Monday, May 23, 2016

Back in the Water Again

While we did some snorkeling in the Marquesas, the visibility was somewhat limited making for some anxious moments when a hammerhead shark came straight up from the depths and scared the beejesus out of us.

In the Tuamotus we had a lot of inclement weather which limited the visibility in what is normally crystal-clear water. We did some snorkeling but the high winds kept us on the boat more than we’d have liked.

Now, finally in the Leeward Islands of the Society Group (Tahiti) we’re back to clear water, beautiful reefs, and calm weather very conducive to diving, snorkeling and paddle boarding.

Stand-up paddleboards (or in this case, sit-down paddleboards) are becoming very popular among cruising sailors.
A couple days ago we finally got our RedFin 10-foot 8-inch paddle board out of its case and blown-up on deck. We’re anchored on some sand flats about an 1/8 mile from the reef, so the water is very protected and almost as clear as a martini without the olive. The water is actually so clear it's like walking over an aquarium when you are on the SUP. Sort of like stand up snorkeling, you can see the bommies and follow the fish here and there. 
When I got out to the anchored yellow proa near the reef’s edge, I began to see bigger shapes underneath me; white-tipped and black-tipped sharks. They hang out there because a guy comes out with tourists and feeds them (no, he doesn’t feed them tourists). I'm not really that good on the paddle board compared to Meryl so I make a concerted effort to not fall off at that particular spot. The sharks looked hungry and they hadn't been fed yet that day.
The other thing we dug out from the depths of the bilges was the SCUBA gear we had bought in Bonaire. We’ve wanted to go diving ever since Bonaire but the opportunity never presented itself, so we arranged for a local dive company, run by a woman to do a couple of nearby dives.

Our first dive was on Monday, May 23rd at a location just north of Fare called Fa’a Miti. Since Meryl and I hadn't dove since Bonaire a year and one/half ago, there was a little learning curve. But once we got in the water it all came back. Lots of fish came swimming right up to us (they are used to being fed), along with a couple of curious small sharks. The only negative thing was I noticed my GoPro underwater camera case leaking, so I quickly gave it to the dive master who took it back up to the boat, so instead of gorgeous underwater photos for this post you’ll just have to use your imagination.

The dive began in about 35 feet in an expansive area of beautiful coral gardens, with corals reflecting every color of the rainbow. I had never seen the delicate baby blue corals so that was quite a treat. Our dive master had us take our gloves off and touch the delicate white anemones where Nemo lives amongst the tentacles. They were very sticky and I assume the small wrasses that hang out there use the anemones to clean their skin.

There was a bit of current so we drifted around a lot, but as we gradually descended along a coral wall down to 90 feet the current was much less. Every SCUBA diver seems to want to dive deep, but in reality you lose the yellow and red colors at that depth and everything is a muted blue so it is not as pretty as the shallower depths. 

As we ascended towards the end of the dive (we carry underwater computers that tell us how long we can stay at a certain depths without have to do decompression stops on the way back up) we came into an area with canyons carved in-between the coral reefs. It was so magical to slowly drift through the canyons, some so narrow you could touch both sides. While it was somewhat of a beginner dive, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

On Wednesday the 25th the dive boat picked us up at Flying Cloud and took us to the nearby Avapehi Pass. They anchored right behind the big surf break so we got to watch the local surfers do their thing on a very tricky wave. We then got a description of what was to be the most challenging dive Meryl and I have attempted. The dive would involve descending in very turbulent water near the surf break and then traversing over to the mouth of the pass while descending to about 90 feet. The dive master wasn’t sure how strong the current would be, but recommended we hug the bottom and use hand holds on the coral to move forward if the current was running.

We slowly descended to about 30 feet in what is best described as a washing machine, given the huge surfing wave overhead. We got sloshed four feet to the right then four feet to the left with each passing wave. We then followed the edge of the reef down to about 50 ft. to get out of the waves and slowly came around the corner at 85 ft to the start of the pass. The current was running a fast 3 knots against us and we could still feel the surge of the waves. When a wave pushed us forward we would kick hard, then quickly grab a small hand hold on the bottom so when the current hit us we wouldn't be swept back into the mouth of the pass. 

