Tonga to New Zealand

Ha’apai, Tonga to Opua, New Zealand

25th October to 11th November

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Henrietta the only visitor to Lofanga

Most sailing boats in Tonga head to New Zealand for the southern hemisphere summer. Usually there are long and tiresome lists of repairs, sails and rigging to fix, engines to service, canvas to repair, woodwork to paint and varnish, spare parts to buy; and crews look forward to mouth-watering fruit and vegetables, good bread and cheese, and many litres of wine of course; and maybe time to travel on land and, if foreign, fly ‘home’.

New Zealand is seen as beautiful, clean, friendly and full of promise, almost heavenly in what it may offer. Having been there before I’m more sanguine – appreciative of its charms but not swooning over the impossible. It’s not a utopian Shangri-La.

For a start I know it won’t always be as blissfully warm as the Tropical South Pacific and after many months of shorts, t-shirts and naked feet or less, it’ll be a wrench to wear something more substantial; and I don’t think the sea is warm enough, nowhere near warm enough to swim in New Zealand waters either (but maybe I’ll have a freshwater shower!). New Zealand, Aotearoa, is the last of the Pacific countries that Henrietta will visit this year.

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Another fine empty beach, Lofanga Is.

Anyway, before facing the anticipated pleasures and chills of New Zealand, I sailed a few more days in Tonga’s Ha’apai islands. Names like Lofanga, Haafeva, Oua, Nomuka Iki don’t exactly trip off the tongue, but they were my final stopping places. The snorkelling, the silver sandy beaches, the friendly local people and gentle walks through lush tropical vegetation were heavenly – but as ever I’m saddened and maddened by mangy animals, ubiquitous imported snacks, and half burnt rubbish that’s too often scattered around homesteads with long-snouted piggies snuffling for goodies..

Overall though, Tonga’s Ha’apai must rank among my favourite island groups in the South Pacific.

Here are some more pictures from the Ha’apai islands…

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Anchored near a reef, Nomuka Iki

But at the end of October, it was time to sail south and Henrietta briskly flew across the first few hundred miles to the remote coral reef of Minerva North. (I write this while waiting here). It’s a near perfect circular reef, awash at high tide with surf crashing all around, over two miles in diameter,  quite calm in the lagoon compared with the ocean outside. But with strong winds and big ocean swell, waves break over the reef; it’s choppy and we jerk and tug hard on the anchor.

There’s one other boat here, Begonia, a sleek and beautiful catamaran with US/UK couple on board. We do not meet but talk by VHF, neither of us willing to launch dinghies. And in such windy conditions we couldn’t easily cover the 60 metres between us. I swim for reasons of hygiene but don’t linger long as on my own. I’m nervous with sharks, and firmly believe they can’t all be friendly.

From Minerva Reef it was another 800 miles or so to New Zealand (funny how these distances seem ‘normal’ when I’d consider it a very long way to sail the equivalent, say from Cornwall to Southern Portugal).

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Approaching NZ, first ship seen for over a week

After six mixed sailing, sleep-deprived days Henrietta and I arrived in Opua in the Bay of Islands.

Familiar boats and friendly faces are already here, and after a beer and bit of sleep it looks like boaty chores and sociability for a while. It feels chilly, so long trousers are out and freckles on my bottom will fade. But it’s bliss to enjoy a hot shower (first for over three months!)

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Tonga, Ha’apai

Ha’apai, Tonga

9th to 24th OctoberP1060261.JPG

One of the very many joys of a sailing way of life is constant closeness to the delights and beauty of nature. You can see thousands of sunsets, of dolphins, whales, birds, shells, stars, fishes, beaches, reefs and ocean colours, moods and forms, and never ever see too many. I never cease to wonder at the fabulous range of sights and creatures. Not that it’s always so beautiful, charming and benign of course. So I should add: the power, the anger, the magnificence, the challenges, cruelties and conflicts – the endless diversity of our natural world. Our photos tend to home in on the pretty and beautiful bits of nature though, and here are a few from Tonga ….P1060245.JPG

After visiting eight or nine different anchorages in Tonga’s Vava’u Group of islands, Henrietta and I had a look at the forecast…..P1060268.JPG

….and had a boisterous well-reefed sail south about 70 miles to the Ha’apai Group.

I gather there are about 60 islands hereabouts in Ha’apai, but not many inhabited or accessible by yachts. Anyway, I don’t have a lot of time and very few boats stay in Tonga for the cyclone season – none in Ha’apai. This area of the Pacific is prone to cyclones. A few years ago in 2014 Cyclone Ian destroyed over 80% of the homes on Lifuka, the main Ha’apai island, and I’m told not a leaf was left on any plant. (Wind peaked around 150 mph and gusted to 180 mph; we cannot even conceive of such raw brutal crushing power.) Most boats seem to have left and gone to New Zealand already. As usual, Henrietta’s near the back.

As well as sailing boats heading south, the humpback whales do too. After having their babies in these sheltered waters over the winter, they swim to their summer feeding grounds in the Antarctic. And one of the attractions for visitors is whalewatching or swimming with the whales, and small low-key resorts cater for this small band of tourists. They often seem to combine whale-swimming with yoga, reiki, spiritual oneness, meditation, massage and knowing the inner-self sort of stuff. I love people like that.

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A fine empty shell/coral beach, Uoleva

I started writing this while anchored off an especially gorgeous island, Uoleva, about two miles long with perfect shell sandy beach, lush wavy greenery, uninhabited save for three of the tiny resorts I’ve mentioned – though ‘resorts’ is a funny word for the few huts or tents involved. Most are almost deserted or closed now the season is over.

After spending time talking with the enterprising American woman, Patti, who ten years ago rented the land at the south of the island (foreigners cannot buy land), planned, designed, built and now manages Serenity Beach Resort, I thought you could see her website www.serenitybeaches.com . The neighbouring resort “Sea Change Eco Retreat”, owned by New Zealanders is managed by a UK/Tongan couple www.seachangetonga.com . I’m not vouching for either of these but just point them out as contrasting alternatives to the increasingly sanitised, homogenised and deodorised chain hotels of Tahiti or Bora Bora.

And in a world of unconventional and unusual folk, there’s Magda, an attractive, clever, forceful and interesting Pole, who for ten years has owned and managed the Mariner’s Cafe and Bar in Pangai, (and also her Tongan husband and young son.)

It’s a pretty little bar/restaurant, bordered with flowers, with assorted scattering of unmatched tables and colourful plastic chairs, beneath a corrugated iron roof, lined with international flags and burgees  – and the food is very good.  

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Children have made snacks to sell from their stall by the road in Foa

I spend a lot of time chatting with people; for many, both Tongans and foreigners, seem extraordinary, and otherwise with so much time on board alone churning my solo thoughts, I might become strange!

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These boys really appreciated playtime with my amazing antique Avon dinghy

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Typical Ha’apai Homesteads

A historical note: this is the island group where, in April 1789, Fletcher Christian and his fellow mutineers offloaded Captain Bligh from the Bounty. William Bligh and his loyal 18 seamen then sailed their open whaleboat about 4,000 miles to Timor, Indonesia. Our modern day voyages are chicken-feed when you think of that.

