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In Greenland

Iron Bark

Iron Bark
Under full sail


At Russell Boating Club's Tall Ships Regatta

Blue Water Medal

Blue Water Medal
Blue Water Medal

Books By Annie Hill

  • Brazil and Beyond
  • Voyaging on a Small Income

18 March, 2007

Galapagos to New Zealand

Aboard Iron Bark
Orongo Bay (35° 17' S, 174° 08' E)
Bay of Islands
New Zealand

17 February 2007

We arrived in New Zealand in early November, it’s nearly March and I still haven’t written about our passage across the Pacific. It’s about time I did, so here goes.
I last wrote from Galápagos and a wonderful place they were, too. Initially, Trevor was a bit reluctant to go there, because we’d heard stories about being charged high fees for entering and for permission to enter the National Park area. However, I had always wanted to see them. so in the end Trevor agreed that it would probably be money well spent. When we arrived in Wreck Bay on San Cristobal, we went over and had a yarn with Ron and Kathy on Vilisar, a Canadian wooden boat anchored nearby. They looked like a ‘low-budget operation’ and we guessed that they would know how to pay the minimum of fees. In fact they told us that if you only stayed a few days, the Authorities really didn’t seem to be worried about you and so long as you didn’t bother them, they wouldn’t bother you. This turned out to be the case insofar as we were concerned and when, a few days later, we were anchored of Villamil on Isabela, the harbour master actually went to the effort of warning the yachts that he intended to take a tour of the anchorage the following morning. We took the hint and left at first light the next day.
One of the pleasant surprises in Wreck Bay, was that the prices were very affordable. Indeed, more than affordable. Trevor and I went for lunch one day in a tiny restaurant, with only 2 tables. It was obviously a place used by the locals and was selling hamburgers, for which I get an overwhelming urge about once a year (but only for a real one). We went in and ordered one each, together with a large bottle of beer. Because nothing was made in advance, that bottle was about finished by the time the hamburgers came, so we ordered another beer to drink with them. This was a bit of an issue and the owner called down her son and packed him off down the street to buy one from a neighbouring bar, because she had no more left in the fridge! The hamburgers were large and delicious, complete with salad on the plate. When we came to settle up, the whole lot cost US$5.38. I was sure that we’d been undercharged and asked her to add it up again, but she was correct! We’d have ordered another beer, if she’d only had one ready, but felt that she couldn’t be making much profit on them!

17 March, 2007

For me, the highlight of the Galápagos was the wildlife. From the moment we arrived, the animals were a delight. In Wreck Bay, friendly sea lions would play round the boats for hours. Convinced that we were there for their sport, they dived under the hull and climbed into the dinghies. Some even got aboard the yachts, and one catamaran’s crew had a distinct sense of humour failure when they woke up to find 4 sea lions lolling around in their cockpit! Our dinghy was too tippy for the larger sea lions, but several young ones managed to get in. Generally, it was only the females and young ones that tried these games, but it was quite astonishing how agile even the big bulls were. In the harbour were several 60 or 70 ft fishing boats, with flying bridges some 20 ft above the water. When we passed, we often saw sea lions sunbathing there, along with pelicans and boobies. The boobies are quite astonishing, with bright blue feet and legs: natural show-offs, they would pose obligingly for the camera. Because of the cold current that comes up from S America, there are also Penguins here – on the Equator! These were more camera shy and I suspect that most of us took numerous photographs of water swirls where a penguin had just dived. Ashore there were the various birds, including the famous Darwin finches. (It was noticing both the similarities and the differences in these birds that inspired many of Darwin’s ideas on evolution. However, this didn’t happen when he was actually in the islands, but some years later when he was studying his collections.) These birds have all evolved in separate ways from the same progenitors. Their specialisations are extreme: from the one that uses a stick to make holes in cactus in order to obtain its juices to the one that has developed a beak capable of pecking through the skin of fledgling birds to draw their blood. Seed eaters, insect eaters, nectar eaters have all evolved different beaks to fill niches in the ecosystem. Equally interesting are the giant tortoises, which vary from island to island, often quite considerably. These animals are very endangered: not only were their numbers reduced drastically by the sailors, who used to take them away by the hundred and use them for meat (they can live for months without food and water; the sailors used to stow them upside down, where they couldn’t turn over, and keep them like that until they wanted to eat them), but their eggs have for years been a favoured delicacy. In addition, there are now wild goats, horses and cattle to trample the eggs, wild pigs, dogs and rats to eat the eggs and cats and dogs to eat the hatchlings. There are several sanctuaries where tortoises are bred, but one or two subspecies are extinct and some more are probably not going to survive. Fortunately, after 15 or 20 years in captivity, the tortoises can be returned to the wild, now large enough to be predator proof (man apart), but unless more urgent measures are taken to eliminate the introduced predators, it’s unlikely that they will ever breed successfully in the wild again.

16 March, 2007

I also loved the marine iguanas, which Darwin, with typical Victorian prejudice, likened to ‘imps of Satan’. These are remarkable animals: they spend most of their time ashore, basking in the sun, but feed under water. They are not swimmers; they simply walk through the crashing surf and continue on their way until they’re under several feet of water, where they wander around munching on seaweed. When they’ve eaten sufficient, they walk out again, clinging with sharp claws to the rocks when the surf tries to drag them back under. They too, are considered tasty snacks by many introduced animals, but seem to be surviving surprisingly well. The Galápagos are not islands that have separated from landmasses, such as New Zealand, but are brand new growths, thrown up by volcanic eruption. This is one of the reasons why their evolving wildlife is of such interest. All the animals (with the exception of man’s introductions) have arrived ‘accidentally’. The assumption is that most of the land animals arrived on some from of raft, debris from a large flood; a fallen tree – that type of thing. What is still a puzzle is how so many tortoises arrived, especially as they have evolved into quite distinct sub-species, which does not suggest that they have travelled from one island to another. An interesting recent discovery has been made by a couple who have been studying some groups of finches on one island for about 20 years: these birds are specialising and evolving even as they watch them. Evolution can, in fact, be a fairly rapid process.

