A month in the Gambier Islands

We’ve been enjoying the Gambier Islands for just over a month now and I must say I’m very comfortable here. The islands are beautiful – volcanic in origin and covered in lush green vegetation with small tranquil beaches on its borders. So far we’ve visited five of them, Mangareva (the largest and most developed island), Taravai, Aukena, Akamaru and Totegegie (an uninhabited island with only an airstrip on it). The islands themselves are surrounded by a barrier reef, making the seas here very calm, warm and filled with wildlife. The snorkelling here is brilliant and although the animals aren’t quite as friendly as in the Galapagos, there’s a huge array of species to see and I’m starting to get a little better at identifying them.

The best thing about the islands, however, is the people. The locals seem to be really friendly and although it’s a definite advantage if you speak French (we don’t), they are generally amenable to giving help and are happy to share their surplus fruit and vegetables. The other cruisers especially are absolutely wonderful. It’s been very easy to make friends here and there’s a real sense of community in the anchorage. Perhaps the fact that all the cruisers here have taken a route that’s slightly off the beaten track gives them a bit more in common, creating more of a connection with each other. We’ve had a number of parties on shore where everyone brings along some food and drink for a picnic. My favourite was a get-together in a derelict house with no roof – it created quite an atmosphere and gave us a bit of protection from the nippy wind outside. We explored another island at the weekend and stayed on our friend’s boat for a few days. It’s a very shiny modern catamaran called El Nido and is home to our friends Olivia and David and their two young children. It felt like going on holiday in a luxurious five star hotel with all the modern conveniences you can imagine, and best of all….. a hot shower! My first hot shower since March, I was in heaven!

Another good thing about Gambier, which I was pleasantly surprised to find when we arrived, is that Mangareva has it’s very own wifi hotspot which can be reached from Bob in the anchorage. Before our mums start wondering why we haven’t used it to Skype them yet, I should point out that the internet is incredibly sketchy! It usually cuts out at least once every 10 minutes and is even slower than the old dial-up connections – we’re lucky if some websites even load up their homepage before the internet cuts out.  Still, it’s better than nothing and it means that we’ve been able to catch up on a few emails, order a few things online and update the blog. Thank you to everyone whose posted comments on the blog, we’ve been able to read them all and are thrilled so many of you are keeping up to date with us. We’d just like to say welcome to the new followers and sorry we’ve not been able to reply to all the comments individually. Ryan seems to be the most talked-about subject in the comments and I’m sure many of you are still wondering what’s happened to him. Well, after having a plethora of medical tests in Tahiti it seems that no one really knows what was wrong with him. They ruled out appendicitis and even though they weren’t completely sure what was causing his stomach pains, they have given him the all-clear and he is currently on his way back to Pitcairn as I write. I’m thrilled he’s happy and healthy and although I’m sure his parents must still be worried that his condition couldn’t be explained, he’s not in any imminent danger and should hopefully stay that way for a long time to come! He arrived in Mangareva by plane a few days ago with Nadine, Andrew and his grandparents who were already in Tahiti. We never saw Ryan and Nadine as they had already boarded their ship to Pitcairn when we arrived on the dock – it was a very rainy day and I don’t blame them from wanting to be in a dry warm cabin. We did get to see Andrew and Ryans grandparents (Olive and Steve) briefly which was lovely, and got an update from them. We’re still planning on heading back to Pitcairn during the next suitable weather window and I look forward to seeing them again in the near future.

Anyway, back to our exploits in the Gambier Islands…. As I was saying, the internet here is pants! The bad news is that it’s taken me many hours (if not days) over the last 4 weeks to upload my low resolution photos to the blog – but the good news is that I have actually managed to upload some photos to the blog! So first of all, here are the photos from Pitcairn and our medivac with Ryan:

Our first view of Pitcairn - the first land we'd seen after our 23 day passage from Galapagos

Our first view of Pitcairn – the first land we’d seen after our 23 day passage from Galapagos

 

Pitcairn Island - a steep sided, luscious-green island rising out of the barren ocean like something out of Lord of the Rings. A deceptive sanctuary as it's so exposed to the sea and the elements that it's extremely difficult for boats to anchor here

Pitcairn Island – a steep sided, luscious-green island rising out of the barren ocean like something out of Lord of the Rings. A deceptive sanctuary as it’s so exposed to the sea and the elements that it’s extremely difficult for boats to anchor here

 

 

Us with Ryan and his mum Nadine on the way to Mangareva. All really lovely people, making the best of the difficult situation and an absolute pleasure to have on board.

