"Arctracer" Letters

Bora-Bora, French Polynesia and Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Sept-Nov 1998

September 29th we weighed anchor in Faaroa Bay, Raiatea and sailed to another anchorage on the NW corner of the island. We had to anchor in 90' of water - much deeper than the 10 to 20 feet we were used to in the Caribbean, so we used a lot of anchor chain. Hitchhiking is the way to travel on Raitea since they have very little public transportation. Baguettes cost 40 cents each but a tall plastic bag to put them in costs 50 cents, so we learned to save and reuse the bags. October 1st we sailed around Tahaa, which shares the lagoon with Raiatea. After sailing most of the day and looking for a shallow anchorage, we finally anchored in a very quiet bay in 75' of water. We were hoping to find a place to go snorkeling, but had no luck.

On the 2nd of November we sailed to Bora-Bora, about 25 miles. Porpoises followed us out of the lagoon, playing in our bow wave. The wind was less than 10 knots. Friends on two other boats radioed to say how great we looked flying mainsail, topsail, light air jib, and gollywobbler (a sail they probably never saw before). We picked up a mooring at the Bora-Bora Yacht Club and ate at its restaurant, reputed to be the best on the island. It was our first time at a nice restaurant since Dorothy was with us in the Galapagos in April. The moorings are free as long as they get enough business from sailors. The French sauces were nice and we enjoyed our shrimp and steak. We also got water there to fill our tanks and do our laundry.

Jerry walked the next day to the Post Office, where they called Papeete to forward our mail. He also bought taro, bananas, and squash from street vendors, and four baguettes. Then we dropped the mooring and went through the lagoon to the other side of the island. This involved a tricky, narrow, shallow channel, but we had a sketch chart and no problems. For the first time in the Society Islands we found a wonderful anchorage in 10-12 feet of clear water, way in the SE corner of the lagoon. Jerry sailed the dinghy and trolled, and caught two snappers for dinner. Because of the tricky channel, not many cruising boats go to this anchorage. Also, most boats had already sailed west to Tonga and Fiji so very few cruising boats were left in the Society Islands, and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. We enjoyed about 10 days at this gorgeous anchorage, mixing work with play. With shallow water, we were able to pull most of our chain onto the deck and repaint the markings that were worn and difficult to read after a year of hard use. We snorkeled in calm waters and fast currents, seeing fish like those of the Caribbean but with different colors and patterns. We sailed our dinghy, and even played bridge one evening. Bora-Bora was called "the most beautiful island in the Pacific" by James Michener, and we enjoyed watching the play of light and clouds on its mountains. We rented bicycles for a leisurely 6-hour ride around the island, with a lunch stop at Bloody Mary's where we had Jimmy Buffet cheeseburgers for $ 9 each. Signboards outside list rich and famous people who have eaten and/or performed there. We picked up our mail at the Post Office too.

(view photos of Bora-Bora)

We left Bora-Bora somewhat reluctantly after four fine months in French Polynesia. On October 13th we checked out and got back our bond money. We had to pay this in Papeete (equivalent to their estimate for airline tickets home) because we stayed in the country more than a month. We were both a little seasick the first day at sea because of confused seas, lots of rolling, and several weeks of calm anchorages. Fortunately, this feeling lasted less than 24 hours. It was good to have our sea-legs again. After squalls the first day, we had our square sail up most of the 500 miles from Bora-Bora to Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. As we sailed by the northwest tip of the island Jerry caught a tuna, good for a couple days of great meals.

We arrived outside Aitutaki's only pass on October 17th, a couple of hours after high tide. The pass into the lagoon is only useful at high tide, and we arrived without knowing either the time of high tide or the depth of the channel, so we anchored outside the reef in 60 feet of water until the next day. The anchorage outside was rolly so we were pleased to get into the tiny harbor the following day. We discovered just how shallow the pass is when we went aground in mid-channel on a sandbar and had to use our anchor to kedge through. There was only 5 feet in the channel at high tide and Arctracer draws about 5 1/2 feet of water. It reminded us of the ICW going down the eastern coast of the U.S. Because of the shallow pass, not many boats come here. Pamda Bear was here when we arrived but left within a couple of days, so we have had the whole anchorage to ourselves for 2 weeks. Perhaps Pam & Steve, who have ham licenses, sent a short email message for us through the free ham nets?

