After a pleasant sail of 650 over 5 days we arrived at an atoll named Sawarrrow in the Northern Cook Islands. One of the most remote places to live in the Pacific. The nearest inhabited islands are many hundreds of miles away. Suwarrow is a designated marine sanctuary and entry and anchoring is restricted to one island. Other islands along the atoll can be visited with a ranger guide if you choose. The 2 rangers living here are dropped off in the early Spring with an 8 months worth of supplies which tend to run low after several months. At the beginning of cyclone season they are picked up and returned home. Their accommodations are modest as is their standard of living. Harry is the chief ranger and Charlie, who cannot read or write is second in command and does the tours for cruisers. The cost of tours is more like a barter arrangement. They have very limited gasoline for the outboard motor so Charlie asks for 2 or 3 gallons per person and a few dollars pocket change. Of course there is no where to spend any money here so he may have a nice kitty when he returns home. As a child his family lived on Suwarrow but moved many years ago. He showed us a tree his father tied him to as a hurricane approached to prevent him from being washed away.
The rangers are extremely friendly and arranged many pot luck dinners. Myself and Mike from Cherokee Rose went fishing with Charlie one day and caught 5 fish which ended up on the BBQ that night. A few days later we toured 7 Sisters, a small motu, and Charlie caught 5 large coconut crabs which we ate the next day. Even though one escaped during the night the 4 left were more than enough to feed 16 hungry cruisers and 2 rangers.
The island is very tranquil, the water clear, and the snorkeling very good. But I think the friendliness of the rangers made it a very special place. They get about 90~100 boats per year and cruisers are only allowed 2 weeks to stay, so off we went to Tonga.
The Society Islands of French Polynesia are the ones most people have heard of. The 3 most famous are Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora, where we are at right now. We also visited the lesser known islands of Huahine, Raiatea, and Tahaa. The changes that have occurred in the 40 years since I was here last have made anything I remembered unrecognizable. But that is ok, they are still beautiful if less remote.
Papeete is the capital and has a population of around 200,000 people. It is the largest city in this part of the Pacific and the center of commerce and government for all of FP. It was an excellent place to reprovision with large supermarkets and numerous marine supply houses. Prices on the other hand are not so nice. Everything is heavily taxed, plus shipping costs, make everything very expensive. A pint of Hagan Das ice cream=$15, gasoline $8/gallon, eggs $6/dozen, cheeseburger $20. Fortunately we knew this ahead of time and had most food we needed on board.
We took part in a regatta from Tahiti to Moorea sponsored by local businesses and an American boating magazine. There was lots of activities for the cruisers, canoe races, coconut husking lessons, watching the women learn the 36 Tahitian ways of tying on their sarong. The final competition for the ukulele contest, dance demonstrations, and much more. Everyone received some sort of prize and the setting was beautiful.
Huahine was the most beautiful island we visited, population around 4000, mostly Tahitian. Unfortunately we had mechanical problems and had to leave earlier than expected to go to Raiatea for repairs.
And finally Bora Bora, Jewel of the Societies, and where the well to do go to vacation. Most of the hotel rooms are bungalows built over the water, with rooms starting at $1000 ( yes a thousand ) per night. That does not include meals, tours, wifi. But I suppose if you can spend a grand a night for a room you don't worry about your meal costs.
We leave in the morning for Suvarow 700 miles NW of here. It is a small atoll and marine sanctuary manned by 2 officials from New Zealand and part of the Cook Islands.
The Tuomotu' s are a string of 76 coral atolls and 2 islands spread over a 1000 mile stretch of ocean in a SE to NW orientation. Atolls form as coral reefs grow around volcanic peaks, the peaks eventually subside over millions of years, and you are left with a "ring" of motu's (small coral islets) around a lagoon. The lagoons are as large as 40 by 14 miles and most have one or more passes into them. The challenge is to enter the passes at slack water ( little or no current ). Current can reach speeds of 8mph or more, and if it is against an opposing wind you can face standing waves as high as 10 feet. A dangerous situation to find yourself in. The shallow reefs are often miles from shore and pose a danger at night and in poor visibility.
As dramatic as the tall beauty of the Marquesas are, the beauty of the flat Tuomotu's lies in the clear blue waters with excellent snorkeling and diving. The highest point of land is barely 10 feet about sea level. When you think of running away to a tropical island the Tuomotu's are the kind of place your mind pictures.
