Nuie and it’s Whales

The island of Nuie is roughly midway between The Cook Islands and Tonga and is one of the smallest countries in the world with a pollution of only 1400 people on a land mass 10 miles by 5 miles. It is a raised atoll sitting on top of a volcano with sheer limestone cliffs riddled with caves and chasms to give a dramatic look to the landscape as seen from the sea. As we came into the bay of Alofi a whale breached ahead of us, jumping out of the water to land with a mighty splash. It repeated this breaching several times across the bay towards us and eventually passed by us a matter of 100 yards away. An amazing sight and a great welcome to Nuie, home of the humpback whale. 

One of the many whale sightings off Nuie

We picked up one of a dozen mooring buoys just off the concrete wharf in the capital village of Alofi. We decided to try to get ashore by kayak to check in that afternoon, if we had used the dinghy it would have to be craned out of the heavy swell onto the jetty but I had no lifting eyes fitted so the kayak seemed a better option. It proved a difficult process however, getting out of a kayak in a 3ft swell onto a landing which is above you is not easy. A rope had been suspended to steady people from boat to shore but they were already standing up in their boats we had to get there first so we could use the rope. I managed to stand up in the bucking kayak with more than a little difficulty and then time our swing ashore on the rope, monkey style off the”bucking kayak”. I made it without a ducking but only just and then it was Gills turn, she doesn’t have much strength in her knees and it proved quite a challenge but with the aid of two ropes and a heave from me she made it. All I had to do was pulled the kayak up behind us and between us we hauled it up the steps out of the surge.

One of Nuie’s many limestone caves

We checked in with the officials there on the quayside health first of all, I answered a few questions , have you been sick recently, of course we answered no but I wonder if you were ill would they send you back yo sea to die there. Next was immigration and customs, only 4 double sided forms to fill in, they must have big filing cabinets, then customs and more forms. When it comes to declaring the booze we wonder if we declared it all if they would confiscate it or bond it so I always err on the light side just in case. In practice no officer has ever been interested, they don’t even read the forms except the bit about firearms. We don’t carry any because I don’t know when and if I would ever use it if I had one. Lots of fisherman have approached our boat during our travels, any of them could have been pirates but how would you know they no longer fly the Jolly Roger, if they ever did. All of our visitors have been trying to sell or give us fish/crabs/lobster and in these cases shooting them would have been a bit over the top. Even out at sea we have been approached but most want a bottle of water or just to say hello and ask where you’re from. The only time you could use a gun would be if you were boarded at night at anchor so we have alarms and big kitchen knives.

Back to the wharf and our check in process, there are no checking in fees for landing in Nuie but strangely we had to pay $34NZ each to leave. It took about an hour to check in by the time all the forms had been completed. When we had finished were greeted on the quay by Neil from The Red Thread, they had arrived the day before and were sorting out a trip with the whale research team. We had registered our interest by email when in Papeete but heard no more. The Nuie Whale Research organisation is an NGO with very limited funding and they were asking yacht owners to take researchers out to sea to track and photograph the humpback whales which migrate here every year during the months from late July to September and to record this year’s hit whale song. The whales travel up from Antartica to the warmer waters of the tropics around Nuie and Tonga to mate, calf and return to the Antartica there to feed on the tons of krill they find down there. Neil asked if we would like to come with them and we jumped at the chance.

The following morning we joined Jessie and Neil on Red Thread and researcher Fiaa and her volunteer helper, Leni who also had a full time job at the local supermarket and was a waitress at a restaurant at night, a busy girl with a big personality. We hadn’t travelled a mile before we saw our first humpback, they grow to around 20 metres and weigh up to 45 tons so you don’t want to get too close and Fiaa was quick to get Neil to change course if she thought the boat was obstructing the whale’s path. This was to be the first of many we saw that day, we saw some in groups or pods, some loners, probably hopeful males and some mothers with calves. Fiaa had brought a hydrophone with her on a 10 metre cable which she dropped over the side to listen to the whale song, it was amazing to hear. The songs change each year and are sung by males looking for females, there are several verses to each song and these are repeated by every male with the same verses. Neil and I jumped in over the stern of the boat with our snorkels to listen to the whale song underwater. It had a cathedral quality to it and at its height it can reach 180 decibels, loud enough to travel for 100 miles. We looked around underwater to see if we could spot a whale and although the visibility was 100 metres we couldn’t see anything. While they are singing they are suspended head down in the water waiting hopefully for a female to come by. I was sorry not to see one from below but the sound of the song was something quite amazing, so sole full and haunting sounding through the depths. When we travel around the world we come across many special situations, each different and we never get tired or blasé about these. It’s always such a privilege to be there and be able to participate and quite humbling.

The next day we found a quayside ladder we could access from the kayak which had been hidden by a couple of patrol boats tied up to the jetty over the previous day’s and this made getting ashore much easier. We then used the self operated dockside crane to lift the kayak out of the sea and deposit it on the top of the quay while we went ashore. We found we could get internet at the “biggest little yacht club in the world”, Nuie Yacht Club, so it was an opportunity to catch up with a few weeks worth of backlog emails. We also met up there with Sue and John on Marilyn, David and Ghitta on Aros Mear, old friends from past ports. There were around 10 or so other boats on moorings in Nuie and we met some new folks that night at a get together at the yacht club who kindly stayed open beyond there normal 6 o’clock closing so we could party. Afterwards everyone headed to the local Indian restaurant for a curry, just like back home!

Gill and I decided to go snorkelling along the reef the following day, which fringed the coast line inshore of our mooring. We dived in off the boat and were suitably amazed, the visibility was the best we had ever seen at around 100 yards. The boat was tied to a mooring buoy in about 15 metres of water and you could see all around the boat to the bottom with its deep chasms and coral beds disappearing off into the blue. We could see fish swimming on the bottom around coral heads as clear as day it was a marvellous and quite unusual sight. We swam towards the reef face where we could swim up gullies and over the top of the reef where the waves broke, here were hundreds of fish feeding. Gill saw a group of about 100 going mad over some tasty food in a feeding frenzy. Deeper down were larger fish, parrot fish, grouper, box fish, needle fish and reef sharks, which just cruised by looking for a more fishy meal, I still kept a wary eye on these 8ft carnivores but they never bothered us, they probably thought we were too old and grisly for them to eat. For the first time in our travels we saw sea snakes, small ones at around 18 inches and the largest at 5ft, they seemed to prefer Gill to me and she had a few scary moments when they mobbed her. These are some of the deadliest creatures in the sea, one bite and it’s good bye Columbus, your history! The good thing about them is they only have small mouths and backward facing fangs to hold their prey so they can only bite the flesh between your fingers. Fisherman are sometimes victims as they pull in their nets by hand and the snake comes up unnoticed. Their black and white banded bodies are quite easy to see in the water unless they swim just under the reflective surface and one or two crept up on me unseen in this way. A quick flick with a fin sent them off, they’re not aggressive however just curious and fearless but I didn’t want them too close to me just in case. This was one of the best snorkelling experiences we have had on our travels, the visibility was incredible and the variety and range in size of fish probably the best we have seen from small and pretty to large and menacing, I half expected a whale to come cruising by but it never happened although they, reportedly, do come close to the reef from time to time.

The next day was August 15th and our friend Neil’s 35th birthday. A group of us yachties had decided to hire a car and a people carrier to transport 11 of us around the island for a bit of exploring along some of the “sea tracks” as they are called here. These are coastal paths leading to great views, caves, swimming pools, whale watching etc. Our timing was good as it was low water which allowed us to walk along the exposed reef and visit some of the incredible limestone caves with their beautifully sculpted stalagmites. Next we walked a couple of miles along a rough coral track through the woods to a cove which had some fantastic arches. We stopped here for lunch and a rest and then it was back down the trail and on to the Kings Pool where the kings of Nuie in times gone by bathed in this private place. The pool is in a chasm about 6 metres deep and 100 metres long with a blowhole link to the sea. The blowhole creates a groaning and puffing sound as the sea rushes in and out, creating an eerie atmosphere to the place. 

The King’s Swimming Pool

Our next stop was at Luna pool which had a couple of pretty coves for swimming, the water was a mix of fresh from underground streams and salt from over the reef making the water shimmer which distorted our vision through our diving masks as the layers of salt and fresh separated and created an unusual lens effect. 

A beautiful arch carved out of the limestone by the sea.

 By now everyone was getting thirsty so we decided to stop at the Sail bar on our way back to the harbour. The bar is perched on the cliff top and gives a superb view over the sea below where we could watch whales making their way north. Once back in town we inflicted ourselves on the local Indian restaurant for dinner and a few more beers, well we had to celebrate Neil’s birthday in style!

Gill had made a cake for the occasion so Neil and Jessie came back to the boat for a slice or two.

We decided to leave the following morning as there was a two day weather window forecast with favourable winds for Tonga. This meant going to the customs office at the airport some 4 miles away to get our clearing out papers and pay our dues but fortunately the family off the Israeli boat moored next to us went by in a hire car and gave me a lift. The customs officer then drove me back to the boat so my legs were spared a long walk.

