Published in MAI LIFE MAGAZINE – October, 2010
"Mai Word with J.S. Bhagwan"
As the chaplain of the Fiji Islands Voyaging Society, I have constantly dreamed of sailing on the Uto Ni Yalo on one of its epic voyages. I went to primary school with skipper Jonathan Smith, have ....
However the closest I have come to this epic adventure is to pray for the crew before they depart on an epic journey. There has been an occasion when I have braved the early morning onboard the Uto Ni Yalo without the captain’s special blend of coffee, or braved the high tide of the bilo levu.
I was asked to take devotion for the opening of an outrigger canoe regatta in which the crew of the Uto Ni Yalo were the chief guests. So I was invited to sail with them from the Lami Bay of Islands to the Suva Point the venue of the regatta. I parked my car at the venue and waited for “O Captain, my Captain Smith,” to pick me up and drive me to Lami to board the Uto Ni Yalo. Doing my best to be punctual, I arrived to find myself alone except for some bleary-eyed paddlers struggling to erect a few marquees. My phone rang. It was the skipper.
“Are you there?” he asked. “Yes I am,” I replied, my eyes scanning the land, the sea and the skies, in case he was hiding in the bushes, sailing in from the horizon or skydiving in. No one in sight, I ventured the question, “Where are your?” “I’m just passing Korovou,” was the response.
My mind raced. What was he doing in Tailevu, 50 kilometres north east of Suva, when he should be 15 minutes away in Lami? Fortunately he was only passing Korovou Prison (Suva Gaol / Suva Yacht Club) which was 5minutes away.
The rest of the plan went to schedule. We drove from Suva Point to Lami. We boarded the Uto Ni Yalo and sailed back to Suva Point with the crew and some stowaways..er...friends and relatives. We docked carefully as the skipper raised his concern about the tide going out. Sailmaster Colin Philp gave the opening speech. I preached and prayed for the canoes, the paddlers, the paddles, the sea, the waves, the fish and even the humble kasikasi ( I guess I was in the spirit). The crew of the Uto Ni Yalo performed their now-famous Bole or traditional challenge. Then it was time for breakfast for us as preparations for the start of competition got underway.
Sailmaster Colin, informed me that someone in one of the tents had a tanoa of kava prepared for us so we went in search of this elixir of life and death and various shades of in-between. As it was still early, and I had not yet received the call from The Boss At Home to take her shopping, this seemed like a good idea. However no such vessel of ambrosia could be found. So it was suggested that some of the crew go and bring the Uto ni Yalo’s tanoa and the kava they had onboard for just such emergencies. After a 10-minute wait we realised that the boys had not returned and looking towards the famous sailing canoe we saw the reason. The sailors-turned-MaiTV-stars were taking tours on the boat and posing for pictures with paddlers and the general public.
We had little choice but to fetch the tanoa ourselves and so with a singleness of purpose Colin and I marched to and jumped aboard. Just in time for the skipper to give the order to cast off as the canoe was in danger of being grounded by the outgoing tide. In surprise I watched the distance between us and the land. Were we sailing back to Lami (which would mean a long walk or a bus ride back to Suva)? Were we going fishing? Were we heading to Hawai’i? Fortunately it was only an exercise to move us further out into the bay.
As a result I was forced to spend the next four hours sitting on the deck of the Uto Ni Yalo, drinking kava and listening to the melodies strummed and sung by the crew to the gentle lap of the waves as we watched the canoe regatta and I listened to stories of their adventures on the high seas.
My adventure that day came back to haunt me when we recently visited the Shangri-la’s Fijian Resort. One afternoon I spied the non-motorised (and thus “free”) hobbie-cat and had a flash back to a two-week catamaran sail on the Mediterranean Sea a decade ago and my recent “Uto-ni-Yalo-experience”. I convinced my two children and The Boss to join me for a short sail. It went well. My tacking and steering impressed the love of my life and fruits of my loins. After a whole 15 minutes we returned safely to shore. I suggested that, as the next day was our last full day, we go for another sail immediately after breakfast. They agreed.
All too late did I realise that I should have quit the stage when I was still a star. The next day was a disaster. It was very windy out in the sea so whenever we picked up some speed the choppy waves would frighten the children. The Boss started toying with the idea that she might also be the captain as well, citing i-Kiribati blood and the fact that she was traditionally chewing gum as enough reason to be considered a Micronesian seafarer. That thought was knocked out of her by the boom, which luckily was made out of aluminium so that there was little injury. My wife was not badly injured either.
In the end we hit a dead spot and had to be towed in after almost an hour. The Boss and her brood, now no longer wanting to be daddy’s crew (I felt like the captain of the Titannic) clambered onboard the rescue/tow boat while I held the ropes and steered the hobbie back to shore. As I sat alone while my family eagerly faced the approaching shore, I realised that perhaps naming the hobbie, Dalo ni Tana may not have been a good it idea!
A sunbaked, self-confessed Jesus-freak, Padre James Bhagwan spends his time between doing laps in the pool, lecturing at Davuilevu Theological College, preaching at Dudley Methodist Church, playing with his children and driving his wife around the bend.