We sailed back out the north pass and around Apataki to the south pass, looking for Lucio’s wave. We saw waves breaking outside the south pass, but they weren’t quite big enough yet. Teresia continued 10 miles past the main village of Niutahi to Totoro where the Apataki Carenage shipyard is located.
It looked improbable, a dozen masts poking out above the coconut tree line, with a few buildings tucked near the beach and a tractor lined up on a concrete ramp into the sea. We anchored nearby and hoped to refill our gasoline, propane and find some WiFi at this remote outpost.
In the morning we met Tony, the man in charge at the Carenage. He was business like and organized, in his late 20s, with a black pearl hanging from a small gold hoop earring in one ear. Gasoline, propane, WiFi. Check, check, check.
Alex and Lucio geared up for spearfishing, ready with the new knowledge from Tony about which fish were safe to eat. We anchored the dinghy near a reef and slid into the water so as not to attract too many sharks. The reef was beautiful, full of diverse fish and coral. We squeezed through a small pass in the coral to access the shallow inner pool, which brought us extra close to all the fish activity.
Lucio shot a small grouper and held the bloody fish out of the water as he swam back to the dinghy. We cooked up a spicy tomato grouper stew for dinner with fresh coconut rice and felt proud of ourselves.
The next afternoon we dinghyed over to the coral sand dunes rippling in the distance. They rose up a few feet high in large shallow areas hugging the outer reef. A seabird’s white belly glowed turquoise as it flew low over the water. Ankle high, transparent aqua waves gently broke over pink coral sand, like molten glass.
We all looked at each other and laughed. The scene was awesome, our view full of expansive natural beauty, surreal and tranquil. Alex layed down in the crystal water a few inches above the pristine sand, his tan body relaxed into the tropical splendor, unaware of the black tip reef shark cruising along nearby. Wind rippled the surface gently all around him.
I meandered further to the end of the dune, a point where tidal flow pushed the dune into ridges disappearing under the inner sea. I began to collect beautiful shells within an arms reach and started to create a shell mermaid. After a few difficult days of boat drama due to the strange, controlling captain, I needed to reconnect with my inner strength. Slowly the beautiful mermaid came to life, shell by shell. When she had a smile on her face I sat next to her, breathing and meditating, feeling the strong, fierce and wild sea goddess moving through me like a gust of wind.
A small white eel chased a school of tiny silver fish through the shallows. Black tip reef sharks swam at the water’s edge, splashing my feet as they hunted their fish prey.
We sailed back to Niutahi and tried to anchor near the pearl farm. Our anchor got stuck in a coral head, Lucio had to dive to free it, and Teresia was dangerously close to shallow water. We headed back into the channel where the current was moving fast, full of whirlpools and standing waves. I spotted a space on a dock alongside a warehouse so we tucked into a side channel and warily watched the depth get shallower as we tied up next to the rainbow painted pearl transport ship.
A stern, tattooed warehouse worker came outside, telling us we weren’t allowed to dock there. Luckily, Lucio’s fellow Brazilian surfer friend had traveled to Niutahi before and befriended a local named Tipapa who had some kind of clout. Lucio mentioned her name and the worker’s face softened, then the captain gifted him a small bottle of Abuelo Panamanian rum and his smile widened. We were allowed to stay.
It was an unusual place to tie the boat. On the dock side our neighbor was a large warehouse full of power boats in various stages of construction. On our other side was a narrow shallow channel and a pearl farm building on stilts, surrounded by water, reef and fish traps. We watched the pearl farm workers heave nets full of oysters from the water around the building and slap the nets onto tables for processing. Managers crossed the channel in a muscly looking metal speedboat throughout the day, checking on the workers and bringing more oysters from outer farms. We waved, they offered chakas back, but in a way that we knew we weren’t supposed to be there.
It was a luxury having access to land without needing the dinghy. Teresia’s dinghy was barely usable, we had to inflate it for five minutes with a foot pump before every ride. Lucio, Alex and I hopped off the boat and went walking in the strong midday sun to explore.
