Today I was told to be ready for pickup from my hotel by 7am. I was downstairs, checked out and sitting waiting patiently like a good on time soldier in the army. 15 minutes early. That was a mistake. For two reasons, one – I’m on Fiji and nothing here runs on anything other than Island Time, and two – the communication between the company, the boat, and the port agent up until now has not been exactly stellar. By the time 8am rolled around I had begun to realize this and asked the front desk if I could take my breakfast (which was included with the room) in the lobby. They were happy to bring me a plate with scrambled eggs, sausage, fruit, and toast. And one glass of delicious island juice. I have no idea what kind of juice it was, but it was sweet. I can rule out mango since I know the taste of mango like nobodies business (thank you Davao!).
Then 9am rolled by. Ok, I’m starting to worry at this point. What kind of time am I going to have getting to the boat, on the boat and settled before we weigh anchor and set sail on our voyage. Yesterday I was told that we were leaving at 10am. It was getting close. I think my regular check ins with the company were starting to drive poor Karen crazy. She kept echoing “just wait, just wait” to me, as if I was gonna take off and go on a pirate gold seeking adventure or something. At this point I didn’t know anything other than sitting and waiting. I was getting really good at it too.
930, a dark Fijian man walks into the hotel and stares me down intently, I think to myself “this is it, finally!” he then asks if I had called for a taxi. Damn it. No. It wasn’t until just after 10 that another Fijian man came walking into the hotel lobby. My god I could have slept in and instead I was 4 hours before he even showed up. The man approaches me and unfolds a piece of paper to reveal rather large blown up copy of my passport. “Is this you?”
As a matter of fact it is, let’s go. I want to get my hands on this helicopter, and figure this boat out. “Yup – that’s me!” We loaded up in a taxi, which wasn’t an easy task considering I was lugging 40 kilos of gear with me. It seemed to get heavier every day I traveled. We went down to the Port of Suva, I got signed in as crew for the Caribe, and was taken to the boat. Time for the circus music.
The crew did not know that I was going to be training on the boat, they thought I was a total replacement for the pilot already here. Nope. Tropic wanted me to sail this voyage with Jose Cabrera training me on the ins and outs of the company and off shore flying. This mix up made for a bit of awkward standing around. I lugged my 40 kilos bag up a slipper narrow stairway to the pilot and mechanic room. There I met my mechanic “Roxy”. He’s a nice man, a Filipino and former crew chief with the 205th PAF Helicopter Unit. I’m in good hands. In fact, that is a direct quote from my friend – Paul Basa – when I told him (later in the day) who my mechanic was. He in fact had been Paul’s crew chief when they were in the Air Force together.
But I digress. Where was I going to sleep. I know I brought a hammock, but it was not for this situation. We (I) lugged my 40 kilo bag back down the stairs – narrow stairs- and then into the hallway on the main deck. There I met the first officer (and since he is Korean and I have no idea what his name is – I’m calling him Riker) and then the captain (for similar reasons – Picard). Riker set quickly to the task of finding me a place. The solution – the extra bunk in the cook and deck boss’ room. Ah. Ok cool. This shouldn’t be too weird. They both speak flawless Korean and not a lick of English. Cool. I foresee my next month being filled with nods, weird sign language, and forced accented attempts at making English sound Korean in a way that still won’t get through to them. Much like their attempts at English will leave me with one ear twisted toward them and a bemused expression on my face.
After getting my bags stowed and figuring out my bunk – I went up to the helideck. Finally. The moment of truth. Before me is my future. A blue and silver Hughes 500c. Roxy shows me around the helicopter, I point at a few areas and have questions like “where is our fresh air vent” and “why is this like this” (in regard to a big chunk of missing paint. The answer was corrosion. A constant enemy – I didn’t expect it to be so present on the helicopter. I inspected the turbine, and the swashplate and blades, the tail rotor and its gear box. Mechanically it looked good. Visually – it left much to be desired. The good news, this helicopter was due for a maintenance cycle in Pohnpei (our next port) and would be replaced with a different bird. Oh thank god.
Well now what Roxy? My mechanic and I swapped stories of the Philippines for a bit and then decided to head to the mall and meet up with the other pilot on the boat, the man training me. He was there using the internet. Which was an AWESOME idea. We walked over to the mall chatted a bit, bought a ton of groceries for the month at sea (I think I’m gonna buy more pogey bait and a case of beer tonight) and then went to lunch. In port we eat at the restaurants because at sea, we only have one establishment to choose from – a Korean place, located just down the hall.
The rest of the day was spent unlocking my phone, searching for internet, loading my sim card, and then it sounds like we’re headed to dinner here in a bit. Tonight will be my first night staying on the boat. My quarters are small and cramped, but fortunately I’m only 5’7” so I fit fairly nicely into the bunk which is surprisingly comfortable. This next month at sea will be spent training, and we’re already mapping out a plan for that. When we put into our next port (should be Pohnpei) we will swap helicopters, Jose will wave goodbye and head home, and I’ll move into the pilots room, as the PIC for a new(ish) 500c.