Thursday, June 27, 2013

Warm Weather Sailors


The last time Mark and I were cold on our boat was in the fall of 2007, when the two of us and the dogs motored down the Inter Coastal Waterway (ICW) towards Florida. It was the beginning of what was to become our multiple year Irie adventure. To stay warm (or at least try to), we baked a lot of things in the oven, used our camping stove with a metal cookie sheet on top as “central heating” and went to bed with three layers of clothes and a wool hat on. The dogs cuddled together, rolled up in a ball, and the decks had ice on them. Mark slipped once while preparing to lift the anchor. We swore we would never cruise in a cold climate again.

Being in the Gambier Islands makes us think back about those uncomfortable goose bump weeks, almost six years ago. Granted, we don’t have hail here or frost on the decks, but the down comforter has been retrieved and covers us up at night. We are cold and not used to temperatures under 85 degrees (30°C) anymore. Yes, we have spoiled over the years! During the day, it is about 60 degrees (16°C) and at night… well, we don’t really know, because by then, we are comfortably tucked into bed. Once, we ventured to shore around sunset (which happens at 5pm) in shorts and a sweater, only to row back to Irie to warm up a bit and grab longer clothes, before continuing the evening. It must have been 50 degrees (10°C) or so. I think the biggest shock to us was the fact that we never expected to spend time in a region’s “real” winter again. We didn’t expect the Gambier Islands to have Tropic of Capricorn temperatures, but we should have known better, after sailing 23° south of the equator and ending in these islands, basically laying on the Tropic of Capricorn!

I’m not sure whether it is because the time of the year – we just celebrated the shortest day on June 21st, the official start of winter – but the trade winds are fairly non-existent. Frequently, the wind comes from the south (think South Pole, with no land between there and here) and is icy. Once a week, it totally clocks around and when it comes from the north (think equator) it is – surprise, surprise – not any warmer. Being on land, where the roads and trails are mostly sheltered from the wind is much more pleasant and comfortable than being on the water, so we often go for walks in town and for hikes over the hills and around the island(s). Sometimes, we find a sunny spot on shore and just sit there, soaking up the rays of warmth.

Mark and I are using the oven frequently again, baking up a storm, while we spend a lot of time indoors. Doing the dishes afterwards in ice-cold seawater is anti-climactic. For the first time ever, we are drinking hot tea and hot chocolate every day. The windows have been shut for weeks; the cockpit remains unused, besides for dish washing. Showering outside is unattractive and almost painful. When we open the tap at the sinks to get some water, it feels like it came straight out of the fridge. Finally some cold drinking water, just when we don’t need it. The fridge itself barely runs and doesn’t sweat at all like in the humid climates. This is great for our electricity usage, but the collected frost on the evaporator keeps melting, soaking all the food inside. No need for ice cubes in our cocktails! No need for cocktails at all, really. Mark’s new favorite drink at five o’clock is hot tea with a shot of rum.

Instead of blocking out the sun and always searching for shade, we now embrace being showered by the bright light and the subdued heat, whenever it is present. When the sky is bright blue and the sun is out in full force, we drop everything and (try to) go for a snorkel, a bottom cleaning (of Irie), a dinghy exploration or a walk on the beach, or in the woods. We need to take advantage of the handful of nice days. Sounds familiar?

We are enjoying our time in this beautiful archipelago, albeit in a different way. We stare at the pine forests and the contrast with the magnificent hues of blue in the lagoon, and realize we are in a special place. We longingly look at the colorful reefs from above. The spectacular coral formations and habitats of thousands of attractive sea creatures are inviting, but the cold water they exist in is not. The chilly air we feel after emerging from the sea makes it even worse. We observe the beauty around us, but we can’t be part of it… So, we feast only with our eyes, while the rest of our bodies confirm that we are warm weather sailors.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Taravai in Pictures

Taravai, one of the islands in the Gambier archipelago, lays a few miles southeast of the main island Mangareva and is about 1/3 of its size. There used to be a tiny village in the past, but now only a handful of people live on the island permanently and they are spread out. The cute, historic church still stands and the grounds are maintained well by the residents. Five reef strewn bays, in which it is possible to anchor, surround the island. To navigate the area, good sunlight and good charts are mandatory. On top of that, you want to find a sandy, coral free spot on the bottom to drop your anchor, and you want to be protected from the existing wind, which changes direction often here.