Alas! My month in Tonga is nearly up, and we cannot renew Tongan visas here in Ha’apai so I’d better head off south to New Zealand in a few days. (UK is not part of Schengen so we don’t get the automatic three months of other Europeans.) Just waiting a while till wind forecasts look more friendly. It’s about 1,200 miles to North Island – but we can stop and anchor at a reef on the way if we feel like it…..

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Tonga, Vava’u

Vava’u, Tonga

18th September to 8th October

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Just 1,200 miles to New Zealand

The sail over to Tonga from Suwarrow (Cook Islands) was a mixed bag: – two days sailing in South Pacific Convergence Zone (yes, it’s a bit of a mouthful) which means seriously gusty windy, squalls, rough confused seas, torrential rain and all round horrid stuff; then, several days of sailing perfection which means fast reaching with full sail, not rough, sunshine and oceanic beauty (a surprisingly rare state of affairs even in the South Pacific). Then, after a night dithering outside the Vava’u group of Tonga awaiting daylight, I was there.P1060158

I thought Tonga was a Pacific island with lots of budding professional rugby players ruled by the world’s fattest king. As often happens, I was wrong on all counts.P1060232

Tonga is not an island. It’s a big group of them, stretching more than 300 miles from north to south and including somewhere over 170 islands altogether. Population about 120,000 people – most of whom seem big, gentle and smiling but not looking like rugby types at all. The fat king, Tupou IV, died ages ago; the current king, King Tupou VI appears solid but humble and grounded.

Captain Cook called them the ‘Friendly Islands’, which still seems ok as folk are generally quite reserved but warm and welcoming. Even more than other Polynesians they are usually quite slender, beautiful and fine looking when young but then seem to blossom into big people – still charming and friendly but a different shape. Apparently Tonga vies with Samoa in having the world’s most obese population.

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Friendly lady sells me tomatoes and peppers, Neiafu Market

I’ve spent two weeks here already, perfectly content anchoring here and there off little islands, swimming and snorkelling and doing chores and meeting people. It’s been very sociable with dozens of boats stacked up awaiting suitable weather for the final leg to New Zealand (about 1,200 miles).  At this stage of crossing the Pacific many of us know one another quite well, and have met perhaps half the boats and crews that are sharing similar journeys.

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Jim and Linda from Canadian prairies are looking after me!

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David and two of his 11 children – our hosts on Vakaeitu island

So far, I’ve just stayed in the Vava’u Group of islands. The annual Blue Water Festival has just ended: a week of eating/meeting/chatting, plus talks from assorted New Zealand sailing reps; and a wonderful sailing race, visit to small school plus miscellaneous local culture. This overdose of ‘partying’ has been an intoxicating and wonderful (yet somehow draining) experience for somewhat shy and introverted old blokes.

 

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Racing crew on “Bright Moments”– not first, not last! (Jim and Linda out of sight and in charge).

Henrietta, with broken spinnaker track, did not race but I crewed with friendly Canadians, Jim and Linda, and colourful Dutch and Australian sailors (plus youngest race crew member, 2 yr old Kian). Too much chat and eating to win, we spent a happy few hours sailing well in the sort of conditions rare when sailing in Britain – hot sun in milky blue near cloudless sky, calm clear glistening azure sea, lush green islets and headlands….we all felt lucky to be there. And the prizes – something for everyone- were generous, with all manner of free facilities awaiting boats going to New Zealand.

A visit to ‘Ene’io Botanic Gardens


I guess there are well over 50 boats here now in Vava’u scattered between the local capital and nearby island anchorages, and I’m sure there are at least as many ‘in front’ further south in Tonga. Some go to Australia and NZ via Fiji, a few stay here through cyclone season; but Henrietta, along with many others, will linger in Tonga a week or two or three or more, until weather and my inclination are ok to head on south to New Zealand.

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Suwarrow, Cook Islands

Bora Bora, Maupiti, Suwarrow

3rd to 17th September

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Approaching Maupiti

Thank goodness, before heading for the Cook Islands, I stopped at the little Society island of Maupiti, my final anchorage in French Polynesia. Before that, Bora Bora, with its lavish, high-class and unduly swanky reputation, allround price extortion, smelly traffic, and buzzy overpowered jet skis had left a flavour of mild disappointment and annoyance. Maupiti, just 30 miles away, in contrast, reminded me of the true delights and unsullied beauty of the vast majority of French Polynesia.

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‘Not very pretty’ cruise/cargo vessel, Bora Bora

In case you didn’t already know, the fastest way to destroy a place’s natural charms, other than a nuclear test programme, is to feature it in fat heavy glossy magazines (the kind probably found in expensive beauty salons rather than your average dentist’s waiting room), build a few Hiltons, Intercontinentals and others of that ilk, and maybe even send along a few ‘exclusive’ little cruise ships; and in no time at all it’ll be as flashy and tasteless, or tawdry and unlovely as you could imagine. In the case of Bora Bora, the coral will be dead too and you can be fleeced $90 for a quick boat trip to see manta rays – most of whom, being sensible fellows flapped off and fled ages ago; oh! and, if you as a humble cruiser, so much as set foot on one of the hotel jetties you can be $50 out of pocket (each) before you even move!

Us yachties know we’re lucky to choose our landfalls and, give or take the odd spell of nasty weather when forced quickly to find shelter and silly mistakes or incidences of plain ignorance, don’t visit or hang around for long in such unsavoury places. (Bora Bora doesn’t want us much anyway; our budgets aren’t up to it.) But, as a footnote I add that it is a convenient place to go through exit formalities and customs and get clearance papers for next foreign places, and the gendarmes who handle such stuff in Bora Bora were perfectly polite, friendly and helpful.

Moving on, after that little Bora outburst, I had a boisterous sail over to Maupiti, in through its narrow reef pass and meandering well-marked channel, overlooked by towering craggy mountain, to a calm anchorage with four others – including my favourite Berliners, the adventurous young family on Kalibu (if you read German or even if you don’t, have a look at www.sykalibu.de).

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View of pass and meandering channel to Maupiti anchorage out of sight to left

Given a forecast of dwindling winds (and the fact that Bora Bora had gobbled up the last of my local currency) I didn’t stay in Maupiti very long. Just enough time to enjoy supper on Kalibu, wander past the well-kempt, flowery gardens of homesteads on the main street, smiling local folk, and another day to stagger up the highest peak, the hot steep beautiful, Tiriano (only 1,200 ft, but felt more! they’ve put ropes to help on steep bits, and somewhere there’s a lone sailor selfie photo of me looking silly).

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It’s not really as steep as it looks

Feeling energetic and cheerful I did lots of swimming too, and started to clean the worst of the weed that now grows vigorously on Henrietta’s bottom.

And then, with decision taken to sail to Suwarrow (690 miles), I upped anchor and set out. Wind dwindled even quicker than forecast and before the first night, we were rolling and slopping along at less than 3 knots, cooked by tropical sun, with outline of Maupiti, destined to remain visible for nearly 24 hours.

