Te Pari: An Open Boat Experience in Polynesia

by editor

A near disaster in Te Pari, Polynesia in 1970, along with several other meaningful events such as meeting Kurt Hahn, instructing in a Norwegian Barque in the Atlantic, and dealing with the trauma of a shipwreck, acted as springboards for Lance Lee’s founding of the Apprenticeshop, the Atlantic Challenge International Contest of Seamanship, Tremolino! Project and related ventures which combine traditional boatbuilding, community building and seamanship.

Man needs catastrophes. More exactly , man needs his catastrophe. It is by, and in, exile that the human being enters into dialogue with himself and makes his way by introspection towards his moment of truth. ~ Las Vergnas

by Lance Lee

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Painting by Anton Otto Fischer

In the summer of 1970 I sailed trans-Pacific to Polynesia. One night on Moorea, after witnessing the uncouth, ignominious degradation of an old Tahitian, baited by Westerners in ways that reminded me strongly of Isak Dinesen’s memorable, brutal line, “Sick to my soul,” I found myself in self-imposed exile. I was then cruising in a fully-found, exceedingly fine American yawl with convivial shipmates, a generous owner and the plan to leave Moorea the following day, sail for Rarotonga and explore the distant and romantic atolls of the Pacific. I’d been made an unusually fine offer—that of shipkeeper—based on Papeete, and skipper of her with no limits on this invitation nor permitted cruising range. After asking the owner’s permission, I jumped ship.

After crossing from Moorea to Tahiti on an island freight boat I lit out for a back (or wild) side of Tahiti, intending to charter or barter for a dugout in order to light out much further. Shortly I was afloat, paddling east, relaxed, relieved, and having before me as few obligations, demands and responsibilities as ever in my life. After a hard night on an uninhabited coast where I was assaulted by rain and crabs, I rose at dawn and paddled swiftly toward the wildest part of Polynesia, the Te Pari.

My pleasure was greatly enhanced by calculating my progress against the passage of low lying, seaward islands. The pace by which I paddled made clear my continued adamance to leave what we termed “civilization” far behind me.

It was not a long time—indeed I think a terribly brief period—that I fell to studying the lay of land and sea against my old chart and discovering with bone chilling recognition that I was far from my intended route, a passage well inside the great, breaking coral reefs. Those reefs absorb the blows of some thousand miles and more of building Pacific seas. But as well as being a barrier, shelter to the angry, living coral which if dashed on or scraped across by an unfortunate swimmer, creates an immediate, festering, poison- filled wound. Such abrasions will suppurate deeply and almost immediately, will resist healing and medicine, and will remain enduringly painful. Within that same week I had visited a hospitalized Dutch family, wrecked on an island to the north: they were as though cruelly lacerated with suppurating sores attained through having cradled and carried in their arms their infant son away from the wreck in such a way as to keep him from the exact harm which befell them.

Inshore of that seething reef and a relatively calm strip of water lies a truly wild and verdant jungle. It appears to be a vast, rushing green river, pouring down into the sea, interspersed by the most dramatic, high and plunging waterfalls I have witnessed. The French and chart term chute describes the drama, force and beauty of the panorama laid out before me. Should I manage to cross the reef, scored by the coral or not, I was faced with a vertical climb which can only be considered formidable, and with a march across the spine of the island for many jungle-drenched, indeterminate miles.

In this circumstance I believe I may have experienced a kind of surface version of the “rapture of the depths”. I later discovered a rational, natural reason for my plight: a native-known, swift, uncharted subsurface current. A swift study around the entire horizon left me the assurance that in a trice I was immersed in an ugly and dangerous circumstance.

Then suddenly I was in the water. A great wave had risen behind me, burst over the stern and gunwale of the dugout. The pace at which I paddled made clear my continued adamance to get out.

It took me a very little time to determine that no effort of a single man (and I was young and in very fine shape) would bale the boat of enough water. As Dr. Johnson says (though I paraphrase), “It is marvelous how the sure promise of death concentrates the mind.” There were two alternatives: attempt the vicious reef with the certain knowledge that, if I were to survive being cast up onto it, life alone in the deep jungle, many miles from any habitation and rising sheer from the surfline, would be one of increasingly dreadful pain. The second option: drown myself before the above occurred. Having little experience in the latter, I knotted the laces of my shoes twice over, drank off what remained of my water bottle, ate all of my remaining bread before the salt water claimed it in order to fortify myself and perhaps my lacerated body for an unknown trek to civilization.

But combers broke and rose high above the reef under my lee. My initial option was to position the dugout at 90 degrees to the reef, sit low in the swamped boat, and wait for a great sea astern to paddle as hard as possible. It appeared desperation itself. Was there something else? After reviewing my previous decade’s record of church attendance, any expedient and hypocritical act of resorting to prayer smelled shabby. In time an acceptable compromise came to me: I prayed to the Lord to “Let me be of service…”

And then I was picked up less than ten minutes later by a man who goes to be refreshed by the very wildness I myself sought. He goes there once per year. This was the day on which he went to Te Pari.

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