11 June 2018
When we last signed off, we had just splashed Athanor and entered the "settling-in" phase. We sailed over to Bora Bora with our friends Clare and Andrew on S/Y Eye Candy and ended up spending nearly a month snorkeling, working on projects, exploring the island, and just living life aboard. And settle in we did.
What images come to mind when you think of Bora Bora? Honeymooner's destination? Palm trees? Turquoise water? Cruise ships? Yep - all of that. It took us several weeks, including a week on the less inhabited south east corner and two bike rides, to develop a deeper appreciation and fondness for the island. There exists a strong contrast between the exquisite raw beauty of the island, the calm protected waters of the lagoon surrounding majestic peaks, a history with the US that dates back to WWII, and a modern economy that is based largely (solely?) on tourism. This economy appears, on one hand, to provide a decent living for the people that live here; at the same time, the economy and culture of tourism has replaced much of the rich Tahitian culture with a more fabricated one.
Wherever we travel, Rob and I like to experience the comings and goings of the people who make it their home. Some of our favorite moments in Bora were at the wharf in Viatape - the rather non-descript (some say charmless) main village where residents do their daily business and where the cruise ships shuttle in passengers to buy pearls. One very early Sunday morning we sat on a bench at the wharf, striking up conversations with cruise ship passengers (people more senior than us-lol) as the strolling yukele player provided a choreographed taste of island music and passengers then embarked upon their daily excursions. As a sample of an excursion, check out the image of the panga boat with everyone hunched over. When they arrived next to us at our anchorage near coral, at first we couldn't figure out what the heck they were doing. Rob nailed it - a glass bottom boat!
One Saturday morning while anchored on a sand shelf near to the famous Bloody Mary's restaurant (coral to snorkel within 50 strokes of the boat) we heard an amplified voice (in French) -- clearly festivities in the works. So we jumped in our dinghy and followed the voice around the bend to Matira beach - the only natural beach on the island*. We came upon two beautiful sites - each the polar opposite of the other. The first came into view as our dinghy got closer to shore. It was a sea of older "non-residents" from the cruise ships - all shapes and sizes, men with big tummies - shirts off and hats on - women in various versions of swim attire, all wading waist high in the ice-blue colored water. Remember the movie "cocoon?" The second was a large group of beautiful (and buff) residents about to embark on a canoe race. The latter - and their canoes - were adorned in palm fronds and bright red flowers. We think the event was sponsored by local hotels, and the prizes were meals from the hotel. Hmmm. We people watched for several hours.
We took two rides on our bikes, one around the north end and one around the south end of the island - again, in striking contrast to one another. To the south, the hotels occupy much of the waterfront. As we rode along, we took note that the landscape (not to mention the road) was vastly more improved in the areas surrounding the hotels. The public areas near where the residents lived, not so much. We wondered just how much the residents benefit from all of the hotels. Natural coral beaches are a rarity here. But that doesn't mean there aren't beaches -- we once watched a large barge arrive with a dozen "power-lifters" on board. They literally dig sand from shallow water and loaded it onto the barge until it was full. Then off the barge went to one of the hotels to create a beach-like experience. Crazy!
The north end of the island is where we felt the soul of the island. Sparsely populated, we meandered around the bays, with few cars/motor scooters passing us by. We wandered off the main road into what felt like a quintessential neighborhood - a sweet open air elementary school included. It is here, our jaws dropped when we came upon a marine museum. The owner, a French man living in Bora for some 50 years now, had nearly 20 display cases of painstakingly hand made - to scale - replicas of famous ships (Kon Tiki, Santa Maria, The Bounty, etc.). When I asked why he built the museum, he replied that it was his hobby. He shared that he used to have the models all over the house, but his wife asked him to build some place to put them - voila! A museum!
We also made our way to the WWII site. We found it mind-blowing to imagine 6,000 young Americans arriving here in 1945 prepared to fight Japan. As we hiked up the significant hill to see the canons, we were bemoaning how hot we were. That is until we saw these giant pieces of machinery. Not only was it eerie, we couldn't imagine how they got them up there! Whilst eavesdropping on a private tour happening while we were there, we learned that the airport built in Bora - specifically as a military base - was the 1st airport in all of French Polynesia (the main airport is now in Tahiti and wasn't built until the early 1960's). Thus concludes today's history lesson.
The SE corner of the lagoon was our favorite. We navigated some extremely shallow water to get there, at times with less than a foot of water under our keel. Eye Candy led the way. We passed scores of "over the water bungalows", all part of significant hotel developments -- potentially very romantic, but most of which looked entirely vacant. The SE corner was magical -- very few boats, clear water, lots of sea life, and an awesome drift snorkel that we did several times with Andrew and Clare. A few days later we made our way north again, spent some time with Andrew and Clare before they checked out of French Polynesia to head off to points West, hung out at the Bora Bora Yacht Club, and then returned to Raiatea.
We were both shocked at how quickly the time, almost a full month, had passed. There's so much more that we could write about -- On one hand, we had a done a lot; but on the other hand, we really hadn't done much at all. But we've definitely settled back into being aboard Athanor and appreciating all of the subtleties of living life in French Polynesia.
Susan & Rob
Island time - a lesson in patience
20 May 2018 | Bora Bora
Note: sadly, we don't have images to share this round. As you will ready below, both of our computers ceased working in the first couple of weeks. It's a long story, but a solution if forthcoming. Something to look forward to!
Where does the time go? I started this entry over a week ago. Much of our first month aboard reads a bit like an episode of America's Funniest Videos; getting our sea legs back, struggling to pick up a mooring ball in 20 knot winds, watching not one, but two chartered yachts hit the sand bottom, only to find out own depth sounder is off 1/2 meter and, suffice to say, now only the strongest barnacles remain on our keel. I've elaborated on one of my favorite episodes below.
It's been raining pretty solidly for three days. For two nights, they were torrential - a great opportunity to catch rainwater to fill the water tanks. That is, if we'd had a rain catchment system (we finished ours today, under sunny skies - and absolutely no rain). However, the forward awning, hung low to keep the interior of the boat cool, was full of water. Rob estimates we had a good 10 gallons. It's 6a.m.; the sun is just rising. I am stationed port side, about mid-ship, Rob is forward. Using a plastic bowl, he scoops the water out of the awning, walks it to me. I take the handoff, pivoting aft (imagine the medicine ball exercise), take a few steps, pouring the water through a large funnel into the hole on the deck that leads to the water tank. Yes, for 10 gallons of water.