We meandered through the clean, orderly town with gravel streets, well kept lush tropical gardens and single story homes. Most homes had walls around their property, a big difference from the Marquesas where one person’s land melded into the other without a physical barrier. Dogs lazily looked at us, most folks were inside or on their shaded porches.
We came upon a small airport and walked across the airstrip to the outer reef. A few men and their dogs were hunting something in the shallow waters. Waves crashed on the outside edge.
Lucio and I walked back towards Teresia but via a different road, past a simple church. All of a sudden a voice from the sky asked in broken English “Do you want to drink coconut?” We looked around, behind and beside us. Through the hedges alongside a house we could see folks, they waved us and invited us inside their yard.
Nicolas has a basketball belly covered in giant skull tattoos, is missing his front and lower middle teeth and has glossy yellowed eyes. He has a jolly disposition and seemed used to welcoming outsiders, international flags were hung up in his trees. His son and friend cut us down drinking coconuts, then they offered coffee, beer and cigarettes. We communicated in choppy English and French. The boys like to spearfish and surf, Nicolas ferments his own coconut water alcohol and has a license to do so. He brought us a plastic soda bottle of his fizzy brew to try, it was delicious and strong.
We sat together for a while chatting on the concrete steps. Nicolas brought out a small box full of imperfect black pearls and offered us each one as a gift. Then he taught us how to husk coconuts with a metal stake contraption. You slam the coconut husk onto the stake and rotate the nut slightly to peel off segments of husk. “Don’t lean into it, the stake can pierce your heart,” warned Nicolas somberly, as if he’d lost loved ones that way.
We left our new friend’s house with a gifted sack of coconuts for the boat, laughing at our random luck and grateful for the unexpected hospitality. With the sun lower, the town came alive—kids, teens and adults cruised around on tricycles outfitted with baskets to transport groceries, fresh fish and small kids.
We ambled through grassy alleyways, overhung with breadfruit and plumeria trees, then past organized piles of pearl farming materials: plastic colorful globe buoys, black nets, stacked bags of mature dried shells.
Modest worker bungalows bordered the pearl farm warehouse—I peered through their fence to ogle their robust vegetable garden full of choi sum, long beans, bok choi and eggplant. With a cabbage going for $12 USD at the only store in town, this was a gold mine. We rounded the corner to see Teresia tucked into her own private nook.
The most memorable sight from French Polynesia that I remembered from visiting as a kid is how the sunset and sunrise water colors are the same range of colors as the local pearls. In Niutahi I saw this effect again—soft aquamarine, violet, pink, smoke grey, green black all swirling together above and below the horizon, shimmering off and through the clean air and water. For those moments, every day, you live in a gemstone.
Fishermen passed by Teresia in bright colored small powerboats. Their gentle wake rustled the pearl farm buoys in the water, knocking against each other in canon. Black tip and white tip reef shark fins cut through the water nearby above the reef. Nicolas told us not to swim in the main channel because that’s where big pelagic sharks pass through, like tiger sharks.
We were invited to go to Lucio’s surfer friend’s friend’s pension for dinner, just across the road from the pearl farm warehouse. We did our best to find acceptable clothes and headed with growling bellies to Tipapa’s pension. Tipapa is a strong, stately Polynesian woman with a gravitas and discerning eye that makes you want to stay on her good side. She is always put together with a flower tucked behind her ear, hair pulled back into an elegant bun and wearing a bright floral patterned blouse. Ernest, her husband, also has a royal guardedness about him, but it falls away sometimes and he sings, smiles and pets one of his eight stocky dogs underfoot.
We sat down at the long outdoor table, awaiting our fellow guests—the visiting French doctor, his wife and adopted Tahitian daughter, and an Italian tourist. Ernest and Tipapa were busy preparing the feast in their brightly painted outdoor kitchen, strung decoratively with coral, shell and driftwood garlands.
The other guests arrived at the proper time, turns out we were 30 minutes early because we hadn’t reset our watches since leaving the Marquesas. We all got acquainted—the doctor’s wife an easy conversationalist, her husband calm and quiet, speaking only when his opinion or knowledge was asked for. Their daughter a cheery, bright eyed six year old who looked at ease sitting at the head of the table. The Italian a broad shouldered fellow in his late 40s it seemed, with a buzzed head, a slight hunch from his height and muscles, with a mysterious close lipped smirk that opened into a wide smile and laugh. After spending so much time with each other as crew, we were grateful chat with new people over frosty Hinano beers.