We were anchored at 9:30 am, but it was too late to attend church in the morning, so we went to the 4 pm service at the oldest church in the Cook Islands, built in 1839. Although the entire service was in Maori (one of the Polynesian languages), we really enjoyed all the singing. They use no musical instruments or pitch pipes but everyone seems capable of singing loudly and on key. They even have songs where the men sing one part and the women sing completely different words and tunes at the same time, making marvelous harmonies. There are 5 villages that attend this church and each village has a particular set of pews that they sit in. Sometimes only one village sang at a time, while everyone else listened. The second Sunday that we were here we went to the morning service. Several tourists were at that service and some of the service was in English for the visitors. (We had been the only outsiders at the church the previous week.) John and Paaa had told us that they would be singing more after church so we asked if we could stay and listen. They didn't mind at all, so we stayed. Absolutely fantastic singing with wonderful facial expressions and the people really put all their feelings into what they are singing. We recognized some of the hymns, but they were always sung in the Maori language.

On Monday the health inspector and the agricultural inspector came aboard after Jerry went ashore in our dinghy to get them. They were very friendly and stayed for about 2 hours drinking tea and coffee. The health inspector wanted to see our health cards and the agricultural inspector wanted to know what fresh fruits and vegetables we had. Our potatoes and onions were no problem, but our squash/pumpkins they have to burn to prevent any insects/diseases from getting into those that they grow here. If we'd had any tomatoes, cabbages or other vegetables that are grown here we would have had to give them up too. Their restrictions sound a little better than New Zealand's, but NZ soil allows for more diversity. They can grow almost anything since their latitudes are about the same as North Carolina to north of Montreal. We gave the agricultural inspector "real" coffee to try as they can only purchase Nescafe (same as in South America). We gave the health inspector several National Geographics. He wanted to give them to the hospital and the school.

We met lots of friendly people here in Aitutaki. Everyone speaks English to tourists, but they speak Maori to one another. Two families invited us to their houses, visited the boat, and gave us lots of food. A couple of days after we arrived we rented bicycles for $ 5 (NZ) a day. This was an amazing fee to us, after being in expensive French Polynesia. At present $1 US is $1.65 NZ, so $1 NZ is 60 cents US. Paying $3 each for a bicycle for 24 hours is much better than $10 for 4 hours, the price we paid in Bora-Bora. Aitutaki has several roads crossing over the middle of the island, unlike the more mountainous Society Islands. We rode all the way around the island (32 km) and explored some of the crossing roads too. We visited a fish hatchery where they are raising clams and trochus (topshells) to restock the lagoon, which is depleted because the locals find them tasty. We visited the one marae, and rode through a religious village called New Jerusalem, far from the other villages.

Another day we sailed our dinghy to the island of Maina which is 3 1/2 miles from where we are anchored. We snorkeled around the wreck of the "Alexander" which used to bring supplies to the island but now lies broken on the reef. We had a picnic on "Honeymoon Island," saw red-tailed tropicbirds for the first time, collected shells from the beaches, walked around the two islands and swam. On our way back to Arctracer we learned that Paaa and John were looking for us. We learned this when we passed a small aluminum boat anchored near a reef. Several people were looking for clams. They were holding masks up to their faces since the masks had no straps. We learned later that two of these people were Paaa and John's daughters with English names Violet and Helen. (Everyone has both a Maori name and an English name. Some people give us their Maori names, while others give us their English names.) When we got back to the boat we walked to their house. We met Paaa a few days earlier when we noticed white powder spread over sheets of corrugated iron under a thatched roof. She stopped to explain how they make arrowroot powder, and then took us to her house to give us a bag of mangos and a breadfruit. They gave their 6 pigs all the ripe mangos that fell onto the ground, and picked some from the trees for us. Pineapples are in season too, and are very sweet and delicious. On this day Paaa and John presented us with two pineapples, arrowroot roots and arrowroot powder (tapioca) which they had grown and processed. Later in the week John stopped by the boat with a huge stalk of green bananas. We have now had fried breadfruit chips and arrowroot pudding with coconut milk for the first time. It has been a pleasure to have fresh mango juice every morning instead of our Tang that we revert to when fresh fruits aren't available at decent prices.

We discovered that Paaa and John had waited at the harbor for us for two hours to give us a traditional Maori drum called a tokere. It is made of red mahogany, is VERY heavy, and has drum sticks made of ironwood roots. If they chose to sell it to someone, John said it would be worth about $50, so we felt VERY privileged that they gave it to us as a present. Since they gave us such a nice present, we wanted to give them something that would be useful to them. We found out that someone borrowed John's spear gun for fishing and lost it. In the Bahamas we bought two spears and a sling, thinking we would try to use them sometime, but we never did. Since we probably will never use them we gave them to John. He has now made a spear gun using the sling that we gave him. We also found some heavy fishing line and some hooks to give John. Paaa said that she liked to sew, so I found some material for her. I gave the girls some notebooks to use at school. The school doesn't provide paper or pencils for the students. Since they have given us so much fruit and so many vegetables we think they are ahead in the "giving of gifts" area, but I'm not sure what else to do for them.

