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
Bob is having a bottom-job. The antifouling has been needing some attention since this time last year so we decided to haul out and re-do it while we’re here in the Marquesas Islands cowering from the tropical depressions and cyclones that are spinning away to our South West. Tahiti has had a couple of blows and has experienced flooding and 50-knot winds. A few weeks ago the islands in the North-Western Tuamotus – where we hope to be in about 6 weeks – had a 50-knot blow. Here the conditions have been generally light winds, the odd shower and hot hot hot. We have a thermometer in our cabin which goes up to 32 celcius and it’s regularly stuck there for long periods, which means the actual temperature is well over that. I’m looking at it now. It’s stuck there and it’s 8pm, 2 hours after dark.
Mind you we are in a boatyard so that doesn’t help. We’ve mosquito and no-no-proofed our boat by sewing mosquito netting into appropriate shapes to fit each of the main hatches and the companionway hatch. They work beautifully but they do tend to restrict the air flow a little and it’s sweltering as a result.
It’s been a little frustrating. I spent the best part of two years in a yard in Bermuda with Bob doing an extensive job on the bottom. Unfortunately one of the batches of polyester resin that I used for the fairing was no good so the epoxy paint that went over it has peeled off in a couple of sections. It’s taken us a week of work to sort out those sections but we finally got the first bit of anti-fouling on today. One and a half coats before we ran out of paint, and not good coats at that. 2 ½ gallons. Should have been plenty. Note to self – don’t buy anti-fouling paint in Panama even if it is a good deal. And don’t buy paint rollers in Galapagos. Fortunately they’ve got some paint for sale here and hopefully I can get a couple of half-decent rollers from the hardware shop in town. I’ve been gently suggesting to Sarah that we should paint one side of the boat in the most garish anti-fouling we can find and leave the other as it is, but she’s not going for it despite my assurances. I saw a boat in St. Maarten that was painted orange on one side and purple on the other. The mast was candy-striped orange and purple. It looked phenomenal. Sarah prophetically pointed out that our bottom would likely not be painted with the care and attention necessary to effectively convey such a bold artistic statement while maintaining the decorum appropriate for such a grand old lady as Bob. I was forced to concede that she may have a point.
Following what I hope will be a successful and un-dramatic re-launching in two or three days time we plan to continue our exploration of the Marquesas Islands while keeping a close eye on the weather. The cyclone season started a bit late this year and I’m concerned that it might carry on a little after it should have officially ended. Once it’s safe to do so we’re keen to get back to sea and make the most of the little time we have to explore the islands between here and New Zealand. I am looking forward to the Kingdom of Tonga and the Fiji Islands in particular. There’s so much to see over the next South Pacific sailing season and so little time in which to do so!
Alex mentioned in his last blog post that we’d been terrible tourists over the past few months due to the fact that we’d spent many of our days on Bob and not explored the sites of Nuku Hiva. I think this statement is a little unfair, given that Alex was doing a fair bit of boat work and I spent many hours a day finishing my statistical work for the research station in Galapagos. Which, I’m very pleased to report after all this time, is now finally finished! Even though our time in Nuku Hiva was largely spent doing productive jobs, we still managed to find time to see the local sights. I suppose I was a slightly better tourist than Alex given that he had to cower in the shade for three weeks to protect his beautiful new tattoo from sun damage. Despite this, we still found time to rent a car to see the sites around Nuku Hiva, hiked to archeological sites and various viewpoints, visited a local waterfall, sailed to another bay, did loads of snorkelling and even managed to fit in a scuba dive. In fact, I would go as far as to say that in some ways we were far better than your average tourist. Having spent almost 6 weeks in one place, we got to know the area really well. We know all the local shops and the best times to buy cheap fruit, vegetables, wine and rum. Alex’s French has improved so much that he can now have decent two-way conversations with the locals*. We’ve established close friendships with many of the other cruisers and now recognise numerous sailboats in and around the Marquesas. During my hike to the local waterfall, I got a little lost and had to ask a local for directions. The lady was adamant that there was no waterfall nearby and that the closest was in the next bay, a 3 hour sail away. Less than half an hour later I had found my way to the local waterfall, so you see, we got to know the place even better than the residents. Well, one of them at least.