The following morning we set sail for Tonga about 340 miles due west. On our second day out I was sitting in the cockpit watching the waves role by when I saw a whale surface and blow. It was a big one and about 100 yards behind us. We were right in its path, I called Gill and we waited with bated breath for it to surface again. This it did but now 50 yards behind so I changed course 30 degrees but the whale followed us. I changed course again and so did the whale, it was as long as the boat and a lot heavier it then surfaced 20 yards behind us and we were getting alarmed, if he hit the rudder it would just snap off. I let out more genoa in an effort to outrun him and our speed increased to 7 knots, I changed course again to come close hauled. Gill had gone down below to get her camera but was too riveted by this encroaching mammal to remember to take a photo.

I had no idea what the top speed of a whale was and we could only hope he would tire. He was coming up for air every couple of minutes so I guess he was breathing pretty heavily. Whether it was aggression and he was chasing us off or it was innocent curiosity we will never know but after our last manoeuvre to starboard we never saw him again. Being chased by a big whale was not something I would like to do again, we had no means of defence and if he had hit us and taken out the rudder we were 100 miles from Nuie with little chance of rescue any time soon but we lived to sail another day!

Paradise on Palmerston Island

Palmerston Island is one of the Southern Cook Islands and around 650 miles going west from our last port of call in Bora Bora. We had a mixed passage getting here with everything from squalls to calms and it took us 5 days. We had debated missing out the Cooks on our way to Tonga but were really pleased we hadn’t, we would have missed one of the nicest and most interesting places in the world.

Sunset over Bora Bora

Arthur Neale, the Island administrator described it as, “the most isolated remaining bastion of the British Empire”, visited once by Prince Philip on Brittania in the 60’s. The island is still a British protectorate and administered by New Zealand. It is a community of only 55 people most of whom are descended from William Masters who was a 19th century adventurer from Gloucestershire who arrived via the northern Cook island of Penryn with 3 Polynesian wives and later settled on Palmerston in the late 19th century after a life as a whaler and a prospective gold miner in the US. The marriages produced 26 children and from there a dynasty was born. There are now over 1500 Masters family members, who originated from here, around the world but only around 50 who still live here. Palmerston island is one of several Motus (islets) around the rim of the 10 mile wide atol but the only one which is inhabited. The other Motus are reserved for coconuts, crabs and birds. The next nearest Cook island is about 200 miles away to the south.

Looking to Palmerston from the anchorage.

By good luck we arrived on the island at the start of their 4 day annual independence celebrations having asked for permission to land by SSB email en route. Palmerston is not a recognised port of entry into the Cook Islands but nevertheless we received permission from Arthur Neale the island administrator. We tied up to one of their buoys just off the reef and dropped our anchor to a metre off the bottom as added security against failure of the mooring rope, it happens! If it broke the noise of the dragging anchor would alert us to the problem as we drifted towards the reef and this way we didn’t damage the coral by digging our anchor in.

We were greeted by brothers Simon and Edward Masters in their dory’s who directed us to pick up a mooring buoy. Unfortunately we missed on the first few passes (women drivers!) and then got the mooring line jammed around the rudder, not a very auspicious arrival. I dived in while Edward pulled Romano back with his launch to ease the tension on the mooring line and I was able to free us.

Martha the health inspector and Island nurse was first on board and sprayed the boat with some lethal chemicals so we had to seal everything and stay in the cockpit for 20 minutes. This was mainly a precaution against fruit fly from French Polynesia. She told us we could keep our stocks of fresh fruit on board, now nicely flavoured with chemicals but on no account were we allowed to take any ashore. Once the boat had been fumigated by Martha for the princely sum of $20 she was followed on board by Arthur Neale the island administrator and customs and immigration officer who cleared us in to the island for a further $70. Arthur explained that Simon and Edward would be our hosts during our stay however it wasn’t clear at this stage what that meant. After clearing in and despite being bleary eyed after little sleep we were whisked ashore by Simon to join in the festivities. The beach volleyball semi finals were underway, chairs were brought for guests and cold drinks provided while we watched four very good teams battle it out for a place in the final. The final proved to be quite a close game but the team with the biggest slammers won.

After the volleyball Simon took us and three Swedish guys off SV Salsa on a brief tour of the island which measures just half a mile in diameter and showed us the main facilities. The island is covered in sand and is kept very clean and tidy, coconut trees predominate but there were giant mahogany trees and mango and pawpaw to provide fruit in season. Palmerston is no more than half a mile in diameter and completely surrounded by reef with only a couple of very small passes for the islander’s fishing dorys. There is a shallow multi hued lagoon around the island, inside the reef, with lots of coral heads making for tricky navigation. It looks and feels like everyone’s idea of a typical island paradise pure white sandy beaches, coconut palms leaning casually over the turquoise lagoon water, the distant thunder of breaking waves on the outside of the reef and the deep blue of the ocean beyond. I had to pinch myself it’s not paradise but it’s pretty damn close.

Imagine calling this home!

Fishing is the main occupation now that the copra trade has ceased and the main export is parrot fish caught around the reef and highly prized in Rarotonga. The island is served by a cargo ship which arrives each 3 to 5 months and intermittently goods and food are brought by yachts travelling from other Cook Islands. The only way to get here is by yacht or cargo boat, we were the 24th yacht to visit in 2016, so not a busy place. Simon told us that the island could easily be self sufficient but they have now got used to imported luxuries from around the world. The island economy was sustained for many years by the copra trade but this was very hard work for little reward and involved even children being given quotas of coconuts to collect and husk which kept them busy from daybreak to dusk. Today the government gives the islanders a generous social allowance and there is no longer any need for people to work. They have television, Internet, fridges and freezers, washing machines, showers, mobile phones, tablets and all the modern equipment you would find in a UK home, all bought and powered by government handouts! The local school has 21 children aged from 5 to 16 being taught by a young American/South African couple on a three year contract, the headmistress is Arthur Neale’s New Zealand wife.

After our tour the five of us were taken to Edward’s house where lunch had been prepared for us. We dined on a huge dish of fish cooked in a rich soy based sauce and washed down with homemade fresh lemonade. Over lunch we talked about the island and its rules and customs most of which had been set down by the original William Masters. 
Brothers, Simon and Edward are 5th generation Masters with Simon head of the family and Ed the local policeman. The island had been divided into three equal parts for each of the original William Master’s three “wives” and then their 26 offspring and Simon was the current head of his family’s section. No one can sell land or change the original distribution although their are common facilities like the church, solar farm, school and central water catchment facility. Rainwater is the only source of fresh water being caught on the roofs of houses and stored in large tanks hopefully holding enough to see them through the dry season. The houses are of reinforced concrete construction with corrugated tin roofs and spacious. Chickens and pigs run wild and I asked how egg collection worked, the chickens and pigs are marked, the chickens by clipping their claws and each family has a different clip pattern. The chickens can lay their eggs anywhere around the island but any eggs laid on your land are yours. There is a barter system in operation on the island so if one family has a surfeit of Mangoes or PawPaw they can exchange for something they need. No money changes hands, cash is used to buy things off island. Ed explained how he came to be the island policeman. The government in the capital on Rarotonga asked him to do the job but he refused, a thankless task on a tiny island. However the government ignored him and paid his salary anyway so he thought after a couple of months he should do it anyway. There is no cell on the island so he has to radio Rarotonga to send a boat for any miscreants. This happens very seldom and normally a warning from muscly PC. Ed is enough to deter any troublemakers.

We asked what everyone did as no one worked any more, Simon said “they gossip about each other”, it’s the favourite pastime. We could imagine the island being a political hot bed with everyone living in very close proximity and nowhere to go.

After a lazy afternoon Edward took us back to the boat, through the coral maze, at high speed. Clearly he had done this many times before but for us it was an exhilarating white knuckle ride.

Ed promised to pick us up at 08.30 the following morning in time for the next days events, when he arrived the following morning, bang on time, we were still fast asleep. I staggered up top and apologised profusely asking if he could come back in an hour. After an hour and a half it was clear he wasn’t coming back any time soon so we launched the kayak and set off for a nearby gap in the reef with our bags etc securely tied down. We thundered through the reef on the back of a rolling wave and fortunately didn’t turn turtle or hit anything, exciting stuff. When we arrived in the village the “eating a sticky donut on a string” competition was underway with the crew of Salsa up against two big Polynesian men. They had no chance! 

The two island guys had already finished well ahead of the two Swedes

Next up was the “quickest to thread a needle” competition” very difficult to do under pressure and one of the old grannies beat everybody else twice over with ease. We had missed the tug of war earlier through sleeping in and learned that Ed had been a key member of the losing team which explained why he hadn’t been able to come back for us. In the afternoon after another great lunch at Ed’s house we went to watch the singing and dancing competitions and joined in afterwards to try our hand at wiggling bums and leg shaking, much to the amusement of the locals.

Gill doing a very British wiggle

One of the young girl dancers

A group of singers with Simon in the foreground

The following day was Saturday with the whole day dedicated to a fishing competition, it started at 6am so I didn’t volunteer to go out with the boats but stayed in the weighing in station to see the catches as they came in. The women and children walked across the shallow lagoon to the edge of the reef and fished from there. The men went out in boats after larger catches and the first to come back had four big wahoo the largest of which weighed in at 31kg and was easily 8 ft long. The man who caught them was massive himself with arms like tree trunks, he needed to be, he caught them on a simple handling trolled behind the boat. I asked him if we was going out again as he still had hours to go before the competition closure time of 2pm but he said no one would beat his catch and he was right as it turned out. He gutted and filleted the fish and then his wife cooked some of it including the skin which was fried to crispy and tasted delicious, so we had lunch there that day. 

