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
After five months in the Marquesas Islands our time here is coming to an end. We’re currently in Nuku Hiva organising a multitude of things so that we can go to sea tomorrow and head to the Tuamotus. We have exactly 26 days to explore some of the atolls before arriving in Tahiti for the 3rd of May for a much anticipated visit from Alex’s mum (Paulina we can’t wait to see you).
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by our return visit to Nuku Hiva. I was expecting to spend most of our time here doing jobs in preparation for our next voyage. As well as being super productive, we’ve also had plenty of time to enjoy ourselves. About a week after we got here, 45 boats from the ARC rally arrived as Nuku Hiva was their next rendezvous point. Although it made for a crowded anchorage, it was nice to make some new friends and the locals were prepared with fully stocked shops, markets and craft fairs. We also had time to re-visit the waterfall that Alex missed out on last time when he was trying to keep out of the sun to protect his new tattoo. We seemed to switch roles for a moment and Alex also found time to take a hike while I stayed on board to do some boat work.
We had a lovely surprise when we heard that the Hokule’a was arriving to the island and the locals were holding a ceremony to commemorate the occasion. The Hokule’a is a traditional Polynesian pirogue (in this case, two canoes joined together with a crab claw sailing rig) with no engine – the only means of propulsion is through either sailing or rowing. The vessel is based in Hawaii and was designed to test a theory regarding historic navigation techniques. The traditional wayfinding techniques were learned from elders in Micronesia. These techniques use the position of the stars and sea-swell analysis (amongst other things) to determine position and course. No instruments are needed whatsoever – no electronic equipment, no GPS, no sextant, not even a compass. A crew sailed the Hokule’a using these ancient methods on various voyages around the Pacific since being launched in the 1970s, thus proving the theory of how ancient Polynesians migrated through the islands and their ancestral descent, which has since been confirmed by genetic analysis. More recently, in 2014 the vessel set sail from Hawaii for a circumnavigation which is now coming to an end. Their stop in Marquesas is only two stops before their final destination in Hawaii after successfully sailing around the world. The arrival of the crew on shore was really spectacular. Many of the locals were dressed in traditional attire and were singing, blowing horns, dancing and beckoning the new arrivals to land. The crew were brought to shore in smaller pirogues and greeted by a parade through the street then a ceremony performed in front of the entire village. It was a wonderful sight. For the crew (who had just arrived from a long journey from Pitcairn Island over 1000 miles away) it must have been truly magnificent, if not a little overwhelming.
Another high point was swimming with manta rays on three separate occasions. The last time was absolutely amazing! We swam with about 10 reef mantas for about half an hour as they were feeding. They were very happy to play nearby and often swam within about 30cm of us – they were bigger than Alex. It was one of the most awesome wildlife experiences I’ve ever had and I’d really recommend it if you ever get the chance.
I also managed to fit in one final dance session with my local friends and introduced a few new cruising ladies to the joys of the Polynesian dance classes. Hopefully they will continue to go after I’ve left.
All good things must come to an end and although I’ve really enjoyed my time here, I must admit I’m okay at the thought of leaving. It’s the first time that I’ve not gotten sentimental about leaving an area. I suppose we have been here for 5 months now and there are so many exciting places ahead of us this year, I’m ready to leave.
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 am ashamed to admit that since the day I purchased Bob back in 2007 she has never until recently been properly anointed by having her name displayed on her hull. It was always on the cards, but there just always seemed to be something more important to work on and besides, I’m a terrible artist.
Fortunately, child labour is not just legal but parentally encouraged under some circumstances. We ellicited the willing assistance of two wonderful young girls to assist us in rectifying this gross oversight, to the effect that Bob now proudly bears her name on both quarters. Please allow me to properly introduce our master craftswomen, and their handiwork:
We’re both really, really happy that they were so keen to do this for us. Better than any Picasso, Monet or DaVinci in our opinion. If only the rest of Bob looked so chique.
The second bit of artwork has been a long-time coming – 14 years to be precise.