15 March, 2007

Ron and Kathy had told us about a day out that we could take from Villamil, where a truck drove you up to the volcano and stopped at a place that had horses. You then rode for a couple of hours right up the side of this enormous volcano, left the horses and hiked the last bit. This seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, especially as it only cost US$20 a head for the whole day. About a dozen of us assembled together one morning and off we went. The drive alone would almost have been worth it because it was astonishing how many different landscapes were packed into such a short distance. From the dry, rocky coastline, we drove through a cactus filled landscape before rising through lush rain forest, finally emerging in green, well-wooded country. Here we took to our mounts. The horses were nice little animals, but there were a few concerned looks at the accoutrements: the bridles consisted of a length of polypropylene rope wrapped over the ears and round the lower jaw before ending in reins. The saddles were some sort of pad, with a bit of loose padding held on insecurely with leatherette. Stirrups were home made on rope strops. We could already feel tomorrow’s discomfort before we mounted. But these saddles proved to be a great surprise – they were superbly comfortable and I don’t think anyone felt sore the next day.

14 March, 2007

The ride was a delight and as we came to the rim of the volcano, the view was incredible. This crater is apparently the second largest in the world and is about 15 by 20 km. Wisps of steam were rising from it, and although there has been no serious eruption for many years, we were told that there are frequent minor ones. It was many hundreds of feet to the bottom, which was almost entirely covered in black ash – all that you needed to realise that it was still seriously hot down there. In due course, we dismounted and wandered through a desert of volcanic rubble. The colours were lovely, with oranges, ochres, reds and browns mingling with the blackened, scorched rock. High up we stood, looking across the end of the island over green land to the blue sea. As we stood and gazed in the hot sun, it was all very beautiful. We sat and ate our picnic lunches before walking back to our horses.

13 March, 2007

When we got down to Villamil, we went to visit the tortoise sanctuary. A winding boardwalk took us through a mangrove swamp where shocking pink flamingos were feeding. Iguanas lolled at the entrance, piled up in sociable heaps. Birds and butterflies flew around. The sanctuary itself was fascinating and provided a pleasant home for the giant animals. They lumbered happily about among the trees, munching blissfully on the fresh vegetables put out for them and dozing in the sun. The babies were stacked in racks, several layers deep, staggered to catch the sun. Their little cages had water bowls and had just been filled with fresh lettuces. As soon as they were large enough, they would be put into pens and in due course, some would be released to the wild. It was sad to think that all this was necessary, but reassuring to see that it was happening. The real danger for the Galápagos is that they are vulnerable to politicians’ decisions. More than a few Ecuadorians feel that they should be allowed to go and farm the islands; tourist companies would like to expand their operations; people already there want to enlarge their farms and other businesses. I think that it’s fair to say that the best thing that can happen to the Galápagos is to have a strong, well-regulated eco-tourism industry that brings in a lot of hard currency. No animals = no tourists; many animals = many tourists. You don’t have to be an Einstein to work this one out. Many of the islands are off limits unless you have permission to visit; some are completely off limits. The kudos of visiting the former is a reason to keep the situation as it is. We can only hope that the Ecuadorian government does not bow to pressure to ignore the fate of the indigenous flora and fauna.
We left Isabela on 20th May, sailing along the island for a while, enjoying the scenery and wildlife, which included some beautiful rays. Then we headed off in a SW direction, towards Mangareva in the Gambier Is. We had decided to go there, rather than the more usual Marquesas, for a number of reasons. It was more off the beaten track and Trevor had never been there. Trevor was worried about the no-nos in the Marquesas – tiny insects that bite savagely. Having seen what happens to me when I’ve been bitten by blackflies and mosquitoes, I don’t think he could face the thought of an Annie ravaged by no-nos and needing sympathy! It was a difficult decision for me to make, having heard so much about the spectacular beauty of the Marquesas. We had a superb cruising guide for the Marquesas, but lacked even adequate charts for Mangareva. However, we did have Warwick Clay’s South Pacific Anchorages and could print out charts from my laptop via an old copy of C-map, so we lent our Marquesan cruising guide to friends and set off southwest.
Our luck had turned: we left the Enchanted Islands on the back of a fair wind that stayed with us until the day we arrived at Îles Gambier. Day after day, it drove us steadily along, with records days’ runs and over 2000 miles sailed in the first fortnight. Occasionally we would have to reef the mainsail; quite often Iron Bark wore her topsail, but our hopes of a record passage died with the wind in the final few days of our passage.

