We arrived with the last afternoon light, the sculptural Virgin’s Bay beautiful and golden again for my second visit. Anchoring was difficult because the small, narrow bay was packed with boats and the bottom is rocky. After a few attempts, Teresia’s anchor held and we could sleep.
In the morning we watched the local soccer game by the beach and chatted with sailors who’d just arrived after their Pacific crossing. Alongside the soccer field amongst the spectators, a baby sat tucked into blankets inside a wheelbarrow, an ingenious alternative to a baby carriage.
I walked with Alex through town and bought a bar of dark chocolate at the tiny corner store on our way to the waterfall. This visit felt more relaxing and enjoyable the second time around. As we crossed the river I spotted a mossy human shaped petroglyph carved in a large rock.
Coconut palm trees swayed in airy well-maintained groves, red hibiscus bushes laden with flowers danced in the breeze, things felt easy, beautiful and peaceful. We hollered loud at the waterfall to hear our echo and swam in the cool pool below.
On the way back to the dock, a local lady named Angel beckoned us to her yard and we chatted about her kids who were living abroad, one in the French military was posted in Senegal. Her five rugged dogs watched us warily from the hillside alongside her humble home. She gave me a sprig of fresh basil from her bush and told me to put it behind my ear.
We wandered back to the harbor and sat on a bench under some fruit trees. A bunch of kids came over and asked if I had candy. I brought the chocolate bar out and gave it to them. They had hungry eyes, looking at me and sizing me up to see what else they could get from me. The alpha girl asked me if I wanted to trade anything for fruit in a fast, aggressive way.
Luckily a soccer player came over and invited us to play with them. We walked to the field and Alex played with a few older guys and kids. I sat with a wife and her young baby. We ate pistache fruits, their eggplant colored astringent skin and bright violet sweet flesh turned our toungues rosy purple.
Two curious, kind and mellow girls sat with us on the smooth boulders. One had styled her shiny black hair beautifully, with a thin braid looped atop her hair gathered into a low bun adorned with pearl tipped pins. She left a long slightly curled lock apart from the bun to hang down her back. The other girl twirled around us on her mountain bike.
As we finished one round of pistache fruits, the girls walked over to the tree nearby and climbed it, filling their shirts with fruit. The pace of everything was slowed down in an easy relaxing way. I don’t know if the fruits or the environment had more of an effect on me but I felt deeply happy and calm, as if drugged.
Behind us the river pooled before trickling into the sea. Teens and kids swam in the sweet water pool. Kids laughed and played soccer. Older boys with boogie boards caught waves breaking on the rocks. A slightly closed yellow coastal hibiscus flower fell into the glassy pool, sending ripples out.
We settled into life in Vaitahu for a few days to enjoy the warm community vibe. Alex has a welcoming manner about him, people just walk up to him on the street to give him fruit or offer to show him around the island. Luckily I got to tag along.
Alex met Alexander, husband of Tatiana, who runs a small open air restaurant next to Chez Jimmy. Alex and Alexander hit it off so we hopped in his truck to check out his family’s land.
Tofu, Alexander’s floppy eared black hunting dog, ran alongside and almost underneath the truck as we wound up the red volcanic valley. We passed folks working to free snowy white coconut meat from tough fibrous brown husks. They loaded up the coconut meat to dry under corrugated metal roofs to a partially dehydrated state. Alexander explained they sell this copra by the kilo to a transport ship that comes every two weeks. Copra is pressed to make the perfumed monoi body oil and other cosmetic products. The toasty, sometimes rancid coconut smell finds your nose on the wind throughout town.
We turned off the dirt road to a lush rambling parcel tucked into the steep valleysides. Giant pamplemousse, lime, bread fruit, mango and lychee trees, laden with fruit, accented the low lying volcanic rock wall terraces. Alexander threw a fiber sack over his shoulder and started twisting off pamplemousse.
Tofu bounded through the thigh high vining ground cover and grasses. Alexander explained they rebuilt the terraces for the last big Marquesain dance competition. He proudly recalls how visitors from the other islands lined these terraces. Drummers welcomed them from Ua Pou, Nuku Hiva, Hiva Oa, Fatu Hiva and his home island of Tahuata. Each island gifts a carved tiki to the host island. Every place I’ve visited in the Marquesas the topic of the dance competition comes up. It is a way for older generations to share traditions of carving, food, dance, song and drumming. Islanders practice year round for these competitions and last time Alexander was the best dancer in Vaitahu and went on to the next bracket to represent his town.
