“A navigator is never trapped.”
The afternoon tradewinds blew warmly from the southeast. Taveka trimmed his sail and sighted down a broad passage through two reefs. The southwest swells rolled under his voyaging craft with a steady motion. At this rate he would be home just after dark. Now that David had succeeded him as chief navigator of the Maruleans, he did not have to take part in the preparations for the rituals marking the beginning of winter. With nothing to do, he did as he pleased. He went sailing off in a random direction, and when he found what he was looking for, he went surfing.
He found fun waves to surf at a remote shoal near the far edge of the fishing grounds, leaving him to think about what life might have been like for him had he started surfing as a young man. He thought of what David had told him about Rabbit Kekai and Woody Harrison, men who had begun surfing before World War Two and continued to ride waves well into their nineties. Like them, he had discovered the peace of riding waves as a way to stop time. Now he was sailing away from those waves to face the passage of time once again. The only Marulean tradition marking the passage of time was the ceremony of the winter solstice, and this one would be his last.
A strange sensation of melancholy passed through him, like a cross swell slapping the side of a hull. The moment passed quickly. He was a navigator and his mind could pay little heed to such thoughts. His gaze was to the horizon, feeling the wind, current and swells, sensitive to any signs of change.
A dot of color caught his eye far ahead and slightly off his port bow. He maintained course until he was no more than thirty yards away. At first it reminded him of his youth during the war. More often than not a floating lifevest had contained the last remains of a corpse torn apart by sharks. It had always been a grisly task to get the dog tags or anything else that could be used for identification, but he did it by remembering that the anguish of families would be relieved by his retrieving something that could give them closure. And now, even after six decades had past, something inside him prepared for the worst. Then he saw that the lifevest was empty.
He altered course slightly and pulled the vest out of the water. It was not covered with algae or moss. It had not been floating at sea for any great length of time. He considered just how it ended up in these waters given the currents, winds and wave patterns of the Nebula Archipelago at this time of year. Then he remembered what David had seen in the sky over Ka’unua.
As Taveka’s voyaging craft came through the passage, he was surprised to see almost the entire population of the Marulean sea people waiting for him. Normally they would all be at the southern end of the island preparing for the solstice ceremony that would begin in an hour, now that the sun was on the horizon.
He came closer to the shore and a dozen young people swam out to the voyager and scrambled aboard. They surrounded him with hugs and smiles as if he had just returned from a voyage of many years. The craft drifted ever more slowly until its forward hull finally kissed the sand.
Taveka looked at the crowd, all silent yet all smiling at him. Then Kalala stepped out into the water.
“Many thought that maybe you had embarked on your last voyage, Taveka.”
“No, I have yet to see the albatross, Kalala, so I went surfing. How else is an old man supposed to find some peace and quiet around here?” he laughed.
The solemn homecoming quickly dissolved as happy children turned the voyaging craft into a place of play. Some began diving off the stern of the voyaging craft. Others began chasing each other around the decks. One discovered something he’d never seen before and with an innocent curiosity showed it to his friends as he tried to put it on.
“When the time comes, we will all be with you. Now can I ask that you be with us?”
“Of course, Kalala, but first you need to do something about these children!” They both laughed and Kalala clapped her hands. The boy dropped the orange lifevest where he’d found it and with all the others jumped into the warm water before joining his parents. Everyone began walking to where the solstice ceremony would take place at the southern end of the island. Only Taveka’s own family remained behind as he stepped off his craft and came ashore. Luan hugged him and her children wrapped themselves around the legs of their grandfather. He picked up a child in each arm and looked at their father. But David Helmares was eyeing the object on the deck of the voyaging craft.
“David, your place is with the elders. We will talk later,” said Taveka, “Come, Luan, I need to stop at my house before the ceremony.”
They left David standing next to the voyaging craft. He saw the elders following the crowd in the distance. He could catch up to them quickly. He had a few minutes.
The lifevest was of an unusual design. It was similar to what he knew was used for water skiing, but the flotation partitions were narrower and smaller, as if the vest needed to be more flexible. It was surprisingly lightweight, and he felt some hard objects in its storage pockets. He pulled open a velcro flap. Inside was a small round plastic case labeled in white letters embossed on black plastic tape: ‘Contrast Filter – Property of Bobrowesurfphoto.com’.
His mind began to race and his heart felt torn in two. He began to open a second pocket, but then stopped, realizing he’d already learned all he needed to know. He put the case back in the pocket and the vest inside the dome shelter. He knew he could not be distracted before the ceremony. He had chosen a new life with responsibilities to a people living far from the madness of modern civilization, though now much closer than they had once had been.
The next day David found his mentor mending some lashings on his voyaging craft. The fact that its owner’s time was short was no reason for the craft to be allowed to decay. Taveka was as focused as if he had been planning a multi-island long distance voyage of a thousand miles just for the pride of doing so.
David sat down in the sand and watched the aged hands pull strong on the sennit cords. He automatically stepped in to help when an extra hand was needed, then sat back down until a second set of hands was required anew. No words passed between the two men. There was no sense of age, of youth, of teacher, or of student. They were simply two men of the sea with a task at hand needing no explanation. After an hour the work was done. Taveka went around to the prow of the craft. David thought he was getting ready to shove the tri-hulled outrigger out to sea and got up to help. Taveka held up his hand.
“No. For this you cannot help me. She will never touch land again. I must do this alone.”
