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The Saga of Ursa Minor
Lots of Pictures of Suwarrow added
10/12/2007

Just added: three albums of pictures from Suwarrow, one of John and Veronica and their 4 boys, another of the various wildlife that abounds at Suwarrow, and a third of a variety of other pictures of scenery, Bryan''s Birthday party, sunsets, and friends.
Find them on the last page of the photo gallery.

Suwarrow Atoll, Cook Islands
10/12/2007

Suwarrow Atoll, National Park in the Cook Islands, Sept. 17-29, 2007, in which we had several idyllic days on a remote atoll, made several new friends, caught several fish, and Judy had a small stroke.

Suwarrow Atoll (formerly Suvorov after the Russian explorer who found it) was one of the highlights of our trip to date. It is a national park of the Cook Islands, inhabited only 6 months of the year by a delightful caretaker family, John and Veronica Samuela and their 4 boys Jeremiah, Jonathon, Giovanni (Vanni) and Augustino (Tino), the last two 6 year old twins. Four other yachts were anchored there during our 12 day stay, plus a few other boats that popped in for only a day or two. There were several beach potlucks at the small thatched beach shelter which was built by cruisers including our friends Gwen and Don of Tackless II who were there a few years ago. John and Veronica supplied many varieties and styles of fish, lots of drinking coconuts, and island treats such as coconut pancakes, breadfruit chips, and fritters, while the cruisers provided an amazing assortment of favorite dishes including more styles of fish, salads, pasta, puddings, chili, and more. We had grouper, tuna, wrasse, trevally, and others, cooked many different ways: barbecued, raw in lime juice and coconut milk, fried, pickled, baked. One of the potlucks was a birthday party for Bryan's 64th, when I contributed a cake as well as a pasta salad. Our last night, John brought out his guitar and he and Veronica entertained us with a variety of songs that we knew, as well as some from the Cook Islands. Memories of sitting around a big coconut bonfire, eating fish, drinking rum in coconut water and listening to John and Veronica's delightful voices will stay with us a long time.

John and Veronica and family took us all on a few tours to some of the other small islands in the atoll. Gull Island, a ways down the reef on the other side of the pass, was full of nesting sooty terns and chicks, adorable frigate chicks sitting in the trees, booby birds, tropic birds and others. As we walked ashore, thousands of birds took to the air, and the noise was raucous. John takes very seriously his mandate to protect the wildlife of the atoll, and showed us how to observe the various birds without damaging the eggs or spooking any of the birds. Many of the eggs just lie on the ground, so there were only certain areas safe to walk. If you get too close to a very young frigate chick, the parents may throw it away, so we all stayed at safe distances. Another day, they took us to Turtle Island, at the very northern tip of the atoll. While we didn't see any turtles (the island gets its name from its appearance, although some turtles do nest there as well as elsewhere). Here we found miles of reef to walk along the ocean side, where one of the German cruisers had been given permission to search for lobster which he did without success. Jeremiah took us into a damp, swampy area where coconut crabs abounded, and caught several to let us see. We were not allowed to take any, although later John presented us with a cooked one for Bryan's birthday. We stopped at a fantastic spot for snorkeling on the return trip, with huge coral heads towering almost to the surface from 30-40' of water. Other days we snorkeled on the reefs around the boat and along Anchorage Island, and saw an amazing variety of fish, plus a turtle and an eagle ray, but alas still not a manta ray although they were reported to be around. There were some sharks around, but we rarely saw them while snorkeling - mostly we just saw 4' black-tipped reef sharks circling the boat during the day.

John has lots of rules the cruisers need to abide by. One is not cleaning fish on the boat or throwing fish parts in the water of the anchorage, to discourage sharks from associating yachts with bloody fish. A good rule! In the pass there are many more sharks, including white-tips and grays, and sometimes hammerheads. Spearfishing used to be allowed, but no longer, since someone had a serious run-in with a shark while spearfishing. John still tells the story of Don and Gwen (whom he refers to as the 'wonder couple') when Don was in the water spearfishing while Gwen was in the dinghy above. He was approached aggressively by a shark, and raised his speargun to bop it on the head. Gwen, seeing the speargun lifted out of the water, thought Don was passing it up to her and took it from his hands before he had a chance to bop the shark. We've seen Don since and he still has all his appendages, so I guess the shark's intentions were honorable. John used to be much looser with the rules, he told us, but too many cruisers, especially those who had been there before, wanted to hunt and take as much as they could possibly catch. If he didn't keep some kind of control over them, they'd disregard the rules and recklessly take under-sized crabs and lobsters, as well as otherwise being disrespectful of the environment.

