Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Gambier to Marquesas - Day 4: Clear Skies

Time: 2315UTC, COG 336T, SOG 5.0kts, Distance Remaining: 270nm

The eastern sky turned red, while the sun tried to break through a veil of
clouds. From the moment night turned into dawn, I looked behind us, in
search of the ominous front. It looked much smaller than before and far
enough away to not worry about it anymore. It had either stalled, or we had
outrun it, doing less than 4 knots overnight! The effects of a front can be
noticed hundreds of miles away, so we had to keep moving, eager to reach the
magic latitude 17S, which we did at 2pm. By then the cold front had
dissipated, just like the puffy clouds on the horizon, and the only
inconvenience we suffered from, were unpredicted light winds. I started to
wonder what five knots of speed felt like again...

Today was SSS-day: sun, shower, solitude. Two of these things we really
enjoy, three if the water is warm. Which it was, the sun finally being hot
enough to heat the sun-shower up. No more boiling tap water to fill the bag;
treat number one! The solitude made the bathing experience more pleasant. We
have been all alone here, in the middle of the ocean. The only other life we
have seen is a few birds. Unfortunately no dolphins, yet.

The biggest treat of them all, today, was the sun, ever stronger in a
perfectly blue sky. Another layer of clothing was stripped off, and then the
last one... Even the breeze felt warm and the thought "Pffff, I'm feeling
hot," crossed my mind. Was that sweat? We have been so sun-deprived lately,
that I embraced the warmth with all I had, spending the whole day on deck,
in the unobscured sun. Not into sunbathing by any means, today I made an
exception and I enjoyed every bright moment of it! Did I use sunscreen? Of
course... not. Did my face get burnt? Of course. This is called
over-indulgence. Everybody takes part in that sometimes, right? For the
first time in three months, we ate our meals in the cockpit. Yes, today was
a happy day!

Mark and I have been listening to the "Top 500 Best Songs of All Time"
compiled by Rolling Stones magazine. Ma and pa would like it. Lots of
oldies; or do you call them classics? We listen and enjoy, sometimes singing
along with the lyrics, or something close to them. Lots of The Beatles and
The Stones. After three days, the best part is over, I think.

Yesterday night started with a giant grey mass looming behind us. We
"escaped". Tonight, we sail towards a grey band of lower hanging clouds. We
call it a warm front and have no idea what it will do to us. This massive,
out-stretched, stationary front has been sitting near the Marquesas for over
a week, which is rare. By now, it should have disappeared, but instead, it
is still there. Worse even, it has reversed its course (ever heard of a
southwest moving front in the Pacific? Another first?) and is coming our
way. At some point soon, we are bound to collide with it. The good news is
that the wind and wave predictions do not mention any anomalies. We expect
some squalls and a lot of rain. But, what do we know about weird moving warm
fronts? Maybe it evaporates as well?

Once night fell, the weather made up for its previous "flaws". It is blowing
a perfect 10-15 knots and Irie is sailing a glorious 5-7 knots on a beam
reach, her fastest point of sail. While earlier today, we needed to catch
the wind on our side and head up a bit to gain some momentum, being off
course, now we don't have to do any effort to sail straight to our
destination in the east winds. Waves and wind on the beam (side) mean a
bumpier ride, but we'll take it for now. You can't have it all, sailing on
the vast ocean, and today we've been lucky. The bliss might even last a full
and rarely experience 24 hours!

Since I probably should avoid the sunshine the coming days and we have to
skip more and more songs as the Top 500 progresses, I wonder what I will do
tomorrow. On a weeklong passage, I have no problem being a bum. So far we
have been lazy about baking and trolling a line. The baguettes are devoured
and the pre-cooked meals are gone. Maybe it is time to make some bread and
catch some fish? Or, I could do plain old nothing again! :-)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Gambier to Marquesas - Day 3: Light Winds

Time: 2315UTC, COG 336T, SOG 5.0kts, Distance Remaining: 420nm

When first light arrived on Monday morning, the wind was still light. Mark
and I didn't change the sails yet, because we were surrounded by nasty
squalls. So, we kept moving north-ish at 4 knots. Around 9am, the sky
cleared up enough to risk putting the light sail up. Spinnaker time! It was
worth the hassle to take both white sails down and rig the spinnaker up for
an extra half a knot of speed. We seemed to go as fast as the apparent wind,
and, for the first time we were on course!

