An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
Photos from our Fakarava adventure, taken with my little Canon D20 underwater camera. Please take a peek at sketching-with-sharks for the full blog write up and my art work!
It was a four day passage from Raivavae to Fakarava. We started off rocking about in a rolling swell, and ended up motoring on glassy seas. We arrived at night- not a good time to attempt to go through a pass, especially one fringed with coral. Prism was put to sleep until the sun came up and we could safely make our way in.
The journey through Tumakahua pass was straightforward. The current was with us, and the route was well marked. We entered the anchorage with five other boats and grabbed a mooring buoy as our welcoming committee approached. A host of surgeonfish and a grey reef shark were on meet and greet duty (probably hoping that we’d have a few scraps of breakfast left to toss overboard). A white-tipped reef shark soon joined the party, then Jim and I jumped in with our snorkel gear. The fish swam up to investigate and the sharks cruised beneath us. It was a great arrival.
Most of our visit to Tumakahua was spent in the water. The currents are strong, sweeping nutrients through the pass and attracting lots of life. There are plenty of brightly hued reef fish living amongst the corals, large schools of snapper, mullet and barracuda, graceful eagle rays and imposing Napoleon wrasse. But the biggest draw here is the huge population of sharks. We saw them every time we entered the water. They generally seemed to ignore us, going about their sharky business. Most of the denizens here are reef sharks, whose philosophy towards humans is ‘we’ll respect you if you respect us’. The more fearsome residents, hammerheads and lemon sharks, live outside the reef at greater depths- beyond my dive certification level. But I’m very happy hanging out with the reef sharks.
The torpedo-shaped white tips tend to cruise around by themselves, or lie on sandy gullies on the seabed during the day. The stocky cream-coloured black tips seem to like shallow water, swimming through the coral gardens and cruising around the resort, hoping to pick up scraps thrown into the water by the cook. They’re small but have a more traditionally ‘shark’ shape than the long skinny white tips. The greys grow largest, although a lot of the animals we saw were young, and we often saw them in the pass and deep channels. They’re impressive, especially when dozens of them congregate and they’re close enough to see the dot of their pupil staring back at you. It makes me wonder what they’re thinking.
We saw sharks on every snorkel, but the best way to see the greys was to dive. The site is known as the ‘Wall of Sharks’, with good reason- though if the naming were up to me, I’d pluralise the ‘wall’. I made five dives altogether, all on the incoming tide. We’d enter the water either at a buoy within the pass or, for a longer and deeper dive, outside at the mouth of the pass by the drop-off.
The reef around the drop-off was beautiful, full of incredibly healthy coral and teeming with fish. A large group of grey reef sharks cruise just over the drop-off, occasionally joined by the odd white tip. We’d then follow the reef into the pass, looking for marbled grouper lurking amongst the coral heads. As we’d ascend, we’d reach the second wall of grey reef sharks, and see more white tips snoozing on the sand gullies at the bottom. There would be huge schools of big eyes, their red scales appearing black as the depth filtered out their colouring, and we’d often find large groups of silvery snapper. Looking up, we’d often spot an eagle ray flying above us, or a mass of brass striped barracuda. Once I saw a great barracuda, fearsome and intimidating with its large teeth on permanent display.
The third group of sharks could be viewed from above the reef, or by dropping down to a cavern. They were often the closest, coming within feet of us. Occasionally we’d see one rear up, ferocious maw gaping, as it invited a cleaner fish to give it a wash and brush up. Others would stay almost stationary, barely moving as they kept their position against the current, whilst the more energetic and awake would swim up to the head of the group, then turn and run with the current until they merged with the school again.
We usually took our safety stop just outside the dive centre, with a resident group of bright yellow striped snapper to keep us company, and a good chance of seeing Napoleon wrasse or black tip reef sharks. Once, we ran with the current which swept us around the corner, through the coral gardens near the anchorage. We were almost at the first boat before we had to surface and wait for the dive centre’s own vessel to come and retrieve us.