Meanwhile about 15 grey sharks were cruising nearby, including one who did a drive-by at us. They were only 5- to 6-feet long, but still got our attention. We had to really focus because if you let go of a hand hold for a second you’d get swept away in the current. We hung on tightly along the top of a ridge and watched the sharks and larger fish (mostly jacks) swim by being careful not to turn our heads too far sideways or our mask or regulators might loosen or fly off.  We then headed sideways back to the the edge of the reef. That was kind of fun since the current helped us skip from one hand hold to the next. 

Eventually we got back to the coral reefs in about 30 ft of water and marveled at the variety and sheer number of fish. For us it was the most technical dive we’ve done yet, but it forced us to really focus and learn some new dive techniques. A great experience at age 68.

In the subsequent days we’ve done lots of SUP’ing (my legs were so tired after a circuit of the bay I had trouble standing) and snorkeling in the nearby waters. The abundant coral heads attract lots of fish so the snorkeling is always interesting.

We will head south along the reef in the next couple of days to some more remote snorkeling areas where we hope to see an even larger variety of fish. It’s so great to be able to jump in the crystal clear, 82-degree water everyday and snorkel or just swim around. We’ve been waiting for this type of opportunity for a long time and are loving it here.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Tour de Huahine

For the last five years I’ve wanted to rent a motor scooter to explore the islands. Meryl, remembering our epic motor scooter ride around Tahiti 43 years ago where I returned to our hotel with third degree sunburns all over my body (remember, this was our honeymoon night), has been very cool to the idea ever since. So I was ecstatic when she said OK to us renting a scooter ($35 for four hours) for a tour of Huahine.
A little older and hopefully a little wiser, we began our tour of Huahine lathered in sunscreen.
We basically left Fare and headed north on the coast road around the island clockwise.
It was a little difficult to steer and certainly not in the class of my former BMW RT1100 touring bike, but it would do. We headed north of the main town of Fare along the coast road along Lake Fauna Nui to the small village of Maeva where they have reconstructed several marae along the shoreline. Essentially large meeting places with floors of large flat rocks and vertical flat rocks and stone tikis, the marae are places reserved for the ceremonial, cultural, and religious activities of the village. In the early days the marae was a place where the heads of households came to ask for help from their deceased ancestors. The marae were also the place of chiefs and priests, and of the political structure of the island. Officials from the Bishop Museum in Hawaii came and helped excavate and restore the marae to their present condition in the 1950s and 60s. 

A rendition of what the marae looked like in ancient times.

The marae site after reconstruction efforts by locals and the staff of the Bishop Museum in Hawaii.

The interior of the Fare Potee which now serves as a museum for the archeology site.
Fishing traps not much changed since the ancient days of Polynesia.
A large thatched roof house, called the Fare Potee, sits on stilts over the shallow Lake Fauna Nui and serves as a museum housing various artifacts found on the site, including mortars and pestals, fishing implements, and knives.

The late Bobby Holcomb sitting in his house in Maeva Village.
One of the many paintings by Bobby Holcomb.
One of our cruising friends, Steve on Liward, raved about a local guy named Bobby Holcomb, who he described as "the world's true free spirit.' There was a nice display at the Fare Potee about Bobby with examples of some of his art work. Bobby is now passed away, but his memory lives on with the people of Huahine. Bobby is best know as the lyricist for the highly popular Jimmy Buffet song "One Particular Harbor." He was born in Hawaii and was a back-up singer to Frank Zappa. He then traveled through Europe and lived with Salvador Dali where he gained an appreciation for painting. From there he traveled to the Middle East and Africa. A wealthy patron in France paid his fare to Tahiti, telling Bobby that Huahine was his place of destiny. Bobby spent his days in Huahine writing, painting, and being a spiritual beacon for the locals. Bobby had little material wealth but he lived a life beyond anything that money can buy.

The ancient fish wiers on Lake Fauna Nui 
As we continued our ride past the marae's we came upon the ancient fish traps in Lake Fauna Nui that are still used to this day. Shallow rock dams begin in a wide “V” shape and narrow down at the end. Fish enter the large V and eventually end up in nets at the narrow end of the V, a very efficient method of fishing for the locals. 