The catch of the day, three wahoo

The boats and reef fishers came back with lots of different fish, big barracuda, Mahi-Mahi, tuna, flounder, parrot fish, surgeon fish, grouper, bass and many more we didn’t know the names of. There were prizes for boat catch and largest fish for both reef fishers and boatmen and prizes for children’s catches. 

A proud PC Edward with his catch

Everyone on the island was very open and friendly, the children were fearless and took to us as easily as if we had been a part of their family. One young boy of twelve came up to us on our second day while we were looking at grave stones in the churchyard and shook our hands and introduced himself as Noumi. He asked us questions about ourselves and our travels and home and told us about his life all in an open and confident but not pushy way. How many children in our society would have the maturity and confidence to do similar? Our hosts had been especially hospitable and we wanted to repay a little of that so we gave the family, books and colouring pens for the school and tinned foods, nuts, raisins, rum and beer for themselves, all of which they were very pleased to receive. No alcohol is consumed in public but it was clear that Simon and Ed were pleased with the booze.

The South Sea islands are very strong on religion so Sunday on Palmerston is kept as a day of rest, church going and prayer. We asked if we could join them for the morning service so Ed came out in his dory to collect us at 8.30 and this time we were up breakfasted and ready to go, Gill in a posh dress and me in checked shorts and a yellow tee shirt. When we arrived at Simon’s house he took one look at me and disappeared in the house to emerge with a pair of long black trousers and a cream long sleeved shirt. Shirley, Ed’s wife loaned Gill a very fetching floral hat to cover her head and off we went in procession. In the church the men and women are segregated, no hanky-panky here, so we parted, men on the left and women on the right. I tried following some of the hymns in the Polynesian hymnal but gave up and listened to the congregation, men singing one line the women the next in beautiful harmony. The minister who was dressed in white trousers and white jacket with gold buttons included us yachties in his sermon thanking us for swelling their population! and bringing “things” to the island, I wasn’t sure if it was a hint but I went up anyway and thanked him afterwards for his well meaning words of welcome.

Back at Ed’s house I quickly stripped off the hot clothes and was much happier back in my shorts and tee shirt. Sunday lunch was impressive with fish, chicken and some local birds they had shot or trapped which tasted and looked like tender grouse. This was followed by slices of delicious chocolate cake that Gill had made the day before. Over lunch Simon mentioned that he was looking for a new wife as at 63 and head of the family and a man of property but with only 3 sons (10 children would be closer to the norm) it was clearly time to have more. He had decided an Australian or New Zealand doctor was who he wanted to marry next which would also provide the island with better medical facilities, two problems solved! He said he would go to New Zealand to pick the woman himself, he didn’t want any of his sisters who lived there doing the selecting for him. The island is a very chauvinistic place and the men have no hesitation in telling you that the role of women is to cook clean, warm the bed and bring up their many children. We tried explaining to Simon that a young doctor from New Zealand or Australia wasn’t going to take kindly to that kind of life or treatment and that 50 patients were not likely to satisfy her professional needs but he couldn’t understand, in his mind he was a plum catch any woman would be pleased to marry.

We had the rest of the afternoon off and went snorkelling in the lagoon to return to the village at 4pm to watch a hymn singing competition. Each team was dressed in matching designs and or colours and the ladies wore beautiful floral hats or lei’s. Some of the hymns were surprisingly aggressive with both men and women battling words, jumping around and throwing lines like spears across the room and at the top of their voices. You’d be thrown out of most churches for that kind of behaviour but they seemed to enjoy it hugely.

The ladies competed that afternoon in a bake off for the best cake with the theme of “the throne” as this was a celebration of their constitution. The best bit was we were allowed to taste each of the entries, not very slimming but yummy!

After the hymn singing competition I thanked the people gathered for allowing us to join in their festivities, for showing us unconditional friendship and for arranging such generous hosts and thanked them in particular for their outstanding hospitality. Afterwards we had been invited to a village feast which was held on the beach near the Blue House, the table must have been 30ft long and was laden with many different dishes, enough at least for a double our number. There were however a few 20 stone trenchers there who make short work of the leftovers.

Visiting the island had been a great experience and even after such a short stay we felt we were leaving good friends behind. Ed took us back to the boat through the coral maze unerringly in the dark. We left at first light after radioing Ed a final farewell and thanks. The island of Nuie was 300 miles to the west and the wind was fair and following so off we wallowed. Our friends on Red Thread had gone north up to Suwarrow in the Northern Cooks, a national park only populated by a couple of Rangers and we had agreed to keep in touch during our track across to Nuie. They left a day before us and were there on Nuie when we arrived but more of that in the next blog.

A Close Encounter – by Gill

There are those heart-stopping times in cruising when you wonder if “this is it”?! “Has our luck run out, have we pushed it that bit too far or been too ambitious for our own good?” From the safety of a calm and beautiful anchorage in Raivavae we were thankfully able to reflect on the close encounter and knew that we were extremely lucky still to be afloat aboard an incredibly well built, tough and resilient yacht.
Our 6 day sail from the Gambier islands, leaving on a Friday 13th, had been uneventful and after the previous tempestuous leg, thankfully, relatively calm with light winds. So light, in fact, that at times we had had to squeeze every last puff out of the breeze, for much of the journey we sailed goose-winged and poled out (mainsail out one side and jib poled out on the other, to catch the following breeze). The resultant motion in this configuration is not pleasant and we rolled back and forth in a very sloppy and uncomfortable manner for days, giving us both a dose of chronic indigestion! Our daily tally of miles was low but an extra day or two under way wasn’t any big deal. We finally came to a halt on the last evening with the island of Raivavae in sight some 30 miles off when the winds shifted to the West “on the nose” and even hand-steering failed to maintain any forward motion.  

With the final instruction on my watch from the skipper that if the winds didn’t shift (as they were forecast to do but as usual the forecast was wrong) to a more favourable quadrant so that we could sail the last bit, I was to start the engine at midnight to move us along towards a daybreak landfall. At 2.00am and under engine Mike relieved me of my watch and I, as usual, climbed gratefully into my bunk. At 5.45 and in the pitch dark, I was rudely awoken as I was bounced with force from the bunk. Initially, I thought it must have been a rogue wave in a patch of very rough water hitting the side of the boat or a large log, but as more violent strikes followed realised it wasn’t the sea or logs. As I clambered out of the bunk, Mike appeared down below in shock, with the unimaginably terrifying words, “we’re on the reef”. In the dark it was impossible to see exactly what lurked below us, but we could certainly feel the impact of one bomie (coral head) after another as we continued across the submerged reef towards a line of white water in the distance. We lurched violently from side to side as the keel struck time and again, throwing us over from gunwale to gunwale. Time seems interminable in such a circumstance and with the horror of not being able to see and work out the best way clear, Mike put the boat in reverse at full power but were we actually moving backwards? It was impossible to tell in the dark and we prayed we would soon find ourselves back in deep water. After a good 40 minutes of gut-churning, breath-holding grinding and slamming we managed to turn the boat seaward with the help of the bow thrusters and all went calm again as we floated free. We were still, unbelievably, afloat with the rigging intact, the keel still attached, no water coming in and it seemed we were in no imminent danger of going to the bottom.

At the “inquest” a very chastened and embarrassed Mike admitted that his calculations on distance to the waypoint (which it appeared had mysteriously moved to rest on top of the reef – that gremlin again!) were wildly inaccurate and, worst of all, at the time of impact he had been sitting down below with his nose buried in a book!! We have both had many lessons to learn on this journey but this has been one of the most painful and potentially dangerous of them all as we considered how lucky we had been not to have lost the boat. (It was threatened that the kindle would be confiscated on all subsequent night passages and Mike would be lashed firmly to the wheel!!). We have heard that complacency is the worst enemy of sailors and it takes a lesson like this to reinforce and reawaken us to the dangers of the oceans and relying too much on electronic navigation.

Amazingly, the prop shaft “fix” which we had agonised over and which we had been carefully nursing with slow engine revs to minimise stress, was not only intact but showed no evidence of any movement and not even the tiniest trickle into the bilge. It was with fingers crossed and expecting the worst that Mike eventually plucked up courage to attach himself to the hookah once more and dive below to inspect the damage. As expected, the keel had not gone unscathed and the forward part was missing some “chunks” with the fibreglass the biggest sufferer and some underlying metal showing through, but in the circumstances we got off remarkably lightly with only superficial damage. There appeared to be no cracks or signs of stress which the haul out in Raiatea confirmed. Thank goodness once more for a boat built to withstand heavy usage, including an all too close encounter with a reef.

Although this experience is now inevitably bound to remain uppermost in our minds and be our memory of the Gambier to Raivavae journey, we should note however Mike’s prowess in catching and landing our biggest fish by far, to date. I was woken in the morning by the rhythmic thumping of something large and heavy above my head striking on the back deck. Emerging into the early morning sunshine, I was met by the bloody sight of Mike tussling with a huge Mahi Mahi which he was endeavouring to kill and which remained equally stubbornly in the land of the living. The whole area was spattered with blood as the fish thrashed this way and that, but the magnificent specimen with its large erect vivid blue dorsal fin was by now starting to lose its glorious iridescent golden colour. Whilst thinking of the number of fish meals it would yield there were also concerns of how to keep the fish fresh without refrigeration. The Mahi-Mahi is a magnificent fish in all its golden glory but this was also a sad moment to see such a beautiful creature meet its end and lose its colour. Just so that Mike can’t tell a “tall” fisherman’s story, I measured it and even without exaggeration it reached an impressive 45″ from tip of nose to tip of tail, quite a catch!