Other than visiting two local families and braving the cold water for two snorkel sessions (just me), Mark and I bush wacked our way to the top of a hill one day, collecting scratches on every exposed body part. We also baked a lot of things in the oven to stay warm and observed the pretty scenery from Irie’s cockpit, when the sun was shining upon us.

About once a week, a cold front passes over the Gambier Islands. This means that the wind clocks around, sometimes slowly and lightly, sometimes over more time and at higher speed. The only fully protected harbor in the Gambier is the town of Rikitea on Mangareva, so instead of spending a hoped for two weeks in Tarawai, we had to motor for three hours and return to our (and everybody’s) base anchorage after eight days. The positive of this move is that we can splurge on fresh baguettes again, and there should be a supply ship in port “soon”. Each time we inquire in town, it will arrive “demain”… Sounds like mañana. There is always mañana! :-)

Here are some pictures of our “vacation” in the beautiful environs of little Taravai:

Irie all by herself in the southern bay, with Mangareva visible in the cut.

Having a picnic with Birgit and Christian (SV Pitufa) in Onemea Bay, a cold and wet dinghy ride away. Based on the tropical looking location, you won't expect us to wear wetsuits or foul weather gear to stay warm!

Tasty spread for our picnic, with the last baguettes from Rikitea.

Navigating Onemea Bay (and other ones) by dinghy to go around all the shallow coral heads involves standing up and pointing out dark spots

Picturesque island in the southeast corner of Taravai; the dark spots in the foreground are reefs

Historic church in Taravai village, built by the Belgian infamous priest Laval

Walking through the well-manicured environs of Taravai "village"

View from Hervé's property in Taravai village

Hervé and his son Alain, near the church

The picturesque setting of the only house on the small island SE of Taravai 

Pigs and chickens on the property of the only house on the island in Taravai's southeast corner

This pig reminded us of a dog. She was very friendly, curious and loved her belly rubs!

Bush wacking to the top of the SE island of Taravai; this was the first point we got stuck

After an hour or so, we reached the top with this view from a patch of pine trees.

On the way back, it was easier, because we could follow the trail we made before. Here, it turned into a slide down in between the tall and sharp reeds.

Irie and Pitufa in Onemea Bay; we decided to move the big boat here for a bit (photo by Birgit Hackl)


Irie in the sunset of Onemea Bay (photo by Birgit Hackl)

Pitufa in Baie Onemea

Bright and pretty parrot fish while snorkeling in Onemea

One of the colorful coral formations in the Gambier islands (Onemea)

When you brave the cold water and chilly air, you can swim in expansive coral gardens

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Taravai, a Small Piece of Paradise


The weekend brought two relatively sunny days with no wind at all. After using the first one for chores in and out of the water, we used the second good day to move Irie to another, more challenging, anchorage in the Gambier archipelago. The charts, where they exist, are good and reliable, but parts of the region are left uncharted. Mark and I decided to explore the southern bay of Taravai, which sounded very appealing, based on cruiser's reports. The problem: it is a blank spot on the charts, so good sunlight to read the water and detect the many dangerous reefs was imperative. Two hours of motoring under mostly grey skies by the time we left on Sunday, brought us to Taravai´s SE corner, the point where we needed to make a decision whether to proceed or not.

As luck would have it, the sun popped out right in time and the correct part of sky turned blue for 20 minutes. With me on the bow and Mark gently moving the boat forward, we slowly entered the reef strewn bay. For some reason, there was a lot of glare in the water and the visibility was poor. Instead of seeing all the dark spots ahead of us, I could just make out the rocky bottom 30 feet in front of us and an area as wide as Irie. Not good; you want the sun high in the sky and behind you to read the water… At that point, we realized or remembered that the sun in the southern hemisphere always sits in the north, even at her highest point, around noon, the time we approached the anchorage. It was the direction we needed to go. We proceeded at a snail's pace and at some point, when I looked back, I noticed that we had barely missed a shallow reef! Mark made a sharp right to get into less shallow water and we continued deeper 
into the bay, our hearts racing and our minds in minor shock.