When I visited Polynesia back in 2003 I was one of a crew of 48 aboard the Barque Picton Castle. My final port on this voyage was Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, where I left the ship to fly to England to begin my university education. Before I left, however, I had a decision to make – whether to indelibly record this important experience in my life in the form of a traditional Polynesian tattoo. About 30 of my shipmates chose to do just this, in one form or another, but I chose not to based on the rationale that I would one day return to Polynesia on my own boat having embarked on a circumnavigation of the world on my own terms, and that this would be a more appropriate juncture at which to record such an experience. Since then I have seen at least a hundred Polynesian tatoos, I have liked and/or appreciated each one and have come to regard them as things of great beauty and significance. I have looked forward to the day when I would consider the timing and circumstances fitting to have one myself. What more appropriate place to be tattoed than where the tradition began – here in the Marquesas Islands.
Imagine those explorers of yesteryear who turned up in this part of the world to the sight of fierce warriors tattoed from head to foot, brandishing mean-looking weapons and adorned with the body parts of those they had vanquished. The Marquesians must have been sublimely daunting to say the least.
At least 3 of these early explorers understood the value of this ancient art and the necessity for it’s preservation. It has been lost to some extent but, thanks to the catalogues of these two men and one woman (at least), much of the traditional symbology and it’s associated meanings have been conserved. Based to a large extent on their records and observations the practice in it’s traditional form is currently experiencing a revival.
It works a little differently here from how it works in England, the US or any other developed country. In those countries you might come up with a design you want to tattoo on yourself, or even pick something out of a book. Here, the tradition of tattooes serving as a personal record is still very much at the essence of the process. Commonly one might be tattooed by a friend or relative who knows them well. Once I’d found an artist that I liked, and whose work I admired, I had to try to achieve the same intimacy by sitting down and talking with him. I’d done a lot of research surrounding the various styles, and the traditional meanings of patterns and symbols. I have had an idea of where I wanted to be tattooed for many years, but the actual design of the tattoo itself is the creation of the artist. Moano and I sat down together and talked for about two hours. He learned about me, my family and friends, some of the experiences in my life that have made me who I am today, the principles on which I base my ethics and morality, my strengths and weaknesses, the things that are important to me and, just as important, the things that are not.
Traditional Marquisian culture revolved in no small way around conflict – war and raiding on neighbouring tribes. Life was hard. Men were bred as warriors. Traditional male tattoos therefore were concerned mainly with protection against enemies, the garnering of strength and fortitude from ancestral gods, and generally consisted of large, bold, blocky motifs. About 90% of the Marquesian symbology is along these lines. Needless to say I didn’t really want to be covered in a large, dark checkerboard of ink so I opted for a more feminine style, with small intricate motifs and delicate, often cryptic shapes and shades. The symbolism that was chosen between myself and Moana is quintessentially Marquesian, but many of the symbols also have more personal significance – after all, a tattoo is a profoundly personal thing. Here is my story:
And some close-ups:
Every single part of the tattoo has some meaning. A full explanation would take hours to relate verbally, so I’ll give an abridged version!
The section that runs along my collar bone represents aspects of my life so far – the past and the present. The thin black line represents my lifeline. Notice that it is not straight. Life isn’t so. Above the line are several symbols relating to the artist Moana – the hands that created the tattoo, and an introduction to the primary theme of the tattoo, which is the ocean – something that I have shared a close affinity with all my life. Also in this top row are four little identical symbols that look like boxes with triangular symbols above them and a U-shape. These are a bit of a joke on my part. They symbolise masculine beauty, but also the courage to be tattoooed. I enjoy the irony of it – a tattoo that symbolises the act of being tattooed.