Us with Ryan and his mum Nadine on the way to Mangareva. All really lovely people, making the best of the difficult situation and an absolute pleasure to have on board.

 

low_taporo

We met the Taporo VIII at sun rise about 120 miles from Mangareva to transfer Ryan and Nadine to the ship. It meant they arrived in Mangareva 12 hours earlier than Bob, closer to medical help if he needed it

 

low_taporo 2

Nadine and Ryan being craned onto Taporo VIII

 

And here’s what we’ve been up to in the Gambier Islands, again in picture form 🙂

 

low_climb to Mt Duff

We climbed the treacherous path up Mount Duff during our first week here. Ropes were installed towards the end to help people climb up the steepest bits. It took us about 2 hours to get to the top – I doubt we’d have made it at all if the ropes hadn’t been installed. We did the hike with Chris – the skipper of a catamaran called Ohana (which Alex talked about in his previous blog). Chris is English but has lived in New Zealand for many years. Now he is sailing through the Pacific towards Panama with another two crew members (Joe and Anthony) – all really great people who became good friends of ours.

 

The view from the top of Mount Duff. Absolutely stunning! Definitely the best view I've seen on this trip.

The view from the top of Mount Duff. Absolutely stunning! Definitely the best view I’ve seen on this trip.

 

Bob looks so small from all the way up here

Bob looks so small from all the way up here

 

A photo taken by Joe from Ohana during a sail to Akamaru. Hmm, I think the bottom needs a bit of a clean...

A photo taken by Joe from Ohana during a sail to Akamaru. Hmm, I think the bottom needs a bit of a clean…

 

This is Jessie and John cooking freshly caught fish on a home-made barbeque for the cruisers and locals at their farm on Taravai (an island with only 7 inhabitants at the moment). They sailed here from England in a 26 foot yacht called Sparrow. They’re now looking after a small farm on Taravai whilst the owner is away. They are on a show-string budget so mainly live off the land. They grow their own fruit and vegetables, go spear fishing, trap chickens and goats for meat, and make their own coconut milk, yoghurt and cheese. They even cook all their meals on a fire since they ran out of cooking gas! They are really cool guys and a real inspiration - we've started to make a lot of our own foods using the skills we've learnt from them.

This is Jessie and John cooking freshly caught fish on a home-made barbeque for the cruisers and locals at their farm on Taravai (an island with only 7 inhabitants at the moment). They sailed here from England in a 26 foot yacht called Sparrow. They’re now looking after a small farm on Taravai whilst the owner is away. They are on a shoestring budget so mainly live off the land. They grow their own fruit and vegetables, go spear fishing, trap chickens and goats for meat, and make their own coconut milk, yoghurt and cheese. They even cook all their meals on a fire since they ran out of cooking gas! They are really cool guys and a real inspiration – we’ve started to make a lot of our own foods using the skills we’ve learnt from them.

 

An afternoon relaxing on the farm – playing volleyball or having a drink, enjoying the excellent view and the even-better company

An afternoon relaxing on the farm – playing volleyball or having a drink, enjoying the excellent view and the even-better company

 

One of the local boys with Fatty the dog (yes, the name says it all!) and her puppy 'Sparrow'. Sparrow was born whilst John and Jessie were looking after the farm, so of course they named her after the boat that brought them there all the way from England

One of the local boys with Fatty the dog (yes, the name says it all!) and her puppy ‘Sparrow’. Sparrow was born whilst John and Jessie were looking after the farm, so of course they named her after the boat that brought them here all the way from England

 

A close up of the super cute Sparrow. I could honestly steal this puppy and take her with us! Even Alex has succumbed to her charm!