Tipapa started to bring plates of beautiful, fresh food to the table. Whole small steamed deep water fish and red snapper with their succulent flesh slashed to the bone, sprinkled with slivered ginger and a sweet delicate sauce. Large bowls of cool poisson cru, the classic French Polynesian dish of raw fish marinated in fresh coconut milk and lime juice with sliced cucumber, tomatoes and onion. Sliced griddled fish with a lobster like texture in a rich savory sweet sauce. Plates of purple taro and potatoes alongside bowls of steaming white rice. Ernest caught all of the fish outside the atoll himself. We feasted, everything divine, even more so because we’d eaten mostly dried and canned foods for the past week, save the Marquesian pamplemousse.
After we’d eaten as much as we could, there was still food left over. Tipapa came to sit with us and relax. When the doctor’s wife translated to her that I was a farm worker, Tipapa’s expression softened toward me with approval. She said she was surprised someone who looked like me would work the land. We enjoyed the feast afterglow together for a while then conversation quieted as our thoughts turned to sleep. We paid for the meal and thanked our hosts. On our way out, I overheard the Italian say he was getting up at 5:30am the next morning to go fishing with Ernest. Always game for fishing adventures, I asked if I could come along. Sure, he said, trying to hide his surprise that I wanted to join.
Alex and I walked under the stars the next morning to the pension, ready to fish. No one was stirring, then the Italian, smoking a cigarette, came to the gate, apologizing that Ernest changed his mind and we’d go fishing later in the morning. No problem, we shuffled back to sleep.
Ernest put on gruff airs at first when his new recruits climbed into his sturdy, 20 foot long metal boat. He motioned for Alex to move a plastic drum, half full of gasoline to the other side of the boat, but without saying any words, so it took Alex a while to figure out the command. Six dogs piled in, then the Italian steered us out the pass into the open ocean.
Ernest sat near the bow, the morning sun gleaming on his smiling bronze brown face, his dogs piled up on him and each other. His gruffness disappeared toward us newcomers when he saw our eagerness to learn and just share his company. We put sparkly, colorful squid like lures on two sturdy fishing poles and started trolling, hoping for marlin.
The trick is to follow the birds. Ernest put one big forearm over the other in front of his eyes, with a slit to see between them. Then he slowly scanned the horizon, searching for tiny flying dots. He motioned for me to do the same. I strained to look where the horizon disappeared but after 30 minutes we hadn’t found any flying creatures.
As the sun climbed higher, the stocky dogs started panting in the metal boat. A few took cover under the rear seats where fresh cool sea water sloshed in through large drainage holes. Ernest motioned for the Italian to turn the boat around, we needed to change strategies.
Ernest waved at Alex to join us at the bow, and began to ask get to know you questions to us in French. Alex translated the conversation between me and Ernest. Ernest has a sweet, open heart and it felt relaxing and refreshing to be with him in his back yard, the sea, where he’d grown up, where he fishes most days.
We arrived at the outer reef, where the shelf drops steeply into the sea, over a thousand feet down. Ernest outfitted a fishing pole with an electric reel and a weighted lure system set with fresh fish meat. He pushed a button and the rig dropped down quickly, on the screen it counted 54, 67 then 123 meters. Ernest put a tattered glove on one hand, wove the line around those fingers, then held the line leading into the water with his other hand. He made a slow swooping motion, to attract the fish deep below, then jerked quickly up, to catch the biting fish on the hooks. He stopped, waited to feel if his efforts worked, then repeated this process a few times. Another button click and the reel zipped the line back in, no fish though. After a few more tries we headed in, Ernest joked predictably that we didn’t get any fish because us newbies were on board. He invited us to fish later in the afternoon and we said yes then returned to Teresia for lunch.