Once settled in the anchorage, we noticed the beauty of this place. The beaches, the hills, the rocky outcrops and the greenery, the different shades of blue in the water and the colorful reefs, visible from above – when looking into the right direction – created a very beautiful picture indeed! The first couple of days, we had to stay onboard, unfortunately, because the wind was gusting from different directions and the weather was playing tricks on us. Being surrounded on three sides by very shallow reefs and being anchored in deep water, we wanted to make sure the anchor re-set correctly, every time, we made a violent 180° turn. When the wind mellowed out a bit, we managed to explore the area and meet some friendly locals.

One day, we had lunch two bays away with our friends from Pitufa, who were anchored in the third bay to the west of us. This "picnic bay" was a little tropical paradise; uninhabited, golden sand fringed by palm trees, some pretty rocks along shore and reefs in the water. The wind seemed to be coming from only one direction, but that might have been coincidence. Either way, we might check this sweet little spot out one day with Irie, when the weather is right and we feel confident enough to move again.

Mark and I also met the family who lives in our bay. They made us welcome with some fresh fruit from their garden and some freshly caught fish from the bay. We chatted for a while in French and brought some things in exchange later. We also took our dinghy, weaving through coral heads, to "the village" of Taravai. Only two families live here full-time now (when the French did their many years of nuclear testing in the neighboring Tuamotus and used Rikitea as their base, many people from the Gambier archipelago moved to "the city" to work, and stayed afterwards) and they maintain the area splendidly; the historic church, the white beaches and the lush yards and gardens look very inviting to visitors, and inhabitants. The atmosphere is relaxed, friendly and hospitable. Not a bad place to live!

Once back home, around 3pm, I donned my shorty wetsuit, braved the cold water and swam out to a fringing reef close by. I only lasted 20 minutes, before goose bumps appeared and my lips turned blue, but it was a pretty excursion. The many colorful fish were of a kind I'd never seen before, and the ones who looked familiar, were twice or three times the size than their Caribbean counterparts. The coral was in decent shape, with pretty formations and colors, but I am sure the reef we barely missed and some other patches we have dinghied past are more spectacular. One of these days, when the icy wind subsides and the sun produces her hottest rays of the season, I am hoping to explore some of these magnificent reefs. Maybe, just maybe, I can convince Mark to join me and overcome his detest of discomfort and cold!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Mangareva Island in the Gambier Archipelago

Mark and I arrived in the Gambier Islands at the change of seasons. Our friends of SV Pitufa, who had been here about ten days by then, enjoyed some sunny and warm weather, with rainy spells. When we arrived - literally – the weather was awful and the southern hemisphere winter seemed to have started about a month too early. The climate is relatively cool during the day (shorts and T-shirts are still fine) and chilly at night (sweater and comforter needed). The realization that we didn’t quite expect this, being used to years in the tropics came quick, when we discovered that we don’t have that many warm clothes on board and that we aren’t sweating anymore. Of course, a less hot climate has its advantages, one of which is hiking on shore. For that, the weather is perfect. But, all those pristine and gorgeous reefs right around the corner, a splashy dinghy ride away when the wind is howling, will have to remain undiscovered for now.

This different climate requires some serious adjusting. We have to find an alternative to our showers in the ocean. We go hiking around noon, when it is the hottest part of the day, instead of the early hours like in the Caribbean and while closer to the equator. Because of the hills, the sun disappears at 4pm; she sets around 5. It is pitch black at 6pm. The nights are long, dinner has moved to 6:30pm or so, instead of 8pm, and we start the day a bit earlier as well to take full advantage of daylight. The rays of sun have been far and few between and the daily rain is mostly a mere drizzle, not enough to collect.

Cheap fresh water is available on the island, so drinking water is not a problem. Fresh produce, however, is another story. The options are: nothing but onions and garlic available in the little shops, befriending a local Mangarevan and trading wine or baked goods for some fresh vegetables and fruit, picking fallen pamplemousse (grapefruit) and coconuts off the ground while hiking, rushing to shore the morning after a supply ship arrived to buy what little goodies they dropped off (carrots, potatoes, cabbage, apples, and if you’re lucky – and we haven’t yet - also tomatoes and other stuff). A supply ship shows up every other week, or if delayed or canceled, only once a month. Apparently, the twice weekly plane drops off fresh food as well, but we haven’t noticed the effects of that. There are two farms about an hour walk away over a steep hill, but the fields are “empty” as of now, for about a month, the farmer told us.