A close up of the super cute Sparrow. I could honestly steal this puppy and take her with us! Even Alex has succumbed to her charm!

 

Another afternoon tea on the farm

Another afternoon tea on the farm

 

The church on Taravai. Amazingly the 7 inhabitants here have their own church. John and Jessie even have a graveyard on their farm. Apparently many of the locals believe that this island is haunted and this is one of the reasons why so few people live here. Even those who come to visit will usually leave before it gets dark.

The church on Taravai. Amazingly the 7 inhabitants here have their own church. John and Jessie even have a graveyard on their farm. Apparently many of the locals believe that this island is haunted and this is one of the reasons why so few people live here. Even those who come to visit will usually leave before it gets dark.

 

Our first attempt at making homemade mayonnaise didn't go as planned. After whisking with a fork for half an hour we still had nothing that resembled mayonnaise - so Alex decided to make an electric whisk using two forks and the drill..... Well, it still didn't turn into mayonnaise and we were left with a rather uninspiring oily yolk beverage. We've since learnt that we were missing the key ingredient - acid (either lemon juice or vinegar would have worked). I’m pleased to report that our subsequent attempts have been much more successful.

Our first attempt at making homemade mayonnaise didn’t go as planned. After whisking with a fork for half an hour we still had nothing that resembled mayonnaise – so Alex decided to make an electric whisk using two forks and the drill….. Well, it still didn’t turn into mayonnaise and we were left with a rather uninspiring oily yolk beverage. We’ve since learnt that we were missing the key ingredient – acid (either lemon juice or vinegar would have worked). I’m pleased to report that our subsequent attempts have been much more successful.

 

 

Some might say that the most important day of the year is the 1st August. Also known as Yorkshire Day! This was our contribution to the celebration of a great county - a Yorkie girl holding a box of Yorkie tea with a Yorkie flag :-)

Some might say that the most important day of the year is the 1st August. Also known as Yorkshire Day! This was our contribution to the celebration of a great county – a Yorkie girl holding a box of Yorkie tea with a Yorkie flag 🙂

 

 

Preparing to leave the boat during a rain shower. Alex promised me this trip would be to warm sunny places!

Preparing to leave the boat during a rain shower. Alex promised me that this trip would be to warm and sunny places!

 

 

We had some very nasty weather back in Mangareva and even though the anchorage was very sheltered, we still experienced gusts of 50 knots. Two boats dragged anchor, including this one. This was a boat attempting to smuggling cocaine into the area but was impounded by the police - so it was unmanned, and careening across the anchorage towards the rest of us...

We had some very nasty weather back in Mangareva and even though the anchorage was very sheltered, we still experienced gusts of 50 knots. Two boats dragged anchor, including this one. This boat had attempted to smuggle cocaine into the area but was impounded by the police – so it was unmanned, and careening across the anchorage towards the rest of us…

 

All the men got together and managed to use their dinghy motors to move the yacht to a safe place. Everyone was looking out for each other; such is the community spirit here :-)

All the men got together and managed to use their dinghy motors to move the yacht to a safe place. Everyone was looking out for each other; such is the community spirit here 🙂

 

In other news, I found out recently that a good friend of mine will be coming to visit us in November, so we’ll have an additional crew member for 6 weeks! Her name is Charline, she works in ecology like me, but is also an incredible drunken dancer, crazy motorbike driver, very outdoorsy and French. She joined me and my family for New Years Eve this year in Bradford and had us up until 4am doing drunken dancing in my mum’s kitchen!  As well as being excellent company she’ll also be incredibly useful for communicating in French Polynesia. We’re both really looking forward to seeing her and maybe if we can show the rest of you what you’re missing out on, some of you might also decide to come for a visit 🙂

 

 

 

Which Boat for Cruising?

Actually this blog was posted by me (Alex) – not Sarah as the website would suggest.

 

Disclaimer: Most of pictures in this post were taken by me (Alex), which means that they will naturally not come up to the stadards exibited in any of our other blog posts. You can probably pick out the one that was taken by Sarah.