Further down the road began a very steep ascent up a mountain. I wasn’t sure our poor scooter was going to make but it just kept chugging along until we were at the top where we were treated to a beautiful view of Maroe Bay on the east side of the island. As slow as the ascent was up the mountain, the descent was equally hair-raising given the 14% grade of the road. I wasn’t sure how good the brakes were on the very well used scooter but we made it alive.

Photos of the Maroe Bay community clean-up.
Maybe the Mayor, maybe the President, who knows?
The gang that Shanghai'd us off our scooter. 
Meryl enjoying some really fresh coconut milk.
We crossed a bridge between the large island of Huahine Nui and the small island of Huahine Iti. It was ironic that we both commented as to how clean and beautiful the area along the bay was because just around the bend we were literally pulled off our scooter by what can be best described as the "Maroe Bay welcoming committee." The local community had just completed a clean-up of the district and were celebrating with a street-side party. Everyone came to shake our hand and learn our names and regale us with stories. Of the two guys in the picture, one claimed to be the Mayor and the other the President of French Polynesia, but I'm not sure. They treated us to a table full of local delicacies including fresh bananas, dried bananas, breadfruit chips, taro, and fresh-cut coconut juice with a straw inside. We had a hard time getting them to let us continue on our trip.

This is typical of the views around Huahine with the dark blue navigable water and the shallow sand areas colored baby blue.
We explored the south end of the island with expansive views out over the South Pacific with the deep blue color of the navigable waters and the baby blue of the sand and reef areas. We did go into the baby blue waters at times but you really have to keep a sharp look out for bommies and reefs.

We ran into a young French woman with two kids on a scooter who flagged us down. Her scooter wasn’t working and she wanted us to go ahead and find her husband (on another scooter that wasn’t working when we first passed them on the bridge). We finally connected with him and hopefully the family was reunited. Amazingly we did all that without speaking a word of French.

Back in town we ran into Steve and Lili from Liward with an Australian lady named Libby who is backpacking through the islands. We had lunch and chatted for awhile before returning to the boat,  a little road weary and in need of a nap.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Huahine: Paradise Found

We departed the Apataki Carenage at first light on Saturday, May 14th in a blinding rainstorm. I was very reluctant to leave so early when it would tough to spot the bommies and pearl farm buoys in the water. Luckily we had marked the buoy locations on our electronic charts on the way in and we used our new SAS Planet software (shows Google Earth photos) to spot the larger bommies. 

We were pleasantly surprised by slack water when we arrived at the Apataki's South Pass instead of 3 to 4-knots of current against us that was predicted.
We needed to leave early so we could transit the South Pass as close to slack water as possible, which was scheduled for 6:30 am. We arrived at around 8:15 am expecting a three- to four-knot flood but were pleasantly surprised with slack water. Maybe all the water pouring into the atoll over the last two weeks needed to go out and delayed the flood current. We’ll take it anyway we can get it.

We began the long 589-mile passage to Huahine in the Leeward Islands with squally southeasterly winds. Luckily the dark grey squalls were mainly rain with manageable wind not requiring any sail adjustments, but later in the day when the wind died we would have welcomed some squalls. In the lighter winds we had to sail a lower course that would take us 90 degrees south of our destination — not good. We had many sail changes from wing-on-wing to a poled out genoa on a light wind beam reach. When combined with the heavy cross swell we were averaging only four knots. The continuing “wapping” of the sails as the waves rocked the boat nearly drove both of us nuts. 

As you can see, we're headed about 80 degrees south of where we wanted to go ( the red line to the left of the boat). That's Tahiti in the bottom left corner and our destination of Huahine in the upper left).
On Sunday night we were headed so high the other direction (now towards Tahiti) we were almost going backwards so we decided to do my least favorite activity, a complete rig change from wing-on-wing to a jib set in the dark. We’d now done it so many times it went better that I anticipated, but we are both still very tired with the frequent course and sail changes. Luckily a squall system behind us provided some much needed wind and we made good progress on our rhumb line at six to seven knots throughout the night.