At first Alexander thought we just wanted to trade for fruit but after talking in his orchard for a while he understood that we wanted to hang out and share his culture. We drove back down the valley to town and to his and Tatiana’s home, he’d just painted it a sunny pale butter yellow that day.
Fruit trees, coconut trees, ginger blossoms, succulents and orchids bordered the driveway, welcoming us alongside a cute young pig with her leg tied to a tree.
Alexander harvested three lime green drinking coconuts and we hopped back in his truck. He pointed out where family members’ homes were, his nephew was rolling a cigarette in a hammock out front of one. Alexander asked him for something and the muscly reluctant youth got up and disappeared into the fruit trees around his home. He returned with fat juicy star fruits that we munched on driving up the other side of the valley.
Tofu encountered territorial dogs on our way past houses tucked into steep hillside switchbacks. Alexander made quick deep exhalation sounds at the dogs, reprimanding them in an easygoing yet strong way. We reached an overlook, the vast sapphire sea blended into juicy turquoise against Vaitahu’s breakwater. A handful of white boats dotted the bay, 2,000 foot volcanic walls coated in fuzzy green rose up around the town.
Alexander brought out a machete and whacked the tops off the drinking coconuts as he rotated the coconut in his hand. We sucked down the slight salty sweet water, then he cracked the coconuts into halves to free the slippery silky meat. I exclaimed the juice, which had a slight fizz, was like Marquesian champagne and Alexander laughed.
Up higher and higher we went, onto rich iron red dirt roads, into the wild boar hunting area. Volcanic valley ridge crests were covered in ferns in wetter spots, gnarled stumps and dense forests. We perched ourselves on a stumpy outcropping and took in the grandeur below.
Alexander lifted the sleeve on his blue T-shirt to show his traditional Marquesian tattoo. It shows the story of him hunting his first wild boar, the shaded tusks curving into the tattoo design. Goats squealed and dogs barked nearby, a hunt was on.
“Do you want a tattoo?” Alexander asked Alex. He’d planned on getting a tattoo in the Marquesas and this was the perfect offering. Alexander explained his friend who’d done his shoulder tattoo could do a tattoo for Alex. We visited the tattoo artist, Fati, on the way down the hill so Alex could look at designs. Fati has a strong, thick frame with an ever jolly expression on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Intricate Marquesian tattoos blanket his feet, calves, knees and continue past the edge of his board shorts. We looked through binders full of traditional Marquesian tattoo designs, and photos and drawings of older Marquesian generations who tattooed their entire bodies and faces.
Alex and Fati decided Fati would dreign a custom design arm band with the meanings of family, travel, the ocean, mountains and nature woven together. We planned to meet Fati the next morning for a full tattoo day and celebratory barbecue.
As the sun set over the sea we hung out at Chez Jimmy’s and watched women hit a giant pistache tree with a stick so the purple fruits would fall into their outstretched cloth. Night fell and Jimmy said he was leaving to check out his cousin’s fish catch down at the wharf. I asked to join, and he said sure, so I jumped on the back of his scooter.
Four guys were scaling and gutting a giant cooler full of four kinds of fish that they’d caught on the ride back from Hiva Oa. One street light lit the fish scales silver and red, the guys worked efficiently and quietly to their boom box music. Jimmy washed fresh chunks of translucent white pink fish meat in sea water and offered it to me. Firm, fresh and satisfying. Waves occasionally washed higher on the wharf, cleaning away the blood and scales, but larger waves prompted yells from the guys because they needed to move the fish away to safety.
Within the first minute of arriving one of the fishermen propositioned me for a night with him in exchange for a fish, jokingly but also serious. I brushed it off with another joke. It is hard for locals to find a romantic partner here, most of the folks in town are family members and most of the young people leave to work in Papeete or another country.
