Saturday, December 03, 2011

Hanging out in the Bay of Islands

When thanksgiving time rolls around in New Zealand nobody gives a crap. Well, nobody except for the Americans who are over here. ...and of course that makes perfect sense because it's an American holiday. We had enough Americans around us here in Opua to necessitate some sort of thanksgiving dinner so the crews of Piko and Britannia went nuts and decided to organize dinner for around 13 people on a 36 foot boat. Aside from Amanda, Krister, Lauren (girl), and Lauren (boy) from Britannia and Piko, we had Alex and Ryan from Shalimar, Ivan and Josefin from Kuheli (they're Swedish but we explained that thanksgiving was all about eating too much food and they seemed game), and several members of Krister's family that were visiting from the US. Anyway, we all enjoyed the traditional thanksgiving chicken (turkey is really expensive here) and had a good time. People were distributed throughout the boat so the pictures don't really do justice to how many people there were in a such a small space.

After thanksgiving, Christine and I took Architeuthis out to the islands to check things out. We spent several days on our own. I spent as much time in the water with my new speargun as the water temperature and my insufficient wetsuit would allow. So far, the fish here in NZ seem to be a lot larger and easier to shoot than the fish in the tropics. In fact there are several species around (like the Red Moki) that are large and fairly tasty but they are just too damned easy to shoot with a speargun. After taking one of those "execution style" (basically setting the spear tip on the back of its head before shooting), I have decided that I'm going to leave them alone (unless I'm really hungry and feeling really lazy and really shameless). Aside from that, Christine and I just did some hiking and general relaxing.

After a few days on our own, we ran into Kuheli in an anchorage on the south side of Urupukapuka island and, after being there for a day or two, decided to follow them over to another island called Moturua. Motorua had a really nice hiking track all the way around it that we went and checked out with Ivan and Josefin from Kuheli. After that we went back into Opua to buy some groceries and get ready for some friends that were coming to visit.

On the weekend of December 3rd, my friends and former coworkers Will and Chad came to visit and brought their new friend and coworker, Evan. They had all come to New Zealand for some meetings down in Auckland and I talked them into come up to have a weekend out on the boat. Chad is really into the whole spear fishing thing so that became the main goal of the outing. Chad really wanted to get a kingfish so we chose to head out to a place called deep water cove (or Maunganui Bay depending on who you ask). Maunganui Bay is actually closed to fishing right now so we anchored Architeuthis in there and took Squib (our dinghy) out around the corner so that we were to the north of the closed area. While Chad, Evan, and I went out fish killing, Christine and Will hiked out a little way on the trail that goes out to Cape Brett. Sadly, we didn't see any kingfish but we got a bunch of other fish including Chad's delicious John Dory.

When we got back to the boat the New Zealand police had anchored right near us and came right over to see what we were up to. They had a guy filming the whole thing too and we forgot to ask why. They wanted to make sure we knew about the fishing closure and luckily we did. They were pretty darn nice about the whole thing, just like all the Kiwi's we've met so far, and it was pretty funny that a boat full of people who work on marine reserves were out killing a bunch of fish only to then get lectured about marine reserves. It would have looked pretty bad if we had been fishing in the closed area and I am really glad that I went through all the trouble it took to find out exactly where it was (since it's a new closure, the information on it was not readily available on the interweb yet).

As forecast, the weather got a little bit unpleasant on our trip back to Opua the next day. The first part of the trip was open to the ocean swell and managed to make our guests feel pretty uncomfortable. Fortunately, we were able to alter course and get in the swell shadow of some of the islands and make everyone feel better. Then, also as forecast, it started raining. It rained a lot. The guests all hid out in the cabin while Christine and I got test out our foul weather clothes (again). We spent the night tied to the guest dock at the Opua Cruising Club trying to dry ourselves out and get ready to take a ride down to Auckland the next day.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Walking to town

Since arriving in New Zealand we've been staying in the little harbor town of Opua. There's a slightly bigger town called Paihia just north of here and there's a nice little walking trail that goes up there. We were in need of exercise so we decided to check it out. It's not very far but by the end of it we were painfully aware of just how in need of exercise we really were. At any rate, the photos will give you some idea of what it looks like around here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Passage to New Zealand

Now that it's over with we can admit it. This is the passage that we were most afraid of. Lots of people sail from Tonga to New Zealand every year and, while they may encounter some unpleasant weather, it usually turns out fine. However there are some notorious exceptions. There was storm off of New Zealand in November of 1998 that hit the people who were making this same passage and it was nasty. Boats sank and people died. In preparation for this trip we read a great book called "Surviving the Storm" about how to read the weather condition and hopefully avoid that sort of thing and how to give yourself the best chance of survival if you do find yourself in really deep sauce. A large portion of the beginning of the book is a detailed description of how that storm developed and what happened aboard the boats that got into trouble. It was quite informative and useful to read but, despite the foreword by the authors that tries to reassure you that this sort of thing is exceedingly rare, it does tend to scare the crap out of you when you're planning to do that same passage yourself during the same month. There, I said it. Aren't all of you friends and family glad I didn't tell you about that before the passage?

So there we were in Tongatapu with Shalimar waiting for a weather window. Shalimar had decided to shell out the money for professional weather routing on this passage so, rather than just pouring over the weather faxes ourselves and hoping we were interpreting them correctly, we just had to wait for Shalimar to get an email from a professional and hope that he was interpreting the data correctly. Okay, actually we looked at the weather faxes and grib files too but it definitely was nice to share Shalimar's weather routing info. Since Shalimar was sailing with a few jury rigged repairs and a broken finger, we were looking for a good weather window rather than just a possible weather window.

We ended up waiting quite a while. November 7th rolled around and by then our standards had slid a little bit. There was a window on offer and we took it. The forecast called for a few days of light wind halfway through and a little more upwind sailing than we wanted but it still looked pretty good. We left on the 7th and started heading SW in winds that were just a little E of S. Those of you that sail will know that going upwind isn't too comfortable. For those of you that don't, I'll tell you. It's not too comfortable. The boat heels way over so that you just about have to walk on the walls when you're below, it seems colder and windier than it really is, the rig is under a lot of stress (which stresses me out as I worry about things breaking), and the boat lurches and jerks as it rams into oncoming waves.

That description of sailing upwind is also a fairly accurate description of the whole 11 day passage except for the 40 or 50 hours we spent motoring because there was either no wind or there was wind blowing directly from where we wanted to go. We also got to experience the joy of only covering about 60 miles over a 24 hour period. All in all it was a mildly annoying and uncomfortable passage but, given the spectrum of things that can happen out there, I will gladly accept it. We made it in a reasonable amount of time, didn't get rained on very much, and nothing broke. I had a bit of a scare when we got to Opua, New Zealand and I found a bunch of oil in the bilge. For a short while I thought we'd blown the main seal on the engine or something but it turned out to be nothing. The engine just doesn't seem to like to run while we're heeled way over. We ended up motoring with the sails up quite a bit to keep our speed up and I guess the crank case breather is low enough that it'll blow oil out when it's leaned way over. So anyway, nothing broke and Architeuthis did good. We got into Opua on the 18th and Shalimar made it in one day later.

We didn't really realize how good we had it until we'd been in Opua for a few days. We saw some old friends in the boat yard here that we hadn't seen since California. They'd also just sailed across be we missed them all the way across because we were on different schedules. Anyway, it turns out they'd made the passage a couple of weeks before us and broke their boom and one of their spreaders and almost lost their mast. They had to turn back to Tonga, tie everything down, buy a ton of diesel cans and motor the whole way to New Zealand. Then some good friends of ours came in about 4 days after us and it turns out they had all sorts of problems you can read about here.

At any rate, we're damned glad to be here and glad that Architeuthis has been such a sturdy (and lucky) little boat.

Friday, November 04, 2011


We hadn't originally planned to go to Tongatapu. We were hoping to just leave for New Zealand from somewhere in Ha'api but we weren't seeing the weather window we wanted and Shalimar had some problems so we decided to go into Nuku'alofa (the largest town in all of Tonga) to repair, resupply, and wait for a good weather window. While typing this, I realized that people might not know where this stuff is so here's a map that I borrowed from the lonelyplanet website (hopefully they don't mind):


We had heard some not so favorable things about Nuku'alofa. It was kind of crowded and a bit on the dirty side and some of the locals looked a bit scary (in a gangsta kind of way) but we had a good time and found that people were really friendly - even the scary looking ones. Apparently California has the largest population of Tongans outside of Tonga and we met a lot of people who'd lived in California and spoke english very well. (English and Tongan are both official languages in Tonga but, English seems to be running a distant second in many areas). We met one guy who told us he'd lived in Oakland, California for several decades but had been thrown out of the US for drug dealing. He definitely had that Oakland drug dealer look about him but was super friendly and we had a long talk about Oakland (I lived there for a couple of years) while we were waiting for the bus. On a different day, two rather large, somewhat drunk, and heavily (and not very skillfully) tattooed guys were blocking the sidewalk with a bicycle as we approached. Once they noticed that the bike was in our way, they immediately moved it and apologized profusely. My favorite example of the disconnect between the tough-guy look and the friendly demeanor were the guys that I photographed in their car (see the picture in the slide show). I was in the harbor parking lot trying to get a photo of Architeuthis tied up on the other side when those guys saw me with the camera. The driver got out of his car, ran over to me, and in broken english asked me to take his picture. He then ran back to his car, got in, and assumed the most 'gangsta' pose he could manage. I showed him the picture and he seemed a bit dissatisfied and asked me to take another. When I showed him the second picture, I told him he looked totally gangster and he broke out in a huge smile. Right after that, I had two other groups of locals come over and ask me to take their pictures (the guys on the sinking boat and the three little kids - also in the slide show).

