Gambiers and Tuamotus
Travelogue 5: The Gambiers and the Tuamotus (1 August 2009)
French Polynesia is one of my favorite places. I was here back in 2003 when I sailed on my previous sailboat across the Pacific, and I have been yearning to return ever since. Here you find some of the most beautiful islands on the planet, for one thing, with outstanding weather and fascinating sea life. Also French Polynesia is largely inhabited by Polynesians, whom I consider marvelous people, and because France pours a lot of money into the place, the infrastructure is of European standards. And, finally, due to the French domination of the culture, the food is the best for thousands of miles in any direction.
Our first stop in French Polynesia was the Gambier Islands, chiefly Mangareva and its main town of Rikitea. The Gambiers are about five small islands that are grouped around the same lagoon, each just a few miles apart at most, so that it seems in a way to all be just different parts of the same island, rather than a group of separate ones. There are rather tall peaks hundreds of feet high on each, with the highest on the largest island, Mangareva, which we could see from over 20 nm away.
The French do an outstanding job of maintaining their navigational aids – unlike most other places in the South Pacific, although Chile also does a good job – so wending our way from the pass around and through the islands and lagoon to the main anchorage at Rikitea was fairly easy. We found it very attractive, with lush hills just behind the town, and mountains framing both ends. It was like Pitcairn in that one could simply walk down the street and find fruit hanging on trees. For example, we were given several grapefruit – pamplemouse the French call it – from right out of the yard of an old German named Dieter Schmack, retired from the French Foreign Legion, which he joined after being arrested in France for stealing gas for a car after escaping from East Germany. But that’s too long a story. . . .
One thing Americans might find amusing is that here in French Polynesia they have siesta – “sieste” they call it – from about noon until about three. We tried to check in with the Gendarmerie, which is a branch of the French military that also serves as Immigration and Customs in remote locales like this, but found them closed for sieste just after lunch, so had to come back later that afternoon. When we returned to their offices we found them – Europeans and Polynesians, men and women – armed to the teeth with massive holsters and big automatic weapons and stun guns and canisters of gas and handcuffs and nightsticks, ready to subdue all these gracious, unarmed Polynesians. I suppose the Gendarmes want to present a strong, no-nonsense presence – at least when they’re not closed for business to take a nap in the middle of the day.
The weather was not good to us at Mangareva, and was mostly overcast with some rain, or the wind blew like hell. One day we went to one of the neighbor islands with the hope of escaping the barking dogs during the night at Rikitea, but the forecast was incorrect and we got caught with a stronger than expected south wind instead of a southwester and had to stay awake all night on anchor watch, hoping we wouldn’t drag and be tossed on a reef. We went back to the main anchorage at first light the next morning and continued to suffer high winds for a couple of days.
Mangareva and the Gambiers have an interesting history. Although all the Gambiers combined have a population of about 1000 now, in pre-European days they had a thriving Polynesian society of maybe 10,000 for centuries until they de-forested the place and their economy collapsed. Then when the French took over a megalomaniac Catholic priest, Father Laval, ran the islands as a personal fiefdom, forcing the locals to build an enormous cathedral and other monuments to his vanity, supposedly causing the death of about 5,000, according to some sources. When the French governor-general in Tahiti – about 900 nm away – discovered the abuses, the priest was discharged and died in shame.
Sticker shock here is a common experience. Prices in French Polynesia are so high it is almost funny. $80 for a case of beer, for example. Or $75 for 20 hours of wireless internet connection at select anchorages. Their wonderful bread, the baguette, on the other hand, is cheap because the government subsidizes it, and fuel is not outrageous, although expensive by US standards, but everything else is sky high. It is fortunate for the locals that they can supplement their grocery shopping by simply picking fruit off the trees and catching fish in the lagoon.
Although there were cars and pickups and motor scooters all up and down the main street in Rikitea, there was no fuel station or any place where we could simply re-fill our jerry cans to pour into Anna’s tanks. We were eager to leave and find better weather, but decided to stay a couple of extra days in order to be present when the supply ship arrived, and buy our diesel directly from them. They wouldn’t fill jerry cans, we were informed, so we borrowed a 55-gallon barrel from Herr Schmack, set it on the dock with everyone else’s, then on arrival of the ship, stood in line and made the deal for 200 liters of diesel for about $285 with a European man seated at a folding table on the dock. Then within a couple of hours, using a large hose and nozzle from an unseen tank aboard the ship a Polynesian worker filled our clearly marked barrel which we then decanted into our six jerry cans, taking two trips with the dinghy, and filled our main tanks with some left over.
