Monday, October 29, 2012

Trying times in the Tuamotus

Position: 14°27'S, 146°02'W - Manihi

After a few farewell drinks and pizza with Brian and Sue, we departed Papeete on Wednesday for the next leg of our journey. The route was straightforward – leave Papeete, take a right and head northeast. Three independent weather sources forecast the wind to be an east-southeast 10-15 knots, perfect sailing conditions for Ashling and a nice way for us to ease ourselves back into it.

Quelle surprise! We rounded the corner from Papeete Harbour and ran straight into our old familiar friend, the 20 knot wind, gusting to 25 knots. Talk about déjà-vu. We initially thought it was convergence effect ("accelerated winds created when the local wind over the island's hills and valleys collides with the dominant wind blowing at open sea" - Skipper) but after two hours, it was still going strong with waves splashing into the cockpit every few minutes. For the hundredth time, we regretted not installing a spray dodger (aka windshield) to shelter the cockpit before leaving Auckland. We also had a few choice words about the weather forecasts for French Polynesia.

We had planned to stop along the way at Rangiroa Island, the second largest atoll and lagoon in the world, but our three attempts over 12 hours were scuppered by strong winds and currents pushing us in the opposite direction to the lagoon entrance. In fairness, we had been calling the island Rangiora (a town in New Zealand) since we heard about it so perhaps our mispronunciation upset the powers that be. So we sucked it up and settled down for another few days at sea in what turned out to be nice, sunny days and clear, moonlit nights.

Sailing under a full moon is a magical experience. It's dark but it's light; it's scary but it's peaceful; you're alone but the moon is with you, watching over you and guiding you along the way. With the wind and waves aligned, the boat ploughs rhythmically through the water, leaving trails of phosphorescence trailing behind. A cloud formation appears every now and then, looking like balls of cotton wool strung together or candy floss strewn across the sky. The breeze is warm and you spot familiar stars like Orion, reminding you that while you may be far from home, the night sky is still the same. Put all that together with Nessun Dorma or the Ministry of Sound pumping on the iPod and it really feels like nature is putting on a show.

Our second attempt to break up the voyage to the Marquesas was more successful. On Sunday, we diverted slightly off our course to Manihi, another island in the Tuamotu group. The Tuamotu islands are different to Tahiti and Moorea as they are coral atolls – circles of land created by underwater volcanos (submerge a large bowl in a sink of water so that just the rim is above the water and you'll get the picture). Historically these islands were known as the 'Dangerous Archipelago' due to the many shipwrecks in the area. The islands are so low that they do not appear until you are almost on top of them. It's quite unnerving - you can see it on the chart, you know it's there, but there's no sign of it. Then suddenly a few palm trees appear on the horizon and voila! It's an island! Thanks to GPS, Jimmy Cornell, Charlie's Charts and anecdotes from many brave sailors over the years, sailing in the area is now more enjoyable, much safer and easier on the blood pressure.

We braved it through the entry pass just after high tide on Sunday evening with the help of a friendly local fisherman, anchored up, sat back and watched a fabulous sunset over a beer. Tomorrow we explore!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

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Onwards and upwards

Position: 17°S, 149°W – Papeete, Tahiti

Eithne in pool mode

One day off boat duty proved to be addictive – we went on holiday last weekend, splashing out to spend two nights in luxury at the Moorea Pearl Resort and Spa (thanks for the tip Amit Luis, it was even better than we imagined!). Every other couple at the resort was on honeymoon so when the staff congratulated us on our recent nuptials with a complimentary bottle of wine, we decided it was better not to confuse them. For two days we sat by the pool, snorkelled on the nearby reef and kayaked around Cook’s Bay, just like your typical honeymooners. We enjoyed every minute of our ‘weekend away’ and are already looking forward to our next stay on land, wherever it may be. 
The calm before the, er, storm
One of the highlights of our hotel stay was the buffet breakfast. We gorged ourselves both days, starting with the cereal and OJ, progressing to the salami, ham and cheese, before finishing with the full range of the cooked section and a few pain au chocolats to round it all off. A few hours after checking out on Monday and 30km down the road on a tandem bike, the shine started to wear off the buffet breakfast as the Skipper started to recognise the familiar signs of food poisoning. Even the bike seemed to figure out what was coming and wasn’t keen on sticking around to watch the main feature. It promptly lost a bearing and broke down so that we could get a lift home and back to the boat just in time for breakfast to come straight back up. Things seemed like they were about to get a lot worse when the head (toilet) packed it in too but thankfully the Skipper recovered before it got really messy.