A theme that has threaded through these four weeks has been patience. We "city-slickers" are used to life moving pretty fast - having access to what we need day or night. Here, life moves slower. Mornings in Raiatea are hustling and bustling, but then it all slows as the heat rises - to the point that by noon, the town is closed, folks are having lunch and generally resting, only to wake up and re-open from 2-5, then closing promptly for the night to spend time with family. They seem to have work/life balance figured out. Reflecting back over our first month, the time seems to break down into three distinct phases:
Phase One: Readying Athanor for launch.
Pushing hard - we're good at that. After three flights, we arrived in Raiatea on a Wednesday afternoon and were ready to launch eight days later. Our daily routine: Make our way to the boat yard by 7:30; work until 11:30 or until we feel we'll pass out from the heat (whichever came first); back to the sweet relief of the [partially] air-conditioned bungalow for lunch and a nap; back to the boatyard until 6; in bed by 7:30. No joke.
As we wrote in our last post, a huge part of getting the boat back in the water after 18-months is making sure all of the systems work. This was our first test of patience/being present with "what is."The SSB (single side band) radio receives, but doesn't transmit. This is the 15# radio that we lugged back to the states, paid someone to fix, then lugged back again. Sigh. Luckily, Rob found a replacement on eBay and our friend Tim (s/v Sababa) is lugging it (plus a new laptop) when he makes his way here on June 1st. We owe him big time! Next up, the generator. Worked fine when we left. We use the generator as a back up to charge our batteries, when either the sun is absent or the solar panels aren't doing their job. Next item not working? You guessed it, the solar panels! We have since ordered new panels, which were shipped from Tahiti to the airport in Raiatea. As luck would have it, the Raiatea airport has a dinghy dock, so we motored on over, loaded the panels in and off we went. Good news, they are working great. The opportunities for growth continue, but I'll stop there.
The highlight of our 10 days in the boatyard was spending time at our bungalow - ha! Our hosts, Manu (28), Kalei (27) and Mare-tu (3), are a sweet, industrious family. The evening they invited us for dinner was a gift. Manu prepared two difference dishes using Thon Rouge (red tuna) he caught himself. Over dinner we learned that both Manu and Kalei grew up in French Polynesia; Manu in Raiatea, Kalei in Tahiti. Both we're world champions paddlers! They speak Tahitian, French and excellent English. Kalei also speaks fluent Spanish. She shared that growing up she wanted to be a Spanish teacher, but her mom didn't want her to go away to university in France. Now, she works for a bank in Utuora. Manu was raised by his mother and grandfather. He told us that both died young, leaving him the house they now live in. He built the adjacent house (the bungalow we stayed in) by watching YouTube videos. Note: as to the computer issues mentioned earlier, both of our computers died after charging them at the bungalow. We're guessing the YouTube videos didn't cover grounding power. :(
Phase Two: We're in the water.
Saturday, after a quick grocery shopping trip in Uturoa (the main village in Raiatea), we quickly stashed perishables in the frig (a lot fewer items are considered perishable here than in the states), released the dock lines and departed the marina in light winds and blue skies. We motored a whopping 2.9 miles across the lagoon from Raiatea to the island of Ta'haa, Baie Apu. We picked up a mooring ball, turned off the engine, and dug out our swim suits. For the first time since our arrival, we dove in! Warm, salty, crystal clear blue water. Instantly, I felt 18-months of cobwebs fade away.
The next two days we spent getting re-acquainted with Athanor. What exactly do we have on board, and where is it all stowed? The re-commissioning process is still underway, but now we've got turquoise blue water beneath us and a constant breeze funneling through the boat. Ahhhhh.
The mooring ball holding us belongs to a pearl farm just around the bend, so when their marketing person (lol) came by for a visit in his small motorboat offering us a tour, we took him up on it. The pearl farm is a small production, family owned business in operation for 30+ years. They sell their pearls in French Polynesia only - which we've come to appreciate. Mom/daughter rate each pearl, son runs the production side, plus a little marketing. It didn't take me anytime to find an assortment of pearls to purchase. For now, we've bookmarked it for a future visit.
In Baie Apu, we enjoyed reconnecting with our Aussie friends Andrew and Claire, s/v Eye Candy. Several days later, with cobwebs swept and some sense of order down below, at long last, we launched our sails and made our way around to the west side of Ta'haa. We anchored behind a Motu - essentially a teeny tiny island that sits just inside the reef, separating the ocean from the lagoon. We find a sweet spot on the shelf of the reef - 6 feet of depth on one side (too little) and 60 feet on the other (too much). As we anchored, a curious "puppy" aka black tip reef shark came to check us out. Another reminder that we are in a special place.
We chose this spot because of The Coral River. Over the next couple of days, we got closer to this exquisite place on earth by taking our dinghy up river a short distance, walking on the reef towards the opening to the ocean. We pulled on our snorkeling gear, slipped into the river and floated with the current, witnessing the tropical aquarium that occurs whether we're there or not. I was screaming with delight - on the inside - and kept thinking about how much I want to share this experience with our family!
Phase Three: Settling in - Adjusting to not doing.
We're working on that now. It's harder than you might imagine.
I'm writing to you now from Athanor's forward deck on the island of Bora Bora. It's 5:30a.m., with a light breeze and the sun just rising. The island is waking up - fishing boats buzzing about, rooster's crowing, a few fish are splashing about, and I assume that the horn I hear honking is someone being picked up to make their way to work in the many hotels on this island.
We won't wait so long to write next time.
Susan & Rob
Will she remember us?
14 April 2018
Just this morning, I was thinking about how luxurious it is to take a hot shower.
After 18 months of experiencing the luxuries of land-based life, Rob and I (plus 300lbs. o’stuff) will return next week to S/V Athanor – and, with this, trading the luxuries of Seattle for the luxuries of the South Pacific: the insanely blue water, so clear you can see stingrays nestled into the sandy ocean floor 100 feet deep; the lush green landscape, still largely untouched; and, the beautiful French Polynesian people, working intently to protect their ecosystem and reclaim the culture of their ancestors.