We added an old but very colorful flag from the Virgin Islands Charteryacht League to the collection adorning the rafters around the open-air dining area beneath the family's sleeping quarters. Flags of many nations and many boats flutter gaily in the breeze around the big dining table where everyone gathers, and remind visitors of the many who have enjoyed Suwarrow before them. This year they've had a few over 100 yachts visit, with over 20 at one time. We were happy to share the island with only 4 or 5 other yachts at a time - it must be very crowded with 20.

Suwarrow was inhabited for periods totaling 16 years by a lone hermit from New Zealand named Tom Neale, who welcomed cruisers to his paradise. He wrote a book about his experiences entitled "An Island to Oneself". After he died of cancer in 1978, the Cook Islands sent caretakers to preserve the atoll as a park and nature preserve. John and his family love it so much here they would love to stay year round.

The pass into the lagoon is said by the cruising guides to be accessible only in good weather and calm seas, but we entered it easily in 20-25 knots of wind with large swells from the east. We had the nerve to try it in these conditions after having read other yachts' accounts of their entries on the internet. It is truly amazing what a difference modern technology has made to our cruising!

One of the unusual aspects of Suwarrow is that there is no ciguatera, the fish toxin which is found commonly at inhabited coral islands all around the world. All through French Polynesia we would see huge beautiful grouper while snorkeling, who I swear would laugh at us, saying "Ha Ha, you'd love to catch and eat me but I'd probably poison you!" The toxin is thought to thrive on reef which has been damaged by blasting, development or bad storms. It was prevalent in both the Virgins and the Marshalls, the two tropical islands I have lived on the longest, so I had many years ago come to view reef fish as inedible. You can't tell if a fish has it; it doesn't hurt the fish in any way; but if a human gets it in too great a concentration, he can become very sick. However, being so remote it doesn't exist at Suwarrow, so we had a great time trolling with the dinghy in the lagoon here, and caught 3 large fish while there: a grouper, an emperor wrasse and a red snapper, all 2-3 feet long and quite meaty, and all delicious. I caught a big parrot fish head on a hand-line from the big boat at anchor - a shark got the rest.

Yachts are only able to anchor at the main island, Anchorage Island, just inside the pass. With scattered coral heads on the bottom, it was a bit of a challenge, and having a few buoys on the anchor chain helped avoid wrapping the chain around the coral heads. We only had one to begin with, but after a few wind shifts our chain was close to getting into trouble, so the morning after Bryan's birthday bash we picked much of it up with me in the water directing and occasionally pushing the boat by the chain to move it around obstacles. Our goal was to add some additional floats to it, so it wouldn't touch any coral at all. After about 30 minutes working on it, Bryan finally picked the anchor up, moved to a slightly better spot and dropped it again with an additional float.

Before we could proceed to set it properly, I suddenly could not recognize any of the other boats or people on them, and told Bryan I was disoriented. He watched carefully while I swam to the back of the boat, climbed aboard, showered and changed to dry clothes, all the time still very confused about where I was and who was around us. I did know Bryan and our boat, but nothing else. Bryan called over another crew, and they went to get Antje, a nurse on one of the German boats nearby. For the next 5 hours I apparently repeatedly asked the same questions, never absorbing the answers: Who are you? What happened? Did I have a stroke? Did I get out of the water by myself? There were no motor problems or slurring of speech, only confusion and loss of memory. Antje administered 3 saline IVs (dehydration was thought to be a possible factor), a few doses of something like valium (to lower my BP I think), and finally some aspirin and my blood pressure med, while regularly monitoring my blood pressure and pulse, both of which were high. She called a doc in Germany for some advice. While Norbert and Simon re-set our anchor firmly, Bryan, with help from Allison on the yacht Roxi spent much of the time on the single sideband radio and the sat phone talking to Hawaii Coast Guard, New Zealand Rescue, my family and various other places, investigating the possibility of medical evacuation should it prove necessary. New Zealand was the most helpful, as they were coordinating with officials in Raratonga, the capital of the Cook Islands. The US Coast Guard was not very helpful at all. Suwarrow is very isolated, hundreds of miles from anywhere, with no airstrip. There were no government or navy ships near the area. Fortunately, as it turned out, I did not need evacuation at all. After about 5 hours (shortly after the aspirin I believe) I could remember everyone, and when I again asked all the same questions, the answers stayed with me. My memories of the previous week which had been lost to me during my "memory out" came back, and all that is missing now is memory of those 5 hours.

We later heard various inaccurate reports on the radio and in emails from friends that we'd put out a mayday, that we were 500 miles away on another island, and various other non-truths. Another rumor floating around that week was that another yacht had put out a mayday, sunk and been rescued by a freighter, when in fact the only problem they'd suffered was a problem with their radio. I was quick the next morning to get on to the radio net myself to reassure everyone I was functioning fine, after I heard one boat talking about my head injury and notification of the authorities at Palmerston, another isolated island hundreds of miles from us where apparently someone thought we were.