I felt a deep peace in Niutahi, maybe because there was no cell service or internet. You could rest without any obligation to engage with the outside world. After lunch, I fell asleep in the cockpit with the layered turquoise, indigo, sky blue, aqua sea cake view blurring under my heavy eyelids. Pearl workers tirelessly opened shells, cleaned oyster meat, heaved buckets of sea water around the platform and splashed it across dripping floorboards to keep them clean.
The Italian, Ernest and all the dogs rounded the wharf corner in the boat and hollered at Alex and me asking if we wanted to come fishing again. We jumped out of Teresia and hopped in, that soaring hope to catch something propelled us faster than we normally move in these languid tropical climes.
Outside the pass we saw birds to the left. Ernest’s’ eyes lit up like a child’s, the hunt was on. The Italian gracefully swooped the boat in a large circle through the flock swirling around us. Birds lit black and golden in the late afternoon light dove for their fish dinner right outside the waves crashing on the reef. With a slight gesture of his hand, Ernest indicated where the Italian should steer.
We had three lures in the water, two on fishing poles and one on a hand line. Ernest guided Alex about what to do with whistling noises and few words. Alex felt a tug on his hand line and he started pulling in a catch. Pearlescent skin gleamed under the water and Ernest started singing “Bonito! Bonito!”
It was a small fish, but a fish nonetheless, breaking our newbie bad luck. Ernest motioned for Alex to clean the fish, and guided him to cut the guts and gills out first then put it into the cooler. The dogs observed his work carefully, hoping for a snack. Others kept jumping up and down from the bow seat, somehow staying on board even when we bashed up and down in the chop.
Once Alex washed the blood off the wooden work bench and the metal floor, Ernest came to sit with me again at the bow. He looked content, despite our modest haul, and had already taken to calling Alex “Bonito,” a suitable nickname for the handsome, olive skinned German.
He asked about my work and family—I showed him pictures of me driving a tractor, my parents fishing in Alaska, my sister operating on a cheetah, my brother riding his motorcycle. “Why are you traveling?” he wondered, incredulous that I jumped on boats with people I barely knew for long periods of time, far from land and family. I told him because I’m curious and want to meet people like him. Ernest looked touched that I took such risks to meet him. He replied that he doesn’t have any courage, that if his friend asked him to join for a trip to the nearby atoll of Fakarava he wouldn’t go.
He gazed onto the swaying palm trees, the coral beaches turning purple in the last light, and explained that to him this is paradise, he never wants to leave. Ernest’s children live in Tahiti, one works for Air Tahiti and offers him free flights but he always declines. He is content. Surrounded by his dogs in his fishing boat, he bursts into joyful song in his native language. I didn’t understand the words, but the feeling translated.
When we tied to the dock, Ernest gifted Alex the bonito, a huge present for us. We invited the Italian to join us later for poisson cru and proudly carried the fish back to Teresia, like happy cats. We started the long process of grating fresh coconut and squeezing it for milk, then poured it over the fresh fish chunks mixed with slivered onions.
The Italian rounded the corner riding a tricycle, we told him he was welcome to join but we didn’t have beer, so he offered to pick some up. On his way out he had to pass through a narrow spot between the edge of the wharf and a parked tractor. In the dim light he misjudged where his tricycle wheels ran and slowly tipped over into the narrow channel, tricycle and all.
I suppressed a chuckle at the circus-like mishap and ran over to help. He handed up his wet passport, drowned cell phone and soggy wallet. He asked for a mask and a flash light to retrieve his borrowed tricycle. Alex and I helped him heave the heavy bike back on land, wondering how the Italian managed to lift it from the depths by himself. He thanked us and laughed, then pedaled away dripping and smiling at his own antics.
The next morning, Ernest and the Italian rounded the wharf corner again in the fishing boat and hollered at us to join. It felt good to know they liked hanging out with us, that we were enjoyable company. We exited the calm pass, the cheery clean morning light beautiful on Ernest’s face, his pile of dogs smiling on his lap and at his feet.
