A Bumpy ride to the Gambier

On Wednesday 13th April, we had returned to Hanga Roa from the little anchorage on the south of Easter Island where we claimed protection from the westerly winds. Leaving the island wasn’t going to be as easy as we had anticipated. Following a couple of days of westerly winds the swell into the Hanga Roa anchorage was to say the least uncomfortable and we rolled continually and violently from one side to the other. Just transferring from the boat to the dinghy was a major feat of balance and timing, with the sea pounding and both vessels thumping up and down and thrashing from side to side. Mike’s entreaties to just jump as Romano and the dinghy drew for an instant roughly level in passing were not helpful!

Whether we liked it or not, we couldn’t leave without checking out and the authorities had to be informed upfront that the skipper at least would be coming in at an appointed hour to complete the usual departure formalities. I took one look at the crashing waves and foaming surf rushing into the harbour entrance and decided on the cowardly option, staying on board to keep an eye on the boat! Knowing that our outboard was no match for the speed of the waves, Mike begged a lift from our young American friends, Jessie and Neil of The Red Thread who were also going to check out and with their more powerful engine hoped that they could make a run for it. (We have since spoken to a couple who pitchpoled into the harbour with the engine still running and they were both flung out into an area strewn with rocks – fortunately neither they nor the dinghy were damaged). Apparently it was a hair raising (literally) trip as they rode the top of a wave and Mike experienced some seconds of levitation, suspended in space to drop back heavily onto his seat.  
The following day, with all formalities completed and final provisioning done we used up the last of our Chilean money on expensive vegetables and fruit and waited for Jessie and Neil to return from ashore. We finally pulled up the anchor and chain plus all the extra chain we had put down for the deep anchorage and both boats literally sailed off into the sunset on 14th April on just their jibs for the 1,200 miles to Pitcairn and the further 300 miles to the Gambier.  
The Red Thread setting off.

The first few days went well with 15-20 knots of wind and we skipped along nicely on jib only – so much easier than having to deal with two sails especially at night! We kept pace and in daily radio contact with The Red Thread and it was comforting to know there were other beings out there in an otherwise very empty sea. After a couple of nights we adapted to a new regime of 6 hourly watches – I opted for the 8-2 slot propping up my eyelids for what seemed like an interminable time on duty – cups of tea, biscuits and a book all helped to pass the hours with the obligatory log taking every three hours, checking the course, the sails and weather, etc in between.  

