Friday, April 30, 2021

Iles Gambier to Tuamotu - Hao and onto Tahanea

We left Rikitea about 11am on 13th April after I had popped ashore to pick up a bag of baguettes and a keishi bracelet I had reserved a couple of weeks ago with the lovely Taina. Andrew wasn’t happy about the delay but I wasn’t leaving without it! You can’t come to the Gambiers without getting pearls!

Last sunset over Iles Gambier

Sailing North West

The forecast was for light winds but unusually it ended up being even lighter than we anticipated meaning we ended up motor sailing an annoying amount of the 500 miles to Hao. We did however have very calm seas too and a lovely day of sailing on the third day but just as I came on watch for our third and final night the wind dropped out again. It felt like we spent most of the passage worrying about the time of the pass at Hao – a pass that can be problematic if you get it wrong…. The problem was every data source we had conflicted with one of the tide charts being completely opposite to another. In the end we opted to go with the old rule of thumb from the British admiralty that suggested slack was 4.5 hours and 2 hours before moonrise and 5 and 3 hours before moonset – we were a little early and had a mild 2.5 knots coming out so the pass was super easy. We were relieved to have that passage out of the way as the longer you leave it to leave the Gambiers the more likely you are to experience bad conditions – it really is quite a long way south.

Approaching the pass at Hao

Hao Pass - easy close to slack water

We hadn’t decided on Hao as a destination until the last minute but the draw of 4g internet was too much, even though it reportedly wasn’t as pretty as nearby Amanu – our other choice. We spotted friends on AIS as soon as we arrived and got a little anchoring advice before dropping the hook just off the small town of Otepa about 4pm – our first impressions were that it looked a little rustic – we liked that as it felt real, not all picture perfect but where people lived and worked. There were only two other boats at anchor. We relaxed with a cold beer of course.

Sailing in the lagoon is fun - the ship channel is super wide

Our anchorage in Hao

First thing the next morning we went ashore – Saturday morning but people were busy heading to the supermarkets and a group of friendly ladies were ‘covid’ cleaning the church. We had our own mission- to check-in with the Gendarmes – a squall hit though and torrential rain had us sheltering under a porch until one of the nice ladies bundled us in her car and dropped us off. She was super chatty on the short journey and we learned of Portuguese descent but had never met her grandmother who still lives in Portugal. At the Gendarmes office they were also really friendly and very pleased we had come in. Next stop groceries – after the lack of fresh veggies in the Gambiers we were bowled over by the supermarkets in Hao – yay treats galore. Infrastructure on this atoll is much more significant than you would expect but the reason is that it was the base from which the French carried out nuclear tests on the neighbouring atolls of Mururoa and Fangatauta – until as recently as 1996. The airstrip is actually 2km long – such that the latest project here is for the Chinese to set up a fish farm in the lagoon and fly fresh fish to China….

On the weekend there's free wifi from the Marie

The church where we met our driver friend

One of the best supermarkets in Tuamotu

The small port - shallow but great for leaving the dinghy

The next evening Slingshot organised a curry night – this turned out to be the best pot luck ever….. Everyone brought really delicious curry’s and accompaniments – what a total treat! Thank you to Slingshot, Due South, Perigee and Burisari for a really great evening. The kid boats Slingshot and Due South had made quite an impression with the local girls and it was fabulous to watch them all playing together on the quay and sailing their dinghy around the lagoon.

Great evening for dinner ashore

Cruiser Curry pot luck in Hao

So much yummy food

Great to be poled out again - heading to Tahanea

We only spent three nights in Hao – although I could have spent longer, with no tourists it has a very different feel to much of French Polynesia. However, we were keen to take advantage of the favourable winds for some diving at the atoll of Tahanea so upped anchor at 9am for to exit the pass at slack water at 10.00 on 19th April. We had two options – sail really fast for one night or sail really slow for two… we opted to go slow as the wind was light when we left, but typically we ended up with much more wind than was forecast and struggled to keep our speed down. We ended sailing poled out in lovely conditions but up putting in some wide angles to make the distance further and arrived at Tahanea Pass at 06.30.