He spotted birds on the horizon against a massive dark squall to the right. I strained my eyes but only as we got closer could I see them too. We trolled along the edge of the storm with our sparkly squid lures in the water and rain drizzling down on us. A small fishing boat with a father and his two teen daughters in full foul weather gear stopped to chat with us, reminding me of farmers stopping in their pickup trucks to talk when they pass each other on a two lane highway.
They’d just come through the storm and only had bonito to show for it so Ernest decided to turn back toward the village. He started to sing now and again, sitting on the boat floor, lovingly petting his dogs. There was a relaxing, happy atmosphere on his boat, with no pressure to catch fish and no sadness that we hadn’t caught anything.
Back on land Ernest showed us the addition to the pension he is building, perhaps it will be a small shop or a bar, depending on what Tipapa decides. He offered Alex, the German carpenter, a job to finish the construction but Alex politely declined. Ernest asked me for gardening tips, I gave him some, somehow remembering the French word for nitrogen, and then we parted ways.
It is bittersweet creating friendships with local people while sailing, both parties know it is a brief interaction and there is usually a slight tension, a holding back from the French Polynesians, who have interacted with so many transient sailors like us. Their way of life on the islands and atolls is deeply rooted in family and community, of relationships built over years and years. Sailors have a complicated history here, all trust we are shown I know is not easily given.
Later in the afternoon, Lucio, the captain and I hopped in the dinghy to take Lucio to the surf spot. We anchored right where the wave stopped breaking, on the edge of its shoulder, just outside the pass. We could easily see the reef and colorful fish below us through the crystal water. Lucio paddled out and we readied our cameras. The wave is a gorgeous, long tube and it was heaving. As the clear turquoise lip came closer and closer to the dinghy, my heart raced—I felt the intense energy, the danger, the crashing roar.
Lucio caught a few beauties, he came back content with new vigor and sparkle in his eyes. I cooked a whole chicken in the pressure cooker, marinated with fresh ginger, turmeric and garlic. It was succulent and a special treat for a boat without a freezer. We licked our fingers clean.
In the sunny Sunday morning, we did laundry and waited to see if we’d be summoned for fishing. Ernest’s boat never rounded the corner so Lucio, Alex and I drove the dinghy over to check out the surf. Again, long aqua 30 second ride tubes sparkled in the sun. Lucio caught a few then strangely braved the reef to paddle ashore. We picked up the dinghy anchor and motored over to him, he’d seen a huge shark nearby and decided to risk the reef over potential teeth.
We walked around the edge of the outer reef, picking up shiny shells and ogling the arcing waves. A pack of local surfers crossed the shallows towards us, hoisting a huge boom box on their shoulders to keep it dry. They motioned for us to follow them through the bushes, back towards the surf spot. One of the older guys, lean and muscly with a scorpion tattoo on his chest and kind eyes walked barefoot over the razor sharp coral path. He started talking with Alex in French and offered me cookies as we sat down under a tree overlooking the waves.
With reggaeton and electronic chill music playing, the guys smoked and sipped on grape sodas. They pulled on socks and grabbed small fins and foam body boards, with chunks missing from coral crashes. Younger kids, around 12 years old, weren’t allowed to smoke yet, and when they got cuts from falling into the reef, older guys smashed up leaves from a medicinal bush and applied the poultice to the kids’ wounds.
It was a perfect surf day—no wind and a consistent ocean swell brought in head high waves that arced cleanly into the reef. Body boarders caught the end of the ride, getting barreled and then shooting out over the shoulder and away from the reef.
Surfers started further out for longer rides and bent low to get fully barreled. One local surfer had incredible grace and control, he dipped his back hand into the wave wall to adjust his speed to stay right in the wave’s sweet spot, he made it look easy. Lucio caught a couple and the guys cheered him on.
It was a super relaxed day hanging out on the driftwood benches with the local surfer guys. They didn’t talk much with each other, just listened to music, laughed, surfed for a bit, rested, then went out again. We were grateful to be a part of the crew for a few hours.
After Lucio tired himself out, we thanked the guys and walked back to the dinghy, listening to coral pieces clink like porcelain against the shore. Natural mosaics of tiny pearl oyster shells glinted gold and opal white under our sandaled feet.
