Marquesas - French Polynesia at last
04 July 2007
Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, in which we at last reach the fabled South Sea islands of Polynesia and I relate the joys of the pig roast, the failure of the shroud, the reworking of the modem, various new friends and experiences, and the biggest scare to date
We've been here now for about a month, and have visited the islands of Fatu Hiva, Tahuata, Oua Pou and are now in Nuku Hiva. If all our bits and pieces arrive, we'll be leaving in a day or two for a 3-5 day passage to the Tuamotu Islands, a huge group of low-lying atolls which are also part of French Polynesia.
Fatu Hiva: After 22 days at sea, we arrived around noon on June 5th, approaching the Bay of the Virgins in an almost total whiteout mist that lifted just as we entered between the cliffs marking the harbor entrance. We had had squalls and gale force winds for the previous several hours, so it was a great relief to get in a sheltered bay and get the hook down. Or, should I say, a somewhat sheltered bay. It is on the lee side of the island, but gets huge gusts of wind funneling down through the valleys, often 25-30 knots. It's not unusual for some swell to curl around and make the bay rolly. But compared to being out in the open sea, it was a delight! Not to mention the joy of seeing several old friends anchored nearby, and new friends to be made.
The bay used to be known as the Bay of the Penises, until missionaries lobbied for a name change. The original name was far mare appropriate - the bay is very distinctive for its big fat round rock pillars that surround the head of the bay. It is a really beautiful and enchanting place, and many of the boats making the crossing to here choose it as their first stop despite its not being a formal point of entry, which means you might get hit with a big fine when you finally get to a point of entry. We had no problem, nor did any of the other boats that we knew, but we heard that a few weeks earlier some boats did get fined upon arrival at Hiva Oa.
It is a tricky bay to anchor in, the water is fairly deep, and while there are nice pockets of sand, there are also large areas of rubbly bottom. We had to anchor in about 50', some boats arriving later had to anchor much deeper. The water is fairly murky from all the runoff from the mountains, so we had no clue what bottom we were anchoring in, but within an hour the captain of a nearby boat dinghies over to tell us we were set beautifully in a huge patch of sand - which he knew because he'd had to scuba dive to find a batten that blew off his boat, and just happened to land near our anchor. This enabled us to sleep well that night in a bay where a lot of boats dragged anchor or re-anchored many times before being happy.
Going ashore meant taking the dinghy in behind a little breakwater at the head of the bay and tying to the concrete wharf, which was easy at certain tides and a real bear at others. The tidal range is fairly large here - maybe 6 feet - so there was a big difference in the height of the wharf at different times of the day. And sometimes the surge from the outside swells made it difficult - but as we learned later, this harbor is actually one of the easier ones to land in. Some of the other harbors have wharfs where lots of surge is the norm, making it very difficult to get in and out of the dinghy. We later anchored in one, took the dinghy toward shore, then turned around and left without even attempting to get ashore after seeing the surge at the wharf.
The village, called Hanavave, is fairly small, maybe a few hundred people, but they mostly live in quite nice wood and concrete houses spreading up into the valley along the river. I only saw one really traditional building, made of bamboo and thatch, and a few of the very basic plywood and tin houses common on other islands. Almost all of the other houses looked fairly strong and substantial, with fresh paint and beautifully landscaped yards. Flowers and decorative plants are absolutely everywhere one looks, with lots of fruit and breadfruit trees as well. This lovely little village is set in the most incredibly dramatic setting - at the bottom of a lush green valley stretching back into high sharp volcanic peaks.
