An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
Rangiroa. The world's second largest coral atoll. Home to sharks, dolphins, ripping currents and a placid lagoon in every shade of blue you can imagine. You can eat lunch of tuna carpaccio, fresh from the sea, whilst watching reef sharks, stingrays and moray eels foraging round the reef beneath you. Diving frigate birds carry away fish, and after you can walk to the pass to see if the dolphins have come out to play. There's even the occassional patch of white sandy beach if you look hard enough. The sunsets are amazing and it's pretty much paradise- who cares if the coconet is slow to upload the blog?
Time does strange things here, and I'm losing track of when we got here- island time has set in. We've been filling our days with diving and snorkeling, as well as exploring the motu. We've been in French Polynesia for two months, in some ways it doesn't feel that long. In others it feels endless. I understand why some cruisers do their best to never leave, and I'm not sure what I did to deserve being here for so long.
It isn't really a beach destination, and the shoreline tends to be rocky. The main draw here is the Tiputa Pass, which is French Polynesia's iconic dive spot. Not as sharky as Fakarava, and with less coral, but possessing a drana and magic all of its own. The pass has strong currents, making it a challenge to get through in a boat when the tide is outgoing and wind versus water flow pushes up huge waves. Sailors need to take care and judge the tides well, but dolphins love it, and there's a resident pod who can often be seen playing in the pass. Unusually, they seem to like divers, ignoring our noisy bubbles and coming to play if they're in the mood. If we're really lucky they’ll come so close they almost touch us, though touching is a big no-no. Other times they power by, busy with dolphin matters and keeping their distance, but watching them glide off into the blue has a magic all of its own.
Dolphins aren't the only reason to dive here. There are sharks, in less numbers than Fakarava, but surpassing anywhere else I've dived. We've also seen spotted eagle rays, silvery tuna, schools of barracuda, enormous Napoleon wrasse and gangs of trevally. Most of our dives take place on the outer wall. The pass itself makes a challenging dice that can only be done in the right currents. Speeding through vertical walled canyons 20 metres under the sea is a huge adrenalin rush, especially when we come face to face with a grey reef shark or watch a school of barracuda flying above us. Zooming with the current, we have to descend precisely as we hop between canyons so we don't miss the narrow entrances- if we overshoot, there's no way back against the immense flow of water. It's like being in a movie, with dramatic scenery, high speed races and incredible wildlife.
We've done our diving with Rangiroa Dive Centre. They're a small company who insist on small groups, and try to time dives so we're not in the water with a bunch of other boats. The centre has become a bit of a social hub for us. We've made friends with some of the other divers- Erica and Louis from Brazil- and owner Arnauld. Arnauld also offers facilities for cruisers- we've had the use of his twin tub washing machine and he's happy to pick up fuel and containers of water. He's even offered to host a barbecue for my birthday on Sunday. Louis and Erica have joined us dolphin watching on Prism, fighting our way against the less-fearsome incoming current to watch them leap and flirt with our bow waves. We've also snorkeled at the Aquarium, a lovely patch of reef inside the lagoon where black tip reef sharks patrol amongst schools of snapper and unicornfish.
It's all been beautiful, but the dolphins have been the most inspirational. I started off sketching them, using video I took on our dives and sitting at lookouts next to the pass to create hasty observation drawings as they play. The sketches make great references for painting. The tricky part is catching their energy and movement, plus the flow of the water. A loose style seems to work well, building up the dolphins with bright colours and flicking, dripping and dry brushing watercolour paint to create the water. It's a bit different to my usual way of working. The biggest challenge is thinking ahead- where should stay white? Where do I need to keep the values light and where should be darkened? How should i best use colour? When is it finished? Quite often a final pass to deepen the dark areas has made a huge difference to how the pieces pop, as well as using negative spaces to imply water and dolphin through the spray rather than etching in every detail. A4 has been a good size to work in for this approach, and 300gsm rough Arches paper handles heavy washes and gives a great texture to dry brushing- perfect for the water. Most of the colours I've used are unrealistic, but I feel like they capture the tropics and are much more fun than page upon page of grey. I do like how my most realistic attempt worked out though!
