First Round: Gambier 2019, with Maddi, Wyatt and Heather

 

DIVE IN!We’ve been to the Gambier before, this little Archipelago on the southeastern edge of French Polynesia, clinging to the tropics by a few minutes of a degree. From any place to any other place in the Gambier it always seems to be six miles. Motus, reefs, mountain islands, all of French Polynesia on a small scale. Not a lot of people anywhere, basically one road on Magareva, no traffic lights, or stop signs or yield signs. No internet to speak of. 

The business of the Gambier is pearls. Its cooler water temps and open lagoon are ideal for cultivating that one particular oyster which has captured the imagination of the world’s great connoisseur and collector ape, an irredeemable species with a bizarre obsession with grading things according to their level of perfection, and assigning abstract value. Toiling like 49’ers, cleaning the oysters, nurturing and counting them, performing delicate surgeries to create little iridescent balls of nacre.

We had lots of company in the Gambier this time around. Lots of time to go explore some of the places we missed the last. We thought it would feel like lots of time in general, but I guess Time doesn’t exactly work that way. First to arrive was Maddi, followed a few days later by Wyatt’s girlfriend, Heather. All passionate outdoors people, crazy about running over mountains and diving with sharks and mantas. Heather kept a diary of the fish she identified (as a scientifically trained person would). She and Wyatt would pour over Diana’s books at the end of their dives. Diana’s pretty good at this, but I’ve been slower remembering the names of (non-game) fish. One that Wyatt and Heather found that has stuck and is easy for me now is the Piano Fangblenny. Nice name for a fish with what sounds like a mean habit of eating other fishes scales. We had lots of music and card games for the rainy days. Maddi hooked a giant bonefish right off the shore in front of Eric’s. It charged her fly and then ripped into her backing. She landed the next one. Wyatt landed a nice fish there, too, a few before having eluded getting their picture taken by slipping off the hook at the very last second. We dove, exploring new places in the Gambier, had some gear trouble, and then got that fixed. We played volleyball in Taravai and climbed Mt Duff in the pouring rain. It felt quick (as almost everything seems to these days) but filled with memories.

The weather was unsettled during most our stay this year in the Gambier. Everyone says so. It’s a thing. We had great weather and we had rainy weather. We had calms that made it possible to swim with mantas at Ile Kamaka and spend a wonderful Sunday afternoon relaxing in the shallow water beach in front of Eric’s pearl farm. We also had the worse wind we have ever experienced at anchor, a glancing blow from a depression that plunged the barometer to the low 990’s. Top gusts of 54 knots and sustained winds of 40 knots. A proper gale. Other sailors certainly got tired of us commenting that it wasn’t like this last year. 

Christmas day the festivities were held at Edouard and Denises, at the southern end of Taravai. We wore our hats from the Australs, and like everyone brought food to share. Herve supplied the pig for the roast (he introduced me to the doomed prisoner the day before) and Edouard made Tuamotuan-style bread on the fire from coconut heart and flour wrapped in leaves (delicious). We brought guitars and ukuleles and I backed up Maddi on few songs, then Wyatt came in. For me the best song of the afternoon was the one Wyatt and Maddi sang together “Wildermen.” It starts, “my brother and I”… but Wyatt sang “my sister and I.” They stopped and tried again, laughing when they each switched the line, and then on a third try got on with the song. Funny and relaxed, what a great afternoon! The song Maddi wrote for mother’s Day  “Anywhere You Are” was also a big hit. We played the chorus a few extra times so everyone could sing along. After awhile, Herve brought out his Marquesan style ukulele, which confounded us at first because he’s left handed, though he hasn’t restrung the instrument to match, so he plays it upside down and backwards. It didn’t make it easier that here they use the do re mi system of notation in French Polynesia instead of A B C chords that we’re used to. But after a bit of mental gymnastics we were able to share some songs with him, too. 

And Tahitian dancing to round off the impromptu concert!

KAMAKA is a small, steep island on the south edge of the Gambier. Because the reef is submerged along this border of the archipelago the ocean swell is free to move in. There’s a patch of sand that great for anchoring (though watch out for a lost anchor on bottom about one third in from the east side), but the conditions have to be pretty calm for it to be comfortable. There is almost always a south swell breaking on the west side of the beach (in case you’re a surfer).

Tehoto shared his island and told stories of being raised and homeschooled here. He now lives in Mangareva, but comes to tend to the place often.
Thanks Heather, for taking this group shot, but we’re sure missing HALEY!

