Sunday, June 5, 2011

Marquesas Islands - Hiva Oa (2011)

Our first stop after leaving Mexico was French Polynesia.  This is an overseas territory of France which consists of four different island groups, of which we will be visiting three.  We are starting in the Marquesas, and will also stop in the Tuamotus and the Society Islands.  The Marquesas consist of six large islands and six small islands.  These are high volcanic islands and have a combined population of around 9,000. We will be in the Marquesas for three or four weeks and we plan on stopping at four of the islands, including Hiva Oa, Fatu Hiva, Tahuatu and then lastly Nuku Hiva before departing for the Tuamotus.   
Our first stop was the island of Hiva Oa, which is one of three places in the Marquesas where we can clear in.  We arrived on May 10th and after getting settled at the anchorage in Tahauku Bay, we called Sandra, our customs agent, on the VHF and set a time to meet her early the next morning.  Then we put the dinghy in the water and rowed to shore.  We headed into the nearby town of Atuona and our first stop was the restaurant Snack Make Make.  We both had cheeseburgers and fries, which we were craving.  After being offshore for several weeks, a long walk and a greasy meal where exactly what we needed.  Then we headed off to the store to pick up a few items, including baguettes and cold drinks. 
The next morning we met Sandra at the dinghy dock and drove into town to the gendarmerie to officially clear in.  We had arranged to use an agent while in Mexico, and we were glad we did.  She had completed part of the paperwork before we arrived, and the whole process only took us 15 minutes.  We also found out that Sandra provides a laundry/wifi service to cruisers.  She picks up laundry and then brings it back to the anchorage the next day.  When you use this service she also brings you to her house and lets you use her wifi for a few hours.  It’s a bit expensive, like most things in French Polynesia, but we didn’t relish the thought of washing all of our passage clothes by hand.  She picked us up the next day along with another couple from Canada, and took us and our dirty laundry to her house.

We really enjoyed spending the afternoon at her house with her family and learning about life on the island.  Her husband, David, is a musician and makes guitars and ukuleles using local wood.  Apparently he is quite good at it, and the instruments sell for quite a bit of money overseas.  He also built their house, which is a typical Marquesas style open air house, where the breezes blow through to keep it cool in the tropical heat.  He showed us the plans for their next house, which he just finished designing and is planning on building in the next year. When we asked where we could buy fruit on the island, they started picking fruit from the trees in their yard and gave us some pamplemousse, bananas and a coconut.   The pamplemousse is a type of grapefruit, but they get really big and are much sweeter than the kind we get in the states. 

Sandra & David's house and pamplemousse
On our third day, we headed back to see more of the town.  From our anchorage, it was about a 40 minute walk into the town of Atuona, which we made just about every day of our stay.  After being out at sea for almost a month, our legs were a little shaky at first and quite sore after the walks.  Fortunately, the locals would sometimes stop and give us a ride.  The scenery along the way was beautiful, with the steep, green cliffs all around and beautiful flowers and lush vegetation. 

We spent quite a bit of time walking around town and found a bank where we could get some money in the local currency, which is French Polynesian Francs.  We took a look in most of the stores and found a gallery displaying local art including wood and bone carvings.  Then we walked up to the local cemetery, where we saw the grave of the French artist, Paul Gauguin.  He moved to the island around 1897 and died there in 1903.  He is buried in the local cemetery, and there is a small museum in town displaying quite a bit of his work.  We also found out that one of the three restaurants in town makes pizza in the evenings, and we enjoyed one of the best pizzas we have ever had.  It may be because we were down a few pounds after the passage, and after all the walking around town, our appetites were back in full strength. 
After a few days of relaxing and sightseeing, it was time to get some work done.  We spent a couple days cleaning the boat and hiking into town to get some more food to supplement the food we bought in Mexico.  We didn’t really need more food, just wanted some more variety.
The harbors in the Marquesas don’t have marinas or docks that you can pull up alongside and fill up on things like water and fuel, so we made many trips back and forth to the wharf in the dinghy with our jerry cans of water.  There was a bit of a surge in the bay, and it was quite a challenge getting them in the dinghy and then off away from shore without being pushed back onto the rocks.  That was quite a workout, and we were glad there was an outdoor shower near the wharf to cool off afterwards.  We also wanted to top off our diesel tanks, but the gas station was sold out.  Fortunately, the supply ship was coming into town later that week, and we were able to buy more then. 
Atuona and Baie Tahauku

After eight nights in Atuona, we were well stocked and ready to explore some of the more remote anchorages on the island.  We set sail for Baie Hanamenu on the northwest side of Hiva Oa.  This was a nice big anchorage with only a couple of other boats in it.  We chose this anchorage because there is a small coconut plantation with a handful of residents and a trail that you can hike along.  We rowed ashore early the next morning and landed the dinghy on the beach.  We made our way through the village, which had four or five small houses and then found a really beautiful freshwater pool surrounded by tropical flowers and a nice view of the bay.  After a quick soak, we set out on the trail, which led by the ruins of an ancient village and then continued on through dense woods.

