt, the son of Frank Bucher, though with shades of James Dean, thought Atkins.

"No, just give it to Chip. The only thing I want right now is some more waves before it gets crowded!”

Charles Atkins turned to the ocean and paddled back out for more soul encounters with the blue power. The surfers in the SUVs had scrambled into their wetsuits and were running towards the water with their boards. Bucher turned and walked towards the parking lot. He recognized one or two of them and was going to say something, but they were so intent on getting in the water that they barely nodded to him. He just smiled at the instant crowd about to burst the bubble of what had just been a surfer’s dream. They would be getting some great waves, but he’d had his share for the day. And he had more important things to do.

“Morning Kenny, how was it?”

“Uh, pretty good, I guess. And I got some photos.”

“That’s so amazing you surf and - - Good morning OSOM, how can I direct your call? Certainly, I’ll put you right through.”

Chip Bell punched four numbers on the key pad and spoke briefly into his headset. He had worked the front desk at OSOM practically since day one. He spoke fluent Spanish, French and German and could handle calls from around the world like an automatic transmission. He did not fit the stereotype of a receptionist, with his long hair and tattooed forearms, but there was no one better at the job, and his perfect attendance allowed him to build up enough vacation time to crew on two Regattas, and he’d be going again this year. He put the call through and turned his attention back to Ken Bucher.

“Yeah, so you got good photos. Bring ‘em in when they get - - Good morning, OSOM, ah, Guten Tag Frau Kistenberg, wie gehts?”

Bucher knew from experience that talking to Bell when he was on-shift was at best hit-and-miss. He sat down on a couch across the room and opened his briefcase. He extracted the manila envelopes containing his paperwork, and then carefully addressed them to P. McRane, Membership Director and Crew Coordinator. He made sure his handwriting was large and legible, and labeled the envelope, “Candidacy documents for Kenneth Bucher.” ell was still speaking German into his headset, so Bucher placed the envelope on the desk. Bell glanced at it and gave Bucher a thumbs up without missing a beat of the conversation.

Walking out of the lobby, Ken Bucher looked across the street. The offshore wind was dying, but the surf was probably still really good. He gave half-a-thought to another go-out, but with three more cars in the lot he knew his surfing was done for the day. He had some time to kill before the orientation, so he walked to his VW van to stretch out in the back and shift his focus from being a great surfer riding some of California’s best waves to the challenge of being a humble greenhorn hoping to ship out on a voyage where the surfing was of an entirely different realm by orders of magnitude.


Friday, March 09, 2007

Waves of Warning 17

Dog Days in the South Seas

[ WOW17.pdf ]

David Helmares pulled the large chunk of coral up hand over hand. The night fishing had been miserable and the early morning sun getting hotter by the minute. The oppressive humidity of February in the Nebula Archipelago reminded him of teaching summer school in East L.A. with no air conditioning. He remembered how, as soon as the final bell rang, he and his students would run out the door and within minutes he’d be on his escape route down the freeway to the beach. He smiled thinly to himself because now there was no escape on a dog day.

Across the channel he saw a set of four beautiful waves peeling along a distant reef. It occurred to him he was actually not much of a surfer anymore and that he could not surf the waves that were so beautiful and yet so out of reach. He had to be back in a few hours because he had to teach school all day, and he realized he might never get to surf them with his responsibilities as a father and navigator increasing all the time.

With a final heave the coral anchor came up on board and the outrigger began to drift through the channel. But instead of raising sail, David sat down and watched the perfect waves in the distance. He thought of the selfdiscipline he’d mastered as Taveka’s apprentice, and for the moment he purposefully ignored it. He emptied his mind of all he’d learned, and within seconds a wave of self-doubt washed through his mind when he thought of his life as being little more than a wandering drift rather than a well-chosen path.

He did not think of the sincerity of the Maruleans’ respect for him. He did not think of the trust he’d earned. He did not remind himself that that there was no reason to second guess Taveka’s faith in him. He did not let these thoughts enter his mind, because there was a reason to question himself deeply, and he knew exactly what it was.

He looked at a vision of surfing’s ultimate dream waves and knew no one had ever seen them through a surfer’s eyes . That fact prompted a single thought so insistent and invasive that he could no longer avoid where his mind was going. Maybe he couldn’t ride them right now, but those were his waves, and his alone. The thought flowed easily through him, and he felt comfortable for an instant until, just as it had at when he saw the flash in the sky at Ka’unua, a storm of black and selfish emotion flooded through him. The same rage filled him as he imagined surfers invading HIS world and polluting HIS waves with conflict. Familiar screams of anger began to well up in him, only to be swallowed in shame when he remembered he hadn’t told the elders about what happened when he saw the plane fly over Ka’unua.

He closed his eyes, and it was only when he could no longer see the waves did his mind begin to slowly clear and find new thoughts to heal itself. Acknowledgment. Confession. Forgiveness. Trust. Love. He stood up and opened his eyes. He would tell his wife about what happened at Ka’unua.