One of the ways I got involved in the native Polynesian culture was to attend local dance classes with some of the other cruisers. For just over a month I attended classes in Polynesian dance about twice a week. I have always enjoyed dancing. In the past I have taken a few classes in seroc, salsa and ballroom; I even took regular classes in Argentine tango for about 6 months in my early twenties. Also, my grandparents were excellent dancers and spent much of their youth doing Latin and ballroom at their local dancehall. My Nana used to proudly announce that many of the other dancers preferred to learn from her and my Grandad instead of the professional and fully-trained dance teacher. However, even with my genetics and dancing experience, the local Polynesian style is very difficult to master. Here, the idea is to jiggle your hips at the speed of light whilst keeping the rest of your body as still as rock – a little like belly dancing I suppose. This technique is not at all easy for a skinny Caucasian girl with small hips and not a whole lot of fat to ‘jiggle’ around.
Still, my dancing can’t have been too terrible because (to my absolute astonishment) the other cruisers and I were asked to participate in a local performance. Anyone who knows me will understand just how much I dread doing public performances of any kind! So this request was not taken lightly, especially considering I was only asked to participate two days before the performance. On top of that, I had to learn an intricate and complicated 4-minute dance from scratch as well as perfect the one that I had already been practising. The thought of performing was putting me into a severe state of panic. I spent most of the next two days shaking in a cold sweat while doing one dance practise after another. Even during my sleep I was dreaming about the routine.
I’m very happy to say that I decided to go ahead with the performance, along with 4 other sailing ladies as well as the local Polynesians. It was a truly amazing experience and a fantastic opportunity that I might never get again in my life. We performed in front of 200 paying guests to raise money for the local school. The guests enjoyed about 10 different dances by local men, women and children (I was part of two of them) as well as a local Polynesian barbeque – with pork, fish, goat and local vegetables cooked in a ground oven. Similar to the barbeques we had on Taravai in the Gambier Islands.
Generally, people don’t have regrets about the things they do in their lives, the regrets people have are about what they don’t do. This performance is definitely one of the more terrifying things I’ve done, but I’m so glad I got over myself and got involved – it’s an opportunity that I would have genuinely regretted missing.
After a short stop in Tahuata we’re now back in Hiva Oa waiting to haul Bob out of the water to do some work on the bottom. I hope we can get the work done as quickly as possible so we can swiftly leave. Tahauku Bay in Hiva Oa is probably my least favourite place in the Marquesas . The anchorage is pretty rolly despite having the protection of a breakwater. The river runs straight into the bay causing the water to be a disgusting brown colour with a visibility of about an inch. The dinghy dock is very sketchy and a stern anchor is needed to dock without risking destroying your dinghy. It’s an hour walk to town and the friendliness of the locals seems to be very hit or miss. However, a new boat yard has recently opened up here and it’s the only place available to haul out a sailboat within 500 miles – and certainly the only place safe from cyclones at this time of year. Maintenance Marquises Services is the new company, owned by a Frenchman and his Polynesian wife, who run this pleasant and laid back boat yard. The prices are very reasonable for French Polynesia, although we’ve been waned that they tend to add on charges for ‘extras’ which should be budgeted for if you use this boat yard. They use a modern tractor with a fancy hydraulic trailer to haul boats out of the water from a slip. As much as I would rather avoid Hiva Oa, we couldn’t miss this opportunity to do some much-needed work to Bob. And who knows, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised by my visit this time.
*Alex wishes it to be made clear that he feels this statement is entirely false and unfounded. He is merely semi-talented at smiling and nodding, thereby giving the illusion of linguistic competence.