We spent a lot of time tied up in the harbor fixing things on our boats and going into town to buy supplies for the crossing. We took one bus trip out to the western side of the island to see the blow holes but for the most part we stayed near the harbor. I'm sure I could think of more stuff to write if I tried but I'm trying to get caught up so the pictures will pretty much have to do. Once we had done the necessary repairs and shopping and were reasonably confident that a weather window was on the way, we went out to anchor at Atata island near the pass that we'd take to get on our way to New Zealand.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The rest of Ha'apai

Ha'apai was great. Definitely our favorite part of Tonga. The locals seemed kind of shy and didn't seem super inclined to interact with us but the underwater scenery was fantastic and we had a lot of that "out in the middle of nowhere" feeling that I kind of missed in Vavau. We saw enough of our boat friends to be entertained but not so much that we felt crowded.

Shalimar had planned to leave for New Zealand sometime around the middle of October but the anchoring incident that I wrote about in our last post hosed that plan up pretty good. It turned out that Ryan's finger was pretty badly broken. His wedding ring had apparently got snagged by the anchor chain. With the broken finger and the lack of available parts, it took several days to repair / jury rig the damage to the boat and get Shalimar ready to sail again. I helped out a little bit because I had two fully functional hands but Ryan did most of it single handed - literally. He managed to get everything functional again except the windlass (the mechanical doo-hicky that helps to raise the anchor). Shalimar has a much heavier anchor chain and anchor than Architeuthis does (which stands to reason because Shalimar weighs about twice as much) so raising the anchor without a windlass was quite a chore. Raising the anchor one handed without the windlass is nearly (but not quite) impossible so we stuck with Shalimar through most of the rest of Tonga. When it was time to leave an anchorage, I'd dinghy over to Shalimar, pull up their anchor, dinghy back to Architeuthis, pull up our anchor, and then we'd set off. It gave me some extra exercise and a new found appreciation of our much lighter chain and anchor.

Christine and I did abandon Shalimar for a couple of days to sneak off to Tungua island all by ourselves. There was a surf break near the anchorage there that we wanted to check out. We dinghied over and had look at it. It looked rideable but ti was another fast, shallow reef break. Given our isolation and the level of inconvenience that would be caused by even a minor injury we reluctantly decided to forego the surfing. The fact that we were so out of practice played into it too. We wanted to surf but it just didn't seem worth the risk with the passage to New Zealand so close. We still had a great time at Tungua. The anchorage was a little bit rolly but the beach was beautiful and completely deserted. There was a village on the island but it was on the opposite side and we didn't see any people the whole time we were there.

Ryan's finger injury did have an upside. ...for me. As we travelled across the pacific, I'd gotten more and more into spear fishing but instead of a proper spear gun, I only had a second had pole spear that didn't even have the correct band on it. Ryan, on the other hand, has a big fancy speargun. After Ryan's injury we came up with a deal where we'd swim around together and take turns with the speargun. It only takes one hand to fire it but it takes two hands to load it so I'd do the loading and we'd take turns with the shooting. Then, when Christine and I went off to Tungua island, Ryan let me take the speargun with me. My crap-tastic pole spear only has a range of about 2 or 3 feet so I was pretty limited in the types of fish I had any chance of spearing. I had a lot of fun with Ryan's speargun and managed to get some tasty fish that I hadn't been able to get anywhere near hitting with my pole spear.

I'm sure there's more I could write about Ha'apai but I'm way behind on the blog updating so I'll just suggest that you look at the pictures and read the captions.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Well that wasn't very fun

We just sat out a near gale at anchor. It blew a sustained 30 knots with gusts upward of 35 knots. The really exciting part was that we weren't expecting it. We downloaded weather forecasts yesterday and the forecast for today was for some rain showers and around 15 knots of wind. We were going to sail off with Shalimar and head to another anchorage but we woke to some decent rain and overcast skies and decided to wait until it cleared up before we left. We were watching a movie when it really started raining and blowing. It was blowing out of the east and where we're anchored off of Lifuka island is fairly protected from that direction. The proximity of land to windward kept the waves from getting too big but it was unnerving to look outside of the boat and see driving sheets of rain and wind streaks on the water. We had to move some stuff around on deck to make sure it didn't blow away and had to reconfigure our dinghy situation a bit to make sure we didn't lose any gear but we didn't have to do anything too drastic. We were anchored on a sandy bottom in about 18 feet of water and I had let out around 125 feet of chain so I wasn't too worried about dragging.

After a movie and a half, things got a bit worse. The wind shifted around to the northeast and that meant that the wind had more of a chance to blow over the water and build up some choppy waves. This makes the boat bounce around and makes it harder for the anchor to do its job. Architeuthis ended up doing fine but Shalimar had some problems. Their anchor snubber (stretchy thing that you use to keep the anchor chain from jerking on the boat too much) broke. When it broke, their anchor chain had an altercation with the rigging on the underside of their bowsprit. The anchor chain won the altercation and the rigging lost. Their dolphin striker (yes, it's really called a dolphin striker - google it, I'm too lazy to explain exactly what it is) got bent and, in the ensuing battle to get their snubber situation sorted out, Ryan's finger got hurt. Certainly a bummer but the dolphin striker shouldn't be too hard to repair (and it has to be repaired before Shalimar can sail again) and it doesn't sound like Ryan's figure dislocation deal will be too debilitating.

Meanwhile, aboard Architeuthis, we hustled to set up a back up anchor snubber to avoid similar problems. By the time I finished setting it up, the wind was starting to die down. Oh well, I guess not everyday can be perfect and given the fact that we're surrounded by reef here I suppose things could have been a lot worse.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Zebra Shark and Squids Doin' It (with other squids, not with the shark. that would be weird.)

We're anchored off of Ha'ano island in the Ha'apai group of Tonga and we love it here. The island looks pretty nice but it's the underwater scenery that we're really excited about. In fact, we haven't actually gone ashore yet but we've been snorkeling a lot. There are really cool coral pinnacles everywhere that shoot up from 30 to 50 feet deep in vertical walls and there are little caves and swim-throughs all over the place. It's definitely the most dramatic live coral formations we've seen so far. The range and quantity of critters is quite good as well. It's not quite as pristine as what we saw in the Tuamotus but it's probably the runner up for what we've seen since we left California. There are snappers, groupers, and unicorn-fish in the 2 plus foot range. Basically there are all sorts of tasty fish that were much more rare in the Vava'u group. We've even seen a couple of sharks and that's twice as many shark sightings as we had in all of Vava'u.

One of the sharks we saw here was one we hadn't seen before and was especially cool. It was a zebra shark (Stegostoma fasciatum). The shark had spots all over it (apparently the juveniles have stripes and that's where the name comes from) and a ridiculously long tail fin. Ryan (from Shalimar) saw the shark first while we were out spearfishing and pointed it out to me to see if I knew whether or not it was dangerous. I immediately recognized it as a zebra shark because Christine had found it in our fish ID book a long time ago and said, "That's cool, I want to see one of those." I knew I'd be in trouble if we scared off the shark before Christine had a chance to see it so Ryan and I backed away and left it sitting on the sandy bottom between coral outcrops in about 50 feet of water. I popped my head out of the water and yelled at Christine and got her to swim over to us. Our shark friend was still parked in the same place so Christine dove down to take a picture but her ears weren't clearing well and she couldn't make it all the way down. I borrowed the camera from her and was able to get to the bottom and get a couple of shots. The shark apparently didn't know we were friends so the second shot is of the shark swimming away from me. I'm not sure how rare these critters are but it was the first one we'd seen and it was pretty cool looking so we were excited.

Today we went snorkeling again to see if we could bother the zebra shark some more. We didn't find him but we found something that I think is even better. We found a group of about 20 bigfin reef squid (Sepioteuthis lessoniana). These squid are close relatives of the caribbean reef squid that I spent three months studying (and harassing) in Bermuda. We've seen the bigfin reef squid in Vava'u but those were individuals of fairly small groups (like 3 or 4). The group we found here was made up of fairly large individuals ranging from about 8 to 12 inches long and they let us swim up within a few feet of them. They didn't actually pay too much attention to us because they had something else on their minds. They were doing their whole mating thing. There were large males battling it out by flashing different colors and bumping into each other and there were males passing sperm packets off to females with their special modified arm. I floated around with them for around an hour. Basically, until I was to cold to stay in one spot any longer. Then, while swimming along with Christine, she pointed out another pair of squid to me in a different place. There was one really large one (over a foot long) and a smaller one. They were near the bottom in about 40 feet of water near the edge of the reef. As I watched, they sank down to the bottom and the big one waited while the smaller one scooted under a ledge of coral and popped back out again after 30 seconds or so. I'm pretty sure the smaller one was a female and that she was laying her eggs under the coral while her mate was guarding her. I've spent all sorts of time reading about squid reproductive behavior (what, doesn't everybody?) so it was really cool to see it in action. The only bummer about the whole thing is that we hadn't brought a camera. Christine's camera housing has been fogging up a lot lately and our little video camera is only good down to about 10 feet so I didn't want to bring it and be stuck at the surface the whole time.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Vava'u in a nutshell

We arrived in Vava'u, Tonga just in time to partake in some of the Vava'u Festival events this year. We also finally caught up with many old friends who we have not seen since Mexico. Unfortunately, we also had to say goodbye to many friends heading on to Fiji and beyond.