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Panorama from top of Maupiti

It wasn’t till day 4 that wind picked up, making it more than six days for this little bit of the Pacific. (I still can’t get over how big it is!) The only alarming event was as I sipped a morning mug of tea. A massive bang and Henrietta shook….spinnaker pole had broken its mast track and was being held at one end only by skinny bit of rope and shackle pin. Quickly (not really very ‘quickly’ because it was mighty rolly and windy at that stage) I found that rivets had sheared and bit of tracking snapped off; so lowered pole to deck and tied it down; rearranged sail plan and adjusted course; often wishing I had the balance, the strength and the dexterity of a much much younger man; and resumed my mug of tea – which by then was of course stone cold.

Next stop, Suwarrow is a tiny atoll, at least 200 miles from the nearest people, that was put on the map, as it were, because a New Zealander, Tom Neale, lived a hermit life here for many years from 1952 and wrote a book about it, “An Island to Oneself”. He was buried here when he died in 1977.

Some photos on Suwarrow

It’s now a Cook Islands National Park (birds and sealife) and two park rangers, Harry and Katu, live here six months a year and help visiting yachts deal with the many bits of paper required for immigration, biosecurity, customs, yacht entry…and I know not what, and they spray inside our boats with some foul stinky insecticide. 

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Suwarrow anchorage (photo from masthead of Red Max – thank you, Monique)

There are not so many visiting yachts as in the past; Henrietta is only number 46 this year and there won’t be many more as I’m very near the back of the pack (which meanders across the Pacific each year heading for New Zealand or Australia before cyclone season).

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Park Rangers, Harry and Katu

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Sailors on Suwarrow

I stayed several days at Suwarrow as, in line with other places with few visitors, it’s sociable and friendly, and unspoilt, and Harry and Katu are wonderful and welcoming hosts, advise of where to see birds, and snorkel for rays, and sea snakes and shark  (none of which seem at all hostile), and I value the international flavour (seven boats from seven different countries, with folk representing about ten different nations.)

But it’s time to move on……(no internet on Suwarrow of course so this will have to wait till Tonga)

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Society Islands

 

 

Huahine, Raiatea, Tahaa, Bora Bora

19th August to 2nd September

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Now in the Leeward Society Islands (Iles Sous-le-Vent top left in the photo above) – blog already has posts for Tahiti and Moorea (the Windward Society Islands). It isn’t clear why they’re called Society Islands but probably because Captain Cook considered them close together, (though Royal Society suggested they were named in recognition of their assistance with funding one of Cook’s voyages). Also, ‘close together’ in the Pacific isn’t quite the same as ‘close together’ in British waters. They may be grouped together under one name here but they spread over 200 miles; equivalent to grouping Scilly Isles with Channel Islands and Isle of Wight (and I can’t see that happening!).

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Leaving Moorea at dusk

A straightforward and brisk overnight sail from Moorea took Henrietta 85 miles to Huahine, another fabulous mountainous, reef-fringed island. 

It was sobering to see at dawn the wreck of a large catamaran that had sailed into the reef one night three weeks earlier. Reef location isn’t very clear on the chart and apparently they’d cut too close to island Huahine, parents with four children thankfully safely helicoptered off, boat now abandoned with fixtures removed for sale, and them facing not just the loss of all their worldly goods (they had no other home), but also the tug’s ‘tow off and sink’ fee of over $20,000. I spent three nights at a tranquil anchorage nearby and heard the sorry story from fellow cruisers, Ian and Erika, who’d been friends of the wrecked boat family, and had helped unload the coral-stranded catamaran – a hazardous task in itself.

 

Huahine’s main village is typically laid back with standard features of quay (for supply ships), a store, post-office, church or two, food shacks and ‘yacht club’. (‘yacht club’ is not a club, simply a restaurant on the waterfront, open to all, and often a congregating spot for yachties). This particular yacht club had a folk music evening (American not Polynesian) and here’s a nice picture of my favourite young fellow sailors, all smartened up for an evening ashore with folk music. Needless to say, I didn’t go!

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Youngsters! Miranda, Hugh, Paul and Jenny

You won’t want too many details of day-by-day trivia so I’ll summarise and just say, I

 

sailed next to Raiatea (Polynesian languages use lots of vowels), enjoyed the regatta of Polynesian canoe racing at one spot (kindly invited to join participants’ feasting), did hilly walks till private land and trackless wilderness ended progress….made friends with a dog….admired soul-cleansing scenery and bright tropical flowers……moods from melancholia to happy excitement….ate truly delicious veggie meals on Ian and Erika’s friendly catamaran Makara, and the charming Little Coconut, and often cook for others to join me on Henrietta ….sailed on to neighbouring island Tahaa for one windy squally night at deepest anchorage yet (35 metres)….next day, rough windy downwind rolling surfing whizz near top speed with half genoa, and in through reef to Bora Bora.

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Choppy at pass into Bora Bora lagoon

 

Just had thorough haircut in Bora Bora (final few murky grey locks all gone), and bought beer to celebrate. 

The island of Bora Bora, despite its reputation, is no more beautiful than other Polynesian islands; mountainous, cloaked in blanket of lush verdant textured green, surrounded with clear lagoon inside coral reef. 

All very pretty but, I guess because Americans were here in the war and went home with extravagant tales, Bora Bora has since been over-hyped and is very overrated and over glamourised, I reckon. Lots and lots of luxury hotels on islets here and there, every other shop selling expensive pearl jewelry and colourful tourist tat in pretty shabby surroundings, lots of litter, busy smelly traffic on single road that winds around the island’s perimeter, prices generally eye-watering. And yet, somehow, the local people retain their charm and hospitality.

Pictures from Bora Bora

 

 

So now, Henrietta waits at a fairly sheltered spot in Bora Bora with about a dozen others; waiting for current spell of rough windy horrid weather to abate.

A birthday party (thank you Miranda for yummy cake!)

 

I may next stop at island Maupiti, a final stop in French Polynesia, before a longer stretch to the Cook Islands. There’s one called Suwarrow that is uninhabited and looks nice, about 690 miles away. But there’s another one called Palmerston that looks interesting too….oh! decisions to make…

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Moorea

Moorea

1st to 18th August

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Moorea in the distance

Henrietta hasn’t sailed far in the past few weeks but she now has new standing rigging (i.e. wires to hold up the mast). Mathieu, the young French rigger (passing resemblance to a lithe Johnny Depp – as in ‘Chocolat’) found several more broken strands in shrouds, suggested with gentle nod of his head that I was lucky still to have a mast, and replaced the lot. He was energetic, thorough, extremely skilled and fascinating – all of which made the bill more bearable.

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Mathieu changing the rigging

 

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Tahitian Six Pack

 

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So then, growing ratty with the dual-carriageway traffic and a hot and busy anchorage in Tahiti, I sailed to nearby island of Moorea. It’s picture postcard lovely and a popular tourist destination with good cause: jagged dark fairy-tale mountains, a fringe of coral reefs and coconut palms, fine walking, surfing, snorkelling and, for the whizzier types, flotillas of growling jet-skis on sea plus platoons of gaudy yellow quad bikes on land.