We progressed NE and managed to keep the spinnaker flying for the biggest
part of the day. The squalls kept their distance. The sun joined us for a
while, its heat and effect stronger than yesterday. One layer of clothes
disappeared, until the clouds came back. During the afternoon, the squalls
around us multiplied. Once again, no rain fell upon us, but the formations
sucked up all the wind. At 4pm, the spinnaker collapsed and the relaxing
sailing was over. We put the other sails up again and tried to head north.

Irie was becalmed for an hour, while the needle of the wind meter did
circles and not the tiniest breeze was felt. The sails slammed left and
right and it was hard to be patient. Finally, the SE wind filled in a bit
and we started moving, albeit slowly. The predicted 10 knots of wind - which
keeps us going OK - was in actuality only 7 and Irie sailed into the night
at 3 knots, just enough to keep the sails from flapping around. But when the
wind drops under five knots, even our light boat is having trouble to keep
moving steadily, a frustrating time for whoever is at the helm. If only the
weather would be more like what is predicted, it would make us, cruisers,
much happier. Because, it is what we base our decisions on!

Usually, we don't mind slow progress, as long as it is comfortable. And,
with the mellow seas from behind us, it was. But, in order to have no effect
from a front that was heading north, we had to make latitude 17° S before
tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon! When night fell at 5:30pm, once again without
a sunset, we noticed a growing grey wall behind us. The massive cloud
covered half of our spectrum. Was this the front already? Will this giant
system close in on us? We better got moving north, as quickly as possible,
in less than ten knots of wind... Luckily, once it was dark, we couldn't see
the looming monster cloud anymore.

My shift at midnight started with an observation of the nightly
surroundings. Tons of stars dotted the dark sky, framed by even darker
clouds. The bright half-moon rose, glowing yellow, turning white. As it
climbed the sky, its light erased the little twinkles of stars one by one.
What a peaceful setting. While I kept a close eye on our pathetic 3 knot
"speed" (many moments it even dropped to a very annoying 2 knots), I prayed
for more wind. I always seem to ask for something regarding the weather
while on watch... I tried not to stress about our deadline and watched the
decimals of our latitude slowly tick down. 52 more miles to go, until we
reach 17° S! Will we beat this front?

Monday, July 29, 2013

Gambier to Marquesas - Day 2: Sun!

Time: 0110UTC, COG 350T, SOG 4.5kts, Distance Remaining: 520nm

On Sunday morning, the wind still came out of the Southwest. Being off
course by more than 50° and having strayed 70 miles from our plotted route
(What's an extra day at sea?), it was time to head up a bit. We pointed
Irie's bow due north, still off course, but doing better. Now we were on a
straight shot to the equator, doing around 6 knots in 13 knots of wind. We
would turn off well before it, though, nudging our way left as we progressed
and the wind would clock towards the east (anti-clockwise in the Southern
hemisphere). The waves were benign, so having them come from the side did
not bother us at this point.

The sky slowly turned blue in some places and the sun decided to join us for
a few hours. What a treat! It was still chilly, but I strapped myself on
deck to let my face soak up all the rays and warmth it could. It was a dry
and pleasant ride. We dodged a few squalls, listened to music and took some

Good times never last. When the sun set behind a curtain of rain in the
western distance, Irie entered the "grey zone", a local weather system not
mentioned in any forecasts. A massive dark cloud engulfed us. There was no
escape! It stayed dry, but the wind died. Then, it turned northwest, the
direction we needed to go. Since we really did not want to sail more east -
as it was, we already managed to reach the eastern edge of our weather
forecast zone - we trimmed the sails and hoped for the best. The area of
messed up winds was huge and after an hour of unsuccessfully trying to keep
the sails full and make some progress, Mark turned the engines on to get
through the thing. It was an annoying shift for him and one with little
sleep for me.