The festival started off with a parade and events down in the main town of Neiafu followed by an evening pub crawl with optional "fancy" dress which means costumes in British. I of course insisted that we dress up and we were happy to see most other people in costumes as well. We covered a lot of ground and visited nearly every bar in Neiafu. At the last bar we were treated to the weekly Faka lady show which is basically a drag show. Quite the cultural experience to say the least. Wish I had some pictures to share but my camera has stopped working properly in low light. Jared's camera is a little too nice to bring along on a pub crawl. I did borrow a couple of pictures from my friend Cory from Rutea so you can see our costumes at least. Speaking of Rutea, we were finally reunited after many months at sea! We had not seen them since we left La Cruz, Mexico back in March. We were also reunited with Mark and Yuka on Merkava. Yuka is the one dressed up like a gangster which was absolutely hilarious because she is pretty much the exact opposite in real life.

We skipped the next couple of days of events to go check out some of the many nice anchorages around Vava'u. We headed out to a place called Kenutu Island with our buds on Brittania because we heard that there might be surf there. The swell direction wasn't quite right and the reef was a bit too shallow for us, so we decided to go snorkeling instead. Now that we had come so far west on our journey across the Pacific, the species richness (diversity) of coral and fish was noticeably much greater than at any of the reefs back in French Polynesia. I saw species of fish and coral that I had never seen before and I even found a nudibranch to take a picture of. Unfortunately, there were not many sharks or very big fish as a result of years of unregulated fishing in the area. Shalimar, La Cueca, and Takalani all made it out the the anchorage the next day and Stoph from Takalani found a dead tree on the beach that he decided he needed to burn so we all got together for a beach bonfire. Much to Stoph's dismay, the tree did not want to burn because it had gotten too wet, but after an hour at it he did manage to get a small finicky fire going. We took turns fanning the fire to keep it going for as long as possible while the ants attacked La Cueca's pasta dinner. Luckily, Shalimar had some leftovers to feed the exhausted and slightly tipsy fire makers. All in all, it was a fun night on a beautiful deserted island surrounded by old and new friends. Can't ask for much more!

A front came through the next day and it brought lots of rain and wind from almost every direction. Our anchor decided to pick up a tiny piece of stray coral on the mostly sand bottom and we started dragging through the anchorage a pretty decent clip. We decided to leave instead of re-anchoring there only to be faced with an opposing current and 30 knots of wind on the nose. As soon as we rounded the southern tip of the island we were trying to get around, we headed downwind and had a much better time of it. Unfortunately, even though we found several well protected coves to anchor in, we could not find shallow water or good holding. As we were attempting to re-anchor for what felt like the 10th try in an hour, Ben and Lisa, the festival organizers, were passing by in their motor boat and they told us we could use their old mooring. They sailed to Tonga a few years ago and never really left and they had installed a mooring for their sailboat in the bay where we were trying to anchor. Since they weren't using it anymore because they had acquired an island to live on, they generously offered it to us. Boy were we relieved! The front brought a ton of rain with it and we filled up our water tanks and our laundry buckets within hours. This kind of became the trend in Tonga, with a weak or strong trough (valley of low pressure) and it's associated front moving through the area every other week or so. In between these periodic storms was nothing but sunshine!

The next big festival event we were signed up for was the full moon party. We made our way to the anchorage by the beach where the party was and I prepared my futuristic costume out of some metallic glittery wrapping paper I found, some tin foil, and some glow sticks. The costume themes were past or future, pretty vague. I ended up with a sort of futuristic queen costume so I went around telling people that I was their future queen. Jared threw on a garbage bad and a tin foil cap and was aiming for a sort of post-apocalyptic hobo type thing. His costume took 5 minutes to make and mine took about an hour. The rain finally let up for long enough to make it to shore where we were greeted by about 100 partygoers. I had a great time dancing all night long while Jared stood around with Ryan drinking rum and cokes and complaining about the noise. We skipped out on the rest of the festival events mostly because we don't care for racing and because Jared had reached his socializing limit for the week.

We spent another three weeks just cruising around Vava'u checking out the many beautiful anchorages and hanging out with friends. We rented some scuba tanks and did some diving with Ryan. We went to a traditional Tongan feast. I ran into a guy I used to work with on the dive boats in Santa Barbara which was such a trip! He was out visiting a friend of his who is currently cruising on his Westsail 32, Evangeline, with his wife. We had a great time catching up and also getting to know his friend Daniel. We said goodbye to Takalani, Libis, and La Cueca who went onto Fiji, then Vanuatu and Australia. Hope we keep in touch! We explored some of the tiny outer villages. We checked out some caves. We briefly met a couple of the crew from Aldebaran who first contacted us ages ago when they came across our blog while they were prepping for their trip. We've been pen-pals/radio buddies ever since and we've been dying to meet them for real. Unfortunately, our schedules were a bit out of sink so we will have to wait till New Zealand to really meet them I guess. Tuatara showed up one day and we got to catch up with them for first time since Tahiti. We stocked up on food and then we headed down to the Ha'apai group for our second month in Tonga.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tonga is not the internet capital of the world

Hopefully this post will work. We've been trying to update the blog for a while but the Tongan internet doesn't want to cooperate. It looks like uploading photos is out of the question for now. We are going to head down to the Haapai island group soon (we've been in the Vava'u group since September 1st). From what we've heard, Haapai is even less developed and, therefore, less likely to have decent internet connectivity than where we are now. It's likely that we won't be able to post anything or even email until we get to Tongatapu sometime around the end of October. Once we get to Tongatapu, we'll just make final preparations for the trip to New Zealand, watch for a good weather window, and head to Opua in New Zealand. We'll make sure that we get at least some emails out before making the crossing to NZ and we'll be doing the Pacific Seafarer's net again at that point as well. Sorry to all of our family and friends that we can't get more communication going but that's just the way things work around here.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Niue aka "The Rock"

Much to our dismay, we decided to pass Beveridge Reef by due to the extremely windy and rolly conditions. Since it is a submerged coral atoll, it does not offer much protection in those kind of conditions and even though the holding inside the atoll would have been good, we probably wouldn't have felt comfortable leaving Architeuthis to go snorkeling or anything. Instead, we pushed on to Niue (new-ay) which was only a day away. As soon as we made the course change things were much more comfortable on Architeuthis since we were now sailing almost dead downwind and we felt better about our decision to push on.

Being that Niue is a raised coral atoll, the anchoring is quite deep and mostly coral. Luckily, the Niue Yacht Club has installed about 18 moorings for the yachties to use during their stay on the island and lucky for us there were still a couple available when we arrived. We had heard about the humpback whales that often hang out in the mooring field singing and spouting all around the boats and sure enough as we came around the corner a small group of whales was there to greet us. Niue is a breeding and calving ground for the humpbacks and it just so happens to be their mating season down here right now.

Niue is unlike any other island we've been to so far and it is literally just a big hunk of limestone rock that is made entirely of uplifted coral. A long long time ago it was a coral atoll and then due to some plate tectonics it was raised about 100 feet. There are few beaches and no rivers so the surrounding water is amazingly clear with up to 50 meters of visibility. There are also tons of caves, chasms, and ravines all around the island to explore. Niue is also proud to be the world's smallest independent nation with a population of around 2000 and only 259 square miles of land area. They are in free association with New Zealand and all Niueans have NZ citizenship as well. As a result, we met a lot of Kiwi ex-pats living there and we might be running into a lot of Niueans when we get to New Zealand.

Our friends on Libis, Takalani, La Cueca, Balquidder, and Shalimar were all in Niue at the same time as us so we had tons of fun exploring the rock and partying afterwards with all of them. We also made some new friends on Mare Liberum, Maggie, and Kuheli who came all the way from Norway and Sweden and took the less traveled southern route across the pacific stopping in Easter Island, Pitcarin, and the Gambiers. They sure had some stories to tell! We also became fast friends with the yacht club commodore, Keith, and the woman who runs the backpackers building where the yacht club headquarters was, Ira.

Libis, Shalimar, and Architeuthis all teamed up one day and rented a big van to take to go explore some caves and chasms. First we went to Togo Chasm which starts off with a short hike through a tropical forest with the occasional protruding limestone rock. As soon as the ocean comes into view, so does the dramatic coastline studded with dark colored jagged coral pinnacles. and a heavy surf throwing up tons of spray. A well maintained trail and ladder leads down through the treacherous looking rocks to a narrow slot canyon with a white sandy floor and palm trees. One little cave we checked out leads out to the open to the ocean and was full of foam like a foam party or something. Ryan and Alex lugged their climbing gear down with them so they tried to find a way up out of the chasm to set up a top rope on a wall they found to climb but had no luck. Jelle climbed up a coconut tree and knocked down some coconuts for us to snack on and then we headed back to the van to go to the next cave.

