Note: This is the twelfth of fifteen parts. Click here to read from the beginning.
As promised, I baked a Duncan Hines chocolate cake and slathered it with cream cheese frosting. At 3:40 p.m., four of Molly’s teacher friends and I headed off in a taxi with the cake, and we were thrilled that our pilot friends were at the agreed-upon meeting place. We waited there a few more minutes for another woman who’d been invited along.
The pilots we met were—and yes, I’m making up all of their names—Tom, Fred, Harry and Dave. They each work on a different tuna boat, and their job is to fly around and spot the fish and direct the fishermen to the large schools.
Because the helicopter takes off and lands from a pad on the boat, our helicopter ride began with a ride in a tug boat out to Tom’s American-owned (but manned by Vietnamese) fishing boat. It was slow as there were many of us inside, and the sea was a bit rough. We bobbled around a fair amount, and the cake got passed to whoever was not struggling to maintain balance.
The tug boat pulled up next to the large fishing boat, and Dave told us to watch out for the winches, and not to touch them because they are covered with grease. The winches secured us against the side of the much larger fishing boat and raised us up about 10 feet so we could easily step from one craft to the other. We passed the cake around some more as we took turns getting off.
Because it was Tom’s boat, he gave us a tour, showing us where the hold is for the tuna they catch, and then walking us by the galley kitchen (ew), the dining area (ew), and the lounge with a flat screen television and mahogany floors, where the pilots spend their time while at sea.
Tom then walked us through the bridge—where the main controls for the ship live—and pointed out the mini temple for prayer within. Then we passed two bonsai trees on a window ledge and headed up a short flight of metal stairs. At the top was the helicopter pad—which looked like a large braided rug sitting on the deck; the helicopter sat squarely atop it.
The four pilots worked together to complete safety checks and refuel. Then Tom gave us all a joint lesson about buckling in, how to put on the headphones and speak into the microphone, and he told us what we’d need to do in the event of an emergency landing.
Emily P. went first. We all braced for the deafening roar, and the blast of wind we knew to expect when Tom took off. It was so intense, the sheer force sent a small set of metal steps hurling toward Molly. Dave moved quickly to catch them before they knocked her over, and then he tied them to a railing.
With each of us on board, Tom swooped off the landing pad and headed northwest toward Eneko. He flew over the water, turning the helicopter this way and that to give us the best photo opportunities. After about five or 10 minutes, he headed back and came at the pad each time from the southeast. He’d come in on the diagonal, and it seemed a miracle that he hit the landing pad solidly in the middle on the first try each time.
Molly was third in the rotation, and I was second to last. Taking off took my breath away, and I was amazed that only a little seat belt stood between me and the ocean down below. There were no doors on the helicopter; I could reach out into thin air.
It was stunning to see Majuro and all of the smaller islands in one long string and to see all the tuna boats in the port below. There were 52.
I loved the dip and the sway of being in the craft, the feeling that the wind was taking you, but also knowing that Tom was in charge. He was completely focused on the task at hand and made no attempts to socialize or tell stories. When he came to bring me in, Tom passed by the front of the boat, instead of coming up on the starboard side, so I could see everyone down below. He said later he was trying to “mix it up for us.”
After we’d all been up in the air, we thanked Tom and the others en masse, continually repeating how much fun we’d had. And in the tug on the way back, the sun set on the horizon. We were all snapping photos, and yes, we were still passing that damn cake around.
We took the pilots out for dinner at the Tide Table as a thank you. When we arrived, we placed the cake in the center of the table set for 10, and we pecked away at it with our forks. Finally, a reason to have dragged it along.
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