"Arctracer" Letters

Mangareva to Hao, French Polynesia, July 1998

We just arrived yesterday at our first atoll in the South Pacific. It's called Hao and is 475 miles NW of the Gambier Islands with a population of about 1000. It has one pass and measures 60 km in length. It has seen great demographic growth since the 1960's as an administration and transit center for the French nuclear-testing organization. It has a large runway to handle the military transport planes carrying highly sensitive material destined for the island of Moruroa (500-km south) where they did the actual testing. When the atmospheric tests were conducted, there were up to 5000 people here. With the switch to underground testing most of the military staff was moved to Moruroa and Fangataufa.

The island is so small that you are unlikely to find it on a map or globe, but it is at 18deg 06' south latitude and 140deg 55' west longitude in the Tuamotus. The Tuamotus were named the "Dangerous Archipelago" years ago when the oceans hadn't been charted. With charts and GPS (global positioning system) they aren't dangerous. Sometimes the current coming out of the pass into the lagoons of these atolls is so strong that a boat has to wait for slack tide to enter. We didn't have to wait coming into Hao. Today Jerry is sleeping all day. He feels terrible and cannot open his left eye. His head and forehead have welts and blisters all over them. On our way here he washed his hair with seawater and then rinsed the salt out with fresh water. Since the marks look just like those he got in the Galapagos while snorkeling (but on his back and arms), we think he must have gotten some jellyfish tentacles in the sea water he used to wash his hair. In the Galapagos we heard that vinegar deactivates any stingers which have not "fired" and neutralizes the venom. Today I did more reading and learned that calamine lotion and antihistamines reduce the reaction and help relieve some of the pain, so he has started using those. I knew he was in a lot of pain over a day ago when he started taking aspirin every few hours. He never takes any medication unless the pain in intolerable. Thank goodness we're at anchor and it is peaceful. We haven't even thought about going to land yet. We will go either when he feels better or when he feels it's necessary to go to the medical center. Very few of these atolls have medical centers, so we're lucky to be here.

There was an infirmary on Mangareva. We learned there that we should take two pills to prevent elephantiasis. We will try not to get any mosquito bites, but we did take the pills. They are good for 6 months and we'll be out of French Polynesia by the time they become no longer effective.

Before leaving Mangareva (in the Gambier Islands) we found some calcareous operculums that look just like the ones my Dad brought back from the Pacific after WWII and called "cat's eyes." Operculums close the opening of a shell when the live animal is inside. Jerry found some very pretty ones. We'll have to take a day to make jewelry. The day before we left I was given a black pearl by one family. It is actually dark green. I was so flabbergasted that tears came to my eyes. Now we need to make it into a necklace too (or maybe a ring). I've been collecting jewelry instead of T-shirts. Jewelry takes up a lot less room on Arctracer and I have more T-shirts than I need. In the Galapagos I got a tagua bracelet carved in the shape of a turtle. Tagua is called vegetable ivory since it looks like ivory and is actually from a nut found in South America.

While in Mangareva we mended more sails and got rid of the palmetto bugs (large cockroaches) that flew aboard in the Galapagos. I made grapefruit marmalade, started making cheese again, and made granola since Jerry is out of Cornflakes. Although we were given grapefruit I wanted more. When I asked at a store about getting some the woman said she would bring me some from her house the following day. She thought we were really silly when we asked how much they cost. She said that the trees produce more than they can eat and fruit just falls on the ground and rots. To the Mangarevans they are completely valueless.

It must have been too cold in the Gambiers to grow mung beans. I tried them a couple of times and they spoiled. I'm trying some here to see if it is warm enough since it feels warmer. My wheat berries sprouted well and I've been putting them in all the wheat bread I make.

We actually went to church in Mangareva. The church was built in the mid 1800's and has mother-of- pearl decorations. Although we couldn't understand the Mangarevan language and only a little of the French, we really enjoyed the instruments, the singing (all in Mangarevan), and the people watching. It appears that we are going to be dealing with satellite delays with our phone calls for a while. It was quite annoying in the Galapagos and in the Gambiers, but I imagine we'll get used to it as we've gotten used to accepting so many other things. While the Galapagos had four phones and Mangareva only had two, we never had to wait long for a phone in the Gambiers. Sometimes we had to wait for one for over an hour in the Galapagos. The population was a lot less in the Gambiers. We were able to buy phone cards at the post office, as in the French islands in the Caribbean. The only difficulty we had was trying to call Tom's on Father's day after church. We found that we only had his number as ending in FISH. There were no letters on the phone digits. We tried 2373 for FISH but it didn't work.

Finally, while in the Gambiers we watched groups dancing to prepare for Heiva Tahiti, the French Polynesian festival associated with Bastille Day on July 14th. The drums were biscuit tins, blue plastic barrels; solid logs (3-4' long) and logs with slits in them. We also helped one family start building a shelter on town grounds for the fete. They planned to have a cooking area, an eating area, and a dancing area. We left Rikitea and went to another island in the Gambier Islands for one day before heading here to Hao. It was called Ile Taravai and the anchorage was more protected from the wind so we thought perhaps it would be warm enough to snorkel. We dodged lots of reefs getting to the anchorage and it was still cold, but we did go beachcombing again and ate the meat from some topshells found on rocks near shore at low tide.

We had a good five-day sail to Hao except the next to last day when we only went 12 miles between 6:30 am and 6:30 PM. A trough was going through and the wind was from the direction we wanted to go. It was quite frustrating (especially with Jerry starting to not feel well) and caused an extra day to get here. I still wore sweatpants, my mended heavy wool sweater, and wool socks during night watches, but the days were sunny and warm. (I slept under two quilts last night - sure hope it gets warmer soon during the night.)

On the way to Hao Jerry studied the sky some more to learn the navigational stars, we saw the large and small Magellanic clouds for the first time (They are "two irregular galactic clusters in the southern heavens that are the nearest independent star system to the milky Way."), and I found four constellations that I hadn't identified before. I was hoping to identify more, but we had only one really clear night.

Jerry caught a 26 inch tuna after spotting some birds working an area and sailing through them. It sure was good to have fish again. I pickled what we couldn't eat in 12 hours so we still have tuna to eat. I pickled tuna once before and it worked very well. We finished eating it after 7 days and the recipe said it would last 3-7 days. The boat was heeled quite a bit most of the way here. A plastic container of "miel" flew out of a cupboard when the cupboard was opened, and created quite a mess. The first time we bought miel was in the Dominican Republic last spring. It was wonderful honey (1 gallon for $8). In Balboa, Panama at the fruit/vegetable market we saw miel and bought 5 one-liter bottles with plastic saran wrap for covers. Anyway, this miel was made from sugar cane and it was molasses. We've never had so much molasses in our lives. We've had a lot of gingerbread and now most of it has been spilled. C'est la vie! (As they say here in French Polynesia.)

(view photos of Gambier Islands & Hao)