I know what you’re probably thinking…… how could I possibly have agreed to spend six whole weeks with someone who comes from, of all the God-forsaken places on Earth – France?! All the British readers I’m sure will sympathise with me, having to share my home with a Frenchie. And not just any Frenchie, but one who is a fanatic about smelly cheeses, has dance moves that would put Michael Jackson to shame and who uses chocolate bread as means of instant self gratification! How could I possibly cope? I do have a good excuse, however, for allowing Charline to cross the boundary onto Bob and merge into our British crew. And my excuse is this: I was bribed… with these:
Honestly though, the idea of having Charline come to visit was a wonderful thought, not just because it would be lovely to see her and escape to some extent from the sailing world, but also because it would be nice for me to give Charline a fun, unusual and worthwhile experience. I am thrilled that she came all the way to French Polynesia to hang out with us for six weeks and indulge my cravings to talk about everything relating to England, my old work, dear friends and colleagues and topics of conversation that diverted from the usual subject of sailing.
After fighting the weather to get from Gambier to the Marquesas Islands, Alex and I made it to Hiva Oa in the nick of time for Charline’s arrival. Our first day with her was very special and we spent our time doing a treasure hunt that our friend Marc had set up for us. It was this treasure hunt that gave me the inspiration for Alex’s Christmas gift which I wrote about in my last blog post. Marc had set up the treasure hunt to lead us through jungle and across rivers, concluding the hunt at a historical site with large rocks and carved ancient Petroglyphs. As with any treasure hunt, we had to find a number of stopping points, each one with some treasure and a clue to the next point. We got rum, chocolates, pasta sauce and fishing lures, but of course the true gift was the treasure hunt itself and the fun it generated. What a wonderful thing for Marc to do for us. It was also a great opportunity for Alex and Charline to get to know each other, and for me to chat to a familiar face about aspects of my old life, which I often miss.
We spent a few days in Hiva Oa before heading to another island called Tahuata for a few days, where we explored the village and went for a few swims and snorkels. It was good fun, one of the best places to snorkel in Marquesas as it’s one of the few bays with clear(ish) water. We saw lots of fish and rays – including a pair of sting rays who appeared to be mating. Charline got a little sea sick at first but to be fair, the anchorages in Marquesas can be uncomfortable and she got over it very quickly. She rapidly got used to life on board Bob – sleeping on a berth the size of a coffin, washing up in a bucket of salt water on deck to save our fresh water supplies, sweating in the tropical heat on board a boat with no air conditioning, etc. Of course there was also the beauty of the majestic high rise islands and the wonderful array of tropical plants and animals that go with them. The tranquillity of life on a boat, the lack of distractions and the novelty of being able to swim as you please were also part of the experience. I think, like with any lifestyle, there are good and bad points to the cruising existence and Charline got a fair taste of both.
I wanted to use the time during her visit to do more fun and ‘touristy’ things, as it’s something I don’t think Alex and I do enough of during this trip. We crammed in a lot during her visit and if I go into everything in detail I would be writing forever! Over the course of her six week visit, we:
- Visited 5 different islands
- Visited 8 different anchorages
- Explored 6 different towns/villages
- Went on 5 hikes/walks
- Went to a music festival and hung out with the lead band
- Did 6 fish surveys (including a night time survey)
- Swam almost every day
- Body surfed twice
- Went wake boarding
- Climbed the mast
- Sailed with dolphins at least 3 times
- Spent a total of six full days at sea (a total of 144 hours) over 7 passages, including a long distance ocean passage
- Made friends with sailors from 7 different boats
- Made bread, cheese, yoghurt, mayonnaise and coconut milk from scratch
- Read lots of books, watched a few films and played more card games than I can count
After Tahuata we headed to Nuku Hiva to meet up with Marc, who we had not seen since the Galapagos Islands in May. It was so wonderful to see an old friend (I realise that we only met him 7 months previously so in that sense he isn’t exactly ‘old’, but in regards to my cruising life, Marc is one of the oldest friends I’ve made) and thank him for our wonderful treasure hunt. We hung out with Marc a lot, going on various walks, hanging out at the local cafe or having meals together on one another’s boats. We introduced him to ‘spoons’, which is a card game much like snap, except instead of slapping your hand on the table and shouting ‘snap’ as loudly as possible, you have to grab one of the spoons provided – and of course there was always one spoon short for the number of players. The game usually ends up with one person running around the boat with all of the spoons while the other players chase and tackle that person to the floor in a desperate attempt to not be left spoonless. It was really good fun!