Fatu Hiva has got to have the trading-est people around. We'd heard about trading with the natives as we traveled around, but most places it wasn't really happening. But in Fatu Hiva's Bay of theVirgins, there's only one little store with not much in it, and people are constantly eager to trade fruit, carvings, fish, bagettes for shoes, jewelry, perfume, makeup, flashlights (of the headlight variety especially), fishing gear and booze. We hadn't been on shore 20 minutes when several people begged to trade for Bryan's bright orange crocs. No one seemed interested in my dark blue ones - not sure if it's because of my small feet or the conservative color. There were no bagettes in the store at all, but several were available for trade from the store owner and his employees at their homes. I suspect this may have to do with the French government putting a cap on the amount that can be charged for a bagette, and trading probably produces a better return. Only a few products in the store are price protected - most are outrageously expensive. Eggs were $8 a dozen, beers $3.50 a can. We didn't buy much.
We had a wonderful time here meeting the local people, and the crews of several other boats. Claudi, a nice French Canadian anthropology student who is staying here for a few months, befriended us and gave us lots of fruit in return for canned vegetables. With her excellent English, she was a great source of information about the island. She was especially hungering for canned tomato products, but unfortunately I was short, as canned tomatoes had not been available at our last three stops. Daniel, the owner of the store, gave us a huge amount of frozen wahoo, several bagettes and some fruit in return for a headlamp and some wine. Henry, a wood carver and his wife Anna gave us lots of fruit and some nice carvings for Bryan's orange crocs and some fishing gear. Various kids and ladies along the road gave us fruit and bagettes for old makeup, colored pencils and pens, and other bits and pieces. I speak not more than a few words of French, but Bryan is quite good and eager to use his, so we got by quite nicely.
We had the opportunity to get to know in person some of the crews we spoke to regularly on the radio nets. Our first night we were invited to dinner aboard Nacatcha, along with the crew of La Gitana. Volker of La Gitana runs an informal net of several boat crossing together, which gives us such a wonderful sense of not being alone in the world as we go day after day without ever seeing another boat. We only saw 3 or 4 other boats briefly during our 22 days at sea, but spoke to several who were within a few days sailing of us!
Another night we had the crews of 3 other boats on Ursa Minor for a Mexican dinner and frozen margaritas. Claudia and Erich from Tahaa, Michele and Volker from La Gitana, Gisela and Holgar from Gamel Dansker all helped us finish off the tequilla on board, making good use of many of the limes we'd received.
We entertained Josh and Luke of Zazoo one day while their dad Ben helped Gypsy Soul pick up its anchor and re-anchor. Their windlass isn't working, and they just couldn't get up the anchor and chain from 50' of water by themselves. Ben had to help them again a few days later when they were ready to leave the bay. We wonder how they'll make it across the Pacific. Hopefully they'll get their windlass fixed sooner or later. Luke is 6, Joshua 4, and they're delightful boys, and very polite. They told their mom I'm not like an adult but like another kid, which I took as a great compliment. We later saw Luke handling their kayak by himself - Ben is teaching them to be great sea kids.
We had a wonderful dinner ashore one evening, with several other boats, at Theresa's. She works at the store, but upon request does these dinners at her home. She prepared an enormous Tahitian feast for us, with poisson cru (raw fish marinated in lime juice then smothered with coconut milk), goat in coconut milk, pork, salad, various vegetables, and pampelmousse for dessert. Pampelmousse is a wonderful fruit, larger than a grapefruit and much sweeter - and very juicy. It was all very delicious.
Bryan took our whisker pole ashore one day and with the help of Ben from Zazoo ( a very strong young man) we got it apart, then cut off the bent part of the inner pole and put it back together again. It will never telescope as intended, but should work at two different lengths and with luck it will work just fine.
We spent several hours cleaning the water line of the boat, which had become filthy during the crossing. All the other boats looked just as bad. We're used to stuff growing on the hull when we sit somewhere in the tropics for awhile, but this is the first time we had such nastiness appear during a passage. And it was very hard to get off! Luckily we had received zillions of limes from the folks on shore, and the citric acid helped cut through the goo on the hull.