Despite spending so much of my time in the water, I still found time to draw. We used the dive centre at Tetamanu Village- the largest of the three accommodations around Tumakahua- and would often stop in for a pre-dive coffee or pre-sunset beverage. The café was on stilts above the reef and was a great place for fish spotting and sketching. Schooling fish used the shade of the resort’s boats and the piles of the café as a refuge, and butterflyfish, damsels and tangs were drawn to the pretty reef. Sketching moving creatures who were underwater wasn’t easy, but it was good practice- and a rare opportunity for drawing sea creatures from observation. The staff were interested and very positive- good motivation to keep up sketching in public!
The boardwalk to reach the café provided the perfect position for watching- and drawing- black tip reef sharks. There would always be a few cruising through, and the whole local population of about twenty would pay a visit before meal times. The kitchen threw fish scraps and chicken bones into the water, and I’d sit on the boardwalk and try to draw the elegant shapes that slid through the shallow water beneath me. Once, I put my camera in the water and got some video of the feeding frenzy- sharks darting around and making the water froth as they sped towards the bones. Most surprising of all was the huge Napoleon wrasse, which muscled its way across shallow coral to get into the middle of the action. It was not afraid to get into the thick of the sharky mass- and with a huge mouth just made for hoovering up tasty morsels, it quite often won the spoils.
The underwater scenery isn’t the only draw here; there are some gorgeous beaches too. We took the dinghy on the long ride round to les Sables Roses- the Pink Sands. This is a series of motu (islands) over in the UNESCO area. We’re not allowed to take Prism over there, but tenders are fine. We threaded our way through the reef as the tide fell, and chose a likely looking island trimmed in white and pale pink. Jim selected a spot under a shady palm tree, where he remained for the rest of our visit, and I set off exploring. The island was small, but it was easy to wade through the channels between motu, keeping my jandals on to protect my feet. I was rewarded by having islands all to myself, filled with lush greenery, surrounded by powedery white sand and fringed with pink sandbars, which were revealed as the tide retreated further. The contrast with the turquoise water was gorgeous, and I felt like we’d found a bit of paradise. Our only companions were dozens of hermit crabs and a baby black tip reef shark, which was entertaining itself by catching waves and surfing into the shallows, turning outwards and repeating the process.
That afternoon was a treat. We enjoyed sundowners with Afif, a lovely gentleman from Lebanon who we’d met diving. Then April and Harley from El Karma were planning a beach fire with a few of the other cruisers from our anchorage. As the sun set, we motored ashore for a picnic around a roaring fire, with more good company and surrounded by huge hermit crabs, who lumbered around the motu and seemed intrigued by the bright lights of the invading humans. The moon was a perfect crescent and the Milky Way was strung out across the sky. It doesn’t get much better than this.
A few more dives and a couple more snorkels, then we heard that the wind was due to change. Lovely in a south easterly breeze, Tumakahua becomes very uncomfortable in a northerly wind, which fetches up water from right across the long lagoon leading to a very uncomfortable swell. Midway through our visit, we’d experienced one night of northerlies, leading to a smashed jar of sundried tomatoes and very little sleep, and we were not keen to repeat the experience. We cast off the mooring buoy and headed north through the lagoon. Prism was ready to go, zipping along at six knots through the channel. We stopped at Tahao, a lovely anchorage which we had to ourselves. Today we called at Pakakota, where Micheal, an ex-cruiser, has set up a restaurant, mooring buoys and strong wifi (comparatively anyway).
A few days after reaching Fakarava, I finished the sketchbook I’d started in Raivavae. Unusually for me, I’d stuck with the same media- watercolour and brush pen- for the whole of the book, which does give it a nice continuity. I was struggling with the brush pen for the sinuous shapes of the sharks- in theory it should be perfect, but I found it hard to get the speed necessary to draw the fast-moving fish. For the new book, I decided to start off with my Derwent Inktense pencils. I’ve often used these for colour washes, but haven’t used them much to actually draw with. They let me be a bit ’sketchier’ than the brush pen, building up lines as sharks came past and repeated poses. I liked the effect of going over the coloured lines with a waterbrush- it gives the slightly blurry impression that the fish are actually under water. Wetting the page before I used the pencil let me get an interesting variation in line and a good depth of colour. The pencils can’t be erased once wet, so this method was permanent and gave a spontaneous feeling. They did bleed through a bit in my Hahnemuhle cartridge sketchbook when I used them on top of a wash- I think I’m overloading this book beyond its capacity. .
