The COBIA-3 Experience

The Tuamotus Diaries #38, Day 74 – August 10th 2016


We have been in Fakarava for just over a week. The day broke with fair weather, and the supply ship was expected to arrive. Our diesel tanks were uncomfortably half-empty. When things converge like this – the ship, the weather and the looming lack of fuel – action needs to be taken, otherwise bad karma may take its toll down the road.

Since our last refueling in Makemo, I had been managing usage carefully to avoid another similar experience up until we reached Tahiti, where we can side-moor to a proper fuel station and also pay the lowest-available prices. However, the multiple attempts to pick Adriana – and the luggage – back at Makemo’s village made a dent on our fuel consumption curve, and we arrived Fakarava with our fuel gauge measuring just under the Half mark. I know – I am SURE – that we still have enough for everything we may need before reaching Tahiti. But, again, when a refueling opportunity like today’s presents itself, it is bad karma to not take it.

It was with this frame of mind, but still a bit grumpy for the hard work entailed, that I unearthed the six empty plastic bottles from our stuffed lazarette, threw them into the dinghy and went to the village’s center, which radiuses inland from the concrete wharf. The sun was rather low in the sky and the air still had some freshness in it, and indeed there was no ship at the wharf when I arrived. But there was no mistaking that it would be there soon. Despite the early hour, I was clearly the last one to arrive in anticipation of the supply ship, for most of Fakarava’s inhabitants seemed to be gathered there already, their cars loosely parked surrounding the pier, and their occupants mingling outside in a loud cheer.

Even though nobody looked at me directly, I knew my presence had been noted and that built anxiety inside of me. Reluctantly, I approached one fellow – a guy wearing a T-shirt with a Shell logo on it – and showed one of my empty bottles to him, mentioning the word “Gazole”. After an uncomfortable mute second, he opened a broad friendly smile and, speaking a language that I couldn’t understand, explained to me that the ship was about to arrive and I was at the right place.

Comforted, I proceed to offload the remaining five bottles from the dinghy. Carrying three of them with me, in the middle of the crowd, I must have seemed so lost that another gentleman spoke to me from his car, encouraging me to proceed to a certain spot at the south end of the wharf with my bottles.

By the time my six bottles had been arranged at the specified spot, Cobia 3 – the supply ship – was already nearing us. It was rather smaller than I expected, and far more derelict. It approached the pier the same way we do with Pesto, with its own engine and without the assistance of any tug – which doesn’t exist here anyway. The pilot brought her smartly alongside the pier and two crewman threw mooring lines from the bow and stern to a couple of guys at the wharf. They handled the lines with such ease that one couldn’t tell they were many inches thick and ridiculously heavy. As this was happening, the crowd was gathering increasingly closer to the ship, and everyone except me seemed to be engaged in the same conversation.

No sooner had the ship been fastened to the dock than a small passageway was opened at the stern bulwark. Two crewman slid a heavy metallic ramp connecting the dock with the ship, not worrying even a bit to the fact that the ship was significantly lower than the pier and the ramp was pointing perilously up. The crowd had quieted down now and observed as the same crew brought a foldable table onshore – similar to those Rubbermaid models sold at Sams Club. The table was set on the pier, with one rusty chair on one side and two flimsy plastic stools – one red and the other yellow – opposite to it. That would be the place where all the ship’s business would happen, I supposed.

Next, the crewman signaled to a family that was onboard to come ashore. A large, old lady was aided by the crowd, followed by a slim young woman, a mid-aged man and a child. They didn’t seem to know anyone in Fakarava and, without carrying anything with them, walked erratically towards the village. I took it that they were en route to another atoll and would return to the ship before departure. As soon as these folk alighted, and without any signal from the crew, the crowd invaded the ship. The men and women were cheering, some of them carrying their children by the hand, as happily as if they were boarding a fun ride in an amusement park. From the precarious ramp they climbed a stairway up to the upper deck and gathered there. I am sure this was all a well-rehearsed and normal procedure to everyone involved, but to me, the newcomer and outsider, it all looked very confusing. Nobody was using uniforms – neither the Policeman, if there were any, nor the Port Authority, if there was any, nor the Crew, or the Crowd. Hopeless and dazzled, I stood on the pier, faithfully near the empty foldable table with the rusty chair and flimsy stools, awaiting business to commence and watching the offloading work which was gaining momentum by now.