Our time here is winding down and we'll leave on Monday for the atoll of Tikehau. I'm hoping I'll manage another day of painting before then- and it's vety tempting to arrange one more dolphin dive in this wonderful and unique spot. I'd also appreciate any feedback and advice on the dolphin collection so far! Some of them will be finding their way onto Etsy when I reopen again in two weeks!
We've been on the move since my last blog post- fantastic places but slow/ no Internet. The lack of interweb is quite refreshing- people look around and smile as they walk along the street and kids entertain themselves by playing outside, riding their bikes and swimming. Wandering around in the afternoon, it's normal to hear ukeleles or people practicing the drums. Life without Internet isn't so bad. Having said that, I do get pretty excited when we find a decent connection, but then lots of formerly everyday things have become exciting and rare, like peppers and fresh water and bok choi and eggs. Eggs are a mystery, occassionally sighted but always seeming to arrive ‘demain’ (tomorrow). Perhaps they're related to bread and unicorns- only seen by pure souls who get out of bed very early.
The secret to baguettes in Rotoava, the small town in the north of Fakarava, is to order them the day before from the bakery. They also make tasty pain au chocolat- the only challenge is getting to mine before Jim can. There is a fruit and vegetable stall selling cabbages and onions, and I was very excited to get the first green pepper I’ve tasted in French Polynesia. There were a few and it was tempting to stock up, but peppers don't last well in the heat and Island Prism doesn't have a fridge. So one pepper it was- and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I did a few dives on the pass here. The coral’s good, and there's a decent shark population. It would have been breathtaking if I hadn't just come from the south, which was even sharkier. The Garuae pass was atmospheric, with sandy slopes full of Moray eels and flat fish. On one dive, I descended into a huge school of goat fish, and drifted along with them just above the sand as if I was a goat fish too. The sharks swirled in front of us and I felt very small. Later, the current picked up and I flew above coral gardens where butterflyfish flitted and squirrelfish gazed out from dark caverns with big baleful eyes.
The pace of life is slow in the Tuamotus, and people look around them, so sketching is harder to keep under the radar than when I'm in the lands of attention-consuming online connections. People are interested and positive, and it's been a good way to strike up conversations with other cruisers, tourists and locals. When it's hot, popping a fold up stool in a shady spot and drawing crabs or boats is a pretty good way to spend time. And if I get to hear someone's story while I do it, that's an added bonus. Seeing my sketches may have inspired someone else to start talking a sketchbook and watercolours when she travels (do it, Louise- a sketchbook, fineliner and paintbox won't take much room!). I was very excited when Anne-Marie, another cruiser, liked my drawings enough to ask me to paint her some post cards. We'd dived together the day before so I painted her underwater with the sharks and manta ray we saw on our dive. She insisted on paying for the commission and I was able to treat Jim to delicious ice cream sundaes at La Pailotte, a gorgeous eatery on the waterfront. It's exciting to think of two of my artworks winging their way to France!
Toau was just a day sail away from North Fakarava. Our departure was carefully timed with the outgoing tide- we wanted enough current to help us on our way but not so much that we risked facing turbulent waters as tide fought with the prevailing wind. We made our way through smoothly, and made it to Toau by mid afternoon. I loved it- turquoise waters, great coral and fantastic snorkeling with eagle rays, tiny pipefish and enormous Napoleon wrasse. Jim, however, noticed a change from when he was here nine years ago. He felt that fish numbers were down and the schools of reef sharks which had wowed him previously were noticeably absent. Just one of those things or poor fishery management? We certainly found a well-stocked fish trap, some of whose victims were showing negative signs from their captivity. I was glad to learn that the trap didn't belong to Valentine and her husband, but to an absentee nephew who refused to let them touch it. It's tragic to think of paradise being destroyed by human thoughtlessness, but I suppose that's a story the world's over. I avoided the depressing traps after our first snorkel, and Jim mourned for the declining glory of the ocean. For me, the fish life and eagle rays still made it worth a visit, and I hope that they manage to hang on to what they have.
On Toau I spent a happy half hour watching and sketching hermit crabs whilst Valentine, who owned the motu where we were moored, told us about the local tsunami early warning system. The crabs are good at sensing impending disaster and climb the trees- this is a signal for the locals to do likewise (there is no high ground on the coral atolls of the Tuamotus). Hermit crabs are therefore treasured friends. I loved the bright red ones, though some of the smaller creatures were delicate whites and pinks with pale shells to match.