As we approached to within 150 miles of Pitcairn it became apparent that we weren’t going to have an easy run to get there as we tried without success to hold the course. The weather was worsening and the forecast wasn’t good and we needed calm seas to have any hope of landing. As we have since discovered only a handful of boats actually manage to make landfall in Pitcairn, it’s a tiny island of only 2 miles by 1 mile with no good, protected anchorage. We have also now discovered that the price you pay to be collected and taken ashore by their own launches is the rather hefty sum of $50 per person per journey and then once ashore they ask $60 for the privilege of stepping on their 2 x 1 piece of terrain. With ideas of taking “goodies” for the poor stranded locals we weren’t altogether sorry to have given the island a miss.
Apart from the difficult nature of anchoring off of Pitcairn, both vessels had their own problems. The Red Thread, like us, had developed starter motor problems and with no guarantee of a reliable engine and bad weather in the offing, Pitcairn wasn’t an attractive anchorage. We, on the other hand, had sabotaged our own boat. In the first of the storms we encountered, whilst Mike’s attention was fully taken up in dealing with the kayak and its determined efforts to make a break for it, the chain and warp for the second anchor slipped out of its holding bag on the bow and poured over the side, still attached but streaming back under the boat. The inevitable happened and when later in the day after no sunshine, the engine was started to boost the batteries, it spluttered for thirty seconds and went dead. There was an initial feeling of horror and incredulity – “now what” – with big seas and rapidly loosing the light, the realisation that we had a rope wrapped around the prop, was not a prospect to be relished. There was only one solution, the rope had to be cut and fingers crossed that nothing had seriously damaged the engine or the prop. Mike’s initial reaction was to go under with a snorkel and mask but daylight was running out and the chance of him being able to hold his breath and safely negotiate the underside of the boat whilst it rose and fell and careered along at speed were not realistic. So, out came the hookah and it was put to work for the first time in earnest with Mike attached to it and the boat. Firstly, he wanted to save what he could of the chain and rope and once attached to a line we secured it back to the boat for later retrieval from the sea. In near darkness, he dived again and managed to cut the rope freeing up the prop whilst I tugged on the attached rope by which he was tethered to the boat. As the stern of the boat bounced up and down with the boarding ladder rising and falling and threatening at every moment to knock him out, Mike eventually managed to re-board Romano in one piece but exhausted and minus one fin which had gone its own way. I have to admit that I had been reluctant to go down the transom in the tossing seas (as suggested) and rescue the fins, but I reasoned that two of us in the water would have just doubled the problem!
With the chain and remaining warp cranked back on board, it was with relief that the key was turned in the ignition and after an initial hesitation the engine came to life. You would think, wouldn’t you, that this was enough to handle in one day. Firstly the kayak, breaking free from its support to bash repeatedly against the side of the boat with every breaking wave and having to be securely lifted and lashed using two halyards and several hank’s of rope, just a little bit the worst for wear but safe at least. But now, the real problem began and as I switched on the light in the head I was met by the slosh of water in the shower area. The bilge was full and the next horror emerged, none of the three bilge pumps, electric or manual, worked. Thank goodness for spares, a new pump was hastily installed and the water level rapidly reduced to inspect the next problem. A steady trickle through the prop shaft kept us on our toes running the bilge pump every hour day and night and with the weather as it was there was no chance of Mike returning under the boat to inspect the damage further.
Problems on a boat don’t seem to come singly or even in twos, they jostle to pour in, one attracting the next – someone out there was having fun at our expense! The next morning, the fridge was unusually warm, in other words it had given up after too much salt water in its vicinity. Opening the freezer with trepidation and little hope, it was obvious that it had joined its mate and given up on the freezing job with the ice falling off the plates. At that point the meat was still frozen solid but experience told us that a few days was all we would get before the fishes would be dining extremely well or we would have to cook everything with little hope of being able to keep anything for very long. A three day chicken stew made in the pressure cooker didn’t kill us and most of the rest of the meat made it to Mangareva in the Gambier and into The Red Thread’s fridge.
The Gods had not finished with us and it was obvious that they wanted us to experience a real “blow”. The second storm which the weather files had predicted would pass south of us, hit us with a vengeance and after a day of unpleasant, driving and surprisingly cold rain, the winds gradually increased, we are told as our anemometer is not working, to around the 45+ knots mark. Just poking our heads above the spray hood threw us staggering back into the cockpit and ducking for cover. The roar and whistling in the rigging was scary but Romano with just a tiny handkerchief of main and a whisker of staysail rode the waves like the true blue water aristocrat she is and lived up to her reputation. It was good to have our confidence confirmed in her abilities to cope with the conditions. We were surprised and pleased too that in such extreme conditions, the hydrovane wind steering gear coped brilliantly and needed very little attention despite the 15 feet waves which we crested and rode with ease, holding our course for hour after hour.  
We arrived with relief off the Gambier Islands and headed for the channel into the protection of the reef. “We haven’t finished with you yet”, those Gods again! At the first red buoy on the entrance through the reef, the engine suddenly started overheating. The engine water cooling pump impeller died and thank goodness the change to new one doesn’t take as long as in some other boats. Whilst I turned her bow away from the reef, Mike swiftly fitted a new impeller and we turned once more into the channel. Meantime, Jessie and Neil who had arrived several hours earlier than us but with a suspect engine, had decided to hove to for the night and in the continuing storm conditions had drifted some miles back out to sea. We were safely on the anchorage when they arrived and with relief they dropped their anchor on the bottom near us. We had discussed the possibility of us towing them in if their engine failed to start and thank goodness it had not been necessary – their engine with assistance of a hammer had roared into life and they safely entered the lagoon – with our own engine problems we would have had difficulty towing them through the narrow and tortuous channel for the two hours it took to pass through the reefs.
Tiki tea from the boat

Rikitea the town (or one street village) on the island of Mangareva is a picture-perfect Polynesian anchorage, a lush palette of greens and profusion of colours with all the textures you can imagine, trees of every hue and shape with tidy colourful houses hugging the sandy shoreline, backed by high craggy mountains. The village, the economy of which is sustained by its world famous black pearl industry, is very obviously wealthy in a Polynesian way, everyone is well fed, well clothed and with so many four by fours for a one street village, you wonder how pearls alone support the lifestyle. There is no evidence of poverty or deprivation and the cost of everything is well in excess of anything we have found anywhere else on our travels.

