One day, we went up to the Semaphore, which is the maritime radio station at Hiva Oa, and also a place for the sailors to get together on Wednesdays, when barbeque is organized by the volunteers. Christophe was there, Jeremy, and Daniel playing with the local band. He is a French guitar maker who settled in Atuona, the main town of the island after travelling around the world, and now he builds guitars on order, from locally sourced wood. I just arrived a week ago or so, but was welcomed into the small community of the healthy mix of locals, travellers and sailors, some of them staying short, some putting off and off their departure. I had no definite plan either, and it felt good, there was no pressure on me to be haste.
More people were coming as the night progressed and most of them had interesting stories how they ended up on this beautiful and far away part of the world. ‘I am Brian O’Connor’ introduced himself with perfect English a local fisherman. I nearly spit my beer from laughing; I thought he was pulling my leg. ‘We leave in Hanaiapa, the village on the north side of the island. Nearly everyone is O’Connor there. I have eight brothers and sisters, some of them have red hair and white skin some a mix, we all look different. My great-great-great grandfather was originally from Ireland; he went to New Caledonia then here to Hiva Oa, got married and established quite a dynasty.’ He told me, he studied in Hawaii, hence his good English, and came back living on the island with his Thai girlfriend, who he met at college. I was flabbergasted by the story, only a little bit more in a few weeks later, when reading Moitessier’s book ‘The logical way’ found a reference, that him, arriving to Hiva Oa spent weeks with a family who called themselves O’Connor. The man must have been the grandfather of Brian.
Hiva Oa is the largest of the Marquesas Islands and the main island of the southern group that also consist of Tahuata just a stone throw away, Fatu Hiva the most southern, and Motane which is unpopulated. The stunning rugged coastline, the lush vegetation and the high reaching mountains create a picturesque countryside. Since my arrival, when Rob from a boat I met in Colon waved a fresh baguette into my hands before I even dropped the anchor, I am having a good time. It is an amazing experience to meet up with friends after 3500 miles of sailing, ending up in the same little harbour on the huge ocean. I wasn’t even too surprised to see Andrea’s boat at the back of the bay. Easily recognisable, with shark jaws and teeth painted on the bow, they made remarkably good time of 27 days crossing from Panama, while I spent my time in Ecuador. Now it was time to celebrate the reunion before he must leave to be in New Zealand as soon as possible to prepare the boat to spend a winter frozen in the Antarctic ice. His short term goal was though, to beat me in chess at least once, and when it was done and the boat was ready he set sail with his screenshot charts to cross the Tuamotus. I am a bit torn between going and staying. The cyclone season is approaching and this would be the place where one can spend it safe and quiet, protected from the worst of the elements. On the other hand, it will be nearly half a year before I can get underway again if I don’t go now. Well, we will see, it is sunshine and calm water right now.
But the conditions are not always that benign in a Pacific Ocean safe heaven. It is two o’clock in the morning and someone is knocking on the boat while I am in my deepest and sweetest dream. ‘Attila, wake up!’ It is Jeremy. He is my neighbour, only one boat is between us. His de-masted catamaran soon could be a landmark (or I should say a watermark) staying this long in the bay. They arrived to Fatu Hiva at the beginning of the season, young French surfers with big plans to setting up a mobile surf school in the Tuamotu Archipelago, but due to a small, stupid mistake during a rigging maintenance session the mast came down. They motored up to Hiva Oa for repair, the friends left, and now Jeremy is looking after the boat and organizing the refitting. He is running around all day, barefoot, wearing only a surfing short, doing something, going surfing or talking to everyone, generally knowing and wanting to know everything that is worth knowing around the Bay of Tahauku. Now, he is coming around with the news that there was an earth quake in Mexico and we have a tsunami alert and all the boats are leaving the harbour for safe deep water. Strangest thing is, I just talked to Chris about the tsunami alert last year, and how the water was sucked out of this bay and pumped back many times creating a big whirlpool damaging some boats that didn’t bother to leave. That time the gendarmerie came around the boats, and told everyone to leave, but not everyone believed them. Eventually, some people had to be forced off the boats. Incidentally, Chris had no engine, so accepted a tow, but was dumped right outside the jetty leaving him in a dangerous situation. But that is another story…
The tsunami is only dangerous close to land. If you are sufficiently far away and in deep water, you will not even recognize the wave generated by the earth quake passing through, under the keel. It is also very well forecasted these days, scientists can calculate the possibility and strength of it based on the available data and issue an alert. It seems, every one heard the story of the last one, as all the boats were either motoring out of the harbour already or hastily pulling up the anchor. I thanked Jeremy the warning and tried to wipe the sleepiness out of my eyes. I was hesitating and thinking of staying put. What a miserable idea to pull up both my stern and bow anchor, and spend the night out in the dark motoring or sailing around for hours aimlessly. When I eventually forced myself to do something, the main anchor got stuck in the wire mesh that is laid down some places at the bottom of the bay to stop erosion. I had to dive down in the dark and murky seawater and free it out, working blindly, standing in the mud. Let’s not think of the sharks now! I can’t afford to lose my good plough anchor. At last it gave in and I was ready to go. Back on the deck I looked around. Danny, whose boat was the one between me and Jeremy, was helped by Axel from ‘the Norwegian boat’ as we called it in Panama. He wouldn’t be able to move on his own, but now he was sorted. I engaged the gear box, pulled on my makeshift throttle cable to rev the engine and motored out of the bay.