One that didn’t get away and yes it’s chilly out of the tropics if only just.

For the next two days we had a surfeit of fish but as we discovered, it really doesn’t keep very well without a fridge! The big dish of ceviche made on Day 1 stretched into Day 2 but the uncooked fish wasn’t a good idea for lunch and we both suffered a strange bout of itching, numbness and stomach upset following our fourth meal on the trot of Mahi Mahi. In retrospect, the unexpected demise of the curry which had been prepared for meals five and six was probably the safest outcome, if not the most fragrant or decorative way to use it. As the cooling saucepan of spicy mixture tossed backwards and forwards across the galley flinging its contents in all directions, on the night of the “close encounter”, it coated everything in its path. As well as adhering firmly in yellow fibrous patches to the ceiling, retexturing the undersides of the shelves and cupboards and gluing together cookery books, it even managed to find its way through the finger holes onto the contents within the galley cupboards and the whole area took on the pungent aroma of an Indian takeaway!
Our arrival in the calm and picturesque anchorage in Raivavae on that fateful morning of the 20th May will be easily remembered, it was Mike’s birthday and not just any birthday, it was his 70th, what a way to celebrate! Our arrival was more than welcome relief from the early morning traumas and once The Red Thread followed us safely through the reef and dropped anchor alongside, we all set off together to find the Gendarmerie and report in. Antoine, the most friendly policeman you could hope to find welcomed us, took our particulars, showed us the visitors book which had been started in 1959 and was still going strong with just a few yachts calling over the years at this remote island, and presented us with a welcoming supply of grapefruit.

The anchorage at Raivavae

With the help of Jessie and Neil the day was salvaged and the evening turned into a birthday celebration on The Red Thread. They produced a lovely meal (fish again but this time the tuna they had landed) and they even rustled up a birthday banner just so there was no doubt about the number!

The island has a tiny population, reputedly 500 in the two main villages, again just hamlets surrounding a single street with a church, small shop (“sorry no eggs, fruit or veg but there will be more when the boat comes in in a week’s time”!), the smart but fairly useless Mairie, an infirmary and surprisingly a small Internet cafe where the local young women were keeping up to date with Facebook! 

Some of the islands fearsome animals! 

As we walked along the “highway” we were accosted by Edmond on his scooter wanting to know where we had come from. We discovered that Edmond, “everyone knows me as La Boudet” who was a gregarious and very chatty 78 year old French resident kept himself busy and in pocket money with his little market garden producing greens for the nearby pensions. He had some bags of lettuce and cucumber swinging from his handlebars and told us that if we would like to come to his house in the next village (very specific instructions given all the way to the village) the following day (Sunday) we could buy some much needed vegetables and, better still, why not come for lunch as well. That was an invitation we couldn’t refuse, and so paddling the kayak around the headland to the next bay, armed with a gift bottle of rum, we went in search of Edmond and an anticipated Sunday lunch. As it turned out however Edmond had forgotten about our invitation stating he had had his lunch at 11.00 and was taking a nap when we arrived. His little house, typical it seems of many men on their own, had few frills and comforts but it suited him. He regaled us with his history and many black and white photos of his time in the French army in Djibouti, followed by his service in Polynesia where he settled and married and had remained for the past 60 odd years. We did eventually get our vegetables from his garden and some more grapefruit and bananas courtesy of Edmond’s neighbour – the grapefruit are widely grown but it seems that they are not eaten by the locals – strange, when they are by far the largest, sweetest, tastiest and most juicy that we have ever eaten. 
I spotted a basil plant growing at the roadside edge of a garden on the way back to the boat so we scrumped fresh herbs for dinner and when these ran out Mike was sent off on the kayak as a dusk raiding party to get some more for the spaghetti bolognese we were sharing with Jessie and Neil off The Red Thread. As he approached the house he could see the family sitting in the garden but by now it was fully dark and he couldn’t find the bush on a casual pass. So he tried a second pass getting his nose closer to the plants when a little boy of about six popped out of the drive and asked him “what are you doing”. He must have looked very strange peering into the undergrowth in the dark and said stupidly because it was the first thing that came into his head “I’m looking at your garden”. He was asked quite reasonably “why?” Mike was stumped for an answer and beat a hasty retreat down the road only creeping back when the coast seemed clear. Well he couldn’t come back and say he had failed in his mission, could he!? This time he found a basil bush by smell, grabbed a handful and got back to the kayak without being discovered. Mission accomplished!


Raivavae from the top of Mount Hiro taken by Jessie and Neil

Jessie and Neil of The Red Thread had suggested to us that we might like to experience a “sleep over” on their boat whilst we motored around the island inside the reef to the “swimming pool”, an apparently spectacular snorkelling area on the far side of the island. We were more than happy to leave Romano safely at anchor under the watchful eye of Antoine, the policeman, and we set off in sunshine to explore new waters. By the time we reached the other side of the island, the sun had given way to clouds and the visibility was not at its best. It soon became apparent that this had not been an all together good idea while we skirted and avoided one coral head after another, trying to find a good passage. As the good light finally gave up all together we anchored as best we could, Neil checked the anchor (swam over it) and we hoped for a quiet night. As the wind changed direction, and in the dark, we swung with it and there was that nasty, dreaded moment when we came into contact with a previously hidden coral head. Surrounded as we were by numerous other coral heads, it was impossible to move in the dark and the only solution was to take in some of the chain to pull us away from the offending pinnacle and put out a second bow anchor to hold us firmly in place. This is difficult enough in daylight but in the dark it was a feat of willpower and trust. As Jessie and I let off and adjusted the lines from the bow, Neil rowed the dinghy with Mike and the second anchor out to an angle from the first anchor chain and dropped the second anchor overboard. The whole exercise worked well and we were able to relax with the offending coral head now some way off our stern.
The following morning we were anticipating a thrilling snorkelling trip, instead we awoke to cloudy skies, a threat of high winds and imminent rain squalls. Neil decided that our anchored position was unreliable to say the least and the best course of action would be to get out of there asap. This was another test of “eyeball” navigation back through numerous coral heads, but this time with the added obstacle of hard, driving rain. Jessie and I on the bow took it in turns to wipe our glasses but after five minutes even that was a waste of time as we took on the appearance of drowned rats ready for the wet t-shirt competition! Finally, we successfully cleared the rock strewn area but not without a lot of tension, stress and curses – coral reefs are beautiful but at depths substantially lower than the keel! The benefits of such clear water are mixed – brilliant snorkelling but whilst motoring along it’s impossible, apart from the colour graduations, to assess accurate depths.
We returned to our original anchorage and we’re all happy to leave the boat safely whilst we went by dinghy to a nearby Motu (coral island) and explored and collected shells on the beach, followed by an interesting and stress free snorkel nearby. Getting back into the dinghy though was something else and both I and Mike had to be unceremoniously heaved and pushed back over the side like a couple of sacks of potatoes – oh to be young and flexible again!

Jessie trying out some Polynesian head ware, not sure if it will catch on in Seattle

We had decided to hire bikes and tour the island and the following day when the sun returned four vintage bone shakers duly appeared outside the Gendarmerie and we each chose our model. They all had back brakes operated by back pedalling and it soon became obvious that I’m no longer coordinated enough to either get started or stop and before the circumnavigation of 22 kms was completed I had been spilled twice from my ancient steed. Miraculously, the dozen eggs in the front basket withstood the shock better than I did and remained intact. I was also blessed with a flat tyre, fortunately only a couple of miles from home, which gave me the excuse not to mount up again. The tour de Raiavavae was another lovely day out though giving us the chance to appreciate more beautiful coastline, pretty churches and poke around in a couple more tiny shops where we revelled in our finds of the day – eggs and potatoes.

The Intrepids!

We would have loved to linger longer on this beautiful island but the boatyard called and knowing that the sooner we could get the work done, the sooner we could continue to explore Polynesia with peace of mind. The weather window promised us good easterly winds for the few days needed to reach Raiatea in the Society Islands and so the decision was made to leave the next day, Saturday 28th May. A last visit to the Internet cafe, a trip to the shop to discover what had arrived with the visiting ship that morning (carrots, cabbage and apples) and goodbye to our friends and the friendly Gendarme and at 2.00pm we weighed anchor and headed out through the reef.
It seems that no passage is destined to go completely smoothly and this one was no exception. With lumpy seas which tossed us unkindly and uncomfortably from side to side, we spent the first day or so hanging on as every cross wave heeled the boat. Mike had gone to bed and I was clearing up the galley on my watch (I suppose I should have thoroughly washed the floor first and cleaned up the greasy chicken fat from our roast dinner but that was on the list to follow the oven cleaning!). An extra powerful lurch threw me skating backwards at speed, breaking through the galley restraining strap and thudding into the wooden pole by the companionway. I spent the next hour resting on the floor where I had fallen, clutching the back of my bleeding head with a large depression at the base of my skull. Fortunately, the depression gradually filled back out with the application of copious amounts of that wonder cream, Arnica and I was able to return to my watch duties. All in the name of that sport called sailing! As the skipper was kind enough to point out, just a small bang on the head and a little scratch, nothing to make a fuss about! 