Back on the boat on a rainy day, I pulled out my Noodlers ink bottles, and used dip pen and water brush to draw sharks from a photo. The brush blurred the ink lines, creating interesting blurs and shading, especially when the inks were made from mixed colours which separated when the water was added. I followed up with a drawing of the reef, experimenting with using ink wet-in-wet and adding salt, creating wonderful textures which were perfect for coral. The colours were very vivid, leading to highly saturated images. Much too bright, but fun to do! My poor paper struggled with the amount of ink, and suffered from bleed-through in places. This wasn’t helped by the salty spots. I had to resort to blotting a few places with kitchen paper when they were still wet the next morning. When it had finally dried out, I pulled out my Posca pens and added details and patterns to suggest polyps, and drew in a few reef residents too. The poscas did add to the bobbliness of the paper- was it still damp or just overworked? Again, the cartridge paper is struggling.
Drying things in the tropics can be harder than you’d think. Watercolour washes dry in a flash in full sun- it’s causing a problem with my sketchbook as I have to use more water and the cartridge paper goes bobbly. Time to switch to my pricier but sturdier watercolour books, I think. Some of the paints themselves seem reluctant to ever dry. I knew this could be a problem with my Senneliers, which have honey as a binder. I was given my Senneliers in pannier form a few years ago, and they’ve been fine through New Zealand summers, but now the viridian and helios purple are just one step short of being liquid, whilst the other pans I have remaining are all slightly on the squishy side. It’s not just the Senneliers, however. Most of my pans now hold tube paint from Windsor and Newton or Daniel Smith- honey free and therefore, I thought, tropic-safe. I filled them all before we left NZ in the increasingly chilly Autumn, but many of the colours have returned to a rather soft state- they just don’t seem to totally dry out. It means that getting juicy colour is never a problem, but also means that colours sometimes ooze out of their pans. My Daniel Smith cobalt turquoise is a particular offender, closely followed by the W&N indigo- although maybe they’re just trying to tell me to paint another sea scene.
Beautiful sea scenes are easy to come by here and my inner critic keeps telling me I should be painting more (although it might be the paints talking). They’re probably right, and rethinking my ‘make every drawing a double spread’ approach might help me with this- a series of small sketches each day would be more manageable, and would fit in with adventures more effectively, plus encourage me to draw the little things which I feel like I’m starting to overlook (local drinks, fruit, flowers, hermit crabs etc). I’m taking lots of photos too, and although I prefer to draw from life, reference photos don’t hurt (especially when I’m tackling subjects under the sea!). Good fodder for rainy days! Perhaps I need to consider how I use my travellers notebook, as it can hold multiple sketchbooks inside- is it time to start using two sketchbooks- a ‘best’ book with good paper for when I have lots of time to sit and observe, so I can keep the cohesive look I enjoyed in my last sketchbook, plus a ‘scrappy’ one for experiments, quick doodles, journaling? This might also be a way to get me drawing people more…
I will mull on this as I finish the second half of this cartridge book- do you use one sketchbook or multiple books?
6th June: We were sitting at a covered table overlooking the lagoon when the gendarmes pulled over in their truck. The two police officers got out and walked over to us. Jim was worried- we were enjoying a baguette with roqueforte and a bottle of Hinano Tahiti, the local beer. Were we infringing some unknown bylaw? Were we about to get slapped with a fine or dragged away into what ever passed for a dungeon on this little island? No. The officers merely wanted to know whether we were enjoying the island, and to give us a bag filled with fish and limes. The experience pretty much sums up Raivavae- an island of cheer and generosity.
Raivavae lies just south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Days here tend to be warm, with a delicious cool breeze at night. It’s warm enough to grow tropical fruit, but cool enough to spend a day cycling in the sun without melting into a sweaty puddle. Describing it as a paradise would be clichéd but accurate.
Our first step here was to check in with customs. This is done at the gendarmerie, and was the first time we met our friendly local police officers. The forms were all in French, but Prism’s registration papers were a good cheat sheet- being a Canadian registered vessel, her paperwork is in both English and French. Between Jim’s and my limited French and the gendarme’s limited English, formalities were completed and we were set loose upon the island.