Then he would tell Taveka. And then he would tell the elders. He pulled on the sheet, and the mainsail began to rise up the mast. The fishing craft caught the trade wind immediately. David tied off the lines and quickly stepped back to the tiller to bring her around. He steered away from the reef and set his course.

“You’ve made a serious mistake, David,” said Luan, breastfeeding their daughter while David played quietly with their son, “When Kalala said to tell them everything, you didn’t. Instead you deceived her, and the elders, and my father. This just may change everything for us David, you know.”

“Except we love each other and we love these two.”

“Yes, except for that. But who knows, maybe I’ll be looking for daycare for them in Santa Monica if the elders decide you are not worthy of being our chief navigator. The elders don’t take things like this lightly, I can tell you. So get going, David, or you’ll be late for your students. And then after school you have to go see the principal.”

“I know, I’m in trouble again, just like I always was back in Los Angeles,” he said with a bit of a laugh.

“That’s right David, except this time it’s not a matter of paper work or policies. This is very serious, David,” she said, “And nothing to laugh about.”

“Why did you tell me today?”

“Because when I saw such perfect waves and realized no one else had ever seen them, I had the same selfish emotion run through me that I felt seeing that plane at Ka’unua.”

Taveka broke eye contact with David and looked out across the lagoon to the horizon where a bank of clouds was turning purple in the setting sun. The two men sat in the sand for another five minutes without a word passing between them. Then Taveka stood up.

“Your mistake was not in hiding what happened at Ka’unua. Your mistake was waiting for life to unfold and push you to reflect on it. As a navigator, you are always going to make mistakes. Only if you recognize them honestly can you adjust your course and get to your destination. The error lies in ignoring them in the hope they go away. Of course, David, they never do.”

“Can they ever be undone?”

“No. You can only change course.”

“What about forgiveness?”

“As opposed to what, guilt? Guilt has no currency with a navigator. It is not a truly human emotion. It is a violent act to induce it in others, expect it from others, or inflict it upon yourself. Guilt is not the same as conscience. We Maruleans understand the difference.

“David, every man has something inside him that he’d rather forget, but if he’s lucky he never will because it will often be what keeps him honest. I was wondering what that would be for you, and now you’ve told me. You have it in you to be selfish, arrogant, and maybe even violent. That’s not unusual, but in your case, the question is all in the name of what? Some momentary pleasure?”

“I never thought of ‘localism’ in surfing using those terms, but - - -“

“But what? You know better than to use that word with me. What are you really saying, David?”

“I never thought of surfers and their selfishness as being anything more than common immaturity. After what happened at Ka’unua, I began to wonder if there is something more insidious about it, something deeper. Then after seeing perfect waves this morning, it was triggered all over again. Even after all I’ve learned from you, it is still there.”

“David, you’re a history teacher. What do you think was the most violent confrontation ever between human beings?”

“I don’t know, Taveka, that’s a pretty big question. Maybe the rape of Nanking by Japanese soldiers?”

David had struck a never, but Taveka’s face revealed nothing.

“No. Think about surfing, David, think about selfishness, about invaders, about what do you call them, locals? Think, David. “I know. The Battle of Stalingrad.”


“The German invaders trying destroy the Russians fighting for their homeland.”

“And what made it unique?”

“Hand-to-hand savagery that lasted for months. They fought over a concrete wall, a room, a courtyard, and the frozen dead were stacked like cordwood. Hitler challenged the pride of the German army by shaming them into a battle they could not win. Stalin gave orders that there would be no retreat, and the Russian soldiers were followed into battle by blocking squads. If any of the front line troops turned and tried to retreat, they were shot by their own countrymen.”

“And why did this battle take place?”

“Okay, I see your point. So am I Adolph Hitle r or Josef Stalin?”

“Neither, because you’ve never murdered another human being.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because I would know if you had.”


“Because, as the cliché goes, it takes one to know one.”

David was now very uncomfortable. During his years of training to become a navigator, he had been put through wringers by his mentor, and he had always emerged with the nonsense squeezed out of him and feeling better for the experience. He was not sure that would happen this time.

“So many people around the world like to think of Polynesia as a paradise, a place for exotic, romantic adventure. They easily forget the fratricide, infanticide, internecine warfare, and human sacrifice which not long ago were as much a part of Polynesia as palm trees and lagoons full of colorful fish. David, there is a thread that ties every human being to every other human being. It is the ability to commit murder or destroy in another any part of their essential human spirit.

“David, when you saw those waves, and when you saw that plane, and when you didn’t tell us everything about your experience at Ka’unua, you were being tied up by that thread running through you. You failed a test of character in your own eyes. David, there are much more telling tests of the soul. You did not have that thread become a steel cable. That’s the real test, David, the test most difficult to pass, because that’s what happens when murder makes sense. It may never happen to you, but it happened to me, and I failed that test.”