We are now safely ashore with the boat on the hard and receiving tlc from what appears (touch wood) to be an efficient local workforce. The prop is out, the fibreglass work to the keel has been started and the fridge man has ordered the replacement parts – yippee – in another two weeks or so we should be back in the water with everything repaired and working – fingers crossed! It’s still amazing to us that the keel took such a pounding and seeing other boats in the yard which have suffered similar misfortunes with far greater damage, we know how lucky we are.

Romano being lifted at Raiatea Carenage for some much needed TLC.  

Our next post will be our time in The Society Islands and hopefully this will be a little less stressful.

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.

Easter at Easter Island

It was appropriate that after twenty-seven days at sea we arrived off Easter Island before dawn on the Thursday before Easter. With the lights of the island spotted some way off during the night, we approached Hanga Roa, the only town on the island, whilst still dark and hove to for a couple of hours until the sun appeared and we could comfortably make our entrance into the hazardous anchorage.
The departure from Panama City had been a whirlwind of preparation and buying trips. Rich, our American friend and extra crew member arrived on 17th February and the extra pair of hands was immediately put to use, fixing, carrying, loading. Mike was still experiencing problems with the SSB and having checked every part of the system eventually had no option but to call in the experts who identified the fault and hurrah we had a fully functional system at last. The new AIS also gave some headaches and never did get installed, so, in desperation and frustration, it was back to the old unit albeit that all its finer functions are no longer operational. On a personal note, both Mike and I had to visit the local dentist – he to have his newly fitted in Colon, expensive bridge re-inserted and me to have an extraction – just thought that tooth might give me problems en route, so out it had to come.
Our last visit was to the duty free shop in Flamenco to stock up on wine, beer and rum. No drinking whilst underway of course but lots of time sitting at anchor admiring beautiful sunsets were envisioned in the future.
The anchor was weighed at La Playita (Panama) at 7.30am on 26th February and after an initial hiccup with the fan belt we headed for the Perlas Islands, just a day’s sail away (Mike and I had spent two lovely weeks there the month before). We needed to clean the bottom after the weeks in what must be one of the dirtiest anchorages we have used. The hull could only be described as quite disgusting, not only despite the Coppercoat antifouling liberally coated in wall to wall barnacles, but covered in a curtain of green slimy weed and brown gunge and infested with clinging, biting, tenacious sea lice. We all emerged covered from head to foot in the unwanted creatures with teeth chattering (the water was unusually cold) and were glad to recuperate with a hot shower and a warming rum.
So, that was it, the bottom was ready to go and so were we. After a final clean up and checks there was nothing more to keep us and taking advantage of a good breeze, we set sail for Easter Island on the afternoon of 27th February.
We can’t claim to have had an adventurous sail from Panama – the weather was very kind to us and apart from a few days wallowing in the doldrums whilst we drifted across the Equator, for the most part we achieved a daily average of 120-150 miles per day. With three crew onboard watch keeping was eased and we stood 4 hours each night on a rotating basis, no one liked the 12 to 4 watch as this meant a night of broken sleep. It was also good having Rich to help out with general maintenance – he is skipper of his own boat Kelly-Rae on which we sailed in Maine in June last year. Mike had originally met Rich in Guatemala when sitting out the hurricane season in 2014. 
As well as our own weather forecasts from the radio, we were grateful for the weather updates for the area from the Panama Net and this amazing facility, thanks to our now fully operational SSB, reached us as far as 10 degrees south of the Equator. We listened with frustration to commiserations from the Net operator as we were told that the ITCZ was stretching daily further and further south, ie no wind. One bonus though was the dip we took at 3,000 metres into the clearest, bluest water imaginable and whilst the boat rocked gently and went nowhere we swam alongside. Finally, the south-east Trade Winds arrived and we held our breath, were they just a fluke or were they really the Trades?! From then on we sailed on a beam reach for the rest of the journey, a mostly comfortable trip without any sailing problems.  
With no moon for the first half of our journey, the nights were as black as ink with no discernible delineation between the sky and the sea. With no ambient light the star show though was incredible and the Milky Way stretched brightly across the sky and the Southern Cross pointing our way was clearly visible. We often saw dolphins during the day playing and jumping by the boat and at night were aware of their presence, blowing and squeaking alongside us. We think we heard whales too but it was much too dark to see. 
No trip would be complete, it seems, without untoward problems and of course, we weren’t going to be let off that lightly. It became apparent very early on that the repaired water maker wasn’t working – the membrane had given up so we were reduced to rationing and monitoring our usage – no more showers until we reached land! (Echoes of the Atlantic crossing).   
I remarked on several occasions to Mike that I could smell gas (even got him up one night during my watch when the smell wafted up into the cockpit) but neither he nor Rich could smell anything, nor more importantly, could our trusty “electronic sniffer”. All very odd, but I know gas when I smell it so continued to sniff and guess what, eventually the “sniffer” agreed with me. We had a faulty connection under the new oven. The other olfactory experience was the smell of burning from the solar panels regulator when they were pumping in the midday sun – a problem still not fixed but the regulator now has its own dedicated fan to keep it cool and happy.
The unexplained small water leak in the bilge still persists despite every through hull fitting being checked, every pipe and so on. We still have no clue what it is, just that gremlin again, so until the boat comes out of the water we shall probably be none the wiser, we just keep pumping out!
Cooking is always a problem whilst sailing especially heeled to one side or the other. Slamming into cupboards or throwing ourselves over the oven we all suffered our fair share of discomfort and bruises. We were glad of our new (secondhand) bread maker and with plenty of solar energy and gas always needing to be conserved, fresh bread became a welcome addition to our diet. Mike has become quite the little baker turning out loaf after loaf, but again not without its learning curve. Trying to balance the precariously small based loaf pan whilst heeling and adding the various ingredients bit by bit was an accident waiting to happen – and it did. As we all know, water and flour make paste and it liberally plastered itself throughout the galley, around the oven, in the drawers and cupboards, you name it and once dry it isn’t the easiest thing to remove! The language from the galley was ripe!
There are obviously not many yachts arriving in remote Easter Island but we were surprised to find four others already at anchor and all had come around The Horn, making our trip from Panama seem tame in comparison. There was no danger that our arrival had been overlooked as we were in full view of the maritime cliff top building and the Harbour Master informed us that he and the other relevant officials would pay us a visit that morning. Sure enough a little after 11.00am a local launch arrived packed with officials – Immigration, Police, Navy, Health, Harbour, etc – we concluded it must be a special outing for them! They invaded the cockpit and we filled in the paperwork, answered questions, etc and I showed the young lady enquiring after our fruit supplies our nearly empty nets. She took the remainder of our grapefruit and oranges (although I must admit I didn’t admit to what remained of the few oranges from the half ton sack still in the forward berth) and Mike and I hurriedly ate our last two remaining precious apples. Afterwards we were told that she should have requested any fresh meat – she didn’t, and thank goodness because we are, even now, still enjoying meat from the freezer bought in Panama.

Hanga Roa looking over the anchorage

After only one day in Hanga Roa and a quick visit to shore in the afternoon, we were informed that the weather was changing and we should head north to the protected anchorage off Anakena. Hanga Roa’s anchorage is a good mile offshore where the surf breaks relentlessly over the rocks and we had anchored in 24 metres of water, crossing our fingers that the weight of our now extended chain would hold us firmly to the bottom. It had been quite an operation to add to our normal chain length with that normally reserved for the Fortress anchor (our second anchor) and now it all had to come up, be re-assigned and stowed. Never the less we decided to follow the others and motor sailed to Anakena which turned out to be a picture-perfect bay with a huge sandy beach, backed by palm trees and an impressive line of Moai statues. In the end we spent several days there, swimming, walking and exploring the area as well as getting to know our fellow sailors (a mixture of Swedes, Dutch, Americans, French and an interesting and gutsy Estonian girl who for her first sail had joined her new French boyfriend in Patagonia for the rounding of Cape Horn), during a barbecue evening. The barbecue and social was great, but the drenching I received from our untimely arrival in the surf at the beach wasn’t so welcome and from then on I made sure I always carried a change of clothes ashore, just in case!

The lovely beach at Anakena

With the change of the winds to the south-east, our little Armada left en masse to return to Hanga Roa. Rich decided to trek across country and meet us back in the town so Mike and I set off in pursuit of the other cruisers. The engine coughed to a start with smoke coming from the starter motor – the next problem had emerged. We couldn’t risk turning the engine off with the prospect of the deep anchorage ahead so sailing was out. Rounding the headland we bounced into the waves and the dinghy swung wildly from side to side rapidly filling with gallons of water. Even without the engine we still surged forward in the current at 4 knots so we did a quick about turn and Mike jumped into a rearing, half submerged dinghy to bail. Once emptied and tied tightly to the stern the dinghy remained close in our wake and we continued to Hanga Roa where we dropped all our chain once again.
The little town of Hanga Roa has only a small fishing harbour, the boats now mainly used for ferrying divers out into the clearest waters I have ever seen. The entrance to the harbour is precarious on a calm day with breakers rolling in and the surfers riding in alongside us and we have held our breath on several occasions as we rode the top of the wave between the rocks to arrive safely in the calm of the harbour or worse still going back out through the foaming crests. Fortunately, a wetting is all we got and nothing worse with all our shopping, water, etc on board. Once in the harbour we had to negotiate the cats cradle of ropes and clamber out onto the dock – once was enough for me at low water as I dangled over the edge not being able to pull myself up or drop back into the dinghy which by then had swung away. Finally, pushed up from behind I rolled unceremoniously onto the dirty concrete, not an elegant way to arrive so after that Mike dropped me at the other side of the harbour where the fishermen obligingly pulled me up the steps to safety.

