"Arctracer" Letters

Tuamotus and Tahiti, French Polynesia, Aug 1998

We left Mangareva in the Gambier Islands after a very enjoyable 17-day stay. We sailed to Hao Atoll where there are about 800 French Military personnel and 500 local Polynesians. We had no problem going in and out of the pass there, even though we had no tide charts to decide when to enter or leave. We didn't go ashore for 6 days, as Jerry was too sick to even help me get the dinghy off "Arctracer." We have discovered that he is VERY allergic to jellyfish. He washed his hair in seawater and then developed welts all over his head and forehead and his eye swelled completely closed. He had a high fever for two days. When Jerry felt better he went to the military hospital there to see if they had any antihistamines for future use as we had depleted our supply. The French doctors didn't understand our request for antihistamines but gave us non-prescription painkillers. We had already taken pills to prevent elephantiasis in Mangareva, so we didn't need those for the next 6 months.

Hao 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 on Hao. With the switch to underground testing most of the military staff was moved to Moruroa and Fangataufa. Hao has just opened up to cruisers. We were the only boat in the harbor for about 2 weeks. While in Hao a local Polynesian, who works at the town offices invited us to their fete. We saw some dancing and heard some singing. Titua gave me a headpiece made of some kind of palm leaves. I wore it all evening and within 3 days it was all brown and dried. I was going to save it, but it can't be taken into New Zealand so out it went. Titua told us that they don't care for the military presence there at all. Most of the locals that Jerry talked to (in French) didn't have much good to say about the French in general. Some of them mentioned that they would like to learn English rather than French because it is more useful in today's world. We know, however, that the French heavily subsidize the economies of the islands, Hao more than most, and the islanders would be much poorer if the French went away and the independence movement in French Polynesia succeeded (unlikely).

On July 14th (Bastille Day, but we had had enough fete) we left Hao and sailed 200 miles to Makemo Atoll. On July 16th we were outside the pass at Makemo. We started to go in, but the current coming out was so strong (about 8 knots) that it was impossible. Our small 12-hp engine will only do 4-5 knots in still water. We hove to for the night and got about 15 miles north of the atoll. The wind picked up and the seas were larger than normal so we figured we wouldn't be able to enter the lagoon that day either, so we stayed at sea, hove to. A cruiser anchored inside Makemo later told us the wind gusted to 35 knots that day and he was worried about his anchor holding, but we were fairly comfortable. On Saturday, July 18th we sailed to the pass again, but the outgoing current was still too strong. While we were at sea waiting to get in the pass, I noticed water in the bilge. Upon inspection Jerry found a corroded copper pipe that went from the galley sink to the head sink and out of the boat. I was pumping dishwater from the galley sink into the bilge because of the corrosion. At 9 p.m. at night, at sea, we were lifting all the floor boards and installing a new plastic hose that Jerry had bought specifically to replace this pipe that he had never cared for. Also on our trip to Makemo our roller-furling jib ripped so badly that we doubt it is worth repairing. We'll get a new one made when we get to New Zealand. It was over 3 years old and sunlight had rotted the material. It was partly repaired before we left New Bedford, Mass. for Bermuda and Barbados this past fall. Jerry replaced it with a smaller hank- on jib that we used once before when the original roller-furling jib ripped. Finally, on Sunday the 19th we got in the pass easily and were anchored by 9:30 am. What a relief to be able to get a full nights sleep without having to do night watches! We anchored amongst a lot of dead coral, as we had done at Hao. At Hao it took us 3 hours to get our anchor up, so we weren't looking forward to that again.

On Monday the 20th we decided to go to the small town that we'd anchored near. We found a couple of stores and a bakery, but we couldn't buy much because no one would take our U.S. dollars and we had few CFP's (Cour de Franc Pacifique) left. A local gave us two loaves of bread after we'd talked to him awhile, then we decided to go 10 miles to the southeastern part of the lagoon where we'd read there was a nice anchorage and an abandoned house with a cistern. It seemed like a nice place to be on my birthday and we were hoping to catch some reef fish for the occasion (especially since we couldn't buy anything). The abandoned house we had read about is now occupied by a family with two small children, who apparently collect the coconuts on the nearby motus for copra. Although we couldn't get water from the cistern, we collected plenty of rainwater.

While sailing the dinghy, Jerry trolled and caught 2 small grouper and we collected wood from the beach to use on our grill. We ran out of charcoal in Mangareva. My birthday dinner was excellent! We caught several more of the same kind of grouper while in the anchorage for over 2 weeks. We hadn't intended to stay that long, but it was windy. The weather report we listened to a couple of times a day would say the winds were 25-30 knots on some days and 30-40 knots on other days with 18-22 foot seas. Since we didn't have to be anywhere, we decided to relax and wait for the normal trade winds and seas to return. It was great to be forced to stay. We got lots of varnishing done, some boat projects attended to, and read many books. What a treat to read a book a day! We had a chance to read some of Cook's Journals, read about Bligh, read some anthropological books about Polynesian migrations, and read about other sailors' adventures crossing the Pacific.

We saw the green flash a couple of times while there, were invited to a local house to get coconuts, and played lots of backgammon and cribbage. We had the whole anchorage to ourselves after the first night. When we arrived there were two other boats there, but they left the following morning. While at this anchorage we ran out of onions, eggs, and flour. We did have onion flakes and powdered eggs, but I sure was anxious to get more flour. I couldn't believe that I'd used 50 pounds of flour since leaving Panama.