12 March, 2007

As we approached the Îles Gambier lagoon on the morning of 11 June, the wind picked up to about F5 and headed us. The breaking waves distorted colours and hid the coral heads: beating across with an inadequate chart would have been folly, so we ended up motorsailing to the anchorage in Rikitea (23° 06'S, 134° 58'W), which rather took the shine off an otherwise perfect 22-day passage. But if the lagoon looked uninviting in the prevailing conditions, the little town, dominated by the twin towers of its church, looked the more appealing. The anchorage is not only perfectly sheltered and adequately roomy, but is in an attractive setting, with several shops and pleasant walks near at hand.
Mangareva was as interesting as we’d hoped, although I was surprised at how many other yachts were there, several of whom had very little experience. GPS, electronic charts, large engines, SSB radio and, of course, the fact that you can now ‘phone home’ for help, if you have the appropriate EPIRB, have completely changed voyaging. Independence and self-sufficiency are quaint anachronisms in this new world. Iron Bark is a fine and functional cruising home, but we are considered cruising fundamentalists because we don’t have refrigeration or pressurised water and don’t use our engine to keep to the 6 knots of the passage plan. While we consider our boat adequately large and comfortable, other cruisers regard us as Spartans. After spending several years off the beaten track, it was something of a shock to realise how isolated we have become. The norm of a decade or two ago is now eccentric and the remote places of the world are now become accessible. I’d be happy to chuck my GPS away, if everyone else would do the same.
One of Mangareva’s attractions is a number of excellent walks. The roads are reasonably empty (one wonders that there are any cars on such a tiny island) and there are several trails that are managed and marked; we spent quite a lot of time ashore, walking and exploring. Some of the trails are obviously very old and some follow roads built by the tyrant priest, Père Laval. Between 1836 and 1871, he forced the islanders to build a cathedral, 10 churches and a convent, in addition to roads and other buildings. Many of them died in the process: his response was they the got to heaven sooner! I’m sure he had the best of intentions and he set up schools so that the islanders could learn to read (the Bible) and organised threading and weaving mills using locally grown cotton. But overall, although many islanders revere his name as the man who converted them to Catholicism, he must have done more harm than good. The local mairie had a small tourist brochure, which portrayed Laval as an enlightened benefactor, but when I questioned one of the locals about this, he told me he’d laughed aloud when he read this bowdlerized version of what was obviously a mad man. (This same brochure says that the ‘era of the French nuclear test … gave a new life to the Gambier’!)
One of the best walks we took was to the top of Mount Duff, which overlooks the anchorage. This entailed a long hike through undergrowth and forest, which kept us pleasantly in the shade. We followed a ridge up the side of the mountain, occasionally hauling ourselves up using ropes provided for that purpose, and finally came out into the open, well above the town. At the top of the mountain, the ridge became a razor back and it was frankly daunting picking one’s way along the narrow track with sheer drops on one side or the other and, finally, on both. But the view and sense of achievement made it worthwhile.
The island was generally well wooded, with a surprising number of Scotch pines, which seemed inappropriate in the climate. Wandering through the woodlands was a delight with vast numbers of marvellous fig trees, which covered large areas, sending down aerial roots and creating great wooden cages. Water (coco)nuts abounded and a machete was worth taking. I included a couple of plastic drinking straws in the backpack, which made the nuts a lot easier to drink! We had to resist the temptation to scrump delicious pamplemousse and papaya that grew in abundance and often fell to the ground. One or two other yachties had been helping themselves or simply asking for fruit. Approached in the right way, the islanders were very generous, but not surprisingly, they took rather a dim view of visitors who felt that they had a right to their produce, even if it were otherwise going to waste. Because of the extraordinary way in which the French run their Pacific colonies, there is very little incentive for people to go in for a bit of market gardening to increase their income, and this makes it ridiculously difficult to buy local fresh produce. When it is for sale, it’s often at least as expensive as imported food. Bread is subsidised and we could buy the standard yard of bread for about 20p, but in an area with high levels of diabetes, it seemed stupid to be putting a huge subsidy on white bread while wholemeal loaves were about eight times the price and completely unavailable on the smaller islands. We soon discovered that it was worth ordering bread in advance. If you arrived when it was delivered – about 0645 – you could sometimes buy one of the extra few loaves ordered on spec, but these were all gone by 0715. But there are worse ways of starting the day, than taking down the anchor light, climbing into the dinghy and rowing ashore to collect warm bread for breakfast. Tinned butter was also affordable and I would often make a litre or so of café au lait to wash down the crusty bread and butter.

11 March, 2007

The culture of black pearls is now a major industry in French Polynesia. Mangareva, being a long way south, has cooler water and apparently this makes for better-coloured pearls. The farming is on a large scale and many inventive ways have been devised to use pearls of all shapes and sizes, as well as the oyster shells themselves. I have always loved pearls and was fascinated to see what was for sale in Rikitea’s little shops. While the large, black, perfect pearls are very beautiful, I much prefer the baroque and many-coloured misfits, that are used in less formal jewellery. The smaller ones are known as keishi and are arguably more ‘honest’ than the flawless ones, being formed around chips of shell. The perfectly spherical ones are built up around small plastic balls, which account for between 75% and 90% of the finished pearl. Should you have a necklace of the latter and wear it constantly, you can wear away the nacre down to the plastic, while keishi pearls are formed entirely of nacre. A local jeweller had made a gorgeous little necklace of local keishi, ranging in colour from white, through kingfisher blue and aubergine down to the deepest black. I fell in love with it and Trevor bought it for my birthday.
A teacher arranged for the yachties to visit the local craft school and watch the students working on the pearl shell. This is polished and made into a variety of articles from dishes to jewellery and little is wasted. The standard of workmanship was very high, but the most impressive thing was that the craftsmen were all schoolgirls ranging in age from 11 to 15. They were brought in from the Tuamotus and other Gambier Is and it was a required subject. A couple of days later we saw the best on display in the mairie: the standards were extremely high. The shell is often used very imaginatively – for instance, several pieces will be shaped and polished and then threaded on a band of material to make straps for a dress. The effect can be truly stunning. The girls’ wares are regularly sent to Tahiti to be sold there, but we could buy on the island. The teacher marked each piece to identify its creator and it was lovely to see the girls’ delight when they were introduced to the person who’d bought something they’d made. I think they got more pleasure from that than from the money.