Baie Hanamenu

At one point, the trail eluded us.  We heard voices calling out to us in French, and finally saw two other men hiking through the trees toward us.  The first one to get to us was covered in tattoos and blood and carrying a boar pelt.  It turns out they had been out boar hunting, and recently killed and butchered a boar.  We were glad to see them, because they were able to point us in the right direction again.  We spent about an hour hiking and saw quite a few wild horses along the trail.  As we got deeper into the woods, we started getting bitten by mosquitoes and decided to turn back.
Once we returned to the village from our hike, the boar hunter called us over to his house and gave us a leg of wild boar.  Actually, he tried to give us two, but we declined since we don’t have refrigeration.  He spoke a little bit of English and invited us over to his house for lunch.  We decided we would take the boar back to the boat and then come back for lunch. 
Baie Hanamenu - wild boar
By this time, the N winds had filled in and were blowing 20 knots, so the seas in the bay were 1-2 feet, which meant fairly large breakers on the beach (relative to the size of our small dinghy).  We managed to launch the dinghy, but quickly took a couple waves over the bow.  Andrew rowed as fast as he could, so we could get beyond the surf, but the winds were really pushing us back.  We took a few more small waves onboard before we made it beyond the surf.  After that, it was a difficult row out against the wind and with the dinghy full of water.  We made it back to Saviah, and bailed out the water.  Most of our stuff was in the dry bags and wasn’t damaged, but our French/English dictionary was soaked. 
Unfortunately, we didn’t make it back for lunch, as the winds were building and we couldn’t justify making another trip to the shore in those conditions.  They saw us struggling out there, so we hope they understand why we didn’t come back.  Instead, Andrew cooked up some of the boar and made some sandwiches with the last of our baguette.  We managed to eat most of the boar that day, but it was a little tough. 
We moved on the following day, hoping to make it to Baie Puamau.  Conditions outside the anchorage were NE winds 15-20 knots and seas running 5-7 feet, so we pounded our way up the coast.  There was a nice anchorage in the middle of the north coast, so we stopped there for lunch and a break from the bash.  Then we continued on to Baie Puamau.   
We had heard that this was a really lousy anchorage, as it provided no protection from swell and the bottom was littered with coral heads, but wanted to stop for a couple reasons.  For one thing, from the bay we could hike up to Iipona, which is the most significant archeological site on Hiva Oa.  Also, this is the most easterly anchorage on the island and would allow us to make it to our next destination, 45 miles to windward, in a single tack.  In retrospect, we should have skipped this anchorage.
We arrived around 3:30 pm and dropped our anchor in a small patch of sand near the wharf.  This would put us in a good position to make a relatively short row in the dinghy over to the wharf.  One of our worst anchoring experiences in the Marquesas (hopefully) started early the next day as we were woken up around 6 am by the VHF radio.  The 330ft supply ship Aranui, was calling us and asking us to move our boat.  Apparently, they were going to be dropping anchor near us and running back and forth all morning in small boats from the wharf to the mother ship dropping off passengers and supplies, and we were in the way.  Not the first thing you want to hear in the morning, but we agreed and started pulling up chain. 
The only other sailboat in the bay was anchored near the northeastern side, which had a little more protection from the swell and wind, so we decided we would head over there.  We dropped our anchor about 6:30 am and let out 135 ft of chain.  As we backed down to set the anchor, we could immediately tell that the chain was around a coral head.   The chain was caught relatively close to the boat, and was going straight down about 30 feet to the coral head with very little slack.  As the swell came in and lifted the boat, the chain would come taught and the boat would come to a stop very suddenly.  This was a lot of force on the boat and the chain and we were concerned that the chain would break or the bow roller would get damaged.  We let out more chain and tied a snubber line from the boat to the chain to absorb some of the shock, but the snubber snapped fairly quickly.  We tried backing down in every direction to get it off of the coral head, but it wasn’t budging and our anchor roller was starting to bend under the force.
Fortunately, we had taken the precaution of tying a line with a float to our anchor.  We were able to get over to the float and lift the anchor just enough to take the shackle off and pull it on board.  This was a big relief.  We had enough chain so that we could cut some off and leave it, but it would be nearly impossible to find a replacement for our primary anchor anytime soon. 
With the anchor removed from the chain, we tried backing down again and eventually had some success.  About two and half hours after dropping our anchor, we slipped free and were able to salvage all of our chain.  We decided to move over to the center of the bay in deeper water and dropped our anchor in sand.  Unfortunately, this spot was a long way from the wharf, and we were exposed to the largest of the swell entering the bay, which is why we didn’t anchor there the first time. 
We were both a bit grumpy from all of this excitement happening before our morning coffee.  But the sun was already beating down, and it was too hot for coffee.  We split a coke for breakfast, and then got into the dinghy to row to shore.  We decided we would go for a beach landing, as the wharf was quite a distance away, and there were boats coming and going unloading the supply ship.  We didn’t want to tie up to the same wall in our small dinghy.
As we rowed closer to the beach, we started watching the waves, so we could get past the surf at just the right time and hopefully not take on any water.  We were a little ways from the breaking line and about to head in, when all of a sudden we were sitting sideways on top of a five foot breaking wave.   A moment later, we were in the water.  We had both gone under the dinghy as it flipped all the way around.  As we came up in about four feet of water, we grabbed the dinghy which had righted itself, although it was pretty full of water.  We then started grabbing all of our possessions, which were moving away from us quickly in the surge. 
Fortunately we walked away without any injuries, and the only thing we lost was Andrew’s prescription sunglasses.  Our camera was stored in a dry bag and was not damaged.  The dinghy did suffer a little bit of damage.  Apparently it came down hard on the beach when it flipped, and the top of the fiberglass hull cracked as well as the teak trim around one of the oar locks - another repair project to add to the list.
Feeling quite lucky that neither of us were injured, we took some time to dry off on the beach and catch our breath and then set off to see the sites.  It was a really nice walk on the hilly road through the village, with scenic views overlooking the ocean at every turn.  It was very interesting to walk through the archeological site of Iipona, with the large terraces, statues and petroglyphs.  This site is home to Takaii, which is the largest tiki in the world, standing at 8 ft.  The site was very lush and green, with tropical flowers and plants everywhere.  Once we had seen enough, we hiked back down to the beach.

