The Pacific Diaries

Willie the Wave

24 June 2005

What a trip to Tahiti!! The conditions somehow came together to leave La Novia completely steady in the water as she sailed. We had always known about the huge accommodation in our friends’ catamarans, but what were they like at sea?

We finally knew the answer. That evening we were gliding at 8 - 9 knots on a rock steady fine reach. Seas were only about 18 inches, no swell to speak of, sailing almost upright. Gosh we said, so this must be what it’s like to have a Catamarangue (as Thomas calls them)!!! Yes please, who do we send a cheque to?

Well, to celebrate our initiation, Catherine decided to treat us to a full blown roast dinner - unheard of on passage. A new dish would enter the lexicon….Roast Lamb a La Pacific. Stick all the trimmings in the pan with part of one of New Zealands more obedient subjects and One Dish Cuisine would scale new heights. It certainly smelt that way when Catherine took it out to turn everything over.

So who exactly is Willie the Wave? Willie was a little wave who got separated from his mummy and daddy, Mr & Mrs Large Wave down in the Southern Ocean, while they were out on trip to see the Penguins. Somehow or other he wandered all the way up here looking for his mum. He felt very conspicuous up here, being about 8 feet tall amongst all these little ripples. Then he saw La Novia and felt better straight away. He knew just what to do with a sailing boat. He popped us right on the beam and heeled us violently over.

‘Just like Mum & Dad used to do to that nice Ellen McArthur back at home’ he thought happily as he rolled on.

Down below, it was a war zone. Catherine was wearing the vegetables, the lamb was gamboling around the galley floor in the gravy and the pan had dug a crater in the floorboard that you could twist your ankle in.

Then George had a Kamikaze Moment and came down to say “something helpful” to Mummy.

As George’s life hung by a thread, I didn’t hesitate and leapt heroically into the danger zone, scooping him up and carrying him off to safety with a hand over his mouth.

So, our insight to catamaran sailing was more of a tantalising illusion than a revelation after all. It was Roast Lamb a la Galley Floor not a la Pacific. Very good it was too, a certain Je ne sais quoi about it. Just as well not to know really.

That tantalising savory undertone that I couldn’t quite place was probably Thomas’ feet!

The Societies are Beautiful - Pity about the Swan Owners

26 June 2005

Nothing can take away the perfection of the Society Islands. Their towering central mountains touch the spirit and more prosaically, ensure rainfall, while their surrounding reefs provide still anchorages and a safe waterborne transit around the islands. They are like the best of the Tuamotus and the Marquesas rolled into one.

The scars of Papeete’s light industrial waterfront and Bora Bora’s plethora of resort developments for honeymooners from Chicago are without doubt blots on this landscape, but neither can disguise the raw beauty of their surroundings. It is like seeing an amazingly beautiful woman treading a catwalk clad in some monstrous outfit in the name of high fashion. She would look much better if she took it off, or, less interestingly, just swapped it for jeans and a t-shirt, but she is still beautiful.

After a night at anchor on the reef, introduced by an awesome sunset around Moorea’s skyline, we decide on a rest and take an inside berth in the Marina Taina on the East side of the island. Getting in is a bit of a wing and a prayer number as the Inner Harbour is really intended for much smaller boats. As we make our entry the breeze puffs up to 15 - 20 knots and we catch our keel on a submerged mooring line in a very confined space at the sharp turn into the inside basin. A med-moored Swan 60 has laid out a second bow anchor with the warp across the entry channel to the inner harbour.

This is a pretty emotional stunt, as the wind, our boat speed and our snagged keel conspire to propel us beam on towards the bow of the large Swan on the other end of this mooring line, which is graced with a big sharp plough anchor. As with any boat handling disaster, an audience has materialised, Tardis-like, out of nowhere to lend the skipper moral support and conflicting advice.

Mercifully, there are no loose lines in the water and through a righteous combination of inspired boat handling and the power of prayer we manage to extricate ourselves from this bear trap without fouling the prop, ripping off the retractable bowthruster on the mooring line under the boat or crashing into anything! The expert committee dockside shake their heads at each other and finally manage to agree on something - namely that I’d got myself properly in the cart and was well lucky to have escaped that lightly. Well, they got certainly that part right!

