Almost more than anything else I’ve been looking forward to the Papeete market. In all my travels it’s always the markets that lure me. They tell the story of a place and show the character of the people who live here, in an abbreviated Cliffnotes kind of way.
I’m tempted to buy one of everything, but living on a small boat cures you of that desire pretty quickly. We’re happy to just wander the stalls and admire, dazzled by the colors and abundance. And always, the pearls.
After Fatu Hiva and the rest of the Marquesas, after the Tuamotus and pearls and drift snorkeling and Heiva, how can anything more be as exciting? But as we spied the distinctive profile of Tahiti and sailed along the coast toward Papeete, we kept hugging each other with delight that we now find ourselves in a place that’s dazzled ocean travelers for centuries. What’s more, we haven’t been in a proper city for six months and our pockets are vibrating with the prospect of retail joy.
But first things first. We called Tahiti Port Control on VHF and requested permission to enter the harbor, necessary because the airport is right here on the water and a low flying plane might make quick work of a tall mast. We were given permission to proceed and tiptoed toward the city marina, right on the main street of downtown. Our friends on Enki II had arrived hours earlier and helped us choose a spot and tie up. Also on hand were Mark and Eileen from Wavelength, who hosted an engine repair party on their boat in Tahuata months ago. And then we saw more and more boats we’ve met and befriended throughout Pacific journey so far. We say hello and goodbye all the time, and every new hello gets sweeter as the friendships deepen.
It’s Monday and the first thing we learned is that the local brewpub does a half-price happy hour on Mondays. We’ve both been up all night and all we want to do is sleep but how can you pass that up? We tidied up as best we could, registered at the marina office and paid for a week at the dock, then walked (walked! no need to dinghy!) to the noisy, crowded streets of Papeete to a wonderful brewery right on the main drag. The beer flowed, Jack had a burger, we twelve intrepid sailors celebrated our outrageous good fortune. We can’t stop smiling.
We live in a time when a watch can tell us where we are on the face of the earth, down to the millimeter it seems. I find it remarkable that the tide tables in Polynesia can be counted on for only one thing. They will be wrong. This, dear Escapees, is significant because today, with much regret ,we need to exit through the northern pass in Fakarava in the Touamotus, and we need to do it at slack tide.
Months before we got here we started reading panicked messages about tide tables, how to use certain software, and a lot of agro with regards to tides in general. We grabbed all the latest stuff and in true Escape Velocity fashion we said that we’ll figure out how to use it manana, which as all of you loyal Escapee readers remember, doesn’t mean tomorrow but just not today.
So where does that leave us, dear reader? Weighing anchor a little early due to the strong possibility that our anchor chain might be wrapped around bommies on the bottom. In company with Enki II we were headed for our eleven o’clock appointment at the pass. A small rusty red tramp steamer apparently had the same idea, so I radioed the skipper and after I told him that we were heading for the pass, I heard a lot of animated patois but understood not one word. I thanked him, hung up the microphone, looked at Marce and shrugged.
We made our turn into the pass at precisely eleven o’clock and suddenly I could imagine what the skipper of the rusty red steamer was saying. You idiot, it’s the wrong time! You are going to take a pasting!
After cleaning up all the stuff that flew out of our very secure lockers only to scuttle across the saloon floor into a pile near the galley, we set sail in seven knots of wind from directly behind EV. Not our fastest point of sail so we angled off to the south a bit more than we wanted which put the swell on our beam. Sometimes you just can’t win. Up ahead we could see the much longer Enki II pulling away but we were keeping up with another boat that left an hour or two before us. Dare I say maybe even gaining.
Weather was moving into the area in two days with a warning to avoid if possible, but with the wind so light I was beginning doubt our decision to duck out quickly before it overtook us, which would have meant three extra days in Fakarava. No hardship that. Showing a surprising turn of speed we slowly overhauled the sloop ahead throughout the day and by night we could clearly see red port navigation lights behind us, but we weren’t sure who they belonged to. When a cargo ship swiftly came between us it blanked-out the red lights with her own multiple white lights. This thing was lit-up like a Mexican low-rider. We weren’t at all sure what was going on behind us but eventually the red light of the sailboat reappeared and order was restored.
