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Cruising the Maldives on a Coconut Log

Not that the skipper was paying much attention to it anyway.  He was sitting against the port gunwale, one bare foot tucked under his buttocks, the other resting on the tiller handle, staring vacantly down at the floorboards.  His foot countered every swell that threatened to divert the bow of the dhoni from whatever course he could see inscribed in the floorboards.  Long brown toes curled around the tiller when it had to be drawn toward him and stretched out when it had to be pushed away.  No land was in sight anywhere.  He was steering literally by the seat of his pants, feeling the rhythm of the swells and the kiss of the breeze and sun, drawing on long-imprinted memory of the recurring patterns of wind, wave, and light underlying the apparent chaos of the open sea. 

Three or four hours out from Bathala, the sea began rising, not threateningly but sufficiently to underscore the diminutive size of the dhoni.  Overhead, between us and the lines of small, cumulus cloud-streets striping the stable airs of the upper atmosphere, a sagging lump in the canvas canopy revealed the resting place of the second crewmember.  Despite being grilled by direct exposure to the sun, both he and the third Maldivian, still comatose on the stern boards, slept on.  Heat, monotony, hard seats, thumping diesel, soporific rolling of the dhoni all pressed down on us and forced us deep into our own thoughts 

Commotion, however, broke out amongst the crew when the tic-phut-tic-phut-tic-phut-tic-phut-tic-phut-tic-phut-tic-phhhhhhhhhhhh. suddenly stopped.  This was when we discovered the purpose for the mysterious third Maldivian crewmember.  Unable to be awakened by the clatter of the diesel, all the chatter among passengers and crew as we’d left Bathala, and the searing sunshine, he was instantly awakened and electrified into motion by the absence of noise from the bilge pump.  He had the floorboards covering the bilges up, and a rusted metal bailing bucket swooping down to gulp in its first load of water, almost in one motion.  His labors held the undivided attention of everyone on board.  Deep water swirled in front of him.  Responding vigorously to the loud and urgent exhortations of the skipper, and first mate who had somersaulted down from his hammock on the canopy, he was shifting a lot of water, but it didn’t seem to make much difference to the amount in the bilges.  Freeboard, that highly desirable distance between the upper edge of the gunwale and the surface of the sea, slumped from about 50 centimeters to almost zero when the fretting peak of a wavelet slopped up against the side.


Despite being wide awake, and continuously calculating the relative volume of water inside and outside the dhoni, we all jumped, startled at the sudden outburst and sheer volume of his voice.  The Maldivian desperately bailing got such a fright that he leaped involuntarily upward like a startled cat.

“He always sings about home when he’s worried,” his wife yelled as Jeremy lustily sang his heart and fears out, wide eyes sweeping the rolling hills of Indian Ocean blue as if he were expecting, any minute, to catch his first mist-shrouded glimpse of  Slieve Donard towering above the Mountains of Mourne.

Maldivian culture is rich in folklore.  One legend among the islands’ seafarers tells how angered and mischievous spirits will take control over a dhoni and cause it to sail for hours and hours in the same spot.  At the same time, the spirits will litter the sea close to the stricken dhoni with floating dead bodies. 

For hours, although the aquamarine lacework of our wake rising and falling on the swells astern indicated that we were moving forward, it had seemed that we were pinned in the center of this rough and tumbling watery blue disc, rimmed all around by an unchanging circular horizon.  By the time Jeremy had launched into his seventh or eighth encore of “Danny Boy”, I was starting to think that an offering to the spirits of an additional dead body for use elsewhere might be one way of releasing us from their grip, and allowing us to end this seemingly endless voyage.   

Singing, though, is apparently, ineffective protection from the evil spirit of seasickness.  “Oh Danny Boy…” eventually gave way to “Oh Gorrrrrd” and a reasonable imitation of the now-extinct bilge pump’s former glory.  Looked at in different light, seasickness clearly offers an effective cure for bad singing. 

Silence, apart from the pounding diesel, the scraping and splashing of the tirelessly manned bailing bucket, and occasional groans from Jeremy, settled again on our vessel of coconut logs as it made its interminable passage to Malé and the waiting airplane.

Excerpted from the book Thirteenth Beach;diving adventures around the world
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