10 March, 2007

We very much wanted to explore some of the other islands in the archipelago, but being so far south, we were no longer truly in the Trade Winds. All too often the winds was either blowing from NW or forecast to do so and if it went round to the S, the sky was too overcast to allow for safe coral navigation. We did manage to get away for one night, anchoring off the W side of Taravai I in a deserted anchorage. Here we went ashore and wandered around abandoned palm groves, where the new trees were growing up so thickly, that we felt no guilt about cutting some down for hearts of palm. Sadly, for us, the breadfruit and pamplemousse that had once been in abundance had succumbed to the indigenous flora. It was a lovely spot, but the wind backed the next day, so we returned to Rikitea.
A few days later, we set off for the Tuamotus. Once known as the Dangerous Archipelago, GPS, large engines and excellent cruising guides have made them a cruising destination in their own right. This doesn’t mean to say that they’re without problems, however. The passes are on the lee side of the lagoons and frequently have strong currents, caused by the ocean spilling over the windward reef and then pouring out of the leeward side. These currents can be countered by incoming tides causing frightening, standing waves. While these are manageable when you’re being spat out, they can be extremely daunting when you’re slugging in. Many anchorages are far from comfortable, being encumbered with coral heads, strategically spaced to snag your anchor cable, instantly reducing a comfortable 5:1 scope to up-and-down. Laying out the anchor with care can avoid this situation, but if the wind shifts or dies, you can find yourself back at square one.

09 March, 2007

We decided to make for the atoll of Tahanea: it has a wide and easy pass, was more or less on our way to the Society Is and was uninhabited, which had its own appeal. We would visit other inhabited atolls later. As is usual in the Tropics, we had to heave-to until it was light enough to enter (because of the long nights and need for good light when sailing around coral, there’s only 8 hours in 24 available for pilotage). Astonishingly, (to me) some of the boats that we were sailing with would risk night entrances, showing a touching faith in their electronics and the accuracy of the chart datum. Some of them gave themselves considerable frights because of this, but astonishingly, they generally got away with it. Only one boat was lost this year – to our knowledge – but I’m amazed there weren’t more. Many of the cruisers are sailing right on the edge of their competence and one major error would see them in serious trouble. However, no doubt the insurance would pay out. We have no insurance because we can’t afford the enormous premiums charged for the out-of-the-way sort of sailing that we do. Considering how insurers seem to be prepared to pay for unforgivable carelessness as well as unforeseeable calamity, it’s not surprising that it costs what it does. Replacing Iron Bark would require rather more than a couple of telephone calls. Knowing this makes us cautious sailors, but then I’ve always believed that prudence is an essential part of seamanship.
It was on a bright, sunny morning that we approached our first Tuamotu, a lovely sight, with white surf crashing along the reef, green palms nodding in the trade wind and glimpses of bright blue water in the lagoon. After a couple of false starts, we located the pass and turned towards it, our assumption being confirmed by the almost-inevitable yacht anchored inside. This turned out to be a charming French/Tahitian couple with their little girl. A couple of days later, they moved to another part of the lagoon leaving us in solitary splendour.
We wasted no time in going ashore. The little island off which we’d anchored was well endowed with coconut palms, but there was no sign of either breadfruit or citrus. Even close to the old village, which only 20 years ago was still inhabited, only the palm trees remained. It makes one appreciate how much loving care the Polynesians put into their gardens when one sees how quickly the wilderness returns. However, coconuts have a lot going for them and the groves were beautiful with the sunlight filtering through the trees. We found enormous entertainment in the hermit crabs, which range in size from diminutive creatures in the tiniest of shells to the endangered coconut crab, which grows to such an enormous size that it can no longer find a shell to protect its unarmoured abdomen. They reverse down burrows – or climb palm trees – in times of stress, but this is of little use against human predators, who generally wipe them out in short order: they take 15 years to reach full maturity. Regardless of size, however, all these crabs shared a passion for coconuts, particularly for the soft, sweet spongy meat found inside a sprouting nut that has yet to root. We split two or three of these as we wandered along the beach; when we returned to them, they were covered in hermit crabs, with many more coming at a gallop out of the undergrowth, to enjoy the feast!
There were more than a few black-tipped sharks in the lagoon, which made me a little reluctant to snorkel far from the boat, but simply by looking over the side I could watch and wander at myriad beautiful, gaily-coloured fish swimming around the coral. We were so reluctant to leave this wonderful lagoon, that we stayed there until it was time to leave for Tahiti, where we had arranged to meet Trevor’s sister and her husband.
We disentangled our chain from the coral and set off on 11 July, in an ESE F3 to have an enjoyable sail past Tahanea and out through the gap between the next group of islands. We had a good run until we got into the lee of Tahiti Iti where we were completely becalmed. In order to make it in that night, we started the engine; even so, we ended up anchoring in near dark, having to drop our hook in 22 m – far more than we’d choose without a windlass. The following morning we pottered up to Port Phaeton, (17°44'S, 149°20'W) on the SW corner of Tahiti, back among the cruising boats.

