Voyage of the Invader

by Louise Omwake Eckerson

Chapter 7

Sunset on Kauai

Sunset on Kauai
or our last night on Kauai and last hours on Hawaiian soil we planned something special.  It seemed fitting that we should celebrate our departure with one last fling together.

On that last day, word was spread that we would meet and make merry at a plain little roadhouse not far from our dock.  from supper time until midnight when we would weigh anchor and sing for the last time Queen Liliuokalani’s “Farewell to Thee.”

We underestimated the power of saki.  Two of our number had to be taxied home and poured into their bunks.  The rest of us sought the curative power of the walk back in the fresh air.  We did not want to leave Kauai, and our attempt to disguise our feelings with saki had failed.  We were solemn and serious at the prospect of setting sail as we prepared to weigh anchor at midnight.

In this gloomy atmosphere, the Invader’s engine began to hum.  There was life in one-half of the twin motor.  There was little life on the ship’s deck or on the shore.  No cheers went up spontaneously, no alohas rang out, no leis were cast upon the water.  Only Jack’s commands could be heard while feet scurried here and there to do his bidding.

As we had invaded the islands unheralded, so we left them.  As our barque noiselessly pulled away from the shore, its compass set for a point 2,400 miles east, we regretted that we could not express our desire to return to Kauai in the native language of flowers.

Before we left Hilo on Hawaii, it seemed rather wasteful, almost destructive of beauty, to throw our lovely petaled necklaces on the receding waters.  We obeyed the time-honored tradition and in so doing, we sensed the meaning of the symbol.  In this small role we became part of that growing number of travelers who came, saw, and were conquered by all things Hawaiian.  Casting my lei upon the water signified more to me than a wish to come back—it was a promise to myself that I would return.  Fifty-six years later, I am doing that vicariously by recalling and savoring the days we enjoyed there.

As the Garden Island passed out of sight, the Invader’s crew wished for native leis with which to say, “Till we meet again.”

No Hawaiian maritime official noted our departure.  No maritime official was waiting in California to record the safe return of the Invader and her crew.  We had an itinerary of our own making and it was known only to us.  No one could communicate with us, nor could we reach the world that existed beyond our yacht’s gutters.  As before, our course would not follow a straight line from Kauai to Los Angeles.  Ours was a ship of sails and the wind would determine our route.  We were alone on a big wide ocean.

We would face new experiences with the same captain and largely the same crew, but this time we were fortified with an inner strength and self-assurance.  We had learned to expect the unexpected, and our daydreams were not glorified visions of glamour and comfort.  We could meet what would come philosophically, and somehow there would be an adjustment.

Food, baths, clean clothes, and entertainment had lifted the spirits of the dejected looking sailors who had knocked at Hilo’s front door, and the hospitable Hawaiians had instilled some of their laissez-faire philosophy in us.  Our calm acceptance of whatever was before us seemed to reflect the comfortable, easygoing sort of existence we had met on the Pacific outpost.  Fresh, exhilarating living coupled with a partial amnesia for the string of previous events renewed our vigor to sail into the coming days.

Without further investigation of equipment or provisions aboard the Invader, we were resigned to stand at her helm and hope for a good voyage home.  At least we knew we were heading for a big continent, not a dot in the ocean.

Louise and Carl

Louise and Carl at the helm

Two of our original crew had booked passage to return home via the Matson Line.  Their places were filled by five men and two girls.  The newcomers included two most welcome galley boys, an artist, two mechanics, and two nurses.  Our deck seemed crowded with people.  At night, air mattresses were brought from below deck and placed wherever space was found.

Rolly, an artist, added an element of comedy to life on the Invader.  He came aboard sporting a green jacket and hat, long hair befitting an artist, and carrying a lei of small liquor bottles around his neck. 

With no formulated plan, Rolly’s good humor was soon put to the test.  After six weeks on the Invader we had become negatively adjusted to limitations in comfort and the questioned privilege of deck duty.  Rolly accepted all of these deviations from land life with a sporting enthusiasm that put us to shame and caused some resentment.  But he did very much want sugar in his coffee at breakfast when, at a later date, no sugar was to be had.  That gave us cause to remind him about the glorious adventure he was experiencing.  We rubbed that glorious adventure deep into him.  As the days passed, Rolly discovered the salty angles of roughing it on the Invader and descended to our attitude of resignation.  But Rolly’s cooperation and disarming friendliness completely offset his strange initial impression.  On the rest of the voyage he made a positive and cheerful contribution to our life at sea.

As I look back on our introduction to this new member, I regret the cold reception we gave his optimism in adversity.  He had the right point of view—meet adventure and its deprivations as a thrilling challenge to be overcome.  He showed morale-building strength in laughing at strong, chilling winds, in wisecracking when his improvised bunk discouraged sleep, in pretending disinterest when seconds in food were not forthcoming.  These were minor discomforts, however.  We had known what it meant to face a fresh water shortage on the high seas, to question whether we would reach Hawaii before the water was exhausted, or whether we would ever reach Hawaii.