We left on the scooter loaded down with boxes from Hiva Oa, not sure of the contents. Jimmy left again for the wharf after we dropped off the boxes at his restaurant, why? “For your fish,” he said. He came back a few minutes later and handed me a plastic bag with a 15 pound silver fish, obviously the choice fish of the catch. It was such a huge gift, I felt excited and also embarrassed that maybe there were strings attached to this fish. But that is just how island culture is here, you give, you trade, you build relationships, you create community.
The next morning we took the dinghy to shore for Alex’s tattoo appointment and the sky opened up. We stood together, us four adults under an umbrella watching rivers of rich red soil slurry fill the gutters along the paved streets, going to the sea.
A pause, a rainbow, the air smelled like plumerias. Alexander gave me and Alex a ride up to Fati’s house, a simple single story home with a large concrete covered deck with an outdoor kitchen, living room and carport. Fati’s 1990’s Toyota HiLux truck was set up with a workout mat in the bed and the tattoo machine station next to the tailgate.
Fati wrapped a wide band of cardstock around Alex’s right bicep and marked the edges on his skin with a thin pen. Alex laid down in the bed of the truck and Fati started to draw the tattoo freehand with the pen, referencing a design sheet. His four year old grandson with a tiger shirt ran circles around me and yipped with glee as we played. He sneaked dried pork jerky for me from the fridge.
After observing the tattoo process beginnings, Alexander asked if I’d like to see his horse? Of course. We bid a brief farewell to the tattooe and artist and drove down the hill then up another hill. We parked alongside a sprawling parcel, one side full of coconut groves, the other side cleared of trees for a simple house and grassy yard. Two lithe and short Marquesian horses, one glossy black, one chestnut brown, were tied up in the groves, munching on wild plants.
Alexander walked up to the black horse and the filly offered a fiesty hello. He guided the horse down to the clearing to drink water from a basin by the hose. Under the dripping hose bib was a large flat stone with a large ancient spiral carving.
As the horse drank, Alexander said hi to the older man inside the house who leaned on the windowsill with his stately dog guarding the porch. “He is alone because he his wife left him,” Alexander explained quietly, “he has a problem with alcohol addiction.”
Alexander retied the horse and we returned to his house to pick up coconuts and firewood for the barbecue. He split one with a hatchet and gave me a piece before offering the rest to the small pig. We talked about family on the way back to Fati’s. He has a sixteen year old daughter who goes to school in Atuona, in nearby Hiva Oa island. She’ll visit home soon for vacation.
At Fati’s, the grandson was collapsed on the concrete steps, asleep on a bright colored Polynesian patterned pillow. An orange cat with a broken tail sauntered by. Alex was sweating a bit in the tropical afternoon heat, his tattoo a few hours away from completion. I sat mesmerized, listening to the tattoo machine buzz, smelling toasty copra, watching Fati adjust Alex’s arms to gradually tattoo around all sides.
Then Fati asked Alex to get out of the truck, he had to pick up his wife. We laughed about the multi use tattoo parlor. When Fati returned with his wife he asked me to talk with her and so I went to help her in the kitchen.
She started slicing fish for poisson cru, cooking pat a choux for profiteroles, mixing up a barbecue sauce with ketchup, sugar and oyster sauce. I don’t speak French so it was a mostly silent exchange, she gradually started trusting me with kitchen tasks as I proved I wouldn’t mess them up. She told me to add salt to a bowl of water to marinate the fish for poisson cru. I stirred the thick pat a choux after adding each raw egg. I knelt to do the dishes next to the hose bib and that was the first time she smiled. After countless years of working to keep a home clean and family fed and watered, it must have felt like a relief to have someone else do the dishes.
Her kitchen overlooked the gorgeous lush volcanic valley, I gazed out at the view and sat on her home’s steps for the down time that cooking involves. Her grandson caused constant mischief because the only outside outlet was being used for the rice cooker, so he couldn’t plug in the tv.
Alex’s tattoo was finally finished, Fati wiped his own sweaty face, it was a full day of intense concentration. Fati washed Alex’s arm with the hose, smeared on an ointment and wrapped it with plastic wrap. Then in the next breath he took my fish from the freezer and began to chop it into chunks for the barbecue. I’d decided it was a proper continuation of the gift, to give it the tattoo feast.
