Riding Out the Storm – Solomon Islands, South Pacific

Riding Out the Storm

Solomon Islands, South Pacific

Yesterday was a day of tropical storms like none I had ever seen. Rain fell hard and from every direction, large heavy drops that bounced off a vengeful sea. The ominous grey and purple-rimmed clouds blanketed low in the ever-darkening sky and the noise of the storm vibrated through the steel hull of the boat driving us all inside to take cover. We pitched uncomfortably back and forth in the swells. Sleep was a challenge; the boat’s continual motion, plus the clanging of the anchor, kept all of us awake, praying for a break from the storm.

My boyfriend, Patrick, and I are both crew on Pangaea, a fifty-six meter motor-yacht. We had been in Australia and were on our way to Tahiti to meet guests. We had been at sea for thirty-six days, with a quick stop in Papua New Guinea, and were now traveling through the Solomon Islands. This voyage was a 5,600 kilometer run from one end of the Pacific to the other. Or so it felt. But the Pacific is the largest ocean in the world, covering 1.79 million square kilometers and encompassing one third of the earth’s surface. Pangaea was really only covering a small part of it.

Still, it was a long voyage and for me it had become tedious. I am the chef onboard and am responsible for putting out breakfast, lunch, and dinner for my twelve crewmates. Since I usually do this as well as cook for the yacht’s guests, this light duty left a lot of down time, an aspect of the voyage that I had been looking forward to.

Pangaea has four levels of deck, six staterooms, a dining room, a gym, and two large living rooms. Plenty of luxurious space for guests, but it is off-limits to crew. Instead, we could stay in our cabins, hang out in the crew mess to watch movies and eat our meals, or be in the sun sitting on the decks, if weather allowed.

The first few days were spent pleasantly reading and catching up on sleep. Then the storm happened. Confinement set in. The same twelve humans, in the same rooms, each hour of each day, everyday for the past thirty-six days. It was like a prison sentence, with no end in sight, just miles and miles of angry blue water and sky, wherever you looked.

The Pacific Ocean can be beautiful and calm, like a glass mirror or rough and agitated like margaritas in a blender. We had seen it all on this trip. There were days where I would sit outside, staring off across the water, believing I could actually see the curve of the earth. The next day would be too scary to go outside with a wind blowing so strongly that I feared being picked up like a newspaper and tossed into the water to drown. Even with all of our safety equipment onboard I imagined being lost in such a great expanse of blue water. Plus my uniform was blue. Blue on blue; what chance did I have?

Patrick, a blond, blue-eyed surfer, is one of the happiest men I have ever known. He is quick to produce a youthful smile and an optimistic, “the-world-is-my-playground” attitude, but even he was showing signs of weariness. As first officer onboard (second in command after the captain), his role this trip entailed driving the boat. Twice a day he would go up to the bridge to stand watch for a four-hour shift. After relieving the captain, Patrick had to go over our location on the chart, adjust any equipment, watch for other boats, and make any necessary course changes. I am not sure if he had it easier or harder than me. He saw the chart everyday and plotted our course. He knew we were making headway and slicing through the blue waters with a generous amount of speed. But he was also forced to stare straight into it that blue void for four hours at a time, twice a day, before being relieved by another officer. Around and around their schedule went, like mice in a wheel; four on, eight off, four on, eight off. Even optimistic Patrick was feeling a little batty by day thirty-six.

The Pacific Ocean is huge, spanning thousands and thousands of miles. Far from any major city or urban area are the Solomon Islands, just southeast of Papua New Guinea. They are composed of six main islands and hundreds of smaller islands and atolls (sunken volcanic islands with a fringing coral reef). Volcanic islands in varying degrees of activity are scattered throughout the region. In the center of the Solomon’s is Marovo Lagoon, at 140 km long it is considered the largest lagoon in the world. James A. Michener called it the 8th wonder of the world in his “Tales of the South Pacific”.

Throughout the night the wind picked up to over 40 knots and roared outside our porthole. Waves three to four meters crashed against the boat and sent us rocking. Those with a delicate constitution spent most of the night curled up beside the toilet praying for it to be over. In such a state you can barely summons the energy to return to your bunk. It was not pleasant. We had just about had enough when the captain decided to seek cover and anchored us in Marovo Lagoon. But even within the relative shelter of the lagoon, we were in hell.

Today looked only marginally better outside. The clouds still threatened to explode on us but there was at least a little light peaking through. It was just enough encouragement to give Patrick and me the confidence that we should take the wave-runners and go out for lunch at Uepi Lodge, ten kilometers and three islands away. I didn’t care if we got rained on, I just wanted off that boat. I needed some breathing room to clear my head.

Uepi, an idyllic isolated island, is in the northern half of the barrier islands. Only two and a half kilometers long and six hundred meters wide, it really is just a dot in the middle of nowhere. We put on sunscreen, more from habit than any chance that the sun would break through the clouds, placed our money and a change of clothes in a dry-sac, and donned our life jackets.

The minute we left Pangaea we knew this was going to be tough going. The usual translucent blue waters had turned to a witch’s cauldron of churning cloudy water. Menacing waves grew larger and threatened to up end us while whitecaps formed in the distance. I sat behind Patrick wrapping my arms around his waist and holding on for dear life. He had thrown me once already and I was trying to avoid a second swim. As the wave-runner rode up the crest of the wave and fell, crashing down into the water with alarming speed and sent spray up and over the front of the ski, another wave appeared in front of us, completely drenching us. I barely had time to wipe the saltwater from my glasses before we would drop again, sending another torrent of water up and over us.

