End of Part One!
From Huahine towards Home!
We left the delightful Island of Huahine at 0300 hours on Saturday 5 th September and arrived back in Moorea 15 hours later after a squally little sail. Sails were reefed then released, raincoats went on and off, the sails were repeatedly trimmed and set as the wind shifted direction in front of the squall and then returned to the direction it was blowing before! We left at the same time as our buddy boat, Painkiller 2, who plan to lift out at the same boatyard as us at the same time before they head back to the US for a break.
Moorea is a dramatic spiky island with two deep bays cut in the north coast, so it resembles a W shape on the charts.
Previously we had anchored in the most Western Bay called Opunohu, this time we anchored by the reef outside PaoPao or Cook's bay to the East, arriving just in time for the gloriously moody sunset and the nightly local canoe (Va'aa) training.
After a day of recovery we were collected by our whale watching guide and within 15 minutes we saw the wonderful sight of a calf humpback whale playing just inside the passe. Once outside the lagoon we got into the water to hear the song of the humpback whale, the males sing to the females as part of their mating rituals. Our guide then located a group of whales which we followed in the boat, staying at a safe distance as they are very strict about protecting the species. Once these great sea mammals dived we got back into the water wearing snorkels, masks and fins and swam away from the boat to wait for our whales to resurface. Five minutes of peering into the deep and repeating the mental mantra " I hope we see the whales, I can't wait to see the whales, where are the whales? " turned in to an amazingly close encounter as they appeared from the depths directly beneath us and grew steadily larger and larger and alarmingly closer and closer until I thought I was going to be riding on top of a whale! But the two whales rose gracefully to the surface a short way in front of us to breathe before moving away at a speed we could not match. We repeated this exercise later after following a different group of 3 humpbacks as they swam and blew and dived, before being dropped into the water a distance ahead of the group. After 5 minutes four whales swam below us, the fourth was a small calf that we had not seen amidst the adults. A poor photo but it gives you some idea!
This was an awe inspiring experience, and afterwards the guide took us back inside the lagoon to swim with the fish, reef sharks, stingrays and a turtle before dropping us back at our boat. After such a brilliant day, we were enjoying celebratory rum punch sun downers onboard Celtic Star, at The Reef, Poa Poa Bay, Moorea, Paradise, watching an amazing sunset which then finished with a green flash! Absolutely Fabulous!
Our next outing was onshore visiting the local fruit juice and distillery plant called Rotui, named after the Mountain which towers above it. Moorea is famed for its pineapples but other local fruits are used as well to give a diverse catalogue of products. Look closely at spiky plants, you may glimpse a pineapple!
We were fascinated by the process of making the fruit juice, the high tech production line of cartons being filled and topped and moved along the conveyor belt like the carriages in a toy train, until they were eventually boxed in sets of six.
Not quite as exciting as whale watching but strangely fascinating and mesmerising and of course the free rum and juice tasting afterwards always leaves fond memories! We felt peckish after our tasting and zoomed across Cook's bay in our dingy to enjoy a fine lunch at a very nice French restaurant followed by a lazy afternoon back on board.
Returning to Papeete, which now seems very familiar, we socialised for 3 nights with the last SOLA (Sailors Of the Lost ARC) boats remaining in Papeete. We enjoyed sundowners on Saorsa, a musical night on Domini and a delicious dinner party aboard Celtic Star, before we all dispersed in different directions for different reasons, with pledges to meet here next year, or in Fiji or even the UK? Richard and I also spent mind numbing hours organising our forthcoming trip to the UK as well as applying for long term visas, "Carte de Sejour", for French Polynesia.
Celtic Star serves as both our home and our transport and so we had to organise alternatives for both. Once we had confirmed and paid for our Apataki to Papeete flight at the AirTahiti office we went ahead and booked the international flight from Papeete to Paris and then a third flight onward to the UK. A mammoth session on the Internet ensued, trying to co ordinate the flights with accommodation and our return journey. I am labouring this point for a reason that will become clear further down. As I have previously said internet connections tend to be fragile but Papeete is the best place to juggle this amount of data in order to construct the complex travel itinerary for our trip. The best wi-fi was to be found in the newly re-furbished Trois Brasseur, (Three Brewers), where we enjoyed the real beer immensely, sadly also the most expensive beer in town as 2x 33cls cost us £11.50! So we had to ration our stay and return to the other bars for the usual brew called Hinano!