After four and a half hours of motoring, the sky cleared up some and the
wind moved to the south. We turned more left, kept the sails relatively
full, the boat relatively flat and used the easting we had done before to
head a bit off course the other way. The wind frequently dropped below 10
knots from behind and at 4-5 knots, we steadily and smoothly sailed towards
another day of - hopefully - abundant sunshine!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Gambier to Marquesas - Day 1: Back on the ocean

Time: 0120UTC, COG 340T, SOG 6.5kts, Distance Remaining: 630nm

After having a last take-out pizza (yes, there is a decent pizza place in
Rikitea that's open during the weekend evenings) and hot spiced wine on
Pitufa, having 4 fresh baguettes delivered to our boat in the morning (it
was Birgit and Christian's turn to pick them up) and saying "See you later"
to some friends, Irie's windlass slowly lifted the anchor out of the mud, 70
(22m) beneath. At 10am, we headed into the wind, the chop and the grey
skies. For some reason, the wind is always on the nose and boats are always
anchoreda on a lee shore (land behind instead of in front) in the Gambier
islands. The wind against current phenomenon caused a bumpy and wet ride.
Within 20 minutes of leaving Rikitea, the decks were swamped with salt

Once outside the lagoon, after two hours of motor sailing, we fell off a bit
and the engines were turned off. The wind blew pretty strong out of the SW,
an unusual direction. The gradient wind normally comes out of the SE here.
The waves were about 12 feet (4m) high. Conditions would only improve over
the coming week. To make the trip a bit more comfortable and to do some
"easting", which will help us further north, when the wind turns east, we
altered course by 40°. In 20-25 knots of wind (instead of the predicted
15-20) and with reefed sails, we moved NNE at a pleasant 7 knots.

The day was spent getting used to the motion of the ocean again, resting up
a bit and trying to stay warm. Making meals was easy with the in advance
prepared curry for lunch and tuna salad for dinner. Fresh baguettes at sea,
a treat! At night, we tried to put as many layers of clothes as possible
under Mark's foul weather gear for our six hour shifts and the bed sported a
thick blanket on top of the duvet. The half-moon (is it first quarter or
last quarter when the bottom half shows?) was rarely visible in the overcast
sky. Squalls surrounded us and played with the wind a bit, but most of them
skirted us, with only some sprinkling to be felt.

The wind speed dropped substantially overnight. With a double reefed main
(you never know with these squalls), we moved at a speed of 5-6 knots
towards the equator, where warmer weather and longer days await!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Quick Update

Time: 0130UTC, COG 020T, SOG 6.8kts, Distance Remaining: 760nm

Just a quick update. We are underway. All is OK on Irie. Wind a bit
stronger than predicted, but just a bit, so is OK for now. We are a bit off
course today to keep comfortable on the boat. The wind is SW now (odd for
around here), and as we go North, the wind will go more East and we will get
more on course. That's it for today, Liesbet will write more tomorrow!

We’re off to the Marquesas!

Our basil plants – raised in tropical Panama – are dying. They look pathetic and in order to prevent them of becoming totally extinct on Irie, we have to move to warmer climes. They just do not like the cold and gusty conditions in the Gambier Islands and neither do we.

After a terrible night in Rikitea – the most annoying one in our sailing career – without any sleep, keeping an eye on our neighbors, having to start the engine three times to avoid collisions and sailing at anchor for a total of 3 miles, all because the wind came in strong gusts from different directions and our light catamaran flew all over the anchorage (and the monohulls didn’t), we made the final preparations for the voyage to the Marquesas. We plan to spend 6-8 days at sea and hope it will be a more comfortable trip than the one to the Gambier. Meals are prepared, tanks are full, some boat projects have been completed and the spirits are high to get to warmer weather.

I was going to write a summary blog about the Gambier islands, because there is so much I have left out previously (who wants to read 1000-word blogs?), but I am running out of time, so the contents will have to be turned into an article one day. Once we leave here, there are other adventures and experiences to be had and to write about!

