Of all the places Allora has taken us, North Minerva Reef, is a stand out. The reef literally emerges only 90cm at low tide, and when walking on what feels like the Pacific’s very precipice, we had the surreal sensation that we’d been transported to another world. I urge you to read this article from New Zealand Geographic, which lays out the inherent hazards and contentious history of this fascinating ‘land:’
We, like many others, made a stop at Minerva North, to break up the often difficult passage between Tonga and New Zealand. Most boats poise themselves to try to stop, but the weather conditions have to be right to enter the pass and take the time in ‘pause’ mode as opposed to continuing onward, so we felt lucky to manage 3 days in the fold of the protected lagoon. We weren’t alone, though! The 30 boats at anchor around us were dubbed, ‘The Minerva Yacht Club!’
In a calm but northeasterly breeze we decided to anchor on the west side of the island of Rurutu. The southwest swell wasn’t big and it was a pretty spot. The next morning the sea began to build with an eerie feeling as we lifted on long rollers at anchor and watched them break bigger and bigger onshore until it was pretty clear the dinghy pass there was no longer navigable.
Still, it was a pretty day and we set sail to the south to see the rest of the island before heading for the small harbor on the NE side. Not far along we caught a small Yellowfin tuna, what Diana calls ‘the perfect size.’ Then as we approached the harbor we spotted whales and drifted for a while watching what seemed like two juvenile humpbacks playing, left behind as though reluctant to leave the tropical waters and join the rest who were already headed south to Antarctica. A last hurrah, for us too. It was calm and lovely and there was only one boat in the very small harbor (friends from the Gambier last season) when we ventured in and anchored, tying a long line to the wharf to keep from swinging. We were the 4th boat to check-in to Rurutu that year (in November!)~MS
The Australs lie a few hundred miles south of Tahiti, some just barely within the tropic of Capricorn, more remote islands like Rapa lie distinctly out of the tropics at 27 degrees south. We’re talking water temps below 70 degrees. Brrrrr. The weather is often challenging here and so these islands get few visitors. Intrepid tourists fly to Rurutu (where Wyatt met us) for the whales which winter around the island to raise their calves, but there aren’t enough visitors to support even one taxi. Still, whenever we needed to hitchhike, the first car would always stop to pick us up.
Rurutu is a hybrid island, half lifted makatea (limestone from petrified coral) and half volcanic, caves with stalactites like the atoll Makatea in the Tuamotus, but also real peaks and steep rock faces. No lagoon.
One day as we prepped for Wyatt’s arrival, a man swam by Allora and stopped to chat with us. The next day he appeared again, this time at the wharf with a pickup and three huge bunches of bananas, two giant squash and bucket of limes. These were gifts. Welcome to the true heart of Polynesian culture. We told him we could not possibly take three bunches of bananas, but he insisted. Obviously, he knew more about bananas that we ever will. They were timed perfectly to ripen one bunch at a time. Bananas for a month! A couple of days later two women showed up waving half of a tuna. We got one half and Charlotte and Pierre (the other sailboat here) got the other half. A gift again. We gave them what we could quickly scrap together, some cartons of juices, an uneven bargain indeed.
Picture Rurutu, an island with a few moderate peaks, Wyatt with his trail running shoes running circles, mountain to mountain, with occasional breaks to explore limestone caves with his relatively more sedentary mom and dad.
Rurutu grows coffee and strawberries. Yum!
We threw out a second anchor when the wind started blowing from the east northeast, and it got a little bouncy and rainy for a day or two, but nothing worrisome. Could have skipped the extra hook. A real northeast blow would not be good, but even twenty knots was fine in the small harbor.
We sailed passed Tubuai, reluctant to miss out on it’s vegetable gardens, and burned a little diesel to make it to Raivavae before dark. Like Bora Bora without the tourists, jets skis and cruise ships. Dodgy weather keeps it that way, but it was fine for our short visit. Lychee nuts were in season and we were given bags full.
There are bonefish in Raivavae. Wyatt and I spent the first afternoon fishing what looked like a classic flat. We caught Brassy Trevally, but saw not a single bonefish. The next day I decided to follow Diana’s advice and ask a local, and this woman very confidently pointed us to the unlikely looking shallows along the motu away from the “classic” flat. Wyatt spotted the first one a hundred feet down the beach and hooked the first one a hundred feet later. There were lots of fish, but they were very picky. It took a while to get the presentation right.
There’s a point of sand that separates the classic flat and the long beach where the bones actually are. It’s a steep drop off and the trevally cruise the edge. We were having fun chasing those, Wyatt with popper, when a Giant Trevally (GT) swam up on the flat, in about two feet of water. I finally got a cast to it and it swirled on the fly, but didn’t hook up. It looked at the fly one more time, unconvinced, and then swam back toward the edge, right toward Wyatt. I yelled to him that it was coming and he cast the popper out into the deep and waited until the fish was close. I’m not going to be able to adequately describe the excitement of watching that huge fish (guess 80 pounds) charge after his fly, straight at him. It finally engulfed the popper with a furious and massive gulp just fifteen feet in front of Wyatt. Holy shit! At first it didn’t quite seem to know what’s up. I played Dad yelling, “Let it go, let it go!” afraid it would break him off immediately, and Wyatt’s yelled back, “He’s not running.” And then he did (may I say holy shit again) and never stopped. Finally Wyatt had no choice but to start adding drag and inevitably the fish broke off. It would have been a miracle to land a fish like that on an 8 wt fly rod. But who cares? That was unforgettable. If you want to get a real idea of what it looked like watch BBC’s Blue Planet II Part I, “One Ocean” about 14 minutes in. Let David Attenborough explain it to you. Giant Trevally gather at a particular South Pacific atoll to feed on fledgling birds, literally jumping out of the water and grabbing them mid air or swallowing them whole when they make the mistake of resting on the water. The whole series is awesome.
