Living and dying in Bora Bora. The (true) tale of Vincenzo Onorato

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Illustration by Luca Tagliafico

An unexpected encounter in a sailor’s paradise, French Polynesia. Vincenzo Onorato (who wrote about this meeting, which really happened, for the Journal of Sailing)
and Pierre, the great sailor with no last name who was Tabarly’s companion.
A dialogue about the essence of sailing, life, and death.
On the beach, as rivers of rum flow…

Living and Dying in Bora Bora

by Vincenzo Onorato* / illustrations by Luca Tagliafico

C’was once a magnificent little atoll in front of Bora Bora where I happened upon in my being a peregrine sailor. It was a windy and hot day, but over there all days are windy and hot. The ring of palm trees and sand reflected God’s imagination in creation, where beauty is reflected by the absence of invasive human settlements and reveals all of creation: light and transparent sea, not the essence of Dante’s Paradise, or maybe it is, where everything is lights and concentric and delicately absolute melodies, but certainly that of Ulysses and also mine immersed in the incomprehensible and unexplored uncertainty of the oceans. The warm beers and the fisherman’s boat that had brought me there were gone, or maybe not, but that no longer mattered to me at that moment.

I crossed the small island to the leeward beach, and the poetry suddenly vanished into the paradoxical: on the golden sands of the shoreline, a catamaran, a kind of small F40, languished placidly among the small waves crashing on the shore. To my astonished gaze the surreal appeared: what was that boat doing there? I had no time to think. From behind my back I heard a distant voice, an agitated breath, thick with corrosive irony: “Do you like my little toy?”

The drawling English betrayed the distinct French accent. I turned around, a thin man in a frayed T-shirt, long beard and light eyes, his hair sparse and shaggy from the saltiness, looked at me amused. He must have been in his early 60s or perhaps he simply wore his age poorly, clutching a bottle of liquor and a cigar in his hands.

He sat on the sand with his back against a palm tree and smiled. I was not surprised and answered with conviction, “very much and especially because unlikely here.”

The man changed his facial expression and looked at me in amazement, “why would that be?”

“It doesn’t look like a typical French Polynesian boat to me at all,” I replied as I approached him. The man shook his head, “man and his Shit are the only typical products on the entire planet,” and after taking a sip from his bottle and taking a puff from his cigar, he added, “unfortunately.”

“Do you feel like going for a ride?” I answered affirmatively with a nod.

The man stood up “twenty dollars and it’s a deal.”

“Okay,” I replied. “I’ll take you to see this sea. Have you ever been on a sailboat?”

“Sometimes …”

“You pay in advance, it’s not out of distrust but maybe you shit your pants in fear, my toy goes fast and you can’t pay me afterwards.”

“My name is Vincenzo.”

“And I Pierre.”

We pushed the catamaran into the water and took off.

The wind was blowing stronger in the sunny early afternoon, and the boat was proceeding swiftly with the windward hull raised above the sea surface.

Pierre noticed that I knew where to put my hands and without telling me anything he left the helm to me. We sailed along the leeward reef where the water is always almost flat accompanied by a pod of small dolphins of what they call “stenella” in Trieste, which took to swimming under the hulls. You could look into their eyes and they seemed to be smiling…time flew by in the blinding light on the turquoise and emerald sea, and the puffs of the dolphins bathing us more than the splashing of the hulls, more than spitting seemed to bless us to exalt and make us aware of the immortality of the moment; it would be only that time, that moment, nothing else and never again.

We returned to the beach that the sky had already turned a blazing red.

We had been for the entire time of navigation in silence.

The first words Pierre uttered were, “Did you have a good time, then?”

“Of course!” I replied, “and you ask me as well?”

“Then you also buy me a beer, I asked too little for an experience like this, don’t you think?”

“Honest!” I replied and we returned together to Bora Bora on his flat-keeled wooden boat equipped with an old Evinrude outboard from the 1960s.

The bar on the fishermen’s shore where we landed was simply a kiosk with five wooden tables and some differently solid stuffed chairs.

Pierre ordered two mugs of draft beer, which a native wearing only filthy shorts immediately served us.

“Heaven is a cold beer after a day at sea,” Pierre said, swilling it down in one gulp and ordering another round from the waiter, “this time it’s my turn.”

“We said the beers are on me, I’ll take care of it,” I replied and added, “you’re French of course.” He looked up from the second mug, “no, wrong Breton!”

I laughed, “You answered as I would have answered: I am not Italian but Neapolitan!”

“Algerian? Neapolitan? It’s the same thing…” A piè noir . “Almost,” I replied. “My name is Vincenzo Onorato.” “Down there in southern Italy we are all half-black.”

“And I Pierre but I already told you….” “Pierre how?” I added in curiosity.

