Sea serpents and engine gremlins

August 2016

My fists are clenched tighter than the strands of a monkey fist, as I march upright through the water column like a toy soldier shrink-wrapped in neoprene. I always feel a twinge of nervousness when I dive, and when I’m particularly anxious—like now—I revert to this awkward, inefficient posture that belies the fact that I have more than two dozen dives beneath my belt.

There are venomous snakes in these waters.

Katuali, a flat-tailed sea krait (Laticauda schistorhyncha), is found nowhere in the world, except Niue. In contrast to true sea snakes, kraits return to land for certain reproductive activities. After mating in the sea, the katuali lays her eggs in dry crevasses in Niue’s sea tracks; they take some six months to hatch. 

The virulence of Katuali venom is believed to exceed the cobra. Despite these formidable qualities, they have a small mouth and their fangs are positioned at the back of their throat. Even with a jaw capable of dislocating to open wider, there are few parts of the human body that would make a realistic target, except perhaps the web of flesh between fingers. Hence my clenched fists. The odds of sustaining a bite are extraordinarily unlikely; there is literally no record of a human being bitten on Niue.

I was being ridiculous—cognitively, I knew it—but being a desert rat raised in the land of rattlesnakes, I could not shake the feeling that swimming with snakes was just. not. okay. Niue’s undersea landscape isn’t particularly colorful, but its topography is shapely, with canyons and crevasses, a reflection of the sea tracks we’d explored around the island days prior. In 2004, Cyclone Heta destroyed much of the coral, but over the course of a decade and bit, more had grown and there were plenty of happy hard corals perched atop the limestone mounts. There was also a large variety of fish and sea creatures: saddled butterfly fish; bluefin trevally; threespot dascyllus; white-spotted surgeon fish; black longspine sea urchin; and, best of all, a giant moray eel!Under the sea
Because Niue is an uplifted atoll, with no rivers or beaches to leach sediment into the water, it is pristine.

Together, Neil, Richard, Ursula, Mark, and I dove in warm water as clear as a bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin.

Even though we were near the town of Alofi, between the sea wall and the field of moorings, the visibility stretched all the way to the horizon.

In the 20 countries we would ultimately visit between the US and Australia, Niue won “Best Undersea Visibility” award, hands down.

Roll, roll, roll my boat…
We’d been in Niue for eight days and had been very lucky during that time to enjoy settled weather. Our good fortune became undeniable when conditions changed…

Swell battered The Rock of Polynesia from the southwest, from whence there is not an ounce of earthly protection for 300 nautical miles or more. Conditions persisted for over 24 hours; 12 were particularly miserable. Red Thread rocked wildly from starboard to port, stirring queasy memories of Rapa Nui’s open-roadstead anchorages. As the waves rolled under the boat, the stern slapped the sea like a sumo wrestler bellyflopping into a pool.

I’m lying along the salon table on a teetertotter, my feet pointing to port as we rock to and fro. Toes up-head down; toes up-head down. The sunrise is casting dancing shadows on the cabin walls.

I’m seasick.

Sleep was shit between the noise of the boat and the nonstop motion. With every wave, I’m staring at the horizon through the large deck salon windows, and my nerves chafe a bit rawer. -Jessie, 19 August 2016

Surge walloped Niue’s cliff-strewn shores, causing spumes of mist to burst skyward like fireworks in the morning light. There was beauty, certainly, but it was not at all pleasant. I imagined operating the crane that lifts our dinghies up the seawall to shore would be an adventure later that morning; indeed, it was.These were the moments when cruising aboard a catamaran started to seem appealing. Needless to say, we were more than grateful to accept an invitation for sundowners from David and Amy, a couple of fellow 30-somethings on a gorgeous Fountaine Pajot called s/v Starry Horizons. We’d seen them on AIS a few times, but never met.

Keeping ‘er shipshape
To cruise safely often demands as much time be devoted to the work of boat upkeep and maintenance as to carefree play. Recognizing that a good weather window to sail for Tonga was just a few days away, our attention shifted to boat projects.

One issue had first appeared in 2015 in Central America and kept rearing its ugly head: our starter motor intermittently failed to kick over the engine. Neil had torn it apart and serviced it more than once, and friends had delivered a replacement motor during a visit to Costa Rica. Still, issues persisted in the Galapagos…and during major passages…and in French Polynesia…and here we were again trying in Niue to figure it out. And by we, I mean, Neil. I journaled:

Neil has been hard at work on the starter motor all afternoon, and the boat has been a chorus of swearing and growls for hours. One of Red Thread’s few design flaws is her poor engine access, and what would be a straightforward hour-or-two job on most boats has the potential to drive the Cap’n of the ship into a fit of rage. He’s threatened to sell her, sink her, and burn her thus far.

In all seriousness, I can envision him doing any of the three.

This is terrible on him, and I feel inept; the space is too small and my knowledge too limited. -Jessie, 18 August 2016

Meanwhile, I stared uselessly at a palm-sized hunk of metal in a Ziplock bag filled with rice. We’d replaced the solar regulator just six weeks prior in Papeete, thanks to our dear friends and part mules, Mark and Helen. Unfortunately, when the seas had churned the unprotected mooring field, our kettle had catapulted from the stovetop spilling water across the salon floor and between the floor boards, shorting out the poorly placed regulator beneath the port floor boards.

If we failed to revive it, we’d have to revert back to the days of running the generator multiple times a day to power our systems. So, while Neil chased a gremlin in our iron sail, I prayed over our solar regulator.

The best island you’ve never heard of
Niue proved to be curious and delightful beyond our expectations. Since 1900, Niue has been self-governing in free association with New Zealand, which helps to prop up the small island’s economy. This ensures amenities, like Internet, are available. In fact, Niue is among the only nations globally to provide Internet freely to all citizens. Niue is also one of few countries in the world where people can swim with humpback whales in the wild. Unexpectedly, we found delicious Indian food (a rare treat in Polynesia) at Gill’s Indian Restaurant and savored the best fish ‘n chips of our lives at Falalafa, a restaurant owned by the family of our new friend, Fiafia. The island boasts incredible topography, magnificent marine life, and interesting art installations at Hikulagi Sculpture Park. It was impossible to explore the small island’s many sea tracks in just a couple days, and we barely caught a glimpse of the interesting undersea landscape. When we return someday, we hope to scuba with the local dive operation and see places like Bubble Cave and Snake Canyon and to spend more time with Fiafia learning about Niuean culture and humpback whales.

Some sailors foolishly see Niue as an island worth skipping or just a pit stop between French Polynesia and Tonga. Don’t be those sailors. The Rock of the Pacific is a tremendous destination all of its own and unlike any other along the fabled coconut milk run.

5 thoughts on “Sea serpents and engine gremlins

  1. Pingback: Two fish and one existential crisis | s/v The Red Thread

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