Huahine exemplifies everything a cruiser wants in a tropical island.
 Monday found us with light winds again so we bit the bullet and motor sailed most of the day so we would get in to Huahine by afternoon. I am always trepidatious about entering new islands but Huahine proved to be very easy with a wide, well defined pass. Two beautiful surfing waves famed the northern Avamoa Pass and we first looked for mooring buoys along the city shore but ended up anchoring on a sandy plateau behind the reef. The problem was we were very tired and I could feel the anchor skipping on the hard coral bottom as we tried to set it. I finally got my snorkel gear on and checked the anchor, finding it was not set but just up against a piece of coral. I debated about just leaving it as it was getting dark, but luckily the crew from Huzzah came over and showed us a better place to anchor where we got a good bite in some soft sand. Thank you Huzzah for giving us a peaceful night’s sleep.

Huahine is in the Leeward Islands about 100 miles northwest of Tahiti. It’s is nestled together with Taah’a/Raiatea and Bora Bora forming the Golden Triangle of tropical cruising. Cruisers from all over the world come to Raiatea to charter huge cats and cruise the island group. It’s a different group of sailors with 1-2 weeks to see it all so they seem in a hurry, sometimes have limited boating experience, and they know how to party. We are more accustomed to full-time cruising boats as neighbors and usually get to know the boats in the anchorage. 

You can see a bit of our anchor chain leading to our securely buried anchor. We are in about 14 ft of water.
Where we are anchored we can see our anchor in the crystal clear water underneath the boat in about 12 feet of water. Large mountain peaks shelter us from the prevailing easterly to south easterly trade winds and a huge reef protects us from the west. It’s about as perfect as you get in blue water cruising. For every sailor who has sat in front of a computer screen bored to tears at work, this is what you dream about and here we are.

Boats anchored right off the Hauhine Yacht Club (which is really just a bar).
Adding to the perfection is fairly fast Internet (accessible from the boat), a huge, well stocked grocery store, lots of cool shops, and a seaside bar with a great Happy Hour. Nothing could be finer that Huahine on a clear day.

From L to R: Ken, Walter, Gerry, Fred, Lili, and Steve
We ended up meeting the crew of Huzzah, Gerry, Ken and Fred at the Huahine Yacht Club for dinner. Sitting there sipping cold Hinano beers and watching another incredible sunset I began to realize that all the sacrifice, risk, and hard work getting the boat ready was all for this moment. As I tell Meryl, you got to go through a lot of tough days to get the perfect ones like this. The fresh tuna (thon in French) with a vanilla sauce made from locally grown vanilla was to die for (as the Valley Girls say).

The next day we went into the Super Marche and marveled at the breath and selection of foods, many of which we hadn’t seen since Tahiti last year. We stocked up on all our favorites, as well as the rare fresh fruits and vegetables (Meryl hadn’t seen broccoli for over a year in a store). As usual we had trouble just carrying it down to the dingy dock. 

We ran into Steve and Lili off of LiWard outside the grocery store. I had talked with Steve on the net but never met him in person. He mentioned he would be playing at the Yacht Club the next night and he reserved a couple of tables for us and his other friends. Sitting with the crew from Huzzah and Lili we throughly enjoyed a wide rendition of songs from Steve and his fellow musicians, singing everything from Jimmy Buffet to The Stones. What a great night with friends!

A perfect end to a perfect day.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Apataki Boatyard Blues

One of our goals as cruisers is to become more adept at choosing what are known as “weather windows,” those precious four-to five-day periods of predicted following winds and light seas. Unfortunately, this is one of our weak points.  Sitting in Taiohae Bay in Nuka Hiva we were one of the few Magellan Net boats remaining, and our need to get going to the Tuamotus won out over our lack of patience and time.  Some boats simply do not move until everything is in perfect alignment including the wind, seas, swell, no squalls, and a full moon. You need to have a lot of time and patience to wait up to a month for the right window. That is just not us.