He kindled the wood in the barbecue, split coconuts and shredded their creamy meat with an electric mounted drill. His wife scooped the meat into a clean cloth and squeezed fresh coconut milk onto the poisson cru. The grandson filled a coconut shell with shredded coconut and snacked on it with pure glee.
Fati asked me to watch the fish chunks on the grill while he went to pick up the rest of our crew. It was an honor to rotate the chunks of fish, smelling the sweet salty barbecue sauce sizzle and watch the fatty jowl pieces glisten. His wife sat on the steps near me and brushed her long silver hair. I asked her once in a while if a piece of fish was done. The early evening breeze rustled the palm trees, a peace settled on the day.
We gathered around the outdoor table and Fati started serving everyone fat pieces of barbecued fish. Hundreds of flies swarmed the party. We remained calm as flies swam in our chilled red kool aid and tickled our faces. After a few minutes, Fati’s wife left to gather fresh basil from the garden and placed bunches along the table to dissuade the flies. Lucio tucked a few springs behind his ears and we laughed, and ate.
It was a holiday, celebrating the end of World War II. Fati transitioned the conversation to telling the story of how the French conquered the Marquesas, how they slaughtered his forefathers who only had spears against the French guns. He told the story in a matter of fact tone, with a buoancy that didn’t fit the subject. I appreciated that he contrasted the memory of French peace with the memory of French colonial violence.
Fati’s wife left to play bingo with all the women in town. We cleaned up and took turns drumming on a traditional Marquesian drum, enjoying the sunset light. Then we piled into the HiLux with one fresh tattoo, bellies full of my barbecued marriage fish and we headed home.
I found a new boat to continue my journey through French Polynesia. We’d met the week before at Sandra’s cruiser party at the hut on the hill in the Atuona anchorage. After meeting again at the same party the following week the Teresia crew asked if I was still looking for a boat? Yes, indeed I was. After another lovely night of singing together with guitar players and drummers, eating potluck style from a grill over coals on the ground, they invited me to see the boat, Teresia the next morning.
I hopped on board and checked out their boat, she looked strong and cared for in the functional ways. Her wooden interior was clean and organized. Martin (68), the captain from Austria, his crew, Alex(24) from Germany and Lucio(46) from Brazil, are all easy going, generous souls. After a chat they said yes, I could join them.
We provisioned the boat with fresh fruits and vegetables bought from the tailgates of trucks in town: long beans, pamplemousse, bok choy, eggs, cucumbers, eggplant, spring onions. Coconut and banana turnovers for snacks. Roti chicken with rice for lunch while we waited for the gendarme to open. My old captain signed me off to the new captain in the presence of French authorities, very official, like a wedding.
I packed up my luggage on Rapture, waved goodbye and jumped on Teresia, a 40 foot Bavaria, former charter boat that Martin sailed from the Mediterranean to French Polynesia. It is a simpler boat, no water maker, no AIS, no iridium go, no satellite phone. But it is very comfortable, with large interior space and a straight galley.
We woke with a start the next morning because a sailboat was slowly on a collision course with our stern as they picked up their anchor. We all took turns pushing it away and in the end decided to pull up our anchor and head over to nearby Tahuata island.
I felt free, sailing on a new boat with new faces. We anchored in the same Stevens bay that I’d visited a few days before, white sand beach with coconut palm trees, turquoise water and coral. Nine other boats were enjoying the idyllic scene too. It was the perfect easy way to get to know a new boat and crew. Alex does most of the cooking, vegetarian, hearty and tasty. Lucio is the navigator and all around helping hand. Martin is the captain and helps keep things ship shape.
We went on a bush whacking hike so Alex could try out his new machete. Well, we were supposed to be hiking to the next bay to look for pamplemousse. But it ended up being a rock scramble goat trail “catastrophe” as Martin said. We survived.
Each day I spent a few hours scrubbing the last few months of algae from Teresia’s hull. I felt energized, thinking as I scrubbed of Teresia’s namesake, a queen who advocated for education for all. This sea queen would be glossy and proud soon enough. On the last day of scrubbing a jolly manta ray swam up towards me and surprised the bejeesus out of me. The graceful creature did backflips, over and over, smiling, beckoning us to do the same.