That night we played hours of the German card game called Skat and looked at charts to plan which Tuamotu atoll we’d sail to next. Afterwards, I decided to venture out into the night on my own to get a break from the tense captain dynamic and experience weekend night life in Niutahi.
Gravel crunched under my feet and crabs skittered into their holes as I walked to the tall concrete wharf. The wharf is a de facto community square, with plenty of room for bicycling, dancing and fishing, all at the same time and with all ages.
A little girl danced wildly with a transparent white scarf in the wind and ran up to me to join her. I danced with her for a while then sat down on the wharf edge to star gaze and write. A high powered flash light broke my concentration and beamed through the dark pass along the wharf. The light belonged to a fishing boat that was guiding a sailboat through to safety. A double masted sailboat that came through the abyss with a badly ripped jib sail fluttering in the wind, still wrapped around the forestay.
I figured this was the boat the Italian tourist had been waiting for, he said he was in Niutahi to meet up with friends who had sailed across the Pacific but were delayed by a storm. As the old fashioned monohull edged toward the wharf, I positioned myself to catch their stern dock line and yelled out a friendly “Buena sera!”
A shorter, curly haired Italian sailor looked surprised at my greeting and in the next moment relieved, he responded in kind and threw me the line. Tony, the Carenage ship yard boss with the pearl earring came on the wharf from his fishing boat, the Italians called him to help navigate the pass. We helped them tie up the sailboat and got a closer look at the damage. They’d be at Tony’s yard in a few days to start repairs.
The Italian tourist showed up and introduced me to his two friends, who were bone tired but their renowned effervescence and emphatic speaking style was still alive and well. They invited me to join them for dinner on the boat and apologized with many expressive hand gestures that they had minimal provisions. I accepted and boarded the vessel.
The cockpit and cabin were in a proper state of dissaray—lines tangled and in piles, clothes, gear and toothbrushes strewn across bunks and on the floor. The Italian who’d thrown me the line looked to be in his early forties, with a weathered grin and youthful bright brown eyes. His crewmate looked older and was missing his front bottom and top teeth, had bulging glassy light eyes and didn’t really address me much.
The three chatted quickly and uproariously, with the rapport of old and good friends. I sat at the cockpit table with the Italian tourist while the other two prepared pasta in the galley, one or both bounding out to us to regale the Italian with their passage stories and their landfall on Ua Puka, an outer Tuamotu atoll. They donned multiple shell necklaces and sparkly colorful plastic pendants gifted to them by a young girl from the island.
I know what it’s like to arrive on land after a long storm. You are hungry and just want a shower. So I left their boat to grab a pack of Tim Tam chocolate sandwich cookies from Teresia and gifted it to them. A small gesture, but between sailors a much appreciated one.
We sat, us four, around the cockpit table under a swinging headlamp light, with toilet paper napkins. We dined on perfect spicy tomato and canned tuna sauced spaghetti and sipped on Cabernet Savignon wine. The guys apologized for speaking in Italian, and caught the tourist up on what had happened. He translated for me rare bits and pieces, but I fully understood when he regaled them with his own story of falling into the channel on the tricycle. We laughed so hard we cried.
I felt like I was in an old movie, the Italians didn’t even look at their plates as they expertly twirled bites of pasta onto their forks. Their emotional faces and hands worked in tandem to tell each story fully. After dinner, the young Italian placed a heavy shell garland around my neck, it was double stranded cowrie shells. I thanked them all for their hospitality and retired back to Teresia.
A few days later, after we’d departed Niutahi and sailed to nearby Fakarava atoll, we heard news that an Italian sailboat had been busted for trafficking 428 kilos of cocaine in Apataki. It turns out it was the Italian tourist and his friends. They’d been intercepted by the equivalent of the French SWAT team while they were repairing their boat at Tony’s shipyard. The police ripped the boat apart and arrested the Italians.
I rolled over details from our brief friendship—he was a bit twitchy, he mentioned that he only worked for money and lots of it, he raced super fancy sailboats all over the world. After the pasta dinner, I messaged the Italian to ask if I could get a ride to Papeete with them, and now realized why he never responded.