Monday, August 10, 2009

Dispatch 44 Suwarrow “La Bombie”

July 17 to 29, 2009
Suwarrow is an amazing atoll within the Cook Islands, located at 13 degrees 14’ S latitude and 163 degrees 06' W longitude. The entire atoll has been designated a National Park, about 11 miles long and 4 miles wide. Within this atoll are several islands, which are nesting sites for several different species of birds and the coconut crabs which are found here, and have protected status. There are lots of uncharted reefs and, as such, travel within the atoll is restricted by the park regulations. The park is inhabited by a warden for 6 months of the year and deserted 6 months of the year. The 6 months during which the “yachties” arrive, roughly April thru October, the caretaker and his family help enforce the rules of, basically, look but don’t touch or take. Because of this it is extremely pristine, is full of birds, fish, sharks and has such intensely healthy and beautiful coral, with water visibility up to 100 feet. Suwarrow is only accessible by private yacht, there is no official transportation here and no services—no airport, stores, hospital, post office, nothing. The caretaker and his family are “dropped off” by freighter and given supplies for their 6 months of residence when they will again be picked up and returned to Rarotonga. They are completely self sufficient for this time except for items and assistance cruisers stopping here might offer.

Our passage here from Bora Bora was, well, difficult (Betsy prefers the word “rough”). We started with good winds and they only got “better” so to speak (15 rising to 20, rising to 25, rising to a high of 30). The seas, which were confused at the beginning, became only larger and much more confused with each increase in wind speed or direction change by the end of our 6 day passage. Needless to say, the winds were higher than forecast (a common occurrence around here) or we wouldn’t have set out. As in each of our passages we are in daily radio contact via a radio net with a large group of cruisers in various places either on their own passage or in an anchorage, this included a group within the atoll at Suwarrow. Coincidentally, the day before our arrival, cruisers already anchored in the atoll had beefed up and rebuilt a mooring buoy that already was in place. They were intensely sympathetic to our experience “outside” on the ocean because they, too, were experiencing high winds and could only imagine what turmoil was going on where we were. They offered to assist us with our entrance into the atoll if we could arrive by sunset and tie us onto the new mooring. That would mean some real rest after 6 days—much to be desired—so we put the “pedal to the metal” on Qayaq, sailing much harder and with more sail area up than we would normally. Sailing faster than usual with boat speeds reaching up to 7 knots we arrived just at sunset. The caretaker met us at the pass and guided us in, another cruiser sat in his dinghy at one of the reefs on the way in so we could easily avoid it, and yet another cruiser sat in his dinghy holding the mooring buoy line with a light on, so we could locate it in the dark with no problems. We arrived on the mooring, tied up by 7:30 PM, dark, intensely thankful for the calm seas and a bed that did not have a motion similar to a carnival ride. Everyone understood and had been pulling for us to get in rather than spend another night out with confused seas and high winds and were incredibly supportive and friendly the next day.

The next day, we met most of the other boats anchored here. There were of 11 boats anchored in the park, one having been here almost a month. The caretaker, John, lives here with his wife and 4 boys (ages 8, 8, 10 and 13). They have done so for 5 years, during the winter season, (Southern Hemisphere winter is Northern hemisphere summer remember), and they are delightful people, very self-sufficient needless to say. John and family fish often, usually daily as they have no refrigerator and this is their main source of food and they will share their catch—a park regulation is fishing must be done outside the atoll. Cruisers offer the same to John and his family when fishing is good, everyone eats, a great communal spirit. He will guide boats to the outlying islands to see the birds, take hikes and snorkel even more pristine waters than those around the anchorage. The cruisers, as is their style, organize parties, potlucks, and activities with the caretaker’s family, everyone has a fabulous time here. Cruisers with experience in different areas all offer John any assistance he might need, from improving his SSB antenna to new fishing lures, guaranteed to work(?). There were several boats with kids aboard, a special time for the caretaker’s kids and spirits were high. The boats included US, Canada, Austria, Italy, France, Australia and we all got along more or less with English. The people of the Cook Islands speak English as it is a New Zealand protectorate.

