Thicker Than Water

A guest aboard Roger Henry brings added meaning to the Simons' cruise through Fiji. From The Roger Henry Files for our September 30, 2010, CW Reckonings

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Alvah and his nephew Stephen absorb the fijian culture with some stylish hats and a fresh mahi mahi.Diana And Alvah Simon

My wife, Diana, and I seldom have guests onboard our cutter, Roger Henry. First because our boat is only 36-feet long, and doesn't offer the commodious accommodations most modern people have become accustomed. And living together in tight quarters, especially in remote areas or at sea, requires a certain skill set not the least of which is a generous tolerance for the foibles of others, a sharp eye for opportunities to not share one's opinions, however correct or profound, and being able to maintain one's sense of humor when severely tested by the sea.

We must be turning sentimental of late for we find ourselves accepting more of the many self-invitations we receive. One would think that the quick tourist-like turnaround of the pink skin and pinacolada variety would be the best visits for us, but I do not find it so. These guests have limited time, making it precious, and that alone puts a pressure on me to be sure the winds are fair, the skies blue and the fish biting. They inevitably have a plane to catch and darn if Nature doesn't petulantly refuse to conform to commercial date and deadline. Also, they are "on vacation" and this is an anathema to me, as we are "on an adventure" and these are two different mindsets.

Over two years ago, my nephew, Stephen, then teaching in Salt Lake City, wrote to ask me if he could join us for an extended cruise onboard Roger Henry. Maybe he has been reading my blogs for clues as to just the right words to say. "Uncle Alvah," he wrote, " I want to quit my job, learn to sail, and go on a great adventure with you."

A great start. Nevertheless, I said no. No family, even one as large as mine, can tolerate two black sheep. Also, I was not sure how I would explain to my sister Suzanne, his mother, why it should be viewed as a splendid idea that her son, who had spent five years in college preparing himself for a productive and responsible life, then gained a further five years of valuable work experience, should now throw it all away to join his sea-bum uncle for a vaguely defined time and destination. Throw in a little rum and some island girls and she might rightfully find some cause for concern

But Stephen was not to be deterred. He hung in on the job another year but kept the petition alive. I admire persistence, but probably more influential in this case is the fact that for all our blessings, Diana and I have no children. Through thirty-some years and a host of truly grand adventures I have accumulated some valuable seafaring experience, I hope some knowledge of our world and perhaps even a kernel or two of wisdom. Of late I find I have this urge to pass this on to someone, to share my passion for the sea, hard travel, and the outdoor life. He caught me at just the right time and I acquiesced.

I didn't want his first sea experience to be the rambunctious Straits of Juan de Fuca or a twenty some day blue-water passage in higher latitudes. If he suffered severely from seasickness, relief would be an eternity away in Hawaii. We agreed that Diana and I would get the boat through Hawaii, Palmyra, Samoa, Wallis and on to Fiji. Here he would join us for an extended cruise of the islands, and IF he took to the nautical life, join us for the demanding offshore passage to New Zealand.

This put Diana and I on a deadline, so we couldn't linger long in Samoa or Wallis. In fact we made Savusavu, on Vanua Levu in Fiji just three days before Steve's arrival. Through the hectic process of maintenance, provisioning, and trying to carve out some space for him, I began to have second thoughts. I mean, as my nephew I have to love him, but will I like him? How will several months of living together in the space of a normal closet work out? What if he holds opposing and therefore, by nature, completely incorrect political views? Or worse yet, what if when I pour a wee tipple into my coconut he admonishes, "Uncle Alvah, your body is a temple of the Lord and Thou shalt not desecrate it."

I need not have worried. He arrived at the Savusavu Yacht Club Bar with a big smile and without a hard suitcase, always a good first sign. After hugging his Aunt Diana hello, he handed me a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label Whiskey as a thank you present. And here I was worried about the youth of America!

His politics turn out to be radical but well considered, and I'm enjoying our arguments as much as our agreements. His cooking skills, well… let's just say that they are a testament to his mother's loving care, but he jumps up to wash the dishes directly after a meal.

By day two he could tie a bowline, and the apparent Gordian knot of lines onboard no longer seem to confuse him. He took a scuba certification course his first week and has taken to the water with a natural aplomb. This is fortunate, for we're deeply interested in the oceans and a good deal of our time is spent underwater. On our second or third free dive together a strange thing happened. I swam into an underwater cave and saw an enormous spiny lobster staring back at me. Normally I would have had him in the bag in a flash, but I hesitated, swam out of the cave and resurfaced. I told Stephen where the lobster was and how to approach it. Seeing him come out of that cave with a big smile and a thumbs-up sign gave me more pleasure than if I had taken the beast myself. I felt something akin to paternal pride. So, thinking it was my role to offer him new experiences, it seems I am getting a few new ones myself.

Yesterday he shot a nice grouper for dinner and made no big deal over the two sharks that were following him. I like that. Now if I can just teach him to trim a sail properly.

But here's the important part. I've watched him interact with the Fijians as we cruise towards the northeastern atolls. He has been respectful and interested in their lives, and they sense it and respond to him well. He does not show the typical one-upsmanship of a "First World" citizen, where everything is bigger and better. He takes Fiji as it is, not comparing here to there, and this is the essence of successful travel.

He sat in on our first sevusevu ceremony where we presented the village chief with yaqona, the narcotic root that is pounded into the soporific drink kava, and ceremoniously drunk throughout Fiji. If the chief accepts the package of dried roots, it's a sign that we are welcome to anchor, hike, and fish in his region, and that we now come under the protection of his village.

Stephen is getting to experience another culture in some depth, coming to know more about their land and lives, and even if he never walks the deck of another boat again, I feel this voyage will prove a valuable experience for him.

As for my sister Suzanne's concern for the future of her youngest son, should I remind her that I ran away to sea at much the same age, with no plan, profession or prospect, and look how I turned out….. O.K., forget that.