I went snorkeling along the side of the bay and saw lots of fish that were new to me, cousins of the ones I know in the Caribbean, but with new colorful patterns. I also saw a turtle. We saw manta rays frolicking behind our boat. On shore, there were some beautiful small horses, common throughout these islands as we later discovered. We had great plans to hike up to the water fall above town, but there was so much rain the locals advised strongly against it.
After about 5 days in Fatu Hiva, we had a delightful 5 hour sail up to Tahuatu, a nice broad reach in gentle seas. Dozens of dolphins delighted us as we approached Tahuatu's southern coast, swimming circles around the boat, and often times jumping clear out of the water.
Another lovely island, although nowhere near as dramatic as Fatu Hiva in appearance. We spent a few nights anchored in Hapatau Bay, surrounded by a rocky beach with high green cliffs jutting straight up, with 7 or 8 other boats, mostly unknown to us, but a few with voices we knew from the radio. Just south was a tiny village, where we went for a nice walk ashore, along a road which was bolstered by hundreds of large black rocks, quite an endeavor to build. When we asked at the store for some pampelmousse, the lady in the store directed some teenaged girls to go climb a tree to get us some. In appreciation we gave them some bracelets. I ate chocolate ice cream for the first time in months. Snorkelling was great here, lots of fish, some coral, and dramatic drop-offs along the rocky cliffs. A large school of dolphins swam and jumped their way through the bay one morning.
Next we went to Vaitabhu Bay a little further up, with a larger town, but never made it ashore. After anchoring and dinghying in, we found a hellacious surge at the concrete wharf, which had no easy way to climb aboard, so we decided to continue on to Hanamanoa Bay, a very comfortable but uninhabited bay with a rare and beautiful sandy beach, and lots of yachts anchored. The few days we spent here were filled with snorkeling, beach walking, and cleaning. Some new fish here, black durgons like the Virgins, but the first I'd seen in the Pacific, and some new fish I called "lace durgons" for their lovely see-through lacy fins.
Oa Pou: An overnight sail brought us the 66 miles to Oa Pou, where we could finally check in. Our sail went fine, although we did have to motor a chunk of it when the wind quit. Have since heard other boats say that this passage was one of the most uncomfortable they'd ever done because of washing-machine conditions in the seas, but the night we went across it wasn't bad at all. The huge stalk of green bananas that we've had hanging in the shower suddenly started yellowing the last few days, and during the overnight sail a large number of them showered down on the floor. So once in Oa Pou I baked several loaves of banana bread, banana muffins, and made a few batches of banana ice cream.
We finally officially cleared in here, with the local Gendarmarie (police) who weren't the least bit concerned that we had spent some time illegally in Fatu Hiva on the way. They asked if we'd checked in with the police there, and when told we didn't because they were located in a bay that was a miserable anchorage, they said, "No problem. Your 3 months visas can start as of today." We had to go to the bank to pay our bond, required of all American cruisers here to make sure we have enough money to leave - almost $3000 for the two of us, but we'll get most of it back, minus the exchange commissions and credit card fees.
There are several more stores here, still limited in stock, but with lots more available than the last few islands. Fresh vegetables even, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, onions, which cause us great excitement. The prices are a bit better than Fatu Hiva, a dozen eggs are only $5 here. I think we get especially hurt because the dollar is so low against the Euro these days. We get 80-85 French Polynesian francs for $1, the Euro gets 119 francs. Big difference. There's even a small computer store with excrutiatingly slow internet access for $12/hour. We needed to spend a lot of time on-line because we were still sorting out the radio modem. The village is larger than any we've seen so far, and reminds me of outer island Hawaii - modern fresh looking homes with an abundance of fruit and breadfruit trees and a huge variety of flowers and decorative plants growing everywhere. A few traditional looking thatched community buildings along the waterfront are a good reminder of the old days.