We did see the supply ship anchored off the atoll of Hikueru – we heard that on some the atolls that have no pass that the kids swim to the boats anchored off the beach to get to school – can you imagine that happening in your town or village? 

Our anchorage in Tahanea

Tahanea - picture perfect

Tahanea has long been on my list of atolls we must visit – there are three passes on the north east side of the atoll – the north pass tempted us with reports of great diving. We anchored behind a motu in the middle of the two most northerly passes with three other boats; including one other Oyster; Kaizen and their friends on Fenice. We were quite popular when we sheltered the Kaizen crew from a huge squall and fed them coffee and the kids TimTams. We spent the day snorkelling and then had drinks on Kaizen that afternoon- they were leaving next morning for Fakarava. We ended up having Tahanea all to ourselves – wow!

Next day and our first dive was amazing but didn’t quite go to plan when our compass got stuck and the current changed a bit earlier than we thought. We were busy admiring sharks and water so clear you could see for over 40m, while tied to the dinghy above. Then we realised the dinghy was bouncing more than when we got in. The current had changed and was now going out into the ocean and we had also swam along the reef rather than drifting in….. gosh we were lucky – we did a quick ascent; no safety stop but luckily, we weren’t that deep and quickly got back inside the pass. Very happy with our new outboard on this occasion as we rode through very rough water. Back at Askari we dropped back in with our gear on, calmed our nerves and did our safety stop.

Squalls with west wind - not good!

It is not always perfect out in these atolls – we had a couple of squalls in Tahanea which brought winds up to 30 knots from the west, which put us on a lee shore. We were pretty happy to be in deeper water but did sit on anchor watch as each passed marvelling at the lightening in the distance. One was of course at 0300 the other in the afternoon which gave us a nice rainbow. 

Brightening the day??

The next day we snorkelled the other two passes while waiting for the north pass to have another – more controlled dive. This time we got it nearly perfect but dropped in just a little short of the drop off- its hard to judge exactly where to enter the water in the current. However, the water was so clear we took it in turns to swim out to the drop off while the other held the dinghy stationary behind a rock. We both came back totally exhilarated. The final day was the goldilocks dive – we got everything just right and wow it was just one of the best dives ever. We even got treated with a manta ray on the way back into the lagoon and then a bait ball. We felt we had done the best dive we could do at this point so the next morning – 26th April - we lifted the anchor early and exited through the same north pass we had dived in, Motu Puapua to give it one last look. It was a little turbulent with 1.5knots of current going out to meet the ocean swells but no problem.

Watch some of our diving footage here


See you Tahanea - its been a lot of fun!

A little bit of white water leaving Tahanea

Just 270 miles to Tahiti where packages, covid jabs and admin awaited us and it was time for some city life.

Our route in and out


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Gambier Islands - 23 March to 13 April 2021

View of Mangareva from Mount Mokoto

We had been hanging out in Hapatoni, Tahuata since mid February, enjoying the wonderful friends we had made in the village, some epic diving and getting to know a few of the French boats that had also decided this was one of the very best spots in the Marquesas. We enjoyed a brief side trip tp Hiva Oa to see the world biggest tikis and pick up some fuel. We would regularly pop around to jimmy’s for a bit of internet and steak frites but mostly we went diving, went to Tehina’s house and to Imelda and Tafeta’s. Andrew learned Petanque and we took a liking to the local dried fish. The Fat Susan’s joined us for a bit and we had a great dive with them; Floss and I even went to church one Sunday morning. It was easy to stay but a brief sail down to Fatu Hiva on 12th March to meet up with the Fatties reminded us how much we love sailing too….. 

So we got back to Tahuata on 14th March, did a couple more incredible dives at shark point then called on our friends in the village to provision. Tafeta was out of town so Imedla walked us around her family properties stocking us up with no end of goodies, from Mangoes and Breadfruit to their fabulous tomatoes, salad and of course dried fish. She even shared avocado’s with us that they usually ship to extended family in Tahiti. We made one last trip to the main village for eggs, beer and potatoes and we set sail south on 18th March. 
Shopping in Hapatoni with Imelda and Arun

A good start

We were keen to make it the Gambier Islands over 800 miles south and east of us - officially inside the cyclone belt for our insurance until end of April, but given the La Nina forecast and how south and east this group is a Cyclone would be very unlikely, so we opted to take the risk. We were not sure how easy it would be to get the easting, however with a forecast of north East winds for the first few days we felt confident in Askari. As it happened we easily made the easting and then were able to sail off the wind to the Gambiers arriving after 5 nights at sea. 