I’ve enjoyed walks (on one of which I met in succession: Tahitian film star, in vivid red sarong and tatoos, on location, French student pharmacologist from Rennes on holiday, Devon sailing couple from “Serenity” on a Moody. Most walks are less sociable – just me!); and the warm smiling helpful friendliness of Polynesians. An example of the latter: – on reaching a little tourist bar after long mountain walk, it was a shame the fresh fruit juice was finished and there was nothing to eat except ice-cream. I light-heartedly said to the girl Cindy (in my miserable French) that I was half starving and tired. She smiled sweetly and sympathetically….and then gave me her lunch! Although I was embarrassed and urged her to keep it, she was insistent, and refused payment. A perfect French quiche came my way. We’re humbled by such kindness. Such gestures are not part of English culture.

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Cindy who gave me her lunch!

 

After a few different anchorages on Moorea, I sailed back to Tahiti for a couple of days. Ostensibly to collect spare pump parts, it was a waste of time (except collecting letters and shopping, and a warm freshwater shower – first in over three months!) because courier company was wrong; spares are not in Tahiti at all but still sitting in New Zealand. (Give delivery by UPS nil pointes). I can wait no longer to fix the pump; the ‘bucket and chuck-it’ routine must go on. And now I’m back in Moorea, seeing friends and walking the mountains, while waiting for a forecast of less wild winds before moving on.

 

There’s still quite a long way to New Zealand you see…..

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Scale: arrow is about 800 miles long

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Tahiti

Tahiti

16th to 31st July

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Approach to Tahiti Iti

“….just a short trip to any French territory in the Pacific is enough to convince even the most casual observer that the French are among the most self-serving, manipulative, trivial-minded, obnoxious, cynical and corrupting nations on the face of the earth.” This is Paul Theroux writing of his trip through “The Happy Isles of Oceania” a few years ago, and though I think he’s one of the best living travel-writers, I disagree with his views of the French. I’m not sure what prompted such venom; though Theroux does sometimes get a bit carried away with the momentum of his passions. It seems to me more likely that nowadays, the French remain here at least partly by accident rather than self-interest, unable to extricate themselves from their innate national ego and responsibilities derived from years of bomb testing, many generations of international love stories and loads of randy Frenchmen (and others) who have thoroughly mixed their genes with Polynesians’, settled, and no longer see France as their home anyway. The place is a delightful good-natured hotch-potch of blended Polynesian, French, Chinese and more. The French start to feel and behave more Polynesian (warm, friendly, helpful); and perhaps Polynesians more French (confident, businesslike and purposeful). Although there is a French Polynesia independence movement, and I gather the UN gives support to the idea, and there’s a distinctive liberation flag, it is hard to see how French Polynesia’s 280,000 people (75% on Tahiti and Moorea) could maintain their educated tidy healthy orderly lifestyle without the massive financial support of France. But it’s difficult to understand what the concensus is from talking to the people I meet. I haven’t really got a clue and need to read more; better French would help too. Whatever Theroux’s views I generally like the French and don’t think they’re any more arrogant or nationalistic than segments of the British population. Also, one side of me knows it’s not for transient yachties to comment anyway, not my business to probe. So I’ll drop the subject.

It was a 250 mile, straightforward two-day sail from atoll Fakarava in the Tuamotus to Tahiti. I was in no hurry to get to Papeete, Tahiti’s capital. I dreaded the hustle and bustle and crowds and traffic and city anxieties, and the rigger who was to help fix Henrietta’s unhappy rigging was not free for at least a week.

So, as I approached Tahiti I was avidly perusing iPhone chart looking for an alternative place to stop when I spotted an area, “Mouillage de Cook”, about as far from Papeete as possible, on the little bit of Tahiti called Tahiti-Iti (Little Tahiti) in the east. This seemed to have lots of things going for it. First, if it was good enough for Captain Cook to anchor, it might suit me; also, as mentioned, it was nearly 40 miles from the hustle and bustle of Papeete; furthermore it looked to be well sheltered from the forecast strong winds and there might be a sandy beach and walks in the mountains.

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…a peaceful anchorage

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So, Mouillage de Cook, Tautira, is where I went first. And it was everything I hoped for; the irony being that though the island of Tahiti is by far the most popular and populous place in French Polynesia with literally hundreds, if not thousands, of yachts, at least two marinas, and every service under the sun, my little spot some 35 miles away was one of the quietest and emptiest anchorages I’ve been on the entire trip. “Henrietta” was the one and only visitor in the three days we stayed. There were views of spiky green-cloaked mountains in the interior, a beach and play park where children and adults played, and a food shop not far away. A few fishermen in outrigger canoes and little open boats milled about but no speed-hog yachtie tenders or posing powerboat playboys. I walked as far as I could up mountains; but it’s mostly unmarked and a lot is private so, without a guide, mountain rambling alone was hazardous and limited.

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Perhaps Captain Cook collected fresh water here

 From there I sailed along the coastline (and I should say that Tahiti is a very beautiful island with its sharp high verdant mountains frequently capped with dark grey cloud), stopped for a night at Venus Point. (For history buffs, this is where Cook built an observatory for the transit of Venus – important at the time for astronomical measurements needed to assist navigation. Captain Cook would have loved the precision and versatility of GPS and iPhone.) Next day, on to Papeete, on past the airport – where, if you have a high mast, you call on VHF to say when you’re passing the ends of the runway – and a mooring buoy at Taina, surrounded by hundreds of yachts of all conceivable shapes and sizes and degrees of scruffiness.

Since then, there’s been a social life with fellow cruisers, bus trips into city of Papeete, walk trips to the nearby Carrefour Supermarket, (whose stock is almost identical to that of any sizeable French town, prices comparable too, except the wine, beer and alcoholic stuff  and fresh veg which are three or four times the price!

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You could almost be in France….

)…….and the rigger, Mathieu, is to replace some shrouds and check all the rigging next week.

 

 

 

 

 

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Busy anchorage at Taina

 

 

Despite my usual distaste for tropical cities, I enjoy and take delight in the unforced friendliness and casual good-natured hospitality of Papeete, Tahiti and its people. It has traffic and fumes and overpriced tourist tat, but it’s laid-back too, and colouful, and gardens are lush and tidy, and I’ll have mixed feelings when I leave.

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An evening on “Calagorm” with Geert, Cindy, John, David, Julia and Hella

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It still surprises me that there are so many sailing boats around, and I’ve come to realise that for an untarnished Pacific sailing experience where you’d be a novelty rather than commonplace, and where the welcome might be more spontaneous and less tinged with commerce, you and I should have come 40 years ago. This is not to say that the Pacific is spoilt – very far from it – but you have to look and sail and explore outside the main South Pacific yacht conveyor belt to find totally unsullied havens. Heaven forbid that this sailing area should become as crowded, commercial, grubby, insecure and corrupt as much of the Caribbean. And I’m sure that won’t happen for many decades – perhaps never.  