The pretty harbour at Hanga Pika

The town itself is little more than one long street, dotted with clothes shops displaying colourful Polynesian wraps, dresses, tops, etc and small, basically supplied supermarkets with little cafes and bakeries selling delicious empanadas and wonderful cakes which we weren’t slow in savouring. Local fruit – papayas, pineapples, apples, oranges, mangoes and bananas – and all sorts of vegetables were readily available from the market and from the backs of trucks along with the meat truck with the flies being kept at bay by the lady with a large leafy fan. Our favourite spot (or mine anyway) had to be the ice-cream parlour overlooking the harbour with its rich and unusual flavours of homemade concoctions – papaya and orange, mandarin and passion fruit – my idea of heaven!
One of our concerns was that our gas would run out long before we reached Tahiti and neither Pitcairn nor the small French Polynesian islands are likely candidates for refills. So Rich and I went in search of a supply, following instructions to the edge of town, and beyond. Having walked some distance without seeing a likely source and looking lost as only strangers can, a smiling lady asked if she could help and telling us to wait 5 minutes said she would be back. She returned in her car and not only drove us to the propane supplier but elbowed her way through the waiting queue and took us to see our options. Having been told previously that only the huge household sized tanks were available we were relieved to find something we could fit on board, albeit that this larger tank, together with the last one bought in Panama have to sit on top of the chain and be lifted in and out of the locker before we can anchor – a small price to pay for cooked food! Veronica generously offered her services once again if we needed them but a lift was readily offered by yet another kind local with truck when the guys returned later to buy the tank and transport it back to the harbour.
We ambled along the open cliff top dotted with Moais and freely roaming horses – there are hundreds around the island and until recently they were apparently the main means of transport. We wandered through and admired the little cemetery with its ornate and decorated graves (mostly with artificial flowers but one was covered in a rambling tomato plant and when I remarked on it to a local lady, she replied that the incumbent had been a farmer – that seems logical!). Another sported an empty rum bottle! We spent a couple of interesting hours in the little museum reading up on the history and culture of the island and mused that its ancient customs and peculiarities seemed very close to that of the Maoris.
It was decided that we needed further exercise so we hired bicycles for a few hours and I was grateful for the gentle inclines and the well maintained bikes. At Ahu Akivi we saw the only set of Moais which do not have their backs to the sea, a peculiarity which remains unexplained. Returning to Hanga Roa we were waylaid by a brief visit to the tiny but exquisitely laid out Botanical Gardens which without much advertising and tucked away as it is we fear probably does not attract many visitors to admire the work of the one industrious gardener who appears to do everything.
Still not knowing if we were likely to be detained in Easter Island for any length of time waiting for a starter motor but hoping with fingers crossed that Volvo Santiago would have one in stock (which fortunately they did and flew it in within days to us), 

The new starter which got to us despite the lack of address

Rich suddenly dropped the bombshell that he had decided to leave us and fly to Chile for a month’s holiday before returning to the US. We were totally gob-smacked as he had promised to stay until Tahiti and his reasons for leaving seemed unlikely. But that’s crew for you!!! So we are now back to just the two of us and the prospect of less sleep!
Mike and I still wanted to see the rest of the island and it was a matter of fitting it in around installing the starter motor and weather but with Saturday seeming like the last opportunity we hired a car for the day and set off around the island.  
Orongo is probably one of the most historically famous and spectacular sights perched as it is on the top of the volcano Ranokau overlooking on one side the sea 250 metres below and the crater on the other. In the 19th century, the yearly custom was for the tribe to move to Orongo where they had built 54 low stone houses with tiny square apertures to squeeze through just to keep their few possessions during that period. The Chiefs nominated their Hopus (underlings) to swim across the adjoining passage to the far islet to collect the first Tern’s egg of the season and return plus egg, climb the steep cliffs back and present the egg to his Chief who would then be the “chosen one” for the rest of the year, living in idle luxury (of the period!) Seeing as the islet of Motu Nui is a fair distance from Easter Island with rough, shark infested waters and strong currents and the cliffs look like a climber’s nightmare you have to wonder what the penalties were for saying “no” to the order to go fetch an egg!
We continued around the island to see the highlight of the Moai collection at Tongariki (15 enormous statues which have been renovated and replaced with help from the Japanese after being knocked off their pedestals during a tsunami some years back). Only one has retained his red scoria topknot or hat unfortunately and the others lay waiting to be replaced, maybe at a later date.

Impressive Moai’s at Tongariki

The last and probably one of the most impressive sights was the quarry where the statues were fashioned in situ. The slope of the volcano Ranokau Raraku is the quarry and the whole hillside is dotted with finished or partially finished Moais with many still attached to the rock face waiting to be finally released and somehow slid down the hillside. It’s not hard to imagine that after many months of patient work, many were lost as they toppled in an uncontrolled fall down the steep volcano sides – their remnants are still in evidence, including one which must have been the Daddy of them all at 21.8 metres tall.

The Quarry where all the Moai’s came from

As we drove back to Hanga Roa we could see the weather changing and the rain sweeping in and as we reached the town, the handheld radio burst into life with an anxious Port Captain warning us that we should leave the anchorage as soon as possible. We battled through the surf, drenched yet again and within half an hour we followed our fellow cruisers (only one other boat left now) down the coast and round the corner to a more protected anchorage where we anchored in the dark.
As I write this we are waiting for the winds to swing back to the SE so that we can continue our passage to Pitcairn in the company of a young American couple – it’s a large empty ocean down here and knowing that there are others out there is comforting.  
So from here we head for little-visited Pitcairn and thereafter French Polynesia – the Gambier, Tuomotus and Society Islands where once again we should be able to post a blog. Unfortunately, with Rich’s departure we can no longer produce the tracker. 