The trail to the Vaikona Chasm was considerably longer and more dramatic with the occasional red trail marker to let us know we were going the right way. The forest had really cool dead coral pinnacles that we had to walk around and through, and the way the light was being filtered through the canopy made it really feel like being underwater at times. Finding the opening to the chasm that leads to the cave was a little difficult and then scaling the wall down into it was even more difficult. Luckily there was a rope set up to hold on to. Once down into the fern covered and sunlit chasm we donned our snorkel gear and jumped into a long clear pool which we were told had a passage to swim under at the opposite end. Holger check it out first and came back shortly saying that it was a short easy dive to get under the passage and into the cave. Inside the cave it was almost completely dark and our flashlights illuminated a magnificent under water cathedral of stalactites in the crystal clear water. We went what we thought was the right way only to discover a dead end and turn around to find another short underwater passage-way to the next cave. At this point we could either go on and find our way out a different opening and hike all the way back around to get our stuff, or just turn around and go back the way we came. We were all getting a little cold due to the dark cave environment and the cold spring water so we chose to swim back the way we came. Swimming under the last passage and back into the sunlit chasm where we left our stuff was probably the coolest part because of the way the hole was glowing light blue as you swam from the darkness into the light. The hike back was much faster now that we knew the way and it was kind of funny to see a bunch of people with swim suits and snorkel gear hiking through a forest. We zipped around the rest of the island to check out a few more spots but we were too tired to really enjoy them so we decided to go back another day. We headed back to the yacht club to have a couple of beers and relax.

The rest of our time on Niue was spent snorkeling with whales and sea snakes, exploring caves and tide pools, bbqing at the yacht club, and hanging out with old and new friends. We also helped the commodore Keith out with some mooring surveys due to some untimely mooring failures he had been having. Brand new mooring lines were magically unsplicing themselves. After much deliberation, we decided that the reason was that they had been installed without being pre-loaded and since the end of the splice had not been seized and no boats had tied up to them for some time previous, the splices had worked themselves free. The line was a particularly slippery line when new as well, but it was the line that the professional New Zealander mooring makers claimed was the best and what they used. Jared and myself along with Cory, Gaz, and Sarah from La Cueca dove all the moorings just to make sure none of the ones still out had the same problem. None of them had that problem, but the one Kuheli was tied up to was about to chafe through for an entirely different reason. The sub-surface float had slipped up the line to the surface allowing the line to have slack on it when no boat was tied up to it. The drooping line rubbed on the coral and chafed pretty heavily before Kuheli tied up to it. A very good reason to always inspect your own mooring! Poor Keith tried very hard to keep all the moorings in perfect condition, but without his own boat and dive partner he has no way to inspect them himself. Instead, he hires the folks who run Niue dive to inspect the moorings. They usually do this in a timely fashion but due to a stint of bad weather they got very backed up with dive charters and could not get to the inspection. To help Keith sleep at night, we volunteered to check the moorings in the mean time. Keith and all the other people at the yacht club were most helpful to us and all the yachties and it was the least we could do in return. It wasn't a bad place to dive either! Almost every time you get in the water you can hear the whales singing and making all their other weird noises. We could even hear them through the hull of our boat at night when they were very close and shallow. Fleur even got sprayed by the spout of one whale while she was sleeping in her v-berth because the hatch above her was open and they were that close!

So, now we're in Tonga with more humpback whales, and the internet is very slow so we can't post any pictures yet. We will post them as soon as we can. Promise!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


After a really nice four day sail from Bora Bora, we arrived in Aitutaki in the Cook Islands. We managed to navigate the extremely shallow and narrow man made pass no problem thanks to our shallow draft and narrow beam. The entrance was the most challenging part since the outgoing current was running at about 4-5 knots and the swell was opposing it. That combined with the fact that the entrance itself is only about 15 meters wide made surfing the standing waves a little scary since we tend to get our stern pushed around and the boat turned sideways. Jared was able to keep us from getting completely sideways but he had to push the old perkins pretty hard to get us through the outflow. The anchorage itself is also pretty tight and there was already a small flotilla of about 10 boats there. Luckily our friends on Libis, who we met only briefly in Hiva Oa, invited us to anchor next to them. It was great to finally catch up with Fleur and Jelle and meet their new crew member Holger. Fleur and Jelle are from Holland and Holger is from Germany.

Our first few days in Aitutaki were a bit stressful due to a nasty front that passed through followed by some major boat shuffling. As the wind shifted around with the front it also picked up quite a bit and our boat became the windward boat of the flotilla. Our stern anchor picked up some weeds and started dragging so we had to fend off of Libis while we re-anchored and added more anchors and lines to shore. Jared was really wishing we had another anchor and some extra chain. After the storm most of the boats we ready to leave and most of the boats had deeper drafts that required a high tide to leave. Even still, many of them got stuck or hit bottom (sandy thankfully) so Jared was out there with a few others in dingies helping people get un-stuck. After we were done moving our boat around and finally had a nice secure spot tied to two sturdy palm trees we had a much better time.

The people on Aitutaki are super friendly and, best of all, they speak English! We drank lots of Steinlager and ate lots of fish and chips at the local bars and food stands. We had the good fortune to get to see the awesome Aitutaki choir, drumming, and dance troupes perform upon their return from the inter-island competitions at Rarotonga for a mere $2 per person. The singing was so amazing that it made us feel like going to church and the drumming and dancing was outstanding! The best we've seen so far. We rented scooters with Shalimar and rode around the whole island. We dove outside the pass with Krispin, Vincent, and Ryan and Krispin found us a new storm anchor. A 45lb Bruce was on the bottom with about 50 ft of chain and a bucket to use as a lift. Score! We snorkeled with giant clams and saw some of the healthiest looking reefs we've seen since the Tuamotus. We picnicked on a beautiful deserted motu surrounded by shallow white sand and clear turquoise water. Life is pretty darn good out here to say the least.

Our friends Stoph and Sara on Takalani showed up a few days later and we had a good time catching up with them a some new friends on Catacoas and Karinya. We made friends with a nice old Scottish Kiwi named Richard and he invited us to his place to do laundry and hang out. He had some crazy stories and knew a ton about the history of the Cook Islands and elsewhere. He worked for most of his life as an agricultural engineer of sorts and has lived in all sorts of crazy places. He married a Cook islander which is why he gets to live in Aitutaki now. In the Cook Islands all property is passed down from generation to generation and outsiders cannot become citizens or buy land unless they marry a native islander. I believe it is the same kind of system in some of the other islands as well. He also showed us a cool documentary about Suwarrow Island in the northern Cook group. A lot of people we know went there from Bora Bora instead of to Aitutaki or Rarotonga. It sounds like an amazing place but we chose to do the southern route through the Cooks this time. Maybe next time! Suwarrow is a protected atoll inhabited only by the two park rangers who look after things. People passing through on their boats are really the only visitors. The rangers take people fishing and cook them traditional meals and show them how to live on an isolated atoll. Sounds kind of like Toau in the Tuamotus. LIke many of the atolls in the south pacific, it is also a very important nesting ground for ocean-going birds. As a matter of fact, the motu we had our picnic lunch on in Aitutaki was a nesting ground for the Red-tailed Tropic Birds.

After ten days it was time to move on. Once we were done dealing with storing our new anchor with all its chain we were ready to rumble. Headed for Beveridge Reef if the weather cooperates and then Nuie, the smallest self-governed nation in the world!

Monday, August 01, 2011

Leaving Bora Bora

We're going to leave Bora Bora today. We've had some fun here but I don't think it'll go down as our favorite island. It's beautiful but it's a bit overrun with tourists (you know, people like us). To be fair, we haven't fully explored the island. We've been too busy working on stuff to get ready for the slightly longer passages ahead of us. We added some running back stays to stabilize the main mast (probably not necessary but gives us peace of mind), changed the oil and filters, made some improvements to our wind vane set up, and those sorts of things.

Our plan from here to Tonga is as follows: we'll go from Bora Bora to Aitutaki in the Cook Islands, then to Beveridge Reef, then to Nuie, and from Nuie we'll head on to Vava'u in Tonga. Then we'll stay in the various island groups of Tonga until sometime around early November. We were planning to have Rarotonga be our first stop after Bora Bora but it looks like there may be a mild front coming through about the time we plan to get there. The front will bring winds out of the north and from what we've heard, the harbor at Rarotonga (marginal in good conditions) is unsafe with winds from the north. That's why we've changed our plan to Aitutaki. At any rate, the plans are all shown on the map tab. Speaking of maps, I've added a small map on the right side of this page. In theory, that map will display our position reports to the Pacific Seafarer's Net. On multi day passages (like the ones coming up), we'll report our position via ham radio and the operators of the net will update the data set that feeds that little map. It only shows position reports from the last 30 days, so it's not showing anything as of the writing of this post but, if all goes according to plan, it should start to show our position sometime tomorrow.

I'm not sure when we'll have internet access again so we may not be able to update the blog again until Tonga. We may have access sooner but there's no need to worry if you don't see any updates 'til then. We've got to run now. We still need to top off our water tanks, roll up our dinghy, and pay our bill at the Bora Bora yacht club before we can get underway.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bora Bora

We left Raiatea on Monday the 25th and had a nice day sail to Bora Bora. It was a downwind sail and we went through the hassle of setting up our whisker pole to run wing on wing downwind and it ended up paying off. Two larger sailboats had left Raiatea about 15 minutes before us and we ended up getting to the pass in Bora Bora about 15 minutes before them. We're not racers but we do like it when we can beat boats that are supposed to be faster than us.

