An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
It was mid-August and we were back in Telegraph Cove. Island Prism had sat quite happily at the dock whilst we bussed to Parksville. Jim's son Peter had married the lovely Keelie and now the whole clan was in convoy to Telegraph Cove for a family adventure by the sea.
Prism was put in service as the family whale watching boat, whilst brother-in-law Tim's powerboat was responsible for hunting and gathering seafood. We went out every day and were rewarded with sights of acrobatic humpback whales. Seals perched on tiny rocks in mermaid poses, trying to keep clear of the frigid water, whilst sea lions cavorted in the waves. We had brief glimpses of small shy harbour porpoises, swimming at the surface with a distinctive tumbling motion. We witnessed Pacific white-sided dolphins skimming over the sea, raising a huge spray. We even saw a few Dall's porpoises, black and blunt-nosed with strange right-angled dorsal fins- a species I'd never seen before.
The orca were playing hard to get. Our first day out was orca-less, and on the second we didn't see any orca from the boat, although the resident pod swam past Telegraph Cove as we barbecued dinner. Then our final day of family explorations rolled round. Entering Blackfish Sound, we saw the pod being trailed by a research boat. They were a long way away, moving farther off at high speed, so we kept our course and went to look for humpbacks.
We were rewarded by a pair of breaching humpbacks, and a spectacular display of tail lobbing and fin slapping, sending huge plumes of water high into the air. Scientists think that this behaviour is used for communication- if so, this humpback looked like he was grumpy about something. We were happy to be at a distance!
We kept our eyes peeled for grizzlies, which sometimes swim out to the Broughton Archipelago, but we were unsuccessful. It wasn't a huge deal- the scenery was lovely, and we did find another humpback who swam parallel to Island Prism for a while. Eventually we turned around, ready to head back to Telegraph Cove. Exiting Blackfish Sound, Peter spotted a breaching orca- and the rest of the tribe were hunting nearby. The water was full of swirling dorsal fins as the orcas engaged in a complicated ballet. When three Pacific white-sided dolphins went steaming into the fray it seemed extremely foolhardy- were they about to end up as part of the buffet, gobbled by killer whales? The water spun and frothed and smaller dorsal fins appeared amongst the big ones. In an incredible example of team work, the dolphins were cooperating with their larger cousins. I was glad I wasn't a fish!
Stuffed after their fishy banquet, the orcas turned towards Telegraph Cove. This gave us lots of viewing opportunities as they surfaced to breathe. Their pace was slow and once or twice we found ourselves overtaking them. We stopped to let them catch up. Island Prism's yellow hull then caught their attention, and one of the orcas peeled away from the group and came speeding towards us. I turned Prism away, very mindful of orca viewing regulations, but the orca changed course as I did. In the end, I put the boat in neutral, and Peter, Keelie and Michelle were rewarded with an incredible view as the orca swam across the bow of the now-motionless boat, then inspected our port side before rejoining the pod. I hope we passed the inspection.
After that, the whales were happier to obey the 400 metre viewing regulations and we returned to Telegraph Cove without incident. Whilst we'd been playing with cetaceans, the Davidson portion of the family had been hunter-gathering themselves- the result of which was enough crab to make a very respectable barbecue. I'd never tried crab before, other than the odd white and pink stuff marketed as 'crab' in sushi (I'm not a fan). At uni, my housemate had been sent a prepared crab, but in my memory the meat was brown and unappealing (twenty years may mean I've got this wrong)!Tim and Robert's Dungeness crabs were a huge eye opener. It turns out that crabs don't have to be boiled alive (I felt much happier knowing that my dinner had been humanely dispatched), and that crab tastes absolutely amazing. It reminded me of very good king prawns or crayfish. I was in seventh heaven.
The next day, most of the family returned to their various corners of British Columbia and Alberta. Peter and Keelie sailed with us to Alert Bay, on Cormorant Island. There is a large First Nations community here, and it is fascinating. Totem poles fill the graveyard, and along the waterfront are shelters topped with beautifully carved emblems- one shelter for each of the main family groups here. One of the locals, Michael, explained that shelters like these would once have been where families would meet and solve disputes and problems. There's a move today to go back to these ways of healing issues within the community, talking them through and fixing what's broken. It seems like a healthy option for the society, at least when it works.