 

I am sometimes asked “what kind of boat should I get to go cruising?” I like this question, because, like most men, it makes me feel good to have someone confide in me that they value my opinion and consider me an expert on a particular topic. I also like this question because it allows me to discuss boats. At length. One could be forgiven for thinking that I might occasionally want to talk about something other than boats given that I live on one, work on one, spend 95%+ of my time on one and 95%+ of my brainpower thinking about them. But it’s a funny thing – whenever cruisers get together for a reparte of some sort, all the men talk about their boats (or more specifically, the problems that they have with their boats) and all the women talk about…………. well, i’m not really sure actually.

 

So, when posed with this question I get a treat – I get to launch into a diatribe of long-winded opinions (and their supporting evidence), explanations and reasons why one boat or another is more or less suitable for this sort of thing. I get to discuss hydrodynamics, aerodynamics, stability characteristics, sailing performance characteristics, comfort characteristics both at sea and at anchor, ease-of-handling, sail plans, rigging considerations, ground tackle, power management, self-steering, ballast ratios, construction materials. In short, I could (and would, given the opportunity) go on for days……… and days………. and days. But the stark truth is that absolutely none of this matters one jot. Not to mention the fact that the boat I would describe simply couldn’t exist  (I’d like a fast, lightweight catamaran with minimal windage made from thick plate steel and with an angle of vanishing stability of 180 degrees) the smorgasbord of designs and types that DO go cruising, very successfully, safely and comfortably means that, to be quite honest, all of my opinions are of absolutely no value whatsoever.

Here is a classic production cruising yacht. I'm not sure specifically what make or model it is, but it's about 46ish feet long, monohull, made from GRP.

Production cruising yacht. I’m not sure specifically what make or model but it’s about 48ish feet long, monohull, made from GRP. Very shiny.

 

 

Aluminium monohull. Centreboard model. This boat came from the Atlantic via Patagonia, the straights of Magellan, Chile etc.

Allures 44. Aluminium construction. Centreboard model. This boat came from the Atlantic via Patagonia, the straights of Magellan, Chile etc.

 

 

'Prati', owned by our friends Carlos and Madeline. About 46 feet in length. This is the second boat that we know of to have come up from the bottom of the world. Lightweight modern catamaran with dagger boards and no keels. Foam sandwich construction. Not exactly what you'd call a classic cape-horner but again, they managed just fine.

‘Prati’, owned by our friends Carlos and Madeline. About 42 feet in length. This is the second boat that we know of to have come up from the bottom of the world. Lightweight modern catamaran with dagger boards and no keels. Foam sandwich construction. Not exactly what you’d call a classic cape-horner but they managed just fine, and came around the wrong way too! From Spain.

 

 

'Vagabond', owned by our friends Carine and Medi. 32 feet in length. Monohull. Steel construction. From France via the Panama Canal.

‘Vagabond’, owned by our friends Carine and Medi. 32 feet in length. Monohull. Steel construction. From France via the Panama Canal.

 

'El Nido'. Lightweight modern catamaram. Looks racy with those reverse-bows. From Belgium. Owned by Olivia and David who are cruising with their two young daughters. We've kindly been invited to spend a couple of days aboard with them while we take a cruise back to the island of Akamaru. Since the tides are no longer springs we can't get Bob into the anchorage there at the moment so we'll leave her in Rikitea and jump-ship.

‘El Nido’. Lightweight modern catamaram. Looks racy with those reverse-bows. From Belgium. Owned by Olivia and David who are cruising with their two young daughters. We’ve kindly been invited to spend a couple of days aboard with them while we take a cruise back to the island of Akamaru. Since the tides are no longer springs we can’t get Bob into the anchorage there at the moment so we’ll leave her in Rikitea and jump-ship.

 

'Argo'. Another very racy-looking boat with her open transom and what looks like a code-zero on a furler up forward. Monohull. About 42 feet in length.

‘Argo’. Another very racy-looking boat with her open transom and what looks like a code-zero on a furler up forward. Monohull. About 44 feet in length.

 

 

Here we have 'Mangaia' in the foreground and Sparrow in the background. Mangaia is no longer actively cruising. A french couple own her and sailed here a few years ago. They liked it so much that they stayed. We haven't met them, but our friends John and Jesse are house-sitting for them on Taravai while they are away. Mangaia is steel, ketch-rigged, monohull with a moderate draft, about 44 feet in length.

