Update from Ahe

On Friday, we motored from the main village of Taiohae, Nuku Hiva to Hakatea Bay on the southern tip of the island. The bay is better known as Daniel’s Bay, named after the friendly Marquesan man who lives near the anchorage. The protected bay is towered over by impressive rocky cliffs and the stunning surroundings makes Daniel’s Bay one of the most beautiful anchorages that I have ever visited. Arriving just after noon, there were only three other boats in the harbor. On Friday evening, Bud and Kathy of Invictus IV invited all of the other boats over for drinks and appetizers. I originally met Bud and Kathy in Panama and we have crossed paths in the Galapagos and on Hiva Oa. One of the other boats, Three Ships, I have known even longer since we first met six months ago in Trinidad. It was nice to reunite with familiar friends and I heard for the first time the harrowing story of how Invictus III was scuttled at sea during a passage from the Bahamas to Miami. With two young children on board, their O’Day 39 was hit by a storm that managed to work the keel bolts loose. The vessel began to take on water, forcing the family to send out a call for a help. A nearby cruise ship refused to provide assistance, but a supertanker deviated from their course to come to the rescue. As the cockpit filled with water, the family one by one climbed up a rope ladder that continually dunked them in the ocean as they held on for their lives in 40-knot winds. In an attempt to save the boat, the tanker provided a six-inch thick rope to tow the beleaguered vessel. Unable to find anywhere else to tie the towrope, Bud fastened it to the support in front of the helm. The steering station was immediately ripped from the deck. Only a sextant and a bagful of clothes were saved as the boat sank into the sea. The lesson that the family learned from the experience was to always keep an inflated dinghy on the deck in order to have two options, both the life raft and the dinghy, available in the case of an emergency. Surprisingly, after the traumatic experience the entire family continues to sail and Bud and Kathy christened their next boat Invictus IV, although they did not opt for another O’Day 39 and chose a steel sloop. On Saturday morning, Anna and I headed ashore to hike up to the Vaipo Waterfall. According to our guidebooks, the Vaipo Waterfall is supposed to be the third highest waterfall in the world. As a brief digression, the ranking of waterfalls seems to vary depending on the height, the volume of water, and the number of drop-off’s. Angel Falls in Venezuela appears to be well recognized as the highest, but the ranking then becomes a bit muddled as waterfalls in South America and Africa all make claims to being one of the highest. I am not sure on what basis this waterfall claims to be the third highest, but, in any case, it is a pretty high waterfall. Before we could begin our hike, we first had to navigate the dinghy through breaking surf and wind our way up a shallow though scenic river. Tying the dinghy off to a palm tree, we introduced ourselves to Daniel who pointed us in the direction of the trail. In Taiohae, some cruisers warned us that the hike to the waterfall would take two and a half hours each way, that we would have to wade across rivers chest-deep and that we would be pestered by bugs on the trail and chased by eels in the water. These are probably the same sailors that claim to always be sailing 9 knots, to be frequently battling 40 knot winds, and who constantly land 50-pound tuna. In fact, the walk took about an hour and a half there, despite getting lost for half an hour, and just over an hour to walk back. There were two refreshing streams that we did need to wade across, but some scrambling across rocks allowed us to avoid getting too wet. The insects were vicious and even by wearing long sleeves and long pants along with large amounts of bug spray, we were unable to avoid getting harassed by the nono’s. However, the discomfort was well worth it since the hike led us through a beautiful forest full of ferns, moss, and bright flowers. The waterfall itself was impressive, although the view of the sections of the waterfall were obstructed by surrounding walls of rock. Once we arrived at the base of the waterfall, we amused ourselves with some small-scale bouldering and marveled at the lush green surroundings before traipsing back to the boat. Returning to Daniel’s Bay, we again met the proprietor and traded him an old t-shirt for a couple of coconuts and about 15 gallons of fresh water. Back on the boat, we enjoyed a hearty lunch followed by a desert of the succulent but messy local grapefruit. In the evening, I was able to put my new machete to use. Cracking open the two coconuts, we mixed the fresh coconut milk with pineapple juice and rum for a tasty sundowner. The coconut meat provided a nice snack for a couple of days. There probably are better ways to spend a day than waking up to a breakfast of Colombian coffee with fresh bananas, grapefruit, and coconut meat followed by a hike through a verdant valley before lunching on baguettes and cheese then whiling away the hot afternoon hours reading in the shade on a boat in a lovely anchorage in the South Pacific before enjoying a healthy dinner topped off with a rum, coconut, and pineapple concoction to cap off a nice day. There probably are better ways to spend a day, but right now I can’t think of any. On Sunday, we sailed to Ua Puo. Although the trip is only 26 miles, the direction of the wind prevented us from sailing along the rhumb line. Instead, we were forced to tack our way towards our destination. With only an hour of daylight left, I decided to motor the rest of the way in an effort to arrive before nightfall. As the engine overheated and we slowly motored through the oncoming waves, we watched the sun set and nervously looked for the entry to the anchorage. Radioing in for guidance on where to anchor, we were fortunate that the engine held out long enough