We left Papeete on Tuesday 15 th September to sail back to the Tuomutu atolls which we had previously explored in June, and to leave Celtic Star in Apataki boatyard until January. It felt good to be back at sea and as we sailed along the reef towards Point Venus, we saw several humpback whales breaching plus a mother and calf playing. Then we were out at sea with the jagged skylines of Moorea and Tahiti disappearing slowly as we crept across the blue, blue Pacific Ocean on our very own adventure. At dawn we sighted the unusual raised atoll called Makatea, which was quite different from anything we had seen before. Just a low line on the left of centre!
This small, (5 miles across), coral island has steep cliffs rising 100 metres from the sea making a button of rock in the middle of the ocean. Because the cliffs rise steeply up and also continue down there is no suitably sheltered or shallow anchorage, but two moorings have been put in by the government.
These are in a depth of 40 metres of water but still only 40 metres off the shore where surf was crashing against the dilapidated and desolate remains of a large concrete pontoon and a small dock. One mooring had already been taken by a charter skipper but we were able to tie onto the other mooring ball. This process was more dramatic than usual and nerves of steel were required to approach the mooring ball which appeared to be in the surf breaking onto the concrete remains! The tiny Harbour was open to the surge and we watched the surf running into it wondering if we would actually be able to land! Then we watched in admiration as the charter skipper took his guests into the dock in his dinghy, timing his entrance carefully to avoid being overturned or crashed against the shore. It was actually rather fun when we attempted it ourselves, nerves of steel and a steady hand on the throttle, which I delegated to Richard this time as I was in charge of shrieking! Once again we were thankful for our new outboard engine which has proved its worth time and time again.
Once ashore we hitched a ride from a local, up the steep hill to the settlement which was very, very small, but had a serious communications array!
The shop was also tiny and empty as the supply boat only comes in once a month and was due that week. The only road on the island was a dirt track which took us to the marvellous view point on the north coast, after a rest we walked back to the shop and enjoyed an ice cream before returning down to the dock, where we found the remains of an industrial phosphate extraction workings, and a rusted decaying machine shop.
Back aboard Celtic Star we were relaxing in the cockpit when I noticed a large dark reef dangerously close to us. I stared, bemused but thankful that I had missed it on our approach, only, it wasn't a reef it was the back of a whale which blew and sang a few times before it humped it's back and dived down with a final display of it's tail flukes. Snorkel, fins and masks were on in no time and we went in search of the whale.
We heard him singing and Richard replied a few times, in fact they had a bit of a chat, but we didn't catch sight of him below the water, though we saw him blowing in the distance when we surfaced. However, the steeply descending reef was superb for snorkelling, with a multitude of fish and coral to see and enjoy, a very large Barracuda and a medium sized shoal of fish it was hanging out by, a few turtles and a shark or two lurking on the drop off, so all in all a very fine afternoon! Early the next morning we set off for Tikehau, the most west island of the Tuomotus, hoping to get the best wind angle for us to sail. This strategy worked well and we had an exhilarating and fast fifty mile passage back to the atolls which, in terms of landmass, are the most minimal places you can imagine.
On arrival I turned my phone on to find a short text message informing me the flight from Apataki to Papeete had been cancelled. This is a weekly flight and our international flight departed 2 days later, so our travel itinerary was balanced on that lynch pin first flight and like a house of cards it started to wobble. After a few frantic phone calls in French, being put on hold and being cut off due to the weak signal, we were told there were no flights from Apataki until November! Disaster and double disaster as at this point our data ran out, the phone went dead and the cards collapsed. I felt engulfed in panic and loneliness, our sense of remoteness on our tiny boat in the tiny coral atoll in the vast Pacific Ocean on the other side of the world from home felt overwhelming.
So we decided to sail on wards to Rangiroa, where our friends on Painkiller 2 were already anchored; for company, consolation and a good cry! This time we had to head directly upwind for the 45 mile passage which we had previously sailed in reverse in June. The downwind sail had taken 6 hours, but this time we got a battering as we slammed through 3 metre waves which slowed the boat down so it took a very wet 9 hours. Our first night in Rangiroa on the roliest anchorage ever, we might as well have been at sea as everything on board had to be left stowed and wedged and sleeping was literally a nightmare! Of course, the weather improved, the anchorage became calm again and the world looked beautiful again!
We remembered to enjoy ourselves and went out for a delicious lunch with friends, we cycled up and down the motu for fun, we snorkelled on a fabulous reef with a myriad of fish and one afternoon we went diving in the passe with dolphins, which is always a cheering pastime! Plus, we caught a fish did the washing and the boat came in so there were fresh supplies!