We picked up a mooring ball at the Bora Bora Yacht Club. Don't worry, it's not as ritzy as it sounds. It's basically just a restaurant / bar with moorings and a dinghy dock. All the anchorages here are pretty deep. We could anchor but I generally pull our anchor up by hand (we have a manual windlass but it's awkward to use) and pulling up the anchor and chain from 60 feet is not fun and given the fairly low price of a mooring here, it seems totally worth it. So far, we've just been working on boat projects and hanging out with friends while we wait for good weather for the crossing to Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. There are some pretty big seas forecast through the weekend. It wouldn't be anything we couldn't handle but, after our very uncomfortable trip to Tahiti, we'd rather just wait a few extra days for smooth sailing rather than charge out into big puke inducing seas with 25 knot winds.

Architeuthis moored at the Bora Bora yacht club.

For those of you who've been confused about where we are, I've updated the map. It now shows our trip as far as Raiatea. I may also try to add our projected path out to Tonga. I also updated the Calendar tab. The calendar now shows when we were in various places along the trip. Of course it'd probably be more useful to show where we're going to be in the future but that would require a level of clairvoyance that I've yet to attain.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Huahine to Raiatea

Our remaining days in Huahine were spent surfing, snorkeling, and hanging out with friends from Takalani, Blue Moon, and Reality. On one evening, we had a little BBQ on the beach and played petanque (the french version of bocci ball). The wind finally backed off a bit by the 20th so we were able to go surfing. It was a fairly long dinghy ride to the surf spot but it was worth it. It was by no means a world class wave that we were surfing but, then again, we are not world class surfers. There are much more powerful, steeper waves elsewhere around Huahine, so we had this one to ourselves. The waves break over sharp coral that's fairly shallow and looks even shallower because the water is so clear but we surfed there for three days in a row and the only injuries sustained were some very small cuts on Christine's hand. On our third day of surfing we took Stoph from Takalani surfing with us. It was his first time surfing but he did great. Later on, Stoph volunteered his dinghy (it's a bit faster than our dinghy) for some tow surfing. We basically just dragged each other around the anchorage for a while. It was a bit silly but quite fun and we got Rob and Jo from Blue Moon to give it a go as well.

Yesterday (the 23rd), we packed up and left Huahine. There wasn't much wind so we ended up motoring most of the way. Ordinarily, we would have just waited a couple of days to leave until the wind picked up again but, unfortunately, we're in a bit of a hurry now. Our visas from French Polynesia will expire on the 26th so we're supposed to check out from Bora Bora on the 25th. We could make the short crossing from Raiatea to Bora Bora today and make it on time except for one thing. We had Rob from Blue Moon take a look at our rigging on our main mast. Rob is a third generation boat builder and he designed and built his own boat. He said that, while our rigging was adjusted about as well as it could be, we could stabilize the main mast by adding some running backstays from the spreader tangs. Rob is a fairly quiet and unassuming guy but he was pretty definite about saying that he would add the running backstays before making the crossing to New Zealand so I'm inclined to take his suggestion seriously. In order to add the running backstays, I need a few more parts from a chandlery and that puts us in a bit of a dilemma. There are a several chandleries here on Raiatea but, as far as we know, none on Bora Bora. However, it's Sunday and everything is closed here. So basically, we either get our parts and check out a day late or we check out on time and don't get our parts. We may be able to get the parts we need in the Cooks or Tonga but we can't really count on it. So, at the moment, I think we're inclined to stay an extra day, get the parts, check out one day late, and hope that the french will forgive us.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Huahine Bike Ride

It's really nice having good internet access right on the boat. It means that I can upload pictures and actually make a blog post about stuff we did today (and the last couple of days). Yay. So, first off we have some pictures from the trip over here.

It was a fairly easy passage. The seas were a bit lumpier than we'd like but nothing too horrible. Once we got into the lee of Huahine, the seas were nice and calm. The trip to the south end of the island once we got into the lagoon was no problem.

Yesterday (the 16th), we went to shore and walked around for a while. We walked down to the very south end of the island to take a look at the pass we want to surf. Unfortunately, the wind has been blowing a bit too hard and the surf was all choppy and ugly looking. The wind is forecast to drop in a few days so we'll probably stick around and hope things smooth out. This wave is a right (most of the wave around these parts seem to be lefts - and we don't like those) and is supposed to be pretty mellow. After our experience in Tahiti we're looking forward to a mellow wave. We know our limits.

Today, we rented a couple of poorly maintained and too small for us mountain bikes and rode them around Huahine Iti (iti means small). Huahine is actually two islands separated by a very narrow, river sized bit of lagoon. Actually, I guess it's not really separated because there's a bridge that connects the two. At any rate, we just rode around the slightly smaller southern island. Given how out of shape we are from sitting around on a boat all the time, that was plenty. We also ran into our friends Stephen and Heidi from S/V Narama. They had also rented bikes and were riding around the island but they were more ambitious. They were riding around both islands. It was the first we'd seen of them since Tahanea in the Tuamotus so it was good to catch up.

The island is beautiful. It reminds me of a more laid back, more friendly, and less touristy version of Moorea. The people don't seem quite as amazingly friendly as the Marquesians but, then again, almost nobody on earth is that friendly. We haven't really checked out the snorkeling and diving here yet but if that turns out to be as good as it is in Moorea, I can't see any reason to spend a vacation in Moorea rather than here.

On a totally unrelated note, I found a picture of me free diving on a sunken airplane on our friends blog. I tagged along with the folks from Ceilydh (and several other boats) and they took a picture of me and I didn't even know it until I checked their blog this evening.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

We're in Huahine

Just a brief post to let everyone know we made it to Huahine. We're anchored down in the southeast corner and there's internet access from one of the nearby hotels that we're able to get on the boat. It's too windy down here to surf but, other than that, everything is fine. We'll post more later.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Back to the real world, sort of

After an uncomfortable two day passage complete with puking, we arrived in Papeete, Tahiti. Papeete is the biggest city in French Polynesia and as a result is the best place to re-provision and buy miscellaneous boat stuff. The anchorage near Marina Taina was completely packed with at least 150 boats. Many boats were on mooring balls making anchoring nearby even more tricky. We motored around for what felt like forever before settling on the shallow sand shelf out near the inner edge of the reef that forms the lagoon. To make a long story short, we ended up too close to a boat on a mooring ball, had to re-anchor with two anchors so we didn't swing into the shallow coral just offshore or the moored boats just inshore, and then dragged our bow anchor a couple days later when the wind picked up out of the south. That made for a sleepless night involving one failed attempt at re-anchoring in the same spot with help from our friends on Piko, more dragging, apparent resetting, followed by even more wind the next day and more dragging. Since we were getting dangerously close to yet another moored boat, we made an emergency attempt at re-anchoring during the windiest part of the day with the help of 3 dinghies and a bunch of friends. We finally got both anchors up and re-anchored in a new spot with plenty of scope this time and held just fine. Jared blames the lack of bow anchor scope for all the dragging, and the shallow layer of sand covering the reef.

Aside from the anchoring drama and the sort of culture shock of a bustling metropolis complete with traffic and filth, we had a lot of fun catching up with our friends Krister and Amanda on Britannia, Lauren(guy) and Lauren(girl) on Piko, Vincent and Crispin now crewing for Balquideer, and Dino on Hadar. We attempted to surf at a nearby reef pass break with Krister and pretty much failed (Krister caught some waves though). We are not quite good enough yet to surf world class surf in the company of world class surfers. Jared and Krister played guitar a lot and I attempted to sing at times. We had to say goodbye to Ryan and Alex on Shalimar unfortunately. They have family visiting and they are off to Moorea with them. Ryan's mom was kind enough to deliver a few things we ordered and we look forward to thanking her in person in Bora Bora in a couple of weeks. Jared went snorkeling on some plane wrecks off in the lagoon with the folks from Watchyagonnado, Ceilyhd, Britannia, and Piko, while I put away all of the new food. We did our downtown errands in one day and we were ready to move on a week after arriving. We were sad to be leaving our friends again, but we have very little time left on our visas and we want to explore the leeward Society Islands. We are technically supposed to leave French Polynesia on July 25th. I'm sure we'll cross paths with them again somewhere. I hear there's a really cool full moon party in Vavau, Tonga in September. Maybe we'll all end up there! If anyone has the funds and the time, come visit us in Tonga. It sounds awesome. We'll be there for the months of September and October.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Good Times in Toau

After a nice day sail from Fakarava's north pass we reached the false pass (a pass through the atoll's fringing reef that doesn't go all the way through) on the north western side of Toau called Anse Amyot (anse means cove). It is a unique place in the Tuamotus because not only is it a nice protected cove created by a false pass, but there are also about 15 moorings to tie up to. The moorings were installed by the couple who lives in Anse Amyot, Valentine and Gaston, and the payment they require is simply that you come ashore one night and have a feast with them for a reasonable fee. And what a feast it was with fresh tuna sashimi, fried fish, poisson cru, lobster focaccia, bbq lobster, rice, coconut bread, and a delicious coconut cake for dessert. Gaston catches all the fish and lobster himself with the help of his handy fish traps a lot of skill. Valentine has some killer recipes and is both a gifted cook and hostess. They both welcomed us into their lives as soon as we stepped ashore the first day and treated us like old friends for the rest of the week.