Yesterday, Mark and I walked about two hours over a hill and along a steep path down to the other side of Mangareva, inquiring at a few houses for vegetables for sale. All we found were three heads of the local bok choy, costing over $3. On the way back, we picked up a fallen coconut and about a dozen pomplemousse. Who knew they could be so heavy? Now, we have some grapefruit juice to mix with our rum for cocktails, because 1.5 l of coca cola costs $6. Other than exploring the little village of Rikitea, with its cute churches and lush environment, we have done a few walks around part of the island and over some hills. There are plenty of trails and viewpoints with amazing views of the turquoise water and surrounding islands, to keep one busy for a while.

The locals are friendly, waving from their car and saying “bonjour” when walking by. Some of them offer us fruit out of their fertile gardens when we pass by. When you want fresh baguettes, you order them the previous day and pick them up, fresh out of the oven around 7am or 3pm. Mark and I each manage to finish one French bread every day. Even at only 80 cents a baguette, we are good customers!

Every night, we hear drumming on shore from our boat. There are two Polynesian troupes practicing drumming, dancing and singing for the big festival in July. One evening, we were on shore and observed the impressive spectacle, imagining it would be even more awesome in traditional costumes. We will have to stay in this archipelago until the end of July at least to be part of this event. Soon, we’re off to explore some of the smaller islands in this expansive lagoon. Now that we are practically caught up on sleep, emails, cleaning, filling the tank with water and “restocking” the fridge, it is time for a little vacation! :-)

Irie in the Rikitea anchorage  (photo by Birgit Hackl)

The local baker in Rikitea (photo by Birgit Hackl)

Picnic for Christian's birthday at a viewpoint on Mangareva

The protected bay and town of Rikitea

White caps everywhere in the lagoon and wet dinghy rides when the wind is howling

One of the many pearl farms in the lagoon (formed by all the islands of the Gambier archipelago)

Little church along one of our walks

Friendly pig - there are a lot around the island

Pamplemousse tree, with many left to rot on the ground

Banana tree on private property (and a bag full of grapefruit)

One of the bays with shallow reefs along Mangareva

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Pacific Passage in Pictures

Here are some pictures of our Pacific crossing from Isabela, the Galapagos to the Gambier Islands in French Polynesia. The people who followed the blogs during the sailtrip might recognize some of the scenes... :-)

Leaving enjoyable Isabela in the Galapagos Islands

Bye bye Isabela and the Cerro Azul volcano

Becalmed at night, floating west at a little over 1 knot

One of the many sunrises, this one in flat seas

Some of our stocked-up vegetables; soon ready to be eaten

All bundled up after the night watch; the comfy chair was our saving grace!

Trophies after a night of sailing: flying fish and squid

Morning view of Irie's trampoline (after a rough night): a bunch of suicidal flying fish

Oh oh... The bananas all turning yellow already!

The only fish we caught: a small mahi mahi (dorado) - we did lose all our lures later

On one of the quieter and early days: Mark making spinach flat bread

Colorful sunset, behind a relatively flat horizon. We saw many sunsets on the trip, sometimes the same one multiple times, when rising and falling with the waves!

This acrobatic squid made it all the way onto the mainsail!

Rough seas, big swell - it is hard to do justice to the sea conditions in a picture

Rigged up cockpit cushions to keep the cockpit relatively dry from crashing waves

Our shower system: one sun shower filled with seawater, the other with fresh; both warmed by the sun

The best chocolate chip cookies in the world, with dark Belgian chocolate

One of the rainbows near a far away squall

On days with little wind, we fly our spinnaker - red, white and blue!

 One of the few beautiful days of sailing

Frontal system ahead; we're not sure what is to happen when we go through...

Surrounded by one of the squalls of the weather front - our sails are reefed and we fly

Arriving at the Gambier Islands, during the crappiest weather they have had in a while!

The perfect welcome by our friends Birgit and Christian from SV Pitufa: a basket with local goodies!