08 March, 2007

Although I’d expected Tahiti to be a disappointment, I’d always wanted to go there and see it for myself. It has an aura, a romance, that won’t go away in spite of the fact that of all the Society Islands, it is probably the least attractive and the most spoilt. All the old cruising books talk of tying up along the Papeete waterfront, dancing the night away in Quinn’s Bar, of the vahines riding sidesaddle on motor scooters, wrapped in colourful pareus and with flowers in their hair. W Somerset Maugham wrote of seedy characters, raffish remittance men, mysterious women. Alas, all of this has gone. The beach and palm trees have been replaced by concrete and marina berths; the vahines ride in chic little motor cars and wear tight dresses, the seedy characters are swamped in a sea of Bermuda-shorted tourists and the remittance men have gone somewhere cheaper, taking their mysterious women with them. All the remains are the flowers in the hair and shopkeepers put gardenia blooms next to their till in the way in which sweets are offered in other countries.
French Polynesia is run in a way that confounds the imagination. In a nutshell, the French are determined to hang on to this empire, which covers a huge tract of the Pacific. To this end, they subsidise enormously and then set a ridiculous exchange rate on the local currency, so that nothing locally produced, could ever be exported. The inhabitants are kept tranquil by easy living and no incentive, but for foreigners, the place is ludicrously expensive. Prepared for this, we – and most of the other cruising boats – had stocked up in Panama, to such and extent that we actually found French Polynesia one of the cheaper places to cruise! When you were about to be charge £1 for an orange, it wasn’t a difficult decision not to buy.
French xenophobia is displayed by the attitude they have towards foreign yachtsmen. There was a time, probably before the Second World War, when yachts would sail into Papeete and stay and stay. They were generally harmless and looked after themselves. Somewhere along the line, the Authorities decided that This Must Stop and insisted that all visiting yachtsmen, excepting the French, would put down a bond equivalent to the cost of a plane ticket back to their home country. That the only yachtsmen who are likely to stay and become a burden are the French, is something that apparently was never accepted. Some years ago, this policy was questioned in Brussels as being against the principle of free movement among European countries, so the French reluctantly had to scrap the bond for Europeans. However, it still applies to the rest of the world and in our case, this meant Trevor. The bond amounted to 95,000 Pacific francs, or £545 and in theory could be paid through the bank. This was just as well, because the magic money machines only allowed you to draw out 40,000 francs in any one week. So we went along to the bank to arrange this. As ever, there were long queues and in the first bank, the lady leant over and whispered to me that she thought I should try another one, as they would charge me about £20 for the privilege of handling our money. So we went to another bank and queued for about 45 minutes at the end of which the young man couldn’t help us, because the necessary forms were in his colleagues locked draw. We had to go away and kill time over his lunch hour and then ended up waiting in line once more. At last we got to his counter, filled in the forms and passed over my credit card to be swiped. It wouldn’t work. After several attempts, we tried with Trevor’s card, which we avoid using because of the charges that come with it. No luck. After some discussion and several phone calls, we went outside and tried my card in the magic money machine. Out came 40,000 francs. Trevor’s also worked and we had about 20,000 in cash, so we could now pay the bond. It turned out that the swipe machine would only deal with French credit cards! We lost greatly on the artificial exchange rate and lost again when the money was returned to us in Bora Bora, because we had to change it into another, more usable currency. We were lucky. An Australian couple we knew had only one credit card and were therefore unable to withdraw the necessary money. All they could do was leave. It goes without saying that a lot of foreign yachts simply didn’t bother to clear in at all, but this was a risk that many were not prepared to take. The best move seems to be to avoid Tahiti altogether: apart from Bora Bora, which is almost ‘the end of the line’, none of the other islands can deal with the issue of bonds.
After this wonderful welcome, it is perhaps not surprising that I never grew fond of Tahiti, but in addition, the island has been badly mauled about. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere with such unsightly buildings, jerry-built of concrete and corrugated iron, badly designed – if designed at all – and poorly maintained. The shopping strips were hideous, Papeete itself boasted no more than 3 or 4 attractive buildings and even expensive houses seemed to be gratuitously ugly. But we did find a lovely anchorage down by the Botanic Gardens, where we enjoyed a lovely walk through the woods.
We went back to an anchorage near Papeete known as Maeva Beach. This was crowded, deep, and at times very uncomfortable, if a big swell was running and flooding over the barrier reef. However, it was the best on offer. Joan and Michael arrived on schedule – well at least on their schedule: somewhere along the line, Michael had got muddled over the dateline and they arrived a day earlier than we’d anticipated. This meant them having to stay a night ashore, but they were very lucky: a young man at the airport gave them a number to call and a charming man had driven down and taken them back to his group of holiday flats. I went to see one the next morning and it was in a glorious setting, with a cantilevered balcony looking over luxurious vegetation out to the ocean.

07 March, 2007

After a quick look round Papeete, we sailed for Moorea, where they spend much of their holiday. This was my favourite island, spectacularly beautiful, with good anchorages. We went for several walks enjoying all the flowers and admiring the astonishing, pinnacled peaks: all that’s left of ancient volcanoes, the hard core remaining while the softer rock has weathered away. Cook’s Bay was breathtakingly lovely, certainly one experience that all voyaging sailors should have.
It was lovely getting to know Joan and Michael better and they survived the experience of living aboard very well. Their last couple of days were marred by bad weather and torrential rain: indeed, during a lot of our time in the Pacific we had indifferent weather. The Trade Wind zones appear much less predictable than in the Atlantic. After they left, we sailed back to Moorea and then on to Huahine, much less touristy than the previous two. We visited Tahaa, briefly and then went on to Bora Bora. This has a reputation for being incredibly beautiful, but while it looks lovely from the distance, close to we found it less appealing. I suspect that its reputation comes from the first view that visitors have from an aeroplane: a shallow lagoon surrounds it, which is bright turquoise from the air. In combination with its dramatic peaks and white beaches, it must be a glorious sight.
Trevor and I were both impatient to move on to somewhere more ‘real’ – an impatience that I suspect meant we had less pleasure out of French Polynesia than might otherwise have been the case, so on 21 August, we headed off towards Suvarov in the Cook Islands, an island as different from those in the Society group as can be imagined.