During our time at home, we have been immersed in work, spending time with our family, and envisioning our return to Athanor. We’ve talked, and talked, and talked, about how we want to “experience” this season. First and foremost, the phrase “with ease” has percolated to the top. We want to immerse ourselves in the rich culture that we’ve just barely had a taste of. If you sailed along with us in 2015/16, you’ll remember our musings and images of the beauty we encountered. If you’re new to our blog, we invite you to take a peek back through our journey. This year, while we promise more sharing of that beautiful landscape, we hope that through our words, you’ll get to know more about the day-to-day lives of French Polynesians…and of a couple of Americans dipping our toes in another way of living.
But before we set sail, we will have to return Athanor to the water! This will be our first go at the re-commissioning process. The “to-do” list is very long and we’ve got one week until the tractor moves her into position to gently slip into the water! Projects include: sail repairs, bottom paint, testing all systems – engine, outboard, electrical, battery, water-maker, refrigeration, communication and navigation systems – oh my! And then, we acclimate again to living on a boat, two people in a very small space, with limited access to services, being self-sufficient again, always tracking the weather, always having Plans B and C at the ready.
Over the course of the next six months, we will split our time between Seattle (working a bit) and immersing ourselves in the Society Islands of French Polynesia. The Societies include the Isles du vent (windward islands) Tahiti, Moorea, and the Isles sous le vent (Leeward islands) Hu’Hine, Raiatea, Bora Bora. Unlike our 1st year out (sailing 7,500 miles from Seattle and a 26-day Pacific Ocean passage), sailing these islands is relatively easy; distances are close, at the most an overnight sail between anchorages. We will explore the islands on foot and by bike, taking in the music, dance and culture, participating in Heiva festivities, snorkeling, and connecting with other voyagers from the US and elsewhere.
Toward the end of the season, we will likely make a longer passage, out of French Polynesia, to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. The purpose of this trip would be to “reset the clock” on the time our boat can stay in French Polynesia. A boat is only allowed to stay within French Polynesia for up to three years before being required to pay a steep 8% import duty. For us, that deadline will land relatively early in April 2019 and we’d rather not be rushed to exit the country. We’ve heard from several of our cruising friends who have long since moved on from French Polynesia that this set of islands remains at the top of their list in terms of its raw beauty, culture and friendliness towards cruisers. This short 4-5 day passage to Rarotonga (plus another 4-5 days upwind return) allows us to buy the extra time we would like to have in French Polynesia before sailing west toward Niue, Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand – and being able to share this beauty with friends and family.
When we started this adventure, our blog was entitled: Athanor Expedition, A Year of Exploration. Today that changed to: Athanor Expedition, Our Exploration of Land and Sea. We are truly blessed to explore the world in this way - even if we do have to use a camp shower. ☺
We’ll write soon!
Susan & Rob
Sweet Home Seattle
24 April 2017 | Seattle, WA
On Tuesday, 4/26, Rob will make his way to Raiatea to check on Athanor and tend to a few projects. Making travel arrangements, connecting with friends as they make plans to return to their boats following hurricane season, scanning dozens of “boat cards” from fellow cruisers, and reviewing lists upon lists – feels like old times.
As I packed the “bag o’ boat stuff” this morning, I take note that we’ve largely tucked away our life on the boat since we’ve been home. In January, we had a brief but wonderful reconnection over Sunday brunch with Randy and Ruth, from S/V Velic, who had made the crossing parallel to us last year. But it wasn’t until our friends Tom & Sylvia (who also made the crossing at the same time we did last year) embarked on a 2nd passage with friends of theirs aboard S/V Shindig, that we began reminiscing. Every morning I couldn’t wait to get to my computer to see how their previous day’s passage went. In an event most unbelievable to me, I found myself saying, “I want to make that passage again!”
We’ve been back in the states for 6 months now. When we landed in Seattle on October 3, 2016, we were firmly rooted in our plan to return to Athanor, return to our cruising friends, and return to exquisite French Polynesia after 6 months (April, 2017), for another season of sailing. Plans change. Within a couple of months, it became pretty darned clear that we would need to stay here for an additional year. Although we had some grieving to do, we quickly made a list of all the great experiences we could have by being home for longer than expected: spending time with family and friends, exploring new places in the states, etc. And, we made a commitment to each other to make them happen.
After a brief adjustment period, we’ve easily slipped back into our “land life.” Rob’s business required his full attention from the get go, while I had some time to ease back in. For everyone’s sanity, I needed to feel useful again. I am an expert multi-tasker; however, I have zero experience at “not-working.” So when we decided we’d be in Seattle for a year +, I figured that I might as well get at it. Little did I expect that I would receive a call from the Board of Directors at the organization I ran prior to our adventure. For the next 9 months or so, I will be the Interim Executive Director at College Access Now – round deux.
To all of our cruising buddies: we love you, miss you, and wish you amazing adventures this sailing season. Most of all, we can’t wait to reconnect next year.
To our family and friends: we treasure our time at home with you – including making plans for you to join us in the South Pacific next year!
Susan and Rob
Raiatea - Final stop in French Polynesia
02 October 2016 | Raiatea
After reading our last blog post, my dear friend Tracy (Wenatchee) commented that it left her with a pit in her stomach. When I queried her, she said, “I think I’m wondering if you’ve changed.” Her comment has had me thinking a lot about whether/how I’ve changed over the past year+. I asked Rob to think about it too.
Our overnight sail from Papeete to Raiatea was one of the best we’ve had in the past year. It didn’t start that way, however. We came out of the harbor to decent winds, and “confused seas.” We put the sails out and, seemingly within 30 seconds, a squall we thought would pass behind us was instead all over us – clocking 33 knots of wind. S—t! Totally caught us off guard. Rob used all of his might to get the headsail furled in and we started forereaching into the wind-driven swells. We were safe – just pissed. Thankfully, the squall passed, with no others behind it, and off we went!
As I came on watch at 10p.m., the skies were clear and the stars were out. We had our full main up and our genoa pole’d out for a nice downwind sail. I saw a fellow sailboat, one we knew, on the chart plotter – sailing towards Papeete. This big ‘ol ocean felt familiar and smaller tonight. I noticed a light on the horizon. I thought it was a freighter – no AIS identifier showing on the chart plotter – hmmm. It was a ways off, so I didn’t worry about it too much. The next time I turned my head; I saw that the freighter was actually an enormous, nearly full moon, rising on the horizon. For the next hour, I sat and stared at the moon, and the stars and planets around it – as we sailed along at 6 knots in calm seas. I thought about Tracy’s question. I have changed – in so many ways, the depth of which I cannot fully imagine right now. But for starters, I don’t believe I’ve ever sat for that length of time to watch a moon rise, and definitely never with a 360-degree view.