The wing-on-wing rig is the most stable downwind configuration for Flying Cloud. Each sail balances out the outer making for a smooth and non dramatic ride.
Even though we knew light winds were predicted toward the end of the passage, we departed Taiohae on Thursday, April 28th with a reasonable 12 -15 knot southeasterly  breeze that would die out in the coming days. Well, one can only hope. After that great first day our luck gave out and we struggled along in five-to eight-knot winds happy to maintain 4 knots or less. Fortunately the seas were very calm which made the sail more comfortable so we could easily do tasks and walk around on the boat. We had our typical double headsail rig out, with the genoa poled out to windward and the Code Zero poled out to leeward using the main boom. It’s a great downwind rig but you do need some wind to get it to work. We weren’t in hurry so we chose not to motor unless we were moving less than 3.5 knots. 

This is what a very large cruise ship looks like when you are very tired at 2:00 am at night.
The voyage was uneventful except for us sighting the Aranui 5 cruise ship on AIS steaming directly for us at 2:00 am at night. I called on the VHF to see if they saw us (we could see their strong Class A AIS signal way before they could see our weaker Class B signal) and they finally spotted us on radar. They passed us about a 1/4 mile off providing us with a scary light show on a very dark night.
The lighter winds and calmer seas allowed us to work easier on deck, although we always wear our safety harness and tether when out of the cockpit.
What should have been a four-day passage turned into a five-day passage and our carefully timed approach on May 5th to the North Pass at Apataki found us navigating the pass at 11:00 am with three to four knots in our favor. Reading eight to nine knots on the speedo, we transited the pass in record time. We then headed a short distance over on the northeastern side of Apataki and found a beautiful anchoring spot in the clearest and calmest water ever, but knew we would be unprotected in south to southeast winds. As usual after a five-day passage, we were dog tired and immediately took a refreshing  dip in the turquoise water followed by a very restful nap.

The peacefulness of this anchorage was very welcome after the long passage.
This sunset changed a thousand colors as we watched the sun sink into the west.
For some reason I thought that most of Apataki would be heavily commercialized like its neighbor Rangiroa but where we expected a large village we saw only palm trees. We were treated to one of the more spectacular sunsets we’ve seen on our voyage, a phantasmagoria of magenta and red overlaid on the dark grey clouds of an approaching front. It was one of those magical evenings of just sitting on the side of the boat, drinking a beer, and enjoying nature’s incredible light show. 

After a day of rest and recuperation we headed due south inside the atoll. As is typical in many of the Tuamotus atolls, our charting software only showed a strip of soundings down the west side of the atoll. Dodging bommies right and left we headed towards the South Pass and the village of Niutahi where our friend Ryan on Soul Rebel was anchored. As we approached we ran into a maze of pearl farm buoys. An aluminum skiff raced out towards us guiding us to a safe route around the pearl farm. Even Ryan admitted the anchorage was too rough in the prevailing winds so we continued around southeast about eight miles to the east side of the atoll. Once again we ran into a lot of buoys, but this time we marked them on our chart so we’d have a fighting chance when we returned this way to leave the atoll.

We felt very fortunate to be anchored in the lee of the southern shore as these squalls came ripping over the horizon. One night boats on the outside reports 40 to 50 knot winds.
The indomitable Franklin and Meryl.
We anchored in the highly protected lee of the southern shore and dinghied in to see how our friend Franklin on Dreamboat was doing with his rudder repair. Franklin is a singlehander from Keemah, TX , who also works full time on his boat as a computer programmer for a health care company. Luckily Franklin is the only guy who knows how the software works so he has some bargaining power as to his working environment. He gets up every morning at 3:00 am to work a full eight-hour shift, providing support and writing new code for the software. I’m always amazed at the people we meet who manage to continue their professional careers while cruising.