 

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Tuamotus

Tuamotu Islands

24th June to 15th July

Summary: – About 750 miles of light/medium breezes and the odd squall. Quick visit to another Gambier Island, Aukena, before heading west-north-westish to and through the Tuamotu archipelago via stops at atolls of Hao, Tahanea, and now, Fakarava. (And I shan’t expect you to remember these Polynesian names. I can’t.) For the long version, read on………

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Aukena – anchored off a little pristine beach

Before leaving the Gambier Islands I wanted to visit the little island gem called Aukena that my pilot book says has  “…pretty anchorages beside shelving coral sand beaches etc etc….” (We harbour dreams of seclusion and beauty in the South Seas)., ”uninhabited now and overgrown with trees …cocks, now wild, still crow…remnants  of villages….” – real Boys’ Own South Seas dreaming stuff!

 Well, Henrietta and I pottered over to said island Aukena, dodging a profusion of pearl farm buoys, dropped anchor (it’s a bit rolly) and rowed ashore on hot, blue-skied sunny day to deserted sandy beach, lay down on pristine coral sand in pristine solitude amidst tropical beachside beauty and read a book. The dream fizzles out quite fast when sweat starts to trickle and you’re bitten by a bug. And anyway I was never one to pickle for long in idleness in tropical sunshine, so one bug bite and reading for an hour or two was ample. I explored as far as I could without a machete, and without Rambo biceps, scratched limbs a lot, before rowing back to Henrietta (well aware, if I wasn’t already, that I’m not cut out for deserted island life). In any case, it’s not a deserted island nowadays; a pearl farm has a few workers’ huts a mile or so from my anchorage, but I was soothed with a couple of days in the total tranquility of such a remote and beautiful spot.

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Leaving Gambier Isles astern

A few days later weather looked ok for the sail north-westwards 470 miles to Hau in the Tuamotus. As you may not have heard of the Tuamotu Islands, I’ll quickly tell you that they comprise dozens of widely scattered coral atolls, about 1,000 miles SE to NW. I think I read somewhere that it’s the largest atoll archipelago in the world.

Book says about 40 atolls are permanently inhabited (but I’m sure it’s more); others are visited sometimes for people to collect coconuts (the copra is important for export); many are inaccessible to yachts, because there’s no navigable pass through the surrounding coral to the inner lagoon and nowhere to anchor outide (or, in the case of Mururoa and Fangataufa, because the French messed them up with nuclear bombs). Before accurate position-fixing with GPS, ships and yachts often came to grief crossing the area as the atolls are low-lying and often not seen till very close (too close I suppose, if you hit one). Raft Kon-Tiki was perhaps the best known casualty. Even with GPS you can’t afford to sleep for too long.

First stop for Henrietta and me was the island of Hao, and after a frustrating sail of four days from Gambiers (fickle winds, squalls etc), we just crept in before dark. My calculations suggested there’d be a gentle inflowing current into Hao’s huge lagoon, so it was a surprise and still something of a mystery why there was a brisk outflowing current. Water was gushing out at around seven knots. But with genoa pulling hard and engine near full blast – standing waves breaking hither and thither, sometimes going backwards….phew….just made it before dark! (The thing is with Hao’s lagoon: it’s big – about 25 miles by 6 miles, in area much like the Solent, and there’s only one narrow opening. If the ocean outside is rough, waves break over the coral reef into the lagoon and the water can only go out via the one opening. Chart says exit speeds up to 12 knots and pilot book says up to 20 knots, but I think they exaggerate.)

I’m very uneasy entering unknown territory in the dark. I don’t like the dark at the best of times, and especially so with coral heads lurking, and this huge empty unlit space ahead, and pulse still over-revving after the kerfuffle of getting in, so after entering Hao lagoon, I dropped anchor as soon as I could. Then, spent the night in range of some of the yappiest dogs you’ve ever heard. Apparently some local folk eat dog….’woof woof and frites’, but I think these were just guard dog pets unused to yachts anchoring off their homestead.

Next morning, I find there’s a little harbour a mile away – not mentioned in my book – and tie up with French, Dutch and German boats. It’s calm, secure, friendly and convenient; and in the evenings local people come and practice their dancing and music alongside. (There’s lots of dancing and music in the month before 14th July.)

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Panorama – Quiet harbour in Hao

That paragraph does not begin to convey the delightfulness of such places. It’s indescribably joyful to have a calm convenient place to tie up, plus young French family astern, where the young girls sing and chatter incessantly, and the elder one, about five, is happy to swing in the bosun’s chair for hours; and young German family at my bow (I’d met them earlier in the Gambier Islands) who seem to think nothing of having sailed here via Patagonia and the Chilean Canals. The boy Leonard, 12, did say he doesn’t like it when it’s very rough and “everyone gets stressy”; and the girl, Zoe, and her mother, Birgit, sometimes feel seasick and school work has to be suspended. And at dusk, on the harbour quay, the rhythm and energy and emotions of Polynesian dance are memories that’ll be with me a long time.

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Ipu is the local medical officer and very friendly – posing in front of harbour

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I liked this tree with its unorthodox posture

Anyway, the French military used Hao as the main support base for their nuclear test programme. The atoll was home for hundreds of Frenchmen until about 2000, and though the French left, there are now the remnants of their presence: houses (useful), jetties and harbour (useful), rusty junk (useless), crumbling rusty sheds (useless), suspicious debris (useless and maybe worse). Plus, I’m told they dumped loads of asbestos stuff and low grade nuclear stuff in the lagoon. The inhabitants of Hao are typically warm and friendly with visitors but they seem keen to be independent of France. Small wonder!

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Necklace of shells in graveyard

 

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Tidy main street on Hao

Bluewater sailing boats move a bit like Pooh sticks drifting down a gentle meandering stream: we meet and separate, meet again, move on…and finally go our separate ways. When I left Hao there were two boats I’d first met three weeks earlier in the Gambiers, the German family on “Kalibu” and Dutch couple, Herman and Rian, on “Lyra”. (Incidentally one of the most beautiful yachts I’ve ever seen, a fine Van de Stadt design somewhere near 50 foot, with an 80 foot mast.) I feel a complete novice in their presence. They’ve sailed here via Antarctica and they’re on their way to Alaska, after a lifetime running charter boats in Baltic and Mediterannean. Herman, a colourful Dutchman of 68 with round thick-lens glasses and general appearance of spritely benevolent maths professor, doesn’t like hot weather! I had both families for meal on “Henrietta” and know I have a lot to learn.

From Hao, it was a two day sail on to Tahanea, another big atoll, though this one doesn’t have any permanent residents, just occasional visitors to collect copra. I came because my book talks of “the multitude of coloured fish and the beauty of the coral”, and I later learn it’s a nature reserve because there’s a rare bird, a Tuamotu Sandpiper (but I’m not a proper ‘birdie’ so I wouldn’t know it even if it pecked my big toe). There were five yachts here when I arrived. It’s not busy like the Caribbean but I’m still mildly surprised to see others who sail to these out-of-the way places.

