The Passage – Chapter 1
4:38pm… As the afternoon sun beats down hard upon a jetty made of ironwood and rubber tires.. reflections cast their hypnotic art upon the ocean’s surface. Shimmering rays of golden light dance across my boards… a honey guitar.. and that aging duffel bag. As I recline into the moment.. I feel the sweet-smelling skin of a long brown-haired girl as she lays her head upon my shoulder. Looking out beyond the milky seas… local life is at play. Vessels shuttle about.. busy with schedules … all shapes & sizes – colored outriggers – alloy dingys – wooden ketches – transport barges… dug-out canoes. As I squint beyond the parade there’s a lone silhouette… a silent shadow… a vision.. that could only belong to the infamous ‘Raja Elang’.
Admiring this gracefully aged vessel’s stature.. I consider its journey from a Great Southern Land… across thousands of nautical miles to its new home amongst the island of the Gods. This strong figure of a boat… with those dual diesel engines and all them scrapes and scars has a resilience only matched by its thick-skinned Captain. It was hardly a month ago that I joined the Raja’s maiden island-mission to a location unknown… a mere 4 day adventure. It was my first trip under the Captain’s command and the reason why I’m here today. All my life I lived for the beach..the waves… but it was a passion firmly fixed between the border of land and sea. I never imagined I’d develop such a deep enthusiasm for the open waters. Past opportunities surely existed.. but were never realized. I cannot claim any status resembling a seaman… but it’s never too late to reach… to turn a corner.. to aspire. With only a brief sense of life beyond the archipelago’s outer reefs – I’ve now found an emotional fire that’s hard to extinguish. As my companion tightens her grip around my torso… I see a dingy set off from the Raja’s stern containing 3 figures. As it draws closer I know my journey’s about to begin.. and more than ever… I am ready.
As the scuffed dingy edged closer… I began to recognize its passengers. Driving the outboard was a local kid from North Sumatra who went by the name of ‘Doadie’ – this lad had a quick smile… stumpy legs… and a brand new haircut right out of an 80′s boy band. This fella was onboard the last mission and even though he was slightly distractive… he remained worthy of his charge. Sitting in the middle was a 40 something barrel chested fella with a No 2 buzz cut. This guy would reveal himself as ‘Ray’ from up the north west coast of Australia. This guy was a keen angler and seasoned seaman – a guy who managed a Marine reserve.. when not making annual surf pilgrimages to the archipelago. Finally out in front was someone I already knew – a bona-fide veteran – a 60 something man who represented the elder of our voyage. This fella would be known as ‘Tiger’ – aka – Roy Rogers.. or any of the multitude of names the Captain barked in his direction whenever calling his first mate. Tiger was someone I met through the Captain’s inner circle and over the years has remained a valued acquaintance. A soft-spoken guy – to the point of a whisper – Tiger had lived though most of the archipelago’s surf story. After spending his teens treading the short board revolution… he finally made his way across to the promised land during the early seventies… still high on the times.. hanging out with the original searchers – following that mythological trail of waves in paradise. After more than four decades inside the vacuum… this surf warrior was still on deck… still shaping boards… all with only one eye… a soul who never surrendered his dream… a man who still holds that candle to the wind… refusing to give up on what so many have long let slide. As the dingy finally kissed the jetty’s rubber… I grabbed the rope as everyone disembarked. Introductions and greetings followed as we stood about illuminated by the afternoon light. Tiger and Ray were on their way to further stock up on supplies.. marching off immediately – while I turned toward my girl with those eyes full of emotional truth. As we fell into a deep embrace.. I kissed those soft lips… certain if someone was watching… we’d pass for a page straight out of Elizabethan novel… as the hollywood strings swirled… reaching their emotional crescendo… this was a moment… a vision.. born of pure love. As the last of my possessions were thrown on board… I unleashed the ropes and watched this tall figure of a girl fade away. At this moment everything became real – my journey had begun – I was on my way.