No place in the world is perfect, otherwise, we would have to stay and quit the traveling… Mark and I enjoyed our time in the Gambier and if it wasn’t for the crappy, cold and stormy winter weather, we would have stayed much longer in this area. The islands are beautiful, bountiful, lush, interesting, special, diverse, cultural and friendly. And for that we say “Maroi nui” and “Nana” to the people and the archipelago of the Gambier Islands!

Choppy seas and white caps in the Gambier lagoon, seen from Rikitea

Our track on the crappiest and most sleepless night in Rikitea. We moved all over the place within "our anchoring circle", we "sailed" a distance of about 3 miles! Yes, there were other boats anchored within this circle, and the water is deep (45 feet), so you need a lot of chain out...

Paella on the Beach... in Winter

After one peaceful night in Aukena, the wind shifted a bit and created massive gusts into the anchorage. Water spray flew off the wind waves and it gusted between 40 and 50 knots. Irie was pushed back with a vengeance to bounce forward and then back again, repeating the jarring motion. Luckily, we trust our anchor gear. The wailing sound in the rigging was quite something else. How is it possible that the Gambier weather keeps deteriorating even more? It has been blowing extremely hard (around 30 knots) with rain squalls for days. As I write this, back in the “protected” harbor of Rikitea, a massive wind gust just caught us from behind and ripped our bimini (cockpit shade cover) out of the boat. The aluminum frame ripped apart and some of the canvas ripped as well. Boats are doing different things in the fluky, strong wind and we hope nobody runs into anyone else. We have never experienced weather conditions like this. Where are the tropics? Out of reach, because of the weekly fronts (it is either too windy, 20-30 knots, or too calm, under 10 knots, averaging out that perfect “ready to leave” 15-20 knots that never arrives) passing through and ever changing weather predictions, for the worse…

Before all this, there was a “medium” windy day. Mark and I took the dinghy ashore and joined our Spanish friends Roser and Kiku of SV Socarrao for a traditional Spanish meal in the yard of Bernard, a friendly Mangarevan living on Aukena with his family. They had invited a German couple (and their two kids) as well. Bernard had killed four wild chickens and the couple cooked paella above a wood fire. The end result was pretty and tasty. We supplied some side dishes and fresh bread, while the Germans baked and brought dessert. There was enough sangria and other alcohol to accompany the feast and warm us up a bit, at least our throats. While the palm trees were violently waving and the wind howled above, we braved some light rain and winter chills at the picnic bench. 

To get some exercise, all of us walked across the hill and through a cave to the windward side of the island. And we thought it was windy on our side! We joined the hundred or so pigs, Bernard raises and sells. Their pen is extensive and has a beautiful setting, on a sunny day. None of us lasted long, so we returned to the house and then on to our own floating home, where the only warm place was in bed under the covers. Mark and I have spent way too much time indoors and in bed to be somewhat comfortable after wet dinghy rides, necessary swims (we lost Mark’s only swim trunks overboard in a nasty gust and were unsuccessful saving them by dinghy, so I had to don a wetsuit and snorkel gear, parts of Irie’s bottom needed cleaning, the rudder had to come out again to be checked) and motoring through the lagoon in wet and windy conditions, and we have lost many nights of sleep in anchorages turning tricky because of inconsistent wind, to not recommend cruisers (and tourists) to spend time in the Gambier during the southern hemisphere winter! We are (and have been) checking the weather forecasts every day in order to leave.

Roser tending to the paella on the wood fire

Mark and Bernard playing backgammon

Pigs on the beach, eating coconuts (No, they don't cut them open themselves!)

Warming up after the short, but cold and windy walk

Rainbow over Rikitea and Mangareva

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Quick Stop at Akamaru, Gambier Islands

After sitting stationary in Rikitea for three weeks, Mark and I decided to move to a different anchorage again, here in the Gambier islands. Heavy winds were predicted for almost a week to come, but we braved the windy and choppy lagoon to motor over to Akamaru, the only “big” island we had not visited yet. The last stretch, we followed Bertrand, a friendly local Frenchman, who guided us through the clusters of coral until we reached the anchorage. Irie settled in 6.5 feet of clear, relatively shallow water, a depth we like!