We sit outside for ten minutes to let pulse rates re-enter from orbit and generally recover our nerve. The skipper of the Swan, who has a Doctorate in anti social behaviour, isn’t interested in removing his obstruction from the channel temporarily for a few minutes to let us pass. Why is it that the people from the racing world can’t seem to assimilate cruisers’ all for one and one for all ethos when they go cruising?

If we have learnt anything in the last couple of years, it’s that it’s ALWAYS A PRIVILEGE to help ANYONE who needs it. What goes around comes around and God knows, other cruisers have helped us out often enough. The real friends that we have made on this journey are all those with totally uncompromising attitudes towards mutual support.

We manage the trick at the second attempt, lifting the keel to clear the obstruction and then dropping it again to get the grip to make the turn. For once, the bowthruster, quite out of character, operates flawlessly when it is really needed. We may be here for some time. Now that we’re in, there is no discernible enthusiasm aboard for repeating the experience going astern!

There’s One Born Every Minute

30 June 2005

Traditional Polynesian culture is being marketed pretty aggressively to tourists here and even I can’t help feeling a twinge of guilt at my instinctive urge to try and sneak through the place without taking a look.

I have a pretty low pain threshold when it comes to watching native dancing, but the Traditional Firewalking Ceremony seems like a compromise that will allow Catherine to assuage her craving to see lots of blokes dressed in palm frond skirts hopping from one foot to the other shouting ‘Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!’ while at least giving me the pleasure of seeing them burn their feet by way of compensation for having had to endure it. I once saw an old boy walking slowly across red hot coals in Kathmandu and know that George and Thomas will just love it.

I really am old enough to know better. This isn’t Kathmandu and we’ve been Royally Had.

The first twinge of doubt sets in as we arrive to find that they have sold at least 300 tickets. That level of marketing implies a very untraditional level of organisation in Polynesia. We stoically endure an endless series of ceremonies involving silly hats & mumbo jumbo in Tahitian. It’s like seeing a dozen Catholic priests on acid, but not as funny.

The only ray of hope comes when they start waving burning torches about, but disappointingly, nobody’s skirt catches alight and pretty soon the punters are getting restless again. At last the moment of high drama arrives and the screens surrounding the Path of Fire are moved aside. A sudden hush descends and George’s voice carries clearly across the crowd.

“Daddy, where’s the fire?”.

The fire is safely buried beneath a path of large stones. After the dance troupe have padded along it a couple of times followed by their children and mother in laws, the audience is harangued into a queue (except for 6 Italians off a cruise ship whose urge to jump a queue is so ingrained that they barge their way to the front for the privilege of being first to be humiliated) and everyone except us stumbles sheepishly along the Path of Fire, radiating that peculiar aura of people who know that they’ve been conned, but have no idea of what to do about it.

This isn’t Firewalking. It’s underfloor central heating and for the price of 4 tickets I could virtually have installed it in my mum’s bathroom.

Hollywood Sights

2 July 2005

Our passage to Moorea was astonishingly rough for just 12 knots of breeze – seas you would expect with half a gale in the Solent, but with terrible flat faces and no coherent direction. Our stowage may have been just a tiny bit on the cursory side - this wasn’t really a passage after all, just a short island hop in the lee of Tahiti.

As a result, most of our worldly possessions have relocated to the floor in just a few miles. Half way across we dragged out the pilot book to see what was going on.

” The channel between Tahiti & Moorea is often very choppy without any pattern & with cross currents of swells from the East & South. These turbulent seas can continue even when the wind has dropped…”

probably should have read that in advance.

That red light flashing on the navigation screen reads “Complacency Alert!”

We anchored for the night in Cook’s Bay, a deep refuge with perfect shelter and a fantastic skyline. Cook must have had a better anchor than us! Despite five attempts to set the pick we could find no holding and spent the night on watch, monitoring our progress as we dragged along the side of the bay in soft mud. One night of that was enough. At first light we moved to a calm but breezy reef anchorage with a reassuring hard sand bottom at the head of the Baie Opunohu.

Catherine and I had a puzzling, almost overwhelming sense of having been here before. Then we realised that we had indeed been here countless times before. This was Hollywood’s chosen archetype of the South Sea anchorage. From Cook arriving at Tahiti and the Bounty’s later welcome there, this bay was the setting for almost every subsequent Hollywood rendition of the South Sea Idyll. We could hardly blame them. After all, the LPG storage tanks at Papeete would have looked a little out of place as a backdrop for the Bounty and a more idyllic setting than Cook’s Bay would be hard to imagine.

