An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
On Fatu Hiva, the sound of water is never far away. Rolling waves crash onto the beaches, and the valleys and hillsides are full of rushing cascades and burbling streams. Cool, clear and frequently drinkable, the water is testament to Fatu Hiva’s status as the rainiest island of the Marquesas, and contributes to its abundance of vegetation, and fertile soil- perfect for growing fruit.
Mangoes drip from the trees over the roads. Windfalls are free for all, tiny and sweet. Jim scoops them up off the roadside and slices them open with his knife. They are so small that they only give up a couple of bites of fruit (or one mouthful if you’re Jimmie), but they’re juicy and worth the effort. Jim keeps eying up the bountiful limes, bananas and pomelos, but they’re all on private land- not for general consumption.
To get fruit, we need to trade- pomelos in exchange for perfume samples and makeup, bananas for a packet of Paracetamol. The holy grails of trading seem to be tobacco, rum and bullets, picked up cheaply by cruisers who arrive here from Panama or Ecuador. My first attempt at trading is with Marie-Priscille, who asks for pens, flip flops or perfume in exchange for some pomelos. I’m sadly lacking in spare perfume and footwear, but she agrees to swap some fruit for 500 francs (about $5) and a few pens. It seemed easy- until I went to collect the fruit. I was presented with a huge bag of pomelos, limes and mangoes, but of course the price had gone up. Did I have rum? Tobacco? Mascara? Was I SURE I didn’t have more flip flops lurking on the boat, or a spare bottle of perfume? My offering of nail polish was grudgingly accepted, along with a handful of multicoloured biros and an additional 500 francs. The mangoes turned out to be windfalls- mostly bruised and split and quickly tossed overboard. But the pomelos are tasty and the kilo or so of limes will keep the scurvy at bay for the next few weeks- and go very nicely with the last of our rum.
We’re anchored in the stunning Bay of Virgins, next to the village of Hanavave- one of only two villages on the island. It’s not an easy place to get to; the island has no airport, and the only scheduled boat is the cargo ship Aranui, which calls in every couple of weeks. There’s a small shop which stocks the usual staples of crackers, bricks of plastic cheese, corned beef, canned fish and tins of cassoulet, but everything else is grown, raised or hunted locally. The men are eager to trade for bullets so they can hunt the wild goats and pigs around the island. The pig tusks are used for necklaces, and men wear the circles of tusks with as much pride now as they did centuries ago. The pig bones are used for carving, the goat skins stretched and tans. Nothing is wasted here.
Towering fingers of rock ring the bay, reaching up to clutch the sky. In the morning they are silhouetted dramatically. In the afternoon, they reflect the warm light in shades of orange and purple. The first sailors here didn’t see the rocks as fingers. Instead they perceived their favourite anatomical features, and named the bay “Baie des Verges”- the Bay of Penises. The missionaries who arrived a few years later did not appreciate this. With the addition of a letter ‘i’, verges became vierges, penises were transformed into virgins and the cheeky rock formations took a vow of chastity. Nobody knows what the rocks think about this, but in the Catholic Marquesas they are stuck with the status quo.
The rocks are best seen from our anchorage, their impact fades on land. We are anchored out in the gentle and constant swell, cooled by the trade winds. To get ashore we take the dinghy to the small boat harbor and tie it to the rocky wall alongside colourful speedboats. In the afternoons, the small boat harbor becomes a hive of activity. Men bring their dogs for a swim, the accepted technique being to throw your mutt into the water and hold the end of its lead whilst it does doggy paddle on the spot. I’m not too sure what the dogs think about this, but they strain at the lead on the walk down to the bay, which I’ll take as a sign of excitement. After lunch, the ladies come to wash vetiver- sweetly scented plant fibres used for weaving neck garlands. They stand in the water to toss the fibres around, spreading them out on the quay to dry whilst they swim then wash and oil their hair. In the late afternoon, the dock becomes the place of choice to play football, with the children taking one edge and the young men using another. The ball often ends up in the water, but that’s part of the fun, and swimming to get it adds to the exercise- unless a handy yachtie uses their dinghy to retrieve it before it drifts too far!