Here we have ‘Mangaia’ in the foreground and Sparrow in the background. Mangaia is no longer actively cruising. A French couple own her and sailed her here a few years ago. They liked it so much that they stayed. We haven’t met them, but our friends John and Jesse are house-sitting for them on Taravai while they are away. Mangaia is steel, ketch-rigged, monohull with a moderate draft, about 44 feet in length.

 

 

Here's a close-up of 'Sparrow', owned by John and Jesse. She's a contessa-26. 26 feet in length. GRP construction built in 1973. John and Jesse have sailed her here over the last two years from England. She will set sail in a week or so bound for New Zealand.

Here’s a close-up of ‘Sparrow’, owned by John and Jesse. She’s a contessa-26. 26 feet in length. GRP construction built in 1973. John and Jesse have sailed her here over the last two years from England. She will set sail in a week or so bound for New Zealand.

 

 

Finally, here are four boats: Sparrow in the foreground, followed by Mangaia, then Bob and finally Ohana, owned by our friend Chris, from New Zealand. 55 feet long, foam-sandwich construction but with fixed 'keels' this time rather than dagger-boards. He has just departed Gambier bound for Galapagos, via Pitcairn and Easter Island if the winds allow. We might be a little biased but we think Bob is the best-looking of the bunch :-)

Finally, here are four boats: Sparrow in the foreground, followed by Mangaia, then Bob and finally Ohana. Ohana is owned by our friend Chris. Catamaran. 55 feet long, foam-sandwich construction but with fixed ‘keels’ this time rather than dagger-boards. From New Zealand. The photograph is a little deceiving – Ohana is in fact a good 150 metres or so further away from the photographer than Sparrow. We might be a little biased but we think Bob is the best-looking of the bunch 🙂

 

So basically, if you’re wondering what boat you should go cruising in the answer is: the boat that you already own, or the one that you can reasonably afford.

Mangareva

Having arrived in Mangareva on the morning of July 13th we dropped the anchor in 60-feet of water in the first properly-sheltered harbour since the Galapagos Islands. Things have changed here since my last visit 13 years ago aboard the Barque Picton Castle. Gone are the locals paddling out with bags of black pearls to trade for cheap rum and T-shirts. Gone are the roads made from beach sand and sea shells, and gone are the deserted anchorages. Now the roads are paved, the pearls are sold in a shop and the local boats are well-built out of aluminium and sport brand new powerful outboard engines of several hundred horsepower. Thanks to the pearl industry, the Gambier Islands are one of the most affluent areas in French Polynesia. They now have a supply ship every 3 weeks and can buy the things that they need, so the custom of trading has become an antiquated practice. The Polynesian spirit is still alive and well however. Everyone we pass on the streets (or zooming past us on their scooters) says ‘bonjour’ with a smile. The fruit trees are all owned by someone, but we are told that if you ask to buy some fruit from someone they will invariably offer it to you free of charge. Indeed, while paddling in our dinghy the other day a pearl boat came zooming up to us and the skipper began telling us in rapid French to help ourselves to the coconuts and that he had some bananas and lemons.

“To buy?” I inquired.

“No! Free! This is the Gambier Islands!” He replied.

 

I had expected one or two other yachts in the anchorage but there are no less than 13 here as I write, from all over the world but with a definite bias toward France and French-speaking nations. We have made friends, and their stories often put ours to shame. Two boats that we know of have come up from Argentina, having rounded from the Atlantic contrary to the winds and currents by way of the Straits of Magellan. They hopped from port to port during periods of fine weather and though one said they would not do it again, both are very glad that they chose that route. One of these boats worked it’s way up the West side of South America only to be harassed by pirates off the coast of Ecuador. They were able to implore the assistance of a 900-foot-long freighter which contacted the Ecuadorian navy on their behalf and then motored in circles around them until the pirates in their fast boat finally gave up and sped away. Many boats have come from Europe, including two young Englishmen who have worked their way here over the last two years on their Contessa 26 – a boat that most would say is appropriate only for day sailing or perhaps a weekend at a stretch.

