Sunday, July 31, 2011

Ahhh, Tahanea

So we've been anchored in the southeast corner of Tahanea, in the Tuamotus, for the last five days or so.

The original plan was for us to give a ride to a grad student studying the very endangered titi (Tuamotu sandpiper) from her main field site on this atoll to Raraka, where titi have also been recently sighted.

That trip fell through, as the student apparently couldn't get permission to work on Raraka. So we suddenly have a little spare time on our hands. At first the temptation to do Something Useful was strong. We've thought about doing more biology work from the boat, and we talked about taking this chance do our own titi surveys on Raraka and another atoll, Motutunga.

But then good sense broke out on board Galactic.

-We've been in Tahanea all this time, I said to Alisa, and I still haven't been snorkelling except with Elias. I haven't taken any bird photos yet!

Tahanea is a place that we know from our past trip across the Pacific, and it is one of our very favorite places. It offers a powerful antidote for all the long Alaskan winters that Alisa and I lived through in our past life, it is the place that we have decided will do just fine as the embodiment of the tropical paradise that we spent years dreaming of.

But, it turns out that the demands of child care and boat care don't stop just because you're in a Tropical Paradise, and we've spent most of our time here so far taking care of the everyday business of family life afloat.

So we have decided to just stay here for a few more days, to enjoy this beautiful beautiful place without accepting the additional challenge of some ad hoc field work somewhere else...


Meanwhile, one of the best parts of this visit to Tahanea has been snorkelling with Elias. We get him all kitted up in his wetsuit and mask/fins/snorkel and head out, holding hands with him and pointing at interesting fish along the way. And then after twenty minutes or so he tells us that he's hungry, tired and thirsty, and we are reminded that he is still only four.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

How Can You Miss Us If We Never Leave?

We've got this whole Pacific crossing planned out. Having gotten such a late start on the season, and being in the mindset that this is half a delivery and half a cruise, we are standing firm against the temptation to dally. The major island groups that we will visit have all been allotted a planned amount of time so that we'll reach Oz on schedule.

Before making landfall in Fatu Hiva, we set aside two weeks for the Marquesas.

On the afternoon of our forty-third day in those islands we came preciously close to leaving. But just as our momentum for pulling the anchor was building, Yolene and a friend came out for an unannounced visit in a borrowed rowboat. At the end of the (delightful) visit it was too late in the day for us to leave. Hearing that we would delay our departure until the next morning, Yolene set up a night-time rendezvous on the wharf, where she absolutely buried Alisa in fruit - pamplemousse, mango, papaya, avocado (!), korosole. This was the third large gift of fruit that we were given in Taiohae. If Marquesans really like you, they give you lots and lots of fruit.

The next day, with stalks of bananas tied all over deck and Galactic deep on her lines with the weight of our quickly-ripening fruit, we finally picked the hook and made a couple passes by the wharf to wave goodbye to Yolene. We were leaving Taiohae! But the weather was crap. For days we had been blowing from side to side at anchor, and the only reason we even went out to see what it might be like was that so many other sailors had already told us it was too poor for travelling that we had to form our own opinion. At the mouth of Taiohae Bay we found howling winds and spray blowing off the tops of waves. So instead of the 540 mile passage to the Tuamotus we chose the six mile passage to Daniel's Bay and settled into a couple more days on the island of Nuku Hiva.

In Daniel's Bay we found that another beachside house that we knew from three years ago had been swept away by the Chilean tsunami.

After two days there, and a great hike with Elias through a valley as beautiful as any other in the world (impossibly steep lava cliffs above, bucolic village with groves of fruit trees and ornamental plants lining the road below, fairy terns over everything), and wonderful interactions with both the local giant freshwater eels and also Augustin, one of the ten-odd people living in the village of Hakaui, who gave a convincing impression of remembering us from three years before, the weather improved. Finally, on our forty-sixth day, we left the Marquesas.