A dedicated football field does exist, but people mainly use it to moor their horses whilst they go fishing or visit the community hall. At the moment the hall is mainly used for dance rehearsals. Practices are well under way for a Christmas performance, but most of the time and enormous amounts of energy are being put into preparing for the Marquesan Festival next week. The main festival is held every four years, with groups invited from as far afield as New Zealand and Rapa Nui. Every second year is a mini festival, held for the people of the Marquesas by the people of the Marquesas. The festivals started as a way of celebrating and valuing culture and the Arts at a time when Marquesan language and traditions were being pushed aside and forgotten. Pounding drums and chanting voices drew me and Jim to take a peek into one of the rehearsals. We were treated to a sneak glimpse of wiggling hips, stamping feet and a huge amount of energy being expended.
Carving is also flourishing on the island. Taoa, one of the local carvers, showed us his beautiful bowls and tiki, created from local rosewood, ebony and stone. We also met Poi, who invited us into his home and showed us gorgeous and intricate carvings from bone, wood and swordfish. His wooden house had the semi-outdoor feel typical of Polynesian homes. The living area was largely open with enormous unglassed windows to let in the breeze. Shutters could be pulled across to shut out inclement weather. A broad verandah wrapped around the house, forming his workshop out the back. It was scented with vetiver, piles of which had been dyed with turmeric and were ready to be formed into lei for the festival. Poi’s wife also used turmeric to dye some of her tapa cloth. She made it the traditional way, soaking bark in water until it was ready to be pounded into thin sheets, then dried and painted. In the past tapa was used for clothing; today it is a canvas for beautiful geometric art.
Jim’s bike caused much amusement on the island. Bikes here are mainly toys for children- the village is too small to make them necessary for adults, and the steep and unpaved road to the other village is not cycle friendly. One afternoon it was commandeered by young Mahana, who took great delight in freewheeling it downhill, her father in hot pursuit to give her a push on her way back up. We met Mahana and her sister as they sat in a wheelbarrow, being pushed up the winding road to go to swim in the cascade. Within a few minutes she’d charmed a turn on Jim’s bike, given my camera a thorough workout and modeled my sunglasses. It turned into a party when Marie Priscille turned up with bags of fruit. She shared some juicy mangoes and pomme d’or (sweet, pink pear-shaped fruit which taste a bit like an apple), and was delighted when Mahana used my camera to take some photos of us. Mahana was desperate for us to join her on her outing to the falls, but we’d just finished a four hour hike and were ready to return to Prism and enjoy another glorious sunset over the beautiful bay. Her ready laughter followed us down the road and she continued to wave at us from under the banana plants until we went round the next snaking bend and out of sight.
The cascade is a very special spot- a thirty metre high wall of water, tumbling down a sheer rock face into a cool and shady pool. The rock wall curves into a ‘u’ shape, giving the pool an aura of secrecy- only a tiny part of it is visible from the trail. I’d had it to myself that morning, showering under the gentle spray and making lazy laps of the clear water. I could have stayed all day in this secluded paradise, but Jim was waiting for me so we could finish our sweaty hike up to the top of the hill to find a viewpoint over the harbour. It was tough going at times, and we reached the end of the sealed road, but the vista of imposing mountains dropping straight down into peacock blue water was worth the slog. The village and the bobbing boats all felt minuscule in comparison to the grand scale of the scenery
By now we were starting to feel like part of the community. Trading with Taoa was feeling more like alternate rounds of gift giving. We’d bring him some spare snorkeling gear, he’d give us a boldly painted tapa of a tiki, Jim would gift him some fishing tackle superfluous to our needs, he’d present us with an exquisitely carved rosewood bowl. I was having regular chats in my broken French with an elderly lady who lived in a lovely house of woven palm fronds, and Marie Priscille often passed the time of day and a quick joke (sometimes I even understood them). We didn’t want to leave, but the festival was drawing near, and after that we’d only have a week left in this wonderful part of the world. It was time to haul up the anchor and begin to make our way north.