We approached Raiatea feeling a sense of melancholy. The island was brilliant green, with the reef surrounding it. This was the only island we’d be visiting where we knew we wouldn’t be doing much exploring. We had 10 days of serious work to decommission Athanor for her summer stay here. We made our way through the pass and around the island to the marina. Based on recommendations from fellow cruisers who have decommissioned their boat many times over the years, we rented a cottage in town – nice to get off the boat at the end of a long, sweaty day.
That night, the owner of the cottage gave us a lift to town for dinner – both of us taking note that we’d have plenty of time on the way back to walk off our dinner! We had a great meal and began our long walk to our cottage. We were tired, and complaining about the walk. Poor us. LOL.
As we walked, Rob heard drumming and singing – a familiar sound to us now. Around the corner we came upon a group of 40 adults and kids, practicing a dance. As we stood on the sidewalk watching, 1-2-3 people waved us into the yard. We sheepishly walked in, not wanting to disturb. I really wanted to pull out my phone to film them, but I resisted. I just wanted to be in the moment. They were all so beautiful – every shape/size/age – even the little girls had mastered that incredible swing of the hips! As the practice concluded, the owner of the dance studio came up to chat with us. He asked us where we were from, and shared that this group was heading to the U.S. shortly to perform in San Diego and Las Vegas. And it gets better…they guided us out of our chairs to join hands in a singing circle of thanks. Of course we didn’t know the words, but we did what one always does when you don’t know the words – mouth “watermelon, watermelon!” They were also celebrating a birthday and we were welcomed – in fact they insisted – that we stay and join them. An hour later, we made our “not so long walk” home – feeling blessed beyond words.
Over the course of the next week, we were up by 5:30, out the door by 7a.m., back at noon for lunch (and a siesta), then back to the boat for another several hours. It was essentially moving out of an apartment – all food had to go; everything (from the cupboards to the bilge) had to be scrubbed and wiped down with vinegar/water; sails had to come off; water tanks drained; engine oil changed, lines washed and stowed; clothes washed and sealed in vacuum bags – the list goes on. Rob also worked with a local mechanic to drop and inspect our rudder, and to get dimensions for two new rudder bearings that we’ll have machined while in the US.
Even though the work was not fun, it was a cathartic experience for us. Each of us – separately and together – had time to reflect on how this year+ has changed us. And, even here – in a dirty, dusty boatyard, we continued to warmed by the wonderful people we met day in/day out (see separate post “Boatyard John for more).
Yesterday, I cried as we left Athanor at the boatyard. She has been a loyal companion – our home - for over a year now. She’s carried us over 7,500 miles since we left Seattle last September.
This morning, we hopped a puddle jumper from Raiatea to Papeete. As our small plane flew over Huahine and Moorea, I had a very different vantage point of waters we had recently sailed. I spotted the blue/green reefs surrounding the islands. I noticed the natural breaks in the reef allowing boats to anchor. I envied the sailboats enroute.
Tomorrow, we will be in the states by dinnertime.
As you might imagine, our range of emotions are running high. We’ve missed our friends and family and can’t wait to hug our kids. We feel incredibly blessed that we had the opportunity – and the courage - to make this journey happen. We have fallen in love with this part of the world, and are sad to say so long. We’ll be back.
Once we’re settled in Seattle, we’ll write and let you know how re-entry is going! Thank you all for coming along with us – it’s been fun to share the highs – and lows – of our adventure.
Susan & Rob
02 October 2016
RAW HUMANITY – FORGET POLITICS. I was high above the ground on Athanor’s deck; John was on the ground prepping his boat for a fresh coat of bottom paint. Not that he could have done anything other than break my fall, I nonetheless asked him to hold the very tall ladder for me as I descended steeply fourteen feet to the ground. Rob scrubbed barnacles off the hull as I chatted with John. Over the course of the following ten minutes, our conversation – his story – epitomized the love and the utter humanity that we have felt each and every day we’ve spent in French Polynesia.
After a few minutes of typical “boat talk”, he asked where we were from. That sparked his sharing how surprised he is that U.S. politics is dominating the news worldwide. He commented that it must be hard to know what we’re going home to (the election season). He went on to share that he (a Kiwi) and his wife (French) spent an incredible two years roaming around the United States in an RV. He said with such fondness, “We were like kids! We loved every town we visited. We loved everyone we met. It was just wonderful. But the politics are atrocious!”
Mid-conversation, we were back around to talking about sailing. He shared that, when he and his wife (Annie) sailed across the Pacific, they made landfall in Nuku Hiva, Marquesas Islands. They fell in love with the islands. His wife told him, “When I die, I want to be buried here.” Then he delicately, quietly, slipped into one of the next few sentences that Annie died 1-1/2 years ago. I stopped him to confirm what he said. I’m not exactly sure how much time passed between their time in the Marquesas and her passing, but John shared that, following her death, he brought her ashes back to Taiohae Bay, Nuku Hiva. He planned to spread them in the bay. Before he did, he went to visit the local priest. He talked with the mayor. They were fine with his intentions but, being very Christian, they asked him to consider burying her instead. He agreed.
Which brings me to the utter humanity we have found in the Marquesas, the Tuomotos, Tahiti, Moorea, and now Raiatea. With tears in his eyes (and mine), John shared that the community came together to celebrate Annie’s life, and to bury her. They dug one grave. John then spotted two trees on a hill, and he knew that was where he wanted to bury her. He felt terrible asking them to dig another spot, but he did, and they didn’t hesitate. The women from the church brought flowers, several people played music – and they buried her. Neither John nor Annie is Marquesan. They never lived in Nuku Hiva, let alone French Polynesia. And yet, John’s heart will always be in Nuku Hiva, a place few ever have the privilege of experiencing.
14 September 2016 | Papeete, Tahiti
When we talked with friends from home about our impending voyage west from the Tuomotos to the island of Tahiti, it felt like an "ah ha" moment for many of them. Most of us grew up associating Tahiti with picture-perfect images of the nearby island of Moorea (and perhaps Bora Bora), rather than the island of Tahiti itself, or the broader collection of islands comprising the "Society Islands" within French Polynesia. Much like the Marquesas and Tuomotos, most folks are not familiar with the other islands that make up the Societies (Tetiaroa, Huahine, Raiatea, and Taha'a). Conversely, our fellow voyagers are well familiar with Tahiti and, even more so, with the primary city here, Papeete. For our friends on boats, Papeete typically brings up: (1) boat projects (work); (2) a dirty, noisy, unattractive city. In short, we weren't hearing much love about this port of call that was to be our first stop in the Society Islands.