06 March, 2007

Trevor had warned me that the anchorage is as bad as any in the Tuamotus and just before we left Bora Bora, we’d heard of yachts having a dreadful time there, breaking anchor chain, losing anchors, steaming round all night, unable to re-anchor among the coral heads. But Suvarov to me, has near-mythic status, not in the least from a book called An Island to Oneself. This book tells the tale of a man who became so fascinated with Suvarov that he went there to live on his own for many years. What he doesn’t mention in the book, is that during the years that he lived on Rarotonga, he married a wife and had children. But he left all that behind him for the sake of Suvarov. He went back to Raro a couple of times, but each time the lure of the island grew too strong. His final visit was his longest and by this time he had become very skilled at living with all the problems that he encountered. Visiting yachts were on the increase and these brought him news, books and undoubtedly some food and the odd bottle of rum, but he seems to have been entirely contented on his own. He finally left the island only months before he died and is buried there. The Cook Islanders view him with both reverence and aversion: reverence for his ability to live in ‘the old ways’, aversion because he abandoned his family. He was also a friend of the mystical French sailor, Bernard Moitessier, who also loved Suvarov.
We left Bora Bora in a brisk F5, which lasted for the first couple of days, giving us 308 miles. By noon on the 23rd, we had the topsail drawing and a red-footed booby joined us for the night. Later that evening, the strop for the peak halliard chafed through leaving the gaff supported only by the topsail sheet. Trevor took down main and topsail leaving us to continue under boomed out staysail. The booby watched the whole show, quite unperturbed. In the morning, Trevor donned his climbing harness and using a pair of rock climbers’ ascenders (a far superior system to a bosun’s chair), went aloft to fit a new strop. The following night the wind went round in circles, eventually settling down to F2/3 from ESE; our day’s run was only 63 miles. We sighted Suvarov on 27 August, but the wind had started to increase and Trevor was dubious about going in to the anchorage. It was too late to get in that day, so we hove to for the night to see what the morning would bring.
At daybreak, with F5 from S of E, we decided to bear away for Samoa, but an hour later, the sky cleared and the wind was obviously decreasing, so we changed our minds. Early that afternoon, we sailed in through the pass and after having motored round for about 20 minutes, finally found a spot to anchor among the 18 other yachts there. Later, we shifted berth, laid one anchor from the bow in about 6 ft of water, and then motored astern for several boat lengths, dropping a stern anchor in about 60 ft. We pulled both cables tight, so that they couldn’t get caught on coral and stayed comfortably moored in one spot.

05 March, 2007

Clearing in was wonderfully casual. John and Veronica were going out fishing: ‘so come over later and we’ll sort it out. Or tomorrow, if you’d rather.’ Suvarov is a National Park; there’s a charge of US $50, which is used to pay John as Park Warden. He spends 6 months a year on Suvarov with his wife and 4 delightful sons. They’d prefer to stay there all year, so that they could make a garden and have hens, which would immensely improve their quality of life, but the Cook Is Government has not yet agreed. When we were there, they were more than grateful for anything the yachts could spare. The Government had not planned their supplies too well: they’d run out of cooking gas, flour, sugar and were very short of petrol. Any other little luxuries such as sweets for the children, interesting tinned food or the odd bottle of rum for John were more than welcome. We hoped that they’d get home more easily this year than the previous one, when the relief ship that was supposed to pick them up, found itself short of fuel and simply cancelled the voyage. They’d had to hitch a ride to Penrhyn I on a visiting yacht! John and Veronica could not have been more welcoming and we were upset to hear that some members of our cruising community had disobeyed the rules, or refused to pay the Park charge. John has no way to enforce the regulations and hates having to be unpleasant to his visitors.
One of the boats that had had such an uncomfortable time of it, a week or so previously, was a German yacht. His bow roller fitting was almost tied in knots and he was having problems leading his anchor gear clear of the boat. Trevor spent a day ashore making a new fitting. By using our own supplies of stainless steel and fastenings, Trevor made a strong if slightly inelegant temporary repair which Toby used all the way to New Zealand. He was delighted with the work, but not sufficiently so as to buy Trevor a beer when we crossed tacks again in Apia!
We stayed for five wonderful days in Suvarov. If the yachts could provide the petrol, John liked nothing better than to take us for fishing trips, or to one of the nearby islands where we could see frigate birds and terns nesting. He loved his atoll and its birds and refused to harm either them or their eggs. He was very proud at the increase in numbers of (lesser) frigate birds, commenting sadly to me that he believes his predecessors used to eat the eggs. He’s working very hard to eradicate rats on the islands (in Tom Neale’s time, there were no rats, cockroaches, mosquitoes or flies!) and one side benefit is that the number of coconut crabs has increased enormously. He warns all visitors that there is rat poison down and that the crabs may very well feed on the dead rats: this effectively discourages visitors from taking the crabs. He showed us some of these beasts and his older son, Jonathon, put one on a palm tree for us: it scrambled up with no difficultly. When we went ashore, John would shin up a palm tree, throwing down nuts to Veronica, who deftly lopped the top off with her machete. Any fish caught on the outing would be shared between all the party, John’s face alight with the pleasure of sharing good things.
They are a lovely couple: superb both as caretakers and ambassadors for the Cook Is. We were sorry to say goodbye.

04 March, 2007

Apia, Samoa

After 4 days and the usual night spent hove to waiting for dawn, we sailed into Apia (13° 49'S, 171° 45'W) on 7 September. The yachts were all alongside the wall and we decided to follow suit. It transpired that they’d been asked to clear the harbour for a canoe race, which the Samoans take very seriously. From the moment we went ashore to clear in, we fell in love with Samoa. The people are so courteous, smiling and genuinely friendly. Their own culture is still strong: men wear lava-lavas and families live in astonishing houses, whose pillared sides and complete lack of interior walls give a whole new meaning to ‘open-plan’. Every morning at 0750, we heard the ‘oompah-oompah’ of a brass band. The Police were marching along the harbour front to the Government buildings for Colours. As they formed up on the lawn, the traffic was stopped and passers-by stood silently to attention as the flag was slowly raised. The respect shown by all, in this simple ceremony was moving. Once the flag was flying, the traffic revved up, people started laughing and talking and the band struck up a marching tune as they police returned to their barracks. The ones in trousers were the women!