After lunch it was off to the island of Akamaru by dinghy. We explored a small beach and jumped ashore near “the village”, where about eight houses are spread out and three or four families live full-time. The church was charming and pretty and the grounds around it, once again, very well-kept. We hung out with a couple of friendly and healthy dogs and met a local family. My French is getting better! After a stroll through the neighborhood, we stopped at Bertrand’s houseboat on the way back to Irie and had a chat with his family. His daughters are in school in Rikitea where they learn to carve pearls and shells. The designs and the work are amazing, but unfortunately, only one of the shells was finished and it was not for sale.

Unbeknownst to us, it was already 5:30pm and extreme low tide. While the sun set, we saw 4.2 feet on our depth meter. Irie has a draft of 3.5 feet. We had never been anchored in water as shallow as this and normally would not be too worried, being anchored in good holding sand, but around us were a few small coral heads. Usually those are not a problem either, unless you have less than a foot under the keels and some of these corals are over a foot high… It was too late to move, so we hoped the wind wouldn’t shift too much at night, which it was not supposed to do, but you really never know around here. We didn’t sleep too well and heard grinding sounds during the night. Luckily, it was only our anchor chain rubbing over some coral pieces on the bottom.

As is always the case, the tide rose and around midnight it was very high. The reefs that usually protect this anchorage were overflown by higher than normal waves and the big swell made its way into our anchorage. For about four hours, Irie bounced back and forth, left and right (here we were, in a washing machine again, at anchor!), preventing any sleep. The following morning, we climbed the small island neighboring Akamaru and reached the cross on the top for a beautiful view. We had to hurry back, because the tide was rising again and our dinghy did not have a lot of room, where we pulled it up. I already got swamped on the way in, trying to keep the dinghy, and Mark, from flipping over or running into the rocks. On hands and feet, we slid back down the steep hill, using clumps of grass and mostly trustworthy rocks to slow us down. Back at the water’s edge, we timed it right, launched the dinghy into the swirling water, jumped in, grabbed the oars (peddles) and propelled ourselves into deeper and safer water, before starting the outboard engine. A dry escape, this time!

Back on Irie, she was rockin’ and rollin’ again. The protection from the heavy winds was OK, but the boat movements were very annoying, for almost half of the day. During low tide, it was dead calm, but then we had other worries. After some hemming and hawing, certain about another night of little sleep, Mark and I decided to use the relatively clear skies to move again. The two options based on the predicted weather forecast were: back to the protected, but gusty west coast of Taravai (12 miles away, mostly downwind) or back to the spot where we worked on our rudder in Aukena (5.5 miles away, half downwind and half upwind). We chose the second option, sailing towards Rikitea under the jib (experiencing a little hick-up when one of the winches broke) and then motoring into 22 knots of wind and choppy seas along hard-to-see pearl farm floats to Aukena. There, we were happily welcomed by a quiet, flat and peaceful anchorage. That comfy situation  lasted  all of 15 hours… This is the Gambier after all!

Approaching Akamaru, motoring along the breaking reef. The waves were pretty big, but no white caps (yet). The wind was building.

The well-kept grounds around the church

Eglise NĂ´tre-Dame-de-la Paix (built in 1841) on Akamaru

Stroller for the 5 and 1-year old kids of a friendly local couple

In only 4.5 feet of water, this small rock might cause a problem. Luckily, we cleared it.

Climbing the hill to the cross on the little island NW of Akamaru

Two baby goats along the way to the hill top

View of Akamaru and the many coral heads from the hill

View of Mangareva (and Mount Duff) and the reef we followed in with Irie

On the steep way down, we leaned backwards and used our hands and feet to descend. Notice Irie in shallow water at the top of the photo.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Heiva – July Festivities in French Polynesia

Since Mark and I arrived in the Gambier Islands, the end of May, the two competing dance groups (troupes) of Mangareva, the main island, have been practicing for their big local festival in July. Every evening we were anchored in Rikitea, we could hear the drumming echoing over the bay, from two directions. We had dinner on Irie with live Polynesian background music, I did the dishes on the rhythm of the drums and we fell asleep imagining the band and the dancers, the now familiar beats fresh in our minds. A few nights, while being on shore in the evening, we checked out the rehearsals and they were impressive.