Panama – sea to sea

Having returned from our South American trip at the end of November, we were under the mistaken illusion that all that remained for us to do prior to setting off for the San Blas to meet up with my daughter, Rachel and family on 11th December, were a few remaining “little” jobs and provisioning for Christmas. Wrong again! As we neared the date and provisioned the boat to bursting with no free space left in lockers or cupboards, our spirits fell as the fridge went into decline, spluttered and gave up. Mike sped off towards Panama City in a taxi to obtain a spare part from a salesman at the halfway point, but typically Panamanian, he decided he would be late for dinner and didn’t turn up. The next day the whole thing was repeated and with the part in hand, the refrigeration engineer was entreated to fit us into his busy pre-Christmas schedule. To cut yet another long story short, the engineer fixed the fridge problem up to the moment of leaving, checked (or so we thought) the freezer and we set out for the San Blas together with a young German backpacker who had begged a lift from us.  
It’s unlikely that we shall ever again offer a free lift to a backpacker. He had no interest whatsoever in the boat or our entreaties to be careful with water, gas, etc. He spent most of the journey either in his cabin or lying at full stretch in the cockpit whilst we worked and handled the lines around him. Once in the Carti Islands he suggested that maybe he might stay with us a little longer whilst he worked out his onward journey to Colombia, not particularly difficult but maybe a little more than he wanted to pay. We found him a hostel and some alternative means of transport and said our sad farewells – we later heard that he reached Colombia unscathed.
Rachel and family were delivered to us at anchor after a breakneck 4×4 ride through the jungle to Carti from Panama City. We had decided to pay a flying visit to the Robson Islands where we had previously enjoyed a canoe trip up the river with Justino. Rachel and co followed in our path and received their initiation into the local canoe, island and jungle life of the Kuna Indians and after much hilarity and trepidation settled themselves into the narrow and unstable log canoe and enjoyed the experience.
Later that day, Rachel noticed that the food in the freezer seemed a little on the soft side. Here we go again – this time the freezer had packed up and packed with several hundreds of dollars of meat, including the precious Christmas turkey (sawn into two halves to go into the freezer and the oven) and a large ham. That sinking feeling yet again!!! Our options weren’t great – we could head straight back to Shelter Bay or try to find an alternative solution in the San Blas which seemed like a very long shot. We were advised on the radio net to take our meat to a local island restaurant and ask to use their freezer – we did just that and for the princely sum of $10 a day, after cooking up enough of the defrosting mince to last us several days, we left our Christmas fare in the unscrupulous hands of the local restaurant owner (they ate most of our chicken!!). Mike by sheer good fortune managed to locate an Italian refrigeration engineer in a nearby anchorage and we sped there to beg him to rescue us. Four days later we were in possession of a repaired freezer (new condenser which the engineer built to fit) and we were able to reclaim our depleted meat stocks from the restaurant.
In the meantime, I might add, life wasn’t too uncomfortable in the beautiful anchorage of the East Lemmons where we awaited the ministrations of the freezer rescuer, Rachel, Paul, Ella and Sam put our new two man (can stretch to four) kayak to good use and explored the reefs and became adept at snorkelling in turquoise waters.  
Naturally this being a boat, it wasn’t the end of our inconveniences (the regulator on the alternator packed up, limiting our power source) and we spent a frustrating 24 hours trying to top up our water whilst the Colombian supply boats took their time and commandeered the only jetty where we were able to obtain water – we finally tied up alongside the wooden Colombian hulk and precariously jumped the gap from us to them to the wall with the hose pipe stretching over everything. I think the boat guys enjoyed the jesting and flirting with 14 year old Ella although she, of course, was oblivious to the attention!!!
Although the family had generally withstood the winds and choppy waters of the islands, the long run back to Linton Bay on Christmas Eve proved to be just that bit too much for non-sailors. Following Christmas Day and Father Christmas’ visit to the pretty anchorage and a visit to meet the island monkeys who demanded their token gift of food before allowing anyone to set foot on land, the family decided to return to Shelter Bay with Joachim, our German friend. He had come by road to join us for Christmas lunch (but mysteriously disappeared to eat the much more appealing lamb offered by an Austrian couple rather than our delicious turkey). So on Boxing Day the family regained their land legs and Mike and I sailed the boat back to Shelter Bay.
We confirmed our schedule to go through the Canal on 28th and together with three other line handlers picked up the pilot as arranged and set out with much excitement and some anxious anticipation to tackle the first of the locks. Still in daylight, we followed a huge container ship into the Gatun locks and with lines on both sides kept Romano safely in the centre of the locks. We had worried, unnecessarily as it turned out, that we would have problems, not be able to catch the lines thrown to us, have very little time to get the ropes in order or generally make a mess of our allotted tasks, but it all went like clockwork and with some gentle direction from our pilot we followed his instructions and arrived in Lake Gatun safely and unscathed. (We heard tales from others of horrifying incidents and accidents.). 
The pilot guided us in the dark to the large rubber buoy in the lake and after tying up for the night, the pilot boat glided alongside and Victor, our pilot of the day, left us. At 6.30 the following morning we were joined by Carlos and we set off across the vast man made Gatun Lake and the impressive Culebra Cut where for the next five hours we enjoyed the sights and appreciated the incredible engineering undertaking that the Canal had been.  
By now we were enjoying ourselves and reluctant to finish our crossing. Our exit from the Canal came with the three locks down to the Pacific and we entered the first of them followed by a huge car transporter which filled the lock. Their bow towered over us as they were slowly pulled by “mules” (mechanised) foot by foot within to what seemed like touching distance of us. We could hear the guy on the bridge saying “I can’t see them any more” as he talked to his colleague on the bow who, with walkie talkie in hand, guided the enormous ship ever closer to us. It’s a thrilling moment as, safely tied up, the locks fill or empty and you rise or fall as the swirling water empties or fills and you can only wonder at this modern day wonder which has withstood one hundred years of constant use. We were told that they close the locks (there are two lanes side by side) once a year for maintenance for maybe a week, but incredibly the 2 metre thick walls are still the originals as are the lock gates, all installed over one hundred years ago. Carlos, our pilot, was very pessimistic about the new canal and locks currently under construction for today’s larger ships, which are already late in their completion date and having leakage problems through bad construction. He forecasted that they would not last beyond five years before needing severe remedial work – a sad indictment of our modern systems and work ethics.
We fairly shot out of the last lock as the fresh waters rushed out to mix with the salt of the Pacific where an initial 5 knot current diminishes over a number of miles. The Pacific side of the Canal is badly served with marinas and anchorages and with little choice we put the anchor down in the rolly, noisy and none too clean anchorage of La Playita (at the end of the Causeway built with the spoil taken from the Canal excavations which joined several little islands to the mainland).  
After ordering more parts and devices and spending two weeks listening to the workboats roar their way in and out of the nearby marina, timing dinghy entrance and exits to the boat to avoid the mountainous wash of the passing traffic, watching the hundreds of Pelicans diving all around us and generally frying in the heat of the oppressive Panamanian climate, we decided to head for the Perlas Islands some 35 miles away and some peace and quiet.  
In our view, the Perlas are a much prettier group of islands than the San Blas. For starters they are blessed with hills and lush, varied greenery with plenty of trees, not just palm, as well as beautiful beaches. We anchored for a few days off of the lovely island of Contadora where we swam, snorkelled and explored ashore in search of coconuts. The harvest was pretty bleak as most of the time we discovered that man or crabs had beaten us to it, but we did manage to return to the boat with one or two. (Along with raisins, dried fruit and other nuts, I use the coconut, finely chopped and dried in the oven to supplement the local rather uninteresting muesli). The anchorage which lays between two islands isn’t great as we were at the mercy of a very strong current which made swimming off the boat precarious. I discovered very swiftly that it was stronger than I am when I jumped in to rescue a fly-away bowl and very quickly realised that swimming back to the boat wasn’t an option (and I wasn’t going to relinquish my hold on the bowl either!) Whilst weighing up the probability that I would be asking for asylum on the next boat downwind, Mike managed to throw me a rope and drag me back. Another afternoon, we again experienced the strength of the current when Mike proceeded to row us from shore back to the boat (we hadn’t put the outboard on the dinghy). He puffed and sweated profusely with just a few oaths before we finally made it back to safety and he could reach for a well earned beer.
We heard on the daily VHF net that very strong winds were about to hit us and decided to move south to a more protected anchorage on the second largest island of San Jose, besides which we needed somewhere without current where we could clean the bottom. The strong winds didn’t, of course, materialise to the extent that we had been warned, but the anchorage was pretty and quiet and Mike did, at last, get to try out his Brownie hookah system which worked brilliantly and between us with ropes under the keel, we managed to scrape off the profuse barnacle and weed garden – so much for Coppercoat antifouling! We continued to sail on around the islands to the beautiful bay on Isla del Cana, another lovely protected anchorage where we were met by dozens of rays swimming around us in formation of about 8 or 9 per squadron. They approached the boat as we anchored, eyeing us as they glided past and it seemed that having satisfied themselves that we were harmless, disappeared until the following day. We must have arrived in the islands during the annual hatching of a swarm of butterflies and we watched thousands of these large iridescent black, green and gold creatures, flying in all directions – why would they be flying out to sea?! They were too fast for our photos, but we did manage to fish one out of the water on a trip up the nearby little tidal river.
Although we had anticipated spending most of our five weeks before we needed to depart Panama in the Perlas, as always, it wasn’t to be and with no information or response on certain parts and the SSB still not working, we had no option but to leave these delightful islands and head back to Panama City and the not so delightful anchorage of La Playita. It was no pleasure to put our anchor down once more into the thick, glutinous mud which I had spent some time cleaning off the decks, the anchor and chain and myself when we had left two weeks earlier. Within a very short time, our beautifully clean hull, below and above the waterline, was again filthy and encrusted.
These past four weeks have been incredibly frustrating but the SSB (long range radio), after hours/days of checking, rechecking all the components and finally calling in a professional is at last working well – hurray!! The AIS is, fingers crossed, also off the list and we are, dare I say it, nearly ready to leave. We are well provisioned after many visits to the supermarkets, with the waterline now below the plimsoll line with just the fruit and vegetable market to re-visit. (At our last visit, we bought half a sack of sweet local oranges – about 50 for $2.50 – with imported oranges in the supermarket at 50c each we reckon that must be the biggest bargain ever.)
I took the opportunity to relieve the boredom of La Playita by line handling for a yacht going through to the Caribbean side and it was interesting to experience the journey from the other direction as well as giving me the chance to see and appreciate again the incredible engineering feat that is the Panama Canal. It was fun, although somewhat chaotic with a couple of gays proudly flying their “rainbow flag” and their relatives who had never been on a boat before. Apart from one cliff-hanging episode in the second lock when we failed to tie up to our neighbouring tourist vessel because her bow thrusters continued to push us towards the opposite wall, everything went according to plan and we raced across the lake and out into the Caribbean side all in one day and I returned to La Playita the following day.
Our new crew member, Rich, arrived a week ago and has been hard at work ever since. Hopefully, following Mike’s dental appointment tomorrow to glue in place once more the bridge which he had fitted in Colon, topping up the gas, filling the water and fuel tanks and that visit to the market for more oranges and much more, we shall be ready to check out on Thursday and leave for the Perlas to clean the bottom. And with fair winds next weekend we shall finally be able to set our sights on Easter Island and the long passage south.  