Luckily, we've been quite surprised to have a much different experience. After spending months in remote places, we had our share of smaller projects that we'd been saving up, and we had limped along with our batteries since we were in Nuku Hiva. Taking delivery of our batteries did not go as smoothly as hoped, but it provided an education for us on several new levels. As for the city...for starters, Rob and I both like cities,and love to explore what they have to offer. We love the quiet and tranquil island settings experienced over the past four months, but we had also been looking forward to a change of pace. Oh, and we LOVED the idea of being in a marina for a short while...water that comes out of a hose to wash the boat; toilets that flush; showers where water spurts out above your head! And we had an added bonus to look forward to -- coming to Papeete meant that Kate's visit was finally here!
Our arrival in the big city was a bit surreal. The downtown marina is adjacent to the Port of Papeete - the primary port for all of French Polynesia. The airport is also within eyeshot, with the daily arrivals published in the paper. The more we've learned about Papeete, the more impressed we are. Papeete is one of the most remote cities of its size - lying mid-way between the West Coast of the Americas and New Zealand. Their reliance upon cargo ships to import supplies -- not only for Tahiti's 250,000 inhabitants, but also distributing supplies to neighboring Society Islands the more distant Marquesas, Tuomotos, Gambiers -- is nothing short of impressive from a sheer logistics perspective.
A lovely "promenade" follows the edge of the waterfront, providing awesome people watching. This strip of waterfront greenbelt is used by thousands of people a day - young, old, locals, tourists...jogging, walking, pushing strollers, but is also frequented by lunch-goers, high school couples seeking a place to press up against one another, and a few folks who make it their home. The promenade also seems to facilitate a focus on health consciousness for the city, complete with a par course. One day, we happened upon a giant Zoomba class, consisting mostly of women, with a handsome "Richard Simmons" type of celebrity from France man on stage. The city itself if not particularly "clean" by any means, but it is full of life - commerce, food, entertainment, and people from all walks of life.
Kate was indeed a sight for sore eyes. We had a total blast. She's the first one of our family/friends to visit us since Carah spent time with us in Mexico. And, as Kate had never spent any real time on the boat, we were a bit apprehensive (she shared that she had similar thoughts). But she totally stepped into life aboard! She got herself organized in her berth and, just like when she was a babe, she didn't stop until her head hit the pillow every night. This girl's got amazing energy and though we were much more active when she was here, we also had wonderful time just hanging on the boat. When she left after 10 short days, both Rob and I felt a bit empty.
We rode scooters around Moorea. Despite the fact that none of us had ridden scooters before, we survived. No surprise, Kate was in the lead 100% of the time! We challenged ourselves to make the best Mai Tai. We spent a full day hiking to the top of Belvedere (10-mile round trip). We discovered incredible farmland, pineapple plantations, archeological sites, an Agricultural College, and quite likely our favorite part was reaching the top to find a man selling coconuts, cooled in an ice chest. He lopped off the top, inserted a straw, and voila, we sipped the most refreshing drink (which tastes nothing like the coconut water sold in the states) while taking in a stunning view of Opunoho & Cooks Bay below. Note, the empty coconuts were re-used for Mai-Tai's later that evening (see pics). We got up early to take the dinghy to the head of the bay to buy fresh Crevette (shrimp) direct from a local shrimp farm that is only open 4 hours each week. We visited an amazing vanilla and fruit farm high atop a hill, carrying back way too much!
We were up and out early the mornings we went to visit the stingrays and black-tipped reef sharks. We had heard that an early morning arrival would beat the hotel boats filled with tourists. We loaded ourselves and our gear into the dinghy and ventured off with pretty vague directions...from the anchorage, follow the white markers about 1-mile west; look for a couple of mooring balls, and if you get to Motu Mihi, you've gone to far. We saw another dinghy out in front of us, so we followed them for a bit; however, they went beyond where we guessed we should be stopping. We spotted a couple of mooring balls and coasted near them - me telling Rob I was pretty sure we were at the wrong spot - Kate saying, "Mom, we only need one captain." Ouch. As we were having this discussion, we looked over the side of the dinghy to find 4,5,6 stingrays gathering below us in four feet of water - just a wee bit intimidating. And, even though we didn't want a bunch of people around us, we were the only people there. As is customary, we made Rob splash first.
The hour that followed was simply magical - a wild aquarium - which our images and video speak to best. As we slipped into the water, these beautiful rays were curious to meet us. At first, they swam by appearing to check us out. As time went by, they allowed us to pet them, and swam up the front of our bodies to give us a hug (I swear to you it looked like they were trying to take Kate's top off). Yes, there was some squealing heard. While our attention was focused on the stingrays, a dozen black-tipped reef sharks swam about. Rob tapped on my shoulder to say, "Hey, do you notice that you're not afraid of the sharks?"
Another highlight of our time in Moorea was sharing the experience with our friend Nico (27-year old who singled-handed from Berkeley) and his parents who are visiting for a month from Paris. Kate and Nico paddled kayaks to yoga one night; we cleaned and cooked 60 shrimp for a fantastic meal (followed by many rounds of Bananagrams); we also shared our Stingray experience with them.
Kate and I took the ferry back to Papeete for a girl's day before she headed back to the States. We swam in the hotel pool, napped in poolside lounge chairs, sipped umbrella drinks, and laughed a lot!
This week we are attending "Festival Polynesia - Te Moana Nui a Hiva" - the first festival of its kind in Papeete honoring the deep, rich cultural history and connection French Polynesians have with the Maoris (New Zealanders), Hawaiians, and Easter Islanders. We've seen two dance shows so far - we have been brought to tears by their intensity and beauty.
With our return to the states only six weeks away, many of our conversations have made that difficult shift to focus on departure planning. Wasn't it just yesterday that we left the comforts of our home in Seattle? It is yet another opportunity to practice being in the present moment. Just as on land, there is no shortage of experiences/advice shared amongst cruisers. On the re-entry subject, I'll save you the details, but the bottom line we've heard from those that "re-entered" before - it's difficult. Much like our excitement about arriving in Tahiti (despite what we'd heard), we are also excited about returning to the states. We miss our family. We miss our friends. We're looking forward to the adventures we'll have when we return.
