It was the smell which first alerted me to the change in the weather. Aboard a boat, one always hears the raindrops pattering on the deck – one is attuned to hearing the first few, so that one can then rush around, shutting the hatches – but in a house it’s all different. I found that, often, if I hadn’t happened to glance out of the window and seen the change in the view – seen the cloud rolling down over the ridge immediately to the south of us or the swirling mist rushing up from the valley floor – then I wouldn’t even know that it was raining until I opened the front door to step outside. We were living on the land, spending every day out on the hillside or in the forest, getting mud on our hands, but, even so, in some respects it seemed that the life of the sailor was more intimately entwined with nature. On this occasion, however, it had been so long since the land had seen any rain that it sent up that unmistakable perfume which scientists call petrichor: the smell of dessicated, powdery earth releasing long-held plant oils and bacteria.
Before too long, the rain was hissing down, and soon it was galloping along the stone gutter outside our hillside cottage. It rained for hours, and the next day it did it again. And the next. It rained all week and there was the promise of more. At long last the drought which had gripped Iberia for over a year had broken. At long last, we could cease from spending every day lugging water to trees which had been planted in a damp autumn and a rainy spring, when irrigation pipes had seemed unnecessary. (“We’ll do them later,” we’d told each other. “First we’ll get the trees into the ground, because trees take time to get going.”)
For the past seven months we had been chained to our new project, slaves of the 400 trees which we had nonchalantly scattered over the steep hillsides. But now, finally, the rain had set us free. Finally, we could abandon our tree planting project for a few months and go back home to our beloved boat, Mollymawk.
The tale of how we came to abandon Molly for two years has already been told. This is the story of what we found on our return.
The journey from Europe was long and arduous for the simple fact that it’s hard to put up with being treated like cattle for 24 hours. It’s hard for the body to be penned up in a small seat for ten hours on the trot, and it’s hard for the mind to cope with the stress of having to rush around, fearful of failing to catch the next flight in our chain. Then there’s all that shuffling along in queues and having our papers scrutinised as if we might be trying to trick our way into something to which we’re not entitled. All those baggage checks – three, in total, for this journey – where they peer at your belongings to see whether you’re trying to smuggle a pair of nail clippers aboard the plane. (My father in law was stopped for carrying a pair of nail clippers.) All that lugging of luggage. And, yes, all that CO2 being sprayed into the atmosphere, trapping the sun’s warmth inside the blanket.
Flying is VERY BAD on all scores. But the bottom line is that, having left our boat on the other side of the world, we had to submit to the ordeal of travelling in the time machine, hopping from Europe to Tahiti in a world-shrivelling instant rather than taking a year to get here by sustainable means.
The plane touched down and we stepped out into dazzling light and oppressive heat. The sun broiled us as we waited for the bus which would take us home.
“Ia ora na,” said the driver as we stepped aboard. “Bonjour.”
The island was unbelievably lush as it dashed past the window of the mighty metal beast roaring (loudly!) along the tarmac road which now encircles Paradise. To the left of us, the mountain rose steeply but, nevertheless, was furnished all over with greenery. To the right, directly behind a continual line of houses, lay the turquoise lagoon topped by the vivid blue sky.
The road swung around each headland, never climbing above the height of the beach. Palm trees; a village with two huge churches; a breadfruit tree; a mango; some shops… Another grove of coconut palms, with the narrow lagoon and the yellow reef and, now and then, a little splash of white surf. On and on we went until…
“There she is!” I cried excitedly as the bay swung into sight. She was still afloat. Still waiting where we’d left her, two years before.
Two years! Two whole years! Poor Mollymawk. If boats can feel, she must have been feeling sad and confused; like Poppy dog that time when she got left outside a shop in the Azores.
A friend ran us out to the boat in his dinghy and we clambered aboard. Green algae all over the decks. Black mould, too. Pustules of rust painting burnt sienna stains here and there. I stepped up onto the helmsman’s seat and it promptly snapped under my weight, the wood entirely rotten. Ye gods! What have we done to our beautiful boat?
“Nick! She looks like one of those old abandoned wrecks! She looks like the sort of thing that we used to sneer at. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, I do,” he answered. “She loos almost like the sort of boat that got abandoned when her owners fell ill. Or perhaps they were called away to take care of an elderly parent. And I guess that, when they left her, those people thought that they would be back shortly – just like us! Now we know how it happens.”
It was sobering thought.
“She looks like the sort of boat that we might have bought cheaply, when we were young, to restore.”
“Nothing that we can’t fix,” Caesar chipped in. “But it’s worse than I’d expected. It’s going to take time.”
We’d hoped to be able to get out of Tahiti within a fortnight or, at worst, a month; but it was now clear that we were going to be here for far longer.
Next week we’ll tell you what happens when you abandon your boat in the hot, humid tropics.