Feeling ourselves veterans, we scoffed at Rolly’s happy naiveté and damped his optimism and positive way of thinking that we needed to regain for ourselves.  We were not veterans enough to accept new adverse conditions stoically.  We could, nevertheless, accept with good humor what could not be avoided by good planning.  The weather and seasickness were subjects of daily jests, forced perhaps, but still under control of good sportsmanship.  We knew that all that had happened since we left California could not be classified under “unpreventables.”

Perhaps we sensed subconsciously that Rolly’s high spirits represented the attitude that we had lost and, consequently, to our discredit, we collaborated in dispelling his cheerfulness by impressing upon him the grimness in Invader’s adventure.  As with life itself, the little things are often the hardest to bear.  So it was our artist’s coffee—minus sugar—that convinced him of the truth of our arguments.

For several days after embarking, the seasick casualties continued as the ship rolled its way eastward.  All of us who were afflicted with seasickness tried courageously to cover up our tracks.  Few of our inner qualms were aired in public and only one’s closest pals knew the truth.

On Atlantic voyages via freighters, I was a good sailor.  On several occasions when unfavorable signs appeared below the belt, I managed to hold them in check with a timely change of activity or my own brand of applied psychology.  But all systems of deluding the inner man in his discomfort on The Invader came to naught.  Pickles came nearest to providing temporary relief, but they were gone.

In general, the daily routine on shipboard took a turn for the better.  The weather, having exhausted its bad mood, had at last given us sunshine and stars.  It did not, however, give us any hint of the tropics in summer.  Sweaters and coats were always in order; sunbathing, a diversion of the islands, was a thing of the past.  Except for the three weeks on land, we scarcely recognized July and August of 1941 as summer months.

It was good to see the spirits of our shipmates rise as conditions improved.  The wind for sailing and the schooner made fair progress during the first few days.  In the meantime, we rejoiced over the service that the galley boys gave us. 

Getting up in the morning without facing the prospect of holding everything down until breakfast was served and dishes were cleaned made life for me much more worthwhile.  It had been a struggle to wait on tables with a smile at 8 a.m., when my head was swimming and warnings were rising from below.  It would have been easy to give up and return to my bunk, but Invaders did not shirk their chores for any complaint.

Meals were a pleasant routine during the early days of our return trip.  When a healthy stomach demanded food, there was sufficient to satisfy it.  The question uppermost in our minds was, Will there be enough water for the whole voyage? Remembering our experience on the first crossing, we decided on shore not to place our trust in the water tanks but to take on board private supplies of liquids, which, incidentally, would also be more palatable.  Each of us purchased according to his pocketbook and indulged as the spirit moved him.

Notwithstanding the ban on alcohol that Jack had wisely imposed when we sailed from California, the consensus on the return was that beer was harmless and the crew were tried and trusted.  Hence, beer parties were publicly accepted.  Carl and I counted our bottled drinks and apportioned them to last through the trip in case water should run short.  The long afternoons were broken with a spot of juice and evenings became more convivial with a can of beer.

Days passed rather uneventfully as we approached the mid-Pacific.  No ships were sighted.  No storms arose.  Van fished, but no nibbles rewarded his patience.  Finally, we spotted the first life in the wide ocean.  Porpoises were playing around our bow.  After entertaining us for a while, they disappeared and then came into view in the distance.  They could be seen curving their slick bodies above the surface of the water in initiating dives into its depths, only to rise to the surface many yards away. 

This hide and seek game had a fascination for a couple of our rifle marksmen.  (I never knew why there was a rifle on board!) A primitive desire to test the skill of man against the defense of innocent victims was aroused.  The action of our men might have been condoned if there had been a recognized need for food.  But there was only the thrill of sport in matching one’s rifle aim with the quick movements of the porpoises that remained at a distance.  Most of us were incensed at the cruelty of firing on the harmless porpoises, and the weight of our indignation soon had its effect but only after a couple of shots had found their targets.

This brief exhibition was a significant departure from the usual behavior of our men.  But it was not the only response observed during the subsequent bleak days of sailing.

Heretofore, everyone on board had joined in making the best of unfavorable conditions.  Tempers were held in check, fears remained in the background, and all hands volunteered their help in emergencies.  Now, with fair weather and lighter hearts, the emotional brakes were released and the long strain began to show itself in new behavior patterns.  Not always laudable or acceptable were some expressions of this newfound freedom.  Its essence was seldom intellectual, and dignity of manner suffered with the sometimes crude and boisterous outlets of pent up energy.  Ideas for action were often of a low order, but seldom were they malicious.  Antagonisms that had previously been restrained came out into the open.  All personal attacks were focused on one target—Jack, the schooner’s owner and skipper.  To their credit, as far as I knew, the crew reserved their disparaging remarks for the privacy of their bull sessions.  Their condemnation never took the form of personal insults or active revenge against Jack.

No longer were there rules governing life on board ship.  During our private war with nature and ignorance, we had won with all out display of the best that was in us, but now our battle at sea seemed to be over and it was time for fun.  Perhaps it was well that the reaction took the forms it did because they ruled out more insidious, less wholesome responses. 

