Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Pacific PuddleJump Rendezvous

The Pacific PuddleJump is an offshoot from the famous BaHa HaHa sailboat rally sponsored by San Francisco sailing magazine Latitude 38 that runs from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas every October. Not really a race, it’s more of a on-going party all the way down the Pacific Coast of Mexico. Hundreds of boats participate each year, with many returning home after the rally. For the others, also numbering in the low hundreds, some succumb to the easy life and cruise Mexico. Another group, who most would consider somewhat mentally unstable, think “wouldn’t it be fun to sail another 2,800 miles across the Pacific Ocean to Tahiti?” Ergo, the Pacific PuddleJump.  

“Jumpers” leave mostly from Cabo, Mazatlan, and Panama, each route presenting it’s share of joys and tribulations as you cross various weather zones on your way to Tahiti.

Flying Cloud should have “jumped” in 2013, but we decided to spend an additional season in the Caribbean. When we finally did cross in 2015 we ended up on a tighter schedule than anticipated and missed the big 2014 Tahiti/Moorea Sailing Rendezvous party in Papeete and Moorea. Determined not to make that mistake again we signed up for the 2016 Rendezvous, which is why we were now in Papeete.

Once again we were on a tight schedule (can you say “traveling with the Conners?”) and planned to fly to the US on July 1st. Our concern with participating in the actual Rendezvous sail from Papeete to Moorea was if the weather turned bad we wouldn’t be able to make our flight. Luckily we came up with the plan of leaving the boat at the Papeete City Marina, taking the ferry over to Moorea, and spending the night in an economic  hotel. Our luck got better when John and Deb Rogers invited us to crew on their 62-ft Sundeer sailboat called Moonshadow for the Papeete to Moorea passage. 

Andy Turpin from Latitude 38 was a great host for the cruisers. Here he MC's a presentation on "Cruising in French Polynesia."
We shared dinner with the intrepid crew of Huzzah, from left to right: Walter, Fred, Gerry, Jodie, Christine, Theresa, and Ken.

On June 24th (also my 69th birthday) we all attended the kick-off party for the Rendezvous in Papeete. Over 140 people showed up and we had a grand time with seminars, a cocktail party, and sultry Tahitian dancers.

The breathtaking harbor at Cook's Bay. The blue ship on the right is owned by the president of Samsonite Luggage.
The next morning we showed up at Moonshadow ready for the sail of our lives (this is a 62 ft. boat that can really scream in the right wind), but alas, not a breath of wind in sight. We ended up motor sailing most of the way to Moorea, still in the front of the fleet mind you, and finally catching some wind as we rounded the corner leading into Cook’s Bay. We throughly enjoyed the hospitality of John and Deb and dreamed of owning a boat like Moonshadow.

I really love the pulsating drum beats of Tahitian music.
These guys were incredible.
I also like watching the Tahitian women who can move their hips like no others.
Don't ask me how I got my picture taken with Miss Moorea and her court.
Once anchored in Cook’s Bay along with about 60 other Puddlejump boats, we dinghied ashore went to check into our hotel, but found that the clerk had locked all the room keys in the office, along with the only office key!  We finally got one room opened so we could shower and walked the mile to the location of the Puddlejump party, the well known Bali Hai Resort. It was great to see many of our friends there, including the crews of French Curve, Huzzah, Kandu, and others. We enjoyed another great evening of cocktails, Tahitian dancing, and dinner. Afterwards, Meryl and walked back to our hotel (with the Walter phenomenon of street lights turning off was we walked under them the whole way) only to find the fortress-like hotel locked up tighter than an drum. Even the Huns couldn’t have scaled those walls. Only after making complete fools our ourselves by yelling, screaming, and whistling did someone come and let us in. We were not happy campers.