Our days were spent in boat projects interspersed with great recreation. We snorkeled the beautiful coral (curious black tip reef sharks usually hanging out somewhere nearby, inspecting your work if it entailed cleaning the boat or rearranging the anchor chain), walked the circumference of the islands, saw nesting birds and their chicks, (boobies, frigate birds, tropic birds and fairy terns to name a few). We would walk on the reef at the edge of the islands. The caretaker has begun feeding the sharks fish guts outside the atoll in one particular bay and the sharks are now trained to show up there if they see or hear people on the beach. One can go and just stand there and quickly, a half dozen then 10 or more sharks arrive from 1 foot long babies to 4 foot or bigger white tip, black tip and gray sharks in water a little more than a foot deep looking for handouts. Quite um, interesting, to say the least. Even more interesting is the behavior when the fish guts are thrown in—our own feeding frenzy up close right near the beach. Wow. The kids on one of the boats painted a sign to keep people away from that particular beach.

Just because it was such a amazing snorkeling site, here are a few gratuitous, beautiful underwater shots.

Another unique experience on Suwarrow had nothing to do with the setting, we just happened to be there for the partial solar eclipse. We were aboard a friend’s boat visiting when Richard stepped forward to watch the lovely sunset. It was then that we noticed the dual points of sun rather than single and someone recalled the eclipse. It was an amazing sunset also because it was one of the few that elicited the famed green flash seen just as the sun drops below the horizon, and, in this case, there were TWO green flashes. Incredible.

I called this dispatch, “La Bombie” because the anchorage is more of a coral head dance than a nice sandy place to put an anchor down. We refer to coral heads as “bombies”. While we were here, the wind did a full 360 as a front passed over within a 2 day period and, during that time, we were caught on 5 or 6 different coral heads, shortening our chain’s scope more and more with each turn. In fact, there isn’t much sand here so the best “holding” is to have your chain wrapped on a coral head that will hold the boat firmly, and hope that you are able to free the anchor when you want to leave. With the squalls, there were 30 plus knots winds again and everyone was out checking their anchors to make sure they were firmly caught on something. We were rocking and rolling so much that we got lots of sympathy in the big winds and, when the wind calmed down, Richard got on the radio and announced that the roller coaster ride was over and we were sorry we wouldn’t be able to honor the tickets of those who had purchased them for our amusement park ride. In fact, while we were pitching so much, we were down below reading and noticed a hermit crab emerge from somewhere on our boat and walk drunkenly down the salon floor. I imagined that he thought he’d stow away and go someplace more exciting only to decide to emerge and “abandon ship” because it was too rough and he was getting too sick to stay aboard. Once the weather calms down you dive your anchor chain and see what “rearranging” needs to be done. Richard was in the water free diving in 30 feet for over an hour to lift, tug, unwrap and lay out the chain in a more orderly fashion in the hopes that with the next wind shift the chain would wrap around smaller coral heads and not the bigger 5 foot tall ones. This also allows you the hope of getting your chain back on board when you leave without too many wraps. It worked as when we left the chain came up smoothly without one wrap. If you anchor too deep you need someone with dive gear to clear your chain before you leave, always interesting. Our anchor never did set properly the 2 weeks we were here but we never moved with the coral holding us in place – “bombie anchoring”.

We were making our plans and getting the boat ready for our passage to Pago Pago, American Samoa when we learned the caretaker’s wife, Veronica, was celebrating her birthday. Passage was delayed as, once again, we had an excuse for a party. John and Veronica took me and Richard out across the atoll to the “Big Island” where we witnessed the art of catching coconut crabs, an endangered species in general but still plentiful here, thanks to John and the park regulations. John is very careful to only catch the older crabs and to limit consumption to special occasions; in this way the population continues to thrive. Though they are called coconut crabs because they eat coconut, they are omnivores and coconut is not their sole source of food. They are intensely ugly but come in some pretty colors—they burrow in the sand and John catches them by finding a likely hole usually by stepping in it, up to midcalf sometimes and digging the inhabitant out. We proceeded to hike across the island benefiting from John’s naturalist knowledge, enjoying noddy bird nests, unripe pandanus fruit, the various booby species that live here. John scrambled up a coconut tree to get us some young coconuts for the nectar inside. Then we went back to the skiff and cooled off with a snorkel around the coral gardens there. We found a huge moray eel under the dingy tucked back in his coral cave, black tipped sharks, groupers and other tropical fish enjoying their protected status. I got back in the skiff first and came eyeball to eyeball with one of the coconut crabs. He had been securely placed in a large cooler, lid on and a heavy beacon light placed on top. He had easily pushed the lid up, displaced the beacon and crawled out. I had to sit on the cooler to keep him in it for the trip back. And most amazing that day, Richard caught the two fish we had for the feast—a grouper and a black jack on the line we trolled behind the dingy.