Jim had been dreaming about cheeseburgers for the days prior to our arrival, but it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to happen. We found a small internet café with a tempting menu of crepes and other delicacies, but all that was available were soft drinks and ham and mayonnaise baguettes. After 23 days at sea, the cold sugary beverages and huge sandwiches still felt like a treat, and sustained us for long enough to arrange bike hire for the following day, and to explore the little village of Rairua (which takes about five minutes).
Bikes are the perfect way to explore the island. The coast road is a flat and easy 22 kilometer ride around the circumference, manageable in a few hours even with stops. We cycled past colourful houses with orange trees and coconut palms in the gardens. Pigs rested in the shade of banana plants whilst butterflies flitted through the sunny spots, and chickens and cockerels were omnipresent. The lagoon was rarely out of sight, a pale turquoise with huge white foamy waves breaking over the surrounding reef. The shores owe their tranquility to the fringing reef, which absorbs the angry impact of the Pacific so that only gentle waves lap the coral sounds. One of our first stops of the day was a lovely stretch of white sand with seats, benches and hammocks- a beautiful public park. We debated lazing there for the rest of the day but managed to delve deep into our reserves of motivation and continued our cycle adventure. We found brightly painted churches, vibrant against the green vegetation, and a shop selling baguettes and French cheese, which made a delicious lunch.
As well as pretty houses and sea views, the island has a bit of history to it. One old survivor is a stone tiki, standing on a stone platform at the bottom of a garden fringed with banana plants and the ubiquitous chickens. One ear and arm have been lost in the war against time, and his eyes are soft beneath mossy eyebrows. Scatters of white lichen adorn his body, but his broad smile seems as sharp as the day it was carved. Across the island, we found the remains of an old marae. Most of whatever glories there were are long gone, but a cluster of stones remain, including one tall standing stone. Legend says that the notches on the stone record the height of warriors- although as the stone is shorter than I am, I assume that it must have sunk a bit over the ages.
There is a second marae on the island, but our bikes were not allowed on the dangerous traverse to get to it. Although the coast of Raivavae is flat, the interior is rocky, with spikes of mountain peaks towering over the gardens and villages. This made for some very dramatic scenery on our journey.
There are only four pensions on the island, of varying sizes. We stopped in at one and negotiated to have some of our laundry done. One of the bolts going through the deck had decided to spring a leak, along with one of the portholes above the front bunk. This was enough to ensure that most of Jim’s clothes and our sheets and duvets were doused in salt water, and it hadn’t taken long for mildew to start appearing. The cost meant that we only gave them the items in most dire need of a machine wash, and I resigned myself to washing the rest by hand. A few days later we were glad of this- our laundry ladies turned out to be over-generous with the bleach, giving some of Jim’s t-shirts an interesting but unwanted tie-dyed effect. They also happily sold us two pomelos and a very large cucumber. I had wondered why Jim had got so excited about the cucumber- he’d thought it was a papaya. He was rather disappointed when he cut into it and was met with rather dry pale green flesh instead of the succulent orange he’d been hoping for. On the bright side, the pomelos were delicious- juicy and tangy, related to a grapefruit but sweeter and, in my opinion, far more enjoyable.
Considering they grow everywhere, obtaining fresh fruit and vegetables can be harder than you’d think. There isn’t a market, and we’ve only found one shop that sells anything other than onions, potatoes and garlic, all imported from New Zealand. Most people grow their own produce and are pretty self-sufficient. Luckily for us, people are extremely generous and we’ve been given oranges, bananas and limes. It’s tricky to get people to take any money in exchange- a fellow cruiser, Colin, has taken to carrying round small packets of pasta to gift in return.
There is a baker on the island, who delivers baguettes to order, and supplies the little shop where we’ve been buying our bread. Some house have long thin post boxes outside- just the right side for their daily bread delivery. Other ladies sell their wares outside their houses. Our favourite is a delicious tarte chocolat, sold in generous slices to be eaten perched on rocks or tree stumps by the sea. We’ve also enjoyed sweet fiafia, which are like doughnuts shaped in a figure of eight. The most interesting food experiment has been poi. This is a doughy concoction of taro and lemon, and is apparently wonderful when eaten with ice cream. Having no fridge or freezer, ice cream becomes impossible, so we tried it without accompaniment. I enjoyed the citrusy flavor, and got used to the doughy texture when I decided it was like unbaked cookie dough. The taro makes it fairly heavy, so I found a dessertspoon or two at a time was enough- a bit like licking a bowl out after cooking. I’d only managed a few portions before it succumbed to the heat and needed to be thrown overboard. I hope the fish enjoyed it, though they may be stuck to the bottom of the sea under the weight of the taro.