We are ready on the start line in Cook's Bay for the starting gun to go off.
I'm sure we thought we were King of the Mountain with that strong finish, but we were soon humbled in Heat 2.
The Winners (kind of). Cheryl won't give up, she's still paddling us in.
Walter, Cheryl, Meryl, and Mark.
The next morning the owners of the hotel treated us to a nice American breakfast to say sorry and we walked back down to the Bali Hai for the day’s festivities. The highlight of the day was the Tahitian 6-man canoe races. We teamed up with the Mark and Cheryl from French Curve and named our team The Winners (a little premature on that one). We got some paddling lessons from ace canoer Eric on Kandu and practiced on our way out to the start line. We raced against four other canoes and were in the lead rounding the first mark (by the way, it’s not easy turning a 40 ft. outrigger canoe). Thanks to a couple of young Tahitian ringers in the bow and stern (and a very fast canoe) we took first place in our heat. Not too bad for a bunch of old farts.  We forgot how competitive most sailors are and were amazed watching the other heats how much effort everyone was putting into the racing. A little cocky from our earlier success, we got our clocks cleaned in the second heat barely eking out a third place. I think Mark and I both tried to “muscle it” too much rather than paddling in smooth synchronization. Anyway, we had a great time and cheered on the canoes in the final heat.

Just like after a sailboat race, back on shore we nursed our drinks and talked about how we could have won is we just did …. It was great fun and a memory we will cherish for a long time.  Soon the Tahitian “Games” began, things like running around a course carrying a palm tree log, lifting an 80 lb. rock to your chest, coconut husking, etc. There was also a great demonstration of 50 ways to tie a pareu. The Tahitian host, a huge mountain of a man, was a great MC. His best quote of the night was “We used to eat white people when they came here, now we don’t. Too much cholesterol.”

Exhausted after a big weekend, we ride the fast ferry back to Papeete.

At the end of the day we caught a cab back to the south side of Moorea and boarded the modern catamaran ferry that runs back to Papeete. Sitting in airplane-type seats we didn’t understand why there were hostesses handing out small white plastic bags. Once the ferry left the dock we ran into some huge rollers coming from the ocean with the boat rolling up and down and from side to side. Now we know what the bags were for.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Back to Papeete

With time drawing short for our arrival in Papeete, we left Tapuamu Bay early on June 15th for the130 mile overnight passage to Moorea, our stop over on the way to Tahiti.  We knew it was going to be a bumpy ride given the high seas churned up by last week’s storm and we weren’t disappointed. We had hoped for a little more easterly component in the wind, which always magically seemed to be right on our nose. We motored out the pass Teavapiti Pass on Raiatea and sailed close hauled for the tip of Huahine, even though it was about 30 degrees off our intended course to Moorea. Around 5:00 pm we threw in the towel and started the motor, turning on a more southeasterly rhumb line course for Openua Bay on Moorea. Motoring into stout seas seems to be our forte lately, and while not terribly bad it was still an uncomfortable night. 

This graphic from our MaxSea Navigation software shows Flying Cloud (large red image) surrounded by ships at 2:00 am.
We set an alarm for every 20 minutes to remind ourselves to scan the horizon and check the AIS for any ships in the area. During my watch the AIS lit up like a video game with activity, including the 504 ft. cruise ship Paul Gauguin and three inter island freighters. Somewhere out there was another sailing vessel but I never saw him on radar. I called the Paul Gauguin to make sure they saw me even though I was about 10 miles dead ahead. The very courteous captain replied that he saw me on AIS and mentioned he was just killing time on his passage to Moorea as he didn’t want to arrive in the dark given the narrow pass into Opunohu Bay. 

To help pass the time on night watch I have been listening to the audiobook Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo, but over the last five months I never seem to finish it. I probably hold the record for the longest time to complete an audio book (and trying to remember the characters and plot line of the book).

A 130 ft. custom Wally yacht dominates the anchorage at Opunohu Bay. The speed boat in the foreground is their "dingy."
This iconic Pan Am poster has been the impetus fro many a sailor to head to Tahiti.
Around sunrise we could make out the towering mountains of Moorea and enjoyed breakfast in the cockpit as the mountains grew closer and closer. The peak behind Opunohu Bay is famous for having appeared on the iconic Fly to the South Seas Isles poster with the Pan Am flying boats. Just after clearing the pass we turned left to a small anchoring area between the shore and the reef. Our singlehanded friend Franklin was patiently waiting for us and soon came over with the Honda genset we had loaned him a month earlier. It was great to see him and he was very appreciative of our generosity, but that’s what you do when another cruiser is in need. 