“Just Pierre…” he replied annoyed, turning back in an instinctive nervous outburst, then evidently realized he had been overly rude and added, “here last names do not exist…a useless frill and what is useless ultimately becomes over time as dangerous as a cancer caught at birth that slowly leads you to death if you do not get rid of it, but it is not easy.”

“Come,” he said, “you’ve been nice, you’re having dinner at my place, you’re alone anyway and I get it, stray dogs recognize each other instinctively and you don’t even have rabies like me.” I followed him, the alternative being the sadness of a lonely dinner at the hotel chasing the last unfortunate and excessive glass of wine or an American tourist more bored than me.

Pierre’s house was a little further away, a few bricks on the beach. Three girls were intent on cooking fish on a makeshift grill over a half empty but on occasion filled oil drum. Pierre went into the house, without saying a word, and came out a short time later with a tin bucket full of ice and bottles of beer. The wall of the house that bordered the beach seemed to be supported by a palm tree at least as crooked as my thoughts, but still able to hold up a wooden table that seemed harpooned to its stem from times too distant to recall in human memory.

There were no chairs other than other rusty oil drums to sit in. Pierre shouted something to the native girls in French, but I did not understand. They moved disheveled, and I, for the first time, looked at them carefully: they were motorcycles young, barefoot and scantily clad, with an amber beauty that is hard to imagine unless one is fortunate enough to be able to admire it up close. Pierre looked like their sunny Solomon, without palace or crown, and I didn’t know what to say. He opened some bottles and handed me one. I remained silent so as not to fall into the pretense of a conversation initiated simply to avoid the equivocal awkwardness of silence.

We finished a couple of beers, the girls served us some fish, and had dinner with them. Everyone under the palm tree, sitting on the old oil drums, with the three girls devouring the fish like us with their hands, laughed and talked to each other regardless. At the end of the day it was fine, the whole thing then made little sense, and the sunset was so poignant that the lack of conversation seemed like a blessing.

When the fish was finished Pierre got up, without saying a word, went into the house and returned with two cigars, a bottle of rum with a frayed purple label, and two glasses fil thy with encrustations, which he filled instantly.

“You are a sailor,” he said and added, “do you have a wife?”

I replied in the sincerity of instinct, “and down here who remembers….”

Pierre laughed, already as drunk as I was, “women as traps.”

“Are you a sailor?” he repeated more insistently.

“Since always,” I replied.

Pierre refilled his glass with rum and drank it in one gulp. He handed me a cigar and matches to light it.

“Rum and cigar, what could be better, brother?”

I turned my gaze toward the girls, raising my eyebrows to emphasize latent envy.

Pierre smiled, then his gaze was lost far away, beyond the sunset, the mighty clouds and the fiery red. He seemed to chase an invisible, transparent demon that perturbed the air and stopped the wind, then suddenly bowed his head as if bent by the axe of remorse and whispered, “in Brittany the sea is not so beautiful, yet it was my home.”

“Do you miss Brittany?” I said just to say something.

Pierre shook his head and smiled, “no, no, Brittany belongs to another life….”

We stayed for a while in silence, leaving room for rum to do its ancient work, soothing and taming men’s feelings, before losing them for good.

“Do you like it here?” he finally asked.

“Yes,” I replied, and added, “if it weren’t for cockroaches, I’m a bug phobe.”

Pierre laughed again with gusto, “why don’t cockroaches exist in Italy?”

I shook my head, “like in Paris, but not as many as here….”

Pierre took a deep puff from his cigar and once again filled his glass with rum.

“Paris lacks everything else….”

Seabirds of prey flew high in the sky, and Pierre seemed for a long minute to chase them with his eyes, perhaps trying to guide their circling but was annoyed because he seemed unable to do so.

“Everyone in Brittany is a sailor…I am a doctor, like everyone in my family, but after graduation I indulged the sea demon. Regattas, sailing crossings, two round-the-world voyages with people who could do it, one among All Eric, the captain (Tabarly)! Best of all, people talk, talk and then talk some more because they don’t know what to say and if they don’t, they don’t know how to justify their existence to themselves. He was always silent and the crowd, when he could, he avoided it….” He suddenly seemed uncomfortable perhaps with me, but certainly with himself, and twisted his mouth into a fierce grin.

“Do you like rum?”

“Of course I do!” I replied.

“Then drink and don’t break my balls….”

We remained silent once more until the rum loosened the crease in his heart that had twisted his face and he resumed speaking as if to assail, once he recovered, his own demons.

“Then dragged by remorse for my family, I returned to France and found work in Paris.

The years passed slowly and inexorably, children grew up, and everything was as magnificently perfect as it was barren. I would watch from my study as the rain slowly descended on the windows and the crowded streets, wondering where all those people were going in such a hurry. The people with whom I happened to converse if they had the audacity to swallow their own saliva would have died of poison, but I pretended that it was not my poison.