Food was affordable and shopping in the produce market a pleasure. You could buy a barbecue lunch on the street for £1: 2 pieces of chicken, pork chop, sausage and breadfruit. Cold beers in an attractive bar overlooking the harbour cost 80p – please don’t leave a tip. Colourful buses brought people in from all over the island and most people spoke enough English that we could have proper conversations. Several yachties hired cars to travel over the island, (Upolu) but Trevor and I took a bus ride from one end to the other. At the other end, the bus turned round and started back. The ‘conductor’ came and asked us where we wanted to go and was only slightly bemused when we said ‘back to Apia – we only came for the ride’. And the ride was worth it, giving views of hills and valleys, houses, gardens and schools and making us feel that we had gained a little insight into the way of life.
Trevor was once again persuaded to lend a hand, this time to a Slovenian lady whose small boat had every gadget (and would undoubtedly have been passed as fit for offshore work by the New Zealanders), but had a serious rigging problem: the compression post had buckled while she was motoring away from Upolu. Trevor managed to locate some steel pipe and some wood. Again he rummaged through our own supplies and fabricated a new compression post. He found a welder who was ready to weld it up, so long as Trevor could provide a helmet, chipping hammer and welding rods! Marjetka was somewhat taken aback at the speed with which Trevor got things done, but was genuinely grateful for his assistance and brought us gifts of wine, speciality coconut oil and a beautiful pareu for me. The rest of her boat seemed to be barely sound and Trevor was less than happy to see her blithely set off for Fiji.
We could now turn to our own repair: the gaff had a crack in it near the jaws, from the unfair strain imposed on it when the peak halliard strop had parted. The gaff and its fitting were aluminium and Trevor sawed off the cracked end of the gaff, then designed a better, articulating, fitting, in stainless steel. Once again, his friendly welder was approached and the gaff was soon back in place, better than the original.

It was now 20 September and with the cyclone season approaching, we sailed for Niuatoputapu, in the Tongan Is. We had a bit of a rough ride with winds gusting F8 in squalls and coming round so far S that we ended up close-hauled. There was a big sea running as we approached the island and located the pass, but it was so well marked that entering was straightforward. As we dropped our anchor onto white sand, a turtle swam by to greet us.

03 March, 2007

We knew most of the boats at anchor and were soon given the lowdown on procedure. Call ‘Laura’ on the VHF and she will contact Customs and Immigration. This we did and soon a car horn sounded ashore. Trevor went to collect the two ladies, dressed in black (all Tongans were observing a month’s mourning for the late king) and wearing pandanus mats around their waists. To everyone’s amusement, Trevor and I had not realised we’d crossed the dateline. Niuatoputapu is 173° 46' W, but Tonga is on GMT +13! They were charming ladies, but we were upset later when we discovered that Customs had defrauded us of about US $20 – and this after asking for, and being given 10 litres of petrol for her car! Corruption is endemic in Tonga and very few yachts get away scot-free. However, more democratic times are ahead, which I suppose means the graft will be spread more evenly.
We went and found Laura, a British lady who is gamely trying to run a small guesthouse: a project made more difficult by the recent demise of the local airline. She was about to go back to the UK to make some more money for next year – her husband and 2 children had stayed there this season – and was quite apologetic that she could not offer us any hospitality. Everybody else that we met in Niuatoputapu was equally kind and friendly. We were adopted by a local ‘girl’, Leilani, who spoke wonderful English, and took us walking up the nearby hill. In spite of her clothes, attitudes and aspirations, she had been born a boy, but was adopted by her aunt and brought up as a girl: insurance for the aunt’s old age and not unusual in Polynesia.
Leilani is by no means stupid and very much enjoys the stimulation provided by visitors. She asked us to Sunday lunch; we arrived in good time, but there was nobody there. We thought that perhaps her aunt had gainsaid it, so after wandering around the village and paying a fruitless return visit half an hour later, we went back aboard and ate from our own lockers. An hour or so later, Trevor, working on deck, heard voices from the shore and looking through the binoculars, recognised Leilani and a couple of her friends. He went and fetched them – complete with lunch! Leilani sat us down and gently took over the galley. Finding cutlery and bowls, she tastefully laid out the food she had brought and placed it on the table. (Her ambition is to open a little restaurant for the yachties: she certainly has the touch.) We were moved at all the effort she’d been to, and upset at our inability to do justice to her feast. But apart from having just eaten, Tongan food can be heavy going. Even omnivorous Trevor balked at the grey, slimy shellfish and neither of us is very good with kape – an outstandingly stodgy root, related to taro. Tongans eat this in large quantities; it has no taste and a consistency similar to very dry, hard fudge. To say it sits heavy in the belly would be a gross understatement. However, we enjoyed the coconut, papaya and (cold) fried eggs and Leilani and her friends polished off the rest. I then made lots of coffee, which they all appreciate: instant coffee is the norm, but all Polynesians seem to relish fresh, strong – and, of course – sweet coffee.

02 March, 2007

We left Niuatoputapu for Vava‘u on 2 October, in company with Zeferin and Kika. We all had to wait for 4 hours to clear out, the ladies being distracted by a visiting Patrol Boat. We left in beautiful conditions; a couple of humpback whales bid us farewell as we cleared the island. The next day we caught a tuna and dorado, much of which I pickled. Our fair wind deserted us, however, and we made the foolish mistake of ‘motor-sailing for a couple of hours’ to ensure that we made Vava‘u before dawn. The wind then headed us even more and we discovered a strong current against us; we ended up motoring for over 10 hours and got into anchor by sunset.
Vava‘u has a small fleet of Moorings boats and it is easy to see why. I thought it the most attractive cruising ground we’d visited since leaving San Blas. There are literally dozens of islands and some 3o decent anchorages in an area about 15 miles square. The chart and GPS aren’t in accord, so that one is apparently often ashore: this adds to the interest of the pilotage. It also adds immensely to my respect for Moorings in allowing their charterers loose in such an area, which also has very few aids to navigation. We spent a wonderful couple of weeks pottering around in this area and the Tongan people, who are so friendly, enhanced our enjoyment. Even the officials were helpful and polite. In the shops and market, everyone was obliging and full of good humour, the market was crowded with beautiful fruit and vegetables and I concluded that in the Pacific, west is best. An added attraction, at this time of the year, was female humpback whales with their babies. They breed in the Tropics and once the young ones are strong enough, head south for the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Antarctic, where the mothers can feed again. Another Wylo was moored in Neiafu and immediately we became friends. Peter and Sandie had near-resident status: Sandie is working almost full time, on a voluntary basis in the hospital, helping them organize and upgrade their labs. Other friends had congregated here, one of the crossroads of the Pacific. With so many delightful people and so much of interest, it was hard to tear ourselves away.
Already, however, the first cyclone had reared its ugly head near the Solomons, so we left for Ha‘afeva in the Ha‘apai group. Once more, we enjoyed meeting friendly and hospitable people. We left for the island of Oua, but our bright sunny day turned overcast and sullen. I think that both of us were hankering for something other than palm trees, coral and sand; we had friends awaiting us in New Zealand, jobs to do, more voyages to plan. It didn’t take us long to decide that dodging coral in poorly charted waters, with overcast skies and a rising wind seemed a poor alternative to putting out to sea and heading off towards Opua. By sunset, we had cleared the last of the islands and were shaping our course towards one last anchorage – North Minerva Reef. At 23°39'S, 178° 54'W, this is about as far from any decent lump of land as you can reasonably expect to anchor. We had the best sail we’d had for ages and after the usual night hove-to, we got underway again at dawn.