Also in the anchorage at Toau were Nick and Jess on Te Mana, whom we'd meet in South Fakarava. They invited us to their boat for dinner, and revolutionised our cruising lives by showing us how to make our own coconut milk. Husk and split a coconut, drink the water if you want and use a nifty device called a rape de coco (pronounced ‘rap’) to grate the white flesh. The rape de coco looks like a flat spoon with fine teeth on one side, and is screwed on to a board which you sit on. You rhythmically scrape your coconut against it to remove the flesh, which you then put in a muslin bag and squeeze. An amazing amount of creamy milk comes pouring out, and you can eat the grated remains if you want to. The fresh milk is rich and sweet and had a fuller flavour than the canned stuff I've always used. Jim spent the next morning joyfully grating and milking, leading to an excellent lunch of fish with coconut milk (the cruiser’s dilemma- if fish stocks are under pressure, is it OK for us to take the occasional fish too?). There's definitely no shortage of coconuts, and a rape de coco has gone to the top of our shopping list when we reach Pape’ete.
We stayed at Toau for a couple of nights before moving on to another tranquil atoll, Ahe. This was an overnight passage- and with a beautiful beam reach we made great time, arriving at 8am instead of our predicted 2pm. We misjudged the slack tide in the pass slightly, and I had a couple of knots of current against me going in, but engine and headsail kept us going (even if it was only at a rate of two knots). We found a well-marked channel to the main village of Tenukupara, and anchored snuggly in a sandy space between coral outcrops. We were glad to be out of the way when the supply ship Dory came in, and happily sat ashore watching the hustle and bustle as bikes, trikes, wheelbarrows and a ute joined Dory’s forklifts to unload and restock the vessel. There was a bit of a party atmosphere and small boats zipped in from across the lagoon.
The following day was Bastille Day. The celebrations were a riot of colour at the flag raising. Residents of each suburb wore brightly coloured t-shirts and most people sported colourful and intricate lei on their heads. There was singing in Reo Maohi, then the Marseilles, followed by a feast. We were presented with leaf plates with sweet cakes and slices of baguette. I pulled out my sketchbook and once again failed to stay under the radar. A father soon asked me if I could draw his infant son, Moana, and this was soon followed by further requests and I ended up under a tree with a queue of families! Jim was sent back to Prism for more paper as my sketchbook grew thinner. The babies reactions varied from fascination to total disinterest ( little Tiare especially was infinitely more engaged with the sand than with me- her parents ended up with two drawings, a hard-won portrait which I think caught her mischievous gaze and a sketch of her fully focussed on the sand). The older children were more excited and the parents had a tough time prising the competed pictures from their hands. I wish I could have drawn the whole families- the parents’ proud and adoring expressions said everything you needed to know about families in French Polynesia! I'll have to share the photos at a future date, but it was definitely a good opportunity to practice my portraiture, and was a fun way to say thank you to this welcoming community for allowing us to join in their celebrations!
Pakokota was a neat spot. There's not much there except the yacht services, where Agnes provides great coffee and delicious dinners (duck and potato gratin), and Matthieu rustles up cold drinks, wifi and help with boat maintenance.
We were initially only going to stay for one night- Jim treated me to the delights of Agnes' kitchen- but we heard that a group of cruisers were congregating to hold a music night. It seemed worth hanging around for.
Our gut feeling was right.Steve and Stuart brought guitars, violin and saxophone, and local LuLu played the one-string base (the coolest thing you can do with a string and a rubbish bin). The music was great, the crowd was friendly, and I took a chance and pulled out my sketchbook.
Drawing people can be nervewracking, especially when you don't have a cafe table to hide behind. Steve and his wife quickly clocked what I was up to- the crowd wasn't big enough to hide it- but Steve got pretty excited, and everyone was very positive. I was even asked to send them scans of the drawings, and I got chatting to lots of people who were interested. Sketching can be a great ice breaker! There's even a bit of a resemblance between the sketches and the models.
We enjoyed a couple more days of hospitality before upping the anchor and heading for North Fakarava, and more diving.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.