With both the head and Skipper back to 100% working capacity, we left Moorea on Thursday and returned to Marina Taina to refill fuel, water, gas and do a laundry run. We’re in the anchorage this time which means that we are treated to unobstructed views of  sunsets over Moorea every evening.  Today we spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon with our yachtie mates Brian and Sue who are moored nearby, swapping stories and getting advice on different sailing destinations over cups of tea. They are flying to New Zealand for two months in mid-November so we had plenty of travelling tips to give in return.  

Cook's Bay - a nice place to call home for a week

From here we are heading north-east to the Marquesas Islands. This is a change to our original route but from what we’ve heard from other sailors here, they are well worth a visit to experience a more authentic French Polynesia than Tahiti and Moorea. Due to prevailing winds and the approaching cyclone season, Bora Bora and the other leeward islands will have to wait until next time (‘There’s going to be a next time?’ shrieks the First Mate).  
And finally, in advance of a few events taking place this week...
Happy 60th Birthday JJ Sweeney!
Welcome home Kate & Paul!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

From Le Capitaine

Position: 17°28’ 51.2S, 149°48’ 12.7W – Moorea, by the pool

I've just been beaten badly at cards by the First Mate, and my punishment is to do a blog post.
That was 2 hours ago, and so far I've only written one sentence but spent 1.5 hrs googling marine maintenance. Very interesting but the First Mate is on my case again, so best persevere...

30 mins later, i've got this far...

Leaving Auckland. Do it. Do it now.
We left in Spring (September) but as it turned out, spent most of the time running with following seas trying to go as slow and controlled as we could while maintaining enough speed to surf with the swell instead of being pushed about like a hockey puck.
The first week was tough. Average wind speed was 25 with regular gusts of 30+ and the sea built up accordingly.  Each hour we'd monitor the average and gust speed by staring at the instruments hoping to see a 1 or 2 as the first digit but be disappointed by seeing a '3' and occasionally a '4'.

There is a Sweeney in there somewhere.
Flying the Mayo colours for Sam. Shame.
First customer at Salon de Miley
The day the sun came out
6 knots with just a hanky up.
First night in Papeete harbour
Tucked up in Marina Taina

A summary of the trip from Auckland. Based on route planning information and reports from others, we had two choices for sailing to Papeete. Leave Auckland in Autumn / spring and have an 'uphill slog to windward'  Or, leave in Spring and have a slow passage with light winds.

Out of 23 days at sea, one day was becalmed and of the remaining, we only had full sail up for 1.5 of them. The conservative approach paid off and we thankfully didn't have any damage to the sails, steering or hull. We arrived two days ahead of schedule into Papeete after three final days of magic sailing due north slowing down to arrive at day break.

Arriving in Papeete, Tahiti took a bit of planning. The island is surrounded by a reef, and so we had to negotiate our first reef pass. These are safest just after low tide when the lagoon inside stops rushing out to the open sea. The harbour is confined and so the harbour master keeps tight control on traffic in and out of the pass. Then, once through the pass, there was a lot of confusion about where we go to do the relevant jobs of 1. park the boat, and 2. clear into the country. This is normally a one stop shop, but the Tahiti officials have somehow split it across four different offices & officials.

I'm beyond useless at French, but luckily for me, it turns out the First Mate  is quite handy at it. Ever since we lined up for the approach to Papeete, I've taken a back seat and done as directed by Madame Eithne. While it's been a welcome break from the skippering responsibilities, I've been a little frustrated playing the role of a hapless mute while Eithne babbles on with all the locals. I've progressed from " j'ai un petit peu francais" to "francais pas tres bien" and finally to " mon francais- c'est terrible" to which the gentlemen at customs replied "oui". Every time I try to speak French I get a noun or two out then all the rest is in Chinese. Eithne has been awesome at getting all the formalities and repairs organised as well as taking control of all the radio work. Meanwhile I've really improved my mandarin.

After a hectic first week ashore, we're finally on holiday at a beautiful tropical island. We've slowed right down, rested and gotten lazy. It's nice.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Life at anchor

Position: 17°30’S, 149°50’W – Moorea

One week on land and already our journey across the South Pacific feels like a lifetime ago.

We have continued to settle back into life on land, rediscovering the great French institution - Carrefour! Almost ten years to the day when we ventured into a Carrefour in Suzhou, China, we set off with a backpack, a shopping list and the same feeling of doubt over how much of it we would find.

There were no live turtles, snakes or fish, and we didn’t attract a following of locals looking into our trolley to see what we were buying. However there were plenty of things that we never found in New Zealand (tinned spinach, tinned ratatouille, tinned ravioli) as well as familiar things that are crucial to many of our boat recipes - bless Fonterra and their Anchor UHT cooking cream. Faced with so much choice, it dawned on us that it’s really the most basic of staples that we appreciate. We still have a lot of non-perishable supplies on board but fresh milk with cereal, fresh ham & cheese & lettuce in a fresh baguette, and a cold beer in the evening make us feel truly spoiled while near land. 