01 March, 2007

North Minerva is an almost perfectly circular atoll surrounding a lagoon that is rarely more 60 ft deep, with coral heads dotted about over the level white sand bottom. There is one pass, in the NW quadrant. The Tongans, for reasons best known to themselves, have put a light (Gp fl. 2 ev. 9 secs) on the barrier reef much further SW, which adds a certain element of confusion when approaching; but in fact the pass is easy to find. There were two other yachts at anchor: one, an American cat, cleared out a few hours later. The other was a British Rival 38, with whom we’d been crossing tacks for months. Finally we got to meet them and had a wondrously bibulous evening on Iron Bark. A Tongan fishing boat was on the far side of the lagoon, collecting crayfish. They came over later and offered us six: we traded half a bottle of rum for two – I can just about mange to eat crayfish, but it doesn’t give me any pleasure! Trevor enjoyed his so much that he wished he’d traded for more.
North Minerva was truly a high spot: it’s hard to describe – or even to appreciate – the sensation of being anchored ‘in the middle of nowhere’. There are no sand cays, no palm trees, nothing but reef and surf. Going ashore at low water, we put the dinghy anchor behind a lump of coral and climbed up onto the reef, which had a miniature cataract running off its whole length. We wandered about, examining sea slugs and clams with gorgeously coloured mantles; looking at a pile of ballast(?) from a wreck; watching schools of turquoise parrotfish, formation swimming in the shallows. Then suddenly we realised that we were in calf-deep water and the waves, breaking on the ocean side of the reef, were finding their way right across. We waded back to the dinghy, whose anchor was now awash.
We’d intended to go looking for crayfish in the evening, but the moon was nearly full (which would make them very nervous) and Islay announced that they were leaving. We’d had a marvellous stop, the wind was fair and fresh: maybe it was time to leave? No sooner said than done. The dinghies were stowed on deck, the ship tidied up below and at 1625 on 2 November, we started extracting our anchor from the coral. That we could do so under sail shows how relatively clear that anchorage is. An hour and a half later, we had cleared the pass and were heading to pass South Minerva. Islay stayed in sight until 0800 the following morning, when increasing wind and occasional squalls hid her. After that, we saw one ship and one yacht’s masthead light, until we were quite close to New Zealand, when we were buzzed by an NZAF Orion, instructing us to e-mail the authorities that we were about to arrive! They seemed singularly unimpressed when we told them that the only radio we had was VHF. I’m not at all sure why it was that they couldn’t report our imminent arrival.
The passage from the Tropics to New Zealand is notorious – ‘ the worst weather you will ever encounter’, etc. Cruisers start worrying about it from the time they leave the Societies and agonise over the correct procedure. The favoured approach is to monitor the SSB and/or pay for weather information. Then you wait for the ‘Weather Window’, which seems to mean leaving when there is a large high-pressure system between Tonga and New Zealand and motoring like the demon for 600 miles. When the routeing charts only show a 2% incidence of gales, one really has to wonder what all the fuss is about. The other approach is to leave when you’re ready and take the weather as it comes, but this is considered very irresponsible.
At least until the half way point, we were sure we’d made the correct decision. We made rapid progress in fresh E winds for 2½ days and had made 412 miles by noon on the 5th. Then the wind started to take off and we anticipated running into the middle of the high, which had been stationary for several days before we left Minerva. In fact we were lucky and were never becalmed, although we had a couple of 90-mile days. Then the wind came back and it started getting cooler; we saw our first albatross and couldn’t believe our luck that the wind continued to be fair.
Trevor was trying to pick up New Zealand radio stations and on the 7th heard warning of gales around the Cook Strait, which we hoped would have gone by the time we got to New Zealand. A couple of days later, we could pick up the odd VHF broadcast and these gave us some food for thought: the low seemed to have stalled and there were storm warnings out for North Island, due to coincide with our arrival. Iron Bark is a sturdy little ship and can take storms in her stride, but we don’t go looking for them. On the other hand, if we pressed on there was at least an even chance of arriving before the wind went SW. We decided to continue: the worst that was likely to happen was that we’d have to turn round and run back N. All through the day and night of 8 November, we pushed on in increasing wind and heavy showers. The forecasts were now clear and it was going to be touch and go. We were over canvassed, but the gear held and Iron Bark crashed dauntlessly on. At dawn the land was in sight, frequently hidden behind violent rainsqualls, while the wind was a steady F7, rising to gale force in the gusts. As we approached the Bay of Islands, it increased further, gusting F9, but by 0630, we were between the headlands and after another couple of miles, were confident that whatever the wind decided to do, we’d be able to find shelter. At 0930, we secured to the quarantine dock, 7½ days from North Minerva.
Later that day, the Bay of Islands actuals reported gusts of 79 knots and sustained winds of 49. Maybe we should have waited for a ‘weather window’!