By morning it was clear we’d passed our first boat. Huzzah, huzzah EV. The winds continued to be fluky and light but with the occasional squall thrown in to keep us on our toes. So it was a constant course and sail change kind of passage, with the inevitable do we reef the main for night time or leave all the sails up and hang on in a squall. You’ve never seen sorrier sailors when squall after squall moved in after dark but it made up for a decreasing average speed the previous day. Be careful what you wish for fans! That night we heard Enki II check in on the SSB Poly-Net and their position was only twelve miles ahead of us so I was tough going for all of us.
Morning brought us a hazy view of Tahiti and The Mysterious Island of Moorea. Yours Truly was a little misty eyed staring at a life long dream. For at least twenty years I looked at the large format Seven Seas calendar above our kitchen table and dreamed of sailing here. Every year at least one page had a photo of Moorea’s dark mysterious peaks. It’s the stuff of dreams, friends.
With the predicted weather soon closing in we wondered if it wouldn’t be a bad idea to tuck in at Venus point where Captain James Cook was sent to observe the transit of Venus June 3, 1769, but just as we were trying to find a way in through the reefs Enki II called on VHF radio and encouraged us to just keep coming up the coast to Papeete. An hour later we were tying up to the dock amid the hustle and bustle of the famous town quay at Papeete, which has been completely rebuilt and is very nice, although our docking skills are a little rusty.
Excerpt From: W. Somerset Maugham. “The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands.”
“THE Pacific is inconstant and uncertain like the soul of man. Sometimes it is grey like the English Channel off Beachy Head, with a heavy swell, and sometimes it is rough, capped with white crests, and boisterous. It is not so often that it is calm and blue. Then, indeed, the blue is arrogant. The sun shines fiercely from an unclouded sky. The trade wind gets into your blood and you are filled with an impatience for the unknown. The billows, magnificently rolling, stretch widely on all sides of you, and you forget your vanished youth, with its memories, cruel and sweet, in a restless, intolerable desire for life. On such a sea as this Ulysses sailed when he sought the Happy Isles. But there are days also when the Pacific is like a lake. The sea is flat and shining. The flying fish, a gleam of shadow on the brightness of a mirror, make little fountains of sparkling drops when they dip. There are fleecy clouds on the horizon, and at sunset they take strange shapes so that it is impossible not to believe that you see a range of lofty mountains. They are the mountains of the country of your dreams. You sail through an unimaginable silence upon a magic sea. Now and then a few gulls suggest that land is not far off, a forgotten island hidden in a wilderness of waters; but the gulls, the melancholy gulls, are the only sign you have of it. You see never a tramp, with its friendly smoke, no stately bark or trim schooner, not a fishing boat even: it is an empty desert; and presently the emptiness fills you with a vague foreboding.”
We walked out on the reef several times in Fakarava, which in Hirifa involved convincing Jack to wade through knee-deep water from the motu to the reef. The width of the reef varies and here it’s about a couple hundred yards wide, very rough and sharp. I would like to get all the way out to the surf but it’s slow going on such uneven terrain so I didn’t quite make it. Jack waited under a tree. It’s a moonscape out here and the only thing protecting the inhabitants from the boisterous sea.
We live on a boat but we don’t often spend time on a beach. Here in Fakarava there’s pretty much only beach. Beach and reef. Sounds like a beach BBQ to us, so Bryce and Allistair from Silver Fern scoped out a location and found remnants of previous cruisers, a bar built around a tree on an uninhabited motu. All ashore for a coconut husk fire, bring something for the grill, a dish to share and whatever you’re drinking and let the party begin. We live a wonderful life.
I saw the movie, I bet you did too. All you have to hear is doh-dit, doh-dit and the few hair follicles I have left stand up on end, along with a certain pucker.