Below that is a group of symbols including a manta ray, a thing that looks like waves underneath the ray and a group of symbols above the ray. The symbols above represent a voyage, and also taking flight into independence. If you look closely at the bottom symbol you will see that it is actually waves, and a little figure in a boat. This symbol has several meanings – being human and living with the ocean, the personal symbology of standing fast in the face of seemingly-insurmountable fear, and a traditional Maori tale involving a young girl who, simplistically, overcame prejudice and various tribulations to prove that she was worthy of being a chief. The image is of her riding a whale. It is a famous legend and worth looking up for those that are interested. The legend is pervasive throughout various Polynesian cultures, and it is an ancient one.
The ray itself is symbolic of lots of nice things, including ‘an animal protector of mankind’. How this works exactly I’m not sure. It didn’t work out so well for Steve Irwin with his Sting Rays, but I think it looks pretty good and that’s the main thing. For me, the main symbolism is an aspiration to grace, in all it’s facets. Giant Manta Rays are very common here, and to see them moving through the water so effortlessly in all their splendour is always a treat; perhaps it could also symbolise a desire to remain graceful even when I’m old, fat and slow.
The dominant symbol of the turtle has many connotations including luck, an affinity for the open ocean, a return to one’s place of origin and many other things. The stuff inside relates to my family (mum, dad; you’re two of those little things that look like spiders!). The turtle’s hind left leg represents personal growth and development and the hind right leg represents the education of children.
The overall shape of the symbol that encompasses the whole lot on my arm is that of a fish hook. It is also the lifeline of my future. That’s the wavy white line on a dark background. The repeating symbols outside this represent a long voyage. The figure at the base is a Tiki (look up this concept if you’re interested) whose design is unique to Moana. There’s some stuff on the Tiki’s head that represents a search for wisdom and the desire to be a better leader, plus another bit that I don’t actually know the meaning of myself. Maybe it’s Moana saying that I’m actually not a very nice person after all!
Finally, the other bit inside the fish hook other than the turtle consists of a compass for guidance and direction, a symbol above it (the bit that looks kind of like an ear) to symbolise a desire to be a better listener and a bit below it (looks like the braid of a rope, the muscles that are visible in a fillet of fish or the bark of a native tree) to represent family and in particular ‘to care for a family’. Sarah likes that bit. It’s in my ‘future’ section 🙂
I’ve been very diligent in taking care of it, and as such have been reclusively hiding away down below on Bob periodically applying some white stuff to it for the last few days. I’m also not allowed to drink beer or wine, which has been a huge exercise in self-deprivation for me. Fortunately rum, being a non-fermented (well, post-distilled anyway) drink is OK, so the rum rations have been depleted a bit. It’s been tough, but I will endure this grueling regime for a couple more days. I have the motivation of knowing that a few days of care now may well affect the longevity of the tattoo over decades to come.
Below is an image taken from a poster at the Marquesian museum of tattooage of a Marquesian man, as well as a few examples of variations in symbolic stylism:
Here we have a couple of examples of some of the tools that were used as part of the tattooing process. These are now a part of a wall in a Christian church. The missionaries did a good job of destroying the local culture and heritage by building churches on sacred or otherwise-culturally significant structures and/or sites, or in this case simply by sequestering culturally-important stones for their own purposes. The stone with the deep gauge marks in it would have been used for sharpening the tools used for tattooing. The indentations on the lower one were used as reservoirs for the inks:
Our time in the Tuamotus, for me, was educational. We were fortunate to be able to learn a few necessary lessons under more-or-less non-hazardous conditions.
The Tuamotus Archipelago is constituted of a hundred or so atolls – raised barrier reefs in a ring-shape with a lagoon in the middle. Some of the atolls are large (the average is about 20 miles by 9 miles) and have a pass through the reef that is wide and deep enough to allow the passage of a yacht. Wicked currents generally tear through these passes, and they are difficult to predict due to the sparsity of tide stations and the complexity of other influencing factors, such as the strength and direction of the winds, how long they have been blowing, the phase of the moon, the prevailing swell direction due to something that might have happened last week a thousand miles away and whether or not Neptune has woken up on the wrong side of the bed with a hangover. In a worst-case scenario a strong current opposes a large swell. This sets up large, steep standing waves which are hazardous enough to broach a large yacht. We read one account of a 60-something-foot yacht which had their cockpit filled twice while negotiating the pass at Hao. In our case, a slight misjudgment on my part led to a bumpy ride out of Hao but nothing dangerous. Lesson learned.
