As you are probably aware Sarah and I have been in Thailand for the last 6 weeks or so, bar a one-week side-trip to Cambodia for the sake of getting our Thai visas renewed inexpensively. It’s been wonderful spending time with Sarah’s parents and exploring places by land. There have also been moments of nostalgia. I’ve spent this morning looking through our photographs for the last two years
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.
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.
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.
After spending 23 days crossing the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, we arrived in Pitcairn on the 6th July and managed to anchor in Bounty Bay – even though the conditions were not exactly calm. We were taken to shore in the last few hours of sunlight by a local boat and were greeted by a group of what felt like 20 people – probably about half the islands inhabitants. The weather had been so bad around the island over the past month that others boats trying to land there had to leave without setting foot on shore. I think we were the first people in a good few weeks to physically make it to land. We were lucky that the weather conditions were just about good enough to enable us to leave the boat unattended, even for only a few hours. During those few hours we were loaded up with an inane amount of fresh fruit and vegetables newly picked from one of the gardens belonging to the locals. We took back to Bob more fresh goods than our provisioning’s for a month at sea when leaving Galapagos!
Our good luck didn’t last, however, as the forecast for the following 3 days were for heavy winds and large seas. It was nothing particularly dangerous and the conditions were perfectly comfortable to sail in, but the poor anchorages on Pitcairn meant that we couldn’t anchor safely. Even if we could, we couldn’t leave the boat for fear of the anchor dragging and something going wrong. We were stuck on board for another 3 days, only able to anchor a minority of the time and being constantly vigilant of our surroundings and looking for potential problems. We even went back out to sea for the final night because of anchor troubles. Rather than head to the Gambier Islands (which would have been the easiest thing to do) we were stubborn and decided to stick around, determined to make it to Pitcairn so we could see the island properly and get to know the locals a little better.
Finally, once the low pressure system had passed and the weather calmed down, we managed to anchor very well and make it to shore – finally! What’s more, the weather for the following week was for calm winds and seas so we would be able to stay for the whole week – or so we thought! Once on shore, one of the locals picked us up on her quad bike and took us to the main square where we were asked to attend a meeting at the medical centre. It turns out that one of the islands children, an 11 year old boy named Ryan, was diagnosed with appendicitis and needed to get to Mangareva as soon as possible in order to get a plane to Tahiti. Once in Tahiti he could get further tests and his appendix removed if necessary. Pitcairn is a small island (only a couple of miles long) and is located hundreds of miles away from other inhabited areas and separated by vast expanses of Pacific Ocean. It’s one of the most remote places on the planet and issues like appendicitis, which are rarely a problem in developed countries due to easy access to operating facilities, can become a serious and life-threatening issue. We were the only vessel in the area capable of taking Ryan to Mangareva. There is no air strip here for flight transport and the only other boat heading for Pitcairn is a cruise ship due to arrive in the middle of August – far too late given Ryans condition. Appendicitis is one of those variable diseases which could be very mild and even clear up on its own, or it could deteriorate very quickly and consequently be fatal. Even with our help, it would still take at least 3 days to get Ryan to a suitable hospital where they could operate if needs be. I know a lot of Brits moan about the NHS – at least help can be with you within a matter of minutes by dialling 999. The Pitcairn islanders have no such luxury.
We prepared to set sail, well actually, motor in our case because there’s no wind forecast for the next week – not ideal as our engine is over 40 years old and is often unreliable to put it kindly. To make things even more difficult – our electric autopilot broke on the way to Pitcairn, which means the helm needs to be manned constantly when motoring (opposed to sailing which could be helmed by David – our wind vane). Still, there was no other option so we prepared to leave with Ryan, his mother (Nadine) and another islander called Andrew who could help man the helm for us. The entire community got involved in helping us prepare. Within just a few hours we had container loads of diesel delivered and decanted into the fuel tank, enough food and drink to sustain an army and heaps of well wishes. We’ve started to realise that when someone from Pitcairn asks you if you’re in need of anything – whatever you ask for you’ll get 5 times what you expect. For example, we currently have a large box of oranges and mandarins on board, a large box of passion fruit, the contents of two banana trees, 10 coconuts, grapefruits and papayas the size of my head, 35 eggs (I was expecting maybe half a dozen!), 20 packets of crisps, 5 packets of Haribo and that’s not even half of it!
Somehow we managed to fit everything on board, including the luggage of 3 people who might not be able to return to Pitcairn for another 6 weeks. So, as of about 6pm on the 11th July we’ve been motoring as fast as our fragile engine will take us heading for Mangareva. Alex is constantly on the sat phone communicating with various doctors, family members, administrators, Bermuda radio and rescue coordination organisations on top of his usual skipper duties. He’s always vigilant for problems on the boat and has also kept a close eye on Ryan, regularly checking his vital signs with his ‘advanced medical first responder’ hat on. My job seems to be hosting, cooking and generally making sure everyone feels comfortable – so far so good I think.
Everyone on board has been really wonderful and is trying to help where they can. We’ve been doing watches of 3 hours on, 9 hours off between the four adults. Ryan himself even had a go on helm – but only for a few minutes under adult supervision 🙂 Ryan is absolutely adorable and a really lovely, intelligent, friendly child. I think he sees this whole thing as one big adventure and seems really excited to be travelling on a yacht, having never been on one before. Everything is new through his eyes, he is fascinated by everything on board and is always keen to learn more. His condition is more-or-less stable although the pain in his stomach was a little worse this morning than it had been previously. Still, he never complained and seems to be taking everything in his stride.
We got a call from the rescue station in Papeete yesterday who arranged for a merchant ship (Taporo VIII) to meet us at sea. They met us this morning at about 7am (120 miles from Mangareva) and picked up Ryan and Nadine. The ship can travel at twice the speed of Bob so will be able to get Ryan to land much quicker than we could. His condition, whilst worse than the previous day, was still stable and not yet progressed to anything serious. If his condition remains stable, he will get a commercial flight to Tahiti on Saturday where he can be properly treated. If he does deteriorate, then it’s possible to arrange for an air ambulance to take him to Tahiti sooner. I’m keeping all my fingers and toes crossed that he feels better and he gets to a good hospital as soon as physically possible.
For now, the three of us will continue to head for Mangareva. We would love to go back to Pitcairn but we have some work to do to the boat. Moreover, we could do with a proper rest having essentially been at sea for over a month now. Once we get to the secure anchorages of Mangareva, we can sleep through the whole night without the need to wake up every few hours to check on things. It will be a very well deserved rest, particularly for Alex who has been going non-stop since leaving Galapagos on 13th June.
We hope to head back to Pitcairn in the next few weeks if the winds allow. Hopefully the third and final attempt to get back there will be a success! We’ve travelled thousands of miles to get here after all and I want to truly visit this island that I’ve heard so much about. Until then, we have the pleasure of Andrew’s company on board and as he knows Mangareva quite well, I’m looking forward to him showing us around.
—Update 17th July—
Ryan’s condition remained stable and he flew out to Tahiti on Saturday with Nadine and Andrew. He seemed well and everyone was in good spirits. He’ll now be able to get the medical attention he needs and I hope to hear from them soon.
Meanwhile, we’ve been enjoying a week of celebrations in Mangareva for the Bastille festivities (Charline I was thinking of you!). There is normally internet here but it’s currently down and has been for about a week, probably due to the public holiday. Once it’s back up I’ll try and post some photos from our recent exploits.