Fundamentally, our crew remained ladies and gentlemen, and their deep, underlying moral goodness was scarcely scratched.  They found outlets that offered release through channels that caused no lasting regrets.  It was good that there was laughter—that time could be filled with innocuous if not high levels of entertainment.

Jack, who had squelched several displays of foolishness en route to the islands, refrained from curbing the childish pranks of the crew on the return trip.  He remained discretely in the background, still giving orders relative to navigation but not otherwise taking the lead or interfering.  And orders were executed as before.  Lack of confidence and respect for our skipper did not alter the fact that Jack was, in spite of his unlicensed status, still in command of his ship.  Ed was immensely capable as first mate and morale builder, but he did not claim any previous knowledge of navigation and sails, nor did he want the responsibility for which he was, admittedly, unqualified.  Frank knew the rudiments of sextant reading and of celestial navigation, but he was a novice with sails.  The rest of us knew only what we had learned on the Invader.  Jack remained our captain to the end.

Much as we longed to place Ed at the helm of decision-making, we relied on our better judgment and followed Jack’s orders.  Vic, the engineer and only able-bodied seaman aboard, was the most resentful of Jack’s improvident planning.  But Vic did not commit himself publicly until the time was right.  He nursed a long smoldering grudge until he could no longer remain quiet.

We never knew what made Vic tick under his solemn expression.  He didn’t mingle with the rest of the crew; he seemed not to want our company.  On the return trip after the second of the twin motors broke down and his services as an engineer were no longer needed, and we saw little of him, although he ate with the first watch.  His was a lonely summer, certainly a disappointment for him from start to finish.

Carl and I observed events and personalities on board and compared notes.  We had our juice or swig of beer to break the sameness of the afternoons and evenings, and we generally stood watch together to keep the other company during periods at the wheel.  Some of our experiences on the outward voyage were even beginning to appear colorful when viewed in retrospect, and we were starting to laugh over anxieties of the past.  “This will make good conversational material when we get back home,” Carl said.  “And even now I am glad I booked for this crazy adventure.” I agreed.  I was glad to be present.

Regardless of discomforts that accompany unpredictable events on a sailing ship, there is strength and beauty in the experience of sailing before the mast.  Man cannot control the winds -– man must adjust to their caprices.  Nature’s fickle temperament at sea must be appreciated if good, tolerated if bad.  If she smiles, she smiles for everyone alike.  If she is angry, it is impossible to escape her bursts of rage.  Her powerful hand is felt forcefully below deck where chairs tip over and dishes clatter.  On deck, no one evades her cold, damp breath.  No spot on the Invader’s deck was protected from rain, and only the companionway provided even partial shelter from wind at any time.

Strong wind makes sailors respond with strength.  It challenges the whole of a person by preventing easy relaxation, by always jogging thoughts back to the present scene with a sudden lurch of the ship.  Reverie, contemplation, and sleep suffer from staccato interruption by sound and motion.  One can’t forget one’s self, the ship, or nature when the latter chooses to play tiddlywinks with “chips” at sea.

A sailing ship feeds the spirit.  When the body is weak with seasickness, one struggles to overcome it when there are jobs to be done.  If a sailor indulges his aching head and unquiet stomach, someone else must work overtime.  Seasickness must be very severe before a sailor on a wind ship will give up his duties.  He books for adventure and he always gets it.

The square-riggers that for years carried grain, coal, and lumber around the world exacted a heavy toll from their hardy crews.  Those old four-masters presented beautiful pictures with their rows of giant white sheets stretched out in parallel lines, but life on their decks and in their rigging was precarious.  In the days of sailing ships, the uncurbed ocean was a match for strong men who reveled in outsailing a storm and bringing their vessel into calm waters where a bright sun would dry their clothes and renew their spirits.

The Invader was not a square-rigger fraught with the dangers of those picturesque old ships.  Despite her thirty-six years, her stout steel hull was as good as new—her balanced keel always righted her after a wave had disturbed her equilibrium, her two masts were steady and dependable.  She could not easily be wrecked even by maneuvers of a novice crew.  When her sails were spread, she held them high and proudly presented them to the wind.  She played her part majestically.  It was man’s job to provision her and keep her in good repair.  The Invader did not fail us.  She was worthy of more praise than we gave her.

When our anxieties were at rest we could admire our lady’s grace and power.  She did not look strong but she was.  When the storm winds blew, she danced on the surface of the water, for she was not heavy enough to cut a trough through the waves.  She rode on top of them and did their bidding.  But when the storm had passed, our lady appeared smiling, intact, with few battle scars.  Her white dress was as clean as ever—her deck was cleaner.  In her apparent fragility was the strength of the birch tree—her power lay in bending to a mightier force.  In seeming to yield she bypassed trouble.  By humoring the anger of the storm she came up the victor.

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Voyage of the Invader Chapter Index

Introduction  Chapter 1  Chapter 2  Chapter 3  Chapter 4  Chapter 5  Chapter 6  Chapter 7  Chapter 8

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