Another lesson was learned when we were caught out on the lee side of Amanu lagoon when the wind picked up to an un-forecast 25 knots. The fetch across the lagoon was 5 miles, which was sufficient to produce some sizable chop. To make matters worse, anchoring inside the lagoons of the Tuamotus usually involves anchoring amidst towering coral heads which snag and entangle your anchor chain. This was the case with us; the rocks had entangled the first 150-feet of our 300-foot scope. The only reason the other 150-feet wasn’t tangled up too is that we had by this point learned to suspend the last hundred feet or so of chain with buoys (if any sailors out there want to know more about this technique let me know and I’ll write a bit more). This helps to protect the coral as well as guaranteeing that you you will always have some scope, and the buoys help to absorb some of the shock loading, in conjunction with a good, long, stretchy snubber line. We spent about 12 hours anchored like this, unable to raise our anchor due to entanglement, unable to let out any more scope because we had it all out already (the water depth was 80′) and with Bob’s bow occasionally burying in the waves. No harm done. We’re ready to head back down there in a couple of months and begin our Tuamotus exploration much better equipped than we might have been.
The passage back North to Marquesas was good, though we were close reaching or close-hauled for all bar the last 6 hours of it. We also encountered violent squalls, but were able to see them coming in advance and shorten sail accordingly. We pulled in to Taiohae Bay, on the South Coast of Huku Hiva, at 9pm local time on December 31st. It was a very dark night as we came in. We dropped anchor behind a catamaran that we could just make out by the glow of her decks as they shone by the light of her mast-head anchor light. I had a rum, Sarah had a glass of wine (well, maybe more than one) and we turned in for a much-needed sleep.
The following morning we discovered that the catamaran anchored next to us was none other than our very good friends aboard El Nido, whom we had last seen in the Gambier Islands. Olivia and David are cruising with their two daughters, Gaya and Kali, who are 5 and 7 years old respectively. We had shared many wonderful days with them in the Gambier Islands and were exceptionally pleased to see them again. One month later, the vein of those wonderful days has continued, and we have come to regard the whole family as very special friends.
I think many people would be surprised to learn of the number of cruisers who are travelling as a family. Home-schooling means that the children do not miss out on their education in the slightest. Quite the opposite in fact – the opportunity for them meet so many children from different cultures, backgrounds and economic situations adds hugely to their personal development, and makes for incredibly well-rounded, precocious children who, in my opinion, get a head-start in life compared to the vast majority of their peers. Very few boats have teenagers on board because their requirements are somewhat different, but children in the age range of between about 2 and 11 seem to be well-suited to a cruising lifestyle. At least, that seems to be the case based on the families that we have met thus far.
We haven’t budged in a month now, and a very productive and enjoyable month it has been. Sarah has been working diligently on a statistical data analysis for the Charles Darwin Institute in Galapagos, and I have spent the time making small improvements and doing routine maintenance to Bob. We’ve been pretty shoddy tourists to be honest and have rarely ventured far beyond the shops near to the quay, instead spending our leisure time with fellow cruisers. The one exception to this was a day spent driving all over the island in a rented car. This is an incredibly beautiful place, and Sarah has some stunning landscape pictures to prove it. I’m sure they’ll be making an appearance in her next blog installment. In the meantime I’m afraid you’ll just have to take my word for it and make do with wading through my comparatively drab text 🙂
Our anchor chain has a wealth of growth on it from being submerged in the water column for so long. Sarah has finished her statistical paper, and I have finished my project (more in the next blog post about this). We’re tentatively booked to haul Bob out for a bottom job in Hiva Oa in about two weeks and would like to make a stop in Ua Huka before then, so we’re planning on raising anchor at some time in the next few days and going for a sail. We’re looking forward to it.