Welders at work
We spent most of our first week in Tahiti working on the boat as we wanted to take advantage of boat yards and boat stores in Papeete before heading to the more remote islands. Some joints in the bimini frame (steel structure above and around the cockpit) had cracked during our trip from New Zealand and we arranged to have them welded closed. While we were waiting around to do this, the Skipper produced a list of boat jobs that resembled that bottomless bag of tricks that Mary Poppins used to carry around with her – no sooner is one completed than another two appear.

Welding done and a ceasefire declared on the list of jobs, we set off from Tahiti and arrived in Cook’s Bay, Moorea just before nightfall on Wednesday. By pure coincidence, a Polynesian drum performance started up at the nearby Club Bali Hai hotel as we anchored, followed by a heavy downpour. When you are rationed to 500ml of water per day for a shower, rain really is mana from heaven so we grabbed the soap and shampoo and freshened up al fresco before dinner.  

Thursday was our first official ‘day off’ since reaching land and time to stretch our legs. Many tourists rent a scooter or a car to reach the Belvedere lookout over Cook’s Bay and Oponuhu Bay. Not our First Mate. She had her runners on and we were off for a two hour hike before the Skipper knew what was going on. Along the way we stopped at some archaeological sites, including a marae dating back to 900AD. 4,000km from Auckland, it was quite comforting to see the familiar Polynesian structures and customs that we take as a given in New Zealand.

Belvedere Lookout -
Ashling anchored in Cook's Bay in background
As we arrived back at the boat, we met our first fellow yachties when an English couple stopped by in their dinghy to introduce themselves after noticing our Irish flag. Brian and Sue have been sailing around the world since 2005 and we’re heading over for a beer this evening to hear about their adventures and experiences to date. Very excited to meet some other sailors and make new friends - it's been a while! 

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Nous sommes arrivés!

Position: 17°S, 149°W - Tahiti
We have arrived! We are white, tired and weigh a good kilo or two less than when we left New Zealand but the next 4-6 weeks on land should help to fix that J
After 23 days at sea, we docked at Quai des Yachts in central Papeete city on Wednesday morning. We were apprehensive entering the harbour as we had read many conflicting versions from other Skippers about where to dock and who to contact, never mind having to communicate on the VHF radio en français. We got there though and Le Capitaine, as the Skipper is called here, set off to complete all the entry formalities with the Harbour Master, Police and Customs. It’s been a long time since he parle français so it’s a small miracle that they let us into the country at all.
Dry land is A-MAZ-ING! After our experience over the past three weeks, we deliberately had no expectations of Papeete and arriving on land. We didn’t want to set ourselves up to be disappointed and furthermore, all the tourist guides describe Papeete as underwhelming and ‘just another city’ where tourists should spend as little time as possible. That may be so for people who arrive here by plane but for us, it was like arriving in paradise. We swung off the bow at Quai des Yachts and felt like we had walked into a dream. Land life, i guess, hit us all at once in an assault of our senses – colours of flowers, cars, shops; smells of land, food, people;  sounds of traffic, birds, laughter. Remember that 1980s movie Twins with Danny de Vito and Arnold Schwarznegger? We were like Arnold’s character, arriving into civilisation for the first time and finding pleasure in the smallest of things like a smile from a stranger or biting into a crusty baguette. We turned on taps and stared at the water, no longer worrying about how many litres came out or how many volts the pump was using to pump the water through. So many things we took for granted before setting sail.
Catching up on emails and Facebook, we’ve been absolutely overwhelmed with the many messages from friends and family all over the world. When we are out on our own in the ocean, it’s easy to forget just how many people are thinking of us and rooting for us to succeed. It’s hard to put into words how comforting this is – when reading all the comments for the first time, the First Mate choked up with tears of happiness and for those who have heard about Madame Ice Queen on our wedding day, that’s some achievement!  Please know that we really really appreciate it, and feel very lucky to have so many people who care and support us on our adventure.
Yesterday we moved from the busy Papeete Port to Marina Taina, 5km west of the city, where we have access to showers, launderette,  water, electricity and internet. Even our arrival at the marina was like a dream come true – after radioing in to announce our arrival, a guy appeared in a dinghy to guide us around to our berth. At the berth, another two guys were waiting to take ropes to secure the boat as we came up alongside a wall. This may not sound like much to the non-sailors reading this but berthing is one of the most stressful activities for any Skipper due to the high risk of collision with posts and boats in a confined space, so even one extra pair of hands is a valued asset.  
We’ve just had a cocktail at one of the bars in the marina while watching the sun set over the island of Moorea. For dinner tonight, le Capitaine is cooking up steak and spuds. Crew morale: 10/10

Life's always better when someone else does the cooking.
At Les Roulottes, Papeete.