From the same ramp, the crew brought some light items by hand: five bicycles – four of them new – two cartwheels, a stack of bamboo fishing rods and a mysterious styrofoam box. These were all placed on the dusty pier. Up at the bow, further from where I was, things were definitely more industrial. The ship’s crane was shuffling its chain inside the hold, as if fishing, and out of there came four pallets with fuel barrels – each pallet containing 16 units. It then took out four heavy sheets of weaved iron rods – the type of contraption used in construction – and dropped them at the pier with a thud. I started wondering how all that heavy paraphernalia would be moved from there when the crane lifted the answer from the hold – a motorized forklift. No sooner had it touched the pier than its driver stood in place and started the engine. Things were getting lively now. Concomitantly to the forklift’s commencing operation, those who had not boarded the ship started to bring their cars closer in to her. There was no order to the way things were happening, but everything seemed to fit in place. The ship’s crane kept on fishing stuff out of the hold – timber of assorted sizes and shapes, cement, more fuel, pallets and more pallets of carton boxes and even an immense amount of toilet paper. The forklift, on the meantime, moved quickly from there to the cars, in between the crowd. Everything seemed to go straight from the Cobia3’s hold on to the cars, bypassing any form or warehousing or bureaucracy altogether. Very clean and simple. Nobody seemed to bother with or argue about any processes. Those who were crew were happy to be bringing necessary stuff to the atoll, and those from Fakarava were happy to be receiving it.

My attention at this point turned back to the empty table, chair and stools. Again I must have looked utterly hopeless, as a passer-by signaled for me to go into the ship and up the upper deck. Apparently whoever was supposed to do “the business” decided to do so from there, instead of from the pier. Anyway, I left my bottles behind and walked towards the precarious ramp. It pointed decisively downward into the ship, held in place on deck by an old tire on its side. I stepped down, onto the tire, springing myself straight to the stairway’s first step, thus avoiding the filthy fluids that were sloshing on deck. Climbing the stair optimistically, I noticed the fishing line attached to the upper deck’s guardrail, hinting that fresh fish is on the crew’s menu. I then turned left and made my way into the crowd. It felt as if I had broken into a family’s celebration or ceremony. Everybody seemed to know each other, and were all engaged in cheerful conversation. New comers were enthusiastically greeted by the others and the conversation proceeded. Again, the lack of visual distinction between those who were providing service and the ones being served rendered the whole scene rather difficult to interpret for me.

I stood there, nearly invisible, observing the individual interactions, until I could identify some pattern. In the middle of the small crowd there was another foldable grey plastic table with rusty metallic stands. Behind it an incredibly large young man wearing a sleeveless shirt revealing his multitude of tattoos – as everyone does here. His pitch-black sunglasses gave him a solemn expression, which he tried to complement with a rehearsed pokerface attitude. However, despite his proportions and efforts, there was some docility about him that composed his charisma and made him respectable and yet approachable. He was definitely the man who held the “business” there. In front of him, on the table, a worn out executive-style black briefcase was open, inside of it three large stacks of local money were clipped together to avoid the bills flying out to the morning breeze. Further to the table’s end, an acrylic bin held a stack of assorted paper which looked like invoices. The papers were held in place from the breeze by a prosaic plantain. It was ripe and I am sure it would be the Businessman’s snack after all the paper had been handled. In front of the table, opposite to where the businessman sat, there was a lustrous wooden bench. One by one, people from the crowd would sit on the further end of the bench, carefully lift the plantain from the acrylic bin, shuffle the stack of invoices, fish a specific one with joy on the face, place the plantain atop the remaining invoices again, then slid on the bench until being face to face to the businessman, and engage into some sort of conversation. Many phrases were exchanged until the businessman finally wrote a piece of paper which he signed and handed to the joyous person in front of him. Money would then be quickly exchanged and the person would go down the stairway, holding the invoice and the signed piece of paper, and dissolving amidst the crowd on the pier. One man in particular spoke to the businessman longer than the others. There was no tension, but for sure the cargo-in-question was a bit out of the ordinary. Indeed, as he walked out with the signed paper, I saw him bringing a small puppy inside a makeshift cage. Anyway, I had now identified a pattern which resembled a process, and my attention was distracted again toward the pier. From up on the deck, the chaos down there became even more apparent. The forklift was now in full pelt, moving swiftly with its loads in between the crowd – which included an alarming amount of children and dogs. The forklift and each member of the crowd kept on doing their seemingly random movements and, even though a collision would be unavoidable, it never happened and I was starting to believe the forklift and the folk belonged in different dimensions for they never touched.