We spent a couple of days anchored at Hakatea Bay. It's a little to the west of Taiohae, and the mountains circle the anchorage, creating a dramatic vista and protecting the bay from the worst of the rolling Pacific swell. Being (relatively) still was certainly a welcome change, and meant I could get my paints out without fear of them being catapulted across the cabin. Painting on a rocking boat is probably about as close as watercolours get to being an adrenaline rush...
I had a commission to work on, from a beautiful photo of Mount Maunganui back in New Zealand. I declared a painting day, and transformed the table into full studio mode. I wish I'd videoed the painting of the sunset- the way the watercolours behave when the wet paint hits wet paper is beautiful, and always has a slight edge of unpredictability. With the jewel colours of the sunset it was magic.
Because part of watercolour painting often involves waiting for paint to dry, I like to have a second piece on the go. I'd started a picture of a lemur when I flew back to Auckland to get my US visa sorted out. I'd visited the zoo with my friends Jill and Ethan, and we were entranced watching the ringtail lemurs feasting on strawberries for their lunch. I sketched them as they munched and had got as far as redrawing the sketch on watercolour paper and laying down a background wash. The whimsy of the idea still appealed to me so I decided to finish it off in between working on the larger A3 painting.
And then more paintings happened, I found it impossible to put the brush down, the ideas queued in my brain were all clamouring to get out and a second art day was declared. Beautiful valley walks? What beautiful valley walks? They remained unwalked by me.
And a bunch of the ideas that have been lurking in my head or loitering in my sketchbook got unleashed. I'm particularly pleased with the mantas- based on a sketch I did in Bora Bora.
This morning the brushes had to go back in their roll, and the much-depleted tube of French ultramarine was placed back into the art box along with the rest of the rainbow. We're back in Taiohae, after a dolphin-filled sail back, ready to grab a few more provisions before we head south to the island of Hiva Oa. But we'll do it again soon, watercolour paints- it's been a blast.
Tiki appear in various forms in Polynesian cultures. In New Zealand, they appear carved in greenstone- pounamu- to protect the wearer. As they are passed down through a family, they become more powerful- more lucky. In French Polynesia, tiki are usually carved from wood or stone. They protect the site where they are placed. and it is considered unlucky to move them.
Each one seems to have its own personality. I started sketching the tiki of Nuku Hiva in brush pen. It was a good exercise in looking at light and shadow, showing the negative space. I decided not to colour the tiki themselves but to try to use the background to say something about the tiki. Some are older, others are modern- but I thought that this approach would make the age irrelevant, and would make the mana and personality of each tiki the centrepoint.
The drawings haven't been too popular on social media, but I'm enjoying creating them so thought I'd pop them up here anyway. Thanks for taking a look!
You can find more 'classic' style sketches of Nuku Hiva on my blog post here
Nuku Hiva has been well worth the tricky sail to get here. We've been anchored off the sleepy little town of Taiohae, which boasts a few stores, a craft shop, a number of wood carvers and a few churches. The place is charming, and very genuine. It's not unusual to see someone riding their horse to the post office. Shirts are optional, traditional tattoos are almost compulsory, and boar tusk necklaces are not just worn to impress the tourists. There are hardly any tourists in any case- the place becomes busy when the Aranui is docked, then quickly returns to its usual state of dozy tranquility.
The anchorage is rather rolly, but the holding is good and there's enough to explore that it's worth putting up with the swaying. There's a little quay where we can tie up the dinghy; it's also used by the bonito boats, and we often watch the fishermen unloading their catch. There's a snack, which serves good poisson cru, tasty pastries and delicious pomelo juice, and is always full of locals and yachties (the decent wifi is an added draw). A couple of doors down are the yacht services, where Kevin does laundry and offers assistance with paperwork and parts deliveries.