We were hanging around, just outside the bay, trying not to crash the boats, shouting at each other when we recognised who is beside us, but it was generally a big confusion, no one knew what to do. I tried to anchor at the 25 fathom line, so maybe I can stay and rest there, but a big fishing boat was drifting slowly towards me and Jeremy, with his mast-less big catamaran was also circulating around, so I decided it was not the best idea. How bad the idea was actually, I just realised when I started to retrieve the anchor. The 25 metre, 6mm chain and the 30-40 metre 3/4inch nylon rope felt like they weighted a ton. It took me the best of two hours before the anchor finally was fixed back on its place on the deck. Well, at least the sun was up by now. The yachts and fishing boats slowly dispersed, most of them heading back to the bay. Nothing happened of course, no tsunami wave came, it was a false alarm. I started off towards the Bay of Motopu on the north-east of Tahuata, the next island, less than 10 miles away and motor-sailed across the Canal de Bordelais between Hiva Oa and Tahuata islands. I thought I would look around if I am out at sea already, but the bay looked very unfriendly with the onshore wind and the swell breaking on the shore. I evaluated the situation and did a quick u-turn. It was a tough sail upwind against the current and bashing into the waves, but Comino again worked hard and took me back to Hiva Oa, no trouble.
Life resumed, and I went to visit Christophe on his blue boat. There are so many boats, who can remember all their brand and size. At least it was blue and not an AWB (average white boat), a bit more distinctive and easily recognisable. A Beneteau or Jeanau, one of those French ones, he was living on it for twelve years. He sailed to French Polynesia from the Caribbean, to meet with his girlfriend, who was sailing her own boat on a similar route, but she never showed up and hardly replies to his email. He is completely heartbroken, and just wants to sell the boat as fast as possible, as was his original plan, and fly back to France. The trouble is the boat has osmosis all over the hull. It is like a plague here, nearly all the boats develop it when they arrive, despite having nothing like that before for decades. It has to be hauled out at the boat yard, and it means weeks and weeks of sanding, epoxying, painting, antifouling. I persuade him to go for a hike and we spent a day in the mountains climbing up a random peak and having lunch on the top under a mango tree. We descended on the other side and hitched a car back to the boats.
I have my own trouble with the boat, but it is been decided, small boat – small problem. On the way back from Tahuata, I noticed that the starboard side lower shroud, 4mm stainless steel wire rope, broke at the lower fitting. Only 3 years old, it had no reason to do so, but what can one do. I looked around for solution. In general, you should try to avoid big repair in French Polynesia (in fact even small ones) as everything is very expensive and transport cost is high. The old rigging that I replaced in Lanzarote was still around somewhere in the lazarette, now I dug it out and used it to make a jury rig. Combined with some clamps and a couple of shackle it made a good enough impression on me. I went halfway up the mast to check the other lower shroud. Loose strands of wire were hanging out of the fitting. It was totally dead. I replaced that too, using the last of the ‘emergency rigging repair kit’ hoping everything will last for awhile now.
Meanwhile, I am running out of butane gas, used in the galley for cooking, and I have to find a way to refill the bottle. It isn’t always easy considering all the different variation in size and fittings of the cylinders. Here, the French Polynesian bottles are similar to the ones on the French Caribbean islands, but different colour. I heard about boats that managed to exchange their empty ones by merely repainting them to the local grey hue. I have smaller ones though, one from the UK (Calor, 4.5kg) and a Campingaz bottle. I use the Calor most of the time and just have the Campingaz as a backup. Cannot complain, last time I filled up my relatively small cylinder was in Portobello, Panama months ago. Now, Chris kindly offered to fill it up for me for a small charge. Chris is practically a resident on the boatyard. He arrived to Hiva Oa nearly two years ago sailing his Columbia 56 from San Diego. Originally from England, he has some interesting life behind him. After growing up on the English countryside, he learned French going to school in Switzerland. Later on he had his picture framing business and printer tone refilling enterprise; he worked in Australia in mines and in south-east Asia in the tourism industry. He sailed his boat across the Pacific with the help of friends and family, but had osmosis, engine, battery and rigging problems by the time they got to the Marquises. He put the boat on the yard and working on it ever since. He has a local gas bottle, we hung it upside down high up, connected my small one with the screw-on fitting I hacked to let the gas through into the bottle and settled down waiting with a couple of cold beer. The evening routine for Chris is to feed the cats he has, and to play with the chickens. The chickens are eating the cat food from his hand, but they are getting bold and demanding, climbing up the leader and taking over the deck. They are living wild all over the Marquises islands; you can see them in the towns, at the roadside, in the forest literally anywhere you go. There are usually hens and chicks and a cock together like a family. I heard opposing reports about the quality of their meat, some say they are lean and tough as they are near-wild animals, some say the meat is fat and juicy from the coconut and fruits they eat. I have yet to try it. At the moment they are flying around us as we are sitting four metre high in the cockpit of the boat in the cradle and they look very happy. They are useful; they help to keep the cockroach and the poisonous centipede population down.