That night, the sailors joined ashore once again, all complaining that they were nearly out of food (we’d been a month or so without a store), but managed to put together a magnificent feast with whatever was available on the boat including the fish, coconut crab, various salads and, of course, birthday cake and cookies. We joked that it was a “national holiday” on Suwarrow and “all the government offices were closed as were schools and stores” (of which, of course, there are none) and nobody asked Veronica to process their paperwork that day (the only quasi-governmental function that occurs on the island in their open air dining room.) It was a fabulous event and we were so glad we stayed. Don’t tell John, but we prefer Dungeness crab, our home specialty!

We have certainly enjoyed our time here!

Dispatch 43 Tahiti Encore (et encore)

April 19-July 11
Once back in French Polynesia to resume our boat travels, we found ourselves moving slowly. First, there were boat problems, then there were new islands to explore in the Society Islands, still part of French Polynesia. I was feeling good about my French and having fun with it. We had settled into the Polynesian pace, slow and methodical. So here are a few “snapshots” from our time back in French Polynesia. Cut up a tropical fruit, grab a cold glass of something to drink, pull up a boat cushion and read on.

“Recharging in French Polynesia”
Sometimes it takes a while to realize that a system is failing on a boat. Unbeknownst to me, Richard had been secretly worried about our batteries ever since we returned to Costa Rica and he found a set nearly dry. They lasted another season, but, upon return to Tahiti, they were once again dry. We were thrilled to be back aboard and all systems seemed to be “go”, so off we went after splashing the boat. Sure there were glitches: the outboard, already geriatric, was now not resusitatable. We bought a new one. One of the bilge pumps no longer worked. We bought a new one. There was a bit of mildew to clean up, but not much compared to Costa Rica. Everything did work, but, it turned out when we went to run an energy hog like our desalinater, the refrigerator suddenly refused to work because of low voltage. Uh, oh, that never happened before. After a few days of running around and fixing up things, we figured out the obvious. The batteries were terminal. Alas, the replacements were a bit more expensive than those in the US, but new batteries have given new life to our on-board equipment and decreased the worry factor significantly. And, I got to read up on a new system on the boat and know a lot more about electrical stuff—cruising is SO educational.

“The Boatyard Blues”
Every time I’ve thought to write about our experience in various boatyards all I come up with is a song called, “The Boatyard Blues”*. Honestly, for me, I would almost rather be doing anything than boatyard work (well, shoveling poo as one of our friends did once for a job probably ranks lower). I know there are some guys (and maybe some gals) who LIKE boatyard work. For me, it’s a toxic unpleasant environment that’s a necessary evil to cruisers. Somehow, the weather always seems funky: in Seattle, when we pulled the mast to wax it and put on the storm track, it was, uncharacteristically, below freezing temperatures for nearly a week. In Mexico, Costa Rica and here in Tahiti, it’s just dang hot and humid and buggy most of the day. I wore blue bottom paint from head to toe and probably in my lungs too the first time we sanded the paint off the bottom and I didn’t think about protective equipment. The boat and we get unbelievably filthy. Our stuff fills the inside of the boat so we can barely walk let alone live aboard. We keep the boat closed up to avoid most of the dust/dirt getting inside which means it’s often 100 degrees down below. Hauling and splashing are always fraught with anxiety and twice we’ve had the boat slip off a trailer and get damaged by the fall. And then because we’re always the soft touch, there’s inevitably some sweet, mangy, pathetic dog who adopts us because we don’t throw things at him and pet him and say nice things and then wonder if we should feed him or let him continue to starve so the end comes sooner. Last, there’s inevitably some communication challenges since we’ve always been in a foreign country doing boat work, like the time we bought bottom paint, were assured it was ablative as the can said, priced like it should be, only to find that the black paint listed on the can came out red, making us wonder what was switched and where? Did we misunderstand?