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Rough beaches but beautiful when very close up

Oh goodness, this post is going on too long. I’ll quickly say that Tahanea did have lovely fishes, though on my own I don’t snorkle in the lagoon passes where they proliferate. The beaches I explored are a jumble of exquisite and varied coral. And here’s a pretty disgusting photo of hermit crabs munching on a dead fish…..P1050646And from Tahanea, I’ve sailed north to Fakarava, where I sense I’m getting near the main sailing thoroughfare through the Pacific. Sailing boats are all over the place and anchorages are busy with visiting boats – about a dozen boats where I’m anchored now. (I know emptier places in the Solent!). I’m told there are tourist resorts (little ones), dive shops, food shops and a bakery and places to eat, and I read there’s an ATM on the island – my first since Panama (no-one told me it would be so hard to get local money).

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Granny, baby daughter Hanihia and mother Agnes (the baby has Tahiti, Scots and French grandparents – gorgeous!) at Matthieu’s place, Fakarava

Finally, it’s worth saying that nothing I had read or heard prepared me for the scale and nature of these Pacific atolls. The three I’ve visited are among the larger ones and each feel almost like enclosed seas of their own, sheltered lagoons as much as 30 miles long and 15 miles wide; and yet, because the surrounding coral reef is so low, you cannot see from one side to the other. Within the lagoon there have been few hydrographic surveys, charts lack detail, and, outside marked channels, you proceed carefully with sun high behind you, watching for coral heads that can reach from the bed of the lagoon, 25 metres deep to nought metres – just like that!

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Gambier Islands

Gambier Islands

7th to 23rd June

More photos another time

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Where we are (Scale: Arrow is 900 miles long)


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The capital, Rikitea, with St Michel’s Church and anchorage

This is a lovely spot to hang around. Days slip quickly and easily by, and already over a fortnight has passed. There are lots of things to tell you about. I’ll try and keep it brief; some you might find interesting:

  • Geography and History: the five high islands are the remnants of a giant caldera, eroded and sunken, and now surrounded by a coral reef forming a lagoon about 14 miles across and 60 miles in circumference. (So it’s sheltered from the ocean swell but sometimes a bit choppy.) The highest point, Mount Duff, 441 metres, was named after the mission ship of British Captain James Wilson, who arrived in 1798. Subsequently, French ships called in and from the mid-1800s French missionary enthusiasm led to the construction of masses of coral-stone buildings, churches, schools, monasteries and more. (Most are now crumbling ruins but the main church, St Michel’s, is huge and well used. French friends who go to Mass say the singing is fantastic, and I heard it nearly a mile away). P1050516.JPGThis Catholic building boom was costly: combined disease and the whips of overseers killed over 2,000 islanders, over half the population at that time. And yet, the drivers behind it all, Fathers Laval and Caret, despite their zealous lunacy, seem to be worshipped here nowadays. Forgiving people! Then, as if that wasn’t enough, just over a hundred years later, when the French were testing their atom bombs, hydrogen bombs, neutron bombs and suchlike on the islands of Mururoa and Fangataufa, 200 miles away, from the 1960s to 1980s, and radioactive dust would drift overhead, the French scientists and naval folk, would come here for their leisure breaks. The French government at the time liked to give the impression that no-one lived in the area. But I guess the outcry would have been insufferable had 161 nuclear explosions happened 200 miles from Paris. Polynesians truly are hospitable in welcoming most visitors nowadays. And we’d thought we were tolerant in Britain!
  • My fellow cruisers: there were six of us when I arrived, 15 people (French, German, Belgian, Mexican, English, Polish, Israeli); some come and some go, and now there are two, a friendly French couple and me. Tomorrow there may be more (ps. Yes, 3 days later there are eight of us. There are photos somewhere).
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    Waiting for a meal with fellow sailors, Rian, Herman, Carole, Daniel, Erika, Brisa, Cindy, Gert & Ian

    There’s another boat at anchor too, but the crew are spending a long time in a French prison. On arrival here, early last year, they were busted with a load of cocaine aboard. A customs man I met says no-one wants to buy the boat (which has been pilfered by disgraceful kleptomaniac yachties, ‘cockroaches’ as locals refer to them) so I guess it’ll rot at anchor or get blown onto a reef before long. As I write this, a small French Navy ship, “Bougainville” arrives for a visit.P1050536

    and ties up where local boys like to fish….

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    French navy in their fishing spot


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    and they catch this!

  • Local walks: getting a bit creaky so not been more than a few miles. It’s hilly and hot-humid in the rainforest. But have seen some of this island, Mangareva, and two others in the archipelago, Totegegie and Taravai (See photos) – population less than ten between these two.
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    A peaceful walk and meet these local youths who insist on photos!

  • Residents: overwhelmingly fine, friendly Polynesians who exchange warm “Bonjours”, offer me grapefruit, bananas (if I ask) or a lift (even if I don’t – they must see I’m creaky). On the island of Taravai, residents Herve and his wife Valerie, kindly invite me to a Father’s Day lunch of local dishes. There are five of us ‘fathers’ and afterwards there’s boule and international chatter and I leave with a handful of small sweet bananas.There’s also resident German, Fritz, who for 1,000 local francs ($10) washes a huge bag of laundry. Now in his seventies, he came 42 years ago in his boat, married locally, has six beautiful daughters, and has beer and fags for breakfast, and no time at all for the other resident European, Yves, an ex French Legionnaire who is more friendly and shakes hands now he’s seen me around a bit and knows the Napoleonic Wars are over. (His tattoos, and hairy legs and pervasive cloud of testosterone make me mildly uneasy)

 

  • Boat repairs (probably not interesting): on going aloft I find more broken strands in rigging…very worrying but expert friendly Dutch sailor, also called Fritz, helps me fix temporary support until I get to Tahiti for shroud replacement (about 800 miles away). Holding tank pump diaphragm broken – so can’t empty poo tank – so it’s plastic bucket until I find spare in Tahiti. (Can’t resist giving you this variation of a vulgar schoolboys’  limerick):

In days of old, sailors were bold,

Yachts’ bathrooms not invented,

We used a bucket, and used to chuck it.

And sailed on quite contented….so there!

 

  • Immigration formalities. A delight! Big warm friendly, round-eyed, lady gendarme and younger man gendarme, say I can stay for more-or-less ever – while UK is in EU anyway. The local gendarmerie have clearly not heard about the infamous finesse of Paris policing. I suppose latter could come here for customer relationship training. As an EU citizen you don’t even have a passport stamp. Just a friendly smile, a few papers and “Welcome!”.
  • Food. There are several stores with tins of pricey stuff from France or New Zealand or China or USA plus onions and garlic – and eggs when Yves’ chickens deliver. There’s a bakery that does delicious 600 French loaves a day, 6am and 2pm, but if you arrive five minutes late it may be sold out. Us boaty types were mildly excited one day recently as a fortnightly boat was due in from Tahiti, with vegetables. But I went shopping next day and only found giant sprouting carrots and potatoes – too late for a cabbage. Local fruit: mega-grapefruit, bananas, lemons, papaya and stocks of rice are adequate, together with tins and pulses and spices and garlic and slowly shrinking waistline.

Now I’ll tell you a bit about black pearls because they’re important.They are the mainstay of the local economy (along with French Government). Together they mean the islands appear quite affluent, clean and tidy, with busy people; and there are some 4-wheel drive cars and motor scooters bouncing over the few cracked potholed roads and tracks, and neat homesteads; and school children and others are smartly dressed and nourished.