 

Taravai is a sort of sailors mecca in the Gambier. It’s a good anchorage in most normal weather even big southeast isn’t too bad. But the real attraction is Herve and Valerie. They live on this island with their son Ariki, the only child on the island. Herve’s uncle, Edouard and his wife Denise live at the other end. It’s kind of amazing in the 21st century to see such a gorgeous place so simply occupied. Gambier’s blessing for being enough off the beaten track and a place where sweaters maybe required in winter. On Sunday’s they put on a pot luck BBQ, usually chipping in some fish that Herve has speared and sailors bring food and drink to hang out, play petanque and volleyball. Hard to beat. Valerie greets newcomers with a warning not to beach their dink under the coconut tree which is tall and would be lethal if it let go a coconut as just the wrong moment. The games of volleyball are played with Taravai rules, which include a slightly lower than regulation net and an easy going vibe … Herve’s secret weapon, besides his wicked sense of humor, is the headshot. It never fails to unnerve the opposition. Valerie is a committed player, too, always giggling, saying “Fakarava!” when she misses. Herve calls her “my lady.” The games often persist until it is just too dark to see, so Diana had the idea to ask Wyatt to find a glow in the dark volleyball to bring along as a gift. It lights up when hit, and stays lit for some period of seconds. The first night we played until the only thing people could see was the ball.

Lovely Humans ©MPS
The spectacular setting of many a volleyball game and Di’s mean calf pull at Herve and Valerie’s idyllic Taravai setting.

I’m working on adding some ‘Through the Lens’ shots from Maddi and Wyatt, so check back here soon!

 

 



 

Ah, Tetiaroa!

Aka Marlon Brando’s atoll, aka where Obama went to write his memoirs, aka the weekend get away for Tahitian royalty for hundreds of years before those two. This is a difficult atoll, not very often visited by sailors. There is no pass to get your sailboat inside the lagoon, so you have to find a place to be on the outside, which means that conditions have to be just right. There’s a bay on the southern side, but the prevailing swell in these parts is south, and it has to be less than a meter and a half, or it’s just not tenable. The trade winds are east-southeast, so those have to be mellow too. The other big, big problem is that it’s super deep right off the reef. There’s not really a place to anchor. Charter operations out of Papeete have put in five mooring balls. Only one of those is really good for overnight, and if the conditions are right, the charter boats are guaranteed to be using them. We sailed in from Makatea unsure if we were going to be able to stay. In fact we had to plan our schedule so that we arrived in the early morning. Then, if we had to move onto Tahiti, we’d be able to get there before too late in the day. 

As we approached after an overnight sail from Makatea, we could see two charter boats already arriving. Our only choice was to motor up to the catamaran that was unloading his guests to take ashore and ask if we could use one of the other moorings. 

Now it’s really easy to imagine the response you might get to such a request in much of the rest of the world. Even a polite, sorry, these are private buoys would not be surprising. Less polite, not surprising either. 

Obviously, we got an altogether different response. The captain of this catamaran had twenty or thirty guests that have paid $150 each to get there and were lined up to get ashore. He’s a one man show, from running the boat to making sure everyone has a life jacket. So he’s a bit busy. Nonetheless, without hesitation he pointed to the closest buoy and said, that’s the one you want. We asked are you sure, not one of the others, no that’s ours and it’s the best one. Can we stay the night? Absolutely, no problem. His name was Moana. 

After he ferried all of his charge ashore he came over to talk. Remember the thing about Tetiaroa is THERE IS NO PASS. Meaning, no break in the reef that will allow you to sail to the protection inside. That includes shore boats. Marlon Brando and Obama got there by airplane. The only way to get ashore is to time your approach with the waves and surf your dinghy across the reef. When the surf is out, there’s a three feet wall of coral wall to slam into. This is what we’d been watching Moana do – dinghy runs with his guests. Seriously, it took our breath away. Obviously, it was possible. No doubt centuries ago Tahitian royalty were paddled across the same section of reef by young, strong paddlers. Moana offered to take us in, but he was leaving at 2:00 (we preferred more time on the inside), so we decided to launch Namo (our dinghy) and go for it. We went over to ask for tips and instead of letting us just try it, he took me in his dingy and showed me how to surf across. The key is to line up with a palm tree that has no top. The other key is that the waves roll along the reef so you can see them coming and gun it at the right time. It’s too late to just wait for the water to cover the reef, you have to be going full speed by that moment. Then to get out, the key is to know which coral heads you might hit with your propeller if you don’t aim right. Spot them, then gun into the white water of the breaking surf.

So we did it, surfed in with Moana cheering us on. Basically, you get across the reef and land in a pool, then if you turn hard right you can wind your way through the coral heads and tie off on shore. It’s also possible, but very complicated, to wind your way along the royal Motu (small island) and into the lagoon. We opted for anchoring Namo up at the spot where Moana left his guests and walking around the motu (the opposite way from which he took his clients) into the lagoon. 

