Cows under the coconuts; Dolphins around the boats

We are anchored in the Bay of Virgins, Hanavavae on Fatu Hiva. It is stunning.

Sheer vertical cliffs rise thousand of feet from a compact valley floor cut by various streams. We hiked up the road that passes through the village at the head of the bay and followed its switchbacks to a hairpin curve high on the mountainside overlooking the bay. The narrow, winding road connects the only two villages on the island and was a dirt track until paved 2010. There was a remarkable change in climate at the higher altitude. The wind was dry and cool well above the coconut tree line. The slopes at that altitude were covered in low vegetation, mostly grass and sparse shrubs. Lower down, we had passed trees with many parakeets or lorikeets chattering away. At the top we looked down on tropic birds soaring across the valley below. The valley is enclosed by a collapsed caldera with a waterfall at the end. For those familiar with the Columbia Gorge, imagine Multnomah Falls X 3. Fruit trees of all sorts grow in abundance. Thai basil and chili peppers grow wild along the road, as do several varieties of orchid. The bay itself is a small V-shape that is entirely open to the western Pacific. So, although quite protected and safe, a significant swell rolls through causing all the boats at anchor to rock and roll continually. The shoreline is rock and cobble but a well-built quay to one side, that is protected by a short rip rap jetty, makes a dinghy landing possible.

In the morning cows graze under the coconut tree grove just beyond the cobble beach. A pod of dolphins swims through the bay among the anchored boats early in the morning and in the evenings. There are goats on the island, too. In a way the goats are the most amazing to watch. Semi-feral domestic goats live on the mountain sides, coming down in the daytime to graze and climbing up for the night. Dozens of goats can be seen in the evening on vertical rock cliffs that would require technical rock climbing for humans. They clearly head to favorite clefts in the rock face where they bed down for the night.

A small village occupies the valley floor with tidy homes and well kept gardens. The gardens are mostly fruit trees: bananas, pommelo and pampalmous (large citrus like grapefruit, but sweeter), citron (limes), small lemons, guava, jack fruit, mango, and papaya. What are obviously gardens are also not planted in the usual European or American manner of straight rows and rectangles, but in a rather organic fashion that seems to suit the environment. We see very few vegetables growing, although some sort of winter squash plant, obviously once imported, seems to do well along the road sides. There’s a tiny church a with rectory built of concrete block painted white, and a small building used, we think, for school. All are enclosed in a neat low-walled compound surrounded by individual homes. A public works project is underway and can be seen across the small river that cuts through the village. It looks like some sort of water works. The villagers have electricity, cell phone service and, somewhere, an internet connection. There’s a very tiny store stocked mostly with sweets, canned goods, and very limited dry goods. As we walked down the main road of the village, we were passed by a teenager on a bike with a laptop slung across his shoulders; he stopped briefly to greet us and ask “Vous cherchez quelque chose?” (Are you looking for anything?). Sadly, no. Everyone we pass greets us with either a “bonjour” or “kahoa” – and friendly smiles. Every evening at 5:00 the church bell rings and the door – visible from the anchorage – opens to admit parishioners for the evening service.

This afternoon was a comedy and affirmation of community. There are about a dozen sailboats anchored in this small bay. It is known for an iffy holding bottom and williwaw winds that blast down the steep mountain sides. Due to the strong winds this morning we delayed and delayed rowing ashore. In the early afternoon one of the French sailboats began to drag its anchor and drifted through the fleet. A young Australian couple in a dinghy zoomed over, picked up a third from a New Zealand boat, and raced out to the drifting sailboat. By this time the drifting boat was coming up upon another anchored boat, which was fending off as best it could. Another boat crew joined in with their dinghy. In the end they boarded the drifting boat, started the engine (labels and switches in French!), retrieved the anchor, and anchored again securely. The good samaritans then went about their business, which was departure for another destination. The subject boat crew came back from a long hike ashore to find their own boat secure in a new position – thankfully not adrift at sea. And the good samaritans now long gone.

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Wahoo!