“What’s ours is theirs”
One day, we were blissfully out of the boatyard and med moored to the marina dock. As all good Polynesians do, we leave our flip flops on the threshold of our home—in this case, on the dock in front of our boat. Of course some of our flip flops are Keens and not the $1.99 types most commonly seen here. Our marina is right in front of the Ecole de Voile, the sailing school. A VERY cool thing about public school here is that it is a regular part of the curriculum for 10-12 year olds, boys and girls, to spend a week of school learning to sail, read charts, navigate and reviewing boating rules of the road. So every day there were hordes of kids back and forth doing their lessons. On a day we were gone on errands, 2 pairs of flip flops disappeared from our “front porch.” Richard was devastated because his were a favorite pair of well broken in Keens that had been good for hundreds of miles (and would not be cheap to replace.) Mine were absolute bottom of the line crapola ones that I thought were good to lose—I only had 5 other pairs of sandals on the boat. Nonetheless, with my hangdog husband hounding me, I dutifully went to the sail instructor and reported our loss (in French). He told me the kids got into everything and not to leave things out, but he’d ask around for us. While I was chatting with him, I suddenly spied one of Richard’s Keens and a quick look around located the other one in the office of the sailing school—perhaps they weren’t what the kids liked after all. Well, Richard was thrilled and I was ready to let go of the other pair. But the next day after hanging out with the kids on their break and chatting about sailing, life, sharing English words with them: (They asked how do you say “cool” in English?), a boy came running up, “Madame, Madame,” and dumped my sandals at my feet. It’s a communal type of culture so what’s ours is theirs.

“Food in Paris”
While in the “hotel” we stayed in while the boat was in the yard (both times), we met a nice couple who occupied the other room and with whom we shared the communal kitchen. She’s Polynesian, Hinerava, he’s French, David, and their 4 year old son, Inaho. David was there visiting his young family having developed the relationship while working in Tahiti for 4 years but being transferred back to Paris and, as it turned out, the mom and son were soon to move to Paris to join David. Hinerava was a chatterbox, quite good for my French when we first arrived, and soon shared her many misgivings about her move to France. I had the opportunity to hear the litany more than once as we ran into her a second time when we returned for our re-haul. It was a great test of my language comprehension to follow her many concerns which included the climate (understandable), the crowds/big city change, the fact that it was so impersonal, the schools so unfriendly—brick buildings instead of the open air buildings they have in Tahiti. No friends or family around. People much less friendly. And, here, to cap it off, was my favorite part of her rant—“What will we eat? There’s no good food in Paris like there is here.” Certainly, that’s the first time I’ve heard anyone express that concern on traveling to Paris. I hope she finds something edible.

“Another slip while hauling”
So, enough of the foreshadowing already, yes, we had to go back to the boatyard and re-haul the boat. Three weeks after the initial launch (during which the boat had slipped but we were unaware of a problem at the time), we were finally at Moorea at a beautiful anchorage with clear water right near a beautiful reef for snorkeling. In we plunged into the swimming pool clear warm water. Life was good, at least until we did what we always do which is to survey the bottom of the boat for growth or problems. Only then did we find the big gouge on the keel all the way down to the lead which could only have happened during the launch as we had hit nothing else since being in the water. Our snorkel thereafter was a bit half-hearted as we both processed the implication of the damage. That anchorage had great snorkeling: we found a couple eels near the boat, saw tons of tropical fish, found the one and only anemone that we had seen so far in French Polynesia complete with its own little Nemo (clown fish) and one day saw the black tipped reef shark that probably had been checking us out as it cruised by, all business. Meanwhile, we communicated with our boatyard guy 50 miles away who agreed to haul us free and repair the damage.