The old net lofts are still in use, despite many holes in the roof. Hopefully the floors are in a more solid state! Other old buildings over the water have been renovated and are now shops or small hotels. Many of the houses on the other side of the road are brightly painted, and some feature beautiful native carvings. Up the hill, in Gator Gardens, skeletons of tall trees drip moss above swamps full of skunk cabbage and black, peaty water. I don't know what ecological change turned this from healthy forest to equally healthy bog, but it wouldn't be out of place on the outskirts of Mordor.
The highlight of Alert Bay is the Umista Cultural Centre. Canada has a dark history of trying to destroy native culture. Children were sent away from their parents to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own languages. Potlatches (ceremonies and meetings) were banned, and the masks, costumes and other objects associated with these rituals were confiscated. The items were then scattered around the world, dispersed to museums. Umista represents part of the healing process of revitalising the local Kwakiutl society. It houses weaving, bentwood boxes and carvings, biographies of local people and guides to the language. Videos play of cultural ceremonies, songs and dances, and if you arrive at the right time you might be able to see a dance or take part in a workshop. There are even masks and costumes you can try on.
The centre is housed in an enormous long house, surrounded with totems. Once you pass the glass cases, stroke the surprisingly soft bear skin, read the histories and marvel at the vast number of things that can be done with red cedar, you enter a dark room. Hundreds of eyes stare at you, in painted wood, copper, glass and metal. Mouths gape, grin and grimace. This is the home of the potlatch collection, where wandering artefacts have been returned to their people. Each mask or costume was once part of a particular dance, giving its wearer a connection to another world when they danced it- or perhaps bringing the other world here. The syncopated drum rhythms add to the atmosphere, and visitors are welcome to sit at the large slot drum and join in, whilst the eyes gaze on.
A final return to the historic Telegraph Cove was the scene for some apple whisky and a few sore heads. We said goodbye to Keelie and Peter, then returned to Alert Bay. I was allowed to sketch inside the Cultural Centre, and then walked up to the long house on the hill to paint. Kind Tracy brought us dried salmon to chew as I sketched, and the ravens circled and squabbled nearby, picking over the fish carcasses left for them in the car park.
And then the fires started. They were on Vancouver Island, on the West Coast- many miles away. They were no danger to Cormorant Island, its art or inhabitants- but they sent their smoke, so thick that we extended our stay as visibility on the water reduced to a few metres. The sun struggled to penetrate the cloud, appearing a pale, milky white at midday and an angry red in the late afternoon. It seemed incapable of heating the air, and all its efforts tended to focus, like a heat lamp focused on a single spot of my head or shoulder. We wrapped up in jumpers although it was still summer, and passed the time sketching and watching the ravens scavenge fish scraps on the shore.
Eventually, the air cleared enough for us to feel safe leaving. The orcas came by, swimming through waters which sparkled red beneath the baleful sun. We anchored in solitude at Mamelillikulla, just us and the eagles and the ravens. And the bear.
The next day we had company on the island when a cruising yacht from Seattle arrived. One of the yachties enjoyed the view from his paddle board, whilst the other went tramping through the bush. Very sensibly, he had taken anti-bear measures- though we probably should have told him that you're not supposed to sound off your bear horn every two minutes in case there's a bear- you use it to frighten them off when you actually see them. When Jim mentioned that we'd seen the resident black bear on our previous visit, the horn-sounding frequency increased to one-minute intervals. By the time he was back on his boat, I assume the bear was either immune or had swum to another island to get away from the racket.
The weeks were ticking on- it's incredible how quickly a summer can go. We said goodbye to Mamallillikulla and took one last spin through the whirlpools and rips of Blackfish Sound, to let the Johnson Straight sweep us south on the tide.
Our journey from Vancouver to Telegraph Cove took us through part of the Inside Passage. Our daily hops were dependent on the current, leading to some early mornings and a few long days. Mountains on both sides made it a very scenic voyage. Each night we'd find a little bay to anchor in, sheltered from the north westerlies and roaring tides.