A heavily advertised motu is Tapuaetai or "One Foot Island." It is several miles from "Arctracer" so we hadn't planned to go there. Kim, his brother George, sister Takoe, and nieces Teina and Joahhah took us there for the day. The day Kim chose happened to be a holiday, when they celebrate the October 26, 1821 arrival of the first missionary. We were hoping to see some of the bible stories acted out and to hear the singing, but went to the motu instead. We'll just have to return another year to experience everything. To get to Kim's boat on the other side of the island, Kim and George brought two motorbikes to "Arctracer." We haven't been on motorbikes very much so we weren't the easiest passengers, but we managed to hang on and not have heart attacks. We paid for the gas for Kim's outboard, and had a wet ride through the chop. While we walked around the island and relaxed, Kim and George put nets out. They caught several fish and gave us some for dinner. Jerry and I played baseball with the 7and 8 year old girls. We used a palm frond and a coconut. Of course Jerry played a lot with them and they really enjoyed his company. The girls also helped us collect a few shells and Kim found a gorgeous 4" cowrie shell for us. It is the best one we have and we've been looking for them for 4 years. When they looked for Octopus we followed, and watched them spend 15 minutes getting one with 2' tentacles out of its hole. George gutted it on the spot, under water, which was amazing to watch. We didn't have any bread for a picnic, but I made cornbread and an almond cake. I took a jar of peanut butter and some homemade apple jelly too. While Kim's family REALLY enjoyed and devoured our food, we enjoyed their mangos, fresh pineapple, and arrowroot that had been cooked over a wood fire at their home. I guess we all like a change in diet occasionally. We walked back to their houses from the wharf. They gave us breadfruit and a hand of bananas, along with two snappers and a trevelle (jack). It was very interesting to us to see how they lived. It reminded us of the Kuna Indians in the San Blas Islands, but here they slept in beds instead of hammocks.

We have been to three "Island Nights" at different restaurants where they have a buffet of local foods followed by a show of traditional Maori dancing. The first one saw us up until 2am talking with locals and tourists, and we didn't do much the next day. On Fridays lots of people go out to drink and party until things close at 2am or later. After the traditional dancing they play tapes and lots of people dance into the wee hours. Our systems aren't used to such late nights, so we've only stayed late once. At our second Island Night the proprietor gave me a flower headpiece made of white tiare flowers, pink hibiscus flowers and green ferns, but we only stayed until 11:30.

Kim, George, and Tukoe dance the traditional dances, very similar to Tahitian style, with the Aitutaki Catholic Youth Dancing Group. We watched them practice a couple of times, and gave Kim a couple of pearl shells from the Gambiers to polish and add to their costumes. Friday night they performed in costume at a restaurant very close to "Arctracer." The women all wore flower "eis" (like Hawaii's "leis") around their necks, plus flowered headpieces. There was a group of younger kids too, including Kim's neices, all dancing in full costumes, and a collection of drummers, ukelele players and singers. At the end of the show they selected people from the audience to dance with them, and we were both picked by cute little girls. Our dancing would not win any prizes, but I got an ei and Jerry felt very special with five eis and a headpiece. They made the boat smell wonderful! On November 11th about 40 of them (not the little ones) are going to Australia for two weeks and then to New Zealand for two weeks, dancing to raise money for their church. We want to see if we can see them in New Zealand too. They will be staying in church halls and cooking their own meals to minimize expenses. One problem they will have is a shortage of flowers, so their costumes will have to be augmented with more shells or something and won't be quite the same. With an abundance of flowers all year, people here often wear one behind their ear or even take 10 minutes to make a full crown to wear all day at work.

Most people here, from what we've seen, don't have jobs. There are a few tourist businesses, but little else. John and Paaa were telling us that they only need about $10 New Zealand a week. They have to pay for their electricity and very little else. There don't seem to be any taxes, and most families have small plantations where they raise all the food they need. Very rarely do they buy tinned goods, bread, etc. They eat off their land. John has a dugout canoe that he made from a mango tree. It has an outrigger for stability and he paddles out to fish several days a week in the lagoon and sometimes beyond the reef. He sells fish to pay for electricity.