When we left the marina/boatyard, we’d had a blissful downwind sail. That meant going back was against the wind, naturally. So we slogged back in a very long day of sailing against moderate winds and exhaustedly dropped anchor. The boat was hauled last thing on a Friday of a holiday weekend—the yard closed at noon and would re-open Tuesday morning. But Yvan was good to his word and gave us access to all the equipment we needed to repair the keel and Richard did most of the repair with a little painting help from me over the next couple days. Rather than stay aboard, we went back to our little hotel which allowed us, this time, to meet our hosts.

“Bonjour tous le monde”
The first time we’d been at the hotel, Maithe, the hostess, and her husband, Jean Jacques, had been out cruising on their catamaran. We had communicated by e-mail initially, she left the key out for us with a detailed note about everything. When we requested to stay an extra day (left a note for the cleaning person), we got a note back from the cleaner that Maithe agreed and, when we left, we had to hunt down the neighbor at the specific house down the lane who was expecting to hold our payment for her. All very trusting and amusing and, somehow, Polynesian. When we returned, Maithe was literally at the boatyard as we hauled out, so we got a chance to meet her (even before we knew who she was) and then arranged to stay back at her place. She was worth meeting—absolutely delightful. She is so energetic and caring. The rooms had fresh hibiscus flowers every day. She brought us passionfruit, papaya juice and other sliced fruit that first morning when she learned it was our marriage anniversary. (Oh, and as an aside, I don’t recommend hauling a boat as an anniversary present for your wife.) When she learned that we would finish the work a day before they could re-launch us due to the holiday, she immediately offered to take us on her own special tour of the area of Tahiti they live in, Tahiti Iti. The tour included a visit to feed the sacred fresh water eels (rather fascinating in a disgusting snake-like eel kind of way—they grow to 2 yards in length). We went to a glorious overlook up in the mountains where it was cool and we could see the island spread out in front of us like a nautical chart. When we arrived, Maithe greeted the dozen or so others up there, strangers, “Bonjour tous le monde,” hello everyone, with her cheerful manner. We saw an orchid farm, swam in a cool grotto above glorious waterfalls. We had taken it upon ourselves to visit the Botanical Garden—a very wonderful spot where we ran into Hinerava the second time picnicking for a little boy’s birthday party. So the re-haul visit turned out well and, by then, I felt like practically a local in the small town nearby where I went to shop almost daily.

“It’s Greek to me”
The family we shared the hotel space with the second time was Tiffene and Guillaum, kids in their 20’s who are cruising on their 34 foot sailboat, and Tiffene’s parents visiting from France. After meeting them, we buddyboated a bit with them as they took the parents aboard and sailed to Moorea and then to Huahine. It was always a cheerful bonjour when we saw each other at the anchorages and we were as pleased as they were when the first overnight sail ever for their parents was a perfect one—we left the same night and it was a glorious sail, perfect wind on a reach, a beautiful moon and a sky full of stars. We arrived at sunrise—they had left later and arrived later. So, I guess my French isn’t so good after all. In a secluded anchorage we shared with them (the parents were staying ½ mile down the road in a hotel on shore), Tiffene came over to invite us to a BBQ at the parents’ hotel. We were thrilled, asked what we could bring, etc. They agreed that we’d go to the hotel together since we weren’t sure where it was. That evening around the appointed time, we were ready to go, had a salad, freshly baked banana bread, a bottle of wine. We waited quite a while and then wondered if maybe we had misunderstood and were supposed to go to the hotel on our own after all. They did not appear on the beach and, nearly an hour after the appointed time, we rowed to shore in the dark. The family that lived there immediately helped us out by driving us to the hotel and, when we arrived, the problem became clear. The date was for the next night. I guess Tiffene had asked Guillaum when they rowed away, “Do you think we were clear that it is tomorrow night?” So much for my confidence in my French. We decided, after that, that we would do all our communicating in both languages as they also needed to practice their English for New Zealand…

Huahine was a beautiful island. We rented a scooter to circumnavigate the whole thing in a few hours including stops at sites of interest. The scooter could not have been more uncomfortable nor, we imagine, have less power. As we headed up a long incline to the gorgeous wooded overlook, a dog started chasing us and barking. We think he had to slow down to keep from running in front of us the scooter was so slow!