Later this week we'll sail to Huahine (our final overnight sail this trip) and finally Raiatea to haul the boat out and make our way back to the states.
Susan & Rob
Fakarava - Shark Town
22 August 2016 | Fakarava
Every conversation we'd had with anyone about Fakarava quickly turned to the diving and snorkeling, particularly at the South Pass. Typical words/phrases: NOT TO MISS EXPERIENCE - sharks - big fish - beautiful coral - grouper - LOTS (as in hundreds) of sharks - black tip reef sharks - grey sharks - lemon sharks - sleeping sharks. So, you can imagine the anticipation. As we approached the pass in our dinghy, my anxiety level was peaking. I'll attempt to describe how "diving the pass" works: At just before slack tide, we drive our dinghy from inside the atoll lagoon through the pass opening towards the ocean. Next, we pull on our snorkeling gear and grab the line tied to the dinghy. Then, it is time to spill into the water - I made Rob go first, just in case. LOL. As the current picks up, we floated through the pass - no effort - it feels like flying.
Over the course of 3 days, we snorkeled the pass a total of 7 times - the experience blew our minds! Unfortunately, we didn't get great shots with our GoPro; however, this link (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3s1qO6Hb3o), plus a few shots in our photo album might give you a visual sense of our experience. As we dropped into the water, the first thing I saw was a group of scuba divers below us - surprised me (at least it wasn't a shark staring me in the eye). As things came into view, we saw a hundred+ sharks 80 feet below us. Try visualizing this - it looked like they were treading water. I kept thinking about my brother, Greg. He would be in heaven. On day two, we gasped as we saw 1,2,3...6 eagle rays - ranging in size from a 3 foot - to 8 foot wingspan - gracefully swimming together in pairs. Just to keep me awake, I glanced over my shoulder to see a grey shark about 20 feet away checking me out - followed by an up close and personal visit from 50 or so of his friends. My personal favorite was the sleeping shark resting on the coral floor below. As we floated through the pass into the lagoon, it became shallower (and faster) as the reef rose from the ocean floor. We passed thousands of brightly colored small reef fish tucked safely into their coral homes. Absolutely an experience I will never forget - and, hope to do again.
..........Starting at the beginning
Our sail from Kauehi to Fakarava was one of the best we've had. We had a 15-knot downwind sail and used our spinnaker pole for the first time, flying wing-on-wing the entire 35 miles. We entered the north pass at just the right time (unlike Kauehi) and actually sailed through...no pedal to the metal this time! From the pass, we followed a well-marked channel to the anchorage where we slipped onto an available mooring buoy.
We spent nearly a month in Fakarava, making our way slowly from the north to the south end, each anchorage unique and special. Fakarava was a perfect balance of remote beauty, with the added bonus of those basic services we adore. All of the food on the atoll (save for the bread) still arrives by supply ship; however, it comes once a week making it much easier to extend our stay. It had been six weeks since we had purchased anything fresh, so when we first took the dinghy ashore and found vegetables, a boulangerie with freshly baked croissants, and tuna tartare -- we were in heaven! Add Internet and a cold beer and we were happy campers.
Once we had our civilization fix met, we began our short jaunt down the east coast of the atoll. The coast of Fakarava is dotted with small pensions, with colorfully painted over-the-water bungalows - elegantly simple, with none of the hype (nor cost) that we see in Bora Bora brochures, for example. If you need a place to get away from it all - this is it! Fly into Papeete, with a connecting flight to Fakarava. Spend a couple of weeks reading, sleeping, swimming, diving, and snorkeling.
Next stop, Pakokota. There we met owners, Matthieu and Agnes, along with their 5-month-old daughter, Hanni Hia. We fell in love with this adorable - and ambitious - family. Their home, and budding Lodge/Yacht Services business, is several miles south of where the concrete road ends in Fakarava. They have built a lovely eating/drinking/gathering space, along with three small bungalows (one for their family and two others to rent out). Our drive to town with Matthieu was awesome! Matthieu's early '80's Isuzu Trooper is reportedly the 1st of its kind in French Polynesia - our drive into town was definitely a 1st of its kind for me! When he said it had air conditioning, I had no idea the air was coming through the holes in the floor. We made it back safely, and enjoyed spending our lazy days visiting with fellow cruisers, kayaking, and swimming with a 10' wide manta ray.
Before heading to the south pass, we stopped for two days in a quiet little anchorage called Takaega. We were the only boat there and thoroughly enjoyed the stillness. Rob enjoyed some coconut hunting, and I read for hours on end.
Pulling into Hirifa felt like old home week. Friends we met upon our arrival in the Marquesas greeted us. We spent our days walking the reef, shell collecting, and chatting for hours and hours. I dabbled a bit in the galley baking a fresh coconut cake that we shared with our friends. And, that takes us back to where we started this post...snorkeling with the sharks!
Departing Fakarava is bittersweet. We will miss the simple way of life in the Tuomotos, yet we know that moving west means the creature comforts of staying in a marina, showers, real grocery stores, and the best of all - a visit from Katie babe!
We'll write from Tahiti.
Susan & Rob
Kauehi - the friendliest place on earth
26 July 2016 | Kauehi atoll
After two glorious weeks of solitude on Raroia, we were in the zone - a Zen state, if you will. Our departure from Raroia and passage to Kauehi was another reminder from our Buddhist friends that nothing is permanent, including our Zen state! We weighed anchor at daylight and made our way across the lagoon under cloudy skies - no sun to see those pesky bommies = stress to start the day. We approached the pass with trepidation seeing standing waves to our right, and rushed through at over 8 knots = stress diminished. As we set our sails we spotted a whale a ways off our beam - we haven't seen a whale since Mexico = Happy.