I had not been taking my meds for awhile, and learned the hard way how important it is to take them regularly. While on passage some weeks before I had gotten out of the habit of taking them, and somehow just never started up again. My blood pressure monitor had conked out several months ago, so I had gone to a clinic in the Tuamotus to have my BP checked and it was fine then. I hate taking meds, and I guess I subconsciously decided that since my BP was OK that one day, I didn't need to take the BP med anymore, or the aspirin I had also been taking. The day after the incident I had a lingering headache, but was otherwise fine. After taking it easy for a day, I was back snorkeling and doing my regular chores, while Bryan was tearing the boat apart trying to find out why the water pump was running so often - our water heater had sprung a leak and needs replacing. After a few days more of relaxing and enjoying Suwarrow and a last farewell beach potluck, we upped anchor and motored out the pass about 2 p.m. for the 440 mile passage to Pago Pago, American Samoa. John and the whole family came out in their boat to say good-bye and wish us well. We would have loved to stay for another week or two, there were still several things we hadn't done. But I needed to get a medical evaluation and American Samoa was the closest place we could do it. We also need to keep moving so we can get north before cyclone season.

Passage from Bora Bora to Suwarrow
10/12/2007

Passage from Bora Bora to Suwarrow, Sept. 12-17, 2007, in which we had rolly, uncomfortable seas ,strong gusts, two accidental jibes, a little spill, and no traffic at all.

On Wednesday September 12, after using up the last of our wi-fi minutes with Ioranet, doing last minute checks for email and weather, and lots of last minute stowing of items that scatter themselves around the boat so quickly while we're safely at anchor, we picked up our anchor at 10:30 a.m. and headed for the pass out of Bora Bora to begin the 675 miles to Suwarrow Atoll. Just after exiting the pass, we saw our friends on Zazoo just arriving. Sadly, we wouldn't have any time to visit with them, but it was very nice to see them again, however briefly, and to know that all was well with them. The last we'd seen them was in Fakarava in the Tuamotus, when they had been talking of going back to the Marquesas for the cyclone season. (It was Ben who free dove 50+ feet to free our anchor in Fakarava so we could leave.) They had since decided to continue on to New Zealand, where Ben can safely leave the boat while he looks for work as a professional diver in Singapore for a bit to boost the cruising kitty. Once we passed them, we did not see another boat until we arrived at Suwarrow 5 days later!

This may have been our most uncomfortable passage yet, but nothing the boat (and its intrepid crew) couldn't handle easily. After a very easy first day, the winds and seas increased, with one day mid-passage of nasty squally skies, gusts to 30 and 40 knots, and building boxy seas. The last few days the winds came down, but the seas stayed up, making for very rolly motion as we slewed through the mountainous peaks of the sea. Occasionally the seas would cascade over the cockpit coaming, dousing anyone sitting there. Amazingly, the huge following seas behind us would almost always just slide under the boat, only once or twice sending a stream of water in under our "back door" to briefly wet the cockpit floor. Of course, every time the sea slid under the stern, the aft end of the boat rose and slewed from side to side, occasionally throwing something or someone out of place. I had one nasty slide - the cushion I was sitting on suddenly slid to the floor with me on it, causing severe pain in my shoulder, elbow and various other spots. I remember sitting there, stunned, wondering if I'd broken anything. In a few minutes I moved everything and realized nothing was broken. Bryan was very helpful, rushing to get me ice packs for my shoulder and elbow, and some aspirin. It was sore for a few days, but the ice seemed to help a lot and I was cranking winches again the next day.

Lizzie, our windvane, steered beautifully in the beginning, but as the seas became more confused we had two accidental jibes of the mainsail the second night out. On one, the preventer worked nicely and prevented the boom from crashing to the other side as the wind passed across our stern. On the second, the preventer pulled right off the cleat and the boom went banging to the other side, fortunately without any apparent damage but a jolt to our nerves. The entire passage we had the wind almost directly behind us, which meant having either the main or the genoa all the way out (with the seas and winds we were reluctant to use our sickly whisker pole so couldn't sail with both sails unless we altered course to a broad reach). Sailing dead downwind with just the main all the way out made it easy for a big sea to momentarily knock the wind out of the sail, sending the boom from one side to the other unless held firmly in place with the preventer, a line from the end of the boom to the rail which prevents the boom from swinging. If we sailed downwind with just the genoa, unpoled, it would pull nicely for a bit, then collapse as the seas rolled the boat and knocked the wind out of the sail. This worked OK occasionally during daylight hours, giving us slightly better speed than the main alone, but was intolerable in the dark when the noise of the collapses and jerks made sleeping difficult. As a result, we did most of the passage under mainsail alone, with 1-3 reefs in it depending on the wind, averaging 5-7 knots most of the way.