We pulled anchor and left Baie Tahauku on Monday after a week on the island of Hiva Oa. The week was filled with the camaraderie of shared experiences as boats arrived from the long ocean passage. Boat crews that knew each other only by boat name on the morning radio roll call met in person. Helping each other discover the source of potable water, how to buy duty-free diesel fuel, and where to get baguettes evolved into long evening visits hosted by various boats that had already settled in. Stories of the passage led to sharing of triumphs and challenges. The general consensus of all boat crews: This was a long and challenging passage with many changing weather systems. There were a lot of sail changes while chasing the ever illusive SE trade winds. The sharing helped everyone put the experience into perspective, ameliorating the feeling that any one experience was uniquely difficult and that one did not quite measure up.

We are now anchored in Vaitahu Bay on the neighboring island of Tahuata. (say: Tahu..ata). These islands are very close together, part of the same volcanic group. The channel between Hiva Oa and Tahuata is only 2.5 miles wide. Our passage was just 14 miles in about five hours, bay to bay. The big change is that Vaituha Bay (say: Vai..tuha) is on the west side of Tahuata – that is, the leeward side. The SE trade winds and waves come up against the eastern, windward side of these islands. So, although we sway a bit at anchor here, this side of the island is much more protected than the anchorage in Baie Tahuaku on Hiva Oa, which opens to the SE.

Baie Tahauku is the main harbor for the island of Hiva Oa. While quite safe, a prevailing swell entered the bay and causes all boats to surge back and forth and roll side to side. The bay is the most protected on the island of Hiva Oa. It has a concrete quay where modest inter-island freighters and cruise ships moor for a day or so a couple of times per week. There are range markings on shore that delineate the line behind which transient yachts can safely moor and allow room for the bigger ships to maneuver. The gendarme comes down before the expected arrival of a freighter or cruise ship to ensure all yachts are moved behind the special range line. This creates quite the scene of “musical anchors” as boats move to make room for the ships. We moved once from a very rolly location to a prime spot behind the “freighter line,” only to find out three days later that there are actually two range marks – one for the once-a-week inter island freighter, and second that allows even more room for the new cruise ship-and-freighter that stops twice a month. We had to move once again, early in the day, to allow for it. It’s good that we did, for there was quite the spectacle at 03:00 the next morning when a few boats that thought they had allowed enough room had to move in order to avoid being smacked by the cruise ship leaving. Yes, in the dark, with big ship spotlights illuminating the show for all.

Baie Tahauku serves the town of Atuona, a couple of kilometers away. Atuona is more like a village with three small grocery stores, one bank, a post office, and one sporting goods store that was never open. All commerce ceases mid-day, and all stores are closed 12:00 – 2:30, give or take half an hour. And when the proprietress is ready to close, she is ready. You get shooed out right now, invited to come back at 2:30.

Clearing in to French Polynesia in Atuona was a delight after clearing out of Mexico in Puerto Vallarta. We went to the gendarme office with ship’s documents, passports and visas, etc. A beaming and sunny young Marquesan slapped the counter top with “Your documents here” and laughed. A quick perusal to make sure we had filled in all the boxes on the one-page entry form, our passports stamped, and we were cleared in.

Two events were real highlights. On Thursday we took a guided tour of the island. Our guide, Pifa, was born and raised on the island. Proud of his Marquesan heritage, he was equally proud to tell us of his great-grandfather who had emigrated to the Marquesas from Ireland during the Famine and had become a gendarme and land-owner here. A couple from another boat joined us for the day-long tour. Five in a Toyota Hi-Lux crew cab, the Pacific version of the Tacoma. We were all very happy to have Pifa driving along roads that were at times paved, but mostly consisted of rutted dirt tracks with tight switch backs along sheer cliffs. When two vehicles met, one had to pull as far as possible to the side while the other inched by. Often a road ran along a steep hogback overlooking the ocean. The passengers enjoyed stunning views from mountain top to ocean while Pifa concentrated on driving. The key destination was a very well preserved ceremonial site with many carved stone tikis and stone platforms on a site of about one acre. As late as the early 1990’s the site was lost in the tropical jungle. It has since been cleared and is well maintained. In many ways, it was like visiting the abandoned cathedral of an ancient religion. Pifa was well informed about the meaning and purpose of each tiki and we enjoyed listening and asking questions. We had lunch at a family run ‘restaurant’ nearby. Without visible signage, it’s a local knowledge place; you call up in the morning to place the lunch orders. We had a wonderful local Marquesan meal that included goat, wild boar, poisson cru, fried tapioca root (better than french fries), and fried banana in coconut sauce. On the way back we stopped at a beach park where the park attendant was clearing up coconut trees and offered us fresh coconuts to drink from. We stopped roadside to pick limes, wild basil growing by the acres, guava, avocados, and a stalk of bananas for each couple. The fruit trees all belonged to Pifa’s extended family. Every fruit tree is owned by someone, even if it grows in what appears to be “the wild.” Courtesy obliges you to obtain permission to collect fruit, unless a family member offers it to you.