For the next 30 hours we were spanked - first, no wind and big seas, then big winds and big seas, then squall (rain) after squall (rain) after squall (more rain). At last, we approached the pass to Kauehi. The winds were blowing 20+ knots; the seas were 6', and it wouldn't stop raining. We were late to the pass. We had been told that this was an easy pass - wide, short, not huge currents. Rob says, "We've arrived at the worst possible time. Let's check it out and go from there." Given the current sea state, the options didn't look promising to wait outside the pass. As we approached, we couldn't tell what the current was doing, but we could see 6' standing waves. We knew that with the winds already at 20 knots, they were not likely going to get lighter as the day wore on. So, we went for it. Rob had it floored (7 knots) and we were moving at 2 knots - meaning, we had 5 knots pushing against us. Can you say white knuckles? Yes, I was praying once again! On the other side of the pass, we still had 8 miles across the lagoon with 20+ knot winds and 3' waves hitting us on the beam. More than an hour later, we were relieved to finally drop the hook, cut the engine, have the all important arrival beer, and take a nap!
With each visit to the village, we grew more and more fond of Kauehi. We were fortunate to be one of only two boats at anchor for the week we were in Kauehi. We felt completely embraced by the community. Every person we passed on the street waved and smiled. We were included in all the Heiva "reindeer games." We were hugged; we were kissed on both cheeks (European style), and the children exuded sweetness and great energy. Kauehi is a beautiful example of a community that is focused on raising their children in a loving and involved way.
On our first visit to the village, we stopped at the local Magasin (market) - that, much like the church in each town - is a local meeting spot. The proprietor, whom we later learned is the un-official mayor, enthusiastically greeted us. For $9, we happily purchased the one head of cabbage and bag of carrots in the cooler, along with an ice-cream sandwich - followed by a beer, which we enjoyed on the bench outside the grocery store chatting - in very broken French - with a few locals. "Tia" - said Magasin owner/pearl farm owner/un-official mayor - then invited us to join in the Heiva activities of the evening. When we arrived that evening, there was a soccer game underway, as well as a serious Bocchi ball competition. For Heiva, the community set up a circle of tents housing an ice-cream store, two restaurants, a discotheque, with the Bocchi ball court in the middle. As we ate dinner, the un-official mayor informed us that the kids were purportedly going to have a dance contest. In reality, it ended up being the boat ladies dancing with some kids. We were rewarded with a prize of a beautifully woven hat of fresh palm frons.
On another of our leisurely days in Kauehi, we spent the day at the airport - can you imagine spending the day at the airport as a pleasant experience? We finally dug out our folding bikes - and took a 10-mile ride to the Kuehi airport. The road is packed crushed white coral, lined with palm trees - the lagoon on one side, the lagoon reef and ocean on the other. Along the way, we were passed by several cars - all waving hello as they passed. Atop the cab of one of the passing trucks sat a teenage girl, crossed legged, smiling ear-to-ear. Tia, along with his family, was one of the trucks that passed us on the way. The side of his truck read Kauehi Transport, so we added transport services to his long list of businesses - and connected the dots that a flight might be arriving today. We later learned that there are two flights each week - Wednesday & Saturday. The open-air airport is the size of a postage stamp, with a handful of tables and several beautiful benches. The short runway sits between the ocean and the lagoon. I can imagine how spectacular it would be to fly above these waters. While we all waited for the flight (maybe it will arrive at 1 or 2 or 3p.m.), Tia invited us to sit with him to have a soda and a chat - another opportunity for Rob practice his French! Turns out the Magasin owner also owns a "snack bar" at the airport. LOL.
Bastille Day was the highlight of our time in Kauehi. For the entire day we were the guests of honor. And what a day it was. Organized - no! A hoot - yes! We were to arrive before 7a.m. to participate in the parade, followed by "cocktails" - the definition we quickly learned does not translate from the US - but in fact, was watered down Kool-Aid served out of a small (clean) garbage can. Dip your cup in - out comes your cocktail! The parade consisted of 40 people dressed in every color of the rainbow walking through town to the town hall, singing the national anthem, then walking back. The day continued with sack races, tug of war, and yet another "dance contest." After our turn at the sack race, Rob took it upon himself to change his status from honored guest to game show host, organizing a 3-legged race including the unofficial mayor - a real crowd pleaser.
For our last night, we planned to stay on board to prepare for our departure. Not so much. Tia insisted that we dine with him that night! So, instead of bringing the dinghy on deck, we headed to the dock once more, navigating through the shallow coral heads for the evening. Tia greeted us at his store and presented each of us with a beautiful shell necklace and a handful of "irregular, yet beautiful" black pearls from his pearl farm. Tres jolie! We ate chow Mein with Tia, his wife Andrea (in the pics) and our new friends An & Ivan aboard Vaguebond (Belgium).
One last note from the nature experience category: One evening as the sun was setting, I was so blessed to see something that goes un-noticed thousands of times a day - and reminded me a scene in Finding Nemo when Dorrie and the Dad encounter a school of fish that make the shape of an arrow to direct them. One hundred flying fish, together, leapt out of the water like a dolphin with a bird hovering above them. This happens - thousands of times a day, and we get to witness it - magic!
Next stop - Fakarava. Fakarava is the 2nd largest atoll in all of the Tuomotos. Being a bit closer to Tahiti, we hear it is much more developed than we've experienced in weeks - the big city! We're excited to get laundry done, to have a meal on shore, to access Internet, and most importantly, to re-connect with cruisers we've met along the way.
Susan and Rob
On to the Tuomotos -- Raroia atoll
11 July 2016 | Raroia atoll - Tuomotos Islands
Setting sail for the Tuomotus was a big deal for us as it would be our first significant passage since our arrival in the Marquesas over two moths prior. Unsure of our actual arrival time and weather that we’d encounter enroute, we decided that we would split the difference and set a course that would allow us to make landfall at either Raroia or Kauehi. As it turned out, our timing was good and we picked a great window for sailing; we had good winds, reaching almost the entire way. We were able to sail through the nights under clear skies and bright moonlight, under full sail with 14-18 knots of wind behind us.
On our third day, we sighted two low-lying atolls comprising the Disappointment Islands. We set our final course for Raroia and, later that day, encountered a trough in the weather and a line of squalls as far as we could see. We managed to slow down to let a few of these squalls pass in front of us, but when we saw the “gray weather wall”, we ran like hell! With motor and full sail together, we managed to slip between two squall lines and find our way to clearer weather. Our final night sleepless, as we were still running into squalls along our route, and we were thankful for the sunrise as we first spied our destination – Raroia!
While still a part of French Polynesia, the Tuomotus and the Marquesas could not be more different. The Marqueses are relatively new, geologically, with high mountainous volcanic peaks and sheer cliffs dropping down to the ocean. The Tuomotu Archipelago is much older, consisting of atolls that are basically collapsed volcanoes. So far, our experience of “making landfall” meant seeing mountains in the distance. With atolls, we could see tiny specs of palm trees – through the binoculars – at no more than 10 miles out.