Our first full day in Anse Amyot was Jared's birthday. We did a dive on the wall outside of the lagoon with Ryan and the brits Mike and Hilda from the boat Quicksilver. Jared and I traded off using Ryan's spare tank which is why a lot the photos from the dive have Jared in them free diving. The wall was quite vertical and dropped off from about 20 feet to well beyond what we could see or dive to. There were no sharks but the coral looked pretty healthy. There also seemed to be less fish than we had seen at some other spots. The visibility was awesome as usual and the wow factor was high but it will be hard for any dive to come even close to the wow factor of that dive we did in Fakarava's north pass. We are so spoiled!

Since it happened to be Jared's birthday the day we met Valentine, she invited us to come ashore for a potluck dinner with our friends on Shalimar and Tuatara. Their old friend George was also there with his girlfriend Yael. George is a salty french guy who makes his living as a delivery captain and was bringing a fancy new catamaran to a charter company in Raietea in the Society Islands. A couple days earlier, George was out with Gaston fishing when everyone's worst nightmare happened. As he was placing the bag of bloody fish into the boat it slipped back out and a grey shark started heading right for him. Gaston told him to hold still and throw the bag of fish into the boat, but his fear got the best of him. He leaped half-way out of the water up onto the nearest coral head and the shark probably mistook his wiggling foot for a fleeing fish and went for it. Luckily, the bite was a gentle one and did not sever any major arteries, tendons, or nerves. Yael is a nurse and had all her medical supplies with her. She stitched him up and banned him from entering the water for a long time. She also was afraid to go back in the water for a few days even though all involved agreed that the bite had more to do with the bag full of wriggling bloody fish than with any sort of intensional shark on human violence.

Our pre-feast feast was delicious and full of laughter. Valentine speaks pretty good english and Gaston knows a few words, but his body language says it all. He's a total goof ball and very entertaining. George and Yael both spoke very good english, like most french people do thanks to their schooling, and we enjoyed their company thoroughly. Alex made brownies and Ryan made his now famous chocolate chip cookies. Yael made a cake and we sang happy birthday in french. We all pulled out our last bottles of booze and drank every last drop. Gaston had one too many drops and Valentine had to put him to bed early.

The next day we had our official feast after a perfect day of snorkeling and R&R. After stuffing ourselves to the gills we went inside to thank Valentine and Gaston and they invited to stay and hang out with them and an Austrian couple named Fleurian and Birgitte from the catamaran Fidelio. We shared many stories and laughed a lot. We learned that Anse Amyot has been in Valentine's family for as long as she can remember, or maybe it was her grandfather that first came there, I forget. Gaston came to help Valentine's brother with the fishing about 20 years ago and that's when Valentine met him. Gaston grew up on Tahiti near Port Phaeton. Valentine left the island to go live and work in Papeete for a while but then came back to help run the place when her brother became ill. She's been running the show with Gaston ever since. They harvest copra, fish, and pearls. They recently cut back on the pearling because catering to the cruising community has started taking up such a big part of their time. Ten years ago they would only see a handful of boats anchor in their little cove every year, now they have hundreds! Valentine's sister runs a small pension (hotel) on the island too with help from her nieces and cousins, but they all live in Fakarava most of the time it seems. Valentine told us about the good old days when they were all champion spear fishers. Her brother in particular was one of the best, able to dive very deep and spear very big fish. She also told us about one time when she saw a shark heading straight for her pregnant sister during a spear fishing competition and she had to spear the shark to save her!

The rest of the week is a blur of swimming, snorkeling, hiking, eating, singing, ukuleles, and just hanging out in paradise. We offered to give Valentine a hand with the preparations and serving of the next feast, a day that started with the ear splitting squeals of a pig in peril. Pork was on the menu for that evening. Alex and I helped prepare and serve the feast while Jared and Ryan sat around drinking beer. They were on dishes duty. Valentine's niece and cousins were on the island for the evening and after we were done with the dinner, we moved the party outside. Out came the ukuleles, and Kevin brought his guitar and his accordion. We sat around listening to some first class tahitian singing and music under a warm starry night. Our friend Vincent, who was crewing on a boat that was at the feast that night, joined us and donated a bottle of rum. Valentine mixed up some punch and the already very intoxicated Vincent drank some more. After pulling a couple of hilarious but painful looking stunts, we took him back to his boat. I only wish we had had a camera to preserve those moments and help sober Vincent understand why his face was swollen.

After a lunch time feast one day, we checked out Valentine's collection of black pearls, learned about pearl farming, and then played some petanque. Petanque is basically bocce ball but the balls are metal. All the islands around here are very serious about their pentaque and inter-island competitions are commonplace. It sounds like it's a big deal in France too. They also play for fun though, like Americans and bocce ball. Valentine and Gaston were both very good, as was George the salty frenchman. Ryan and Alex both turned out to be pretty good as well and Jared and I were definitely the worst of the lot. The last game we played I was teamed up with Valentine and we called ourselves the shark team. My competitive streak shone through at last and with the help of Valentine's superior skill we managed to defeat Gaston and Alex. I think Gaston is even more competitive than me and he was very surprised that we won. It was a great way to end the day.

After a couple of weather delays, we were finally set to leave. We spent one final happy hour with Gaston and Valentine. Valentine broke out the ukulele once again and Gaston rigged up a primitive bass with a bucket, a wooden broom handle, and a piece of rubbery line. Jared gave it a try and was a natural at it. Hopefully we can rig one up for our boat one of these days. I really wish we had ukulele too. Maybe we'll come across one down the road. Valentine talked about happy hours in the past where everyone brought a ukulele and had a big jam session/lesson. Sounds like a fun way to learn. Oh well, maybe next time! I sure hope we can make it back to Anse Amyot some day. Such an amazing place with amazing people and so many good times! Thank you Valentine and Gaston!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Fakarava and the end of the Zombie Hand Saga

We left Tahanea just after sunset on June 17th. We weren't thrilled with leaving through the pass in the dark but we'd been through it a couple of times already and it seemed to be a pretty mellow pass and the just-after-sunset slack current period worked out better for timing the entrance to Fakarava's south pass than the much earlier slack current period. Shalimar went out ahead of us and we saw them buck around a bit. When our turn came we also did a bit of bouncing and splashing but we made it out just fine. After a pretty mellow and uneventful overnight passage we got to the south Fakarava pass early on the morning of the 18th and a couple of hours before the slack current (despite our efforts to reduce sail and slow down during the trip) so we hove to and prepared wait for slack current time. As we were waiting, Christine saw another boat enter the pass with no problem so we decided to approach more closely and check it out. Everything looked fine so we entered the pass and, aside from a bit of opposing current, it was a piece of cake. Once inside, we followed some waypoints we'd gotten from other boats around some shallow areas and over to the anchorage just west of the pass.

There were quite a few other boats already anchored and among them was a catamaran named Changing Spots. We'd met Rob and Cynthia in Nuku Hiva and he'd told us then that he was a retired physician so I was glad to see them in the anchorage. By this point the backs of both my hands were swollen, reddish-purple, covered with little blister like bumps, painful, and quite itchy. I still wasn't sure if the rash was being caused by antibiotic induced sun sensitivity or by a resurgence of bacteria. Consequently, I didn't know if I should keep taking the antibiotic. I got Rob on the radio and he generously offered to stop by our boat and take a look at my mitts. He told me he thought it was the sun-sensitivity-antibiotic thing and advised me to quit the Doxycycline and keep my hands out of the sun (I'd already been trying to keep them out of the sun but that's easier said than done down here). I was happy to stop taking the damned Doxycycline because it tended to make me a bit nauseous anyway and I looked forward to a speedy recovery.

Unfortunately, the recovery was not as speedy as I might have liked. I spent the next two days holed up in the cabin of the boat gulping down pain killers and rubbing various creams on the backs of my hands. Not only was it inconvenient to do stuff outside while trying to constantly wear gloves (they tend to cut down on manual dexterity and can get a bit warm in the sun) but, by this time, it also hurt to close my hands all the way. Christine went ashore a couple of times with Ryan and Alex from Shalimar and snorkeling with some other folks in between taking care of me and listening to me complain so those two days weren't a complete loss for her. By the 21st, I was finally starting to feel a bit better so Christine, Ryan, Alex, and I piled into our dinghy and went over to the south pass to snorkel and check out the mostly abandoned village. I, of course, made sure to wear my gloves the whole time.

The south pass was beautiful for snorkeling. There was tons of coral and, because we went near slack current, there was just a gentle current sweeping us into the lagoon. Alex does not like being in the water with sharks so she stayed topside in the dinghy while the rest of us swam around her. Given her feelings about sharks, it was probably a good choice for her. There were lots of 'em. Most of them were the black tip reef shark variety but there were a few white tip reef sharks and grey sharks thrown in as well. All of the sharks were quite mellow and well behaved. They sometimes came fairly close but didn't seem particularly interested in us. They were just going about their primitive business and occasionally looking at us with their blank beady eyes. The coral at the edge of the pass started just below the surface and sloped down steeply to about 50 or 60 feet so we just followed along the wall until the current let up. Where the current let up, there was a dock and tons of pretty reef fish to look at so we tied up the dinghy and snorkeled around there for a while longer.

