Out to sea
There are easier ways to get to Easter Island than aboard a slowly-sinking 60-foot bundle of reeds, but few are quite as eventful.
As the first grey streaks of dawn appeared on the horizon, the island finally revealed itself.
We heard it first, a sort of distant hiss - then as a grainy undark insinuated itself across the cratered water, we saw the end of our journey. Huge cliffs rose vertically from a seething ocean. I had imagined a tropical outpost furred with greenery and palms, but this was more primeval.
Above the cliffs, slopes of sparse, tough-looking vegetation gave Rapa Nui - or Easter Island, as outsiders had christened it - an oddly Scottish look. At the crest of one of the cliffs, it was possible to make out a line of what looked like stone pillars - our first glimpse of the island’s mysterious moai statues, tall as tenements, which guard its coasts. For now they remained dark shadows, unlit by the sun. Then as the first rays of weak sun filtered over the horizon, the cold greys warmed to rich browns, the monolithic rock grew shadowy wrinkles.
Erik was beginning to stir in his sleeping bag on the cabin roof. "I’ve waited a long time for this moment," murmured our Aymara navigator, resident architect of our trusty, improbable vessel of rope and bundled reeds. "All we’ve got to do now is get ashore."
This looked like the hardest part. There was nowhere remotely welcoming for incoming vessels to land. We continued sailing more or less parallel to the south coast of the island, perhaps three miles offshore, as the rest of the crew gradually surfaced, struck silent by the enormity of their dreams suddenly made solid, towering dark and volcanic before them. If we lost steering ability here, or even for some reason lost control of our single sail, the result could be catastrophic. With a strong southeast wind blowing onshore, we would have little time to avoid shipwreck.
As the southern coast of Easter Island scrolled past, captain Phil ordered a thorough clean of the boat in preparation for visitors. This was no small task, I realised, looking around me. The little galley was the worst. After 44 days at sea, the floor didn’t so much need scrubbing as excavating. Even the walls had a kind of pebbledash effect left over from the day the pressure cooker had sprayed Greg’s bean hotpot all over him. I did a final batch of washing up, amused at the pathetic inventory of dented pans, orphaned lids, and scuffed plates.
While we worked, Marco switched on Rapa Nui FM and we found ourselves listening to the island’s main Catholic Mass, seemingly broadcast live from the church. A passionate yet somehow plaintive hymn rang out, sung in close harmony by what sounded like hundreds of people, and accompanied on a mixture of guitar and accordion, with some drumming in the background. A-ley-loo! A-ley-loo-yah!
Between us and our intended haven of Hanga Roa lay a dark and jagged fin of rock, rising from the ocean some 800 metres from the southwestern corner of the island, and two interconnected islets another 300 metres further out.
We knew these from our reading: Motu Iti and Motu Nui, the focal point for the annual birdman festival. The island’s strongest men had climbed down the cliffs from the settlement of Orongo, high above our heads, and swam across to the islands, competing to bring back the year’s first egg of the sooty tern, intact. It had been a riotous affair. Once proclaimed the birdman, the winner could send his followers out to ransack the homes of all the other islanders, and competitors were regularly taken by sharks as they battled across the narrow channel with only small reed rafts for buoyancy.
Now, nearly 150 years after the last festival, and on a somewhat larger raft, we were to sail through the same strait in a last test of our seamanship. Which meant we had to change the sail one final time. In theory it was simple enough. Fumbling with the reefing knots, however, I began to have my doubts. The wind was both strong and impetuous, blowing in sudden gusts that yanked the furled edge of the sail away from our struggling fingers. "Hold them!" yelled Phil, as the sail began to flap and jerk.
We each let our own rope out slowly, leaning our body weight against it. The jerking increased, as if the ballooning sail sensed its chance to escape, and I lost my footing. It was as I put out my hand to steady myself that I inadvertently let go of the rope. Marco yelped angrily as it whipped past his face in the wind, and he too let go, which left only Carlos.
"Ayúdame! Help me!" he yelled, trying vainly to restrain the sail. I jumped up to try and catch one of the ropes, but they were flailing about like circus whips, each one a potential noose. Carlos’s body jerked as he was dragged sideways, until he too was forced to let go. We watched in alarm as the ropes thrashed themselves into an impenetrable tangle against the thick rope connecting the masthead with the bow there.
"Dammit! We forgot to loosen the main stay!" yelled Phil, rushing forward to help.
"What do I do now?" came the voice of Greg, faintly, from the helm.
"Just try and keep us pointing at the channel!"
The wind whistled around our ears, warning that all this was folly. We tried to restrain the sail edge while Jorge’s muscled fingers worked furiously at the knots. This produced a kind of anarchic tango-for-six as a clump of us stumbled backwards and forwards around the deck. Marco was growling like a dog poised behind a garden gate, while Stephane roared and went crimson. Finally Jorge unplaited a long piece of rope, and we dragged it far enough back for him to wrap it twice around a eucalyptus pole, and tie it off. For a few moments several of us lay panting on the side deck, palms tingling, as the ship regained steerage.
We watched the cliffs pitch and swell, closing in around us."Ship ahoy!" shouted Carlos, from the bow deck. I scrambled to my feet. Perhaps a mile away, rising and falling, half hidden in the troughs of a steely blue sea, a white dot caught my eye. The naval escort, with my wife aboard.
It was a strange moment, a mixture of excitement and loss, preparing to resume contact with our loved ones, our lives outside, yet preparing also to give up the life we had all shared on this boat. But the realisation of what we had done was now creeping over me, warm honey oozing down over my scalp.
We had built our own boat and sailed it 7500km to Easter Island! The implications kept unfolding in my head like some complex piece of origami. Nobody had believed in us, eight unqualified men! I hadn’t believed in us! Yet here we were, arriving at ancient shores, still successfully making it up as we went along.