When we eventually managed to connect with Air Tahiti, via our satellite phone, we explained our problem and they suggested catching a flight from the next atoll, Aratua, 15 miles west of Apataki, which was scheduled a day earlier. We contacted the manager of the Boatyard to arrange a boat ride across and we booked an extra nights BnB in Papeete. I nearly had a melt down when Air Tahiti said they would charge us extra to change the departure airport! However, we managed to negotiate our way out of that, but didn't manage to persuade them to pay our extra costs of $100p/p boat transfer fee plus additional hotel costs! After a lovely week in Rangiroa more strong winds were being forecast and so we set off to complete the 90 mile upwind passage to Apataki expecting a rough ride. The passage was better than expected and we tacked around Aratua to the north Passe of Apataki before motoring across the lagoon to anchor at the remote NE corner of the atoll where we would be protected from the wind and waves. Apataki is a square shaped atoll fairly well rimmed with motus (islands) except for the southern side where the barrier reef is submerged. On the Western side are two passes, one at the north and one at the south where the village is located. Four hundred people live on the atoll and because there is no tourism and minimal colonial influence it remains very Polynesian! Tahitian statue!
Our anchorage was deserted, there were no houses or lights at night, no other boats joined us so we sat out the squalls and winds in flat waters, reading, doing puzzles, watching films, snorkelling and making lists of jobs to do on the boat. One night we watched the Sci-fi film "Interstellar ", suddenly our anchorage didn't seem that remote after all! At least we were still on Earth looking up at the skies, which were perfect for observing the waxing moon, the planets and the Milky Way wheeling gloriously above us, a myriad of twinkling lights making an enchanted arch of stars across the heavens. A few days later we sailed 12 miles down to the boat yard in the SE corner, to begin our preparations for lift out and our packing.
Once ashore we quickly realised that the boatyard, family accommodation with coconut plantation was all there was onshore. Our main entertainment was snorkelling on the coral outcrops or "bommies" and stroking some friendly nurse sharks though not the black tips which do bite.
The boat yard does have a limited wi fi spot (because it was one code to one device I didn't manage to publish this blog until we arrived in Papeete) and there are rudimentary shower/toilets.
We made our arrangements for lift out and explored the yard we realised there was not a lot else to do here so we sailed 10 miles cross the lagoon to visit the village. Here we were able to tie up alongside the town quay where the delivery ship comes in twice a month, though it was rather noisy due to the de-salinating water plant generator!
We had arrived on a Sunday afternoon and the residents were all out socialising, promenading, or riding their tricycles and playing Pétanque.
It only took us 15 minutes to wander through the small village to the end of the road a km away, and everyone was very friendly calling Bonjour, Bon apres midi or Ia Orana (hello).
On our stroll back we struck up a conversation with a family sitting in their garden who invited us in to their house, where we chatted about the local way of life and their raisin d'etre. As we said "au revoir" we were given a gift of 3 black pearls. Nico wasn't interested in money, which has limited value to him, because there really isn't a lot to buy, or need to buy it! So we returned his gift the following day with our weathered Red Ensign and a Welsh flag!
On Monday morning we went to the shop but the only fresh produce was onions and potatoes, which is usual in the atolls unless the ship has been. We were disappointed that there were no baguettes, bars of chocolate or beer! Back at the boatyard anchorage other boats started to arrive including Painkiller, who's flights had also been cancelled!
We hosted sun downers for them plus the crew on a boat that had just re launched from the yard, so they had plenty of useful, though disconcerting information for us. We found out that in the evening onshore the mosquitoes are multitudinous, ferocious and difficult to avoid, so we decided to delay our lift out and to pay the yard to do the jobs on the hull after we depart. They also told us that the Apataki /Papeete plane is only a 4 seater because the airport is very small, so it is often cancelled and most people fly from Aratua. The Boatyard website states "2 flights a week", which is true, but from a different island! We watched the film Castaway, forgetting it starts with a plane crash over Tahiti air space, which did nothing to cheer me up!! Over the next week we took the sails down, serviced the engine, pickled the water maker, stored the safety kit, and finally deflated the dingy ready to leave Celtic Star on shore for 3 months. Then we prepared ourselves for the long journey home to see our family and friends. this started with an open boat ride to the island of Aratua .
Our taxi to the airport, two hours away, was quite an experience. Airport parking at Aratua!
When we started planning our home visit a couple of months ago, it seemed a good time to be heading back. Covid figures are rising in French Polynesia, but seemed to be better controlled in the Uk. Ironically, inevitably, this has changed and rising Covid numbers plus lockdown in Wales (especially Scott who was isolating in Cardiff due to his Covid positive flat mates) means we may not be seeing many friends or even family after all! But still, " There's no place like home!"
End of Part One, 15000 miles and half way round!
To be continued.....Sailing in a Time of Corona.