After snorkeling we wandered around on land for a while and checked out the depopulated village. There were a couple of small hotels, a restaurant, a dive shop, and a couple of other things still in use but there were also a ton of abandoned buildings with missing roofs and weeds growing through what used to be the floor. I'd like to tell you the whole story of why the village was abandoned by its residents but I never found out. The typical story in the Tuamotus is that a village gets destroyed by a hurricane and is then abandoned for a while. We were interested in diving the south pass but the dive shop guy happened to be taking the week off so we had to save our diving money for the north pass.

On the 22nd we raised our anchor at about 9am and Shalimar was right in front of us. We motored through the sketchy shallow area and, once we made it to the charted and marked channel area inside the lagoon, we raised the sails, killed the engine, and headed northeast to get to the smooth water in the lee of the eastern edge of the atoll. With the wind chop and the glare from the sun in front of us, we were grateful for the channel markers and the relatively accurate soundings on our electronic charts. We still kept up a lookout for shallow coral heads but it's a lot more relaxing when you have at least some idea of what to expect.

By the afternoon we'd made it about halfway up the approximately 30 nautical mile lagoon and decided to anchor close to the shore where we'd be protected from the wind chop and even some of the wind (there was a thick stand of really tall palm trees along the apparently uninhabited shore). The ground didn't hold the anchor too well and sloped pretty steeply offshore but after the second attempt we felt secure enough to spend the night. We all went ashore briefly to check out the coral rubble beach. Then Christine and I went over to visit Shalimar who had anchored right next to us.

In the morning we raised our anchors, got back into the channel and headed up to Rotoava. Rotoava is the main village where most of the atoll's population of around 700 lives. On the way up there we got surprised by a nasty squall that jumped out at us from the other side of the palm trees. We suddenly found ourselves in about 30 knots of wind with driving rain and near zero visibility. Fortunately, the reef and the ring of land protected us from the swell and our chartplotter and depth sounder kept us safely in the channel and the whole thing was over in a few minutes.

When we pulled into the anchorage, we had a nice surprise waiting for us. Our friends on Tuatara were there! We hung out with Kevin a lot in Mexico both before and after Evelyn joined him as crew and we left for the Marquesas on the same day but, because Tuatara doesn't have a long range radio, we hadn't talked to them since. We had heard from other boats that had seen them that they'd had a 40+ day passage compared to our 29 days so we knew they'd made it across but were never sure when we'd see them again.

The next few days included some catching up with Kevin and Evelyn and some really expensive but necessary re-provisioning but the highlight was diving the north pass. We were hesitant to spend the money (it was about $100 US per person) but Fakarava is a world renowned scuba diving destination so we figured we had to do it. The attraction is a drift dive with tons of sharks through the pass. Given that the dive takes you down to around 100 ft, the pass is over 5 miles from the anchorage, and that the current can really get strong out there, we had decided that just renting tanks and attempting the dive on our own was out of the question. Ryan (from Shalimar), Christine, and I did the dive and we all agreed that it was worth the expense.

We lucked out that the trip we booked with Te Ava Nui consisted of just the three of us, the dive guide from the shop, and three other divers. That's a fairly small group for these commercial operations. We lucked out even further that the three other divers ended up being quite competent. On these kind of dives it only takes one bad diver to screw things up, make the guide nervous, and cut the dive short for everyone. We were all loaded into a fast rigid bottomed inflatable boat about 25 ft long. After a short trip out to the pass, we put on our gear, rolled into the water, and descended immediately. As soon as you get in the water, the current is moving you so, if you want to hit the bottom in a particular spot, you can't waste any time. At first, there was nothing but blue water below us. At around twenty or thirty feet, a shelf of live coral at about 100 feet became visible. The shelf sloped gradually up toward the inside of the lagoon and down very steeply toward the outside. As we descended toward our landing spot at the 100 foot mark, large shapes moved slowly around us in the water column and eventually became sharks. There were lots of them - mostly black tipped and grey reef sharks.

We were all pretty intent on reaching our landing spot on the shelf but I spared a few seconds to turn around and look at the sharks circling around the outside of the pass. I saw two that were significantly larger than the rest and, after squinting at them for a second, realized they were hammerheads. I knew how much Christine wanted to see hammerheads so I forced myself to turn away, chase down her and Ryan, and gesture about what I'd just seen. Unfortunately, by the time I'd done all this, the hammerheads were too far away to see.

Once we hit the bottom, we all hunkered down and found bits of dead coral to hang onto. Here, on the edge of the shelf, we held ourselves face into the current and watched the sharks mill around in the water column above us. There were lots. It's hard to say how many filed past in the 5 to 10 minutes we spent there but there must have been at least 100. When the guide gave us the signal, we let go of our handholds and were swept along the reef at quite a clip. No swimming necessary (except to steer). After zooming over a couple of gentle coral hills and valleys, we dropped into a canyon and steered into a little sand bowl in the bottom of another coral valley. By staying close to the bottom, we were able to duck out of the current like you'd hide from the wind on land. We spent the next 30 minutes or so in a couple of these little sand bowls checking out the reef that surrounded us on all sides. There were fish of all shapes and sizes milling about in large shoals and, of course, more sharks. The sharks, as usual, ignored the awkward mammalian intruders but there, out of the current, we were able to get much closer to them. At one point, Christine moved away from the rest of the divers out to the edge of our little sandy area to photograph a group of 10 or 15 grey sharks there were hanging out together. I looked over and noticed her on her own out there just as the group of sharks started moving closer to her. I don't think they were interested in Christine, they just happened to have something to do in the area right next to her. Within a couple of second Christine was much closer to sharks that she was to people so I swam over to give her some company. After a decent sized grey shark swam about 3 feet in front of her, she turned around to see how far from the group she was and I think she was glad to see me headed in her direction.

Once the diving was done, it was time to load up on a few final expensive provisions and head off to Toau - our last stop in the Tuamotus. Shalimar followed right behind us and Tuatara a few hours later so we were looking forward to hanging out with our friends in a nice protected anchorage.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to finish up with the zombie hand saga. The first couple of days anchored near the south pass was the worst of it. By the time we got to Rotoava and the north pass area, the swelling had gone down and the pain and itching had eased off considerably. The backs of my hands remained a bit discolored (splotchy reddish purple) and scaly for a week or so but after a bit of skin peeling they are now as good as ever.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Tahanea and Zombie Hand (part 2)

We timed our afternoon departure from Makemo so that we'd arrive at Tahanea for the early morning slack current period. We were a little early so we had to heave to outside the pass for about an hour and wait for the sun to come up. The middle pass turned out to be much mellower than the pass at Makemo and our entry into the lagoon was uneventful. We anchored just north of the middle pass at around 8am and, to our surprise, there were 8 or 10 boats already anchored in that area. We expected to see a few boats but not quite that many. Among them were several boats we knew and were happy to see and Shalimar entered the pass right behind us and anchored nearby.

During our first evening at Tahanea we attended a beach barbeque pot luck sort of deal that the boats already there had organized. We already knew the crews of Blue Moon and Ceilydh (or however you spell the name of their boat - not that we're ones to talk when it comes to difficult to spell boat names) and we got to meet a bunch of new people as well. Unfortunately, we also got to meet the biting sand flies known as no nos. They come out around sunset and annoy the heck out of people for an hour or so but we stuck it out until they went back from whence they came. Food was eaten, guitars were played, drinks were drunk and so were people (a little bit). You had to be careful walking around because there were hundreds of hermit crabs crawling around and we didn't want to smash the poor little critters. They were slow moving but quite persistent. We tried to cover all the leftover food and we kept moving it around to try and keep it from the crabs but, eventually, we stopped paying attention for long enough and they swarmed the left over brownies. They busted through the tin foil and by the time we noticed, the pan was covered by a pile of several hundred sugar crazed hermit crabs.

The wind kept on blowing in the 15 to 18 knot range for a day or so after we got there but then it backed off. By the 16th it was dead calm. That would have sucked if were were trying to sail someplace but it was fantastic for being anchored. At one point, the surface of the water was so mirror flat that you could see the anchor and details of the coral heads 40 feet below the boat and the horizon took on that weird hazy look that the ocean gets on calm days where you can't really tell the ocean from the sky. We spent our days snorkeling and swimming around. We snorkeled the north pass several times where we saw sharks and manta rays. The passes were a bit tricky to snorkel because we needed to time it so that we were snorkeling during incoming current. We'd take the dinghy out of the pass just as the incoming current was starting to build, and throw the snorkelers into the water and drift back into the lagoon with the current. If the current wasn't going too hard, the dinghy driver would also hop in and snorkel while holding on to the dinghy. We also enjoyed some more relaxed snorkeling inside the lagoon and found some nice shallow coral areas right next to the anchorage. We also got to do a proper pass dive on scuba. Shalimar has two tanks, Ceilydh has a compressor, and Evan and Diane were nice enough to fill up Ryan's tanks. Since Ryan's wife Alex doesn't dive, he let Christine and I share one tank while he used the other. We dove the middle pass with folks from Ceilydh, Whatcha Gonna Do, and Piko. The group did two dives so Christine dove on the first dive and I dove on the second one.

