Sailing from The Galapagos or Panama to French Polynesia is the longest stretch any curcumnavigator will do without landfall. It is one of the rites of passage and can take anywhere between 20 – 40 days depending on the winds. Halfway across we would be as far you are can be from humans as possible on the planet – not a place to have anything go wrong with your boat so we had checked and re-checked everything and felt confident we would be ok. One last check of the weather and with a beautiful sunny day, excellent winds and a fully stocked boat we were off…. this would be our longest sail of over 3,000nms to the stunning islands of French Polynesia. We had planned on going to Nuku Hiva but opted instead to go to Gambier – a group of islands further south as we knew we would not have backtracked to see them if we had gone straight to Nuku Hiva.
We settled down to a routine of 2 hourly watches which between the four of us gave us plenty of time to catch up on sleep. We kept the fishing lines trawling every day but never once caught a fish – that was really disappointing as it would have given us both a good meal and a spot of excitement. On long passages such as ocean crossings you always get breakage and damage and this passage was no different. After about 10 days we noticed that the clew had torn off from the mainsail – this is the webbing section that attaches the mainsail to the back of the boom. We had never seen this happen before as webbing usually lasts longer than the sail but we were able to bring the end that had to be fixed down into the cockpit and Ian and the girls re-attached it.
We were sailing really well with our Code 0 out most days and hitting really good speeds. We actually cracked the elusive 200nm a day mark not once but twice! That’s 8.3nm average over a 24 hour period…. we had never done a 200nm day before so we were thrilled to log that ‘first’. Every morning we had to clear the decks of the flying fish that would kamakazi into our decks during the night. A couple of mornings our decks were covered in small squid which we fried up and had for breakfast – once I had been round and scrubbed the deck to try and remove their ink! We saw no wildlife except for dolphins which was surprising as we normally see something. We were flying along with most days sitting on 10knts average down to 8kts at night. A beautiful 17-20kt beam reach gave us the perfect sailing angle and we were making really good time.
Sleep, eat, watch – check weather, fill in the log, check emails, check the boat….. one day just rolled into another with the excitement of the half way mark breaking the boredom. We realised we were due to come in at about 3am so we slowed her down early on our last evening and hovered around until day break and on day 17 – we sailed into Rikitea – the port in the Gambier islands and dropped anchor in the pouring rain. We had done it in really excellent time and were so excited to be here. French Polynesia – brilliant.
Getting off the boat – albeit in a heavy rainstorm – was fantastic. Even though we had made really good time we were looking forward to walking again and grabbing a beer at a bar. What we didn’t realise was that Gambier is strictly religious and there are no bars open on a Sunday and so we had to make do with just the walk! We were greeted by locals with a wave and a smile, everyone seemed so happy to see us and we were just as happy to see them – just to see the colour green not blue was refreshing…
The next morning we went to check in with the Gendarmarie. There was a young guy from France doing his stint with customs for 3 months and he was so relaxed – he literally just stamped passports, filled in a couple of pages of paperwork and sent us off to the post office to post our forms to Papeete – not what we had been warned about at all. We had been told we would have to deposit a large bond – the cost of a flight back to Australia refundable at the end of our visit, checks on board and reams of paperwork but within 20 minutes we were done. We were now officially in French Polynesia- time to get that grey matter working and talk in French after months of Spanish.
The town itself was tiny with only a couple of shops. There was little in the way of vegetables – just onions and potatoes – no tomatoes or green veg and we couldn’t even find flour! The supply ship must be due… We were also horrified at the prices – $9A a kilo of potatoes… but it was lovely to get French baguettes again.
The main income for these islands has long been the famous black pearl. They still farm the oysters and every morning we saw the young guys go out to collect them. Tourism – in its infancy – has taken a huge hit recently and there were only a few of us cruisers here to help out. We met a few French guys who had been here for a couple of years, through the COVID pandemic and were hoping to leave this season. Most cruisers miss the Gambiers and head straight for the Marquesas which is a pity.
