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. 

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!

“To see the world as it awoke in its own defenseless candor.” ~WS

Gambier Archipelago, FP, Cyclone Season

 

We underestimate gravity

living mostly in a flat world

or buoyed by the sea

or by the power of internal combustion engines,

jet turbines

until the boat heels just fifteen degrees beating to windward in moderate seas

and making coffee becomes a heroic adventure

I’m still trying to understand, to viscerally know 

how gravity is mass bending space time

I do get that gravity is like time, in this crazy wingding world

falling toward the future

resisting it is an illusion

even our thoughts are not free of gravity

normal looks strange, titled just a little off angle.
~MS