The dive was nice but not super spectacular. If you're ever in Tahanea without scuba gear, you needn't be too sad. Everyone seemed to agree that snorkeling the smaller pass just to the north was in many ways better than diving the larger middle pass but it may be that we didn't go far enough out the pass to see more sharks and more dramatic bottom topography. At any rate, it was great to actually get in a dive and breathe underwater again.

We heard that there was an abandoned village a little south of where we were anchored where we could get water out of some rain collecting cisterns. Due to some poor planning and an initial misunderstanding of exactly where the village was located, we (including Ryan and Alex from Shalimar) decided to take our dinghies down there with our empty water jugs to get some water and explore the abandoned village. It turned out to be a much longer trip than any of us had anticipated. We ended up towing Shalimar's dinghy most of the way. Our dinghy is a little underpowered but Shalimar's dinghy just has an electric outboard with limited range and their battery wasn't fully charged. The return trip was interesting. Both of our dinghies were loaded down with water jugs and we had to cross two passes with outgoing current. While crossing the middle pass we had both of our outboards pinned and were only making about 1 or 2 knots against the current but we eventually managed to make it back just in time to attend another pot luck party - this time aboard the catamaran Ceilydh.

During our stay at Tahanea, I continued taking the Doxycycline pills I'd been taking for my rash and, for the most part, things continued to clear up. The exception was the backs of my hands. Little tiny blisters developed first on the back of my left hand (where the original infection had taken place) and then on my right hand. The instructions for the Doxycycline said to take it for 7 - 10 days even if the symptoms clear up earlier to avoid a return of the infection in a new antibiotic resistant version. I reached the 7 day mark and wanted to stop but wasn't sure if the little blisters were from the bacteria or something else. I was afraid that if it was from the bacteria that it would take off like crazy when I quit the antibiotics. The other possibility that occurred to me was that it was a reaction to the sun because the antibiotics cause extra sun sensitivity. So I just continued to take the pills and tried to keep my hands out of the sun. As you might imagine, keeping the backs of your hands out of the sun while living on a boat in the tropics is not easy. By the time we left Tahanea for Fakarava, both hands were swollen, painful, red, itchy, and covered in bumps. In short, they looked like zombie hands again. The whole thing didn't slow me down much until just before we left - then it got bad enough that I was starting to get a bit bummed out and worried. That's where we'll leave the zombie hand saga for now. The final installment will be the next post about Fakarava.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Makemo and the Saga of the Zombie Hand (part 1)

We ended up staying in Makemo for a week. It was a great week but it was marred a bit by what I came to refer to as my zombie hand and its associated rash. I apologize for the rather ugly nature of the things I'm about to describe but I feel duty bound to describe my affliction so that I don't leave you, the reader, with the impression that everything is always perfect out here.

Just before we left Nuku Hiva on June 1st, I got a bunch of bug bites on a trip to shore. This has not been an uncommon occurrence so I wasn't worried but a day or two into our crossing to Makemo, a couple of the bites on the back of my left hand turned ugly. They blistered and raised a bunch of smaller blisters all around them and started looking more like a poison oak rash than bug bites. I also developed a fever and runny nose that may or may not have been related. By the time we reached Makemo, the fever was gone but the back of my hand looked like the living dead and was oozing so much gunk that it was difficult to keep bandages on it. They'd get soaked and just slide off. I also stared developing a rash on my side and my elbow. I wasn't sure if the new rash was related to my zombie hand or merely the result of the poor level of personal hygiene that, in my fever induced stupor, I'd maintained during the 4 day passage. I resolved to bathe more frequently (an easy resolution given the amount of snorkeling that we did) and see if the rash cleared up. After almost a week of frequent snorkeling, the zombie hand patch had moderated a bit but was still slightly yucky and the expanded rash still looked about the same. I consulted the skin rash chapter of "Medicine for the Outdoors" and was thoroughly disgusted by the myriad stomach churning possibilities for what might be ailing my dermis. Once I calmed myself down again, I was able to narrow the possibilities. I'd already tried some benadryl with no discernible effect so I figured it wasn't an allergic reaction. From what I'd read, it seemed like some sort of bacterial infection was the most likely cause. I think my bug bites got infected and while being a filthy pig on passage, I let the bacterial filth from my zombie hand establish little frontier towns of rash on other parts of my body. These little towns were evidentially well enough established that a weeks worth of comparatively clean living wasn't sufficient evict the bacterial squatters. We had Doxycycline onboard (provided by a prescription from a travel clinic for exactly this kind of thing) so I decided to suffer the side effects (nausea, increased sun sensitivity, etc) in order to make sure that I didn't end up with some kind of full-body bacterial zombie costume. By the time we left Makemo, my hand was looking better and the other rash areas had started to abate. This is where we'll leave the saga of the zombie hand for now. There's more to come but friends and family need not worry, it's all ends up fine (I'm actually writing this on June 25th).

So, back to more pleasant things... There were two other boats anchored in the southeast corner when we arrived but they left within a day or two. Shalimar and Architeuthis were the only boats out there the rest of the time. The shore nearby (a thin strip of sandy soil between the reef and the lagoon covered with palm trees and various shrubs) was only sparsely inhabited. There seemed to be one small family run copra harvesting operation for every mile or two of shore line. I think all the land is owned but people are very friendly and don't seem to mind if you beach your dinghy on the uninhabited stretches and wander around, so that's exactly what we did. In fact, they don't seem to mind if you beach your dinghy in their front yard and say hello. That's what Ryan and Alex did and they made friends with a family there. The next day one of their new friends (I think he said his name was Nicodem - but I'm probably slaughtering the spelling) took Ryan and I spear fishing. He came and picked us up on a hand made wooden speedboat looking kind of deal. It had a big old two stroke outboard on the back and was steered from the bow with a sort of a vertical control stick kind of deal. That's the way most of the local boats are laid out here and it makes sense because the bow is the best place to look out for the shallow coral heads that you have to dodge in the lagoons.

Nicodem took us out to a very shallow area inside the southern edge of the lagoon and anchored us to the top of a small coral head. From the way he homed in on this particular coral head, climbed all the way out on the front of the bow and very gently set the anchor on a particular part of the coral head, I got the impression that this was a spot he came to often. Nicodem then proceeded to give us the most remarkable pre-dive briefing I've ever seen. He told us that we would stay together and all try to spear fish. When one of us succeeded in getting a fish, that person would immediately hoist the fish out of the water by holding the spear vertically and swim back to the boat in that manner (because sharks can sense a wounded fish in the water from a long way off and it gets them into the kind of mood you'd rather not have them in) while the other two swam behind looking for sharks. When we saw sharks we were to defend the fish carrier's back by slapping the surface of the water violently to scare off the shark and, if that failed, to prod the shark with our spear. He also told us to keep a special eye out for grey sharks because they're more aggressive than the black tip and white tip reef sharks. The thing that made the briefing so remarkable was the fact that it was conducted almost entirely in pantomime. Nicodem spoke almost no English and Ryan and I speak almost no French and even less Tahitian so Nicodem had to communicate all of this information via hand waving and facial expressions. It was amazing how quickly he managed to get all the details across.

In the water, it all happened just like we'd been told it would. Our guide speared at least twice as many fish as Ryan or I but we each managed to get a few. Nicodem was mostly targeting the squirrelfish and soldierfish so that's what we went after as well. This involved a lot of poking around under coral ledges and waiting for them to peek out from their little hiding spots so they could catch a spear in the face. The more fish we caught, the more sharks we saw and by the end of the dive we had a couple of white tip reef sharks, four or five black tips, and at least one grey. They came pretty close and were definitely interested but none of them were too large and none of them seemed willing to fight us for the fish. After we'd gotten all the fish we needed and attracted enough sharks to start making Nicodem nervous, we divvied up the fish and headed home. We invited Nicodem to come eat with us out on the boat but he said he politely declined. We thanked him and gave him some fruit that we'd brought from the Marquesas (apparently fruit is hard to get in the Tuamotus). It was a fun day and a delicious dinner and a good time was had by all.

After almost a week in the southeast corner of Makemo, we sailed back up to the pass and tied up to the big concrete pier for the night. Before we'd even finished tying up, we were accosted by a small group of little kids. They asked to come aboard the boat and since we'd had nothing but great interactions with the locals so far we agreed and helped them aboard. They were polite but they were quite a handful. They wanted to inspect everything on the boat. We let them play with Christine's camera, my guitar, our little video camera and a few other things. They asked to keep a few things but they weren't interested in anything that we were willing to part with. As we started to run out of ways to entertain them, Shalimar finished tying up next to us so we told them that our friend on the new boat spoke French so that we could pawn them off on poor Alexandra. Christine, by now eager to facilitate the hand off, got all three kids into our dinghy and rowed them over to Shalimar. Alex let them aboard but quickly decided to usher them back onto the pier. They immediately returned to us and climbed into our dingy. After a few minutes of being satisfied with that, they asked if they could take the oars and go row themselves around. I replied with the international facial expression equivalent of, "Uh, no way." They soon tired of the stationary dinghy and departed. They weren't bad kids or anything but I can't say I was entirely sad to see them go. The combination of the language barrier and my lack of child wrangling experience made the whole thing a bit stressful.

We used that afternoon for a bit of grocery shopping and then headed out the following day after a quick snorkel in the pass. We didn't time the exit out of the pass quite perfectly and had a bit of an exciting time bashing through the waves to get out but we made it with only mild discomfort and prepared for an overnight passage to Tahanea.