Swimming with Stingrays

7 July 2005

The circumstances of Steve Irwin’s death require some kind of commentary alongside this entry from the logbook.  Stingrays have had their share of bad publicity since the tragedy and they certainly are a danger to anyone wading in tropical shallows without paying attention. They have a habit of resting stationary on a sandy bottom, concealing themselves by disturbing the sand and allowing it to settle on their back.  They can be very hard to see and if you step on them, they will sting you on the leg, which is agonisingly painful but not fatal.  Better still, if you shuffle you feet a little as you wade so that they can see you coming, they will move out of your way with complete lack of aggression.

Steve Irwin was stung by a ray that was swimming past him and was unlucky enough to be struck in the heart.  I have never understood why the fish should have stung him unless it was provoked.

We have swum with Stingrays on numerous occasions without incident and would do so again without hesitation.  Moorea’s lagoon was home to a large population of rays that we got to know well….

A couple of miles west of us inside the lagoon we find a sandy shoal frequented by a huge school of large stingrays, some more than a metre wide, that have been fed by the locals for years and have become quite used to people in the water with them. They are serene and gentle creatures, if a little over excitable at dinner time.

We stand in 3 or 4 feet of water holding finger sized chunks of fish and are mobbed by them, sometimes surrounded by a corset of 4 rays, where the one behind you who is furthest from the food launches himself up your back and flaps his wings on your shoulders to try to catch your attention. The communication is perfectly clear.. As his wings flutter on your back, you can almost hear Thomas’ excited refrain squeaking “Pick Me, Pick Me!! ”

Most extraordinary, though was the way in which the rays organised their social group to monopolise the food source and keep the reef sharks away.  We attracted a group of nearly 20 stingrays, but only 3 or 4 have a realistic chance of being fed by the person at their centre.  Rather than the free for all you would expect, they operate a rota system where 3 or 4 of them come close to let you feed them and the rest form a protective cordon to keep the sharks away from the food, swimming around you in a circle.  The reef sharks are clearly intimidated and make no attempt to enter the circle patrolled by the rays.

After being fed, the rays at the centre rejoin the perimeter patrol and 3 new individuals move in to be fed.  Despite their excitement at being fed, the rays around you keep their barbs flat on their tails at all times.

George’s diary records: ” 20th July 2005. Today we fed wild sting rays in the shallows of Moorea. When we stroked the sting rays they felt silky soft and to feed them we had to lift up their nose and drop the bait in their mouth.”

George and Thomas are just entranced by the experience.

The Dead Hand of Tourism

21 July 2005

Onward to the ‘Iles Sous le Vent’. First stop Huahine, still sleepy and unspoiled, a faint echo of how Tahiti must have been 30 years ago. Eva from 3T gave a mob of children art classes on the beach, the boys spent hours wakeboarding in the still of the southern anchorage, and Thomas was totally gripped by the surfers riding a spectacular point break at the edge of the pass.

Needless to say he was itching to have a go, but the sight of the coral rash that some of these lads were sporting was enough to persuade him that it might not be the perfect beginner’s break and settles for some popping lessons on the beach from Kelvin of Blown Away Too, who looks pretty well qualified on the basis of having only suffered 10% of the coral rash of everyone else who attempted to surf the pass.

There is some hope that this island could survive unspoilt. Locals have recently refused to renew land leases to 2 of the 5 hotels, which are now abandoned and there is no sense of the rampant development pressure that you sense all around you on Tahiti and Bora Bora.

Raiatea and Taha, the next islands in the chain, share a large lagoon. Tourism is taken seriously here and people keep trying to charge us to use a beach, although everything up to the very top of the tide is public land. As elsewhere in the world, traditional values have collapsed hard on the heels of the arrival of mass tourism. Poisoned as it is by it’s tourist industry, Raiatea lacks the charm of it’s neighbours, but we shan’t forget it - we had had our tender stolen there!

We spent a day exploring a river by dinghy and then kayak. A lush rainforest with a few ramshackle houses along the banks.