Another reason for our visit to Nuku Hiva was for a music festival that’s held here every other year in November. The festival was an interesting mix of local Polynesian music, jazz and death metal! It was a good atmosphere and I’m happy we made it in time to join in. We inadvertently became groupies and made friends with the headlining band, although we didn’t know who they were at the time. We drew their attention when playing a game we’d recently invented which involves making a complete fool out of yourself by bending and twisting your body in such a way as to get a coconut shell the furthest distance from you without moving your feet and without putting your hands directly on the floor! It was good fun and we ended up hanging out with the band for few hours as a result. Charline and I spent some time admiring their striking arms which were covered in beautifully detailed traditional Polynesian tattoos. Alex has planned to get a Polynesian tattoo ever since his last visit to this part of the world over 13 years ago. The tattoos here are very traditional, are all unique and tell a story about the person they belong too. They really are exquisite and are designed in such a way that their beauty doesn’t change as the body ages. After seeing some of the tattoos here, and hearing what Alex would like for his own tattoo, I’m really excited for him and can’t wait to see the final result.
We visited a total of 3 bays in Nuku Hiva. The first was the main town of Taiohae, where the music festival was held, and we had access to shops, cafes and internet. The second bay (called Hakaui Bay) was probably the best anchorage I’ve seen so far in the Marquesas Islands. Not only is it incredibly well sheltered from the sea and the wind from most directions, the surrounding landscape is very striking with lush green striated ridges, majestically carved into the sides of the mountain valley. It was in this bay where we met some friendly locals tendering their land who were also pleased to be in our company for an hour or two. We met a lovely elderly couple who, for a very reasonable price of $10 per person, cooked us up a delicious lunchtime feast of 8 different local Marquesian dishes using local fish, chicken, bananas, coconuts, papayas and much more. We also had drinks with a young man who owned land and a house which, he claimed, used to belong to his ancestors who back in the day, were Polynesian royalty. He was only 26 years old but lived in the house by himself after his family died and left him the property. One of his possessions, which led to a number of interesting conversations, were the two human skulls he had in his hallway. The Polynesians have a long history of cannibalism, and whilst this tradition is no longer supported or practiced, this particular bay has a bad reputation owing to one crazy individual about 4 years ago who murdered and cannibalised a passing sailor. Although we are perfectly safe and the murderer is now in prison, the sight of the skulls sent a worrying chill down my spine. Four years is not a long time, I thought, maybe the guy who lives here was friends with the cannibal man and also had a taste for human flesh. I’m just being paranoid, I kept saying to myself, there’s nothing to fear!
In the end, I really needn’t have worried; the man was harmless and very welcoming. He explained that the skulls came from a nearby cave where his royal ancestors were laid to rest, but that a recent storm had caused the skulls to fall from the cave and land on the forest floor. Rather than leaving them on the floor to be buried and forgotten, he took them back to his home and created a kind of alter for them. It was a very interesting place with a spooky historic atmosphere, but it didn’t put me off. If anything, it intrigued me even more and I would recommend anyone staying in Nuku Hiva to stop for a visit.
We also spent a good day hiking in the forest to reach a waterfall about 2 hours inland through the valley. Unfortunately, due to the risk of landslides we couldn’t make it all the way, which was disappointing to say the least. One of the main reasons I wanted to do this hike was to swim in a serene fresh water pool at the foot of a cascading waterfall. The hike was enjoyable nonetheless and we still got a good view of the waterfall itself – one of the longest on the island. The forest was a wonderful environment to hike in and given my background in ecology, forestry in particular, it felt somewhat familiar. We past numerous historical features and got a sense of how ancient Polynesian settlers might have lived here, seeing their lives through remnants of old roads, walls and buildings still discreetly situated in the forest. We had lunch next to the river where a number of juvenile fresh water eels had become habituated to human presence. The eels were huge! Probably about 4 feet long and the width of a marrow, they sat there looking at us whilst we ate our lunch waiting for some titbits – not too dissimilar from puppy dogs in that respect. We were happy to feed them a crumb or two, but as friendly as they were we still decided they looked far too menacing to swim with. Reluctantly, we decided to head further downstream before we took a dip to cool off.