Ecuador was quite different from Colombia, much more arid countryside. Whereas Colombia had been predominantly green rolling hills, farms, pasture and crops, Ecuador was cactus, bare hillsides, deep river gorges and soaring peaks, here we were on the equator and the heat was quite intense unless at a high altitude. We had to be careful of the sun as the UV factor was off the scale and skin burned in minutes, despite our deep tans.
The Ecuadorian people were much more Indian and less Spanish in their origin than Colombians, the women dressed in their brightly coloured dresses topped by a felt hat. The men too were often dressed in traditional costume or sometimes in Stetson, jeans and high heeled boots. As a people they weren’t as friendly to us westerners as the Colombians had been and you had the feeling in visiting the country of a much more distant culture,
At 10.30 in the morning we arrived at the Ecuadorian border and took a taxi to border immigration which was 15 minutes ride away, after a quick clearance out of Colombia we then stood in line for half an hour to be stamped in to Ecuador. After we had cleared in we took another taxi to Tucan, the first town over the border, where we caught a very slow bus to the market town of Otavalo, passing through very arid mountains, lots of cactus, some flowering. 
We stayed in the Flying Donkey hostel (The flying donkey in Ecuador is the UK equivalent to the flying pig in UK) that evening we shopped and in the evening cooked spaghetti bolognese while chatting to the other inmates, some French people and a couple of Brit guys, Tom and Jake who were touring South America after a spell of teaching in China.
The next day Gill wanted to stay over to see the famous market in Otovalo, reputed to be the largest in South America, which turned out to be a big disappointment and nothing very special. I bought a Panama hat, ironically the real ones are made in Ecuador, to protect my ears, baseball caps are great but they don’t protect the ears and mine were getting a bit crispy.
The following morning we left Otavalo for Quito and a 2 hr bus ride. On arriving in Quito we were lucky to meet a local couple in the main bus terminal who showed us how to get across town on the metro bus to our Hostal Juana D’Arc in Santo Domingo Square. The Hostal had a rather grand entrance hall panelled in wood with a sweeping open wooden staircase rising two floors to where our room was. It was quite a hike up with heavy bags and then back down to the kitchen where we prepared our meals. The shower in the room we were first shown must qualify as the world’s smallest, it was much smaller than a telephone box and I couldn’t get in it. The second room we were shown had the world’s second smallest shower but I could get into it by squeezing in sideways. This had nothing to do with my size as I’m quite slim these days but rather the need to squeeze the shower into what had previously been a wardrobe.  
Quito is a vast city lying between high mountain peaks and runs along the valley floor at an altitude of 10,000 feet. It also has a very complicated bus service run by many different operators, it took us a few days to get the hang of who went where. We took a City Bus Tour on our first day which included the Panicillio a large hill overlooking Quito and the 100ft monument of the Virgin de Quito towering over the city. We climbed up the monument to the top and enjoyed great views over Quito.
The next morning we took a walking tour recommended in the guide book, we bought lunch at the Cafe De Teatro for $3 which consisted of soup, prawns and pudding and a drink of fresh juice. Eating out in Quito certainly wasn’t going to break the bank! We also wanted to go to Mitad del Mundo (centre of the earth) a monument which lies right on the Equator and about 2 hours bus ride out of town. Disaster struck though, in the crush Gill got on the bus but I was slowed by an old lady in front of me and the doors shut in my face so I had to catch the next bus hoping Gill would be at the next stop. She wasn’t so I stayed on the bus to the Northern terminus hoping she might be there but again she wasn’t. I assumed she had gone on to Mitag Del Mundo and so caught another bus for the hours journey there. By now it was 5pm and it was obvious that Gill wasn’t in Mitad Del Mundo either so I caught a bus back to Quito getting back at 7pm. Gill was very upset and worried about my late arrival, it got dark at 6.00pm and Quito is not the town to be wandering around in the dark. As it happened Gill had gone all the way to the north terminal and waited for me to arrive but somehow we had missed each other in the crowds.
We had a friendly bunch of Venezuelans staying in the Hostal with us who lived on a diet of hamburgers, tommy k, mayonnaise and crisps or fried spam rolls or frankfurters in French bread. We competed for space in the kitchen with them, us eating our normally healthy option and them with their fast food one but it was interesting to learn about their country and its issues.

The next day we went to the famous Campania de Jesus to see the fantastic gold work in the church, almost every surface is covered in gold leaf, it’s a stunning and a beautiful sight. When it was built in the 16th century of course gold was in plentiful supply in Ecuador but the cost must have been quite something even then. 
We then caught a bus to the museum of culture and I had my pocket picked on the way, I lost $30, my debit card and driving licence, we had been warned about thieves on the buses and I should have remembered to put it in my rucksack after paying our fares. Fortunately Gill had some cash with her to get us back to the hostel but it was nevertheless a disturbing experience and one that made me much more careful for the rest of our journey. In the museum they had put on an exhibition of modern art which was much better than other modern art exhibitions we’ve seen. A man in his 50’s came up to us while we were meandering around the gallery and asked us if we liked the paintings. Fortunately we said we did as he turned out to be the artist! He explained he had studied Goya and Velazquez at the Prada in Madrid who were his main influences it was interesting talking to him however we beat a hasty retreat when he tried to sell us some of his work. We excused ourselves by explaining we lived on a boat and had no space for paintings! 

We both liked Quito despite the light fingered nature of some of its inhabitants, there is a lot to see and do there although it is very noisy and busy some might say vibrant, but definitely an assault on the senses.
The next day we set off for the relative peace of Banos, Ecuador’s gateway to the Amazon jungle. The bus station in Quito was heaving, it was a special holiday, Night of the Dead (all saints day)! Gill after trying several bus companies and much queueing for tickets managed to get us on a bus to Banos in 2 hours time while I guarded the luggage. It was a 3 hour journey passing Cotapaxi Volcano smoking away peacefully and on last part of the journey spectacular views of the deep valley and river on the road into Banos. We stayed at Hostal Balcones overlooking the riverine the outskirts of Banos for 3 days and discovered that Jake and Tom who we had met in Otavalo were also staying there. Manuel, the owner gave us a lift into town into town and we climbed the 1000 or so steps up to the Virgin Mary Statue high on the hill overlooking the town. On returning to the Hostal we found out that Jake and Tom had been hired by Manuel to work for him, which delighted the guys and covered the cost of their accommodation.

There is a famous railway journey up here in the Andes called Nariz de Diablo which we wanted to ride to enjoy the spectacular scenery along the route. The train left from the town of Alausi, a bit of a one horse town, with a Main Street that looked like something from a spaghetti western. The views on the trip to Simbala were as spectacular as promised and we rode some pretty steep slopes with deep ravines alongside. 
The next day we booked on the bus to El Tambo on the way to the famous Inca site of Ingapirka, amazingly the bus conductor came to our hotel to collect our baggage and took it off to load on to the bus. I don’t think it’s a service offered by National Express in England! In El Tambo we hired a pick-up truck taxi on to Ingapirka to stay in the Hospedaje El Castillo with Elsa and Gonzalo the delightful owners. In the afternoon we walked around an inca trail and saw the Sun Rock, an intricate stone calendar used by the Incas over 700 years ago, a rock carved in the shape of a turtle, another with the face of an Inca and a seat for viewing the universe, all Inca or Canari natural monuments. The next morning we visited the temple ruins ruins. The site had originally been used by Canari Indians from 2000 years ago before the Inca invaded from the south. The Inca were very impressed with the Canary and shared power rather than wiping them out. The temple lies on lei lines between the surrounding mountains, judged to be a unique site by both Canari and Inca who then set about building there own temple over the original Canari one and added an extensive supporting infrastructure around about. In the afternoon we explained the concept of the Lonely Planet Guide and to Gonzalo to put El Castillo on the map and increase their bookings as they operated without any form of advertising. Gill applied to Lonely Planet and I to and we received an email a month later from Gonzales saying they had been accepted by both and offered his profuse thanks. While we were waiting for Elsa to cook us a dinner of roast Guinea pig Gill taught Jimmy, their son English for an hour and he picked it up very quickly, a very bright boy. The nights up here are very cold at an altitude of 3150m and we find we get puffed climbing hills or steps and notice the degenerating effect of the thinner air. Coming from Panama with its high temperatures and sweaty humidity it a shock to be wearing sweaters and long trousers and be covered by thick blankets at night while right on the equator.
Our next stop was Cuenca about two hours away by bus, but with all the walking we had done over the last few days my ankle mended with plate and screws was badly swollen so I was using a walking stick to get about. We arrived at Chorita’s house by taxi and the next morning we took an open topped city tour bus and we did a complete circuit of the town. At Tuni, a village on a high hill just outside Cuenca everyone got off to take in the views over the city and I stayed on rather than put more strain on my ankle. The bus suddenly took off back down the hill with only me on board upstairs. Gill was left behind and I had her rucksack with all her money etc. Thinking the driver had finished for the day and was on his way home I hobbled downstairs to tell him I was still on board. Fortunately he said we were off to get some fuel and would return in about an hour. Gill worried when she saw the bus leave without a word of what was happening but all was well in the end. The following morning our landlady Chorito drove us to the hospital to get my ankle X-rayed it turned out to be ok and I was just told to rest it, Afterwards Chorito drove us to the bus station and we caught the 11.30 to the next major town going south, Loja which proved of little interest. This was where we split up Gill going to Villacamba and me to Puria in Peru. The plan was I would make my way down the Amazon to Iquitos and take a boat 300 miles down the Amazon to Letitia in Colombia from where I would fly back to Bogotá where I would meet up with Gill. Meantime she travelled back up through Ecuador and Colombia to visit places we missed on the way down. Gill had already boated down the Amazon and wasn’t interested in doing it again. For me it was a great experience and I went off to explore the river and jungle for a few days with some local Indians, sleeping in the open on their canoe. They knew where to find medicinal plants,sacred trees, snakes, mammals, birds, and we fished for and caught and ate piranha and went on a night hunt for alligators. It was the experience of a lifetime, short but intensely interesting in such a remote area so different from anything I had ever experienced. I then took the fast ferry down from Iquitos to Letitia in Colombia. While there I walked over the border into Brazil just go have a look, it was that easy, no customs or immigration, I just ambled over the border had a look and walked back to Colombia. The next day I flew up to Bogotá to rejoin Gill and then we both flew back to Panama and the boat.