Our Tacoma friends on Huzzah showed up the next day. Their wives had recently arrived in Papeete and were anxious to see the outer islands. After three months of “just the guys” on the boat we could tell they were very happy to be able to show off the South Pacific to their wives.

We had hoped to dingy over to the Intercontinental Hotel to visit “Stingray City,” a place off the hotel where guides feed the fish resulting in stingrays and black tip sharks swimming close to the tourists. Unfortunately a persistent 23- to 30-knot wind was wapping around the north end of the island and screaming right down the line of anchored boats.  We did manage to get ashore and doing some walking, including a short walk up to the Hilton Hotel for some $5 Cokes on the beach. 

Since our goal was to get to Papeete for the start of the big Pacific PuddleJump Rendezvous on Friday the 24th, we decided we’d better get going if we hoped to score a spot in the marina.  Naturally we were a day too early weatherwise and had an uncomfortable crossing with the omnipresent headwinds and 2.5 meter swells off our port bow.  When we arrived in the harbor in Papeete in a blinding 30-knot squall we could see there were only a few slips left and we headed for one at the eastern end of the marina. Even though it was still blowing 17 knots when we arrived we managed to snuggle up to a windward finger pier thanks to the help of a petite blonde on the boat next to us who was from Seattle, of all places.

I looked for months for a can of this excellent varnish, finally finding it at the Ace Hardware store in Papeete.
The next few days were spent walking around town, taking our old anchor windlass motor in for repair, scoring some of the great V33 Bateau Varnish that I love, and beginning to wet sand our cap rail for it’s semi annual coat of varnish. Oh, and getting chocolate sundaes at the local McDonalds.

John and Deb Rogers who own the beautiful 62 ft. Sundeer, Moonsha
Walking around the back streets of Papeete we ran into John and Debbie Rogers off the 62 ft. Sundeer called Moonshadow. We’d last seen them in Portsmouth, Virginia in 2012 and had followed their blog ever since. We ended up sharing a bottle of wine at the Retro Restaurant and then going over to the “roulettes” food trucks for dinner in the light rain. It was great to get caught up with them and hear about all their adventures for the last five years.

The next couple days leading up to the big PPJ Rendezvous were spent finishing the varnishing, exploring the back streets of Papeete, and finally getting the stamps in our Carte de Secour, our French visa that allows us to stay in French Polynesia for one more year.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Pearls 'R Us

The stormy weather finally subsided on Monday, June 13th and suffering from cabin fever being on the boat so long, we decided to go for a bike ride. A highly energetic Tahitian woman rents out great “cruiser bikes” for $20/day near the gas station and dingy docks in Tapuamu Bay. With steer-horn handle bars, big cushy seats, and a single gear we set off north from Tapuamu Bay (which we learned means “cut and bait” to the local fisherman). 

I think the last time I road a bike like this I was 12 years old.
The road follows along the shore and is perfectly flat so the riding was easy, although we hadn’t biked on one-speed bikes in years so our muscles were getting a work out. The scenery from island to island is fairly typical:  small concrete block houses with dense foliage, chickens running across the roads, people on scooters, and locals in Japanese pick-up trucks. Most everywhere people wave and say l’orana (hello). Whenever we stop people seem to come over to say hello and offer us pamplemousse and other fruits.

The views over the water were, as always, spectacular with the calm azure blue waters of the lagoon contrasting with the big waves breaking over the fringing reef. We soon realized we weren’t in good enough shape to make it the 40 miles around the island so we settled on just pedaling up to the small town of Patio and getting lunch from the local supermarket. We sat on a bench along the water, and realizing our ham baguette sandwiches were also full of french fries (the French love their french fries), we ended up feeding the local dogs with bits of this and that.