Our course took us to the south, which meant that we were sailing into the trades and heeled over, which meant that Eric couldn't be left to wander around the cabin but had to be closely attended throughout his waking hours, which meant that Elias got the short end of the parental attention stick and threw those kinds of tantrums that I swore were passe at the age of four. Alisa and I found ourselves struggling through the days. But on the bright side we were making an easy eight or eight and a half knots and I got the strong impression that Galactic would be the boat to take us anywhere on the oceans where we might reasonably want to go. And the passage was generous with time to reflect on the place that we had just visited, and (at least when the kids were asleep) we revelled in the blue blue Pacific, and the endless stars overhead at night, and the magic of sunrise behind tradewind clouds, and the size and emptiness of it all. We felt the ineffable peace of the sea.

On our fourth day out we sailed into the Tuamotu Archipelago, a universe of low coral atolls. We transited the pass into our chosen lagoon at completely the wrong stage of the tide, but found it quite manageable nonetheless. And then with me up in the spreaders looking out for coral we picked the way to our first anchorage here.

And now we have a little rebirth, as we start everything anew in this completely different place.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

No Conversation Possible

We were thinking of leaving yesterday.  But then we heard that it is traditional for the owner of one of the magasins in town to sponsor a performance the morning after the grand finale of the dance competition that we've been watching for the last three weeks.  So of course instead of getting the boat ready we went to the magasin to see the dancing.

It was Yolene and her cousin Po'iti who told us about the dancing.  Yolene has become Alisa's great friend in Taiohae.  

Yolene apparently noticed Alisa walking around town with the two boys morning after morning while I was back on the boat working, and started calling her "Apache" in her mind.  As in, 'check out that Apache-looking gal who's always walking around town - what's up with her?'

Yolene eventually approached Alisa, and they formed a quick bond.  She also took a particular shine to Eric. 

Yesterday morning before the dancing began Yolene gave Eric a necklace she'd made for him, a necklace with a tuki popo'i on it, something like a pestle.  She told Alisa that when Eric came back to Taiohae some day she'd be able to recognize him if he were wearing the necklace.  And she gave Alisa a pair of intricately carved shell earings.  

Alisa was overwhelmed by these gifts.

Yolene and Alisa became quite close even they don't share a language.  Meeting Yolene was a gateway into Taiohae, as Alisa (and I) have met her English-speaking sisters and cousin who could fill us in a bit on who is who and what is generally going on.  Meeting all these people has been great.  But Yolene is very much the main connection, even if Alisa can't talk with her.  Other people translate for them at times, but their friendship gets along fine without that intercession, too.  It helps that Yolene is a person of tremendous presence, who can happily hang out with a foreigner without becoming shy or self-conscious.  And of course Alisa has a gift for friendship that has played a role in their connection.

And really, for anything that you might say about a young unmarried woman who is keen to be around a baby, or a mom with two small kids who is spending a lot of time in a strange town with no friends, it was really just a bit of universal human understanding that brought Yolene and Alisa together.

Alisa cried on the dinghy ride back to Galactic after we said goodbye to Yolene. 

After we said goodbye to Yolene and Po'iti we both felt very strongly that shore was now tapu to us - we'd made our bonds with the place, and then broken them, and it was now very much time to leave.

But then Alisa braved one more trip ashore with Elias, running all around town looking for Yolene.  She finally found her, after it was getting dark and she was feeling heartbroken over braving the shore again and then being frustrated in her search.  She left Yolene with a silver bracelet from Alaska.  Yolene was, as ever, cool, and not particularly fussed over the gift, but it meant a lot for Alisa to leave it with her.

We talk about coming back here some time to spend a year.  And we even floated the idea of staying now.  But we're definitely going, today, which means that we're walking away from something really special here.

The Tuamotus await, and we trust that there are plenty of delights waiting for us there.