The Tuomotus are the stereotypical picture of an “uncharted desert island” from a movie scene – think Gilligan’s Island. Comprised of some 78 coral atolls, and spanning almost a 1000 miles across the ocean, each has a fringe reef with an inner lagoon that is relatively shallow – 150 feet or so, in the case of Raroia. These are not small atolls; Raroia is about 25 miles long and 8 miles across. Scattered along the fringe reef every ½ - 2 miles or so are various “motus” – basically piles of coral sand that have accumulated from the pounding surf, upon which some vegetation has taken hold (bushes, small deciduous trees, palm trees, etc.).
Strong currents often flow out of the lagoons, making entry difficult unless timed for a relatively slack tide. Once inside, we have to navigate around various “bommies” which are small coral atolls themselves, maybe 25-200 feet in diameter and 3-8 feet under the water. Until recently, sailors did not typically visit these islands, as they are very difficult and dangerous to navigate. In fact, the archipelago is often labeled on paper charts as the “Dangerous Islands.” But the advent of GPS, and then chart plotters and even Google Earth, has changed all of that by giving us much more information about what lies under the water between and within each atoll.
Entering the pass to Raroia was an entirely new sailing experience for us. Keep in mind, we had been sailing for three days, with little sleep – our anxiety about what lay ahead was keeping us alert. The first task was getting through the pass and into the actual lagoon itself, and there we had the new challenge of threading through the “bommies!” These atolls are immense “pools” of water and, with the tides, have incredibly strong inflows and outflows of water each day. Currents in the pass entries can be up to 8 knots. This means that, if your boat normally travels at 7 knots through the water, with an 8-knot current you are actually travelling BACKWARDS in the flow of water with 1 knot of speed. Timing your entry with the slack tide (neither ebbing nor flooding) is of course, ideal. The trick with this is … no one really knows when that time actually is. And on some atolls, if there are strong winds washing water over the reefs, there actually is NO slack tide, only a weaker tide. There is an excel-based tool developed by some of the cruisers that is called the Tuomotu Tide Guestimator that tries to provide guidance in all of this. But at the end of the day is it just that – a big guess. And so, ultimately, you need to rely upon what you can see and experience as you enter the pass.
We expected to encounter a slack tide, but what we saw looked anything but “slack.” We were told to hug the north side (left) of the pass, as it was deeper. To our right, we saw waves crashing on the reef. In the middle we could see the current. I was nervous, but I had confidence in Athanor, and in Ev – our engine, so I gunned it. We had a strong outflow of current – approximately 2-3 knots which, when combined with a 20 knot headwind, reduced our speed over ground to approximately 3.5 knots. We powered through the pass, approximately 400 meters long or so, and then our speed started to ease up to 4 knots, then to 5 knots, and then we were back to our usual 6.5 knots. Whew!
But then came the next challenge – BOMMIES! We honestly had no idea what to expect. Susan I both had visions of tall skinny formations that would be lurking under the water, very hard to see, waiting to pierce the hull of a reckless sailboat. In reality, it turned out to be far less stressful than this. These “bommies” are coral formations rising up from the bottom of the atoll (approximately 50 meters in depth), approximately 25-50 meters across, that sit just below the surface. Usually, but not always, these formations have sand on the top that reflects the sunlight and makes them quite easy to see – as long as you have good sunlight and this sunlight is behind you rather than in your eyes! But not always -- there are some that are very hard to see, can sneak up on you, and that require us to be extra vigilant. We took it quite slow across the lagoon, motoring at 4-5 knots with me at the wheel and Susan spotting from the bow. We were quite lucky that another cruiser provided us with his track across the lagoon – helped a lot. No major mishaps, just one small motu hidden below the surface that caused Susan to yell “hard to port” … a new skill acquired.
Our first stop in the lagoon was the Kon Tiki anchorage. We anchored right behind the “Kon Tiki” motu, which is where the famous Kon Tiki expedition raft washed ashore following its 1947 voyage across the Pacific from Peru. The first night at anchor we watched a black and white documentary on the expedition. It is eerily spectacular to see footage of them on this exact motu some 70 years earlier. We explored the Kon Tiki monument, “reef walked”, etched our name on a mooring ball that had washed ashore, picked up trash that had washed ashore from sea, visited the pearl farm. To see – and hear - the ocean waves crashing onto the reef, just beyond the motu, is so strange. Here we are, anchored in crystal clear water, dead calm, and there’s just a reef between the powerful seas and us.
After a few days, we moved to a motu that lies at the far south end of the lagoon. The motu is nicknamed Jurassic Park and is home to THOUSANDS of birds, with birds coming and going all day and night. The name is amazingly appropriate. Upon anchoring in the bay, I donned snorkel gear to check our anchor and be sure it would be clear of any bommies should the winds change direction. Soon after entering, I heard Susan calling me, drawing my attention to a shark nearby in the water. And then another shark; then three sharks, then soon seven sharks! These were black tip reef sharks, approximately 4-5 feet in length, curious about the ship that had just invaded their space. I decided to dive the anchor a bit later. ;)
Here, we met and had great fun with Andrew & Claire aboard Eye Candy. They have been cruising for 11 years! They’ve seen it all, have great stories, and are wonderful people. Claire taught Susan how to make fresh bread; Andrew assisted me with our electrical charging system, and we compared notes on anchorages and weather patterns. We launched our kayaks and somehow felt much safer paddling in the lagoon watching the curious sea-life from above the water line! We had fun paddling up the estuaries, then cruising back with the current behind us. Susan set/achieved a goal to snorkel/swim for 10 full minutes – testing her courage to overcome her fear of the sharks. Indeed, they really could care less about us – it’s just hard to remember that as they swim about. We had heard about Coconut Crabs, so one afternoon Andrew and I (me with my PNW crabbing skills), made way to shore to catch dinner. We brought home 7, and enjoyed a “very light” meal (not the big Dungeness crabs we’re used to back home) with Andrew and Claire.
After two glorious weeks of near solitude, we realized that’s all we could stand and began plans to move on to our next atoll – Kauehi. We’ve heard wonderful things about this small atoll – namely the quaint village. We promise to share our experiences very soon!
Wishing you wonderful summer days,
Rob and Susan