Sailing on the wind in the Pacific Ocean

Land ho!

We were sailing so hard on the wind we sucked air into the generator intake and that resulted in Andrew having to change an impeller at sea whilst still gaining his sea legs with a bit of bouncing in the bilges. We had a bit of a mixed bag of perfect sailing to one frustrating days with huge squalls that then sucked out all the wind to gently motor sailing into the island group west pass at midday on 22nd March. The island group looks like nothing else we have seen in French Polynesia. Small pointy islands sit on a beautiful lagoon, mostly reef fringed. Seeing the bottom under the boat and the reef as we motored into the pass was incredible after so many months in the Marquesas; where the water is not clear like this. We were super excited to be somewhere new and so remote. We then spotted about 15 boats all anchored at the island of Taravai - our hearts sank - in days of old only a handful of boats came to the Gambiers in a year. The notes we had included some of the most adventurous cruisers we met on our first trip across the Pacific. It turned out that nearly all the boats in the group were in one bay as there had been an event and when we got to the main town anchorage at Rikitea it was virtually empty, however there were about 25 boats in total in the archipelago - as a result of covid, the fact boats can stay longer in French Polynesia (when previously it was just 3 months) and finally improved navigation tools. 

Approaching Gambiers
Askari at Rikitea

The anchorage when we arrived

The cathedral in Rikitea

Cathedral at Rikitea complete with Pearl shell altar

Out exploring Rikitea - one of the many old stone buildings in the village

We anchored near friends Brian and Sue on Sea Rose and got a warm welcome from them. We promptly went ashore to check in with the Marie (Mayor’s Office) and the Gendarme (police) - he was however busy painting his fence so we agreed to come back the next day. The anchorage and village of Rikitea on the island of Magareva, is stunning, sitting between the ridge of the island and the inner reef with views out to the island. On shore there’s a fantastic network of hiking trails, so after clearing with the Gendarme and a quick walk around town, we set off with Brian and Sue on our first hike. Sue’s shoe broke, but Andrew found some friendly builders who provided tape and raided a bin for a rag that held together for several kilometres. We hiked via the Meteo France weather station that sends up a weather balloon at 2pm everyday - the grounds of their complex must have one of the best views of any Meteo France Office…. 

We made it to the 12 Apostles trial which wound through pine forests and along the shoreline. After a picnic lunch we left Sue and Brian as the shoe wasn’t up to the next bit - hiking Mount Mokoto. This was the slightly lower than the highest peak of Mount Duff (not the Polynesian name). Getting up there was a challenge as it was really steep and often had sheer drops, however it was a great hike, however the drop on the top to complete the loop was quite something and beyond my comfort zone. 

The Meteo France Station

Signed trails - how fab!
View out to Akamaru

Approaching the top of Mokoto 1,394 ft

This hike trial even had an underpass - with Sue and Brian

Sue tackles the ropes on the ridge trail

On Mokoto - Mount Duff behind

We celebrated Marin's birthday onboard Amaryllis

That first weekend two supply ships were due in - our only chance to get fuel so we stayed in town and enjoyed some more walks on the ridge and to the otherside of the island and of course Mount Duff. The weather was stunning and calm. The cooler evenings this far south were such a treat too. We had a forecast of a bit of bad weather so all the boats headed into town but there was plenty of space, even if not totally great. It meant we got to catch up with new and old friends. 

Baguette on top of Mount Duff - 1,447 ft

View from Mount Duff
Christine on Sugarshack agreed to take me out to meet some of her artisan friends. We started at Taina’s pearl show room where we spent hours before meeting Sandra from Pico and heading to the carving school. After a chat with Heifara, the carving tutor, we got invited back that afternoon - it was the last day for Easter holidays and he only had a few students finishing a wedding ensemble so had time to show us. We all jumped at the chance and after lunch on a rainy day we learned to carve pearl shells - practising straight lines, marking out a shape, cutting it, refining it cleaning it, carving it and polishing it. With A LOT of help we all created stunning items. We were quite proud of ourselves! 