Iipona (archaeological site and tikis) near Baie Puamau
We stopped by a small hut near the beach where we each bought a glass of mango juice on ice.  This was the first time we have had ice in over a month, and in the heat of the tropics, it was amazing.  Then it was back to the beach to figure out how to get back to Saviah.  The breakers were still coming in strong, and it was daunting to think about trying to get the dinghy past them.  Getting out is harder than getting in as we would be rowing against the waves and wind.  We sat on the beach looking for a pattern, hoping to find what we thought was the lull in the action where we could make our move.   But no luck – they were all too big, and we were nervous.  We walked down to the wharf, over a quarter of a mile away, to see if it was worth it to carry the dinghy up the hilly road and to the wharf.  But at low tide, the concrete steps of the wharf were a good 4-5 feet above the water, and the surge was still very strong.  So, it was back to the beach.
Baie Puamau

On our way back, we watched some locals launch a boat 3-4 times the size of our dinghy from the beach and past the surf line.  They had no issues, but it was a bigger boat with an outrigger and had an outboard motor, not to mention they had six people on hand to launch.  Afterwards, one of them offered to give us a hand launching our dinghy, and we gladly accepted.  We packed up all our gear in our waterproof bag, and the three of us carried the dinghy into the surf. 
The guy who helped us didn’t speak much English, but after a few minutes of hand signals and gestures, we were able to understand his plan.  The two of us were going to get into the dinghy with oars ready and he was going to hold us bow to the surf in about three feet of water and watch the wave patterns.  Then at just the right time, he would give us a big push and we would paddle as fast as we could.  Usually Andrew would row by himself, which would be faster, but the oar lock was broken, so we both had to sit in the middle with an oar over the side and paddle.  He managed to hold us, barely, through the surge of quite a few good size waves, and then suddenly he yelled “go, go, go, go!”   We paddled as hard as we could and made it beyond the surf before the next big breaker came in.  He had timed it perfectly.  Once out of the surf line, we were both yelling “Merci!”  Not sure how we would have made it without his help.  I think this will be the last time we try a beach landing in all but the best conditions.  We left early the next morning for the island of Fatu Hiva, very glad to be out of that anchorage.