The woodworm of cohabitation had torn apart every emotion between my wife and me, my children walked their lives elsewhere, while the sea returned overbearingly to haunt my soul. “He remained silent for a while, his eyes vacant, searching for a moon that would not rise from the crusts of his glass that he kept staring at in the vain search for the hidden knots of his damnation.

“Come with me,” he said, suddenly rising from his chair with a wounded beast roar that admitted no reply, the glass of rum in one hand and the cigar in the other. The tone was so peremptory and solemn that Sunset shocked in an impulse of fear or perhaps modesty simulated to stop and perhaps did. Darkness stopped peeping through, and we got up among the palm trees and took to walking on the beach. Windy circled around anxiously trying to figure out who had been able to upset the universal order of nature and in doubt sighed uneasily and certainly annoyed by such boldness. You know, he seemed to say, men have no shame.

I tried not to mind the greasy, pestilent signs of disquiet that enveloped us, and we proceeded ominously buoyed, at least I, by the anticipation of the next sip of rum, our mouths burning with the worm of a new unknown abyss.

The rest no longer mattered at all now, I was just trying to remember where I was and that the fetid, dragon-burnt breath arrogantly invading my nostrils was indeed my own. The sudden roar of the silent wind aroused from the sea a stench of dead crabs that made our eyes water and our already upset stomachs rumble.

vincenzo onorato bora bora

Barely a little further on, we saw a blue cross.

made probably from the ribs of a wooden box, painted as hastily and hastily as possible, which towered over the gold of the sand bordering the rammed earth of the road like a festive sign at the extreme edge of the tramorphic sunset. We did not see the few people walking despondently in the eternal dust of the street, we did not see the few cars sputtering in the nothingness, we did not see a cart full of fish leaving a trail of blood and evil humors on the street in a swarm of crazed flies, dragged by a man resigned to the infamy of his own existence.

We did not see the restless clouds clashing and fighting to take back the dominance of the sky. We did not see the frightened moon rising and terrified by the madness of the moment rushing into the sea without even an agonizing gasp of sudden and unexpected loneliness. Nor did we see the sea birds of prey scanning the waters in the lava of our frustrated and unexpressed desires. We did not see the giant cetaceans move away from the reef with the shuddering of their heavy hearts and choked with the certainty that an ancient leviathan had risen out of nowhere somewhere to hunt them, they did not know for sure where it was, but they were certain of its malign existence by the samba of extreme earthquake that shook the waters and stirred the dances of the confused plankton in the phosphorescent light of the recalcitrant tide.

We did not see the corals breaking in the jolts of the waves created by the sudden and disjointed escape of the cetaceans. We did not see the eternal shells of the times of consumed volcanoes explode on the sandy bottoms. We did not see, nor did we hear the trembling of the sand under our feet tangled in the twisted ancient prayer in the extreme gesture of mercy of asking forgiveness for our marvelous sins that had drunk from the rum sweat of our irrepressible heats. We didn’t see anything at all, but Pierre stopped and knelt down, marking his chest and thus spilling the rum all over himself but he didn’t seem to mind then .

Nothing had any more reason to exist “it’s a new baptism, profane as you like, but authentic,” he whispered to himself, but I could still hear his drunken swearing hiss consuming his teeth in the vinegar acid of his irrepressible sadness. The distorted crease of his unhappy lip, the most authentic and vulnerable one, the one he tried to keep hidden without succeeding, reappeared on his face. He looked up at me and said, “I am buried here, from time to time come to visit me and say a prayer for my soul.” It was already night, suddenly, and without any certainty, loneliness rushed upon us like the latent shroud of death that dwells in us from our first unconscious womb.


*About Vincenzo Onorato

Vincenzo Onorato (Naples 1957) is one of Italy’s great shipowners and veilists. With his Mascalzone Latino team, founded in 1993, he has two America’s Cup appearances to his credit, In 2002 he achieved only one victory. In 2007 she showed herself to be more competitive, staying in the running for the semifinals for a long time.

VIncenzo Onorato - Mascalzone Latino - 2
Vincenzo Onorato pictured at the helm of his Swan 38 Mascalzone Latino at the VELA Cup in Cala dei Sardi (photo by Simon Palfrader).

In his long career he has won everything, about everything. Farr 40, Cookson 50, Melges, IMS, Mumm 30, He began sailing on the family boat, the Alcyon, the bow-jib cutter owned by his father Achille, founder of the Navigation Company of the same name. His favorite boat is the “old” Swan 65 Mascalzone Latino XIV with whom he lives long periods touring the Mediterranean and going fishing, his other great passion besides sailing.

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