Taveka was silent for several very long minutes. David lost track of the time, his mind empty except for Taveka’s words. Then the chief navigator of the Marulean sea people spoke again.

“I killed a man once, and then I killed again, and then again. It was during the war, they were the enemy, but it was not combat. It was murder. You have not crossed that threshold, and you probably never will. Yet your character is flawed in a way that has shocked you. David, there is no way to alleviate that. You must carry it with you, as I have done. And that is conscience. For you it is but a common thread of humanity. But for me it is a woven steel mesh net from which I’ll never escape because nobody knows what I did but me.

“So here we are, two brothers in deceit, each with something inside him that would blow our worlds apart in the light of day. I’ve kept my secret to myself, David, and I suggest you do the same. The elders don’t need to know what happened at Ka’unua because you will remember it every time you see a perfect wave. Every time you see what you’ve always dreamed of, you will remember the curse of your one failure . I know what I am talking about, David, because it happens to me every time I see a little boy.”

The sky was almost completely dark. Venus and Mars were visible, as were the brighter stars of the Southern sky. A bare rustle of a breeze came across the lagoon. Taveka’s words hung in the thick, damp air. There was no wind to blow them away.

But David was blown away. He opened his mouth and a question formed on his lips, but he was quickly silenced by Taveka.

“I know what you are thinking, David. You want to know what happened during the war. You want to know more about who I am, as if that will somehow help you when I’m gone.”

“Yes, Taveka. I want to know what happened because it seems to be very important.”

“For you it will never be important. You have your own memories to haunt you, the ghosts of your past you wish would go away. You don’t need to meet mine.”

The two men were now almost invisible to each other except for the faint glow from the warm lights of the village coming through the palm trees.

“Tell me, David, have you ever witnessed a death?”

“No, I haven’t. I saw corpses in El Salvador, and I’ve been to funerals and read eulogies.”

“Well, there is nothing I can tell you about it. Nobody can tell anyone about death, I think. You will see mine before long, and it will be partly due to you. You are part of what will kill me, David, because I could not ready myself for Ka’unua until my successor had been identified.”

He paused and saw the tears behind David’s downcast eyes.

“Strange, is it not? That an enlightened people, as we Maruleans like to think of ourselves, would have an important tradition dependent on the thread that binds all humans together? For you it takes the form of rage about waves. For us, it is death at the hands of another.”

Taveka patted the necklace beneath his shirt.

“The chain of navigators is that thread. I will die because of your actions, because you successfully proved yourself worthy. All your self-discipline, all your courage, all your dedication, and in the end I will die because of it. So what does that tell you about guilt?”

Taveka waited for David’s true spirit to come through, and his heart was gladdened when it did.

“Fuggedaboutit!” David laughed ruefully at the old New York saying.

“Right!” exclaimed Taveka with a huge smile, “You will not be a stronger man if guilt is your response to your failing. Conscience does not thrive on guilt. It can only become stronger with love. David, if you are to be the navigator our people need, you will need strength beyond your imagination. You will find it, as I have, if you do not shy away from your failings. Conscience quickens your resolve and steels your determination if it is driven by love, not guilt.”

“Surprising words from a murderer,” said David without thinking.

“Ah, your soul speaks again! Good! You really are the man to succeed me, David,” said Taveka, rising to his feet.

“And as for me being a murderer, understand that what you are aware of from this conversation about what I did in the war has nothing to do with Luan’s mother dying at her birth. Yet I was also the cause of her death, David. Had we not conceived a child, she would not have died, and when I lost her I breathed the poison of guilt until it almost suffocated me. But God gave me a child to love, and that was my way out of the trap of guilt that could have killed me. But as for the blood on my hands from the war, I keep it close to my heart to this very day because it keeps me honest.”

David was ready to stand up, but the sight of Taveka’s profile kept him on his haunches . A half moon was above the navigator in the deepening blue of a clear night sky. For a moment Helmares saw his mentor as a man possessing a wisdom that has been sought be people from time immemorial.

“Taveka, I wish there was a way to share all your knowledge with the rest of the world.”

The mentor turned, looked at his apprentice and could barely keep from laughing at the words.

“Well, David, that is very nice of you, and thanks for the compliment. But I had my fill of the outside world during the war, and it is hard enough just to hold on to my own path, and be who I am to my people, without trying to be a guide for total strangers. I’ve done that once with you, and that’s been more than enough for one old man to handle, thank you!”

Helmares laughed. “Yes, I guess you are right, Taveka.”

The Marulean navigator put his arm around the Californian surfer.

“Of course, the idea of going on tour like some kind of traveling mystic does have some appeal,” he said with a hearty laugh, “if it’s all expenses paid! Problem is, I’ve got a more important destination in my immediate future now that you are chief navigator. So the world will have to somehow survive without me. Speaking of surviving, did you catch any fish last night? And what are my grandchildren going to eat for dinner?”