Like many other islands, supply boats come just once a month. The bakery in town is out of flour to make bread because their last order for flour got fouled up and didn't arrive. Luckily one of the other bakeries is still supplying bread to the general store, so we've been buying their small loaves that are about 1/3 the size of our bread in the U.S. We already miss the baguettes of French Polynesia.

I met Taeia in one of the shops near the wharf. She is an excellent weaver of pandanus leaves so I had her make some hot mats and some small baskets to hold hot soup dishes. She was a great source of local information. She got a second drumstick made for us and also gave us a bag full of mangoes.

I hadn't been to any schools on the islands we've been visiting, so I went to meet the principal at the school here. Later I talked to two classes about traveling on a boat. The students seemed very interested and later one swam out to our boat. This particular student sails Optimist dinghies every Friday with the sailing club. Since they don't have enough dinghies for everyone, we let them sail ours. For the 2 1/2 hours that they sailed I sat near the lagoon and talked with two local Mormon women. It was very interesting to listen to them. I met a couple of teachers at the school and really enjoyed talking with them too. One of them offered to send email for us, so this letter may be sent via email if his kind offer still stands and we have time to rent bikes to ride to his home. It may take a while to get to you as even email has to go to Rarotonga first, then NZ, before getting into the faster parts of the internet. I don't exactly remember how their system works. The computer teacher at school wanted to talk to Jerry, so he went to the school to visit him one day for a couple of hours. He told Jerry that if he had any friends that wanted to donate equipment etc. to the school to let him know. I'm not sure if that was the whole reason for his request for a visit or not.

One unusual feature of Aitutaki is that there are no dogs. It is the only island we've seen without dogs. A local woman, Taa, was telling me that the island council of her ancestors decided to eliminate all dogs after a baby was killed. Apparently they sent all the people to one of the motus across the lagoon and a few people remained behind with guns. When the dogs had all been disposed of they brought the people back to their homes. Another tourist, Ann from New Zealand, heard that there was an outbreak of leprosy in the 1920's and the people thought it might be caused by the dogs, so they got rid of them all.

When I called Jennifer from here the operator said I had 3 minutes on a $20 New Zealand ($12 US) phone card. I don't think we'll be talking too much with everyone from this part of the world. Hopefully when we get to New Zealand we'll find a way to communicate regularly via email. We plan to leave here Tuesday, November 3 to sail the 2000 miles to New Zealand.

(view photos of Aitutaki)

Following is a poem that Jerry wrote which might help you understand what we are up to.

Night Watch

The bowsprit leads down a moon-silvered path
As we sail to a coconut isle.
The trade wind is soft, starlight twinkles down,
The ancient sea gods seem to smile.

The sails are all pulling, the wind vane controls,
Not much for a helmsman to do
But enjoy the ride through an enchanted night
Whose beauties are seen by so few.

The full moon is yellow, the compass glows red,
All else is a study in grays.
I'm wearing my foulies to ward off the chill -
So odd after tropical days.

The bow cuts the waves with a gurgle and splash
While the wake streams behind with a hiss.
No storm in our forecast, no squall looming near,
I look but see no other ships.

My love in the cabin is snug in her quilt,
Breathing deeply, immersed in a dream.
She baked chocolate cookies for me on her watch,
So I nibble as tea water steams.

A flying fish flaps near a scupper on deck
And I flip it back into the sea.
Tomorrow we'll troll for a tuna again,
Or maybe catch mahi-mahi.

The night wind brings memories of family and friends
Left behind on the land far away,
Other cruisers we've met, special places we've seen,
And the good times we've had on the way.

I wonder what waits on the atoll ahead.
Will the entrance be easy or hard?
Will the locals be friendly, just leave us alone,
Or force us to put up our guard?

What other boat anchors will hold near our own?
Will old pals be there when we land?
Will we make new friends, ashore or afloat,
And stay there much longer than planned?

It's sure to be different, but somewhat the same,
As places we've been to before.
We'll see all the sights, and talk to the folks
Who make their homes there on the shore.

We'll taste their good bread, and share some good rum,
And walk in the shade of the trees,
But finally, raising our anchor and sails
And waving good-bye, we will leave.

The moon will set soon in the beckoning west
While a planet shines over the deep.
When the pale light of dawn makes the stars disappear
My night watch will end, and I'll sleep.

We live on the ocean - just visit the land -
And there's no place that we'd rather be
Than here in our boat on a wonderful night
Sailing peacefully over the sea.