After the accidental jibes, we used the electric auto pilot for steering, not trusting Lizzie with the big seas. This uses a lot of power, and our continuing low voltage problems meant we had to run the engine a bit more than usual to stay topped up. When the auto pilot is on, the single sideband radio starts acting up. This radio is our link to other boats through various "nets" that we check in with daily on passage and for receiving weather information. So every time one of us got on the radio for a net, the other would have to hand steer. Fortunately, having the sat phone gives us good back up for obtaining weather info and email when the radio decides to be uncooperative. One day when Bryan turned the radio on while the auto pilot was steering, the radio wouldn't transmit again for 24 hours, then mysteriously started working again.

We had surprisingly little rain, given that nasty clouds often filled the horizon in all directions. We were both feeling a bit bummed and bored toward the end of the passage, tired of the big boxy seas coming from all directions tossing us around, so it's good we didn't have a lot of rain to make things worse. The winds were lighter the last few days, occasionally under 10 knots, so we motor sailed the last night to insure getting to Suwarrow by mid-day on Monday. We first saw land about 10 a.m., and were in through the pass and anchored by 12:30, with 4 other yachts as neighbors.

Bora Bora, our last stop in French Polynesia
09/11/2007, August 30-September 12, 2007

BORA BORA, August 30-September 12, 2007, in which we spend lots of money, finally see sea turtles, make some new friends, crunch a reef, and see how the rich and famous live.

Bora Bora is the most upscale of all the Society Islands of French Polynesia, an exotically beautiful island with jagged volcanic peaks set against crystal clear jewel-colored waters in just about every hue of blue and green imaginable. Most of the Societies have beautiful jagged peaks and aquamarine lagoons surrounding them, but Bora Bora's are especially nice. During World War II the Americans had a large base here, leaving the island with its first (and for many years only) international airport, set on a small motu at the northern end of the lagoon. The main island has several enticing peaks which brought my camera out again and again to capture their many faces. Many of the 20-plus resorts (most with thatched, over-the-water bungalows at exhorbitant prices) are on the motus near to or part of the fringing reef, where they offer excellent views of Bora Bora's dramatic beauty. We were dumbfounded at how many thatched bungalow resorts there are, with even more new ones under construction. One motu appears to be lined for miles with them.

The pro-independence faction seems to have a lot of support on this island, largely because of opposition to the rampant tourism development which is gobbling up their lands and damaging their marine resources. Many would like to see the French OUT, but not quite enough to make a majority. Politics has been rather tense while we've been here, not that most of the tourists have a clue. I listen to Radio Australia and Radio New Zealand, and read Pacific Islands Report's daily news bulletins on the internet when I can, so know that there has been a vote of no-confidence last week, with the pro-France, pro-development president ousted. There was supposed to be a vote for a new president yesterday in the Legislative Assembly, but they postponed it pending a ruling from France on whether an absolute majority of the 57 members would be required to elect a new president - because they don't believe any of the three candidates can get an absolute majority. While the newspapers here are full of all the political intrigue, few tourists read French, so go along their merry ways oblivious. Another vote is scheduled for later this week, when they hope to have a ruling from France that the highest vote-getter wins. Then they may actually be able to have a new president.

Although the waters are lovely to look at, somehow even more magical than many of the other islands we have visited, there was far less to see underwater - small areas of healthy coral amongst large areas of dead or sickly coral, and far fewer fish than we've seen elsewhere. Much of the dead coral is attributed to a bad El Nino they had a few years ago, but much is also blamed on development.

We had a lovely sail to Bora Bora from Raiatea with 20-plus knots of wind most of the way, making for speeds of 7-8 knots much of the time. We actually did over 10 knots through the water a few times! The seas were quite pleasant as long as we were in the lee of Raiatea, but when we hit the fortunately fairly short exposed gap between the islands the 2-1/2 meter swells made for a very rolly ride. Once inside the pass at Bora Bora we headed for Bloody Mary's, a well-known watering hole and cruisers' hangout, where they offered free moorings if you eat dinner, and also have a wi-fi antenna. Of course the moorings were all taken (they seem only to have two!) and we had to anchor in 75' of water. Throughout the afternoon and night and for much of the next few days the winds here were horribly gusty, seeming to swing every minute or so between 10-15 knots and 25 knots or more. This caused the boat to skate around dramatically on its anchor, far more than normal in these conditions because we had almost 300' of chain out making for lots of swinging room. We didn't even bother trying to launch the dinghy the first day, it would have been too much fun in all that wind.