But what we've found here in Taiohae has given us the feeling that all the effort that we've put into this new boat has been worth it. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Taiohae Grows On Us

July 14th was, of course, Bastille Day here in the Francophone world.  And Taiohae showed itself in the very best light on the big day. 

The big event for the morning was a parade.  And Taiohae, it must be said, does a parade very very well.

The parade was made up of people walking in small, distinct groups.

There was the Belles of the Pacific group, Past Masters division...

...and Current Title Holders division:

There was the youth group from Tahiti:

Each group stopped in front of the reviewing stand and performed a little number for the venerable and esteemed people who were doing the reviewing.  This is the Current Title Holders group.  Just look at the setting - when they started dancing, I felt all of my South Pacific dreams coming true.

After a few sports clubs and school groups, the main attraction came along - the Marquesan Cultural Awareness group.  And they took it all to another level.

 The Cultural Awareness folks didn't wait for the reviewing stand to begin their performing:

After the parade the Cultural Awareness mob embarked on a spate of competitive/showy horsemanship on the beach.

That's me taking pics.  And I got some fun ones.

All the riding was bareback.  Three people fell off.

After the dust had settled a bit Eric got in his first-ever horse ride.

This gal was a part of a string of seven or eight riders.  She loaded up Elias and they took off - didn't see him for fifteen minutes or so.  Figured that he'd come back with a face tattoo.

We've been here long enough to get to know some people - famously stand-offish Taiohae is starting to thaw for us.  Alisa in particular has been starting to get down with the locals.  Yesterday a yachtie who's been here for four years mentioned to Alisa that the gendarmes are very relaxed about giving out visa extensions.  Why don't you stay until March and then leave? the yachtie asked.

It's been fun to see how that idea has taken Alisa.

The end.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Three Years

We had been in Taiohae for more than two weeks when I finally finished revisions to the science paper that I've been working on.  Looking for a change of scene, we headed over to Tai-Pi Bay/Controller Bay, the scene of Herman Melville's novel about life in the Marquesas.

We knew that we could get water in Controller Bay (there's no potable water in Taiohae), and we also knew that there's a break there that is suitable for a forty-something year old novice surfer.  And we were also eager to meet up again with two people we'd met at Controller Bay three years ago - Dolores and her son Jan.

Dolores' house is right next to the beach, but as far as we can tell she and Jan don't seek out contact with the yachties who visit their bay.  Last time around we me them because, with the audacity of the fairly clueless, we walked into their yard and asked if they wanted to trade fruit for a piece of spare line that we had.

We were shocked at the warm reception that they gave us that first time - running around the yard to pick fruit for us, taking on an outing to see the ruins up the valley, giving one-year-old Elias his first ever horse ride.

They were just as friendly this time out.  Alisa arrived with some gifts for Dolores, and they showered us with fruit.  And although Jan was heading off to work, he went and got his horse, Chanti, for Elias to ride.  He made me understand that I could lead Elias around on the horse as long as we wanted, then tie her up by the side of the road when we were done, and if we wanted to come back later for another ride, that was fine, too.

That's Dolores holding Elias in both pictures, now and then, and also pics of Jan and Chanti and Elias, now and then.

Non-French speaking yachties are at quite a disadvantage when interacting with people in the Marquesas, and it's easy for us to just visit with people who make a habit of seeking out yachties.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, but those interactions tend towards professional friendship, as the local seeking you out tends to be looking for something in return for his friendship.  I think that's one of the reasons we remembered Dolores and Jan so fondly, as our time with them felt so unrehearsed, so novel from our side and theirs.

The view down on Dolores' house from the road.  Since our last visit the house was destroyed in a tsunami and rebuilt.  You can still see the plume of muddy debris from the tsunami just behind the house, but we're not sure how recent the tsunami was.  I worked hard to learn a little French before our last trip to these islands, and it was amazing how much information I could exchange with people with even a tiny vocabulary at my disposal.  But, alas, my traveller's French is gone, and I can no longer even say things like 'House - sea - how much months?'

