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

 

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!