On Saturday there was a special event in town at the cultural center – a fund raiser to send two youths to Poland to represent the Marquesas at World Youth Day. With a long and packed agenda (hand lettered notices were posted at all the shops), we expected a high-energy day. The cultural center is near the center of town, and consists of a sport field surrounded by three open-sided, thatched-roof buildings (these would be called lean-to shelters in the US) on raised concrete platforms, all very well kept. A band was set up in one building and proceeded to have what would best be described as a jam session from late morning through mid-afternoon. Families camped out in the shade of trees around the field or under awnings. Lunch and desert was cooking under pop-up sun shelters in the parking lot. Two whole pigs were roasting nearby. It felt most like church picnic in the park. The pace was slow to match the languid Saturday afternoon. People would wander over to the food stalls and bring back ice cream cones for family. Parents and infants napped on local patterned mats laid on the grass. Girls from a local school competed in sports events on the field. There was a relay race involving running while carrying coconuts on a pole, a tug-of-war and a gunny-sack race. Lots of laughter and cheering. Kids from the local islands are resident at school in Atuona during term, and each island had its team of girls cheering their fellow islanders against the neighboring island’s team.

Today Randy hooked a medium-sized wahoo, a deep ocean predator like tuna or mahi mahi, in the channel between Hiva Oa and Tahuata. He had put out a trailing long line and a lure. Neither of us had eaten wahoo before, and we can now say it has become one of our favorites. The firm, mild-tasting white fish is delicious. Perfect for poisson cru, and very good in curry with coconut milk and eggplant. Ruth made both yesterday afternoon, but there was much more fish than we could eat and we gave some to nearby yachts at anchor here in Vaitahu Bay. Ruth had collected some Thai-style small chiles and several bunches of sweet basil along the roadside between Atuona and the harbor; some of each went into both the poisson cru and the curry. Fresh ginger root is available in even the smallest grocery store. It went into both dishes as well. We had the curry last night for dinner and the poisson cru this morning for breakfast. Ruth was quite pleased with the results, with Randy in complete agreement.

Internet connections are available at a few locations in Atuona. On a hill overlooking the harbor, there is a wi-fi hot spot at a picnic table under a lean-to against a shipping container that serves as the port communications “radio shack.” Called “Semaphore” it is the best place to connect in Atuona. There was plenty of time to enjoy the view while waiting for email and web pages to download. For the those who remember such a thing, speed reached a zipping kilo bites per second, when not on pause. One of the things we did while on the internet was set up to post blog entries via our SailMail service over HF radio. Thanks to Bill for his research into this feature! This is the first blog post via SailMail. It can be only text, but at least we can let you know where we are and what’s happening more frequently. We’ll upload photos when we have internet access.

The Pacific Ocean: Puerto Vallarta to Hiva Oa

We left Puerto Vallarta on Monday, March 14. I did not even notice that it was Pi day (3.14….) until friend Mark told about the pi(e) he had to celebrate!

Below are three “on passage” posts about the crossing. For context: The great circle route (most direct) is 2,277 nautical miles. But often that is not the best route due to wind and current patterns, such at the doldrums at the equator. Our course took about 2,800 nautical miles. We arrived on Sunday, April 10 for a crossing of 27 days, 3 1/2 hours. A long passage, but still inside the 3-4 week window we had projected. And we beat our passage time of 31 days from Hawaii to Portland in 2010.

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