To get to Uepi we stayed inside the lagoon and were protected by the islands on our right. If this is what the water was like on the inside of the barrier islands, I shuddered to think what the ocean-side was like. Thank God our captain had decided to take shelter inside the lagoon instead of continuing our voyage.

After two hours of constant pounding into Patrick’s back, we arrived at Uepi Island. We had a map and a rough idea that the lodge was located on the eastern side of the island, but little else to go on. We circled the area twice before we saw the sign. “Uepi Lodge,” was engraved on a piece of wood no larger than a paperback book. The lodge itself was obscured from view. Large coconut palm trees concealed the building and a small dock amidst the tropical rainforest was all that signaled its existence to those passing. It is a small resort with six timber bungalows, two units, one guest room and a six-bedroom lodge all set in a tropical garden.

People go to Uepi to get away from everything and spend a week relaxing and scuba diving. It is sits perched on the inside edge of the double-barrier (two distinct rows of islands) enclosed lagoon, which is full of coral gardens, tunnels and caverns with prolific marine life residing in the sheer drop-offs along the ocean floor. High concentrations of fish, coral, sponges, and underwater volcanoes make Marovo Lagoon renowned for great dives.

Although we arrived unannounced and in an unconventional way, Jill and Grant, the lodge’s owners, led us up a pebbled path, past green flowering bushes to the main house. Lunch was being served in the open-air restaurant. The timber veranda was shaded with a palm frond roof and overlooked the white sand bars and turquoise shallows of the lagoon. The ominous day had disappeared as we were surrounded by rainforest. There were half a dozen tables and chairs set up and hammock for reading in the afternoon. The relaxed atmosphere of the place screamed of total escapism from the outside world.

Jill was a petite, Australian pixie of a woman with sharp features and the air of one in charge. She said she had fallen in love with Uepi Lodge twenty years before, settled there and raised a family on the island. Patrick and I joined Jill and Grant, her husband, for lunch. As Patrick and Grant discussed fishing and diving possibilities in the area, Jill and I discussed food.

Her size was misleading. She was a strong direct woman whose passion was on fierce display when she spoke of food and living on the island. After obtaining the lodge from the previous owners, she commandeered the kitchen and started creating the fabulous dishes and fastidious reputation that Uepi is known for. Her guests are normally from Australia and use to lots of fresh vegetables that are not available here in the Solomon Islands. The markets here are much like those on other islands in the area, offering only small meager tomatoes, a handful of yams, and the ever-present slippery cabbage (a type of spinach). Jill knew this would not do for guests so she planted a garden on the property. Today she grows her own herbs and lettuces. Everyday at five o’clock she picks, washes, and rinses all the vegetables for dinner.

Lunch arrived at the table as we spoke. A South Pacific yellowfin tuna pie, Jill’s healthy version of an Australian meat pie was placed before me. Enveloped in a flaky buttery crust were chunks of tender sweet yellowfin tuna coated with coconut milk, ginger, lime, and cilantro. This was topped with fluffy mashed potatoes and baked until golden. I had never had anything like it. The coconut milk reminded me of Thai food but without the heat. I could distinctly pick out the taste of ginger and lime in the velvety smooth sauce. The yellowfin, a top quality tuna that is plentiful in South Pacific waters, was just barely cooked so it was still moist and full of flavor. The pastry was still crisp instead of soggy or overloaded with the sauce. I eagerly poured more sweet chili sauce (an Australian staple used like ketchup) onto my plate to accompany the pie. It was delicious. “There must be just a little of the sauce peaking out of the pie when you break the crust,” Jill told me. “Too dry and it’s gummy to eat and too much, it’s a soggy mess. It must be just right.” I could barely concentrate on what Jill was saying as I took another bite. All I could think about was how I could re-create this dish on the boat for guests. It was that good. I had to replicate it. They say that imitation is the greatest form of flattery. I hoped Jill would be pleased that I was planning on stealing her creation.

Our harrowing journey to get to Uepi and the endless hours I had just spent on the boat were now forgotten as I sat on the porch surrounded by Jill and her guests, absorbed in the quiet, laid-back atmosphere. There was no fuss or formality, just a feeling of comfort. This was Eden, our secret oasis, hidden not only from Pangaea but also from the world. No telephones rang, no television blared. There was no movie theatre on the island and no Starbucks. Best of all, there was no crew around. Patrick and I were on solid ground that didn’t sway and tilt under us. We had succeeded in escaping our floating prison.

Unfortunately as the afternoon progressed, I was forced to climb out of my euphoric state with a reminder of reality. No matter how good the tuna pie was, it could not stop time and the daylight hours were dwindling fast. Patrick and I faced two more hours on the wave-runner pounding through whitecaps to return to the boat. Grant, who had been watching storms from this vantage point for twenty years, felt the weather was about to get rougher; the next storm was approaching. We had to leave now or we would be stuck on Uepi. The idea of being stranded on the island appealed to me as I imagined devouring more of Jill’s culinary creations. But Patrick was a little more responsible and insisted that we go now before it was too late.

With goodbyes from everyone and a rough idea of how Jill made such a fantastic lunch, we departed along the flower-laden path to the shallow warm water of the dock. I climbed onboard our wave-runner and Patrick started it up for our return. We had only gone fifty meters when I turned to wave goodbye. But it was too late. Surrounded by the coconut palms, Uepi Lodge was enveloped back into the island and lost from sight. Once again, hidden from the world.

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