Sunday, April 11, 2010

Part 2-2 The Water Of Life

We thrust the first pickax into a pretty sand dune near the highest point on the island and scooped out the sand with shovels. However, digging a well is an unbelievably large task. We dug down, clanging into the hard coral ground, scooping out the sand. The large mens naked bodies were drenched in sweat like water had been poured over them. They were thirsty, their mouths were parched and they could not speak. They coveted water, water, water. Now, to get that water to flow, they dug. The well digging seemed cursed from the very beginning.
"Put your backs into it. This is the water of life for sixteen men. And before long, you'll have distilled water to drink."
I knew very well that in a situation like this, a single spoon of water is stronger than a hundred thousand words of encouragement. I wanted to let them slake their thirst as soon as possible, but a distiller can't be made so easily.

The fishing captain and the Ogasawarans made a harried run around the island and reported on their findings, "the area of the island is about four thousand square meters. In the north, there is a small island continuing off a sand beach about one hundred meters away. This island looks about three hundred square meters. On it were around thirty hair seal(1) laying out. We couldn't get close without surprising them.
There are two logs of driftwood. They look like the mast of a wrecked ship from about twenty years ago, made of American pine, with several vertical cracks from dryness. We saw four large Syogaku-Bo(2), which we turned upside down before coming back. We saw nothing else."
I told them, "well done men. Now, as fast as you can, begin making a water distiller. If we don't have drinking water, we can't dig a well."
The Ogasawarans took charge of constructing the distiller.

First, they built a fire pit out of the pieces of coral and sand from in the area.
In this pit, they would boil seawater, collecting the saltless steam in our water distillation apparatus; three stacked oil tins.
The bottom can had it's top cut off and had seawater inside.
The center can was empty with a hole in it.
The top can was filled with sea water.
We put the apparatus into the pit and heated it with a fire. The sea water in the bottom tin boiled off and the empty tin on the second level filled with steam. The steam was cooled by the sea water in the tin on top, turning into water and dripping down, collecting in the second tin.
The tin on the second level was slightly tilted, so that the collected water wouldn't fall into the hole that the steam was coming through. It flowed out through a tube made of a bamboo broom stick, and collecting the water was a bowl.

You cannot purify water without firewood. We hadn't carried that much chopped wood with us on the lighter, so we hauled the two logs of driftwood that had been found by the scouts, and decided to break it down into firewood.
We didn't have an axe to chop the firewood, so we whittled it down with the jackknife, cutting out several wedges which we jammed into the dried cracks in the wood. We did this and with a satisfying split, broke the American pine along the grain.
So prepared the firewood and the distilled water quickly dripped into the bowl. Still we could not wait for it to fill even half full. The well diggers sucked down the water almost immediately. The other men wouldn't drink so soon.
The well diggers drew courage from the water and continued digging, finishing a test well of about four meters deep.
However, the water that came out was white as milk and tasted like salt. It was completely undrinkable.
"It's no good."
I said it was no good, but we had chopped two logs of driftwood into firewood for the distiller. Still, we could not use it only for distilling water. We also had to cook our rice and make side dishes. It was just chopped planks, but they were a precious commodity.
Anyway, we did not know how many years we would live on this island. We needed a good well no matter what.
We would keep on digging wells until drinkable water sprang, opening a holes like honeycombs into the island. We were deadly serious. The sixteen men depended on this well with their lives.
"Let's do it."
With extreme determination we started a second well, sipping all the while on the distilled water dripping into the bowl.
This time, after a depth of two meters we had another well. But the water was undrinkable. It was white, and salty. The well digging team grew exhausted.
Then, the lighter returned safely with the raft in tow behind.
"Good work men," I said. "You must be tired, but change shifts with the well digging team at once."
The men who had come off the lighter immediately began digging a well. By the time the sun went down, they had dug another well two meters deep. The water that came out tasted less of salt than the previous two, but no matter how hard we tried, we could not bear to drink it.

On the other hand, we promptly readied a place to spend the night. We took apart the raft and used a small piece of wood for a pillar, then stretched a large sail over that. This would serve as our roof and keep out the wind. It was a splendid tent. We put the lighter, the food supplies that had been brought back and the other luggage into the tent.
After it became dark, we all gathered into the tent. The cook for the day made salt water soup and fried the meat of the Chelonia Mydas that had been on the island. We didn't have water, so we didn't cook rice. After not having breakfast or lunch and working the whole time on empty stomachs, we were now too exhausted to even say our thanks. After we each drank a third of a bowl of distilled water, we all suddenly became sleepy.
"There's no more light, and everyone is tired, so have a good nights sleep. We can discuss our plans in the morning tomorrow. Goodnight."
We all slept well in the tent. I had made living naked the law of the island, so we did not wear nightgowns or tuck ourselves into blankets. We laid down on the sand and everyone was soon snoring. Since we left Japan at the end of last year, it was the first time sleeping on solid dry land. Who would have thought that we would be so happy to sleep on the sands of a desert island, like a tiny mustard seed in the middle of the Pacific ocean.
In the darkness outside of the tent, I discussed the well with Helmsman Sakakibara, Fishing Captain Suzuki and Boatswain Inoue in quiet voices.
"Fresh water will not spring on this island. However, we must somehow to get a little bit of drinkable water. Sakakibara-Kun, do you have any ideas?" I said.
For a moment the helmsman thought, and then answered, "now, after the three wells, we know that we will not find good water no matter how deep we dig. In other words, the salt water from the ocean mixes in, so we will only dig to more salt water. Is there any way to dig a shallow well?"
The fishing captain answered as if he has just remembered, "A long time ago, when I was on an island that had no fresh water, I found that there was sometimes water if you dig near the roots of trees. If we dig near the roots of the grass, we would probably find comparatively good water. Boatswain, you led the well digging team, what do you think?"
The boatswain also had a face like he had just realized something, "I apologize that the three wells from today failures. If we dig some shallow wells tomorrow, I believe that we will find good water. The water will be white in the beginning, but if we wait, it will eventually become clean."
Here, I said, "I see. There is a definite relationship between a wells depth, the growth of the grass, and the quality of the water that comes out. The grass's roots are sucking up pure water, so a shallow well close to the roots should be better. Shallow wells would also be good in places where it looks like rain will flow and collect.
"So, because this is a coral island, there is a lot of lime in the water. In the beginning the water is white, but it will clear up if we wait. Boatwain, dig more wells tomorrow. I'm relieved that this conversation ended like this. Well, let's go to sleep."
The first night the sixteen naked men slept deeply on that lonely, desert island.

(1)(a) small earless seals
(2)(t) This is a nickname for the Green Turtle (Chelonia Mydas) which means something like "enightened monk," referring to the final stage of enlightenment in Buddhism.

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