I explained to the host about what it was like to work in a windowless room staring at a computer screen. He said "My workplace is a little more scenic."
On the ride back we decided to stop at a pearl farm we’d seen along the waterfront. Called the Love Here Pearl Farm, it is run by a local family and turned out to be highly interesting. A women and her very handsome son patiently explained the pearl farming process and educated us to why cultured pearls are so expensive given all the work it takes to culture and harvest them.

Compared to the beautiful jewels they produce, actual pearl shells are kind of ugly. 
It takes surgical precision to open the live pearl shell just 2 to 3 centimeters and insert the mantle and nucleus pieces.
Here a piece of mantel is removed from a donor shell and the black portion is scraped off.
The mantle piece is then inserted against the gonad and the nucleus bead is placed against that. This is normally done with the shell only open 2 - 3 centimeters.
Essentially the pearls are artificially inseminated by taking a tiny piece of mantle from a donor pearl and placing it into the shell in a special location (by the gonad, the reproductive organ of a pearl). Against this is placed a pea-sized nucleus bead made made from a very specific type of mussel shell grown only in the Mississippi River. The pearls only allow themselves to be pried open about 2 - 3 centimeters so placing the mantle piece and nucleus bead takes time and surgical precision. 

The inseminated shells are then placed in mesh frames and hung in deep water for up to a year.
The pearls are then placed inside mesh net frames and hung from buoys in up to 80 foot of water inside the lagoon where the oyster secretes layers of nacre, the shiny substance that gives pearls their unique luster.
The hosts explain how they select and grade the pearls. 
Pearls are graded on size, shapes, lustre, color, and quality (imperfections)
I didn't bother to ask what this little puppy sold for.
One of the most popular purchases in the stores are the single pearl necklaces.
The pearls come in every imaginable shape, size, color, and price.
During the six month maturation process divers go out and clean the mesh nets of seaweed, barnacles, and other pollutants and check on the progress of the pearls. 

According to  

“Of the millions of oysters nucleated every year, only a tiny fraction of them produce high grade pearls. On average, about half of the nucleated oysters do not even survive to bear pearls. Less than five percent of the survivors yield pearls of the ideal shape, lustre, and colour to be considered fine quality. The few pearls that make the cut are then cleaned, soaked and sorted.”
As you might image, black pearls from the South Pacific are very expensive, even when you are here where they are grown. The best prices are found in the Tuamotus and Gambier atolls, home to a myriad of pearl farms. The problem is you typically have to go from house to house finding out which workers have secreted away some select samples during their work, as the actual pearl farms are prohibited from selling them direct to the public.

We had purchased a beautiful set of colored-hue black pearls for our daughter, but when we went back to the same store in Papeete to get some for Meryl the prices had skyrocketed, or maybe we just got a great deal on the first set. Anyways, we are still looking for that perfect strand for Meryl.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

It's Not Supposed to be Stormy in Paradise

We reluctantly departed “Paradise of Huahine” and motor sailed five hours west to the island of Raiatea. The pass entrance was easy but the approach to the town of Uturoa was a problem. The 20-knot easterly wind was blowing directly into the harbor making docking a little tricky. The dock that had been recommended had huge signs saying “3 Hours Only” so we tied to the northern end of the gas dock in front of a big charter cat. The wind was blowing sideways to the dock so we were somewhat pinned in place. 

We did a short walk around town and realized lots of tourists visit this village judged by the number of t-shirt and curio shops. There was a good Champion grocery store where we stocked up on a number of things, including a rotisserie chicken for dinner.  Just as it was getting dark a cruiser from Canada walked by mentioning to Meryl that this “city dock” was easily accessible to everyone and had high theft potential. He suggested tying to the dock we had first considered, but just getting over there and getting tied up in the wind and darkness was more hassle than it was worth since we’d simply have to come back here to get fuel in the morning. 