We’ve met the local fish life up close during our snorkel adventures around the lagoon. With a bit of searching in the dinghy, we can usually find a new pretty patch of coral teeming with reef fish. Each spot seems to offer something new. We’ve found gardens of giant clams covered in complex patterns of amethyst, ultramarine and emerald, bright yellow boxfish which look like swimming dice, elegant Moorish idols trailing their flowing dorsal fins like banners and rainbows of butterflyfish, parrotfish and surgeonfish. The highlight came yesterday, when we entered the water and were greeted by a two meter-long shark. It cruised past us, rounded a coral head and returned for a second glide-by- either to let me get a close up or to decide that we weren’t going to be good to eat. As it faded into the blue, I was happy that I’d got a couple of good photos and Jim began to release his death grip on the side of the dinghy. This may be one of the few occasions when he is more sensible that I am. My first feeling was that our visitor was a bronze whaler shark. The only other contender seems to be a bull shark- if any fish id experts read this, I’d love to know what you think!
We’re intending to spend a little longer on the island, and are thinking of taking Prism round to the other side, where there are some coral islands that are rumoured to have good snorkeling. Yesterday Colin took us along in his dinghy to scout out the route as the charts of the area range from vague to inaccurate. We found a clear pass and will head round tomorrow if the day is sunny- we want to make sure that we will see any coral heads. Until then, I’ll continue to enjoy the pleasant rhythm of laundry, snorkeling, painting and watching beautiful sunsets.
12th June: Island Prism had a good trip round to Motu Piscine. Jim perched up on the spreaders to watch for coral, I helmed and we were tailed by Colin, single-handing on his boat ‘Amy’. After a couple of hours, we were anchored near the coral island in 8 metres of water.
It was a picture-postcard spot. Motu Piscine had soft white sand, tailing to a swash of sandspit at the northern end. To the west was shallow turquoise water, turning abruptly indigo at the drop off, to the east, the huge swells of the Pacific pounded on the outer reef, sending towers of white spray up into the air. We took the dinghy ashore and wandered amongst the palm trees and spikey pandanus plants. Jim’s ankle was sore, so he paddled the zodiac in the shallows.
All the coral bommies offered the promise of some good snorkeling. There was a current running, so we towed the zodiac along with us. Our initial plan was to swim through the pass, in the hopes that the swiftly flowing water would be home to a rich array of fish. The pass wasn’t marked though, and we found it hard to locate amongst the wall of breaking waves, so pottered amongst likely coral heads. There were large schools of fish and lots of giant clams, and the health of the coral improved as we swam back towards Motu Piscine. We ended up in pretty coral gardens not far from the shores, filled with fish. Swimming past some large coral rocks, I turned around and found a giant moray right behind me. I hastily swam back a little, just in case he took exception to the invasion of his personal space. He stared at me for a moment, his tooth-filled jaws gaping in typical moray style, then swam towards me. I worried for the safety of my fingers- but he rippled right past and vanished into a rocky hideaway. He was probably more scared of me than I was of him, but my heart rate took a few moments to slow down!
The next day the weather changed. The switch was innocuous enough at first, a blustery breeze, grey skies and a cloud hanging low over Raivavae for a day or two. Then one afternoon the wind picked up, and we started to worry about the dinghy engine, which was still bolted on the zodiac and in the water. A lull came, so we shoved on our rain jackets and set about hauling it out. Not a moment too soon.
We had the engine stowed and I was looping the main halyard around the boom to secure it when Jim shouted “Look out!” Racing towards us was what appeared to be mist coming off the sea, obscuring the horizon. It seemed surreal. I held onto the halyard and gripped the boom as the blast of wind hit. The mainsail cover billowed up around me as I hugged it and held on. Once the gust was over, Jim hopped into the dinghy to finish emptying it and I fastened the halyard around the sail cover then moved forward to the mast to cinch it tight. I’d cleated it off and was wrestling with the mainsail cover when the next blast of wind came. I had to abort my futile attempt to zip the cover and just hold on as the ferocious gust whipped round me, throwing up spume from the water. I looked back to the cockpit. The dinghy was up in the air, plastered to the rails by the wind. There was no sign of Jim.
