Number 217 / March 2010

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Published by the Open Canoe Sailing Group

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If you want to go and see these boats you had better go soon. Kiribati consists of low-lying coral islands, which are being made uninhabitable by rising sea levels. The entire population is to be resettled in Australia and New Zealand over the next twenty years.

An excerpt from 'A Pattern Of Islands' by Arthur Grimble:

"Teriakai was a guest of His Majesty's at the time, having got himself into trouble for a rather too carefree interpretation of the marriage laws. He was an exceptionally welcome guest; his vital, stocky frame was the equal of a giant's for work, and the bubbling of his unquenchable humour kept his warders as well as his fellow prisoners laughing and labouring from morning to night. A happy prison is a tremendous asset to any government station. Whenever there was a special job to be done, he was the man we always chose to do it. It followed naturally that, when the captain and chief engineer of S. S Tokelau - lying beached for cleaning in Tarawa lagoon - wanted to go out for a sail in weather that threatened to turn nasty, Teriakai went also to look after them.

The south-east trades have their treacheries on the Equator. Though they breathe steady at twenty-five miles an hour for months on end, you can never afford to forget how suddenly the wind can slam round to the north and blow a forty mile an hour gale. If the northerly buster takes your mainsail aback when you are close-hauled to the south-easter you are capsized before you know what has hit you. The Tarawans call that particular wind Nei Bairara, the Long-armed woman. She caught Teriakai and his friends just after they had put about for the homeward run. They were spilled into the lagoon ten miles from their starting point and eight miles from the nearest land on Tarawa's northern arm.

Two chief dangers threatened them then: tiger sharks were all around them, and they were near enough to the ocean reef to be sucked out to sea when the tide began to fall. Teriakai attended to the sharks first of all. He started by hacking the mainsail adrift with gaff and boom complete (His Majesty's guests are not supposed to carry sheath knives, but he had one, bless his impertinence). The canvas, buoyed at head and foot by its spars made a fine bag under water, into which he ushered the captain and engineer: "Stay inside this" he said, bridling their refuge by a length of halyard to the upturned boat, "and the tababa won't smell you." Then he looked for the anchor. The chain had fortunately been made fast to a thwart, but it took him a lot of diving and groping to get everything unsnarled so that the anchor reached bottom. "I'll go and get help now," he said when that was done: "If I can get past these tababa, we shall perhaps be meeting again."

He swam straight at the ring of tigers - the captain and engineer watched him - and the devils let him through. I asked him afterwards if he had any notion why. He replied "If you stay still in the sea, the tababa will charge you. If you swim away from them in fear, they will smell your fear and chase you. If you swim without fear towards them, they will be afraid and leave you in peace." So he chose his shark, swam full speed towards it, and lo (!) the line melted away before him. There was absolutely nothing to it except a courage that passes belief.

He had gone about four miles before anything else happened. I have an idea it need not have happened at all unless he had wanted it to. He said the next tababa just attacked him, but he never could explain for laughing why he trod water and waited for this one instead of trying to shoo it off like the others. It is a good guess that he was overcome by the thrill of wearing a sheath-knife again and the delight of feeling himself, after months of prison, alone and free for a little in his beloved lagoon. Then again the tababa was a male. I do not know how males and females are distinguished from a distance, but the Gilbertese fisherman knew, and they valued the genital organ of a bull tiger very highly. They said a man who had the right magic could appropriate its virile qualities to his own unspeakable advantage as a squire of dames. Teriakai made a nice job of the tababa, extracted the priceless organ from its ventral slot, tucked it into his belt, and swam on.

The swift night of the equator fell on him in the next half-hour. The moon was not yet up, repeated busters from the north were whipping the water to fury. In the welter of waves about his head, he missed his direction and swam into a maze of reefs off the coast to the left of his objective. The breaking seas flung him on cruel edges, rolled him over splintering coral branches, sucked him into clefts bristling with barbs, spewed him out again stabbed and torn until more than a quarter of the skin (so the doctor reported) was flayed from his body. But he got through still conscious, swam a mile to shore, waded and walked two more to a white trader's house, and collapsed on his veranda. The trader brought him round with a tot of rum, but refused to take his boat out to the rescue on a night like that.

Teriakai's answer was better than words. He grabbed the bottle of rum (forbidden by law to natives) from the man's hand and ran with it out into the night. He had another five miles to struggle to the next trader's house; I doubt if even his gay courage could have made it but for the liquor. In any case, it would be pettifogging to carp at the good cheer of his arrival. He woke Jimmy Anton with a stentorian song about tababa and himself and girls and capsized white men, beating time for

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