After our time in Hakaui Bay, we attempted to visit Ua Huka, an island to the east of Nuku Hiva with a population of only 600 people. Unfortunately, the wind wasn’t in our favour and there was the added issue of mine and Charline’s sea sickness. I still can’t believe that after all this time I still get sea sick, and this particular trip was the worst yet! We got up at 6am, pulled up anchor and left by 6.05am. I was still half asleep, completely disoriented and no breakfast in my belly to stabilise its lurching. To think I managed an entire 23 days at sea on the voyage to Pitcairn without throwing up – this time I managed just 23 minutes before I was blowing chunks over the stern of the boat. Charline followed suit about half an hour later. With this unfortunate turn of events, we made our way to Baie Du Controleur, a few miles east on the southern coast of Nuku Hiva and anchored there for a few days. Here we relaxed, explored the local village, did some swimming and converted a machete into a coconut grater. I also made sure to take note that in future, I need to get up at least half an hour before setting sail, drink coffee and eat something to avoid any future sea sickness disasters!
After a short stay in Baie Du Controleur we set sail once again, this time for Ua Pou. Ua Pou is an island with a truly spectacular and dramatic landscape. A number of tall phallic outcrops project from the island into the clouds above, comparable with towers of a haunted castle from a fairytale – their summits fading into the misty world above. The bay itself is quite exposed, although there is a small breakwater with enough room behind it to shelter 3 or 4 yachts. We managed to just about squeeze in between two boats with the use of our stern anchor and with the help of a fellow sailor called Daniel. Daniel is a lone sailor from France who is another wonderful guy and typifies the sailing community in his welcoming, helpful and friendly attitude. We spent most of our time in Ua Pou preparing for a long sea journey to Hao in the Tuamotus. We stocked up on tinned, dried and fresh food, replenished our petrol stores, got more gas for the cooker, cleaned the hull, made meals for the journey, filled the water tanks, did the laundry, changed the headsail and so on. We managed to squeeze in a little sightseeing too; we walked over the ridge to another bay, explored the village, had an excursion along the exposed rocky shore outside, swam and had fun jumping off the high dock.
When the time came we headed out to sea, making our way to Hao in the Tuamotus feeling as prepared as we could possibly be. The hull was nice and clean allowing Bob to glide through the water as best she could, the weather was forecast to be a relatively easy beam reach and I was drugged to the eyeballs with Scopoderm and prepared to punch my sea sickness in the face! Knowing that Alex was apprehensive about the trip to Hao I was keen that he enjoyed the journey as best he could and got enough rest as to not find things too stressful. The weather gods did their best to thwart this plan for me on the first night. The entire night was filled with lulls in the wind followed by violent squalls – the likes of which Alex had always made sail adjustments for in the past. For the first time I started adjusting the sails myself, reducing the genoa in anticipation of an approaching squall or letting out the main sheet and going downwind to reduce pressure in the sails. I have no idea whatsoever if I was doing the right thing, but the boat seemed stable, not overpowered and we were heading vaguely in the right direction – so it can’t have been too bad. At least Alex could get some rest and I found that it improved my confidence a lot. In the end this was the only arduous night and the rest of the voyage was a pleasure. Charline did a great job as well, despite feeling very sea sick (even with a Scopoderm patch) she still sat each watch without complaining and helped to wash up and prepare meals as best she could. She seemed to really enjoy the night time watches, counting how many shooting stars she could see and admiring the glowing green phosphorescence in the water. I remember feeling the same way when sailing was new to me – when the beauty of the starry night sky, unspoilt by light pollution, was an uncommon sight to my amateur eyes. Nowadays, there are still moments when the stars absolutely take my breath away, but unfortunately, tiredness overcomes me pretty quickly and even the splendour of the Milky Way cannot diminish the longing for my bed.
