Saturday, 17 September 2016

Whale of a Time at Palmerston Atoll ….. Aug 2016

12 – 25 August: Palmerston Atoll, Cook Islands – 18 02S 163 11W

P8190847First ~ The Getting There

P8150820When you leave French Polynesia  to head west there is a huge expanse of ocean to be covered with just a few isolated atolls offering limited safe haven before arriving in Tonga 1300 miles away.  The trade winds blow from the south east offering shelter on the western side of these atolls but during winter in this part of the Pacific they are constantly affected by deep lows rolling across the Southern Ocean bringing large southerly swells and westerly winds.

Therefore a stop at any of these atolls is very weather dependent with the safer option to remain at sea and tough it out.  P8160821There are 4 choices for undertaking this journey, straight through and deal with what comes (surprisingly quite a popular option) or you can study the weather forecast until you suffer from analysis paralysis and finally choose either the north, south or middle route through the Cook Islands, stopping in the Cooks if conditions permit.

P8140815We left from Bora Bora late in the day, the trades were looking gentle, the southern swell unavoidable, cloud cover likely, squalls possible – off we went heading due west 561 miles to Palmerston Atoll.  We had a good passage, if anything the winds were just a little too light so we rolled around in the pesky ever present swell, but all up a good trip.P8190845 

After 4 nights at sea we spotted the 7 small islands on the horizon that make up the amazing Palmerston Atoll group of the Cook Islands.  There is no passage into the lagoon for big boats so we picked up a mooring provided by the locals located outside the reef off the village on the sheltered side of Palmerton Island.

A Necessary History Lesson

To understand how special this place is I have to share a short history lesson.  James Cook first sighted this atoll in 1774 but didn’t land there until passing in 1777, he found it uninhabited but there were signs of previous human presence.  Incidentally, in the whole of the vastly spread out island group that bears his name, the Cook Islands, Palmerton Island is the only island that Captain Cook ever landed on.

P8240873Moving on 90 years to 1863 a carpenter & barrel maker from England named William Marsters came to settle in this remote spot firstly with 2 Polynesian wives, then with a third.  He gave his wives an island each and set about to populate this tiny outcrop.

He sired 23 children that survived childhood and forbade interbreeding. Outsiders from other Cook Island settlements were brought in for marriages.  All went well and when William’s youngest daughter died in 1973 there were over 1000 descendants of William Marsters spread throughout the Cooks and New Zealand.  Thinking ahead he also planted mahogany seedlings so there would be an on going timber supply, today a small forest of amazing 150 year old mahogany trees cools the island and provides a fertile, compost rich soil.  Smart lad was William.

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Modern Day Politics

Nowadays everyone lives on just the one island and there are three MarsterP8180840s families that rule the roost, Edward, Bill and Bob descend from each of Williams wives.  There is an island council with 6 members, and issues are democratically voted on.  The small population increased during our stay as the resident nurse delivered two babies, the population is now 53.

It has been a long tradition for the families to host any visitors to these shores, we were adopted by Edward, his wife Shirley and their sons .  The passing yachts are about all the traffic they see, there is no airstrip or helipad,  no ferry service, just small freighters from Rarotonga that can come as irregularly as 5 months apart and then occasionally the weather is too rough to land the supplies.  Therefore there is no need for tourist accommodation, eateries, shops ~ just 53 people trying to survive in absolutely the middle of nowhere!

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Remote As We Have Ever Been

The weather during our stay was challenging, on our second day we came back from a full day ashore and there had been a considerable wind switch to the north west.  P8190852Waves were building from the open ocean and we were all lying in shallow water with our sterns just metres from the reef – this was no place to be on a lee shore and get shipwrecked!  3 of our friends let their lines go and headed to sea, westward bound, 2 of us stayed.  For us we just didn’t want to leave this incredible place so soon.

Our host Edward Marsters guided us around the southern edge of the outside reef to a shelf where were could anchor in calm waters.   The long lazy southern swell rolled in under us, thundering as it crashed onto the reef just 50 metres from our bow, the wind held us steady off at a safe distance but it was hardly relaxing. 