The next morning the wind subsided a bit so we launched the dinghy and went in to check out Bloody Mary's for lunch. Two large boards out front listed all the famous people who have stopped here, including, Brad Pitt, Mia Farrow, and many other top stars and athletes. It is a large beautiful establishment, huge thatched roof over a well-run dining room with sand covered floor, tables and stools made from local woods heavily epoxied or varnished. Our cheeseburger and fries lunch was very good and reasonably priced. Yet, I can't help but think I would have enjoyed what I imagine the old Bloody Mary's was like much better, when it was truly a yachties' hangout and not an almost plastic Disneyland-like caricature of native tradition. Unlike many of the thatched establishments we've seen where the rafters were all made from local trees, and you could imagine the native women hand-weaving all the thatch, here there were lots of 2x4s and 4x8s and much more precision and perfect symmetry holding the thatch together. Instead of a lot of yachties sitting around discussing rough passages and remote anchorages, the place was frequented more by the high end tourists who flock to Bora Bora, mainly Japanese honeymooners. One nice feature I'd never seen before was a place inside the door to check your shoes if you preferred bare feet in the sand as you ate. We went back in for dinner of appetizers and drinks and dessert, not wanting to spend the big bucks that a full dinner cost, and saw only a few other cruisers among the hundred or so patrons.

At least the wi-fi worked here, so after a hiatus of a few weeks without internet access we were finally able to check email on-line.

After a few days, we moved over to anchor off the Hotel Bora Bora. Our old cruising guides showed the reef and shallow areas around here as great snorkeling, but we found mostly dead coral and thousands upon thousands of black spiny sea urchins. We did find one spot of fairly healthy coral, but a fairly small population of fish. We dinghied quite away around to the southern tip and discovered more jet skis than good snorkel spots.

On Sunday we moved over to the Bora Bora Yacht Club, another supposed gathering place of yachties with free moorings if you ate ashore and internet access. Again, at least the internet worked. While there were a few moorings empty, they were so close to anchored boats that they were unusable, so we had to anchor in 90' of water. The Yacht Club itself is not really a yacht club at all, but a small restaurant and bar with a current owner who would rather not have yachties around at all, but he'll probably be out of business soon anyway. Maybe the next restaurant owner will be more welcoming. It is located on a slightly larger piece of property which includes a few bungalows and a very nice Polynesian man named Rapa who loves yachties, and offers laundry and other services. He seems to be the true yacht club at this point.

It being our sixth wedding anniversary, we decided to celebrate with dinner at the Yacht Club, but were surprised upon going ashore that it seemed to be closed on Sundays. Finally about 6 p.m. it showed signs of life, so we went in. We were later to learn that the restaurant owner can't be bothered to open during the day, and does very little to encourage boaters coming in to drink. There are maybe 10 tables under the open-air thatched roof of the restaurant, without enough chairs to go around (but the chairs they have are quite nice) and the two small tables outside have maybe 2 or 3 chairs total, somedays none, unless you take them from an inside table. When you arrive for sunset cocktails, all the inside tables are set for dinner, suggesting that they only want a few people to stop in for drinks, because that's all the chairs available unless you steal from a dinner table. Needless to say, they don't get much business.

When we arrived for dinner, there was only one couple seated for dinner. They were American honeymooners. We got to talking, and soon the four of us were sharing a table for dinner. Angela and Charles Grannum, from Brooklyn, NY, like us they married fairly late in life (in their 30's and 40's). He's a dentist, she's in guest relations at a Manhattan hotel catering to Asians. Both had ancestors who came from Barbados, so we shared a Caribbean connection. Fortunately they were great company, because my dinner left a lot to be desired. I ordered rack of lamb, was presented rib-eye steak, and when I complained, the waitress took it back and returned with a stingy serving of rack of lamb with the same sauce the steak had (which hid the taste of the lamb) rather than the mint sauce promised on the menu. It didn't taste very good at all. In retrospect, I probably should have graciously accepted the steak in the first place - I think the chef was trying to tell me something by sending it rather than the lamb.

Charles and Angela were staying at the Le Meridien, a bungalow resort on one of the motus, where we visited them the next night for cocktails and appetizers and a tour of the resort. The architecture was very striking and the grounds beautiful. They had an inner lagoon of sorts, closed off by grill-type fences, where they had a turtle sanctuary and guests could snorkel with turtles, rays and a fair abundance of fish. They raise the turtles for about 3 years before setting them loose to the wild. In all our months in French Polynesia I think I'd only seen one turtle before this, on our first island, Fatu Hiva, so it was a joy that a serious attempt was being made to rebuild the turtle population. In the Virgins we regularly saw turtles while swimming, so it was quite a surprise to see so few here. Between eating the eggs and the turtle meat, they seem to have greatly reduced the numbers. The Grannums showed us their bungalow out over the water, with large slabs of glass set in the floor to view fish in the spotlit water beneath, except there were almost no fish, and none of any interest. Their room was quite nice, with very upscale amenities. It was even air-conditioned (every night when they returned to the room they would find someone had cranked the AC colder) which didn't seem necessary given the constant pleasant breezes across the water.