The job would have been immensely difficult for the two of them. To David it was clearly impossible that Taveka could do it alone. Then David caught himself, knowing it was time to learn yet another lesson from a proud man with a sharp mind.
Taveka sized up the distance to the water. He checked the tether between the canoe and its mooring tree. Then the old navigator went to the village’s common work shed. After a number of trips he had assembled a large cache of small bags, a dozen roller logs, a long, stout pole, and another log about twice the diameter of the rollers. He positioned the rollers around the hulls, and then positioned the lever and fulcrum near the first roller under the forward prow of the main hull. He then a dug a hole in the sand, lined it with a bag, filled it with sand, and then gathered the top into a knot from which he extended a sennit rope. He looped the rope around the end of the lever, and then used his weight to push down on the lever, raising the hull a few inches. He tied off the lever to the rope and positioned the roller beneath the hull.
He repeated the process again and again until his voyaging craft was resting entirely on rollers. He positioned more rollers between the stern and the water’s edge. Each action was, in and of itself, nothing strenuous. Slowly but surely the craft was now made ready to launch.
Taveka stopped and looked at the sun. Then he looked at the water’s edge. The tide had come in almost a foot since he had begun the process. It was not yet at its peak.
“I have time before the tide. Let us talk.”
“Where did you find the lifevest?”
“Where the winds and currents and swell had taken it.”
“Where do you think it came - - -”
Taveka’s look told Helmares the answer. He tried to soften the blow.
“There are two other reefs nearby. Maybe they were not at Ka’unua.”
“And if they were?”
“That will not change what I will do there. And since I myself plan to surf Ka’unua - - -”
Taveka saw the look of surprise on David’s face.
“Why not? I can ride waves. Why wreck a good voyager?”
“But the traditions - - -”
“David, traditions are not the past. The past is dead. Traditions need to be alive, and when we can add something of the present to them, we must. Otherwise we are trapped. And a navigator is never trapped.”
David Helmares looked away to the horizon.
“David, you have decades ahead of you and you will always be challenged by currents of change. You came here seeking refuge from progress, yet even in the short time you’ve been here, it has become harder to fill the fish traps because the waters have risen. There are clouds to the south I have never seen before. The swells are not as constant yet sometimes they are more powerful than I can remember.”
David turned to his mentor.
“I was listening to the BBC last night. There was a story about two speeches made recently by men running the biggest oil companies in the world. They both said the use of oil has reached a point where the momentum cannot be stopped.”
“And what did they propose to do about it?”
“Pump the excess carbon back into the ground.”
“Well, at least they are trying something new.”
Taveka’s tone brought a smile to David’s face.
“Ok, Taveka, I get it. So, you’ll go to Ka’unua when the surf is big?”
“Yes, David. I want to surf those waves, and I want to ride inside them. What better way to end my life?”
Taveka winked at David and they both had to laugh.
“Well, then we’d better pray for surf!”
“Yes, David, maybe it will be the biggest swell of my life. Or at least as big as the waves you saw when you were there.”
“Well, you just might get it, Taveka. It was huge during that swell a moon ago. You know, you sound just like the surfer who once said if he had to die, he would die happily if it could happen in big waves. And he did.”
“Oh, the Hawaiian who drowned in California?”
“How did you know about Mark Foo?”
“Same way you knew about the oil executives. The BBC always gleans these little nuggets that say a lot about the world.”
“Yes, they’d understand the irony of him drowning with dozens of photographers and surfers around,” said Helmares with a wry grin, “I’m sure he didn’t plan it, but at least he died the way he wanted to.”
“As I will, David, so when I don’t come up after my last wave at Ka’unua, don’t try to save me.”
The smile disappeared from David’s face.
“No David, remember I am doing this because it is our way. You and I are connected through my death and you cannot prevent it. There are no alternatives. That’s the way it is David, and we must make our peace with it.”
Taveka knew David understood him perfectly but that there was still something else troubling his former apprentice.
“And if there are other surfers there, try to make your peace with them.”
“Taveka, shouldn’t we be alone for a moment so important to both of us? And what if they - - -”
“What if they what, David? They’ll let me die in peace, won’t they?”
“Taveka, they take over surf spots and run everyone out of the water to film commercials. They hire guards to beat up people who don’t get out of their way for their contests. They are capable of anything.”
“So am I, David, when it comes to life and death, remember? However, since my riding waves at Ka’unua is about MY death, I’m not worried. You’re the one who is going to have to solve the problems they bring with them, not me.”
“And I will, Taveka, one step at a time. Just like you solved the problem of launching your craft.”
Taveka looked at the water’s edge and then looked David in the eye. Without breaking his gaze, he pushed the bow of the craft with a firm motion, launching it effortlessly down the slipway of roller logs into the quiet waters of the lagoon.
“Such is life, and such is death, David. People spend their lives solving problems, and if they are patient and think clearly, solutions present themselves more often than not. That is the proper path for a navigator. And when you get to the end of that path, death is but a simple and effortless motion from one world to another.”
David watched his mentor walk down to the water’s edge, push the craft further out into the lagoon, and leap aboard.
“However, I’m not gone yet, so let’s make sure she doesn’t drift away,” he said, tossing a line to David, “And then I need to eat and rest a little.”
“Yes, you did a lot of work, Taveka.”
“The work wasn’t hard. It’s the talking that gets to me. Let’s go.”