Finally on board it was a familiar sensation. From the experience of my last mission… I retained a solid sense of this boat’s breath and width… all its little nooks and crannies. It’s fairly deceptive just how many zones this 60 ft vessel actually possessed… but aside from the utilitarian qualities… there was also a subtle aesthetical charm. If I was pressed… I’d cite the interior as a woody late 40′s Errol Flynn composition… contrasted against a muscular 80′s post-modern outline. This was certainly a well-worn vessel with plenty of scars… but also a boat with limitless charisma. But regardless of its appearance… this vessel undoubtedly had the muscle for the job and I had absolute faith that she would go the distance. As I made my way from the stern toward the wheel house… I encountered two other local crew – ‘Stougee and Gundee’ – quietly followed by our designated local skipper. Stougee was a wiry young Dayak.. a deck hand from Sulawesi with a Hendrix’esque hairdo and a generous smile. Gundee was a marine engineer from West Java with a calm demeanor and quiet sense of reliability. The skipper at first glance was a young.. aloof… smartly dressed guy from East Java.. who’s lower lip extended every time he turned his head. I later learned that he was best referred to as – ‘Bliwit’. Now it’s probably a good time to clarify some facts about island maritime law before we go any further. In this part of the world – for anyone not aware – all operating vessels in local waters must be locally registered & licensed… and retain only a 100%local crew & skipper onboard. This protectionist legislation was passed a few years ago and has slowly become a minefield of misery for many of the foreign owned vessels operating in these waters – particularly those in the resources and charter industries. Not wanting to get bogged in controversy… there are many stories to be told about how on occasion.. multi-million dollar vessels have run into serious trouble while in the grip of some inexperienced hands. These are questionable hands that tend to rest upon their laurels.. staying busy massaging Blackberrys.. watching DVD’s… and taking their meals in air-cooled cabins – with little time spent monitoring a GPS – or even understanding how they actually work. Credentials can be bought and sold in this land with enough funds.. or the appropriate connections – producing more than a few ‘white gloved’ Captains. But when it comes to dealing with the serious business of protecting lives – it’s often the disqualified outsiders who must finally step up. When it’s all smooth sailing – local egos run riot – but as soon as trouble strikes – heads are turned – shoulders are shrugged – and responsibility often evaporates. Regardless of this bureaucratic cluster… it remains to be seen whether our Skipper possessed the skills to deserve his paycheck. Wanting to remain positive… I afforded him a broad smile.. a firm handshake.. and the respect of not judging a man… at least not before seeing what he was made of.
As I continued through the boat… I finally stepped into the lower wheel house. Looking toward the Raja’s helm I saw the back of a broad-shouldered figure with those unmistakably long arms and that raspy gravel voice. As the outline slowly turned toward me… I was met by a rugged smile and the shinning eyes that could only belong to our one & only commander and chief. As the lines around his sunburnt face deepened.. the Captain offered me his outstretched palm – “Hows it going Bear?”. In his very firm grip I felt the texture of a life’s spent using one’s hands. These were hands that had scraped their share of barnacles… who’d pulled up a thousand anchors and lived sweat born of countless hours onboard prawn boats across East Australia. I quietly inquired about the state of things and the location of my billet – which turned out to be any of the 4 bunks below the bow… bunks still covered in fishing tackle… air tanks… surf equipment and other odds and ends. Leaving the Captain to things that mattered… I made my way below deck… where I encountered yet another familiar face – the face that belonged to the formidable Mr ‘Stone’. As our eyes met we shared a familiar grin.. a grin that could only be fueled by the pure thrill of being part of this voyage. I was happy to see the Stone on the team – this was a middle ager who’s struggled to remain interested in storming all them strangled line ups over the last years. Once a surfer with a solid reputation.. nagging injuries and impending responsibilities had almost driven him to hang up his board and move to Utah to sell cars. But the last year he found a sea change and got himself out of his rut and on to an SUP. This single move became a path back to inner health & fitness.. and a path that allowed him to reclaim his deep love of the ocean. Now armed with fresh equipment… this once proud warrior was ready for another crack at whatever’s possible… including getting back on that 5’11 snub-nosed fish. Stone was an inspired addition to the mission and I was pleased to see him onboard.