Taking the boat over to the eastern side of the lagoon where Le Meridien is located was quite an adventure winding our way through coral and shallow spots. The channel is fairly well marked (something the French seem to do very well is navigational markers) but we still found ourselves in the shallowest water we'd seen in awhile. A few days later moving around on that side we smacked hard into a coral head after misreading a channel marker. I immediately put the boat hard in reverse and we didn't budge. Bryan jumped in the dinghy and pulled from the stern while I again went into reverse and we managed to pull free, with a little gelcoat missing from the keel and several scratches. We knew that sooner or later we'd hit the bottom, and were fortunate that it caused only minor damage, but I hope we don't have it happen too often.

While on the eastern side we ran into Ruth and Angus from Do It who were just about ready to head out for the Cook Islands. We had them over for lunch and caught up on our various travels and those of mutual friends. We then had a couple of very rainy squally days so didn't want to risk navigating the channel down to the southern point or back to the western side and elected to just stay put. We caught lots of water, worked on blog entries and pictures, and read a lot.

By Friday the weather was nicer so we moved back around to the Yacht Club and went ashore for sundowners with the crews of Do It, Gammel Dansker, Bess, and Antje, most of them leaving within a day or two for the Cooks. Only Antje is heading for Suwarrow in the northern Cooks then on to Samoa, which is our intended track. The others are all headed to the southern Cooks, then Tonga and New Zealand, so this was our last chance to say goodbye. Hopefully we'll see some of them again next year when they come north to Fiji and Samoa and we come south from the Marshalls.

When we arrived for sundowners at the YC there were only 2 chairs available at the outside drinking table, and as the others arrived they had to take chairs from inside - and were told this was OK but they had to leave by 7 so the chairs would be available for dinner guests. Some hospitality!

On Saturday we dropped off 5 bags of laundry with Rapa, then moved over to the western side of Motu Toopua for the weekend. The first night we spent off its southern tip by the Bora Bora Nui Resort and Spa, alone in a large lovely anchorage with only a megayacht, Gran Finale, for company during the day, and delightfully all by ourselves for the night. Anchored in 35' of water on a nice sandy bottom, with protection all around from the seas, and far enough off-shore that we still got some wind, it was a wonderful anchorage and we couldn't figure out why more boats weren't there. We went for a long dinghy exploration, futilely trying to find the place out on the shallow flats where we'd seen several tour boats gather from time to time, then going around the southern tip to investigate a raft full of birds sitting in the midst of the shallows. Almost back to the boat again, we saw tour boats once again out on the flats, so went out to join them. They were feeding stingrays, so we donned masks, fins and snorkels and hopped in. A very nice older gentleman, a guide on one of the boats, came over to us and advised we take our fins off, stand up in the shoulder-height water, and not move and the rays would come to us. He then gave us some chopped up fish to use to encourage their approach. We had several large rays swim up to us, allowing us to pet their soft silky bodies and look them in the eyes. It's still hard to believe that one of these gentle creatures did in Steve Irwin.

Sunday we moved to the northwestern anchorage off Toopua, another fairly shallow, very comfortable spot. We snorkeled and saw some very nice coral and fish.

Monday morning it was back to the big city (or should I say small village) to anchor off the Yacht Club and begin the process of checking out of French Polynesia. I headed for the store while Bryan went to the bank to get our $2700 bond back, only to be told he had to go to the Gendarme first, then come back. Of course the bank was closed for the 2 hour lunch period by the time he could get back. In the meantime he joined me at the store, where we spend a few hundred dollars and wondered how we would get it all back to the dinghy a half mile away, when the cashier asked if we needed a ride and arranged a free ride for us back to the quay.. Back to the bank in the afternoon, we got back $2500 (the rest had gone for fees to change the money in and out of local currency), and proceeded on to the other big grocery store where we dropped another $150. Back at the boat we went in to the YC to pick up our laundry only to find Rapa gone and not due back for awhile.

Tuesday morning Bryan ran in at 7:30 to make sure he found Rapa and our laundry - after all, we've already checked out of the country and really do have to leave soon. Then a dinghy ride back around to the gas station where one jerry jug of diesel, and two large and one small jerry jugs of gasoline cost us $115, and on to find a pay phone to call home and use up the remaining time on our French Polynesia phone cards. Had a nice chat with Mom and Dad and Baide, but couldn't reach anyone else in the family. Either got busy signals or machines, so finally gave the phone cards with a bit of time remaining to the gas station man who had given us a huge breadfruit on our earlier visit. Now I'm just finally bringing the blog up to date, and will try to use the last of our remaining wi-fi time getting it all posted.