On August 6th the wind and seas died down so we could see the coral heads on our 10-mile trek back to Makemo's narrow pass and be able to get out the pass. We had a nice sail to Fakarava Atoll, about 150 miles from Makemo. The pass into the lagoon at Fakarava was huge by comparison to the others we'd encountered and all coral heads were marked on the way to the village which was 5 miles from the pass. I loved Fakarava! We found a small general store where we bought a cabbage, 1 carrot, 1 tomato, and one cucumber for about $12. For lunch we had a huge salad and it was wonderful! We also got a dozen eggs ($4.50 - cheaper that the $6 in Mangareva) and flour. When Jerry asked if they would take U.S. dollars and they said yes, it was as though they had given us a special present. Then we discovered that the storeowners spoke some English. Since they are going to Los Angeles and on to Las Vegas in less than a month they wanted to buy as many US dollars as possible, so we sold them all that we had in our pockets.

(view photos of Makemo & Fakarava)

We left Fakarava on the 9th of August. We had a nice quiet sail the first day, averaging 4 knots with all of our light sails up, then on the 10th a trough came into the area, the wind picked up and we had a boisterous sail the second day. As we approached Tahiti we were averaging 8.5 to 9 knots for a couple of hours. I was getting quite wet as the tops were blowing off the waves and my hands hurt a lot from steering. Our steering vane wire had broken again and steering was difficult in that wind and those seas. I was glad when Jerry woke up and took over. We are presently anchored in front of a lovely church with two lines tied to bollards on shore. More than 100 outrigger canoes are on racks on the beach, and they are used often by many Tahitians of both sexes. This is clearly a very important sport here, and we enjoy watching them practice. We received one package of mail within a week and received our computer after two weeks. We are still waiting for two packages to arrive. We haven't minded the wait as there is always the never-ending list of boat projects and we have taken three days to do sightseeing. We took "le truck" (open- windowed trucks with hard wood benches down each side and in the middle that hold 36-40 people) about 50 km to the Gauguin Museum. Although the museum only had 25 original works of art of Gauguin's (ceramics, sculptures, water colors, lithographs and engravings), we learned a lot about his life and saw copies of a lot of the works he did that are now in museums and private collections throughout the world.

We have eaten at "les roulottes" which are vans serving food from about 6-9:30 p.m. in parks and/or parking areas. They are very popular as a person can take wine and then buy huge plates of good food priced between $7 and $12 - cheap for French Polynesia. Regular restaurants are much more expensive - similar to Manhattan prices. These vans literally turn into mobile diners. Flaps are lowered on each side becoming counters, stools are set up, and food is prepared inside on gas stoves or outside on charcoal grills. So far the new dishes we've eaten include sashimi (raw fish that we dipped in an excellent sauce), poisson cru (chunks of raw fish marinated in lime juice with coconut milk, spices and vegetables added later), brochettes de coeurs (shish kabob of beef heart), brochettes de poisson (fish), and chevrettes (local fresh water shrimp) in a nice curry sauce. We've really liked the curry sauces we've had here! We took a 15-km le truck ride to the "Museum of Tahiti and Its Isles." We saw everything there in about three hours. We especially enjoyed seeing tikis from several of the islands/atolls in French Polynesia; one fairly good petroglyph; the recently acquired ($128,000) stool that Omai took to Britain with him on Captain Cook's 2nd voyage (Omai returned to French Polynesia with Cook on his 3rd voyage but left his stool in England); fish hooks made of mother of pearl that may be 1000 years old; elaborate pre-European headdresses made of tiny shells, tiny feathers, turtle shell and other things from nature; a pump drill for drilling holes in shells; a wooden fire-making tool; and various kinds of outriggers used before the arrival of the Europeans. While at the museum we watched surfers getting short rides at the nearby beach.

On another day Jerry and I, along with another Jerry, Jack, and John (all from California and on their own boats) rented a 4-wheel drive vehicle to traverse the one 35 km path that cuts across Tahiti Nui (the larger of the two parts of Tahiti). This is where some "Bounty" mutineers once took refuge. Although the terrain was quite rough at times we had a fantastic experience! We saw so many waterfalls that they were too numerous to count. At one point we saw 8 at one time. The scenery of the jagged mountains covered with green was unlike anything we'd ever seen! We also saw some ancient maraes (traditional Polynesian temples) and petroglyphs. We swam under waterfalls, crossed rivers, and went on short hikes. Jerry from California was catching butterflies and insects with his net. Since he is a biologist (former professor at Berkeley), he knew about a lot of the plants, trees, and birds. It was neat to have our own biologist along! We never did make it all the way across the island as the road was washed out about 5-10 km from the end, so we returned on the same very rough road.

Tentative plans are to visit four more of the Society Islands - Moorea, Huahine, Raiatea, and Bora Bora; then stop at one or two of the Cook Islands, go to Pago Pago in American Samoa and perhaps go to Western Samoa and on to Tonga. If we have time, which we doubt, we'll go to Fiji. The most important issue at this point is to be in New Zealand before cyclone season. We can leave from Tonga or Fiji for the 1100-mile crossing to New Zealand. Our guidebooks say we should leave Tonga or Fiji between the middle of October and the middle of November.

(view photos of Tahiti)