“Shark bait”
We found a coral garden off the island of Tahaa. The coral was lovely, there was a fierce current running through and the fishes were abundant and not so shy due to exposure to lots of tourists. The water was so shallow that, at times, it was possible to get into a spot where it looked like there wasn’t enough water to float over the coral. We were mesmerized—Richard was lost taking pictures and I was exploring in ecstasy. I even found an octopus swimming in the open, watched him land on a rock and change color to conform to the rock. At one point, I found myself in a tight spot and ended up scraping my thighs on the coral as I floated over. It is very hard and abrasive. Shortly thereafter, I was thinking about whether there were any sharks in this very shallow area and, voila, right in front of me appeared a half dozen black tipped reef sharks and then a couple more, little guys, but, there I was by myself. I looked at my scraped thighs—they looked just a little red—briefly wondered if the appearance of the sharks had anything to do with the scrapes, then carried on as always, headed back to the dinghy eventually to warm up. When I checked with our other friends about the sharks, nobody else had seen any. My thighs, when I emerged from the water, were bleeding a little. Was it a shark coincidence? Perhaps not.

“Free mooring”
We also stopped at a restaurant/hotel/yacht club to take a mooring ball and visit a vanilla farm. We had been assured that the mooring was free if we ate dinner at the restaurant and that the vanilla tour would also be free (or whatever the cost of whatever you bought from the farm…). Sounded good to us. We went in to check out the restaurant and look at the turtles they rescued—they ran a service for injured turtles, healing them then releasing them in the wild again. We asked to see the dinner menu. The woman running the place laughed and said, “You like fish? We have fish.” That was the menu. OK, we like fish. That night we had a marvelous dinner of fresh reef fish but the bill was a bit of a surprise (on the high side). So our “free” mooring and vanilla farm tour ended up costing us more in the long run. The lesson? If you have to ask the cost, you can’t afford it!

“Donating blood in Bora Bora”
Bora Bora was our last stop. We had heard that it was very touristy and we expected to want to have a very brief stay there. So we were pleasantly surprised when we found gorgeous shallow sandy anchorages near good snorkeling grounds in the lagoon around one of the most scenic islands in the world. We enjoyed the island very much when we stayed in our marine environment. The day we went to shore to cut Richard’s hair, we barely lasted 5 minutes on the beach before we finished the haircut in mid-bay in the dinghy. The mosquitoes were unbelievable. We found another place to snorkel with stingrays and sharks who are fed by tour operators. This time a bunch of us went and there were no tour boats and we had no food. The rays and sharks were well-behaved enough to swim around for a while despite the lack of food and this time Richard was armed with his underwater camera. Beautiful!

So we leave soon for the Cook Islands. The “fleet” of boats sailing this area this season is now splitting up, choosing different destinations in the Cooks and we will most likely see many of them again in Tonga. Some will carry on to Fiji and eventually to Australia, some will end up in New Zealand as we hope to do.

*The Boatyard Blues (to the tune of any blues song you can think of)

It’s time to haul the boat again,
The signs are plain and clear,
The paint job’s getting thin now or
We’re headed back to work my dear.

It’s rainy every day you know,
The mosquitoes growing thick,
Aside from the blasted itching,
With dengue I don’t wanna be sick.

They promised us ablative paint
Understood with a nod of the head,
So how come our paint can says black,
And what’s coming out is red?

The trailer haul is ready, Spanish
Or French exchanged with a frown,
They know what they’re doing, right?
So why’s our boat a slidin’ down?

The dogs they always know somehow
That we’re gonna be their friend.
We lose our heart to each one even
Though they’re one meal from the end.

These chemicals can’t be good for a soul,
Surely exposure’s gotta be bad?
So why is it every blasted day,
With our chosen paint I’m totally clad?

Now we’re on our last nerve,
We both gotta really short fuse,
We’re sore and tired and dirty,
Yeah, for sure it’s the boatyard blues.