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With Erik we’re going to see his pearl farm

Our black pearl voyage? With Belgian and French boats, British representative Henrietta, sailed a few miles to Totegegie (incidentally, home to one of the planet’s less busy airports, built on the reef…two flights a week to Tahiti and, after you land here, there’s a six-mile boat trip from airport to the town). Once anchored there, we weaved cautiously through the coral outcrops in tenders to Erik, the pearl farmer’s own little neighbouring island. There he showed us enthusiastically through the processes of black pearl production; and next day to his home to admire and buy pearls – if we wanted. Erik is a clever, smiling, good-natured, hard-working Polynesian Chinese, born on an island near Tahiti 58 years ago. From being a labourer on another local pearl farm, he bought his little island (you have to own property to start a pearl farm), gradually developed business, and is now one of 15 ‘major’ producers in the Gambiers. He, or rather his oysters, produce 140,000 pearls a year, about 40% good quality with wholesale value averaging over 20 euro each. The other 60% are still valuable. (Do the sums!) His buyers come from China and it’s fascinating to listen to the intricacies, the skills, the difficulties, and the preferences of this lesser-known bit of the jewellery business (albeit my French isn’t good enough to understand it all!). I have a few bargain basement pearls (not big, not spherical, not black) which I think exquisite. Here are some photos.

Afterwards there’s another fine sunsetP1050485.JPGFrom here, once the forecast looks better, I’ll perhaps sail roughly north a few hundred miles past the bombed out atolls of Mururoa and Fangataufa (“access est interdite”)) to some other atolls in the south of the Tuamotus archipelago, before going on to Tahiti to get Henrietta’s rigging fixed.

Two questions…….

  1. Here’s a mystery in photos from a now deserted home on the island of Taravai….??

2. Where and when and how did Britain test its nuclear bombs? (I was pointedly asked this and didn’t really know!)

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Pacific Ocean

 

Pacific Ocean

Introducing the Pacific

1st May to 7th June

Market, Panama City

This, my first time sailing in the Pacific was memorable:- longest and slowest solo passage, most calms, fewest people, sense of well-being restored etc.. I’ve written too much in this blog post. (It helped fill the time). These first two paragraphs will give you a rough idea.

With food lockers filled from the big busy thriving fruit and veg market of Panama City, and water tanks full, Henrietta and I left Balboa, Panama, on 2nd May and, after a night at the nearby island of Taboga (said to be popular but not then) sailed 4,160 miles to arrive at Mangareva, one of the Gambier Islands, 35 days and nights later. It was the first month of my life when I have not seen a single other human being. Though I’ve missed you, I don’t think I’ve gone mad without.

It wasn’t a blissfully easy month, not quite the South Seas sailing dream you may imagine. Frustratingly slow tacking south through doldrums and unexpected currents (and near Panama a lot of rubbish) to start with (sometimes less than 50 miles progress a day), then increasingly lively conditions sailing south-westwards, winds often strong and seas often rough, and then the final quirk of Pacific nature, almost becalmed for several days in the last few hundred miles. Nothing ever steady. The average wind strength, my book says is 14 knots; but that seemed to mean either well over 20 knots or less than 10 knots, not so much in between! And with rigging weakened, I was forever alert and far too anxious to enjoy a lot of sun-baked sailing leisure.

Wind at last

Stargazer’s bed on the left

That’s the summary. For the full story, ….……

I don’t wish to sound facetious but there are three things you should know about sailing over the Pacific::

  • It’s huge (see geography lesson below)
  • There’s hardly anything there
  • Its name is very misleading.

On any sailing boat on a long ocean trip, boaty bits sometimes fail, fatigue and anxiety levels rise and fall,and life isn’t always a doddle, whatever those romantic stories may say (though some of the time it still can be sublime, and most days are warm and sunny most of the time).

For me, the most anxious part of this trip was the discovery a week or so after leaving, that several strands of a main shroud had broken. (If you’re not a boaty person, that’s the wires that hold the mast up – so it’s potentially serious) – extra troubling as shroud was replaced in Falmouth less than a year ago. As a consequence, I’ve been a bit of a worry bag…. Made adjustments to try to limit the stress on the rigging and added stout ropes to try and save the mast should shroud fail – and sailing has been slower than it might otherwise have been. That’s probably dull to read about but it’s been a constant pre-occupation, a maritime obsession.

And otherwise, life aboard has had a typical steady series of mishaps: cockroaches in the cereal (a saga all of its own), rotting carrots, itchy beard, mouldy cheese and burnt lentils, holding tank leaking to bilge (poofy woofy!), bruised body and other stuff that’ll make me sound like an old whinge bag if I go on.

BUT, let’s be more cheery! Bird life, at least when south of Galapagos and for most of the next 3,000 miles, has been a joy – not lots of birds but occasional happy ballet of tern (?) or flawless aerobatics of a solitary shearwater over the ocean swell. And this fine handsome visiting bird which I don’t know (young albatross?).

Unknown bird?

What is this?

Plus the rare sociable appearance of dancing dolphins, and sunsets early in the trip as brilliant and awe-inspiring as any you’ll ever see. The lunar cycles with black twinkly-starred fairytale southern hemisphere nights and wondrous heavenly stars moving on to vivid bright moonlit nights. P1050272Flying fish with their scatty flashy sunlit flights skimming the wavetops. And in early days, little squid that landed on deck at night (flabergasting bad news for them but fascination for me). And the knowledge that you’re sailing one of the emptiest patches of water on the planet (Once away from the Ecuador coastline, I saw only two vessels early on (and then nothing for over three weeks) – a tanker whose watch officer told me even in his big ship he’d take another 16 days to reach Botany Bay, and a large French catamaran going fast to Tahiti for charter work. Oh, and a big fishing vessel who I passed uncomfortably close one night and who for reasons of his own wanted to be anonymous:  no AIS and did not answer my call on VHF)
https://youtu.be/PC_UI4LKbco
The daily routine of life at sea is much the same for a pensioner at sea as a pensioner on land: pot of tea, breakfast, spot of exercise, housework, cooking, reading, music, thinking, planning and daydreaming….The difference is only that ‘home’ at sea is always swaying and rolling around, lurching and creaking, with the everpresent background rush and splash of water sploshing past the hull, plus nights are very disturbed, and you must wash with seawater, and of course there’s noone to talk to, no shops, no gardening, no walks, no internet and no Radio 4 and no telly, and you’re forever disturbed with need to check and trim and reef sails. So I suppose on reflection it isn’t even remotely like a pensioner’s life on land. (N.B. A steady source of delight were Desert Island Discs archives that I’d downloaded beforehand. Enlightening to hear MPs talking ten years ago, when we see where they are now….bet you didn’t do it before casting your vote – for UK readers only)

Sometimes on ocean voyages I ask myself what on earth I am doing. Instead of sleeping peacefully in a big solid static bed under a cosy duvet, dreaming sweetly till awaken by the happy tunes of a Devon dawn chorus, I find nights are disturbed with uneasy dream-filled restlessness and too often scrambling frantically off my berth in the middle of a dark windswept night, scrabbling for glasses and head torch, to reef a flogging sail as an icy rain squall soaks my back. And yet for now this is a preferable way of life. It’s enlightening and fulfilling, rewarding and in a way soul-soothing, a month without alcohol (bar the glass of wine that Neptune and I had on the equator), a simple diet, endless movement, the majesty of the ocean, time to read, and freckles on my bottom. The paradox of a personal comfort zone that’s not at all comfortable. The choices some of us are so lucky to have.