As always our first visit is to check in – to the tiny village Gendermerie where the formalities were minimal, we are European, so for us not even a stamp in the passport. As Americans, Jessie and Neil had a little more to do, but all completed with smiles and easygoing officialdom. Then a visit to the post office to change money – Euros to local francs no problem, but US dollars, no way! The young lady behind the counter was charming and helpful and as viewed in the village, the white frangipani flower behind her ear was a normal accoutrement to local female dress. The street was flanked by trees and shrubs of every description, fruit and flowers in abundance and we had been told that you only have to ask and the locals would be happy to give you whatever they have growing in their gardens. Seeing grapefruit the size of small footballs lying rotting on the ground (apparently not sweet enough for the locals), Jessie and I approached the homeowner and asked if we could buy some fruit (after being told they would be freely given) and together with a hand of bananas were taken aback when the lady asked for 1500 francs (the equivalent of about £10) for the bananas and six grapefruit but having asked and filled our bags, we had no alternative but to pay up. So much for free fruit! We vowed to go scrumping after that! Later we were overwhelmed by the kindness of people who were happy to let us try breadfruit, load us with grapefruit and bananas and their own special dishes.
We had conveniently anchored just off the one and only local restaurant which also had wifi. We discovered that our first meal there was a fluke of timing – they were actually open and that day with one of the two monthly cargo ships having just unloaded they had the ingredients to concoct a meal. After that, we were either too late turning up at 1.30, there were no vegetables, it had been too rough for the fishermen to go out or there was a barbecue in the village so not worth opening. Nevertheless, they were always happy for us to buy a beer (at the inflated price of £3.50) and use the Internet so we parked the dinghy on their beach and sat on their jetty with our iPads.
Inevitably, the first few days were spent working on boat repairs and trying to rectify problems. The fridge and freezer were non-starters and we had to come to terms with warm everything, milk that soured overnight and runny butter and cheese. Thanks to Jessie and Neil, we managed to salvage the majority of the meat and ate together for the first week demolishing all we could. The biggest problem though was the prop shaft and with help and advice from various cruisers, Mike and Neil with the help of the hookah system sealed the cutless bearing with underwater epoxy and stopped the leak and refined the bearing which we hoped would last us through to the inevitable haul out in Tahiti to rectify the damage.  
On Sunday we dressed up to join what seemed like a large percentage of the population for the morning service in the imposing Rikitea cathedral. The cathedral was built in the 19th century by a notorious French priest, Pere Laval, who virtually enslaved the local people, decimating the population through his ambitious religious construction works. The cathedral, as with numerous other churches on this tiny group of islands, was built from blocks of coral hewn at the expense of many lives. The nunnery was also responsible for influencing the population numbers – in one instance it took 200 young girls from their families, all in the name of religion. From a healthy population of thousands, the Catholic Church succeeded in reducing the numbers to a mere 500. It was interesting to observe and listen to the service and to wonder at the still devout local people, all dressed in smart local or up-to-date clothes, many of the women and even some little girls sporting the wealth of these islands in strings of the local “gold” – black pearls – with flowers tucked behind their ears and leis around their necks. Whilst the sermon and events were conducted in a monotonous and monosyllabic French, the singing with accompanying “words board” was in the much more joyful Polynesian tongue.
All dressed up in our Sunday best for church

After days of work and frustrations, we took time off to see something of the island and set off over the ridge to the bay on the other side of the island, admiring the views and lush and varied vegetation as we walked. The profusion of flowers and colourful shrubs (exotic plants to us which we would handle with care in a greenhouse) grow here like unruly weeds. On the far side of the island we followed the coastline with its shallow reefs stretching out to the little pearl farms dotted just offshore. We hadn’t gone far before we were accosted by an old lady who insisted that we load up with grapefruit and bananas from her garden and then presented us with her speciality of mango and tapioca jelly with coconut cream – an interesting experience trying to eat jelly with your fingers, but finger-licking good all the same! Rather than return the way we had come and stick to the road we followed the rough track back over the mountain, which we were assured wouldn’t take us more than an hour – that must have been goat timing or a vague memory from childhood as we slipped and slithered up the muddy path to finally reach the summit and finally arrived exhausted back in Rikitea several hours later.