The harbor here is fairly small and protected behind a breakwater. A stern anchor was necessary, and we were lined up side by side with several other boats, all with bow and stern anchors out. It was fairly comfortable for the first day or so, but as the swell got a bit worse and the wind conditions changed, we had a rougher night or two. One problem with a stern anchor, at least when there are boats anchored close by on either side, is that when the wind changes direction, it is difficult or impossible to adjust the anchors to again lay into the wind, resulting here in the wind coming across the boat at a 45 degree angle which puts a lot of strain on the anchors. Time to go. But first we had to get the stern anchor up with the dinghy (luckily we're only anchored in 10-15' of water), then get the dinghy on board before getting the main anchor up - all the while hoping that we won't swing into any other boat once the stern anchor is up. Our stern anchor is a Fortress anchor - like a Danforth, but extremely lightweight for its large size. This makes it easier to lift off the bottom once it's free, but it's long flukes buried in the mud make getting it free difficult. Bryan struggled with it for awhile until a neighbor came and gave him a hand. Fortunately we got the dinghy on board quicker than usual - it involves several steps, first getting all the gear out of it and stowed on board, then lifting the engine up on to a stand on the transom, then lifting the dinghy with the main halyard up on to the deck, tipping in over in very tight quarters and tying it down once properly in place. It all went smoothly and we didn't bump into anyone in the process.
Nuku Hiva: On Saturday, June 16th, a delightful 3 hour sail upwind in 20 knots of wind and lumpy seas brought us into Taiohe Bay in Nuku Hiva, the most populous of the Marquesan Islands. The main town is set at the head of a long u-shaped bay with cliffs and mountains towering above on three sides. The anchorage is very large, but often swelly, so some boats put out stern anchors, but most, like us, never did. We had plenty of room to swing, and we don't mind rolling a bit as long as it only happens occasionally. The trade-off is that our bow is into the wind most of the time giving us much better ventilation, and we don't have to go through the hassle of trying to get it on board again.
There have been as many as 50 or more yachts at anchor while we've been here, including Tahaa, Nacatcha, Mad Hatter and Ironie when we arrived, and during our stay we also saw Moon Shadow, Zazoo, Ndescka, Nomad Life, Promesa, Black Wattle, Imagica, Mary Constance, Thalia, and Do It, all of which we'd met somewhere along the way, plus we met several new ones. One day we were quite surprised and pleased to hear Ian on Gannet on the radio, and he arrived shortly thereafter. He's a friend from the St. Thomas charter fleet who left a year before we did, but various problems that slowed him down allowed us to catch him in Panama, then pass him. Mike on Wanderlust, whom we'd met in Colon, Panama, left here the day before we arrived, single-handing once again. His story is quite amazing. Injured in a hang-gliding accident several years ago, he couldn't walk for 12 years, and has only learned to sail in the last 5 or 6 years. He's on his second Hunter sailboat, and receives some serious incentives from Hunter for reaching various points quickly. He left here hoping to make a boat show in Australia in late July. He hopes to be back in Miami, having gone all the way around, with or without crew, sometime next year. Doesn't sound like fun to me. He picked up 2 young men as crew in the Galapagos, but they left the boat here because they don't want to cross the ocean so quickly.
Tahaa now has two Claudia's on board, the one we got to know so well in Galapagos and since, and a family friend with the same name, a somewhat older lady with MS that limits her mobility some, but a very adventurous spirit. We had dinner ashore our first night with Tahaa at the Kovivi restaurant, where several locals often sit at a table by the door and play and sing local songs. Paul, the leader, is a fantastic ukelele player, and he is joined by a varying cast which includes his wife singing and playing spoons or uke, Mata Tiki the tattoo artist (more later on Bryan's tattoo) who plays spoons and uke, a police lady who sings and plays guitar, her husband who plays a garbage can base, and occasionally the maitre d' joins in on guitar. We've been in there several evenings since we've been here, either for dinner or just drinks and dessert, and continue to enjoy their enthusiastic playing and singing. Claudia and her father Erich showed us the new tattoos that Mata Tiki had done on them, of a manta ray and picture of their boat respectively.