We arrived in Hao on day 5 ready to enter the pass of the atoll and into the lagoon. Hao, like many of the atolls in the Tuamotus, is a low-lying ring-shaped coral reef with various islands and motus, some of which have been utilised for civilisation. The atolls are usually formed atop the rim of an extinct volcano or seamount which, over time, has eroded or become submerged, resulting in coral reefs with small stretches of land. Have a look at the satellite images on Google Maps to see what I mean! From what we have seen of the Tuamotus – they are serene, low-lying land masses with a lagoon in the middle and wonderfully clear waters and reef systems which are perfect for snorkelling. In Hao, it’s possible to anchor in the middle of the lagoon – but in order to do so you have to sail through a pass which most of the time has a very strong current surging through it. In order to pass safely, a boat should enter when the tides on the inside and outside of the lagoon are equal, known as ‘slack water’. The tides are influenced by so many different factors that it’s very difficult to estimate the time of slack water in advance. Luckily, it’s easy to gauge how safe the pass will be from simply looking at the movement of the water and assessing the current. In our case, thanks to the wonders of our Satelitte Phone, we were able to receive emails from people who had found the slack water times for Hao by researching it online. Despite our anticipation and anxiety of entering the pass, we did so without any problems. During our stay in the Tuamotus we went in and out of two passes, which might not sound like much but it’s all good experience for when we visit more of these atolls later in the year.
I really enjoyed visiting Hao. The locals are incredibly friendly, and I know I say this about most of the places we’ve visited so far, but this is probably the friendliest place we’ve been to so far in French Polynesia. The landscape is very tranquil and unique. You can walk from the protected inside-edge of the lagoon to the exposed outside-edge in just a few minutes. Even though the two coastlines are so close to each other, it feels like passing though a wormhole into a completely different location as the shoreline habitats are so vastly different from one another. The protected coral reefs inside the lagoon are wonderful places to snorkel and Charline and I had a lot of fun using my new GoPro and doing fish and coral surveys.
This is an unusual time of year to be in the Tuamotus as most people have retreated to safer areas, so we expected to be anchored alone here. Amazingly, there were another three boats already in Hao when we arrived – all three of them were on their way to the Gambier Islands to spend the rest of the cyclone season there. Better yet, all three of them spoke English as either their mother tongue, or at least their preferred language over French). It had been almost two months since we met such people and it was lovely to hear English being spoken so naturally and in such a multitude of different accents (Scottish, American, Australian, Croatian and Swiss). Charline and I spent lots of time chatting whilst shell hunting on the beaches and exploring miles of atoll. We had sunset drinks with the other sailors and even got the opportunity to go wake boarding thanks to the generosity of the owners of a boat called Ednbal. They own a wakeboard and had the patience to show us how to use it. We even sent Charline up the mast, just for fun of course, no mast work required on that particular occasion.
It was here where Charline left us to fly back to the UK on the 14th December. She was to continue her action packed adventure by camping in the Lake District (in the middle of December I might add and after 6 weeks in the tropics), followed by Christmas with her folks in Normandy then New Years Eve in Ireland. We helped her carry her bags the 4 mile journey to the airport, but after a short walk she managed to hitch a ride, so we quickly said our goodbyes. Looking back on that moment, her departure seemed far too sudden and hasty. One minute she was there, the next she was gone, leaving us in a cloud of dust on the side of the road. Back at the boat everything seemed eerily quiet, her presence definitely stayed with us for a while after she left. Of course there are challenges involved when 3 people live within such close quarters, but it was so nice to have her on board and I missed her almost immediately. I’m so glad I could enjoy Charline’s company for those 6 weeks, to chat with a familiar face about all the memories of my old life, to discuss jobs, dreams, boys and life in general. Our experience definitely brought us closer as friends and I hope that Charline had a wonderful experience and treasured memories to take back with her.