Tomorrow we head off on a five-day passage for Suwarrow, also known as Suvarov, a small atoll in the northern Cook Islands which is a national park. It is inhabited for 6 months of the year only by one caretaker family of parents and 4 small boys (about the same ages as my brother John's kids when they circumnavigated, including the two youngest being twins), and all the reports we've read of other yachts which have visited indicate that it's a wonderful experience. We'll probably spend a week or so there, then on to American Samoa, another few days away.

Raiatea and Tahaa, two more of French Polynesia's Society Islands
09/11/2007

RAIATEA AND TAHAA, Aug 23-30, 2007 - in which we learn to anchor in very deep water, learn all about vanilla beans and other tropical botanica, run into several old friends, and discover the beauty of another few paradisical islands.

An easy 4 or 5 hour passage took us downwind to Raiatea from Huahine, with good sailing winds at times, almost no wind at others. We entered through the Teavapaiti Pass on the northeastern corner of Raiatea, and then anchored in the lee of an island in the middle of the pass.

We snorkeled to check the anchor and discovered one of our worst fears was realized - the anchor was just in front of a 4-5'diameter coral head, and the chain led underneath an overhang of the coral head on its way back to the boat. This meant we could have a problem picking it up - pulling up on it would make it catch on the coral head, and possibly require a diver to free it. On its way from the boat to the anchor, the chain lay neatly on the bottom passing through two narrow grooves between other sets of coral heads, which was good news and bad news. The good news was it meant we were unlikely to swing wildly during the night which could cause the chain near the anchor to wrap itself around the first coral head, the bad news was that the chain could get wedged under one of these other coral heads and mean additional obstruction(s) when picking the anchor up.

The next morning we launched the dinghy and put its engine on, and then I went snorkeling to see if the anchor and chain were still in the same place. They were. The chain through the grooves had kept us from swinging completely around our anchor with the current, and had prevented any extra backward pressure on the anchor which could have pulled it underneath the coral head. I then pushed the boat around a bit while snorkeling (it has amazed me how easy it is to move it while pushing on the chain as it comes off the boat while I am in the water) while directing Bryan when to start picking up chain. This enabled us to get the chain up out of the grooves, and then Bryan had to run back to the helm, put the boat in gear, and make a sharp sudden turn to starboard with the chain now close to vertical to pull the anchor out from underneath the coral head without catching the coral head, while I hovered in the water watching and directing. It all worked beautifully, he pulled up the rest of the chain and the anchor, and I swam back to climb on the boat.

We then proceeded around the northern point of Raiatea to pick up a mooring off the Apooiti Marina, where the Moorings bareboat fleet is based. We had read in a book that we could have our mail forwarded here, so were eager to pick it up as well as a package from Tahiti forwarding a cable for our sat phone that had not arrived in Tahiti before we left. We eventually found the package with our after trying first the Moorings office, then the marina office, and then the Moorings office where it had been all the time. The package from Tahiti had not arrived, but the marina manager called around and found that it was at the airline office at the airport and we had to go pick it up. Luckily the airport was only a 20 minute walk away. We had a big surprise just after we picked up the mooring here - our friends Claudia and Erich on the catamaran Tahaa who we had last seen in Nuku Hiva were just leaving the marina and passed right by us on their way to exit Raiatea and leave for the Cook Islands. We had thought they were now far ahead of us, they had planned on leaving French Polynesia much earlier, but their new crew, Herbert from Switzerland, developed a hernia and they had to hang out a bit longer while he had surgery. Although we didn't have a chance to get together and swap stories, it was still very nice to see them however briefly.

Our friends on Volker and Michelle on La Gitana were hauled out at the boatyard just a ways up from the marina, so we dinghied up and had lunch with them at the Snack Mimosa, a simple local restaurant with pretty good food for a relatively reasonable price. During lunch we were entertained by the future boxing champ of Raiatea - a 3 or 4 year old boy with huge red boxing gloves that were almost bigger than he was. La Gitana was in the yard for repairs to their keel from when they struck a whale as they were leaving Galapagos an hour ahead of us, and they were painting the bottom.

After picking up our cable at the airport, we hitched into town for a bit of exploration and to buy some steak and potatoes for a dinner treat. We got a ride from a young French dentist who has a pretty good life - he works two months, then travels two months, off and on through the year, so is getting in 6 months of travel a year to all kinds of exotic places. The following morning, Saturday, we did a bit more provisioning at a store near the marina (beer and baguettes), then took off for the island of Tahaa, after which our friends' boat is named. Tahaa and Raiatea are very unusual islands in that they are both within the same large fringing reef, Tahaa just a few miles north of Raiatea, so journeying from one to the other doesn't necessitate going out into the big rough ocean, but rather navigating between lots of reefs and shoals inside the fringing reef. On our way north we saw sailing by our friends on Do It, whom we hadn't seen since Kauehi, and had a brief chat with them on the radio. We continued north about 2/3 of the way up Tahaa's west coast to anchor off a resort of thatched bungalows over the water called the Tahaa Private Island Resort and Spa which is situated on a few small motus off the main island. We anchored in about 25' amongst but not upon scattered coral heads, just off the large area of shallows that extends outward to the fringing reef. We did a delightful pass snorkel here, in a small shallow pass between a few of resort motus - not at all as fabulous as the Fakarava pass, but quite pleasant with lots of healthy corals and a variety of beautiful fish.