We ended up taking everything not nailed down off the decks, including our 10 ft. stand-up paddle board. Since some boats had even been entered at night, we had our defensive measures deployed. Luckily it was such a stormy night no one came down to the dock leaving us somewhat sleepless but greatly relieved.

It was still very windy the next morning so I had Meryl slowly motor the boat parallel to the dock while I fended off to get up to where the gas station was located.  The cruiser blogs have many mentions that the gas station owner is not very cruiser friendly, but luckily he wasn’t there and we topped off with 55 gallons of diesel at the tax free price of $2.36 a gallon, a steal in this part of the world.  With the help of a couple of big Tahitians we pushed the boat off the dock and motored around the north side of Raiatea toward the west side where the boatyard is located. 

As seems to be the case lately, the boat just ahead of us got the last mooring buoy so we searched for a suitable place to anchor, but could only come up with a 60 ft. deep patch where we let out most of our anchor chain.

Since it was Friday and the French are notorious for taking off early, we hurried into the yard to check it out as a place to leave our boat during the November to May cyclone season. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but we finally decided on storing the boat at the Raiatea Carenage (there is another yard here called CNI but it is more expensive). We will be taking a chance with cyclones but our insurance covers us here and it beats having to sail all the way to New Zealand and back. 

The highlight of our visit to yard was scoring some blue masking tape (that I use when varnishing) and two small BBQ propane bottles, all for the relatively cheap French Polynesian price of US $60 (which would be about $25 in the States).  I also found a can of the incredible V33 Marine Varnish so now we can get a couple coats on our cap rails.

Here we are anchored in a small pocket of water in between three coral shelves at Tupuamu Bay in Raiatea. We are anchored in 60 ft. of water and have all our chain -- 220 ft. -- draped along the bottom hoping it holds in the 25 to 30 knot winds.
On June 5th we motored north inside the reef to Moto Tautau, a place frequently mentioned in cruiser’s blogs for it’s great snorkeling. Just inside most of the reef system is a wide shelf of white coral/sand bottom about 5 to 10 ft. deep with numerous bommies.
These bungalows at the exclusive Le Taha'a Resort start out a about $700 a night, a little rich for our blood.
We anchored just off this large shelf in about 30 ft of water and took the dingy across the shallow part to a passage between Moto Tautau and the exclusive Le Taha’a Private Island & Spa ($700/night) with it’s 40 over-the-water bungalows. Imagine paying around $10,000 a week (airfare, room and food for two) for your dream vacation only to find high winds and torrential rain all week.

The coral heads are fairly close to the surface so when the current is running three plus knots you have to watch that your tummy doesn't rub on the coral.
When the current is running it's better to walk along the coral path on the northern moto and then float through on the tide.
The coral isn't that spectacular, but the number of friendly fish is amazing.
After the storm was over we went back with Baha and Nora from the Turkish yacht Tutkum for a great day of snorkeling.

Normally you anchor the dingy and walk along a path on the moto to the seaward end and simply drift with the current through the famous “Coral Gardens.” We elected to swim up current (only about 1.5 knots at that time) so we had more time to see the myriad of fish and get more exercise. The coral comes up just short of the surface so in places we had to suck up our tummies (me more than Meryl) just to glide over the coral. The number and variety of fish was amazing. We don’t have a Pacific fish ID book but we saw many fish we’d never seen before. Much of the coral is covered with a brownish plant, but in areas we saw bright white, azure blue, and ochre colored corals. Once we got to the seaward end (somewhat tired out from all the swimming) we turned around and slowly drifted back through the pass. We did this pass several days later (we had to walk along the path since the current was so strong) with about 3 knots of current and jetted along, having to bank our bodies to get over the shallower coral and then find a hand hold whenever we wanted to stop and look at fish. The fun thing was some fish just swam right alongside us, probably wondering who the heck we were.