We visited the 3 atolls of Kauehi (population 150), Fakarava (pop. @ 500), and Toau ( pop 9; yes nine!! ) Most of the atolls have at least one family living on them, the smaller ones rarely have visiting yachts stop so you always expect a warm welcome. Being fairly dry with poor soil and brackish ground water not much grows on the motu's. Fakarava had 2 small farms that grew a small variety of fruits and veggies but of poor quality. The more populous atolls will have small cargo ships make deliveries of food and supplies on a theoretically regular schedule. But bad weather can delay arrival for days. On Toau the family had not seen a ship in 6 weeks and their supply of staples were almost gone.
Forty years ago I sailed to French Polynesia on the above boat, the Regina Maris, built in 1908 in Norway. Now we have sailed our own 40 foot boat across 3000 miles of Pacific Ocean, a trip that took 27 days and nights nonstop. The weather was good with no storms or mechanical problems, unlike some other unlucky cruisers. French Poly is separated into 4 large regions, the Marquesas in the NE, Archipelago Tuomotu in the middle, the Society Islands which included Tahiti, and the Australs to the SW.
This entry will cover the Marquesas, first discovered in 1595 by Spaniard Alvaro Mendana de Mendoza. The late 1700's brought Cook, Ingraham, and the Frenchman Marchand. The Marquesas became a French protectorate in 1842. Of the 12 islands only six are inhabited with a total population of about 15,000, up from a low of 7,200 in 1970. When first discovered the native population was estimated at 100,000. The natives were fierce warriors who practiced cannibalism, but were no match for guns and the ravage of European diseases introduced to the islands.
Fortunately the locals no longer eat the visitors and are very warm and welcoming. A large number of the population work for the government in one capacity or another. The rest harvest copra, have small farms for their own needs, or are craftsmen. For the most part they seem to live simple relaxed lives and always have a ready smile for you. They are some of the best wood and bone carvers in the Pacific and their works can bring many hundreds of dollars in Tahiti or other tourist areas. Despite the high cost of everything on the island a surprising number of houses have satellite TV dishes and more cars and pickup trucks than you would expect to see. Especially when you find out that a small Toyota or Nissan pickup can cost $70,000!!
The dramatic beauty of these islands is truly awesome. Tall steep mountains and deep valleys lush with vegetation of all types. You rarely see fruits for sale in the few supermarkets (really more like a convenience store in the US) because the locals can just go pick them from their back yard. We were all out of fresh produce on our arrival and were hungry for them. With a little searching you can usually find much of want you desire. Our next stop will be the Tuomotus which are low, dry and grow almost nothing, so we will need to stock up.
After 1000 miles and 7 days at sea we reached the Galapagos, population about 22,000. Owned by Ecuador, the islands were the inspiration for Charles Darwin's theories of evolution. Many birds, plants, and all of the reptiles are exclusive to these islands. Of the dozen or so islands only a few are inhabited. The whole group is considered a national park and cruisers are restricted to 3 or 4 different ports to anchor in. If you just show up you are limited to 21 days and cannot go to another island with your boat. If you plan ahead and use an agent you can pay for a permit to visit 2 or possibly 3 other islands and stay up to 60 days. It is all very regulated and they do check and will tell you to leave if you break the rules.
Our first port of call was Wreck Bay on the island of San Cristobal, population 2500. The first thing you notice are the hordes of sea lions, they are every where, and unafraid of people. The second is the large fleet of live aboard dive boats that converge on the island. The cold Humboldt Current brings nutrient rich water to these islands, and along with that a myriad of marine life. Two species of sea lions, a small population of fur seals, many species of sea turtles, sperm whales, killer whales, manta rays, many species of sharks, the worlds second smallest penguin, marine iguanas, and huge schools of fish. Even though water temperatures are in the sixties diving is a big industry due to the abundance and variety of life. There have never been a shark attack here and they attribute it to the fact that there is such a rich supply of prey the sharks don't need to eat us funny looking creatures. One guide said all Galapagos sharks are vegetarian but I am doubtful.
The people are very friendly, the town neat and clean, and you can get a good dinner for $8, lunch for $3 or $4 if you eat where the locals do. We spent 2 weeks here hiking the trails, snorkeling among the sea turtles and sea lions, and enjoying the scenery.
Our next stop was Puerto Ayoro, also called Academy Bay, on the island of Santa Cruz. Puerto Ayoro is the largest city in the Galapagos, population about 10,000 and the most touristy. Which also means the best shopping foe food or supplies. Cruising in these remote areas you soon learn to look in every store to see what they may be selling, as they may carry anything. A local pet & feed store in the front also sold building supplies, tools, toys, fabrics, and house wares in the back. There are almost as many "tour operators" as tourists. At least two on every short block so deals can be made. We took a few all day tours at inexpensive prices and learned a lot from our guides about the land and the people. There are quite a few paved trails starting in town to various beaches and scenic spots.