Today we anchored in civilization, a thirty minute sail around the corner to Vaitahu. A proper village with a gorgeous church and Chez Jimmy where you can order fresh picked fruit from Jimmy’s family for pickup the next day. I walked at sunset up the residential streets, kids and grandmas waved hello/bounjour/kaoha, the sun sank light golden yellow over the calm turquoise jet black blue indigo rose sea. Glossy bread fruit leaves, pendant mangoes, limes, hibiscus lined the perfectly kempt and unkempt gardens. Charming and lived in and loved on. Plumeria perfume drifted on the evening warm cool breeze. The shadowy light is friendly, the volcanic cliffs hug you, the laughter from afar assures you there is community, you are safe, this is a sweet sweet land.
This is going to be a great day,” smiled Diane as we loaded up into the dinghy to head to shore here in Hanavave Bay. We arrived yesterday afternoon, after leaving Hiva Oa at 6:30am and sailing at around 6.5 knots on a close reach. It took a few tries to anchor, with poor holding, other boats to avoid plus 30 knot gusts. We prevailed and enjoyed the sunset gleaming off the sculptural volcanic spires, one with a emotive face, as if we disturbed her peace.
Today we enjoyed the feeling of land under our feet for a few hours. We walked up through town, past the soccer field, church and school. Susan bought a dozen eggs at the corner store and I walked back to place them gently in the dinghy. We continued along the river flanked by modest one story homes, patterned fabric swaying in the windows and doorways, each with their freshly painted boats, copra (coconut meat) drying areas, crew of roosters, dogs and goats. Friendly folks invited us to lunch tomorrow at their home, we exchanged easy “bounjour” and “kaoha” salutations with people as we continued along the cement road up into the valley.
Did I mention up? UP. The hike was steep, especially for our boat bodies. I plodded, still recovering from fever aftermath, while Susan bounded on along. Greg disappeared out in front and Diane was more or less between me and Susan. The wind gusted more intensely as we climbed, dense misty clouds hugged the top of the cliffs surrounding the valley bowl. White smoke rose from a coconut grove tucked into a valley nook. It felt like a dreamscape with bright sunlight highlighting new plant growth in the foreground, while muted overcast light kept the steep valley and cliffs in the twilight zone beyond.
As we climbed and climbed, the vast windswept Pacific Ocean stretched out below us and beyond into the blue sky full of white, fast moving puffy clouds. When the cement road turned to red volcanic scrabbly dirt, Diane and I were pelted with gravel gone airborne with the 40 knot gusts. “Alright, it’s time to turn around,” she reasoned. I agreed. We hollered at Susan to join us and found our way back down to the cell tower overlook. Goats munched grass on the landing a steep drop below us. We munched our granola bars and fresh pamplemousse then headed back down the cliff.
Greg was waiting for us at the dinghy dock, wondering where we’d gone. We thought he was ahead of us but alas he turned back long ago and had already done another hike to a waterfall. Funny thing, our dinghy Velocirapture was tied up to a different post than where I’d left it in the morning. We climbed inside to check the eggs, they were partially crushed, oozing golden yolks inside the carton. Disintegrating wet bread covered the floor. Curious mysteries.
A proper afternoon of leisure beckoned. We swam, watched new boats come in to anchor, laughed at the goats climbing precarious volcanic spires, bleating to each other. Our catamaran neighbors S/V Loco came by in their dinghy to say hi and apologize. Their kids had made friends with local kids, who’d commandeered our dinghy for a joy ride. The Loco parents thought we’d allowed the local kids to borrow the dinghy, and realized later that wasn’t the case. Soggy bread and broken egg mysteries solved. Next time we will take the kill switch tether with us to reduce temptation.
Last night, after we’d sailed most of the day then anchored, I was feeling nostalgic, sentimental, perhaps lonely. I looked at the perfect stars blanketing a little fishing row boat bobbing on the black sea. Two fishermen methodically set hooks on handlines, their movements aglow from a lantern inside the hull, making the whole scene look like a theatre performance. Tears rolled down my cheeks, it was a beautiful sight, I felt lucky and also missed everyone. Today I felt the land under my feet recharge my body, I felt the sea current push against me giving me something to resist, something to strengthen me. I pretended I was with my sister, playing in the sea together, hanging on the boat’s toe rails and anchor chain.