We left Vancouver at 6 am to make the most of the tides. After a full day of sailing we stopped at Scotty Bay at Lasqueti Island. This community revels in its isolation. There's no car ferry, and life there is off the grid. I'd have loved to explore, but our visit was short and sweet- supper, sleep, then up anchor and off towards Texada. Here we had a wonderful surprise- a humpback whale. She was quite a distance away, and soon swam off on whale business. We pressed on, entering Quathiaski Cove but leaving without anchoring- the wharf looked busy and though it is possible to anchor here, the strong current rushing through made us feel that Gowlland Harbour, a few miles to the north, would be more secure.
Gowlland Harbour was very pretty, and is somewhere I'd love to go back and spend more time. There was a healthy seal population, who spent their time in pursuit of the plentiful fish. My harbour seal sightings have usually been sedate, so it was exciting to see them porpoising out of the water and splashing about. I also saw my first loon, with graphic black and white plumage. I made a quick sketch with the help of binoculars- one day it will become a larger painting! Legend says that Loon lost her voice when she tried to steal the sun back from the ice giants. Her throat was crushed as they threw her from their frozen fortress, and to this day she cannot sing but gives a haunting cry when the sun goes down. The sun was finally rescued by that trickster, Raven, whose white feathers were burnt black in the attempt. Loon appears on the Canadian dollar coin, which is affectionately known as a loonie. There seem to be less puns about this than I would have thought.
My sketch of Gowlland Harbour was hastily done, and resulted in a splodgy mess which at least captures the colours of the golden islets. These were named with a sense of whimsy- Mouse Islets being the smallest, working up through Wren and Raven to Fawn, Doe and Stag. I think a return to this lovely sheltered anchorage is in order.
On we went, through the treacherous Seymour Narrows (less terrifying in these days of GPS and tide tables). In the Johnstone Strait we met another humpback, who was in an acrobatic mood with a series of breaches and tail slaps. Then he got in motion, but didn't seem to be on a schedule. Prism ticked along at her lowest speed and we enjoyed half an hour of hanging out with the whale, who would pop up at varying distances, sometimes swimming parallel to the boat (at a nicely whale-friendly distance).
The wildlife watching continued at anchor. We stopped in lovely sheltered Billy Goat Bay, and watched seals jumping and hunting as the sun went down and the temperature dropped to the stage where I don't have enough jumpers to stay outside.
We were then able to wind down a bit. We were almost at Telegraph Cove, and had a couple of days to enjoy the area. The region around Johnstone Strait and the Broughton Archipelago is paradise for whales, and today we were not disappointed. Five humpbacks were swimming through, seeming relaxed and in no rush to be anywhere. They took turns surfacing, so there was usually someone on the surface. It was hard to tear ourselves away, but lunch was calling and we wanted to see if the orca were in Robson Bight Ecological Reserve. The pod was there- along with some fishing boats. Tourist and recreational boats are not allowed in the reserve- but purse seiners are, if they have a permit. We saw the orca hunting- then were shocked to see two purse seiners pay out their nets just a short distance away. The orca vanished and I was fuming, my sketch of the bight abandoned half way through. We turned of the engine to sit and eat and rant. We drifted a few metres over the edge of the reserve- keeping to the boundary seemed less important now that we'd seen people taking fish from the whales' mouths and I was too angry to care about regulations. But other people did- a zodiac with two wardens arrived to ask us politely to move. We moved- politely- whilst making our displeasure at the fishing known. The reserve feel like a bad joke. I abandoned my ideas of sketching orca as inspiration hit. “The race to catch the last fish” became a theme for a series of paintings- with ideas for more to come.
On our first night we found a secluded anchorage where I finally heard Loon's mournful farewell to the sun. The next day we passed the First Nations settlement of New Vancouver with its Big House and brightly painted totems. Continuing on to 'Mimkwamlis (Village Island) we stopped at Mamalilikulla. This was a walk through history. The village was abandoned by 1972, left for the forest to reclaim. Massive posts for an unfinished long house still stand, vast trilithons staring out to sea, the decorative axe marks still clear in the wood. Two standing poles have nursed new trees, the old life giving way to the new as roots grow down through the ancient trunks and aged wood splits from the pressure of the vibrant life growing within. Nearby, a fallen totem provides a home to ferns and saplings, its carvings now unrecognisable as it returns to the earth.
