“There are no Turagas or Adi’s on the Uto,” a statement made by Rev. James Bhagwan to the team one afternoon out at sea. Though expressed under certain circumstances and in good humour, it also set a cultural precedence for us as first-time sailors to know that when one sets foot upon the vaka, all titles, professions, achievements, and ego-boosting statuses were to be left behind – everyone is equal on board Mama Uto and were therefore expected to contribute equally. This meant that teamwork was key, from scrubbing the deck, cleaning bunk spaces, and most importantly sailing, all hands were to be on deck! Mama Uto, like most mothers became our home, a protector out there on the sea, shielding us from storms, transporting us across the water, and teaching our crew that a unity of heart and spirit was more powerful than any of the elemental forces out there on the ocean.
We began to practice tying simple knots as we changed the sails of the vaka over and over again in order to catch the wind throughout our two-week sail. I learned that there were hundreds if not thousands of ways of tying a rope, so much so that there is even an encyclopaedia for knot tying techniques. Captain and the core crew encouraged new members on board to ask plenty of questions on board, they explained that “learning” was an important and continual part of the process when living and sailing upon any vessel. The traditional navigator on board was a 25year old by the name of Setareki, who by reading the stars, waves, and winds followed in the footsteps of our voyaging ancestors. Seta patiently answered questions and was always on hand to teach and explain new things to the crew. We learned how to station ourselves at different parts of the vaka, execute commands, and work as a team – Mama Uto was Queen and we her little but loyal subjects. During the sail we also had to learned how to live together in the limited spaces of the vaka, where even the cooking area required skilful manoeuvring.
Being a natural introvert who requires time and space to recharge her batteries, living communally with 15 other adults was one of my biggest challenges upon the Uto. All living spaces had to be shared whether you liked it or not, meaning that privacy was limited and personal space a luxury. However, this is how it is out there, the Uto Ni Yalo is the equalling factor which requires the sharing of all duties and spaces. You share the sailing, cleaning, cooking, sleeping, showering, and though we did not share the toilet (called the Internet Room), there was only one on board which we shared for all those “downloading” moments. Sea water was lugged on board the Uto with buckets pulled up by ropes, and by the end of our voyage many of us had gained a few extra muscles. The sea water was also used to flush the toilet, scrub the deck, cool the burning deck, and shower in at the back of the hulls. Any princess tendencies that I may have carried onto the Uto in Leleuvia quickly dissipated with my first sea water bath experience.
On a rainy night as the Uto docked off the chiefly village of Naduri I was lugging up sea water in a large green bucket to wash myself with when a fibre boat with the Turaga-ni-koro (village head-person) and a few other men sped over the water with a brightly shining torch beamed towards the back hulls. I dropped fast beneath the hulls swearing at the inconvenience of having my bath disrupted … who knows what they could have seen?! But that’s just it, on Mama Uto you deal with situations and quickly get over it! This I learnt, is because anything can happen out there and you must always be ready, always prepared. After my bath (which I really should’ve taken an hour beforehand), I walked past guests from Naduri, a tanoa full of yaqona, and the rest of the crew in nothing but a towel, and even though I was slowly dying inside, I walked like it was a perfectly normal thing to walk half-naked in front of everyone before dropping quickly into one of the hatches. Once below deck, I burst out laughing at the way I walked through so solemnly like I was going to a funeral; my funeral that is, “how did she die?” the people asked, “from embarrassment, didn’t you know?!” But seriously, that was one of the many times throughout the voyage where I learned to let go of my inhibitions/pride and just get on with it!