Bryan started drooling, and I even gave it a thought.
Sunday morning we went to the Catholic Cathedral for Mass. Rebuilt only a few years ago, it is a lovely island building with many gorgeous local wood carvings and lovely stonework. The Polynesian music was delightful, the harmonies lovely. The service was all in the local Marquesan language and French, so went right over my head. After church we went looking for Rose Corser (email@example.com), who is mentioned in several of our books as the person to have mail and packages sent through. Unfortunately the address given for her, the Kekeihani Inn, is no longer hers, but the good news is that after selling her interest in that place to a big chain that seems to be making a mess of the business, she is starting a new place down below. Located at the far end of the beach, over a mile from the wharf where we tie the dinghy, she has one building for the restaurant, and another for her museum and store. The museum has some amazing old Polynesian antiquities, including spears, tools, bowls and various other instruments of destruction, and the store many lovely local crafts. She had just opened the restaurant, and is drawing the cruisers in for Tuesday and Friday Happy Hours/book and DVD exchanges. Soon she hopes to erect a small inn with rooms for rent. We have been to Happy Hour several times, meeting lots of old and new friends each time. She also hosted a wonderful traditional pig roast on Father's Day, where a pig and bananas and breadfruit were roasted in an earth oven which is a big hole with hot rocks covered over with dirt - they had to start the cooking at 4 am to be ready for noon. With this succulent fare, she served fish, pork, shellfish, goat, various salads and vegetables and desserts. Once we'd stuffed ourselves royally, the entertainment began, music by ukulele and drum and 2 young girls, then 5 women doing enchanting Polynesian dances.
The Monday after Father's Day, there was joy in Mudville for Ursa Minor! This place is often quite muddy, but we hardly noticed it when we received an email from our sailmail server with instructions on how to get the firmware in our modem working again. What a relief knowing we can send email from the high seas again, and not be so dependent on very expensive cyber cafes when in port. In the meantime we'd decided to invest in a satellite phone, so we're waiting here until it arrives. Bryan had Mata Tiki do a large tattoo on his upper arm of a manta ray with Polynesian designs including a tiki inside of it. Mata Tiki's quite an artist, after a little sketching out of the basic design, he tattooed it on freehand, making perfect circles and curves. He keeps very busy as many of the cruisers want to get this very special Marquesan souvenir. I don't have the nerve to do one, so bought some fake ones to get in the spirit when I feel like it.
A few days later we went with several other crews in two rented 4x4 trucks on a drive across the mountains to the north side of the island, where there is an interesting large archeological site where ceremonies were once held, including a pit that held the human sacrifices awaiting their turn. We had lunch at a delightful open air restaurant in the village there, and got to know several newly met cruisers, including Colleen and Tom of Moshika who were good friends of Gwen and Don's in Mexico a few years back. While standing around in the parking lot before setting off on the day's trip, I had mentioned an email from Gwen that said several couples who had participated in a potluck in one of the northern bays on this island a few years ago had all now bought property in Fiji which Gwen and Don had just visited. Colleen immediately asked, "Is that Gwen from Tackless II?" Small world, huh?
The next few days were very rainy, which meant we stayed on board most of the time, but were able to get cushions and curtains and deck cleaned and caught a lot of water. We added a water catchment fitting to our foredeck awning, which added quite a few gallons of water to our tank. We cannot get good water ashore, as the local source is contaminated by pigs and goats, so we either have to catch our water or make it with our water maker which consumes a lot of power.
On Saturday morning we headed into the wharf before 5 a.m. to go to the vegetable market, which we were told started at 4 a.m. Why they pick such an ungodly hour I'll never know, but the delicious French pastries that were available made it worthwhile, plus we got several fresh vegetables and a pinapple, the only fruit available other than limes, of which we still have thousands from Fatu Hiva.
