It was off the island of Niuatoputapu in Tonga that I discovered my Captain Bligh Quotient. (CBQ.)
What is that, you ask?
Your CBQ is the amount of time you can spend in a small boat with two people sailing across the South Pacific before your crew mates want to murder you.
My CBQ turned out to be two months.
I had been vagabonding in Polynesia at the time, and met a Canadian couple in Tahiti who were sailing their yacht from Vancouver to Australia. They were looking for a deck hand to join them on the next leg to Fiji.
I knew nothing about sailing but I didn’t need to. The main reason such people take on an extra hand is to help out with chores and do the night watch.
So I found myself doing what is known to cognoscenti as a three month ‘bluewater’ passage. Bluewater passages are ones that cross the Big Seas. The sailors who do them tend to look down on people who spend the weekend sailing within sight of the coast.
On a bluewater passage, if something goes wrong you are very likely to wind up dead. In a small yacht hundreds of miles from land and surrounded by ocean, you are on your own. Most of the ‘yachties’ carry guns because they’ve read Lord of the Flies and they know if they encounter any strangers out there in the wide blue yonder it won’t be the postman.
Sometimes the people most to be feared are the ones you share the boat with. Travelling across the South Pacific in a little yacht is like hitching a lift in car for three months. You are almost guaranteed to hate each other by the end of it.
I never felt like murdering my crew mates but I got the strong impression that they secretly plotted to murder me.
How do I know this? Well, I reverse-engineered their mental state from a curious incident that took place off the coast of Niuatoputapu in Tonga.
As background, I should point out, I think even my best friends would say I can be an incredibly annoying tit and the idea of being stuck in the back of a car with me for three months would be a fate likely to drive most people to thoughts of murder. The incident in Tonga took place in the second month.
The skipper was in the dinghy at the time, fiddling with the outboard motor that had tormented him with its temperamental performance all summer. When you travel by yacht like this, the dinghy and outboard are your lifeline. You use them to fetch everything necessary for survival, from fuel to food, water and all other supplies. Without it, you can’t go ashore.
It dominates your life and if it keeps going wrong it can break your heart. On this particular day, I was standing on deck looking down as he tinkered and some spilled petrol on the outboard caught fire. The cap was off the fuel reservoir which meant that we were about 1 and ½ seconds from the main fuel tank going up with a big Kaboom! and turning the skipper into a human torch. There was nothing he could do but stare in horror, seconds away from death, and watch as his life flashed before him.
I however was in a position to do something. With the sort of superhuman speed that we are all capable of in such situations, I jumped up and ran into the galley, grabbed the fire extinguisher affixed to the wall, and leaped back up onto deck whilst simultaneously pulling the safety key-ring out and turning the thing on so I was able to hand the skipper an already gushing extinguisher. All he had to do was point this at the flames and put them out in a second or so.
The trouble was, I had grabbed the wrong fire extinguisher. Instead of taking the CO2 one designed for fuel fires, I had taken the powder one designed for electrical ones. It put the fire out just as well and saved his life, but the powder ruined the outboard motor by clogging up all the valves.
There was a slight pause as we took stock of how close a call it had been. In truth, it had been quite brave of me to return to the scene just as it was about to explode; a more prudent plan would have been to jump into the sea.
In that hiatus, he looked down at the irrevocably ruined outboard motor, and then up at me and gave me a strange look.
A look of cold fury. He said, ‘You brought the wrong damn fire extinguisher!’
There was a crazed glint in the glittering waters of his eyes, similar to the look in the eyes of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, when he sat at the typewriter day after day bashing out a novel consisting of the phrase repeated endlessly, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’.
At that moment, it occurred to me that the near-constant diet of waggish, Monty-Pythonesque British sarcasm and snark I had been pouring into the skipper’s ears since we left Tahiti had perhaps not been appreciated. In fact, it had driven him nuts.
And his torment was only deepened by the dawning understanding of the enormity of what he had just said.
It was unforgivable, utterly shocking. He knew that. It would haunt him for the rest of his life and yet…and yet…
In that tiny cauldron of a world that enclosed us, in which every emotion was intensified unbearably, there was a sense in which his own death could have appeared preferable to the death of the outboard.
Which meant that the codicil was all the more amusing, and proof, I think, that God has a sense of humour.
Because no sooner had his immortal remark died on the wind than a breeze arose and blew all powder away from the outboard. And it worked perfectly for the rest of the voyage.