Our last port of call was Villamil on Isla Isabella, largest and youngest of the Galapagos and the least populated, about 1200 people. No paved roads in town, limited shopping, and very friendly people. This is what you expect to see when you think about the Galapagos. Not a lot of tourists come here to stay on the island, mostly back packers and cruisers. There are lots of things to see and do here and can be very reasonably priced. We toured volcanoes, marine iguana nesting grounds, farms in the highlands, an old prison, tortoise reserves, a rodeo, a 3 day festival with a horse race down the middle of town. All the restaurants sell a lunch special for $3 or $4, usually consisting of a soup, small salad, meat or fish, rice, and a fruit drink. We had had a delicious lunch at Aloha Mary's of fish and the other things so we went back a few days later and ordered lunch again. The soup had some kind of meat? we could not identify and the main dish also had a meat we could not identify not found very tasty. A local we had befriended came in for lunch and educated us. He said "we in Isabella are organ eaters". The main dish was cow stomach, and the soup was made with either a cow or a goat hoof. After that we asked what was for lunch!!
Being islands everything gets shipped in by cargo ships from the mainland. None of the ports had commercial docks or water deep enough for them to get close. The ships anchor out a quarter mile or so and all cargo is loaded onto small barges or boats and brought to shore, where it is off loaded by hand or small cranes. You will see everything from food to building supplies, furniture, appliances, and even mall cars and trucks . It's very interesting to watch. Gasoline and diesel fuel are also transported this way and they are subsidized by the government. Locals pay just over a dollar for fuel, cruisers pay from $4 to $6 depending on where you are.
The islanders are also very environmentally aware and recycling is practiced every where. They try to ship out as much recyclable material as possible back to the mainland. All public garbage cans are marked for what goes in them and we rarely saw any litter. We met a couple along one trail that was on Isabella on business. The government was planning to put up a huge solar power array that would cover over two acres of land and be able to power the whole town. There would also be a back up generator that would run on bio diesel fuel, that is made of recycled cooking greases, oils, etc.
We enjoyed our 7 week stay in the Galapagos very much but it was time to move on to French Polynesia. Hope you enjoy the photos.
Enchantment went through the Panama Canal Dec 29th with cruising friends Carol, Jim, Suzie, and Robin. We ended up spending more time in Panama City than expected due to dental problems. The upside is that Panama City is very modern, and anything you may need or want is available for a reasonable price. The president has modernized the bus systems and a subway is under construction. I wish we had brought our camera to the central market. The best place to provision for a long passage. All the farmers bring in their produce there and it gets distributed to supermarkets, small tiendas, restaurants, and street vendors. The market covers almost ten acres and sells fruits and veggies of every kind. There must have been 1000's of pineapples and other fruits. For $5 you could buy a 25 lb bag of oranges or grapefruit. At the entrance you can hire a man for $2 to follow you around with a hand cart to haul your goods around and out to your car or taxi.
One of the most interesting trips we took was to an Embera village 30 miles into the rain forest. The Embera are one of six native Indian tribes in Panama and they are also the least politically active, least influential. The village we visited was an hour bus ride to the river then an hour boat ride up river. Approximately 140 people live in the village of Embera Drua. They have no electricity and choose to live traditionally. There village land was in an area incorporated by the government into a national park, whose main purpose is to protect the watershed that feeds Lake Gatun and the Canal. The Embera were allowed to stay but they cannot hunt or cut down trees for buildings. They do fish the river and cut lumber from areas outside the park when needed. Their only means of income now is to allow visitors (tourists) for a small fee which includes lunch. The women are expert basket weavers using palm fibers dyed with various berries. A large basket can take several weeks to finish.
On leaving Panama City we spent a few days on Isla Taboga, 8 miles away. This is a popular spot for Panamanians to go for the day or weekend with its beaches and clean water. Ferries run back and forth all day for a few dollars each way. From there we sailed 30 miles or so to the Las Perlas group of islands. Of the 20 or so islands only 3 are inhabited. The beaches are beautiful and many disappear at high tide. With a tidal range of up to 18 feet the landscape can change dramatically from low to high tide. Many episodes of the reality show Survivor have been filmed in these islands so you may have seen them on TV.
On leaving the Las Perlas we sailed 1000 miles to the Galapagos, where Charles Darwin got his inspiration for "Origin of the Species" and evolutionary change. As I write this we are on the Island of Isabela, Galapagos and are making ready to leave in 2 days for French Polynesia, 2950 miles away. Nothing between here and there but ocean and hopefully good weather. It will take a minimum of 3 weeks and perhaps as long a 5, depending on weather, any mechanical problems, and the temperament of King Neptune. By the time we get there we should have a blog update covering the Galapagos Archipelago.