Gill sampling tapioca and mango pudding with coconut cream

Unquestionably the most memorable part of our stay in Mangareva was a visit to a family-run pearl farm. Along with Jessie and Neil, Sven and Lisa a Swedish couple and Ari and Mariel, (Dutch doctors) we crossed once more to the other side of the island and were transported to one of the offshore farms for an instructive couple of hours, seeing and learning about the process of implanting, retrieving and marketing black pearls. Polynesia is famous for these particular pearls and in particular Gambier with its ideal lagoon conditions is the producer of the finest quality which are exported worldwide and which make this island a wealthy community.

Seeding the pearls in the oyster

 The owner, Michel, and his sons were charming, allowing us to interrupt their work and encouraging us to try our hands. We were all thrilled and touched when Michel said “pick an oyster” and as the girl delicately removed the contained pearl, we were each given our own generous memento. I was particularly delighted when mine emerged – it’s a beautiful and highly valued “green” variant, a very special keepsake indeed. The colours range from near black to silver grey to green, blue and black tinged with rose pink, all imparted from the oyster shell they inhabit.
Michel the owner of the pearl farm

It’s always sad to up anchor and say goodbye to a new, but by now somewhat familiar place but the weather forecast was favourable to move on and we wanted to spend a few days at the nearby island of Taravai before leaving the island group. Our only concern was the depth into the anchorage – we were going to scrape over the reef by a small margin at high tide. And scrape in we did but only after a second attempt with the depth alarm going off every few yards and holding our breath we arrived safely off our second Gambier island. We had been enticed here by three young English boys, Jess, John and Dan, we met in Mangareva who had crossed from the UK in Sparrow, their 26′ boat and were now house-sitting for three months for the French owners of one of the only three homes on the island. They were delighted to have room to move and the luxury of their own rooms after the months of confinement in such a small space. They had promised us fresh fruit and vegetables and that together with the chance to meet up again with their neighbours, Herve, his charming Tahitian wife Valerie and little son Ariki was something we couldn’t resist.  

Jesse, Jon and Dan in their garden with Dior the horse

We joined the boys for an evening barbecue of freshly speared fish and ceviche in coconut cream and we were very impressed by their newly acquired skills in subsistence living. In exchange for their comfortable beds and home on the beach, they were caring for a menagerie of escaping pigs, uncooperative chickens, a dog having a phantom pregnancy and a totally schizophrenic horse which had, for some reason, been imported from Australia to this tiny, paradise island. Paradise always has a price though, and here it was the swarms of persistent mossies which welcomed the new meat with alacrity despite our powerful bug spray.  

Dior joining in at dinner

As we walked from the boys’ home to Herve’s house a few hundred yards away, we marvelled at the abundant “food” supply growing wild en route – bananas, coconuts, breadfruit, grapefruit, oranges, lemons and much more, even coffee which the boys intended to roast for their own consumption. Herve had a small business going in pig meat. We had first met him in Mangareva when he had tried to persuade us to buy from him but at the time we were too busy trying to eat up the contents of our defunct freezer. We now saw first hand his piggery and the remaining inhabitants – the rest were in Herve’s large freezer – and we were now able to relieve him of a very succulent chunk of pork.  

Great big juicy grapefruit

The waters around Taravai were some of the clearest we’ve seen and the opportunity to see the reef was clearly not to be missed. Mike and I paddled the kayak and Neil rowed his dinghy to an area of breaking water off rocks where Neil speared some suitable fish for dinner and we admired the prolific fish life and colourful corals. Mike was excited to see his first sharks, white and black tipped reef sharks which, fortunately, were far less interested in us than we were in them.
Although we were all a little uneasy about the date, Friday 13th, we agreed that with the promise of a good SE wind it was time to leave the Gambier and head for Raivavea in the Austral islands. So, another sad farewell but with the anticipation of the next adventure, 750 miles (or about 6 days sailing if the weather is kind to us) to our west, we picked our way cautiously back over the reef and out into the channel and set our sights on our next destination in French Polynesia.

2 thoughts on “A Bumpy ride to the Gambier

  1. I really look forward to your blogs, what adventures and experiences you are having?
    Keep them coming, hope the next part of your journey goes well…
    Richard I

  2. Pingback: Twelve days of trials and tribulations on a tempestuous sea | s/v The Red Thread

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