for us to drop the anchor just before the bay was swallowed in darkness. After an uncomfortable night checking the anchor and being tossed by the large swells, on Monday morning we moved to a more protected part of the harbor. Ua Puo is best known for the towering 12-pointed basalt pinnacles dominating the island. These impressive columns are visible from over 40 miles away and provide the island with a magnificent skyline. As a PhD student in geology, Anna is continually snapping pictures of the different rock formations, marveling at random stones, and lecturing on such foreign concepts as calderas, hot spots, and basalt needles. I can understand that the Marquesas must be a wonderland for anyone who cares about rocks. However, my interest in rocks extends only as far as trying to climb them when I am on land and trying not to hit them when I am on the boat. In Ua Puo we had planned to top off our drinking water and tidy up the boat before setting off for the Tuomotus. Upon arriving, we were informed that the supply ship from Tahiti, the Aranui 3, was scheduled to arrive on Tuesday. Apparently, the arrival of the supply ship means more than just replenished amounts of ice cream and beer for islanders. In addition, the supply ship carries passengers from Tahiti and the arrival of the ship is cause for celebration. I am nothing if not culturally curious and since a series of cultural events and a feast were scheduled for Tuesday, we decided to stay an extra day to observe the festivities. The first event was a traditional dance put on by the natives. The dance was pretty much what you would expect a French Polynesian dance to be: the women danced like seductive nymphs that have not met missionaries, the men danced like courageous warriors that have not met a gun, and the whities jockeyed for position to take pictures like imperialists eager to capture their portion of paradise. Following the dance was a dinner serving traditional Marquesan food. Having never sampled Marquesan food, I was eager to find out what these fat and happy people eat. Unfortunately, reservations were required and there was no room available for us to join the feast. If I had to guess, I would bet that Marquesan cuisine focuses on fish, coconuts, bananas, and lemons, but it could just as easily consist of cheeseburgers and french fries for all I know. As long as they weren’t serving pasta or rice, any type of meal would have been welcomed. Instead, we resorted to our own traditional Marquesan meal of baguettes and butter. As soon as the Aranui 3 left the harbor on Tuesday afternoon, we decided to take advantage of the strong wind and set off for the Tuomotus. Although the 20-25 knots of wind made for a wild ride as soon as we left the harbor, two months of sailing in the Pacific has taught us that good winds are a rare thing and should not be wasted. Clearing the lee of Ua Puo, the wind and waves built further and we put a couple of reefs in the main and switched from the jib to the staysail. Scorching along at between seven and eight knots, we managed to hook a nice bonito. A post-mortem conducted after hauling the fish aboard suggested the cause of death as either being dragged through the water for an hour or asphyxiation caused by skipping across the waves. The two hooks in the fish’s mouth are considered a contributing factor in the death although foul play is not suspected at this time. Just before nightfall, I finished filleting the fish and set them aside to make poisson cru, a popular French Polynesian dish in which the raw fish is combined with garlic, onion, peppers, cucumbers, and tomato then soaked for two to three hours in coconut cream. Since the autopilot is still broken and the windvane is also out of order, Anna and I had the unenviable task of handsteering all the way to the Tuomotus. This development changes a passage from simply tedious to outright torture. Instead of reading and occasionally glancing around to check on the sails and scanning the horizon for the presence of other ships, hand steering requires constant attention to steer by either the wind or the compass. In addition, waking up the off-watch changes from simply walking downstairs and rousing the other person from their sleep to yelling as loud as possible from the cockpit to try to wake up the sleep deprived shorthanded sailor without leaving the helm. During the first night, as I was steering in rough seas, I looked over my shoulder to see a wall of water bearing down on the boat. The wave broke just over the cockpit and filled the entire cockpit with water. Seawater flooded down the companionway below and the force of the wave sent Anna flying from her bed. After the cockpit drained, we assessed the damage and were happy to find that the only casualties were a bunch of bananas and the filleted fish that had washed overboard. I have lost a lot of fish in a lot of ways, but I’m pretty sure that this is the first time that I have ever lost a fish after filleting it. Luckily, we caught a similar fish the next day and managed to eat it before it was able to find some new and creative way of escaping. During the first couple of days of the passage, we made good progress towards the Tuomotus to the southwest. Strangely, the wind blew 20-30 knots out of the northeast instead of from the southeast. On the third day, the wind died and our progress stalled before a light wind arose out of the northwest. As soon as we came within 100 miles of our destination, the wind dropped again and shifted to the southwest. Finally, on Saturday, a 5-10 knot breeze came out of the southeast. After three months in the Pacific Ocean, I still have not seen the trade winds that are supposed to blow constantly at around 15 knots from the southwest. This passage once again confirmed my theory that the trade winds are like communism: they may make sense in theory, but they never work in practice. Aside from the erratic wind direction, we experienced winds of either 20-30 knots or 0-10 knots, never that happy