P8240882We stayed 2 nights in this remote location, on the 2nd night we were the only yacht left, never before have we been so “alone”, but we weren’t really alone the whales came to play and we spent our 2 days boat bound whale watching and enjoyed some magnificent displays by these mighty creatures.  We gave up trying to photograph them and just sat back and enjoyed the on going aquatic display first hand, truly one of life's magic moments.   

On our 3rd night a front was due to pass over, the winds would back to the west then south and finally the trades should re-establish from the south-east. P8240893 We could not stay where we were or return to the mooring field until it passed so we lifted anchor at dusk and went to sea for the night, bobbing around on the eastern side of the atoll until the front passed over.  At 5am we finally returned to the mooring field off the village, it had been an interesting but sleep deprived 3 days!

More New Joiners Arriving

We knew from our daily cruisers net on our SSB Radio that we had friends on Laros, Swiftsure and Pitufa arriving after dark, never an easy undertaking but with the boats nudging forward into the anchorage at snails pace and our spotlight illuminating the mooring buoys everyone got tucked up safely.P8230870 

Bad weather continued to plague us, the convergence zone dropped down above us, winds howled from the south east, the swell wrapped round the reef making it very bumpy and then the skies opened.  We hooked onto a 2nd mooring for double safety, bobbed up and down and sat it out. 

The weather finally cleared but the temperature dropped dramatically.  We had another day visiting ashore.

How Everything Works

We checked out the school, they have 23 pupils ranging in age from 5 to 18 years, the older pupils follow a correspondence course curriculum which seems to work well.P8240877

Kat the principal is from New Zealand and is married to Arthur who runs the government administration office, then there is an American/South African couple on a 2 year contract who are both teaching and seem to have settled into island life well. 

The only other “total outsider” is Will from New Zealand who is enjoying his third visit here, he is doing odd jobs to cover his board and seems to be the driving force in promoting vegetable patches, just why they haven’t been growing their own produce before this amazes us but Will seems to have got the interest and momentum going, for now.  P8240891

There is a fine collection of heavy machinery that was shipped up and barged ashore (quite an undertaking we are told) to prepare the ground and install the farm of solar panels that were donated by an Australian Aid organisation last year. The machinery remains, the cost and logistics of removing them outweigh the value of the machinery, guess they will sit and rust away like we have seen in many remote places before.

P8240888This seems to be a well run, organised community, but it still feels like they are just teetering on the edge of the world, hanging on by their toenails. 

Until 5 years ago the only outside contact they had was a SSB Radio like we have on our boats.  Modern communications have improved, they now have telephone and very expensive extremely slow internet via satellite, televisions now dominate their living rooms and many residents have been to Rarotonga or New Zealand.

P8180829P8240884However they rely heavily on the freighters from Rarotonga for all their supplies, it was a week late when we were there and the families were running out of staples, we cruisers helped supply everything we could spare and luckily the ship arrived the following week.  There will not be another delivery until next year.

P8250894Both Arthur and Edward had severe toothache while we were there, the only option was to pull the tooth which the nurse finally agreed to do (successfully), if they went to Rarotonga to the dentist they would be gone about 10 months.   When we asked Arthur what happens if you get really ill his response was “you just bend over and kiss your arse goodbye!”, then next stops would be quaint church & the fascinating cemetery in the above photos.

With the weather settled we had the dilemma of whether to stay and finally enjoy the water activities or use the winds to head to Niue, a further 400 miles west.  It was a tough decision to leave but we had been here a week, new horizons beckoned.  We left in company with Laros and Swiftsure, oh no, not another race!

Possibly the Most Interesting, Remote & Hospitable Place We Have Ever Visited

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Sunday, 11 September 2016

Bold, Beautiful & Busy Bora Bora ….. August 2016

04 – 12 Aug 2016:  Moving Around Bora Bora – 16 30S  151 46W

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Our expectations of Bora Bora, the jewel of the Society Islands, weren't very high.  It is a high end tourist destination, parts of the coastline are littered with over water bungalows belonging to high end resorts.  P8100777There is also one of the largest charter yacht fleets in the Southern Hemisphere based within these sheltered lagoon waters.  This is a seriously promoted tourist destination for holiday makers world wide but Bora Bora is balancing its popularity with retaining its natural charms,  nothing can take away from the absolute beauty of this tropical paradise.  It all adds to the blend of making Bora Bora a very special island and well worthy of a stopover. 