The wedding pieces finished - crown and tie

Now our turn to make something

Sandra polishing her flower

Working on the outline

tidy up the edges

Proud artists
The finished articles

Getting fuel turned out to be quite a lot of fun….. there is no formal schedule for the ship so you wait for rumours that it's coming then start monitoring for it's appearance. Then it rounded the headland a day before we expected it - argh quickly finish lunch and grab the fuel cans. By the time we got ashore there was already a queue; of sorts. Containers flew over our heads manually controlled and without guide ropes as we waited for two hours for the payment booth to open. Finally after the aircon in the 'office container' was working enough the officer came and I got the chance to go in with two other shoppers. I realised why payment was taking so long when the girl ahead started unwrapping small rolls of cash from all her extended family to buy water and cooking gas - when she worked it all out she gave me and the other guy a high five. I was a bit quicker to pay for a 200l drum of diesel only. Then next we take the receipt to the ship's engineer - he then fills a drum from the ships fuel tank - we then siphon that into our cans (and some we bothered from another boat) and then take that to Askari and siphon it into our tanks - super easy!! It actually was quite fun and a real island experience. We couldn't believe that people wouldn't drink the water here and were buying it in containers. The ship was also out of cooing gas and flour - some people were dissapointed. The internet is so bad on the island that most people can't even pre-order basic things. Other cruisers were excited as they had boat parts on the ship and some even had food deliveries from personal shoppers in Tahiti.

Here comes our fuel

Pumping about to start

The office for payment

We found the Gambiers nice and the people friendly; proud of their own language but a little lacking in culture - after the Marquesas where culture is very strong perhaps this was more evident to us. That is probably not a surprise as these islands were probably one of the worst impacted by the impact of missionaries. A jesuit priest arrived here in 1834, converted the king and then forced people to erect the stone churches, convents, etc resulting in the death of over 5,000 people - destroying an entire culture. We also heard that many people left here when the French nuclear testing started - family land was held onto and more recently people have returned to be involved with pearl farming and as a result many are very well off - very fancy cars, fast boats and even jet ski's are the go here. We tried to get a couple of packages flown from Tahiti but the freight was always full - we even heard the covid vaccine had to be hand carried as the freight was full - giving the impression money is plentiful here. Many people we saw flying in and out, decked out in long strands of huge pearls and fine dresses. Meanwhile vegetables are hard to come by despite the islands being very fertile with stunning gardens full of flowers - why farm veg when you can farm pearls I guess....
It wasn't always paradise
We walked to the West of Mangareva - many pearl farms

We celebrated Easter with hot cross buns, a social drinks night with other cruisers and then I cooked roast lamb for Sue and Brian with a couple of bottles of wine for a real treat - yummy. 
My first ever hot cross buns

After two weeks in Rikitea we decided it was time to go and explore. We headed out to Taravai for some great snorkelling and to meet the famous couple who host a sunday BBQ for sailors - Valerie and Herve. They were super kind and we left with a great stash of veggies. We then went to the north east to check out the false pass. Sue and Brian joined us and we went right out into the ocean with our dinghies with waves breaking either side - it was pretty cool but we actually preferred the snorkelling at Taravai. We spent a few days up there before heading back to Taravai for the Sunday BBQ - we shared a feast with other cruisers, played p├ętanque and volley ball long into the afternoon. 

At anchor Taravai - the only boat
Taravai is so pretty 

Valerie and Herve - legends of the Gambiers

Going over the reef in Taravai is a little heart stopping - so clear!

Paddle board action near the false pass

We could have spent much longer in the Gambier but the season is underway and we have a few logistical things to sort so we opted to jump on a light wind weather window to sail to Tuamotu - leaving on 13th April to head north west.

A little busier in the anchorage on our last ridge walk

Cheesy grins in this little gem of an archipelago