It was a strange transition to go from 22 days at sea, with a daily rhythm, to being anchored near a town, with each day tumbling into the next, a series of fix-it projects, provisioning and indeed some fun.
On Saturday morning, we met our private tour guide Jocelyn at the Yacht Services tent. She smiled and welcomed us to hop in a white pick up truck. She seemed unassuming enough, with her classic jelly sandals and close cropped white hair. Oh how wrong first impressions are, most always. She began telling us about the town as we wound up a precipitous, winding road, the steep valley veering off to the right, no guard rails or shoulders. Anytime one of us asked a question, she would say “I will answer that later,” or some terse variation of “Not now.” It became comical to a point, and then at long last we gave up and just followed her program. We did learn a ton about the island, and covered a lot of ground, just at her speed and within all of her rules.
We learned about the trees (teak, rosewood, pine, ficus, ylang ylang, acacia), the sacred sacrificial sights, the long tailed tropical birds, plants (the tree of life from Avatar is based off a flowering and deadly tree here)and where they filmed a season of Survivor. She showed us the valley where Herman Melville wound up and fell in love with the chief’s daughter then wrote a romanticized book about his escapades. Nuku Hiva unfolded in all of her lush, exquisite, dramatic and tropical glory as Jocelyn took us up and down valleys, into the forests, to different coves. We lunched at an open air restaurant on the north side of the island, and feasted on huge plates of curried coconut milk goat, fried bread fruit, butter sauteed cassava and fried seafood. You know you’re eating well when you are shoulder to shoulder with the Taiohae gendarme officers.
After lunch, Jocelyn asked us if we’d like to feed the scraps to the eels? Why yes, yes we would. She gave a sly smirk and piled up the bones and tender morsels onto her plate, then walked us over to the creek alongside the restaurant. Plop! She tossed the scraps in, and in a moment, thick black glossy fresh water eels started to slither upriver to dine. A beautiful brindled hunting dog, with square jaw and shoulders like Ceberus, looked on longingly, salivating at either the scraps, the chickens walking by or perhaps both.
Thank goodness we did the tour because the next few days were about getting the boat ready to go, but island time is a real thing. You have to slow down, even when you are trying to leave. An interesting paradox. Greg and Diane ferried the whisker pole to shore so Kevin could fix it. When our buddy boat Tango arrived after a semi-harrowing passage, Captain John was on Rapture the next day fixing our boom vang mount on the mast that had shorn off. Greg and Susan worked on smaller projects everyday, greasing things that need grease, cleaning, organizing, on repeat.
Susan, Diane and I all helped lug bags of groceries from the three magazines (small grocery corner stores)to the boat. It was fun poking through the freezer cases, seeing chickens from Argentina, bags of foie gras, fresh endive from California in the fridge. We eagerly shopped the Wednesday am farmers’ market and bought a treasure trove of veg and fruits. We woke up early another morning to buy fresh yellowfin tuna from the fishermen carving it up right off their boats, two kilos for 1000 francs ($10).
In the afternoons we swam off the boat, watched kids and grownups go for their daily outrigger canoe workout and stared at each other, beginning to feel a bit restless. We know how to function as a group on the move, we are still learning how to be together in stationary mode.
Rhythm, a sleek black monohull and her friendly captains John and Justine, anchored near us one day. I’d met them when I was crewing on Celtic Song in La Paz, Baja California, Mexico bank in November. They recognized me and invited us to join the other cruisers in the bay for dinner at Henri’s snack shop near the dinghy dock. It was a total joy to share stories and crack jokes with everyone, to eat fries and listen to a live band. Barry from White Shadow, a single hander, had a grueling 71 day passage across the Pacific. He painted a coconut with a face and named it Wilson to get him through. Captains of catamaran Moggy bought a cocaine-carrying catamaran aptly called Bad Kitty that had been impounded by the government, and are waiting on $30,000 worth of gear in order to outfit it and sell it. It felt like the last night of summer camp, the jollyness, the camraderie shared between strangers who are now new friends. Diane and I looked up at the bright rainbow circling the fullish moon and said yup, this is living well.