Sitting alone at the upper wheelhouse I remained busy with my own version of ‘little wing’.. while enjoying the soft glow of an approaching sunset. Suddenly the sound of an outboard captured my attention.. as it neared I saw the last of our party arriving. As the dingy bumped up against the stern… it was another demographic boarding – another generation - 3 American college kids – 2 from California and 1 from Manhattan beach. These 20 something fellas were given the nod by one of the Captain’s associates up North.. and were the final passengers to join this voyage. The first two of these characters were from San Diego – ‘Zak and Dave’ – both on a 6 month study program which somehow included island hopping waves across the archipelago… studying Bahasa.. and trawling the vegas nightlife. The third member was ‘Tyler’- one of Zak’s pals who’d come across to slip into the wake of his buddie’s version of an endless summer. Once these groms got settled.. they scurried up top to where proper introductions were made. All 3 of these Cali-kids were archetypal West coast. From their language.. dress code.. boards – these guys were spark to the mix. Being well aware boat trips are about getting along – I endeavored to take an interest in their bio’s and consider their points of view. It was clear their perspectives were one’s I’d long forgotten – one’s belonging to a wide-eyed naivety born of the age of innocence. But at the very least.. these young guns balanced the generational scales – provided symmetry. As the sun finally set over calming seas… team Raja was assembled… roll call was complete.
As I sit alone at the upper wheel house… I consider my thoughts. It’s always the same trying to depart this island… an insane gauntlet of greed… corruption… and absolute third world dysfunction. Dealing with assassins for fuel… held to ransom by badges… a hard target for every & any grift imaginable – a never-ending heist . But somehow through all the tribulations our Captain remains cool… well aware that it’s all a waiting game… a mere test of one’s endurance. So while our clearance remained pending – the team decided to go ashore for warung assault… but preferring to get into my own head… I elected to remain onboard with Captain and crew. Nestled in the upper wheelhouse – huddled over a glowing portal – I listen to the sound of airbuses soaring above… a warm sweet breeze tickles my neck. As I lay beneath a sky of cotton ball clouds and diamond stars… I appreciate the luminant half-moon… it’s a moment of calm before the storm. As I continue to trip… way beyond the confines of this harbor’s waters… my mind is seized by visions of grandeur upon the open seas… visions that fade into orchestras… lulling me into the sweetest of slumbers.
As the dark seas push across the Raja’s bow… the engines hum and growl as she forges forward into the salty night. Far behind is that Vegas wonderland… a swamp of corruption… a web I’m finally relived to escape. As we edge further toward the unknown I begin to sniff at that pure essence of glorious freedom. Some of the team have already curled into their bunks… while others remain too excited to sleep. The Captain is huddled over the GPS as he considers our next wayward point. As I peer over his shoulder I recognize our future anchorage and grin slowly. All about the lower wheel house the lights were out – except for the neon glow emulating from the glass fridge door toward the rear of the galley. Tiger was busy baffling the light with a towel… muting the reflective glare across our forward view. As I make my way back up to the stern I find Ray reclining into a plastic chair and a cigarette.. sliding about from the swell’s sway. We share conversation about histories and how we knew the Captain. As it turn’s out.. Ray lived on a boat moored off the broad water some 20 years back. One morning he was approached by a menacing figure who began unloading words of abuse. This barrage of fury was fueled by this man’s recent eviction from a fairly questionable mooring… a mooring he’d been quietly enjoying for some time unmolested. As Ray absorbed the first strike of this man’s barbed tongue… he quickly retorted… countering all claims of him being a ‘blow in’ ..and in no way guilty of any snitching or canary like actions. As this discussion finally found calmer waters… the misunderstanding became a solid friendship… one that led to Ray residing under the Captain’s house and surfing that legendary volcanic point with a man who was famed for pulling into the deepest cathedrals it could offer. As midnight approached I felt the need to place my head upon a pillow and surrender to those dreams of the morning glass… and with that thought I went down below deck and quietly collapsed into my bunk.