My thoughts were brought back to reality by one particularly flamboyant newcomer who, after having greeted every single soul on the upper deck, decided to greet me as well. Focusing my attention to the process again, it was clear by now that there was no line properly formed, people seemed to sit by the bench randomly and unless I started to take action, I would stand there, partially invisible, for the rest of the day. Approaching the bench a half-step at a time, I eventually earned my right to sit in front of the businessman. Nobody told me that, there was no eye contact, but I knew, as much as the rest of the crowd and the businessman, that it was my turn. Relieved to not have any pre-ordered invoice on my name, I skipped the painful acrylic bin/plantain step and positioned myself straight in front of the businessman. Despite all conceivable differences, sitting there, in the middle of that crowd, in that ethereal setting, in front of that mysterious powerful man, I felt for a moment in that scene of the Matrix movie, when Neo, Trinity, Morpheus and Seraph sit in front of the Merovingian for a brief exchange of information. Knowing that the language barrier was insurmountable, and feeling oppressed enough already, I tried to be as efficient as I could. Looking straight at him, with a Monalisa-style, half but legitimate grim on my face, I pronounced my request: “Gazole” – no less, no more. Then, I grabbed the businessman’s calculator – a risky move in itself, for had he thought I was robbing it, he could have broken any part of me right there and then without any effort – and typed the amount of Gazole I wanted: 120 liters. His large face made a millimetric vertical movement in lieu of a nod. I think he appreciated my effort for efficiency, for he turned his face down, wrote a piece of paper, showed me the price, took my money, and our business was done without him asking or saying anything which would inevitably have caused only embarrassment. I thanked him – Merci, Mauruuru – and woke back down the stairway with the signed piece of paper on hand. Again, springing from the tire to the now-upward facing ramp, I quickly made it to the pier and immediately noticed that a fuel pump had been installed there. A rusty, beaten down contraption tethered to the ship, and manned by a straight-faced crewmember. Once more, my facial expression must have said it all, for he promptly signaled for me to bring my empty bottles to him. Like the Merovingian upstairs, he was serious at his job, but less concerned at keeping it at such a tone, and thus more openly friendly. Unable to communicate, we went straight down to business. I handed him the piece of paper and opened the bottles while he dialed something at the machine. He then meant to show me the amount he had “programmed” in the pump, but it was impossible to read the numbers through the crazed plastic display. Anyway I pretended to have seen and approved of it, we exchanged smiles, and he proceed with filling the bottles. He was the kind of person who takes great pride in doing his job well done – whatever it is – and handled the pump with precision and care. I tried to reciprocate with efficiency again, quickly closing each bottle and taking it away as soon as he had finished filling it. At the end, he had filled each bottle exactly to the mark, without spilling any drop. A clean, well done job. Equally satisfied, we shook hands and each went about his own business.

Now the real hard work was about to start for me. To lower the six heavy bottles into the moving dinghy, then ferry them to Pesto, load them on deck, transfer the contents to the tanks, clean and stow the bottles. But that was now known territory for me. A comfortable return to the world I know and control.

But as I lowered the bottles one by one into the dinghy, I also felt a bit of sadness that this moment was over. As much as I don’t belong in that picture, it was a quite enjoyable experience to share in a little bit of that organized and fancy chaos.

While I syphoned the precious Gazole from the bottles into Pesto’s tank, the Cobia 3 blew its loud horn, almost a mile away back at the pier, and soon afterwards was sailing towards the pass. As I stowed the empty bottles inside the lazarette, the crowd disassembled, each one happily taking their prized goods back to their homes or shops, and I bet the Merovingian-businessman was happily peeling his plantain as he watched, from his vantage position on the upper deck of Cobia 3, Fakaraka dwindle on his horizon.