A fairly substantial Mamaru (big southeastern storms in FP) was predicted to come through the next several days so we upped anchor (which was wrapped around a bommie and took some time to unwrap) and headed into nearby Tapuamu Bay. Again, the boat right ahead of us got the last buoy (huge bummer since this bay is very deep) so we spent the next hour motoring around trying to find a shallow enough spot to anchor. We found a spot surrounded on three sides by shallow coral, but the depth meters readings were all over the place so we weren’t positive how deep we finally dropped the anchor. When we pulled back on the anchor to set it I could feel it “skipping” on coral on the bottom and then finally holding, but I wasn’t sure if it was up against some coral or in the sand. It was too deep to dive so we essentially just worried about it for the next four nights. As predicted, the winds piped up to a steady 23 knots and gusting to over 30+ knots, which held true for next six days. We were not happy campers with the uncertainty of our anchor set, but it did hold us securely.

We have two other friends on mooring balls nearby, Wavelength and Ednbal, so that gave us some comfort if everything went loosey goosey, we had help nearby.  We had a potluck dinner on Wavelength (thanks Eileen) one night and sundowners on Flying Cloud another, but essentially everyone was just hunkered down for the storm working on boat projects or Internet for the duration.

In between breaks in the storm we walked along the shoreside road down to a small vanilla plantation and store.
While we look safely anchored, we are surrounded on three sides by a very shallow coral shelf, not a good thing when the wind is gusting to 30+ knots.
There is a great small inner harbor here with a gas station and grocery store with fresh baguettes, plus an easy tie up for the dinghies. We went for several walks along the shore road, including one lovely 3-mile loop through a vanilla growing area. We found a small curio shop just past the gas station run by one of the most outgoing Tahitian women I’ve ever met. She had several toere’s (pronounced “toe-eddie”) and I had been looking for one for sometime. It’s a special Tahitian drumming instrument made out of Pacific rosewood — essentially a hollowed out box with a central slit along one long side.  You hit it with a ironwood stick to produce that high pitched “tick tick tick” sound you hear with fast Tahitian dancing. 

These netted covers protect the fragile vanilla plants from the searing tropical sun.
The owner of the Pari Pari facility shows us and the crew of Ednabal how a cold press extracts the oil from the coconut meat. They try to feed the curlycue remains to the goats, but even they find it too bitter. 
Producing the vanilla beans is a very time consuming process, which explains the high price of vanilla ($55 for the small packs shown here).
Pari Pari also makes it own "rhum agricole" from cane sugar. This bottle of 80 proof (40% alcohol content) sells for about $35, a pretty good deal in these parts.
Further down the road we saw some netted agricultural areas and discovered they contained vanilla plants. Taha’a is well known for its vanilla farms and we stopped at a new business called Pari Pari that made rum agricole (from cane sugar, not molasses like most rums) and extracted oils from vanilla and some local nuts. The owner and his wife, both from Paris, gave us the grand tour and explained how laborious the vanilla pollination, harvesting, and drying process is, which accounts for the very high prices of vanilla ($ 50 for a small pack of about 10 beans). There are no bees in French Polynesia that can pollinate plants, so, as the owner explained in that French way, "we have to have humans help in the marriage process." It takes several months after the beans are pollinated, then a then a four-month drying period where the beans need to be kept out of the direct sunlight.

In between breaks in the storm we visit other boats. Here is Florida-based North Star with the peaks of famed Bora Bora in the background.
The storm looks like it’s winding down after six days, but it’s still very windy. One boat left their buoy so we hurriedly upped anchor (all 220 ft of it) and motored over to the buoy only to find the loop in the three-strand line worn through to only one strand. I got into the dingy, Meryl handed me my iPad with the Ashley Knots app, and I proceeded to tie a very secure Icicle Hitch on the body of the line and double cow-hitched an eye spliced mooring line through the worn buoy eye splice so the edges of the line took more of the load than just the apex of the loop. Seems to be holding fine in the gusts, but is certainly one of the stranger tie-ups we’ve done while  cruising. 

We will hang out until about Tuesday then slowly make our way back to Moorea and on to Papeete for the big Pacific Puddlejump Rendezvous party on June 23rd to June 25th. We missed it last year so will see a number of boats that crossed last year and this year as well.  Should be quite a party.