 

The Gambier Island Group has a rich and often unpleasant history; a distinct shame for such an otherwise idyllic place. The four main islands are Mangareva, Aukena, Taravai and Akamaru. Mangareva is the largest and most populous (about 1600), Taravai, Akamaru and Aukena have a handful of inhabitants. In the 1800’s the native population was converted to Christianity by a French missionary and literally worked to death by this man, who forced them to build churches and a cathedral on the islands. The population crashed; thousands were killed – well over half of the inhabitants I’m told, and it has never recovered. The churches on the smaller islands can still be seen today and are maintained to some extent but are not used and are often hidden in the vegetation. The cathedral, built out of coral blocks like all of the other older buildings, remains the largest cathedral in Polynesia and is the primary landmark in the town of Rikitea – the capital of the Gambier Islands.

This missionary finally left the survivors alone, but the islands were once again a site of abuse of people and nature from 1966 to 1996 when they were used as a staging base for the controversial nuclear tests conducted by the French government during this period. Apparently the locals were employed to build concrete bunkers for the officials to shelter in but were themselves packed into a building and told that the sprinklers installed on the roof would protect them from the nuclear radiation. The story of the nuclear testing (which took place on the nearby atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa) is a very dark and interesting one (all the more so for it being contemporary); I’d encourage anyone who isn’t familiar with it to do a quick google search. The French government today monitor the health of the inhabitants of the Gambier Islands, including taking hair samples and monitoring cancer rates and incidence of thyroid abnormalities as part of an on-going (but as yet unpublished) study on the effects of nuclear radiation. Don’t worry, the radiation is not a safety risk for us, although it is generally accepted that the fish and other seafood is inedible due to the high levels of radioactive contaminants that are present in the lagoon sediments.

 

The weather recently has been decidedly British. We’ve had a moderate blow over the last few days; it has been windy and rainy. Prior to this, however, was a period of bright sunshine and light winds the conclusion of which provided us with the most spectacular display of sheet lightning I think I have ever seen. We were anchored alone on the north side of Aukena Island on a shallow plateau of sand perhaps 200 feet across that rose to the convenient depth of 18 feet (from the surrounding waters of 90-feet or so) and with only one or two potentially-hittable coral heads to look out for. As night fell the clouds appeared dark and ominous. At about midnight lightning was seen in the distance and the deep sound of thunder rolled across the lagoon. I put all of our electronics into the oven in case of a strike (there’s nothing better for lightning strikes than having a 50-foot metal spike sticking up into the air!) and went back to bed. At about 2am we were awakened by blinding flashes of lightning lighting up the interior of the boat as though it were daylight. The air felt very, very odd indeed, as though all the oxygen had been sucked out of it, and the scene when we looked out across the lagoon was awesome; discharges twice per second right over our heads that would turn the clouds a bright purple colour and reveal the shape of a bolt in their midst, searing through them between one cloud and the next. The discharges were so bright that they would hurt our eyes – we needed sunglasses at night! – before plunging everything back into a deep darkness during which we couldn’t even see the silhouette of the land 300 metres away. There were no cracks or bangs, just the occasional deep-throated and powerful growl, but for the most part the lightning was completely silent – almost serene – and this gave the whole scene an intensely eerie feel to it. I wasn’t a fan myself. Sarah had the time of her life, made herself a hot chocolate and stayed up to watch the display.

 

Our plan is to stay here for a little while longer and keep an eye out for a weather window that will allow us to get back to Pitcairn, since we didn’t get much of an opportunity to enjoy it during our brief stay before. We need a day or two of good winds followed by absolutely flat calm in order to be able to get there and then anchor in safety. We can afford to be patient.

 

View from the top of 'Mount Duff' on Mangareva, looking East with the town of Rikitea in the bottom left. The island in the top right is Aukena, where we were anchored during the lightning display.

View from the top of ‘Mount Duff’ on Mangareva, looking East with the town of Rikitea in the bottom left. The island in the top right is Aukena, where we were anchored during the lightning display.