The Recovery of Wanderer III part II
Part II: In the finale of this two-part series, a network of friends- plus a lighthearted Italian connection-all rise to the occasion. A feature from our March 2010 issue
Just like Bill Sellers' yacht but gaff rigged and only 24 feet long, Luca's plywood Kigaridu was a self-built, engineless cutter. To be close to the universe, Luca had surfed her the length of the Southern Ocean, from Cape Horn to New Zealand, with a stop in Cape Town, South Africa, where he'd surfed with Rastafarians instead. They'd taught him much of his English, which was colorful. Luca was a free-spirited Italian, full of crazy energy, and he knew only one rule: Boil pasta for seven minutes and no longer. Over perfect al dente spaghetti, we soon hatched a nearly sensible plan. He could weld; I knew wood. Why not make an instant company? It never really took off. But, as Italians do, in his first days he met with other Italians. One, Antonio, had just arrived from Italy to check on the repairs made to his cyclone-damaged yacht. There were problems with the joiners he'd hired; they were having troubles with laminates.
"Be at the café at 10 a.m.," Luca suggested. "They'll meet me there. Just happen to pass by."
Our scheme worked. The joiners were losing money and were happy to get out of it. Antonio was happy for me to get in. I got the job to rebuild his fancy interior. What a relief. A basis to our recovery was found. That on a French island the help came almost entirely from Italians added a welcome dose of light-heartedness.
In a magical way, the Italian connection even extended to a cheaper country and to another Antonio-our good friend Antonio Pasquale, in New Zealand. Kicki and I knew of his preparations for a winter cruise into the islands on his cargo-carrying cutter, so we contacted him. Fiji or Nouvelle-Calédonie? What mattered to him was a sail to the sun. "So why not come here?" we asked him. "We'll send you a list." And we did.
The list included copper sheathing, copper nails, roves and rods of varying sizes, nickel-aluminum rods for bolts, with washers and nuts, whiting, red lead, tar felt, and a huge piece of greenheart for the new deadwood. All these odd things weren't to be found in Nouméa and were to disappear into our small wooden boat, Kicki explained to the customs officials. Could the import duty perhaps be waived?
While Antonio was spending money in New Zealand and stuffing his boat with our things, we lived a well-practiced life of frugality and focus in the most un-Italian-like manner. No splurging on wine or fruit, no random croissants in cafés. It was all work from dawn to dusk until the bills could be paid. And, I knew, it would have to be like this until Wanderer III again could be sailed.
Meanwhile, it was Kicki's job to keep a keen lookout for Nouméa's two most elusive phenomena: a suitable boatyard where we could do the repairs ourselves, and Monsieur Gallo. One day, a month after we'd last seen him, she finally tracked him down, and we met for coffee and cake. His tug kept him busy, he said, but even more so did his orchids. Wanderer III's towing harness, rigged through the prop's aperture and so essential for a harmless distribution of forces, had impressed him. With his burnt red face and a scar clean across his throat, he spoke softly. Willard, his skipper, didn't want to be paid.
"But I will have to charge you," he continued, as if excusing himself. "I won't charge you extra for Sunday and I'll give you a 20-percent discount." Over a second coffee, we called him Frank and listened to his story of arriving penniless in Nouméa many years ago, from-of course-Italy. We still hadn't learned what we owed him.
My most dreaded thought during the two months we had to wait until Antonio's arrival was that we were doomed to face the frigid restrictions of Nouméa's main yachting hardstand. Here one wasn't even allowed to leave a paintbrush out overnight. More worrisome to us were the strong daytime breezes that howled across the concrete surfaces in the boatyard, prompting locals to position boats low on blocks. Unavailable were shelter, extra timbers, wedges, or anything else that one might need to fix the keel on a wooden boat. And at the very least, our use of tar between the planking and copper sheathing was destined to blow the manager's fuse. This wasn't a place for methods from the Middle Ages. Nor did such a place seem to exist, we thought-until Kicki struck gold, at the end of the Ducos peninsula, 15 kilometers from town.
Here a non-Italian, a boatbuilder from Île Wallis, or Ueva, owned the only adequate slipway. His name was Polelei, Polynesian for "beautiful night." The place lived up to his name. There was no electricity, and the slipway would be plunged into darkness with the setting of the sun. And if there was any beauty, it was probably visible only to a very few. One of them was me. I saw all the important things, the possibility to access the keel bolts and the ability to easily reposition the boat. And I saw the sea, the shade, and the solitude.
Polelei's old aunt lived here in a tiny hut, in Polynesian contentedness at the end of a road inhabited mainly by dogs. Every so often, the dust of the cement factory added to the layer of filth carried across from the nickel plant, and the coastline was strewn with industrial rubble and sunken wrecks. But I immediately grasped the unfettered haven it could be for us. I said, "That's it, perfect. We'll do it here."
As soon as materials arrived, we hauled Wanderer III at Polelei's. Luca picked up a nearby mooring. With the Hiscocks' 1965 jib stretched as a sunshade over the scene, we got going. In exchange for spaghetti with good red wine, Luca joined us as much more than just a helping hand. It was great moral support to be three in number.
"Don't be so Northern," he chided when he saw me set to work at the crack of dawn. "Start the day with yoga." So most dawns, we did. Then we slaved away by day and listened to the dogs at night. Soon invitations came from over the fence to indulge in a bêche-de-mer. Somebody showed up with a generator, others with baguettes or a bottle of wine or just curiosity. And Luigi, who'd turned our new bolts, regularly added to the Italian flavor with fresh basil leaves that grew in front of his workshop. Beautiful Night's spot was our place under the sun for five full weeks. Then we needed an unintended sixth and final week to mend Luca's boat, which, one dramatic night, broke Polelei's mooring only to hit the one sandy spot on a shoreline otherwise bristling with steel girders.
Bits and pieces of Wanderer III that had been part of her since before my time were removed. Her old frames and floors had already been replaced in the refit. For safekeeping, the Hiscocks' mainsail from 1965 was left with Bill Sellers, who took it to New Zealand. But dearest to me was the tiller, with its small plaque from Cocos Keeling, dating from 1961. It had broken while pounding on the reef, just as the Hiscocks' tiller had when they were stranded on a reef in the Arnhem Land region of northern Australia, not long after they'd voyaged there. I shaped our new one, as had been done 42 years earlier, of local timber, a sort of souvenir of the place.
After five months in Nouméa, we'd lost our window to sail to China. Instead, cyclone season was making itself felt. I was keen to get out of it. The last cyclone over Nouméa had given me work twice: by damaging the light that failed to guide us through the reefs, and by downing Antonio's yacht. All I really wanted to do was read, for the rest of my life. So we slipped back southward, to Tasmania, for a solid shakedown cruise.
Not all that long ago, during Wanderer III's recent refit, when I'd nibbled away at her old frames in New Zealand, I had dreamed, one wet night, of nearby mangrove trees growing through her hull. I was struck by this nightmarish image as one of loss and eternal immobility, but also of nature taking things back.
How can you measure, over a period of 56 years and 280,000 miles sailed, the amount of human effort, good will, and luck that have gone into Wanderer III's 30 feet to keep the mangroves out? Or, for that matter, the reefs?
Monsieur Gallo had said, "You've had a good God." And I know: We'd met on a Sunday.
Thies Matzen and Kicki Ericson are cruising again aboard Wanderer III in the South Atlantic Ocean, where they've spent the last year.