The weather got a bit nasty Saturday night - rainy and gusty and squally, making the protected waters of the lagoon somewhat bouncy and us a bit nervous with a lot of very shallow water just behind us, so we moved over to anchor in Tapuanua Bay on Tahaa, where we traded a nice shallow anchorage for one 75' deep but at least the bay was far more protected from the wind. We did a bit of exploring on shore, where there was a small, laid back settlement with not much going on - and they were out of baguettes already at 9 in the morning!

On Monday, we moved south to Herepiti Bay where we had signed up to do a tour with Vanilla Tours at 8 a.m. on Tuesday. On our way down, we anchored for a snorkel on the flats inside the reef, where we didn't find much coral or many fish, but did see a huge eel sticking out of one of the few coral heads, and a shark swimming by. We picked up one of Vanilla Tours' moorings (nice to have when the bottom is 75-100' deep and you can't tell if you're anchoring in sand, mud or coral) and went ashore to meet Alain who is Vanilla Tours. He is a Frenchman who has lived here over 20 years after sailing in on a small yacht. Over the years he has built a fascinating home of several thatched and bamboo buildings set in a lush property with dozens of fruit and flower plants and trees, as well as several vanilla vines. He gives "botanical tours", in French and English, starting with his own property, then covering quite a bit of the island in a 4 wheel drive Range Rover. He is extremely knowledgeable about the plants on Tahaa, both indigenous and introduced, and does an excellent job sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm. He showed us how the vanilla flowers must be hand pollinated, as there are no insects here which will do them, then took us through the whole process of growing and readying vanilla beans for market. It takes nine months from flower being pollinated, to the bean starting to grow and maturing enough to be picked - and then several more while it is alternately heated in the sun then wrapped up and left to sweat while its moisture content is continuously reduced without rotting the bean. Once its moisture level is down to 38%, it is massaged and sorted before packaging. It's amazing that they are not much more expensive than they are given the amount of labor required to bring them to market. He also showed us numerous other fruits and vegetables, shared with us the many other uses of various plants including making ropes, roofs, clothing, and on and on. We also stopped at a "belvedere" - a high point on the island with magnificent views all around, where Alain provided us with a snack of fresh coconut water in the shell, starfruit and pamplemousse, which looks like a grapefruit but is much sweeter.

After the tour we headed to Apu Bay where the Taravana Yacht Club (a resort which appeared to have no guests, only a highly priced restaurant and several empty bungalows) offered moorings and internet wi-fi. Unfortunately, the 3 or 4 empty moorings were all "reserved" (even though most weren't used that night) and we had to anchor in 95' of water, just off the shore and too far from the Yacht Club to get wi-fi. One very amazing thing about many of these Society Islands is how deep much of the water in the lagoons is, and how shallow much of the rest of the water is. The shore in this bay, as in many others, is ringed by very shallow corally flats, only inches deep in many places so even getting a dinghy ashore can be a problem, and this flat then drops off suddenly and dramatically to 80-100'. This makes anchoring very difficult - we prefer to anchor in water less than 50', and really prefer water 20' deep or less where we can see exactly what we're putting our anchor into and don't have to put out very much chain to hold us. In the Virgins we almost never anchored in over 50', and rarely that deep. Here we have had to anchor in 75-100' several times now, and are gradually feeling more comfortable about it, but still dreading the day when we find ourselves wrapped around an unseen coral head on the bottom, or dragging anchor in a big wind because when we can't put out any more chain.

Wednesday morning we upped anchor successfully and headed back to Raiatea, getting caught in a squall as we were passing a big coral reefs and shoal known as" Grand Central" between Tahaa and Raiatea. The squall produced 30 knot winds, driving rain and white-out conditions for several minutes, making us a bit nervous, but we made it through fine. We had planned to stop at the fuel dock in the town of Otorua, but the strong winds blowing on the dock there discouraged us, so we headed back around to the western side and visited La Gitana on their last day in the boatyard. Had lunch with them again at Snack Mimosa, then had them aboard for dinner knowing how beat they were from several days in the boatyard. Once again we hitched into town to provision, taking a $20 5-minute taxi ride back to the boat with our groceries.

On Thursday morning, August 30, we picked up the anchor and headed through the pass to sail to Bora Bora.

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Ursa Minor's Crew
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