Franklin getting ready to dig a pit and drop his rudder down to start repair of the washer.
Franklin is a very optimistic guy, but still a little naive as to how everything works (or doesn’t work) in the tropics. He found a guy in Raiatea to machine a new bottom washer for his rudder and swore he’d have in flown in a couple days and be back in the water by the end of the week. Meryl and I just looked at each other thinking “he’ll be lucky to be back in the water in a month or two.”
The rather large yard at the Apataki Carenage. If you look closely you can see the huge cement blocks they use to anchor the boats.
As in all French boatyards, the only power is 220v which doesn’t work with US power tools or battery chargers. Plus the Carenage only runs their genset when their guys are out in the yard working on boats, so essentially Franklin was without power to do his repairs, and more importantly, to power his computer so he could do his programming job. Being the nice guys that we are we dug out (buried in the deepest confines of our boat) our Honda 2000 generator and gave it to him for the duration. He was a very happy camper.

Assam and his daughter-in-law Pauline who helps run the boatyard.
An extended family runs the Apataki Carenage, lead by the elder Assam who originally ran a pearl farm at the location. Over the years the black pearl industry got more and more competitive and Assam switched over to using the land to store boats during the cyclone season. The Carenage is the only boatyard for hundreds of miles, and more importantly, is in a very dry area of the Tuamotus so that boats stay mold free during their stay. It is still in the cyclone area, however, so they have huge cement blocks they use to anchor the boats.

There is no food or supplies at the Carenage, but Assam’s family does have a large chicken farm (246 chickens) so we had the freshest eggs on earth for the duration of our stay. They weren’t still hot when we got them, but close.

The next day a boat named Huzzah came into the anchorage and I reconnected with a guy from Tacoma, Gerry Gilbert, who I used to race T-Birds with. He had another former T-Birder, Ken, and Fred, a buddy from Boeing as crew onboard. The three guys had helped sail the boat from Puget Sound, down the West Coast, and then joined the BaHa HaHa to Mexico. It was great to sit and reminisce about the good old days racing T-Birds and growing up in Tacoma. I was able to share a lot of local knowledge and computer files with Gerry, and he helped me set up my Airmail software to work with the Iridium Go. Quid pro quo.

We also met several other cruisers, including Jeanne and Colin on Manali. Colin is 80 and has sailed over 250,000 miles, including five Pacific crossings. I figured he was maybe in his early sixties. Amazing what this lifestyle can do for you.
What do cruisers do all day? Try to connect to their email.
During our stay we did some snorkeling and beach walks, but a strong southerly keep us on our toes. The Carenage did have good Internet so most days cruisers would be sitting around the covered picnic table near the yard doing email. We also had a nice potluck with the crews of Dreamboat, Kiapa Nui, Manali, and Soul Rebel. Our Finnish friends on Irene showed up the last day and we reconnected with Topio and Eva who have left their boat in the Carenage for the last ten plus years.

The topic of conversation for several days was the wreck of a boat on an atoll just north of Apataki. I’m going to leave out the boat’s name to save embarrassment, but a friend of our’s was asked over to the boat to check out their chart plotter, which the owner didn’t think was working right. It turned out the chart plotter didn’t have any charts installed, only the world “base map” which shows only outlines of major islands. Our friend suggested the skipper go down to the Carenage and download navigation software for his iPad, or at the very least take screenshots of my friend’s charts for the area. For whatever reason that didn’t happen and later that night the boat ran up on a reef on their way to Rangiroa. They activated their EPIRP and a helicopter from Papeete did a dangerous night rescue of the four crew from the reef. Not much more to say about that, except that the Tuamotus are very tricky to navigate on a clear day with excellent charts, anything less is very risky.  

This is the port side of Bilboa which lost its engine in the North Pass and ran up on the reef.
As an aside:  When we walked around the yard on the first day we saw a 40 ft. sailboat that had lost it’s engine in the North Pass (the safer of the two passes) of Apataki and went up on the rocks. The crew from the Carenage got the salvage contract and patched a huge hole in the side of the boat with fiberglass and towed it back to the yard. Seeing that certainly put the fear of God in us. That’s two boats on reefs in less than a month.

We stayed over two weeks, a little longer than we anticipated, hoping Franklin’s part would arrive so we could leave with our genset, but no go. We finally made a deal with Franklin to keep the genset and hopefully hook up later with us down island. I know if I were Franklin I’d certainly appreciate the lifesaving loan of a genset. That’s how cruisers help other cruisers out here in the middle of nowhere.