I rushed back to the cockpit, Jim was in the water some way off the stern, trying to reach the fuel can from the dinghy that was floating near him as he drifted away. I threw the life collar, its neon orange line snaking behind. Jim grabbed the cord and I pulled him in. He hauled himself into the dinghy, passed me the fuel and the dinghy bucket and then clambered aboard. No rest for the soggy- the katabolic winds swirled towards us again and we were worried about the gear that we store between the cabin and the mast. Jim scrambled forward and passed me the ladder and dive gear, which I hastily stowed in the cockpit locker. The next blast of wind hit us from behind and the dinghy took flight again, this time raised up onto the foredeck. Tying it down there seemed a great idea but there just wasn’t time, so Jim tossed it back into the sea and let out the painter so it would hopefully stay away from Prism. After that, the dinghy was left to take its chances as the next williwaw laid Prism down. We could only cling on as the jerry can of water and our large can of fuel slid across the foredeck to come to rest against the wooden rubrails. Another laydown followed, the wind heeling Prism so far over that the water came over the rubrail and floated both jerry cans away. I tried to get the boathook to catch them but fumbled with the knots, and was wary of losing the hook too. The next swirl of wind solved the problem- by the time it passed they were too far away.
Although the confused katabolic winds came at us from all directions, confused as they tumbled down the mountainsides, at least our anchor was holding well- a blessing with all of the coral around. Amy also seemed to be anchored firmly. I’m not sure how long it took for the winds to die down, but we were all very relieved when conditions calmed and we could retreat below. We found chaos- we hadn’t had time to pack up ready for such heavy weather, and the cabin was littered with cushions, art supplies, clothes and tools, with grapefruit rolling around amongst it all. Jim peeled off his salt-laden clothes and poured a well-deserved whisky. We had an easy dinner and an early night. Jim was out like a light, but sleep wouldn’t come to me, so I read and watched the flashes of lightning. Sheets flashed across the sky, forks stabbed the sea, highlighting the crests of the waves. I counted the seconds- one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, four- until I heard the rumbles of thunder that told me the distance between us and the electrical storm. Sometimes the flashes were so close together that I lost track of which set of lightning and thunder belonged together. By my count, the closest the storm got was about 5 elephants- one mile away. Lightning and boats are not friends- the masts make perfect lightning rods, and whilst a strike doesn’t usually compromise the hull, it will fry the electronics on board. Having lost a dinghy pump, cans of fuel and water and a fishing rod, smashed by the flying dinghy, I was very happy not to add the boat’s navigation systems to the day’s casualty list.
The morning dawned blue, with a few fluffy clouds and the odd sunbeam. Following the harrowing day before, the crews of both Island Prism and Amy were rather slow to get going. Rest and relax was the order of things, though we did manage a shore party in the afternoon, accompanied by slices of Colin’s very tasty lemon drizzle cake. The rain began again at night, and in the morning we decided that it was time to go back to the village, take on supplies and head on to the Tuamotos. Our plan started off well, the anchor came up easily and although visibility wasn’t great, we could see the large coral heads and I could follow the track from our journey to Motu Piscine using the wonders of GPS. Things proceeded without a hitch until we were nearing the trickiest part of the track- a narrow passage between two rocks. The wind was coming up, the rain was getting heavier and I was getting concerned about the slight lag between my position and what the GPS showed. I got knocked off course if I slowed down, and I didn’t want to do this stretch unless I could take it carefully. Jim and Colin both agreed with my concerns, so we turned both boats around and entered a nearby bay. We were glad we did, as the rain gushed down in torrents and the winds grew stormy. No katabolic winds this time, but we were happy to be down below, peeling off our sodden wet weather gear (which isn’t as waterproof as we’d like it to be) and waiting out the storm.
Things continued to be blustery for the afternoon. As the light fades, we’re hoping for a calmer day tomorrow, and good winds to carry us north to Fakarava in the next day or two. We’ve really enjoyed it here on Raivavae- it’s a sleepy spot, and a great place to recharge, but the current spell of inclement weather is a little too inclement for our taste, and we’re hoping things might be a bit calmer to the north (right now, the four day ocean passage feels like it might recharge our batteries!).