We hiked the peak, watching Wyatt traipse ahead in the distance, spec of a red shirt bobbing on the steep green slopes of the peaks. The view from the peak was beautiful, but all I could think about was a chance lost to get one of those GT, this time with a 12 wt rod that might stand a chance. We had to leave the next morning.
The sail from Raivave to Rapa wasn’t too bad, but like all the sailing in these latitudes, the winds were fickle compared to the steady trades we’ve been accustomed to in the Tuamotus. Very light from the east when we arrived. We took a rare opportunity to anchor in one of the northern bays. In stronger winds no doubt the waves wrap and make the anchorage uncomfortable at best.
Wild horses, cattle and stone foundations, the remains of earlier settlements. We explored the valley and the next day climbed the ridge, aiming for a nearby peak, but halfway up we spotted a group of outriggers paddling toward Allora. We weren’t sure who they were, but they finally spotted us up on the hill and paddled over, we climbed down to meet Alain and , the one Rapa policeman, plus paddling friends. They’d figured out we were here (having not checked in), so they came to greet us. They returned in the morning, we thought to check us in, but really to have coffee and muffins. They looked at our papers but then asked us to come see them in town to really check in. It was an elaborate process considering we were still in French Polynesia, but super nice guys. It probably didn’t help shorten the formalities that Diana kept making the yummy muffins and cookies, no doubt it could be done in one stop instead of three.
We heard somewhere that there was a compressor on the island for filling scuba tanks, owned by the community. To get our tanks filled we had to go see the mayor of Rapa, who is also the main guy at the post office (used for banking and many other purposes here). Once we got the nod, they would not take money, and sent three young guys to collect them, and then return them to the dinghy on the dock.
Everything in Rapa went like that. We were given as much tuna as we could carry. “No money. No money,” and bags of peaches and nectarines and a local berry kind of like a blackberry. We tried to gift back, Diana baked peach muffins and banana bread, and we gave them little things from the boat and fishing line, but really you can’t win a gift giving contest with a Polynesian. They have the home turf advantage. It was all light hearted and a real pleasure.
To manage their fisheries, the island has a general ban that is in place most of the time for the east side of the island called the Rahui. From time to time they lift the ban and the boon of fish is piled up on the docks and shared among the whole community. Everybody gets fish.
There is no airport in Rapa, and it’s quite isolated, so things have to work differently. Not much room for disparate income levels, and the pretense of independence that underscores our western culture. No doubt there are tensions that go with that. Everybody knowing everybody’s business. It’s a small island. Centuries ago, before the arrival of Europeans, things got really, really tense on Rapa, which is just five miles across. There are the remains of fifteen forts on the island, occupying all the peaks and high ground to be found.
Wyatt and I cleaned Allora’s hull in preparation for our passage to the Gambier. Deep water under cloudy skies. We were circled by curious Galapagos sharks for the whole hour or so underwater.
Before leaving we visited church, for the hats (amazing) and the singing (magical). We were told everyone went, but in fact, only about seventy out of the four hundred some odd souls of Rapa showed up. Alain, who told us everyone went, wasn’t there either. Children attended, minded by an imposing man with a very big stick. The program was dismally long, and heavy on patriarchal themes, but it concluded with a feast and more music, the insistence that we bring lots of leftovers away with us.
We prepared to weigh anchor in the rain, but our chain was trapped between two towering bommies in the deep anchorage. Diana had to put on scuba gear and dive sixty feet in the gloom among the sharks to free it.
On our way out, we spotted Raymond, our tuna and peach benefactor who was running shuttles across the deep channel to take people back from church. Wyatt scooted over in the dinghy with a Montana hat to give him. He laughed because we got him, he had nothing on him to give back! ~MS
THROUGH WYATT’S LENS:
Follow Wyatt and his buddy, Tully, as they embark on their northern Russia expedition: https://www.summerinchukotka.com
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
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
“This time is hard to find heaped under a mountain of machines and motivations all founded on hours and minutes.” ~Wyatt Stevens
The decision for Shannon, Josh and Wilder (3, almost 4) to visit came down fast, and within a week and a half we were picking them up at the little motu off the eastern side of the Gambier Archipelago. They dove in, they played, they pushed themselves. We laughed, we learned, we loved. It was a 3 week plan, which, in hindsight, should have been simply spent in the lagoon, but Josh was keen to take an ocean passage, so we gave it a shot. Shannon was facing some real demons by even considering the feat. There’s a superstition in the sailing world about not undertaking a passage departure on a Friday. Well … not only was it a Friday, but guess what the date was?! Yep, the 13th!! Needless to say – we ended up shifting gears; they flew instead and we met them with Allora in Fakarava, 5 days later. Plan B worked out great! The memories from this adventure have been distilled into flashes of Wilder being wonderfully true to her name, snippets of her remarkable imagination with words (notably ‘Shit Bullet’) and scores of her laughter as she’d commune with the fishes. We were struck by a force from which we will never recover. Oh, and yeah, her parents are sensational, too!