We found a bar/restaurant that was the cruiser haunt. It was accessible by dinghy and had internet, the best on the island apparently. Because it was a satellite link not fibre optic it was very slow and didn’t work for some parts of the day but we were glad to have it and be able to do some banking and pay some bills. Each day we would meet up with other cruisers there and have a beer. Great food too…
We didn’t spend long here as we only had 90 days on our visa and here’s a lot to see so after a week we set off for Hoa, the first of the atolls we wanted to see in the Tuamotos islands. We bid adios to the girls who were flying on to Tahiti and set sail.
It was a 3 day passage to Hoa which was small compared to what we had done recently. Everything was fine until the high pressure hose broke on our watermaker. We had been using our watermaker for over 6 years without issue so we were not surprised, we just hope we can replace it in the Marquesas. Coming up to Hoa our starboard engine started making funny clunking noises – this was disconcerting as we had to go through a narrow pass to enter the lagoon. On approach we saw that the current was very strong and we decided not to push our luck with a ‘clunky’ engine which we were worried might fail during the entry. We looked at other options and saw that there was a boatyard on Hiva Oa island so we changed plans and headed straight up there to get the engine fixed. Two important things broken – let’s hope that’s all.
We stopped en route at the idyllic island of Fatu Hiva. It was one of the most beautiful anchorages we had ever been in – and with one of the prettiest villages. We went ashore and were greeted by every one with a big smile and an invitation to their home.
There was just one shop here where we bought some more bread and eggs but unfortunately no vegetables again. Walking along we saw a man carving tikis – the wooden statues you find all over French Polynesia. Tikis we reckon are copies of the rock formations found all over the islands – as these islands are volcanic and tower above the sea. He invited us into his home and was very pleased to show us all his work. He made excellent carvings but they were all so big – we didn’t have any room on board for one.
Tiki carving on Fatu Hiva
Further on up the road we were again invited into a home as we noticed a lady bashing a piece of bark with a wooden club and obviously looked a bit bewildered! We were told it was the local Tapa Cloth made from the spongy inner bark of the paper mulberry tree. The trees must be one to two years old, then the outer bark is removed from the inner bark and soaked in water overnight. The bark is beaten with a wooden or whalebone beater until it is flat. Once it reaches the desired thinness, the cloth is either sold as is or it is decorated with dyes.
They offered us fruit from their garden. A huge finger of bananas and as many pamplemousse as we could carry. Pamplemousse are huge grapefruit like fruits that taste like a cross between a grapefruit and an orange. We offered her some money but she said she would rather have shampoo and soap so we promised to go back the day with our trade.
That evening we got a ping on our sat phone. (There were no sim cards on this island either) and it was our friends Christian and Ester from Panama telling us they were in Fatu Hiva heading north to Nuku Hiva in a few days time. We went outside and looked around the anchorage and saw them tucked away in the corner! I love it when you turn up in an anchorage and bump into friends unexpectedly. We dinghied over and they were amazed to see us – as we had changed our plans a few times since we last saw them. A few bottles of wine later and all the news caught up on and we headed back to the boat very happy!
The next morning all four of us decided to go to church. They are devout Catholics here and their services are full of loud singing, guitar playing and they all come in their best colourful clothes. It was really nice to see the whole village turn out for the main event of the week and even though I couldn’t understand a word of it- I knew vaguely what they were saying remembering my childhood days at morning service at school.
After church we went up to our give our trade to our new friends and they gave us more pamplemousse – I can’t believe we are going to eat all of them but there are so many of them lying around that they are happy to offload them.
It was my birthday the next day and Rosie Skye came in with Glen and Michelle on board. We had met them first back in Carriacou in the West Indies, then Curacao then Panama so they came over along with Christian and Ester to celebrate my birthday.
We spent a few more days in this gorgeous place but Ian was getting really worried about the engine as we hadn’t been able to diagnose what was wrong. Christian had looked at it and thought it might be the big end (don’t ask me what that is!) and looked very grave telling us, so a few days later because our watermaker was broken, we filled our tanks with their beautiful spring water they had on the dock and headed off to Hiva Oa, hopefully to get the engine fixed.