We anchored the first couple of nights in the sheltered crystal clear lagoon off Toopua Island, a small island adjacent to Bora Bora within the same greater outlying reef.  Balvenie lay floating in calm water a dozen shades of blue, drinks were poured as the sun dipped low into the west, what a welcoming.P8060761

Stingrays and Black Tip Sharks swam nearby, a steady stream of small tour boats passed by to feed them in the shallows as they pottered around on their reef tours. 

A neighbouring tiny motu (island) was set up to host visiting cruise ship passengers ~ artisans displayed their wares under swaying coconut palms, large bar-b-que grills were ready to ignite, long tables and chairs were set up in the shade, sun loungers lined the white sandy beach and a handful of tables and chairs sat in a foot of warm water.  With not a tourist in sight it all seemed somewhat surreal but we couldn’t miss that photo opportunity now could we, but where are the cocktails and the sunny sky?

P8080766Moving Round the Moorings

After a couple of days of undertaking some repairs combined with relaxing  we moved over to town.  As with Raiatea and Tahaa the water is deep close to the islands making anchoring difficult but because there are so many charter boats here various “yacht clubs” and restaurants have put in mooring buoys to attract business. 

So we did a tour of the mooring fields starting with a few nights at the Mai Kai Marina, the marina that isn’t actually a marina, from here it was a short walk into the main town (a dozen shops, 2 reasonable sized supermarkets, a few black pearl stores and little else sums up “town”).  

Another weather system came through, the wind built and changed to the south and life onboard Balvenie got somewhat bumpy so we left in company with Out of the Bag to explore the shallow lagoon on the east of the island.  Not such a success for us, with OOTB blazing the trail and calling the depths in front of us we bailed out when they got down to 2.6m which would give us less than 10cm under the keel ~P8080764 we haven’t been many places that our deep draft has restricted us and we probably would have been fine but we played it safe, turned around and found shelter on a buoy at the Bora Bora Yacht Club for a few nights.

Taking advantage of the coolness offered by a cloudy day we took our folding bikes ashore and set off to circumnavigate Bora Bora by pedal power.  First stop was the famous Bloody Marys for coffee, boards at the entrance are engraved with names of celebrity after celebrity who have sat on these hard wooden chairs supping on a Bloody Mary, before feasting on fresh fish.  Probably the odd stiletto heel has snapped off on the soft sand floor, and amazingly it is not an open air establishment taking advantage of the spectacular view from its entrance.  Someone did an outstanding job of marketing this great spot for the rich and famous – and the rest of us, oh the coffee was excellent and the cheapest yet in French Poly!

P8100793Once back in the saddle the weather went downhill, the cool cloud cover soon became cold drizzly rain, on we went along the southern then eastern shores of Bora Bora.  Resorts lined the coast, some  5 star, others a little shabby, a couple totally deserted and becoming derelict. 

Yachts anchored out in the grey lagoon were lost in the rain, not one of Bora Boras better days.  A few small restaurants were scattered along the roadside, until we were hungry then there was nothing on the seldom used pot holed road along the north and north west coast.  By the time we got back to town lunch service was over, we packed up our muddy bikes in the rain, returned to Balvenie for hot baked beans on toast, and ticked off Bora Bora as being seen!P8100804 

The Bora Bora Blues

The weather changed for the better, winds eased, clouds moved away, stunning clear skies returned.  Skippers were busy searching the perfect weather window to start the journey west across the Pacific, Admirals were desperately trying to find excuses to stay and play longer in paradise.   Several of us headed down to the moorings at Bloody Marys.  There is a short steep walk nearby that had to be done, what an absolutely amazing view, just a little height gives such a different perspective from living life at sea level.

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Bye Bye Bora BoraP8100779

After an excellent night out with fellow cruisers Lanny & Ginger on Swiftsure, Johnny & Deb on Laros, Bill & Gene on Out of the Bag and Jay & Irwin on Winsome at Bloody Marys (no one famous spotted) it was time to get this show on the road.  We returned the couple of miles back to Mai Kai for a night, looked at the weather forecast yet again, did final provisioning and checked out of French Polynesia.  We had been in this incredible country for 1 year and 1 day, visited 41 anchorages on 14 islands throughout the 3 archipelagos of the Marquesas, Tuamotus and Societies and journeyed 1650 miles across its expanse.