It was a nice day, weather-wise, for a change, which was fortunate for us because also that day we discovered that due to the tremendous forces that the high winds had created in the previous days, our anchor had worked itself into the sandy bottom all the way past the stock, or hilt, all the way up to the swivel and chain. It was impossible to dislodge by motoring, so we were forced to use our scuba equipment and our camper’s shovel and excavate around the anchor until finally we were able to motor the anchor free. I have never before experienced being 60 feet deep digging with a shovel with the swirling silt so thick that visibility was not just zero, but absolutely pitch black. It took five tanks of air before we got the anchor free. I used four of them. And my scuba gloves are still stiff with sand and silt.
We finally were able to extricate ourselves from Mangareva – a nice place if the weather is cooperative – and headed to the Tuamotus, also in French Polynesia, which are a series of low-lying atolls with no land higher than, say, five feet, about half covered with palm trees, all of which surrounds a lagoon, into which there is often a pass big enough for a boat our size. (Incidentally, Anna, though 57 feet long and 28 feet wide, draws just 3 ft. 8 inches with the daggerboards up.)
Our first destination in the Tuamotus was Amanu, but on reaching it and investigating with the dinghy through the pass into the lagoon, we found the suggested anchorage on a lee shore, again with overcast skies threatening rain and with fairly high winds of about 20 knots, so we decided to move on and did not stay.
Our next stop, after an overnight passage, was the atoll of Makemo which I had visited before and knew offered good protection in just about any sort of weather, depending on what part of the lagoon you anchored in. And the lagoon there is vast, about 40 miles long and 10 miles wide at the widest. It has two passes, both wide and well marked with navigational aids, into which the tide roars in and out at speeds of over 5 knots. The lagoon is fringed all the way around the barrier reef that separates it from the sea outside by idyllic turquoise-colored water that indicates a sandy bottom. There are also many yellow coral heads that project up out of the depths of the lagoon – our depth finder showed the deepest part to be 140 ft. deep – to just about the surface so when navigating within the lagoon one must pay close attention. If the sun is shining in your eyes or reflecting off the water you can easily miss seeing one of the heads and smack into it. But the water in the lagoon is calm almost like a lake, without the big swell of the seas outside, and so very relaxing in comparison to most of our voyaging.
We anchored at four locations in the lagoon at Makemo, always totally alone except for the anchorage by the village, where there was one more boat, housing a thirtyish-something couple from Minnesota with a 9-year-old son who were now in their third year of cruising, having started in the Chesapeake. The village was quite nice, the people friendly, and we found for the first time since leaving Valdivia on mainland Chile a store that accepted credit cards, which is a great relief as I have just about depleted my cash reserves already. A credit card is especially handy when you’re buying beer at $80 a case – and buying several cases like I had to do for my thirsty crew – as well as expensive but poor quality boxed wine for me, and pork chops and other pricey food items.
Snorkeling was our main activity during our stay at Makemo. We intended on scuba diving, and even filled our tanks which we had depleted digging out the anchor at Mangareva, but never got around to actually putting on our suits, largely because we snorkeled so much. I am an avid snorkeler and as soon as the anchor is dropped and secured, I jump in and inspect it underwater, often taking a speargun so that I can continue and go look for fish to hunt. At one of the anchorages, I quickly nabbed a smallish grouper at some coral heads nearby and swam back to the boat. I cleaned it and because grouper can carry the ciguatera toxin, we decided to test it with a test kit that includes various solutions and litmus paper and takes about a half hour to conclude. Because the grouper was really too small to feed all three of us, I went back out to look for more while John and Dale -- not as enthusiastic as I about the underwater scene -- waited for the results of the ciguatera test. I went to a more distant coral head projecting up out of deeper water, using the dinghy this time, and anchored it near the top. Like most such heads, that clump of coral – maybe 200 feet across – was the home and focal point for myriad kinds of fish and other reef life, but not many colorful fanciful corals and anemones and such which apparently need stronger current than the mid-lagoon offers. Nevertheless, it was highly interesting with so many fish – perhaps 100 different species, some in schools -- to observe. Also there were countless beautiful reef clams with mantles (which look like lips) in dazzling colors, some clams a foot or more wide. Finally I noticed one nice grouper but he ducked into a cave after I dived on him and although I waited, he never reappeared. Then suddenly, farther down, a larger grouper – bigger than any I have ever taken before – presented himself to me with a fair, but distant shot, so I let fly and the spear struck him low, below the pectoral fin, at an acute angle. He shot off into a deep cave, pulling my speargun – attached to the spear by a line – almost out of my hand, so I grabbed the gun with both hands and pulled, and suddenly the spear came out. Evidently I did not get a real good hit on him, though it was a hit because he left some flesh on the spear tip. So I struggled to reload the speargun and drifted away. By the time I returned there was a group of sharks in a frenzy, one with a fish in his mouth, the others excited by it, with other much smaller fish zipping around apparently also hoping for a morsel. They were all moving away from me and I could not see clearly nor did I linger to investigate, but hurried back to the dinghy and scampered up into it. I assumed it was the fish I had crippled that the sharks were struggling over, but cannot be for sure. I was glad that the grouper managed to free himself from the spear, or in escaping the sharks I might have been forced to cut the line and lose the spear – or even just let the whole thing go, speargun and all.
Later I tried again at another coral head, and as soon as I jumped in a gray reef shark appeared, with two remoras attached. He exhibited no threatening behavior such as hunching his back or swimming with an exaggerated side-to-side motion, but was curious and kept approaching me, and would disappear then suddenly reappear maybe 20 feet away. After circling the coral head I headed back to the dinghy without ever letting my spear fly for fear of setting off the shark and others of his species. He followed me all the way but when I grabbed hold of the dinghy he disappeared, so I took off my fins and clambered in.
That day we decided to move on about 100 nm to Fakarava, and because the pass there can be challenging, we decided to time our arrival the next day at slack water, which happened to be at sunrise, 6 a.m. So we sailed overnight to Fakarava, which is the second largest of all the atolls in the Tuamotus, and arrived at the pass at the perfect time which we entered under absolutely gorgeous, partially cloudy skies of tangerine and gold tinged with streaks of vermillion and large patches of purple off in the west. After taking a nap to recover from the overnighter and to allow the sun to move higher, we all three went snorkeling together at a fairly extensive coral head, using the dinghy to get there, and as soon as I jumped in the water I saw a shark. But there being three of us must have intimidated the shark because after a moment we did not see him again. We slowly snorkeled around the entire head and never saw another trace of that or any other shark, but we did see lots of tempting grouper which I hesitated to shoot because we were so far from the dinghy. Finally on our return to the dinghy I let the others climb in while I waited for a grouper nearby, then quickly nabbed him and got it into the dinghy as quickly as possible. We tested it and it was borderline, so I had a half-fillet that lunch to double-check, the others still somewhat suspicious. Sure enough that afternoon I became queasy and suffered minor gastro-intestinal problems for a couple days. A couple of days later I shot another beautiful grouper just over two-foot long, but again he tested questionable for ciguatera and I had to offer him back to the lagoon.
The reason John and Dale have been foregoing underwater hunting, by the way, is that neither can load our spearguns, which demand a certain degree of strength to pull the rubber bands (each speargun has two) into the firing position. The spearguns I bought for the boat require too long of a pull. I will look for smaller spearguns when we get to Tahiti because we really do not need these long ones anyway. I am fortunate to have had some good experience spearfishing and snorkeling and scubadiving that neither John nor Dale have had, and they naturally are both a bit more hesitant than I to jump in. To me, though, getting in the water is about half the fun of cruising.
One day we did a drift dive at the south pass into the lagoon at Fakarava. It is notable for the gray reef sharks that congregate there for the incoming tide. We went down about 75 feet deep and drifted into the lagoon amid hundreds of gray reef sharks, all calm and moving slowly against the current. It reminded me of a cattle drive. They did not seem to be feeding, but perhaps they were. I cannot figure out what else they were doing unless they also, for some reason, enjoy or thrive on the strong current. And they do this every day. The coral there in the pass was more colorful than further up in the lagoon, and overall that scuba dive was exceptional.
We stayed at two other anchorages at Fakarava besides the one near the south pass, one of which was totally isolated with a beautiful palm-lined beach a couple of hundred feet ahead, while the other was off the main town of Rotoava, in which every business – including a café -- and office was closed for sieste when we took our dinghy ashore at 12:15. We did two other dives far inside the lagoon but were disappointed at both because of lack of variety of coral and fish and because of murky water. The snorkeling wasn’t great either, but still interesting, and the water was beautiful turquoise and I would recommend Fakarava to anyone.
Traveling in the lagoon at Fakarava allowed us to reach the 5000 nm mark for our voyage so far. In all that distance we have still not seen a vessel of any sort underway at sea since the second day out of Chile, although in Fakarava lagoon we have seen several at anchor and moving about. The highest water temperature we have registered is 84.5 deg. in the lagoon here.
All three of us have all come to appreciate ever more the truly outstanding quality of our home and transportation on the water, this yacht, Anna. She sails great (although we haven’t pushed her yet), motors unbelievably for a sailboat, is very comfortable, and is highly efficient with our wind generator and solar cells and watermaker and fishing gear making us just about totally independent. Both the design and construction are exceptional, and I realize that I am very lucky to be sailing one of the very best boats of her size in the world.
Our next destination is Tahiti, 250 nm away, in the Society Islands, and the capital and hub of French Polynesia.