The Heiva festivities took place from July 5th through July 14th (Bastille Day in France and the day the Polynesians were allowed to start practicing their dances again after years of them being banned by the missionaries), right behind our boat. The first weekend, the weather was awful. Mark and I managed to make it to shore for the first evening, when the dance groups were being introduced. The event happened in a big hangar, where the impressive sounds were reflected on the walls for an even more imposing effect. The costumes were a bit weak, but the dancing was great. The following afternoon, the sun peeked out for a little while. Most cruisers went ashore for a private performance. One of the groups passed by all the houses and by a location for the boating crowd, to collect some money. The festival usually starts with this tradition, called “tapena”, but the weather was too crappy that first day.

Too much wind and too much rain made us miss out on the Miss and Mister Mangareva elections. We were all stuck on our boats until the following Thursday, when the dance competition started in earnest. That evening, both troupes performed the “Pe’I” dance, a typical Mangarevan dance where stomping on the ground with the feet is prominent. The dances are long and depict a story. The stage is decorated with replica huts and other props for the scenes, bamboo rafts and weapons are carried and the costumes are very exotic. It was an entertaining evening.

On Friday night, the Polynesian dances “Ote’a” and “Aparima” took place. The weather allowed both groups to dance and drum outside again. The costumes were amazing, the drumming fantastic and the performances incredible. It was a cultural experience pleasing all our senses. Taking pictures was hard again because of the low light, but we all enjoyed the performances a lot.

Saturday night, many people stayed home again, because of the cold and windy weather. In the hangar, the best female dancer, best male dancer and best couple dancers competed before the jury, as well as both bands. The effect indoors is very different from outdoors. The participants received a lot of applause, but the results would not become known until the following day. It was a short night, so Mark and I still managed to watch a movie warmly tucked in bed, while Irie bounced around at anchor. At least the wind produced enough electricity for our needs.

On Sunday, the 14th of July (14 juillet), the closing ceremony started at 11 am. Together with most villagers, all dressed up, and cruisers, the sun was present for a few hours. Mark and I rowed ashore to give ourselves more flexibility in the shallows and heading back out later. Our sometimes unreliable dinghy engine could get us in trouble with the strong onshore wind. The female mayor gave a speech and both troupes showed more dancing and drumming. The award ceremony and prize giving went satisfactory according to our preferences and tastes; we mostly agreed with the jury. The event was concluded with free drinks and snacks, while a group of performers and locals spontaneously started playing music, singing and dancing. This is the only day in the year that alcohol is not frowned upon, but a real party never emerged. By 9pm, the Heiva festival was finished. Forget about fireworks. We have never been anchored so close to shore with festivities going on, while they were barely noticeable and we could sleep at night!

Being here for the Polynesian festival was great (although the one in Tahiti would have been more impressive and lively) and not to be missed, but the weather could have been better. The cost for this cultural experience – other than some cash to support the groups – was two pairs of flipflops, which were stolen from our beached dinghy last night. From now on Rikitea will be different, without the daily sounds of the drumming… and without shoes!

On the night of the opening ceremony - the presentation of the groups - many spectators received baskets of fruit as a gift

Friday night, both troupes competed with Polynesian dances

Posing with Deny, the very talended and creative leader and choreographer of our favorite group

Pictures of the Sunday closing ceremony:

The important people of the Gambier Islands

From L to R: flags of Mangareva, France and French Polynesia

The mayor (in white) gives a speech

Mark with the cutest puppy in town!

Winning band

One of the two troupes - they won  most individual prizes and best male costume

The dancers inviting some locals to join in the dancing

The second (and best) of the two groups

The Polynesian men in action!

Amazing costumes!

Male dancer

Female dancer

Pictures of the spontaneous dancing, drumming and singing of the Mangarevans, after the ceremony: