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Pacific Islands

Six days, 950 miles and several fresh fish later, we arrived in Academy Bay in the Galapagos. Fortunately, it is now possible to stay legitmately in the these islands for up to 20 days. Puerto Ayora is a very pleasant small town, which seems to reflect all the best aspects of Central & South America without their seamier sides. It hardly needs our endorsement to the fact that the Galapagos are remarkable from a natural viewpoint. Vicky took a four day tour to several other islands and was fascinated by the variety and beauty of the animals and birds she saw. The creatures remain unafraid of humans and even the hammerhead sharks can be swum with without too many fears. On the down side, Academy Bay was our introduction to the eastern Pacific's swell-ridden anchorages, which were to be our 'mobile' homes for the next few months.

By 15 April, it was time to start our longest passage since the Atlantic crossing, 2900 miles to Hiva Oa in the Marquesas. This time we didn't have the luxury of three crew and three hours on with six off, but we soon settled into our routine. The weather was almost too kind. In fact the first five days were very slow and we flew the spin throughout the daylight hours. After that we picked up speed, clocking up 11 days of 160-180 miles. Some of the changes we have made to the boat really added to our comfort, particularly a proper bimini over the cockpit and the extra opening ports installed at St. Augustine. We caught fewer fish than we expected - only three tuna. Having hove to, waiting for daylight, we sailed into the unmistakable, damp, musty smell of a tropical landfall and anchored at Atuona in Hiva Oa after 20 1/2 days, exactly the same as our slightly shorter Atlantic passage. Our visit to the Marquesas was fortunate in its timing. The Millenium rally had passed through some weeks before - as it had in the Galapagos - and a significant bulge of cruisers ended up a week to ten days behind us. As a result the anchorages we visited were generally only shared with two or three boats, when at other times there might have been 20 or more. Fatu Hiva, the most southern island is stunning scenically, though perhaps not as welcoming as the other islands. We probably enjoyed our visit to Oa Pou most, where everyone we met was friendly, we had dinner with a local family and Vicky joined in their Sunday afternoon petanque. We had a number of long walks on each of the islands through craggy, volcanic, but lush green countryside. The hills are not for the faint-hearted and it is not surprising that most Polynesians have very well developed calf muscles. The Marquesas were also our introduction to the very high cost of living in French Polynesia. It is almost impossible to visit a shop for a few bits of food without parting rapidly with 50 for a very small bag of goods. We had been particularly spoiled by beer prices in the USA and Panama, generally about $.40 a can or less - in the Marquesas $2.50. On the other hand, lemons and limes were always there for the taking and Vicky became adept at enticing children with sweets, who then provided her with papayas, guavas and pampelmouse (large grapefruit).

Having visited the five main islands of the Marquesas, all of which are high and lack significant coral reefs, our next stops in the Tuamotus were complete contrasts. These islands are all low, coral atolls, some of which are mostly reef, marked only by breaking surf and the odd wreck; others include long, narrow, very low islands heavily covered with coconut palms. Only the advent of GPS and yacht radars has made these islands popular, where only 20 years ago almost all cruisers avoided them on their way to Tahiti.

We chose two islands to visit, both of which had easy passes into the lagoon - some have very daunting passes. Kauehi has one relatively large island and many smaller ones as well as a small, permanent village which lives on its fishing, coconuts and the cultivation of black pearls - of which Vicky now has eight less than perfect specimens in exchange for a $3 bottle of rum. Physically the most striking thing for all cruisers on their first night at anchor is the sensation of stillness. After two or three months of incessant rolling this comes as a startlingly grateful, but also slightly disturbing relief. It also gave us an opportunity to touch up the varnish at the waterline, which was beginning give up the struggle against dampness and algae. We beach-combed for shells, collected clams for chowder and did the other less exacting things expected of visits to coral atolls.

At Tahanea we were more active. What the atoll lacks in land or people, it makes up in the amazing clarity of its water and the abundance of its coral and fish. In company with Pat & Colleen of 'Simmer', we took long snorkling trips day after day to see the amazing variety of fish - including the odd small to medium sized shark. Under tuition from Pat, Tom speared his first grouper. Tahanea is the kind of place people plan to visit for a couple of days and wonder where a fortnight has gone. We had not expected to enjoy the Tuamotus, but once again found ourselves delighted with what we found and experienced.

A quick and uneventful passage brought us to Papeete on 12 June. As the largest and most sophisticated city in the Pacific islands before New Zealand and Australia, we and most other cruisers see this as a pivotal point in our voyage to the Antipodes. It certainly comes as a culture shock after the relative simplicity of the last two to three months since Panama. Arriving here, among so many other boats, also makes you realise more sharply than ever how you have joined a constantly shifting, but nevertheless tight-knit community of cruisers. Quite apart from the physical experiences of the islands, it is other cruisers who made them memorable - as well as the friendliness and hospitality of Polynesians such as William, Lauren, Etienne and Ernest.

 

 

 

We could only take a little of the brisk pace, pollution and outrageous expense of Papeete before we fled to the quiet of Port Phaeton. This lies at the narrow isthmus between the large northern and small southern parts of the Tahiti. From here we could take our first opportunity in months to go biking, along the coast in four directions - what a delight. Port Phaeton is beautifully protected and the village was remarkably supplied with stores and an excellent dentist who repaired one of Tom's fillings. Our cycle tour continued at Moorea, where we biked right round the island with George and Paula from 'Moonshadow'.At Huahine and Tahaa, we hiked, but again at Bora Bora we cycled round the island. By this time, the hull varnish was clearly in need of attention, so at Tahaa we found a quiet anchorage and put on a coat. The only two drawbacks to the anchorage were its 114' depth and the ferry which gave us a five hour window to get the varnish on and dry before the next huge wash.

 

For most of the month of July, the Polynesians hold their Haeva festival which is a celebration of their culture and traditions. Fortunately for the French, though of no consequence to the Polynesians, Bastille Day falls in the middle of all this. Our stay in Bora Bora coincided with Haeva and we saw some marvellous dancing, ranging from individual virtuosity to stunningly choreographed spectacle. There were all sorts of other events, from pirogue races to coconut husking. Vicky came 4th in a 10k run among women all no more than half her age.

As a specialist note for cruisers, the 'bond' for French Poly, $1300 per person for Europeans and $850 for Americans, was still being strongly enforced, despite EU court rulings that EU citizens should not be liable. It is possible with a bit of luck to side step it, if you are not staying too long, but equally the officials can get quite heated about the issue and have summarily told some boats to clear out if they won't pay. It is certainly costly to pay. Some American boats claimed that between bank charges and exchange rate loses the bond cost them $400. Another boat was repaid its bond by the bank in Bora Bora with a number of large denomination counterfeit bills! We read recentlly that the bond has now been dropped for European yachts.

 

The passage to Rarotonga brought us back into real weather with fronts and troughs crossing regularly. A wet, breezy sail carried us quickly there. What a refreshing change from French Poly! The Cook Islanders are universally friendly, everyone speaks English and prices are 1/3 to 1/2. The intimate, if exposed harbour at Aviatu brings everyone together under the protective, avuncular eye of the helpful harbourmaster, Don Silk. As a result our social calendar was full, quite apart from hiking across and biking around the Island and eating wonderful icecream daily. The highlight was undoubtedly Chris and Carol Clemetts' pig-roast.

 

 

To recover, we broke our passage to the tiny island state of Niue with a stop at Beveridge Reef, a heart-shaped circlet of coral and sand in the middle of the Pacific. There is no land to be seen, but there is a sheltered anchorage surrounded by ocean surf pounding incessantly on the coral reef, which is marked only by the wreck of a fishing boat. The water is clear as air, but in places a blue so deep as to be almost purple. The coral and fish are delicately beautiful. It is eerie, but wonderful to stop in such a place and experience the sense of precariously sheltered isolation which pervades it. The two experiences of Rarotonga and Beveridge so close together encapsulate the extremes of the Pacific for us so far.

Niue is not an easy place to visit. It has no harbours, the anchorage is deep and landing is difficult. But it is worth the effort. The are now about 15 moorings and in moderate weather you pluck your dinghy onto the quay with an electric hoist. The Island is peaceful and traditional, the pace is slow. Everyone is welcoming and friendly. Yet Niue also has an excellent free Internet service and very cheap rental bikes, scooters and cars. Again we cycled everywhere. There are marvelous limestone formations and a conservation area where the rainforest has been preserved. The most exciting experience was having whales breach and blow only 100 yards from the boat. Apart from the vigorous rolling in the anchorage, we had a wonderful time.

By 12 August a quick passage had brought us to Neiafu in the Vava'u Group of the Kingdom of Tonga. The Group, at the northern end of the island chain is a cluster of sheer-sided rocky islands, generally wooded and reef-fringed. There are also beautiful beaches and well sheltered anchorages. Not surprisingly, the Moorings and now Sunsail have set up charter bases here. Neiafu is very crowded with cruisers and charterers, but the outer anchorages are often quite deserted, especially when the wind pipes up a bit. We met up again with Pat & Colleen of 'Simmer', got a race 'fix' in a fun race and stood anchor watches during the passage of a front. In between we saw some of the nicest coral and fish since Tahanea. Tonga is much poorer than the other countries we visited in the S Pacific. Travel and communication are relatively poor and attitudes are less westernised. For the first time we came across officials who expected 'gifts' for their services. However, the majority of people were friendly and helpful and the islands are very beautiful.

 

 

On our passage to Vanua Levi, the northern island of Fiji, we moved just ahead of a vigorous front. Some Australian friends, who left Vava'u only 20 hours later had some of the worst weather of their whole 5 year circumnavigation. Though a small place, Savu Savu and its Copra Shed are very well set up to welcome visiting yachts. The mixture of Melanesian and south Asian cultures was markedly different from Polynesia, but again everyone was friendly and welcoming, locals regularly going out of their way to help us. Though Fijian bureaucracy is a bit daunting, the officials themselves were extremely helpful. We took the long bus trip across the island to the predominantly Indian town of Lambasa. In the marketplace there, you could as easily have been in Bombay or Calcutta.

 

 

Passage making in Fijian waters is not easy. There are myriad reefs, most charted, but some not, and the navigational marks are not universally well maintained. Fortunately we were able to make our way along the south coast of Vanua Levi in good light and out into the reefless area of Bligh Water for the passage across to the western Yasawa Group of islands. These high, reef-fringed islands are attractive and moderately well populated by cruisers, where much of the rest of Fiji is not. This is partly because the south and east of Fiji tend to be very wet, while the north and west are dry. By this time we knew that we would have to return in two years time to do Fiji justice, so we only made two stops in the Yasawas before moving on to Musket Cove. However, we finally succeeded in one of our unfulfilled ambitions - to catch a Wahoo; it was nearly four feet long and over 20 pounds - and it was delicious!

 

After our fun race victory at Neiafu, we decided that we must do at least part of the Musket Cove Regatta. This is not serious racing; there are no handicaps and the most valuable prizes are drawn out of the hat! But it was excellent fun. In the longest of the races, around Malolo Island, we were 2nd to a 55 ft racing boat and won 200 litres of diesel. Vicky also took part in the beer-drinking competition and in the light displacement division of the wet t-shirt contest, but was unplaced against more forward competition!

After a social and boozy week at Musket Cove, we sought the sheltered peace of Saweni Bay, just west of Lautoka, Fiji's second city. We sorted out some badly worn steering hub bearings and otherwise prepared 'Sunstone' for the possibly testing passage to New Zealand. We had been watching the weather pattern for some time and thought it likely that we would have to sail initially though trade winds heavily 'reinforced' by a strong stationary high over Australia and the Tasman Sea. After that we hoped/expected that things would improve and give us a fairly soft landing in NZ. In the event, having also consulted the NZ weather guru, Bob McDavitt,we set off on 28 Septemeber and it proved to be almost exactly as we expected. We had 30-35 knots for about 36-48 hours to start and then a spanking sail in 15-25 knots of close reaching most of the rest of the way, with 36 hours of motoring at the end - total 7 1/2 days for the 1200 miles straight to Auckland. 'Sunstone' behaved impeccably, only requiring slowing down occasionally when we were filling the cockpit every half hour. Tom spent a few exciting moments leaning over the counter dealing with Monitor breakages. Otherwise, it could hardly have been better.

 

 

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