P8100778It was very tempting to stay another year in this tropical paradise and delay the end of this  marvellous journey we are undertaking but Balvenie, Skipper and Admiral are all getting older and starting to feel a little worn out, we are in our 13th year of being sea gypsies, its time to head on home.

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 Farewell French Polynesia We Enjoyed Our Year In Your Waters

Friday, 9 September 2016

Roaring thru Raiatea & Tearing thru Tahaa ….. Aug 2016

01 – 05 August 2016:  Raiatea & Coral Gardens, Tahaa – 16 36S 151 33W

P8010599Going Bananas

As much as we were enjoying our time in Huahine we still had more islands to explore in the Societies so westward we continued.  It’s only a few hours downwind from Huahine to neighbouring Raiatea so after a last trip ashore to the excellent supermarket we were off.

By mid afternoon we had entered the pass through the fringing reef and anchored at the head of the deep recess in Baie Faaroa, a couple of rivers flowed in, the water was murky and the bay deep.  But the river was why we were here and next morning we took the dinghy up as far as we could go and explored. 

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We turned around when our way forward was barred by shallows and rapids and on the way back down stream we stopped at a local garden and were taken for a walk around by the owner. P8010607 His tidy patch of cultivated land was producing several varieties of bananas - curved, straight, little fingers, big fingers, three sided ones – it seems there is no end to how you can make a banana look and taste! There were limes, papaya, vanilla and other fruits and nuts we had not seen before.  Then our guide built a prototype pig trap and captured himself to show how it worked! - an entertaining and educational stop.

Once out of the river and back into the bay we were blasted by the wind which had built and switched direction.  Time to leave, but Raiatea is not blessed with many shallow sheltered anchorages, we passed possibility after possibility and deemed them all unsuitable.  The free town dock was being pelted by waves and wind, on we went and finally managed to tie to a sheltered private mooring that we got permission to use off the boatyard at the Raiatea Careenage for a couple of nights.P8030608   

Fun Feeding the Fish

The Careenage anchorage had little appeal except that we were able to get our gas bottles filled there and we were sheltered from the howling wind.

The winds dropped off and we had a forecast of just 24 hours of calms so we headed north just a few miles across to the neighbouring island of Tahaa in company with Liward and Out of the Bag, we had superb calm conditions so were able to anchor out on the reef and visit Tahaas’ famous Coral Gardens.

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We had heard about the Coral Gardens but didn’t really know what to expect.  It is a narrow area between two motus (islands), one motu has a resort on it, the other seems mainly visited by day boats and is where you land to “do” the coral gardens.  P8030671You walk along a path to the sea side of the small motu, don flippers, snorkel and mask then wade into the warm crystal clear shallow waters and virtually get taken on a free ride by the current down a pathway through coral bommies teeming with friendly tame fish waiting to be fed.

With a little manoeuvring you can go “off piste” into a maze of water ways through more bommies, but some are dead ends and swimming back against the current can be quite some task but very good exercise.  There were thousands of fish here, some we hadn't seen before like the one on the left who definitely wins the prize for the most colourful but do you think I can identify him in our tropical fish books, (maybe a mutant parrotfish) any suggestions would be appreciated and we did see more than one of him!

P8030685 picasso or whitebanded triggerfish - Tahaa

It was a great spot to while away a couple of hours in the shallows, the water clarity, type and numbers of fish were exceptional, the coral was ok, a few colourful patches but not so impressive.  I even found some lovely shells that were home to shellfish so I relocated them to a spot off the beaten track and found them a cosy hiding place so they didn’t end up being taken away to join someone's shell collection.

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underway Tahaa to Bora BoraThe winds built again the following morning so we couldn’t stay any longer at the Coral Gardens.  Tahaa lacks shallow anchorages on the sheltered side of the island, Bora Bora loomed in the distance just 30 miles away – it was time to go and explore the most well known island of  French Polynesia.

We exited the pass in company with Out of the Bag, it was a boisterous ride and Balvenie did well in the downwind conditions and we were in front at the first cross over, but slipped to 2nd on the finish line!

Bora Bora Beckons