So, when friends in the anchorage at the famous southern pass in Fakarava suggested a drift snorkel through the pass, yours truly smiled and I heard myself say “sure” but in my head I was hearing DOH-DIT-DOH-DIT. Nothing official dear Escapees, just you, a dinghy or two, sharks, and all your soft and tender bits dangling in the water at, let’s say, lunch height.
The concept is simple. You gather a couple of idiots in a dinghy, run out to the entrance of the pass just as slack tide changes to flood, not too far because that’s where the big hungry boys hang waiting for handouts, slip into the food chain and drift through the pass into the lagoon. Alex from Enki II kindly agreed to follow us in his dink. I suppose he could pick up any remains if worse came to worst.
We abandoned the dink in mid-stream which found us right above a sand covered one hundred foot deep trough running down the center of the pass. Immediately I saw three of the brutes silhouetted against that sand, slowly patrolling the deep trough, DOH-DIT-DOH-DIT, PUCKER. DO NOT PANIC! I take a certain amount of pride in what I hoped looked like a serene, controlled looking stroke over toward the colorful coral-covered edges of the pass where I found Marce and company enjoying an amazing array of colorful fish of all shapes and sizes none of which I can name.
After oohing, aahing, and pointing at all the crazy creatures in the pass we found ourselves shivering in the cool water. Alex helped us into the dink and we set about finding lunch and a beer at a tiny dive shop-bar on the lagoon side.
The manager said there’s no beer here, go to the red roof for lunch so we started on an adventure of discovery but found a largely abandoned group of buildings, an old coral church circa 1873, wooden foot bridges, empty beach huts, and eventually ran out of dry land to explore. So, it was back to the dinghies, apparently in the Tuamotus it’s easier to find a shark than a beer.
It’s nothing official. There are no rules. It’s just something you feel or sense. One day you’re having fun in paradise, utterly content, and the next, you look up from your morning coffee and everyone is gone or you don’t recognize any of the boats in the harbor. We Escapees call it watching the dead pig drift past the boat. It’s a long story but you know it when it happens.
The lagoon in Fakarava at thirty eight miles long is one if the largest in the world and we wanted to check out one of the anchorages on the way down to the southern pass, so it was up anchor for the good ship Escape Velocity. The problem is that while there is a tremendous expanse of water in this lagoon, most of it quite deep, there are notable exceptions most of which are marked in that French way and rocks, bommies, reefs, and motus are not rare. So it was mind the magenta line on the chart plotter for Yours Truly, and watch the lagoon for any disturbances in the water. It can get a little tense.
Motor sailing south we came upon the immense schooner Athos thundering backup north. Makes you wonder what is going on doesn’t it? They’d even assembled their mini airplane on deck.
We found our deserted anchorage just before the channel turns to the south west crossing the lagoon to the southern pass and bon mârché as far as we could tell. Anchor down, rum and lime on the rocks in hand, let the sunset begin. No green flash (NGF)
I like a slow start to my mornings so it was mid day before we were heading towards the southern pass. As we approached, the symbols on the chart became very real as rocks reefs and bommies reared up out of the water. We had a series of four waypoints snaking our way through the rocks but we knew one of them was not in it’s correct location. Ok, now it really is tense as Marce on the foredeck cons us through the rock garden.
We spotted the bad waypoint sitting right on top of a reef but we squeezed by into the anchorage, sniffed around for a good spot and it was down anchor for the now breathing crew. Bring on the sunset!
There was a competition scheduled called “tressage,” which we learned was plaiting palm fronds into various useful household items. There were examples displayed in the shell tent — a hat, clutch purse, market basket and round bin — and if I understood the rules, the competitors were to make three of the four. It wasn’t clear whether they would be judged on speed or quality, but as it turned out, only three women came to compete and one of them was so much better than the others that it turned into a one-horse race and a terrific demonstration of the art. If I had all the time in the world I’d apprentice myself to this woman. To watch her work, chatting with the onlookers as she deftly trimmed the fronds, plaited and wove, was to see a master craftsman. That it was an ancient skill passed down through generations using the materials available at hand gave us even more insight into life in this special place.