wanderer III timber 368
Our recovery from a near-disastrous stranding was to prove just the beginning of a remarkable encounter with human goodness. Twelve hours ago, with a heart-wrenching pounding in our ears, my wife, Kicki Ericson, and I had left Wanderer III, formerly owned by Eric and Susan Hiscock, on a Nouvelle-Calédonie reef in the belief that she might be lost. Instead, elated and incredulous, we were now in our cockpit raising a glass of Glenfiddich with Willard and Monsieur Gallo. Their tug had just pulled us free and all the way here, to Nouméa, the capital of Nouvelle-Calédonie. “You won’t be going anywhere. Sort yourselves out,” Monsieur Gallo said. Our understanding was immediate: no pretense, and no papers to sign.
“I’ll find you,” he added before he left. However, we wouldn’t see him for more than a month.
An unlikely chain of events had led us to Monsieur Gallo: When the Gendarmerie Maritime themselves hit the reef during rescue efforts, the consequences catapulted Kicki to Nouméa, where the local night guard at the port took her on a dramatic search for a tug; she was fortunate to find two employees of the main tug company who were adept at thinking outside the box on a day when the offices were closed.
Imagine what would have happened if Kicki hadn’t arrived on a lazy early Sunday morning but on a Monday, with tug directors at their desks. Paperwork would have piled high with financial-bond requests and negotiated claims; half of our lives would have been signed away and, no doubt, several zeros opportunely added to what ever fee we’d incur. At that moment, for us, it was any tug at any cost. Of course, we might then have gasped, but we’d never have complained-if only we got Wanderer III back. And everyone would have said, “Oh, well, that’s what it costs. Plus you received a tow, and it took eight hours.” But, luckily for us, it was Sunday, and it was a person such as Monsieur Gallo who came to our rescue.
At the yacht anchorage close to Port Moselle, tidbits about our disaster had been picked up on the VHF. Bill Sellers came rowing over in his Norwegian faering, effortlessly covering the mile across Nouméa’s harbor. Despite many mutual friends, we’d never met, but we knew he was here, carving and selling his scrimshaw. He asked what we needed the most.
“Anchors,” I said. He rowed away and returned with a cyclone-proof fisherman. We’d left ours behind on the reef at Isle Amédée, 14 miles away. He offered to sail out with us to dive on them. His wooden 38-footer probably was the only yacht around without an engine. “Great!” I said. We needed them back. “Tomorrow,” we agreed.
For our immediate future, retrieving the anchors seemed the nicest part. But before Bill and I could get a plan in motion, a note reached me the next morning: The anchors had been delivered, it said, all four of them, including the chain. Claude and his son, who on a weekend sail had anchored their catamaran behind the reef at Amédée where we’d struck, had retrieved all of our gear and brought it to Nouméa. No name, address, or contact number was attached, only kindness. We were overwhelmed. Such unbelievable gestures of support had come within 24 hours. This generosity carried us through the first few days, until we came up against some hard facts.
Nouméa is a forbiddingly expensive place, the most costly in the Pacific. En route to China, with our resources completely drained from a two-year refit in New Zealand, we’d sailed here to earn, not to spend. Ten years ago, opportunities for work had leaped at us within half an hour of clearing customs. Arriving now with lofty bills in tow, we needed that to happen again, desperately. And it didn’t.
As to how great the bills actually were, we were clueless. We had absolute faith that Monsieur Gallo would charge us the fairest possible amount. But we fell over backward at the sight of the price tags in the local marine chandleries.
To get an idea of how big a muddle we were in, we needed to assess the damage. For US$200 dollars, during a lunch break, we had Wanderer III suspended in the slings of a Travelift. The copper sheathing was shredded, but her planks had been spared from the worst of the scraping. The deadwood was very badly chewed up, the ballast keel beaten, a plank cracked from a puncture, the rudder a total rebuild. Beyond this, there was no easy telling what the pounding had done to the fastenings, through-bolts, and rigging. Unbelievably, she was taking on no water, and miraculously, her planking showed no cracks in the paint inside. The new frames we’d installed in New Zealand had kept her alive. We splashed antifouling on the barren spots to protect against worms and had Wanderer III back in the water after lunch.
The amount of work I’d created for us stood in stark contrast to the work on offer. There was just none to be found. Not, at least, given my lack of French and the state of my lameness from overstretching muscles on the reef. How could we find our way out of this? Within a week, the prelude to a solution came sailing in, tacking his way up the harbor. It was Luca on Kigaridu.
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.