Dolores gave Alisa a pile of guava, which Alisa turned into a masterful guava cobbler.  There was also lots of guava juice left over, which it turns out makes a wonderful elixir when mixed judiciously with rum!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Stove By A Whale

Yesterday just before dinner we received a mayday call.

The boat was a catamaran, with three people on board.

They had been struck by a whale and were taking on water faster than they could pump out.

We put their coordinates in the GPS and found they were 54 miles from us - we assume that we could hear them on the VHF only because of repeaters that must be on the islands here.

We responded, and confirmed their location.  The man who had called mayday was very calm, was showing grace under the greatest of pressure.  He said he wasn't sure how long they would stay afloat.  'The water's only in one hull', he said.  'But if it comes over the top into the other hull...'

Later Alisa and I agreed that we were both surprised to be the only boat responding to a mayday call, given the density of yachts in the Marquesas.

The boat calling mayday had said that they were 18 miles south of Ua Pou.  I tried raising 'any boat anchored at Ua Pou' but got no response, so I came back up with the mayday boat and told them we'd organize a boat to come out from Taiohae, where we are.

Now it's obvious that it was a poor idea, but my first thought was that a yacht would have to go out for the rescue.  The gendarmes here have only a little powerboat, and all the yachts here are of course competent on the open ocean.  But it would have taken us a couple hours to get Galactic to sea.  Alisa and I talked over the different possibilities.  Elias interrupted to ask us if the whale was going to be OK.

I dinghied over to an Australian singlehander who I knew was ready to set off for the Cooks, and he was quite happy to put to sea with me on board.  But then, luckily, he had the bright idea that the gendarmes could organize a better rescue than a single yacht heading off by itself.  So, long story short, I ran up to the gendarmerie, and the gendarmes were soon talking to their counterparts in Ua Pou, and the rescue coordination center in Tahiti.

Alisa meanwhile had one more broken exchange with the mayday boat, who gave an updated set of coordinates and reported that they were sinking at that very moment.

After we got the boys to bed, Alisa and I played cards in the cockpit and listened to the military plane that was circling over the liferaft and talking to the sailors on the VHF.  They reported that a ship was en route to pick them up, and that, except for a refuel in Nuku Hiva they would stay overhead until the sailors were safe....

This morning the gendarmes tell me that the three sailors are all fine, and have been picked up by one of the island supply ships, the Taporo IX.  They're due here in Taiohae in half an hour.

(I won't put the name of the boat online just to make sure the story doesn't spread before the sailors involved can notify their people back home...)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Working Our Way

I don't usually write about my work on this blog.  But lately my work has been pushing everything else out.  Right now I'm a part of two different marine biology research projects.  When those projects were coming together, the plan was that we would be spending 2011 mostly stationary in Tasmania, where it would be easy for me to work.  But then we went and bought a boat in California and committed to delivering her back to Oz.  So that leaves me working my way across the Pacific - we've planned several extended stays in familiar ports during the crossing to give me time to meet my work commitments.

We're in the first of those work stops now - in Taiohae, Nuku Hiva.  I spend the days working away, and Taiohae gives Alisa a semi-convenient place to entertain the boys ashore.

Family life aboard the boat very much requires a joint effort from Alisa and me, so when I take most of the day for work, a huge part of the burden of keeping things going is shifted onto Alisa.

It takes a little while to get used to the indifference of Taiohae.  The villages on Nuku Hiva, and in the rest of the Marquesas, are so friendly, but this town is much more restrained in the way it greets outsiders.

But to make up for that, it has the most beautiful setting that I can remember for any town that I've ever seen.

And I can get wifi from the boat, a must for work. 

(Moitessier rolls over in his grave.)

And Alisa can eke out a little fun for the boys.  A big hit has been the hotel that offers up its pool for the price of an orange juice and a coffee.

OK - I've got to get back to work.