The Bay of Atuona and Tahauku are like one huge south facing bay divided by a rock, Pointe Feiki with a light on it. The eastern side is Tahauku where the yachts anchor. There is a quay, currently under construction, where the supply ships go alongside. You suppose to anchor your boat behind an imaginary line in the middle of the bay to let the ships manoeuvre. A jetty runs across the harbour mouth, where the local fishing boats are tied up, stern to the jetty bow on a mooring ball, Mediterranean style. On the left side of the bay, as you enter, there are high rocks all the way to a black, volcanic sandy beach. The beach slowly and gradually drops and has more rocks as it gets deeper. Behind, there is a coconut plantation. A small river flows lazily into the bay, twisting away from your sight as you look inland. A ford lets you cross it even at high water. After heavy rain in the mountains the river can grow immensely and bring trees and all kind of floating debris to the sea. On the right side of the bay is the road to Atuona. It has some traffic. Fishermen from the boats, cargo from the quay, locals and tourists drive back and forth between the sea and the land. Behind the quay, with a high open barn to protect the offloaded goods from the rain, there is a gas station and small grocery shop. The road continues on, passes by the slipway, then splits right to the jetty, left to the boat yard and further on to the Semaphore station, famously the first in the Marquises.
Tahauku Bay is protected enough most of the time from the wind and swell, but in special circumstances, it can get dangerous. The news went around in the middle of September that a once in a five year phenomenon will create waves in our bay big enough to break and to surf on. The south-south-westerly swell combined with strong winds would push the waves through the entrance making it uncomfortable for the boats, to say the least. Everyone was getting ready to leave one way or another. Some boats were put on the hard, some stocked up with provision and left for other islands and better protected harbours. I decided to stay. When the place is crowded, it is recommended to use stern anchor to keep the boats banging into each other as they would swing around differently with no constant wind and the tide swirling around the bay. Now, that nearly all the boats are gone, I just put Comino on a swinging anchor and let her look after herself. I was helping Danny this time on the next boat. He is an elderly sailor from America, living on his catamaran. Sadly, his health is deteriorating and he is finding it hard to conduct the daily chores on a boat, let alone going sailing. Still, he loves living in the climate here, and on the boat and not willing to go anywhere. We prepared his boat the best we could and waited the waves to come. There were stories of previous big waves in the harbour and surfers surfing by the anchored boats bucking on the waves, so we held tight and expected the worst.
It was bad. It was coming slowly, getting worse and worse and then stayed for a long-long time. Comino was just fine in the middle of the harbour; I put the tiller on a bungee cord, and a very slack piece of rope to let her play with waves, and she followed the way of the flow of the water and it was even possible to make a coffee occasionally. I went up to Danny’s boat to check upon him every day. He had the bow anchor and two stern anchors out and they kept the boat into the swell. He had nearly a hundred meter scope in both direction, but the waves were big and sometimes just broke under the boat and this put enormous strain on everything. It was hard even for me to get from the dinghy onboard. Days on struggling we thought it was over, but it started to get worse again. The old catamaran couldn’t take it anymore. Things started to break. A fairlead on the bow, chafe protections on the anchor lines, hatches, everything.
One night the port stern anchor line got caught under the rudder and damaged the hull where the shaft enters. It started to leak badly. Danny told me in the morning the bilge pump was working overtime and he was worrying. I went to investigate and reported to him. He was nearly crying ‘I suppose this is the end for me. I have to move off the boat’ I told him not to worry, let’s have a beer; we will sleep on it, think about it and see what we can do. The next day he was much happier. We concluded we found the solution. The rudder was removed and the rudder stock was plugged in with a bung. All was good again. I went off to do one of my last shopping, and meet with Ana to discuss the details of our departure.