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!

 

 



 

Australs with Wyatt

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

 

Visitors in the Gambier and Fakarava

“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!