medium that makes for really comfortable, easy sailing. From what I am told, this is a La Nina year and this should mean that the winds are better than normal, as opposed to an El Nino year in which the winds are light. Whether it is a boy or girl, the fact remains that sailing in the Pacific thus far has been less than spectacular. Finally, after five days of hand steering, we neared the Tuomotus. This group of islands was formerly known by the English name of “Dangerous Islands,” an appropriate name given by sailors due to the treacherous nature of navigating through these islands. Because these islands are low-lying atolls, palm trees represent the highest point and the islands are not visible until a boat is very close to shore. Navigating this island group is further complicated by the nature of the lagoons. Due to the tidal changes, the passes entering the large lagoons have wicked currents of up to nine knots as huge amounts of water rush in and out. In addition, the lagoons are full of coral heads and the low-lying islands provide little protection from bad weather. Many sailors choose to skip these islands to avoid the risk of a mishap. Although the proliferation of GPS’s have reduced the number of shipwrecks around these islands, yachts continue to experience problems. Within the last couple of weeks, the famous British yacht Gypsy Moth IV became the latest victim of these dangerous islands. Gypsy Moth IV gained fame in the 1960’s when Sir Francis Chichester sailed the boat around the “three capes” (Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, and Cape Horn), stopping only in Australia. The trip resulted in a bestselling book and international fame for both the author and the boat. The vessel was then retired and placed in the British National Maritime Museum until a syndicate of sailing magazines and companies in the United Kingdom renovated the yacht recently so that it could take part in the Blue Water Rally, an around-the-world sailing regatta. When I saw the boat in Panama, it was well-equipped with state-of-the-art electronics and had a professional crew consisting of a captain, assistant-captain, and at least four additional hands. The news that this famous boat ran hard aground on the coral of Rangiroa in the Tuomotu islands came as a shock to the British sailing community and serves as a warning for other cruisers entering the area. After being dragged off the coral by a power boat, Gypsy Moth IV is said to have been placed on a freighter and is being shipped down to Tahiti where roughly $200,000 of repairs need to be completed to make the vessel seaworthy. Undaunted, we carefully approached the atoll of Ahe on Sunday. The first challenge was staying safely offshore until sunrise to avoid becoming another shipwreck. This was achieved by reducing sail and slowly sneaking up on the island throughout the night. The second obstacle was navigating through the only pass leading into the protected lagoon. Thanks to information provided by the home office, we were notified of the tidal schedule for the Tuomotus for this week. Since we knew when to expect high and low tide, we were able to time our arrival to coincide with slack tide, which occurs about an hour after low tide (it also occurs after high tide, but entering on a falling tide is dangerous since, in the unfortunate circumstance of going aground, the boat would only become more stuck as the tide fell instead of floating off, as it should in a rising tide). Lacking this information, we would have been forced to attempt to enter the lagoon five hours after the moonrise. This would have proved difficult since we were close to a new moon and, in any case, cloudy skies prevented even seeing the moon. Armed with tidal information, we nervously approached the pass. I cautiously steered through the surging waves and Anna went forward to identify shallow water and potential obstacles. Fortunately, the sun came out just as we came into the pass, illuminating the various shades of blue and making the deep water apparent. Once through the pass as we motored forward in 15 feet of water (Audentes draws 6 feet), we suddenly were surrounded by choppy water and were flummoxed as to where the deep water lay. Had we been able to turn around, we would have aborted the attempt and headed for Rangiroa. However, lacking any exit plan, we plodded forward and soon the water became darker, indicating deeper water. The coral heads in the lagoon were well marked and our 6-mile motor across the lagoon was uneventful. The only difficulty lay in anchoring since the small anchorage is littered with coral and rocks that the boat could swing into or that the anchor chain could get wrapped around. Since we are the only boat in the harbor, we were able to try a couple of times before settling on a suitable location. After anchoring, Anna prepared crapes, an acceptable French version of the traditional meal of pancakes that now follows the completion of successful passages. Safely at anchor, we are eager to begin exploring Ahe and to partake in the many water based activities available. The last several days have been stressful as we prepared for a landfall in a notoriously difficult area. One of the interesting aspects of sailing is that the most rewarding experiences are rarely the successful conclusions of a passage or relaxing in a picturesque anchorage, as most people would expect. Rather, the most fulfilling and memorable moments come from the setbacks and difficulties that must be overcome along the way. Similar to the transit of the Panama Canal, navigating through a challenging atoll was expected to be a stressful and potentially horrific experience, but ended up being an exhilarating and fun exercise that required preparation and focus. There is probably a lesson here, but I’m not in the business of enlightening, so I’ll just be thankful for a safe landing and pray that I can avoid being attacked by the sharks in the lagoon.

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