French Polynesia is the remote hub of the South Pacific, comprising the four island groups of the Marquesas, Tuamotus, Society and Austral Islands. Most sailors crossing the Pacific from Panama and North or South America make their landfall in the Marquesas, the most north easterly territory of French Polynesia. It consists of six large and six small mountainous islands, cut into deep fertile valleys, but not protected by coral barrier reefs.
Note: click on images to enlarge.
Before the Covid pandemic, sailors would make their landfall in the southern islands of Fatu Hiva or Hiva Oa and then cruise downwind to Nuku Hiva, the main administrative island. Due to much reduced traffic, entry is now restricted to Nuku Hiva, where we made our landfall. Hiva Oa would have been our preference, as we would have liked to visit the Calvary cemetery and grave of Paul Gauguin, the French impressionist painter and wastrel, as well as the grave of Jacques Brel, the famous Belgian singer.
Arriving in the Marquesas is a celebratory time, tempered by the need to scrape off a significant harvest of gooseneck barnacles covering the hull and cleaning off a strange yellow-brown sludge above the waterline, despite the clear water we had sailed through.
The day after our arrival was our wedding anniversary, which we celebrated at the only restaurant in town. On the Monday we checked in with the Gendarmerie and restocked some essential items before exploring the town.
Wedding anniversary dinner.
The anchorage was very rolly and after five days, we had enough of this motion, lifted the anchor and set sail for the Tuamotus. It would be a 540 nm, four day sail south west to this archipelago. On day 2 whilst having sundowners, we had a surprise at sunset when we noticed that the port side shroud cable (attached halfway up the mast, to support the port side mainstay cable), was starting to part ways with the swaged bottle screw on the deck. Two strands of the cable had already started to unwind.
I quickly put a hose clamp around the cable to stop further unwinding and Annie went up in the bosun’s chair to lash a rope around the top attachment point at the spreaders. This we tightened back to the bottle screw base to support the shroud cable, should it part ways. With reduced sail, we slowly carried on to the Tuamotus. On reaching Tahiti, we will have to replace the shroud and have all the rigging checked. My guess is that more than 6 weeks of sailing on port tack, has put that side of the rig to the test.
The Tuamotus, comprises 76 island atolls and innumerable coral reefs, spanning a distance of a 1000 miles. Each atoll is a ring of coral, topped with occasional motus (sandy islets) surrounding a lagoon. Some atolls have passages through the fringing coral reefs, allowing entry by boat into the lagoons. Only 30 atolls are uninhabited, the other 46 support small populations, limited by food, water and space.
People subsist on a coconut and fish economy. The coconuts grow with little assistance on all the motus and the ripe nuts are used for copra production, used for making coconut oil. Black pearl cultivation has become a major industry. The French nuclear testing in these atolls, of 175 atmospheric and underground tests, finally came to an end in 1996, defying a worldwide moratorium on nuclear testing and creating much ill-will for France and stifling local tourism in French Polynesia.
We aimed for the atoll of Apataki for our first stop, as arriving when the sun is high to see the reefs, as well as the correct tide timing through the passes is important – the outgoing tide, can run up to 10 knots out of some passes. After exactly four days and 566 nm, we anchored inside the Apataki lagoon at 11:00. Quite a pretty spot, but the problem was, the prevailing easterly wind had a substantial fetch across the lagoon, leaving us bouncing on a lee shore.
We therefore left at 7:30 the next morning, to motor sail the 20 nm into the easterly wind, to the north of the next island called Toau. Typical of the Tuamotos, the rain squalls form and move quickly – we were hit by three big squalls during the 20 nm passage. However, north Toau is paradise – a perfectly sheltered bay in crystal clear water, so blue it makes your eyes hurt.
A friendly Polynesian couple Gaston and Valentine, live on this motu called Matarina. We paid $5/night to tie up on one of their moorings and stayed for two nights. I took the opportunity on the flat water, to strip the two primary winches, clean and service them, as they were starting to labour because of salt build-up. We walked around the motu to explore this unique environment with Gaston and Valentine’s three dogs leading us enthusiastically.
Fakarava, our next atoll destination to the south-east, took a whole day of motor sailing to reach. Only 49 nm away, we seemed to be caught in a revolving squall which drenched us five times from all directions. Entering the lagoon pass was also exciting, steering between huge overfall breakers against the outgoing tide and the starboard marker on the coral reef. Once through, it was still 5 nm to the Rotoava anchorage in the north-east corner of this large atoll.
Rotoava village is quite beautiful and would qualify for a tidy town award in Australia. The locals are proud of their tropical gardens and very friendly to visitors. The Polynesian people are attractive and tall, but western food has bulked some of them up substantially. The town has two schools, a police station, with no policemen, a post office and supermarket. There were about 20 yachts anchored in the crystal clear bay. Snorkelling was good over the coral reefs, supervised by three very large and tame greenback turtles.
We ended up spending four days in this paradise, as the Predictwind forecast indicated hardly any wind to sail the 250 nm to Tahiti – a two day passage. On Monday the 26 th April we filled the boat tank up with diesel and set off at 5 pm, hoping to do more sailing than motoring to Tahiti. Our next post will inform you about the Society Islands – stay tuned.
Please note: You may well ask why we are visiting so few of the islands in this paradise? It is complicated and all will be revealed in our next post when we leave French Polynesia. In the meantime, cheers for now!