On Sunday, we went to church. The entrance belongs to a tropical fairy tale- an inviting gateway with turrets, leading to a garden full of tropical blossoms. The cathedral is built of stones brought from each of the archipelagos of French Polynesia, and filled with intricate Marquesan wood carvings. Below the roof are open sides, letting in the light and the breeze. Swifts and song swirl beneath the rafters, as the a cappella choir weave magic in French and Marquesan. Sometimes guitar, drums and ukulele are used as an accompaniment, but they just seem to dilute the whole effect- the magic is in the voices alone. After mass, the congregation retreats to the outer courtyard where pastries and bread pudding are sold under shady marquees. The small children who squawked, complained and pestered their brothers through the service are carted off home, and a few people remain to share gossip beneath the trees. I loitered and sketched until the sun became too hot and we retreated to the snack for a cold juice.
Tohua Koueva is an old communal site up in the hills, in the shade of towering banyan trees. Getting there involves a couple of kilometres of walking upwards, and those inevitable moments when you begin to wonder if the climb will be worth it. In this case- yes it was. The site itself was beautiful, shady, lush and green. The extensive meeting platforms have been restored, and huts have been reconstructed to give a feel for what the site was like a few hundred years ago. There was a film crew there; two intrepid souls had swam from the neighbouring island of Ua Pou to Nuku Hiva, and were now exploring their ancestral and spiritual roots. One of the film crew, Pascal, took an interest in my sketching and took some time to tell me a bit about the site. I was surprised there were no other tourists there, he answered that they don't often get this far. He didn't mind, it allows the local population to enjoy it and connect with their culture. We spent the whole morning there, sketching and exploring, searching for tiki sculptures and absorbing the ambience. I'd happily go back- armed with a small vat of insect repellant!
I've also been working on a series of sketches of tiki. You can find the series so far here!
Land. Solid, stable, firm, immobile, not crashing and smashing or rocking and rolling… I’m very happy to be ashore following our passage from Tahiti to the Marquesas. We were intending to wait for a weather window- southerlies, perhaps, which would speed us along on our way northeast. But none were forecast, despite the pilot charts indicating that southeasterlies should be prevalent at this time of year. So we had to leave anyway.
Sailing into wind is uncomfortable. The waves are against you, so if they reach a reasonable size the boat smashes into them, slowing as she pounds along. Island Prism performs well upwind, and is capable of 5 knots or more in a stiff breeze (respectable for a cruising boat of mature years), but the constant pounding puts strain on boat and crew both so we sometimes find we need to slow her down. And if the wind slows but the swell remains, we are left struggling and wallowing. On our way north, the winds stayed strong and stable- but struggling against the trade winds is no easy task, especially as we didn’t want our teeth rattled out of our heads. We made an average speed of four knots, and our trip, predicted to take seven days, stretched out to ten and felt much, much longer.
We even ended up having Jim’s birthday at sea, and celebrated with a tin of ravioli and a bar of Whittakers chocolate (the really delicious and distinctive dark Ghana). On passage isn’t the best time to have a birthday, but Whittakers isn’t a bad way to celebrate. And now we’re on land (hooray! Land!), there are rumours of ice cream and pizza at one of the snacks, so we’ll be able to celebrate retrospectively.
We’re anchored in Taiohae Bay, home to the main town in the Marquesas. The bay rings with the inevitable sound of cockerels, and the crashing of waves upon the black volcanic sands. As we dropped the anchor we could smell the richness of the land- soil and wood carried on the air, with a faint scent of flowers. The mountains rise steeply out of the ocean and are covered with lush green vegetation. This is a place where things like to grow. I didn’t draw much on passage- one day I hope to break through the queasy feeling it gives me, but it hasn’t happened yet- so when we’d anchored I tried to capture the feeling of the voyage. I think a follow up is needed, with more headwinds.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.