And what did we find there? Huge bonefish, as big as I’ve caught anywhere. Diana got lots of pictures. It’s illegal to fish inside the lagoon, but catch and release bonefishing is allowed. However, all of the charter companies have signed an agreement NOT to bring fishermen. So the only way, other than the way we did it, to fish in Tetiaroa is to go the the hotel. Where Obama went. Yep, $4,000 per night, not including airfare, for the cheapest room in the off season. 

The next day another charter boat showed up. A smaller, private charter, same company, POE Yacht charters. They took the same buoy as the other captain had, but then once he’d off loaded his guests he came over to tell us that he needed the buoy we were on for the night. Once again, sorry sir, but this is a private buoy, you need to get lost. Right? Nope. He said that since this was the only safe buoy for overnight (capable of holding five boat in deep water off the reef), we could tie up to him and be his guest. He also offered to ferry us across the reef, and if we wanted we were welcome to come on the tour. When we asked if his guests would mind, he suggested that it was his choice and they wouldn’t mind anyway. These very friendly people were there to celebrate a daughters 25 birthday, so other than some Karaoke late into the night who could possibly complain?

I took him up on the ride in because Diana had discovered that the best snorkeling was on the outside reef edge anyway, plus, the sharks we’d been seeing circling Allora were Lemon Sharks, which we hadn’t seen before. Diana cannot resist swimming with sharks. While I was away, doing what I do, a mother and calf humpback whale swam right by the boat. Diana was so torn about whether to grab a camera, get snorkeling gear and a wet suit, or what, that she wasn’t able to get in the water with them before they passed, but she had a wonderful close encounter anyway. 

We were so reluctant to leave the next morning, but the swell was up, and the forecast was for building southeast wind… time to sail for civilization. In case you’re there already and don’t quite realize, civilization equals ice cream, chocolate and internet. Not to be taken for granted. Especially since we were completely out of coffee, too. 

Rangiroa -The Tuamotu Folks Have Heard Of

Our first instinct, on our initial pass through the Tuamotus last year, was to avoid Rangiroa. It seemed too popular – with actual hotels for tourists, including those ‘elegant’ thatched roof bungalows out over the water that plague Bora Bora. But on our second pass this year, we ended up spending a month in this largest of the Tuamotus atolls. 

I’ll keep my part of the motivation for staying so long to one sentence: Rangiroa has the best bonefishing in the Tuamotus. Okay, moving on. Okay, well maybe not moving on. I broke both my nine and eight weight rods on these fish. I used up my entire stock of number 4 hooks. I fished everyday, and there were bonefish wherever we went, even at the touristy Blue Lagoon. We’re not talking armies of tourists, lets say a couple dozen for a whole day in three or four small boats. One group even waved me over and fed me lunch. The tour operator was an avid fisherman and pure Polynesian friendly. He told about a spot where he’d seen a giant bonefish, so big that at first he’d mistaken it for a shark. 

Unfortunately, I never got over there. The wind shifted and we had to pull up anchor – which is a short sentence for describing a pretty harrowing situation where our anchor windlass failed, and we had to untangle the anchor from some nasty bottom, manually, and then with a little luck and jimmying of the windlass control, we raised the Rocna, just as the waves and wind built in earnest. Fortunately, we figured out the wiring problem at the next anchorage and it was an easy repair. ~MS

Return to Paradise – French Polynesia

Fakarava North

Anyone watching us might have wondered what we were up to, bouncing back and forth between the anchorage off of Rotoava and a spot near the north pass of Fakarava. Part of the story is that you need winds with some north in them to be able to sit by the pass comfortably. There’s a nice public buoy by the channel marker and the snorkeling there is pretty awesome. Diana became quite familiar with its retinue of sharks and one particularly friendly triggerfish. I liked the spot because it’s a jumping off point for going to the far northwest corner of Fakarava. This is a nature preserve area, so no anchoring allowed. It’s about a five mile dinghy ride, but a pretty cool spot with some really nice fishing. Diana explored with me the first time, and I did the 10 mile round trip a few more times on my own. I brought a VHS radio in case I had any problems. Occasionally, a few boats brought tourists from visiting cruise ships to a place out that way they like to call the blue lagoon (every atolls got to have one). It’s a pretty spot and they bring lunch. I was lucky this time that they did, or not lucky depending on how you look at it. While I was off wandering across the endless flats in search of bonefish, one of these tour operators spotted Namo anchored by the shore of one of the motus. Apparently, he could not think of a single earthly reason that anyone would park a dinghy in that remote spot (not by the blue lagoon). So while I was out of sight, he “rescued” Namo and towed her away. It’s true that if one of the sailboats in Rotoava lost a dinghy this is where it would float to. Lucky for me there was still one other tour operator in the area, though it was a bit of hike to get to them. He was able to get one cell phone call out before he lost the signal, and after about an hour of chit chatting with the cruise ship passengers, Namo reappeared with the apologetic tour operator at the helm. ~MS