Bananas and Bird of Paradise flowers growing side by side on the riverbanks, birdsong and butterflies around us, cloudscapes and leafy canopies above us. George took the kayak back solo on the return trip. And then it began to rain. Not the fresh drizzle of an English thunderstorm. This was the real thing. It rained all night and most of the next day, barely letting us outside at all.

An hour after dark as the rain eased off, the radio dug us out in short order . Our friends Ocean Breezes, some 50 metres away, had heard boarders on deck and had chased them over the side before broadcasting a warning on the VHF. We checked outside and found our tender gone, a folorn 3′ of painter left hanging in its place.

I rang the Police to report that my tender had been stolen in the last few minutes:

“any chance of someone coming out to catch the bad guys red handed?”


“Only joking officer, silly suggestion really. How about I come in to the Police Station in the morning and fill in some forms? No bother at all. Only a 5 mile walk as someone else has got my dinghy.”

That’s more like it. Now I’m on the same page as the Police. Took no time at all to get the hang of law enforcement here. Just like England really.

Once I’d established that apprehending the ungodly is a DIY activity here, Chris came over from Ocean Breezes with his dinghy and we set off in the moonless night with a powerful spotlight to look for it. The river mouth was only 400 metres away and seemed to be the likely refuge for someone swimming out to steal a boat. Sure enough, as we searched the estuary banks a pale shape gleamed in the searchlight beam beside a rocky outcrop. We motored in to find our tender intact and ourselves under fire from a shower of coconuts from the tree line!

The tender’s new owners, doubtless well accustomed to the pace and effectiveness of policing on the island, were so taken aback by immediate pursuit that they had just abandoned it at the water’s edge, and retired to the safety of the trees to express themselves with a heap of coconuts conveniently to hand when we arrived to repossess it.

Raiatea and its people are quite the least attractive we have encountered since arriving in the Pacific and we cannot wait to move on to Bora Bora.

Bora Bora the Beautiful

27 July 2005

And so to Bora Bora, said to be the most beautiful island in the world. Its skyline alone would justify the claim, with a spectacular peak dominating the hills of the motus of its fringing reef. We took a reef anchorage for the night quite unprepared for what was to come. After dinner, Catherine called me out to watch the new moon set, no more than a thread of silver light sinking towards the skyline. As it disappeared we realised that the wind had left us totally and here inside the absolute shelter of Bora Bora’s lagoon, La Novia lay to her chain in a calm so completely still that she was anchored no longer in the sea but instead in the night sky itself. To starboard sparkled the Southern Cross, to port shone Venus. Across the anchorage, the Milky Way stretched a cloudy trail of light through the myriad sparkling stars in which La Novia lay.

After calling out the boys we found ourselves silent again in contemplation of a natural wonder outside of our previous experience. We will probably never again enjoy the combination of complete shelter, total calm, clear sky and lack of light pollution while at anchor, that has shown us the universe in such crystal brilliance. It cannot be photographed or recorded.

For once, we will just have to remember it. On reflection, (sorry, I just couldn’t help myself ) that is rather a refreshing thought in itself.

In the morning we moved around to the Southeast corner of the lagoon, perhaps the most beautiful anchorage in the Pacific.

The pass through the lagoon’s inner reefs on the way around there is terrifyingly narrow, shallow and tortuous and has intimidated everyone who has seen it. Once through though, it shields you from the crowd and keeps you well away from the resort guests on the other side of the island.

This is it.  The front page of the “Sell Up & Sail Away” fantasy brochure.

Perfect beach, calm, crystal water, the world’s most inspiring skyline behind you. Even La Novia’s electronics seem to know it and with nothing to fix we spend a couple of weeks in as close to perfect idleness as we could imagine possible. This is truly the life of the Lotus Eater, where nature’s beauty is so complete that no human artistic endeavour is needed to refresh the soul. Of course, the Lotus Eaters had no insurance policy, let alone one written in Dutch which says that we must clear the cyclone zone by the end of November.

Slaves that we are to the seasons, the weather window arrives and we take it, pressing back out into the open ocean towards Palmerston Atoll, a completely isolated island in the vastness of the Pacific, almost 700 miles to the West of Bora Bora, without an airstrip and with just 2 supply ships a year. 700 miles is not that far in the context of Pacific sailing, but when we arrive, it could be a different planet…..