The voyage from Marsden Cove to Raivavae started well. We’d loaded Island Prism with fuel and water, loaded ourselves with coffee and carrot cake and finished customs formalities. Our journey down to the mouth of the Whangarei River was choppy and slow, as the wind and tide were against the flow of the river, but once we were out to sea we enjoyed low swells and a good breeze to set us on our way.
We quickly fell into our 6 hour watch rotation. Days were uneventful, and the clear nights gave us spectacular views of the Milky Way and the waxing moon. There seemed to be a different treasure each night for the first few nights- moonbeams reflecting in pale gold off the ebony sea, a moonbow circling the full moon like an otherworldly halo, as light refracted through the thin hazy covering of cloud. One night Jim saw a swarm of bioluminescent jellyfish glowing with an eerie blue-green light- other than a couple of freighters, they were the only life we saw during the passage.
About five days in, the weather changed. The winds picked up and the swells grew. Headwinds saw us pounding into large waves- not a comfortable experience, especially for days on end. Changing course let Prism take the waves on the beam. It was a smoother course, but very rocky- something like being in a washing machine strapped onto a funfair rollercoaster. We stopped using the front bunk and set up the lee cloths in the main cabin so that both settees were usable as berths. I grew very attached to whichever bunk was leeward, as the higher side gave a nauseatingly corkscrewing view which oscillated between sky and waves.
For the next couple of weeks, we seemed to alternate between rough seas and high seas, with the occasional moderate day to give us a breather and let us catch up on sleep. We tacked a few times as wind and waves dictated, and alternated between the main sail and the small heavy weather trysail. I tried drawing on the calmer days, but the angles made my head spin more and there was no way I was going to manage to use watercolour without painting the boat as well. I stuck with sketching thumbnails and impressions, to fill in and work from when we reached Raivavae. Most of the time, I buried my head in a book and was very thankful for my well-stocked kindle.
Cooking was a bit of a challenge too. I’d cooked up batches of chili, Bolognese and Israeli couscous salad before we left Marsden Cove. When they were gone, we made curries and minestrone soup if the sailing was smooth, or pasta and boil-in-the-bag meals when things were rocking. Every so often a rogue wave would launch things from the galley- a plate from the rack, tins and Tupperware, the entire kitchen drawer and, spectacularly, an open tin of pasta sauce which was in Jim’s hand when a wave decided to smash against the boat and jerk it from his grip. It managed to lavishly baptise the floor and our wet weather gear, and of course clean-up becomes complicated when the things you are trying to clean are moving too.
Jim was having a whale of a time. I would love to say the same, and to be the kind of sailor who relishes in taking on the elements- but really I just wanted to get to our destination. I wasn’t sick, but the rocking and rolling made me feel like I had a constant bout of vertigo, and I was happiest when curled up in the bunk. Prism was making good speed though, and it was satisfying to watch the miles tick by. Even our tacking to handle the waves didn’t slow us too much. Jim’s brother Bill sent us regular detailed weather updates, we usually managed to receive the weatherfax broadcasts issued by New Zealand, and had weather guru Bob McDavitt on the other end of the satphone for when we really needed an expert opinion. We especially appreciated his advice when an ominous low pressure was heading towards us, and we weren’t sure whether to hold back or try to run in front of it. We’d just come through the tail end of a high with 50 knot winds and 5 metre swells, and the low looked like it had potential to give us an equal battering. Instructions came to ‘go!’ and we shot north- avoiding being trapped in a ‘squash zone’ between the two pressure systems.
Eventually the morning came when land was in sight. Rocky peaks rose out of the sea, surrounded by a turquoise lagoon. Waves beat against the fringing reef, sending up huge plumes of spray. We tacked towards the channel, Jim lowered the sails and we motored into the sheltered waters of Raivavea. The anchor was retrieved from one of the cockpit lockers, the chain was fed through the windlass and we dropped the hook. The wind was strong but it was wonderful to have the rolling stop, to catch up on sleep and to sleep in the front bunk again. The following day we would go ashore to start immigration proceedings and to explore the island we’d travelled over 2000 mile to reach.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.