Toau

I think we’ve been to Toau four times now, maybe more. Diana’s posted about it before. The difference this time was that a new group of sailors was moving through, having done their crossing this year. It was interesting to see the island get new visitors, sailors who migrate through each year, visit the same spots, have barbecues on the beach, talk about their experiences crossing the big ocean, and think about the mysterious way the wind messes with the tides. There’ll be another group next year, too. We are so remote and still there is a steady presence. Toau is a popular spot, despite its tricky pass, for good reason.

Among the new crew were friends we made in Baja, Mike and Katie on Adagio. They have dive tanks and a compressor, so we got to do a little scuba diving. Mike is also a pretty fanatical fisherman and gets as excited about the subject as I do. He’d only been fly fishing once before, kind of on a lark in Yellowstone. But we grabbed a couple rods and went out a few times to see if he could hook one. Fortunately, he’s a good enough fisherman to understand that’s a pretty tall order for a first time, but he got a few shots, enough to get a fair idea of how addictive it can be. The fish were being tough in Toau this year, giving me a hard time, too.

We spent a little time on our own, too, doing what we do. Freediving to photograph fish, and yep, more fishing. Lots of water time.

We moved around to Anse Amyot, (the ‘false pass’ outside the atoll in the north),  for a little more diving with Adagio, which was excellent, including some caves in the reef absolutely jam packed with sea life. I fished a little more. We bought some wildly overpriced lobster from Valentine, the snaky operator of the business there and had a wonderful lobster dinner with Mike and Katie. Valentine tells the story that she came to Toau as a little girl from nearby Arutua in a small boat with a two horse outboard. She says she was brought by her father to keep her grandfather from stealing her. She has his name, is the explanation. She’s been there a long time. She’s very, very religious. But she doesn’t seem particularly happy with her lot. There’s a defunct phone booth on the motu and a very funky pension. They installed buoys for sailors ($5/night) from the time there was a village here. This is the first place we’ve been where we felt this proprietary vibe, but the option to tuck in safely on the outside was sure nice.  ~MS

Swept Away

Ian likes to plan and he has a knack for thinking through the details, even when the boat he’s planning for is not his own. He’s also devilishly persuasive. Long before we’d given any real focus to the question, he’d figured out that we needed to know where Maddi would fly in and out of when she came to visit in December. His suggestion turned out to be Fakarava, where by incredible coincidence, Makara (Ian and Erika) and Starlet (Jennifer and Mark) both intended to be for Christmas. We regretfully explained that while we didn’t really have a plan, per se, we would be much too far east by then, well on our way to the Gambiers. But every once in a while, he’d gently ask if these poor, confused American sailors had a plan yet. After luring us to join them in Moorea for an unplanned (by us) detour, we burned up enough time that, as predicted by Ian, Fakarava actually did make the most sense.
Lo and behold, we found ourselves Christmas eve, faced with an unusual northwest turn in the weather, sailing upwind and backwards (as in north and west), to get to Fakarava according to Ian’s plan, for a delicious Christmas dinner with Makara and Starlet. 
This was only the beginning. Jennifer and Mark had their own devilish ways of derailing our plans, mostly involving Mark’s boyish grin and sentences like,”Let’s sail to Kauehi, dive the pass!” Why not? More north. Then all voices raised the call, “On to Toau!” West.
Ian, meanwhile, had been doing some more scheming. He was willing to concede that we did indeed need to start logging some south and east miles but… rather than sail back to Fakarava in April after visiting the Gambier (as planned?) it would make much, much more sense for us to sail north and meet them in Hawaii to join them for a northwest cruise up to Alaska and down the coast of North America. Back to our beloved Baja and from there, almost a year later than planned, we could hit the Palmyra and the Line Islands on our way to Tonga.
We actually got out Jimmy Cornell’s World Crusing Routes to check it out. Ian’s plan was diabolically clever (it sill sounds a little tempting).
It was only an extra 12,000 miles.
It was difficult indeed to finally turn southeast (as planned?) and leave our friends to continue their northwest journeys. This is the very hardest part of sailing. These goodbye’s feel so sudden and irrevocable. We will almost certainly see Starlet more, which is great, as they are circumnavigating along the same route, more or less, that we will be. But after Alaska, Makara is headed back to the Caribbean and then home to England.
And that’s a long way around for Starlet and Allora.

~MS