Mid morning we picked up our anchor to motor around to Daniel's Bay about 3 miles away. It is a lovely setting, almost like being in a lake, although a little swell makes the two 90 degree turns necessary to get into the bay. Although there's a small opening, it almost disappear from sight because of the huge cliff aways back from it. We were surrounded by huge velvety green cliffs on one side, lower cliffs with beaches and palm trees on the other sides. One house lies at the head of the bay, owned by the cruiser-friendly Daniel until he died a few years ago. Now it should be called Michele's Bay, I guess, because he has taken over. He was just about to leave for a few days when we arrived, so we never had a chance to get to know him. We did dinghy over to the adjoining bay for the walk up to the waterfall, and had a delightful chat with Augustine, who farms and fishes and keeps a lovely property there while his wife works in Taiohe Bay. We had a lovely walk up the road, past maybe 5-10 houses, a small chapel and a telephone booth, through the jungle a bit, to a river which we would have had to ford to continue on to the waterfall. The last few days of rain made it a bit higher than I was willing to try while carrying my camera, so we opted for viewing the waterfall at a great distance instead. The walk was lovely and well worth the effort, even without making the waterfall.
Saturday night we had Zazoo's Ben and Roseangela and the two boys over for a spaghetti dinner. He's a very friendly salvage and oil rig scuba diver from Britain, who works a few months a year to pay for their cruising, she's a delightful Brazilian lady and the boys, as I've already mentioned, are great fun. I gave the boys tattoos, then Mom wanted one too. Ben didn't ask for one, which I understood when Luke informed us Ben has one (Ben quickly tried to shut him up) on his behind. Motoring back to the main harbor a few days later in very confused seas, the upper part of one of our forward-lower diagonal shrouds failed and the shroud collapsed onto the deck with a bang. Metal fatigue seemed to be the cause. Bryan was able to jury rig a temporary fix within a few days which we hope will keep the shroud up until we reach Papeete for a better fix.
Over the next several days I spent several hours getting my pictures into the computer and readying some of them for inclusion in our blog. Our mail came in, mostly financial info and bills and our tax returns, not much fun stuff. The islands of French Polynesia aren't particularly interested in the French holiday of Bastille Day (July 14th), but make the two preceeding weeks into a series of festivities honoring their own culture. Beginning the very end of June, a pavilion was set up with three great food and beverage booths, a stage and a few tents. We've seen traditional dancing by lovely pre-teen girls, a wood carving contest, a flower headpiece and necklace making contest, canoe races, and had some great food. Next weekend there will be more events, but hopefully we'll be gone by then, but be able to catch some activities in the Tuamotus.
We had our first really serious scare of the trip last Friday night, coming home from Happy Hour at Rose's. We had dinghied over, and had to pull the dinghy way up on to the rocks because the tide was very high with the full moon. There was some swell in the bay which was bringing small breakers into the beach across the street from Rose's where we parked the dinghy. Leaving we got the dinghy into the water and pulled it out further than where the waves had been breaking. I got in and was about to get the engine down while Bryan held the boat steady when a larger wave came in, cresting outward from us. Bryan said, "Watch out!" so I looked up in time to see it rear up in front of the dinghy, taking the bow up almost vertical before tossing me into the sea. The next thing I remember, I was face down, flat, on the (fortunately) sandy bottom of the bay, with the hard bottom of the dinghy pinning me down. I'm not sure how deep the water was, probably only several inches, but it didn't matter as I was completely immersed and couldn't move. I tried pushing the dinghy up with my shoulders, but it didn't give. I guess an incoming wave then lifted it, because the next thing I knew I was out from under and standing up clear of it. I don't really remember how I got out, just that I'd had the awful thought while pinned underneath that this might be the end of things. Amazingly, other than a few sore spots the next day on my head, shoulder and arm, and a tremendous amount of fine black sand in my clothes as well as some that took days to completely get out of my ear, there was no damage to me or the dinghy. If it had flipped, we could have had serious damage to the engine, although at least then I might have had an air pocket underneath!