As the universe is all about balance, I came down with a nasty fever the next morning. Janet on Tango hailed me on the VHF both to ask what medicine I needed and that I should look out the front door, there was a shark feeding frenzy. In a feverish haze I stumbled out carefully into the daylight and watched a fish ball boiling under the surface, and every few seconds five razor sharp shark fins broke the surface in a coordinated, steady circle. A frigate bird swooped in occasionally for fish scraps. It was surreal, on a dead calm morning with that overcast light, not fully in my mind or body, witnessing apex predators eating breakfast. Thank you Janet. Also thanks for the Mucinex.
A gentle peace filled my veins and dove into my bones as we turned into Taiohae Bay. Not just because we had successfully crossed the ocean. More so because the sweet land, swaying trees, glowing grasses and rugged rock formations all welcomed us in high definition. For 22 days our senses were attuned to slight changes in our environment, which was fairly uniform except for the shifting sea, her sky, clouds and the occasional bird. Now we had sunbeams highlighting steep valleys covered in furry green trees, bright in spots and at the next rock ripple hidden in shadows. Shiny vertical mineral veins looked like waterfalls, glinting silver in the early evening sun. Homes in various sizes and colors peeked out from lush gardens on the hillside deep in the bay. As we slowly turned the corner we saw more and more anchored boats, around 35. At once I felt excited and nervous, almost like that feeling in your stomach on the first day of a new grade in school, who would we meet?
Six guys methodically rowed a sleek outrigger besides us, it glided through the water like an arrow. They crossed the mouth of the bay behind us, drawing our attention to the sculptural Ua Pou island in the distance. It’s sharp columnar mountains shooting towards the sky.
Greg slowed Rapture down to a pleasant crawl so we could find our spot amongst these new neighbors. It felt intimate, to wave at people, to know with many we share this experience, of crossing the sea. Like we are all in on the same secret even though we don’t know each other yet. Folks waved back, a man in a full wetsuit puttered back to his boat in a dinghy outfitted with a red dive flag. Catamarans, steel boats, red hulls, orange and blue hulls, long and short, all tucked into the safe calm belly of Taiohae.
Greg, Susan and Diane expertly set anchor while I started to cook dinner. Auspiciously we settled in next to a monohull named Hanna (my sister’s name minus the final H) and a diy steel monohull that Susan and Greg know from Santa Cruz. Once the hook was set everyone congratulated each other, high fives, laughter. Sweet relief. With no one on watch for the first time in weeks, with the boat at rest, our minds eased.
A huge tiki woman rock carving sat proudly on a hill, with a tattooed male warrior carved besides her. Drumming on land began as night fell. We all raised glasses of proper red wine and toasted to arriving in French Polynesia. We toasted to the people that helped train us and teach us. We toasted many many toasts, later with passion fruit liqueur. Gentle rain clouds misted us as we sat together around led candlelight. The half moon and Orion poked through the rain. We rolled into bed for our first full night’s sleep. Content.
A few hours into a deep sleep we awoke to torrential rain coming through the hatches. Susan jumped up to close them. She’s always at the ready. In the morning, Rapture’s salt crusted decks had washed clean from the rain, a welcome luxury. We immediately set to work assembling and inflating Velocirapture, our dinghy that ferries us to and from land. LAND. We had to meet with the gendarme (police) before 11:30am to check into the country. After a solid team effort, sweat and at least an hour, Velocirapture was in the water with her custom red chaps on and her outboard engine purring.
“We are actually leaving the boat!” I hollered with unexpected glee as we took off towards the yellow Yacht Services tent and dinghy dock. Local kids played under a plumeria tree laden with fragrant white flowers, many already scattered on the ground like confetti. Adults breakfasted at long picnic tables under blue vinyl tents. I stepped onto land and felt immediately dizzy. So did Diane, so we took a knee as Greg passed up the garbage to us. We plopped down in front of the Yacht Services office to let the dizziness pass while Greg and Susan filled out paperwork with Kevin, the logistics man in Taiohe. After a few pleasantries with fellow cruisers we plunged deep into the world of wifi, returning messages from friends and family, posting pictures.
