Gambier Islands

Gambier Islands

7th to 23rd June

More photos another time

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

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).
    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….

    French navy in their fishing spot

    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.
    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.

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!)

2 thoughts on “Gambier Islands

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