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Kalea in Moorea
“She was the nautical expression of grace, courage, and confidence.”
I knew the inner dialogue one has when deciding whether to dedicate years of your life to a grand labor-of-love project of that magnitude. It starts with the simple question, ‘Do I have what it takes to see this crazy multi-year effort through to the end?’ You take an inventory of your current skills and budget, and then determine what materials, time, and new skills will be required. You assess worst-case scenarios. Can you accept those outcomes? Yes. Then you commit and never look back. And at the other end of a turbulent planning-building-finishing odyssey; a beautiful, one-of-a-kind, handcrafted, sea-going vessel emerges. At double the cost and triple the time. If you’re lucky! Bob certainly had my respect.
We’d be calling Kalea our home for the next two weeks. We’d be entrusting her with the safety of passengers and crew over several hundred nautical miles of deep-blue open ocean. She would convey us under sail over countless waves and ocean swells, through weather fair and foul, to distant South Pacific islands. I couldn’t wait to meet her.
Anxious for that first sighting of Kalea at anchor in the stunning blue lagoon surrounding the island, I recalled why I had been drawn, years ago, to this special category of boats. They could technically be described as ‘Polynesian-style, double-canoe, sail-driven vessels.’ Today they would be classified simply as sailing catamarans.
The South Pacific Ocean of antiquity was home to a variety of maritime peoples. The modern catamaran's unique speed potential, greater than that of the equivalent sized monohull, arose out of two ancestral boat types from that region of the world. Some South Pacific islanders would use very long ‘paddling canoes’ of up to 60 feet for coastal trading, fishing, and whale hunting. Their long, slim hulls, having length-to-beam ratios of from 12-to-1 to up to 20-to-1, significantly minimized drag. Sleek efficient hulls like these part choppy waters very cleanly. They could reach speeds as high as two or three times that of boats common today of comparable length, but with much lower length-to-beam ratios. But hard-paddling islanders required food and water, which contributed significantly to cargo weight. And even the hardiest men could only paddle for a few hours at a time.
Other Pacific islanders ventured out on ‘sailing rafts’ like that of Thor Heyerdahl's classic Kon Tiki expedition of 1947. They were not fast at all, but with their substantial beam and weight, they were practically impossible to capsize and thus had great stability and seaworthiness on the open ocean.
Then, as so often happens, some peanut-butter-and-chocolate misfit innovator (they usually are, misfits that is) in that remote region of the watery world, characterized by daunting distances between islands, proposed lashing together two fast, easily driven canoe hulls into a beamy raft shape, giving a new type of sailing craft with win-win features. It would have the stability of a broad beam raft and the speed potential of slim canoe hulls. A raft-like deck platform could house people while providing ample room to move about safely. It was a world-changing breakthrough in watercraft design. Early European explorers reported that crew sailed from island to island with families, friends, lovers, singers and dancers in one joyous group — the ultimate seagoing party boat!
[As an aside, it is rather amusing to note the design evolution of bluewater sailing vessels. It says a lot about why some technologies win out over others in a hyper-competitive, male-dominated world. The set of features one sees on today’s glossy, high-tech, fiberglass and carbon-fiber wonders was heavily influenced by racing. To sail closer to the wind, the sail rigs got higher. Of course, higher rigs then had to be balanced with heavy ballast below the waterline — first rocks, then heavy iron, which became cheaper with industrialization. To get even higher mast heights, the ballast gradually migrated from inside the hull downward into bulbs at the bottom of deeper keels. As a side effect, and not intended by design, modern lead-keeled monohull sailboats can claim to be ‘self-righting.’ Also not intended, modern lead-ballasted sailboats find their ultimate stability at the bottom of the ocean, if their hull integrity is ever breached. Catamarans, on the other hand, would likely find themselves inverted (‘turtled,’ as some like to say) if Poseidon got overly abusive, but still floating high and dry, though upside down. This is not an ideal orientation for a boat, where any notion of progress is limited to drifting in a favorable direction, but still preferable to a watery grave distressingly far removed from a breathable atmosphere.]
As we were rounding the bend, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the tips of Kalea’s twin masts poking up above the treetops, very close to each other, as if two lonely sailboats were getting close and personal down below. A quick turn-of-the-tiller later and Kalea’s long slender twin hulls came into full view. Gorgeous. She was the nautical expression of grace, courage, and confidence. I felt lucky to be a part of her world for the next two weeks. She was exquisite.
We pulled up just behind the large rectangular trampoline netting that spanned the twin hulls at her stern, tied up the dinghy to the aft crossbeam, released the boarding ladder suspended from the netting, and scrambled aboard and onto her expansive bamboo deck.
“Geez Bob, you really built this floating football field yourself?”
“Sure did, with the help of a few friends. Started four years ago to the day. Shall we snoop around a bit?”
Bob couldn’t wait to show her off.
I noticed a small, curious extension on one of the hulls at the stern. It did not seem to serve a purpose of any kind. When I asked Bob about it, he recounted an ancient Hawaiian saga that told of a spirit announcing his desire to go along when a canoe was embarking on a voyage from Hawaii. Informed by the chief that there was no room, the spirit leapt from shore to a small projection, which he found at the stern, and rode along there. That projection has become a traditional feature in Hawaiian canoes, as a place where an invisible but benevolent ancestral spirit can hitch a ride on long passages.
Now I have never known my old friend Captain Bob to give much thought to spiritual matters — ocean sailing providing all the sublime mystery, wonder, and terror that his blessedly simple existence could take — but he thought it best to include a special place aboard for a well-meaning spirit, ‘well … just in case.’ “After all,” he explained, “the insurance only amounted to a few extra hours of labor.”
Kalea, Hawaiian for ‘filled with joy,’ was a twin-masted sailing schooner. Her overall length was 65 feet, with a waterline length of 55 feet, which meant she could easily slice her way through the waves at 10 knots under typical wind conditions in the South Pacific. Her beam was just over 30 feet and, with draft amidships of only four feet, could pull up close to any beach and allow passengers to hop off the bow trampoline in waist-deep water.
Her sailing rig was a balanced Wingsail schooner design, a simple but very aerodynamically efficient sail configuration. Her decking was made of bamboo — Nature's magnificent low cost, renewable wonder-fiber.
Each hull, tapering at the bow and stern, had five compartments. From fore to aft they included: a forward single cabin, a forward double cabin, a large compartment for a bathroom (in the starboard hull) and a galley (in the port hull), a rear double cabin, and a rear single cabin. Behind the last single cabin, the hull narrowed to a V-shaped stern where a beefy wooden rudder was rope-laced securely to a metal-reinforced stem.
The male cast members would stay in cabins in the starboard hull, and all the women, including Chef Lua, would use the cabins in the port hull. Bob and I would remain on deck at all times (except when ‘nature calls’ demanded a visit to the head) to be available immediately, should an all-hands-on-deck moment ever occur during our seven-day ocean adventure. We would alternate sleeping on the bunk in the tiny, enclosed pilothouse centrally located on the expansive wooden deck. All meals would be served on deck under a large protective canvas awning. The simple furniture included portable camping tables and folding beach chairs — lashed down, if necessary.
We heard a sweet voice sing out from the water just behind stern of the boat, as if emanating from a wave. The ‘Mister’ part was monotone and ‘Bo-ob,’ followed in a more singsongy fashion, jumping tones with each syllable, as if a doorbell was calling out the name. Bob smiled broadly and cheerfully proclaimed,
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