Funafuti Freestyle

By Michael H. Kew

Photos: Kew.

Five men in a dinghy. Five meters of Fijian hardwood painted bright orange and yellow, a striking contrast to the cyan sea. Eti, our captain, built this boat with his brother.

Pushing the dinghy is a modest 40-horsepower Yamaha. From the jetty, we slide to nearshore glass to bait balls and flying fish to banging back-breakingly across the deep, 11-mile-wide lagoon, then through a deep, narrow pass and into the deep, sharky ocean. Rough and torn with current. Soaked in saltwater we be.

This pass has a right and a left; both are wind-thrashed and unsurfable for the whole of our stay. Aside from a few sandy islets, home to sea turtles and coconut crabs, no land is visible.

We have no oars, no VHF, no compass or GPS, no EPIRB, no cell phone. No way to summon help. No backup motor. No spare parts. No tools. No fire extinguisher. No swim fins. No lifejackets. No first aid kit. No lights. No shelter. No horn, whistle, mirror, or flares. A very flimsy homemade anchor. Eti and Selau, the mullet-haired deckhand, are chain-smoking above two red six-gallon fuel tanks that are stowed beneath their legs. Eti speaks a bit of English; Selau speaks none.

While motoring along the surf line, Eti tells us that, five years ago, on a typically windy day, a day just like this, Selau and a friend were fishing here when their outboard died. The sandy islets dissolved into the horizon. The men drifted southwesterly for six weeks and 900 miles, surviving on rainwater and fish before shipwrecking on a reef at Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands, where they were spotted by a local. Selau and friend were shipped back to Funafuti on a Kiribati-bound freighter.

Three years before that, Selau spent two months and more than a thousand miles adrift. He was alone and headed the opposite direction during the summertime westerlies, missing Tokelau and Samoa and eventually crashing ashore at Pukapuka in the Cook Islands. There too he was rescued by a fisherman. The local government had him flown to Rarotonga and eventually back to Funafuti.

“He no more drive boat,” Eti says with a chuckle. Selau smiles sheepishly and lights another cigarette.

A few minutes later, Eti steers us up to a bend in the reef that shows a clean, uniform, head-high left. Satellite photos first lured us here, but the setup looks better in person.

Fronting the wave is a motu which blocks lagoon windchop. Terns and noddies whirl above. A pleasant place to surf. But before we settle in the quasi anchorage, Eti accidentally rips the fuel line from the Yamaha. He reattaches it and frantically yanks the pull-start rope.

Nothing.

Aside from being blown out to sea, we’re dead in the water. Next stop: Solomon Islands.

A worried Nico looks at Daniel.

“How long should we wait to jump overboard and paddle ashore?”