Other odds and ends……..Outside the normal routine for me was my first ocean swim, a dip in the middle of the ocean, something most of us never ever get round to. But, becalmed in the doldrums off South America one day, hundreds of miles from everywhere, totally alone, sails hanging limp and completely floppy with not a whisper of a feather-breath of breeze, and also overheated, perspiring and feeling grubby, I jumped in. My fears had been threefold: a. thoughts of how deep it was (and all those creepy ugly big-eyed suspicious super-deep-sea life forms coming to bite my toes), b. wind getting up and Henrietta sailing off without me, and c. wondering if a shark might come and gobble me up. It was the last of these that troubled me most. My imagination can be vivid, so I didn’t swim around for long. Felt better afterwards though.

(Photos below of crossing equator)P1050244.JPG

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Equator Crossing ceremony for one

Geography? …..Like me, you probably know the Pacific is big, twice as big as the Atlantic. It covers nearly a third of planet earth and has half the world’s water; and more islands than all the rest of the world put together. You can put all the earth’s land masses in the Pacific and still have lots of room left over. England would fit into it 1,275 times. And its deepest bit is nearly 11,000 metres down. Sailing slowly for over a month over just one half of the South Pacific makes these statistics of scale seem very real. And the Local Time eases back four hours as you sail those miles west, jet lag not a feature of life when it takes so long.

Since the places I may mention in the next few months will mean very little unless you have sailed here (or have a detailed atlas with you), I’ll give a quick geography lesson. It’s a lesson I gave myself a few weeks ago. Because, like most of us, my knowledge of patches of the world outide those I’ve visited is hopelessly limited.

I’d heard of places like Tahiti and Hawaii and Bora Bora and had stopped once in the Cook Islands on an aeroplane, and I’d been to New Zealand, but I couldn’t tell you precisely where they all were. (Forget Hawaii as it’s in the North Pacific and an American State and I’m not going there for now.)

The South Pacific is mainly empty. Apart from the Galapagos Islands and Easter Island, all the islands you’ve ever heard of are in the western half, and they are very sparsely spread out. So sparse that when Magellan sailed across nearly 500 years ago, as the first European to do so and with no chart to guide him and with only a very vague idea of how far he might have to go, he missed the lot, pitching up in the Philippines some five months after he’d started from South America. (As an aside I’ll add that poor Magellan was killed in the Philippines. And of the five ships and 237 men who had set out with him from Spain, only one ship and 18 souls survived, getting home three years after they’d left. Ocean sailing really was an almost suicidally hazardous business.) The Polynesians who’d sailed east across the Pacific much much more slowly 1,500 years before Magellan, and must have been patiently tacking into the prevailing winds, did discover and settle some of the islands. And Polynesians are today the main inhabitants of all the more easterly islands, though far fewer in number than they used to be.

The first group I’ll visit are collectively named French Polynesia. They include the Marquesas, the Tuamotus, Gambier Islands, and Society Islands. Here’s a map.

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French Polynesia

After that, all being well, I’ll sail via other island groups, perhaps Cook Islands, Austral Islands, Tonga Islands (not yet decided which – there are so many to choose from) to reach New Zealand about November, before the start of the South Pacific cyclone season. That’s pretty much what most sailing boats do, and there are lots of us, many more than I’d expected.

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Gambier Islands Approach at dawn (little dark grey bumps!)

I write this at anchor off Rikitea the capital of the main populated island in the Gambier Islands (pop.1,500 depending where you ask) and if there’s wifi will post it later. I’d not expected other yachts but there are eight of us bobbing about in the rain (the book says not long ago they used only to have one visitor a year).

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Happy to be nearly there!

A few words from Henrietta….

Yes, well, M has told you the factual stuff. As usual he’s done a lot of faffing about with this and that while I’ve got on with the hard work as best I can.

Have I told you what a hopeless case my skipper is when it comes to deciding where to go? In fact, he’s the ultimate disaster when it comes to making any decision whatsoever, forever weighing up pros and cons, changing his mind, and boring everyone to tears. Well, this Pacific trip was a classic, a true tale of human indecisiveness. When we left Panama, the ship’s papers ( the Zarpe) said we’d go to Ecuador – to a nice looking spot called Puerto Amistad, a few hundred miles down the South American coast, just south of the equator. So we headed that way, me thinking that’s where we’d go. Then, for goodness sake, when we got near and could see the coastline as a pale grey smudge on our left, M decided not to stop, muttering something about being late and slow, and needing to get a move on, and not needing more food. He’d already decided not to go to the Galapagos Islands. The authorities there charge extortionate amounts for visiting yachts and they’re super-zealous with bureaucracy and you’re limited to one or two anchorages, and in truth they don’t really want me – or you – unless you pay lots, preferably on an organised trip .

So there we are. M won’t stop in Ecuador mainland or the Galaps. We have to turn west and go over three thousand miles to some islands in the middle of this gigantic ocean (which just so you know, is not very pacific in temperament – quite the opposite with all manner of quirky and unpredictable behaviour – sometimes decidedly violent often docile).

Next decision for M is deciding which islands. There are so many to choose from. He’s got some books and after a few days’ reading, he’s ruled out Easter Island and Pitcairn (it’s a bit late in the year, poor anchorages and perhaps not able to land even if we got there). The choice is now between Gambier Islands and Marquesas. Marquesas, the more popular, about 800 miles north of Gambier, both in French Polynesia. Gambier, M thinks looks more his cup of tea. Hardly any visiting yachts, a perfect 60km coral reef surrounding a few mountain islands, with one larger inhabited island and several depopulated ones, friendly welcome and the chart shows a township with a cathedral. So that’s where we head for.

But, would you believe it, oh deary deary me, it’s hard going. Our course only 20 degrees more southerly than Marquesas, but uncomfortable and wet and noisy. We crash and stagger, and I know M is thinking of my weakened shroud. After only a day or two, and with at least three weeks to go, M changes his mind and we’re going to the Marquesas….for now anyway. ……that’s where most sailing boats go….supposedly a broad reach for 3,000 miles…………P1050383.JPG

Two days later, and I think this is ridiculous, M changes his muddled mind yet again….for now we’re heading to the Gambier Islands. As I write this, there are 2,227 miles to go, so plenty of time for more changes of mind…..

…Many days later, and after another wobble in M’s spinning mind when he reconsidered Pitcairn (just a few miles out of our way and a bit closer), we made it to the Gambier Islands.

It’s pouring with rain and not very hot; reminds us of soggy days in Cornwall – just seven boats here for company.

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Final approach to Mangareva and it’s raining

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