Alas, we have to wait on one more official document from Tahiti Crew, so we will meet with the gendarme on Monday. “Just don’t get in any bar fights,” said Kevin, “and you’ll be fine.” Freedom! We explored the small local farmers’ market–all kinds of coconuts, all sizes of banana, yellow and deep purple ube sweet potatoes, banana vinegar, fresh turmeric, chiles, bok choy, squashes, preserved red berries. We walked in the shade along the bay under a huge variety of trees, some dripping with vines, voluptuous pods and bright flowers. Others supported giant breadfruit and glossy green leaves. The soft, yielding, deep red soil cushioned our feet. We took out francs at the bank and sat down for lunch of poisson cru, Hintano beer and fried sliced potatoes.
Thanks for the proper welcome Nuku Hiva, we are so so very glad to be here.
Yesterday was extra pleasant. We’d made our final turn west toward the Marquesas the day before, soon after crossing the equator, so we were on our final downwind run, a sleigh ride as Greg says. We had our parasailor spinnaker flying strong and full, cruising around 6.5 to 7 knots all day with calm seas and clear skies. I chatted with a friend on the SSB radio, took naps and munched on jolly ranchers. We were resting on our newly shellbacked laurels (pre equator crossing we were mere polywogs). As the sun melted into the horizon and Venus winked her first winks of the night, we decided to keep the parasailor up til morning. The ride was so smooth, we were going so fast, there weren’t any squalls in sight.
Greg went over takedown procedures if we did need to douse the sail at night: I go on the foredeck with him, Diane steers to keep the sail on starboard, Susan blows the sheet in the cockpit, Greg pulls down the retrieval line to pull the sock over the sail, then I lower the halyard as Greg stuff the sail into its bag on the foredeck.
Diane, Susan and I all marveled at the stars for a while, pointing out new constellations we’d learned on previous night watches. The cool breeze on our sunned out skin was perfect for basking under the Milky Way. Diane and I retired for the evening while Susan stayed up for her watch. I heard Greg laugh with utter joy when he went up to serve his watch a few hours later, Susan was at the helm with the parasailor flying strong, in her bra, relishing her newfound confidence with this finicky sail.
Greg and Diane served their watches without incident, Greg saw lightning, Diane felt a rain shower. I came up at 4AM for my watch and spotted a small cell on the radar. I watched it for a while, to see if it would cross our path, it seemed like it might so I called Greg up to take a look. A band of black clouds stretched across the horizon off our port side, blocking the stars. Yeah, let’s bring it down, said the captain.
We turned on the foredeck lights, clipped into the jacklines and went on deck. The cockpit crew performed beautifully, they steered correctly and blew the sheet. For some reason, as I heard the wind whipping around the sail and saw Greg begin to pull the retrieval line, my brain switched from rational to panic mode. I started to drop the halyard, huge mistake, wrong order of operations. The sail was half in its sock, hanging dangerously close to the water, still filling with building wind and heeling the boat over to starboard. Greg had to maintain control of the retrieval line as I cranked the halyard back up into its proper position. It started to rain, lines whipped everywhere. I relayed (aka yelled) course directions from Greg back to the cockpit crew.
Greg got the sock all the way down and tied the bridle to the foredeck cleat. He called me up to the bow from my post at the main to help him untangle the mess of spaghetti around him. His headlamp got knocked into the deep when he went to the headstay to take off the soft tacker so he needed light. At this point, I did my training that I learned from SCUBA–stop.breathe.think.breathe.act.breathe. We were past the worst danger. Breathe. The sail is contained and secured to the boat. Breathe. I will shine my light on the lines and help Greg untangle them so we can start the engine and resume course. Breathe.
Susan came up, clad in head to toe star jammies under her life jacket, offering her valuable assistance and her extra bright headlamp. We all worked together, calling back to Diane to release lines from the cockpit as Greg fed them over around and through different points on the bow. The rain abated. We finally got the lines sorted, and we all helped stuff the sail into its bag. Relief.
We triple checked that there weren’t any lines in the water that would foul the prop. Diane started the motor, pointed into the wind and we raised the mainsail. We needed to motorsail for a few hours until daybreak so we could sleep and recuperate.
I apologized for my dangerous error and everyone was gracious and forgiving. You gotta learn somehow, said the captain. We all changed our rain soaked clothes, Susan made tea. I stayed in the cockpit for awhile to let the adrenaline run through me. Once I started yawning Susan sent me below to sleep. In dark black ink I inscribed a short log entry about the situation, thanked the stars that nothing worse happened, and climbed into bed.