Jim told me of a wolf carving he remembered from younger days. I set off down a narrow trail, between the salal berries and the brambles. The trail narrowed , closing in, the blackberry-rich scat of a large bear warning me to go no further. If the wolf was indeed this way, prudence suggested I left him and his guardian in peace.
I didn't make the trek to the residential school, a relic of the days when native children were torn from their families, banned from speaking their language, barred from the dances, stories and rituals of their culture. First Nations artifacts were stolen along with the children, scattered between private collections and the museums of the world, relics of a culture being slowly strangled. I preferred to sit quietly with those huge beams being reclaimed by the forest. They gave me more hope. They belong to their people once again, and they are home to Bear and Raven through choice, part of a tradition where old things are allowed to fade and join again with the soil. The village may be abandoned but the people are nearby- with their brightly painted Big House and their colourful, confident totems carved with pride.
I painted the view, then crunched along the shell-strewn beach to the dinghy. As well as the shells, this midden was full of shards of crockery and broken glass. It's forbidden to take anything or excavate, but interesting to see what has floated to the surface and wonder what stories they could tell if they could talk. Above the beach, wooden poles are all that remain of an extensive boardwalk which would once have stretched in front of a row of longhouses.
We launched the dinghy and were rowing away when I saw something black moving on the foreshore. The bear was foraging for supper. She was big- grown fat on her summer diet of seafood and berries. She turned over hefty logs and big rocks, intent on gobbling the crustaceany goodness underneath. Sometimes she'd hear our oars and look at us, but we were of no concern to her and she continued munching her way along the pebble beach. Jim thought the water was a decent barrier between her and us and kept trying to get us close- so near that I could hear her snuffling- but I did point out that, because of the way he angled the dingy, I was closer to her than he was! With a bit of encouragement and the threat of no dinner if he didn't behave, he finally paddled us a little farther out. Oblivious to all this, the bear continued to ignore us until the beach ended and she padded off into the forest, perhaps to rustle up some berries for dessert.
The next day, Telegraph Cove was just a short skip away. We were given a berth on the fuel dock, tucked out of the way of the busy tour boats, then made the most of fresh carrot cake and the chance to catch up on laundry before we caught the bus down to Parksville to see Jim's mum and enjoy a family wedding.
Victoria is often described as being the most English of all Canada's cities. It definitely retains a strong British colonial feel, evident in the architecture of buildings like the Empress Hotel. There is a wealth of things to sketch, but my time in Victoria was busy and my sketchbook mainly stayed in my bag. Instead I painted my way through a pair of exciting commissions, and filled in a pile of much less exciting paperwork.
I managed a couple of quick drawings of the little water taxis which ply the harbour and the stag which reclined on the front lawn. One day we cycled into the city, past lovely beaches and views across the Juan de Fuca Straight to the USA and snow-capped Mount Baker. Once upon a time Mount Rainier was visible too, but is now unsketchable- Bill said that these days it's always obscured by Seattle smog. In the heart of Victoria I made the most of a five minute break to sketch the state legislature, and grabbed time for a few quick drawings of the totems by the museum downtown. A young heron in the park modelled for me beautifully, though the older birds in the nest above made me nervous- the white state of the pavement suggested that I shouldn't linger too long.
I managed to snag a few hours to visit the annual Moss Street Paint Out. The entire length of this street is closed to traffic for the day, as cars are replaced by hundreds of artists, many of whom were painting in situ. Maybe one day I can join them!
I knew I hadn't given the city justice, but I'm sure we'll be back and perhaps then I can explore more thoroughly. After dinner with Peter, Jen, Bob and Leslie- four cruisers who we first met up in Tofino- we hauled the anchor and sailed overnight to reach Steveston, just south of Vancouver. The grand plan was to be there for breakfast with Harold and Dan, two of Jim's favourite partners in crime.
Currents provide the greatest challenge to cruising between Vancouver Island and the mainland. Vast quantities of water enter the straits between the two land masses- and then gush out again when the tide changes. It's a bit like the passes of Polynesia's atolls- if there's too much water going the wrong way, you're going nowhere fast, as demonstrated by our experience the week before near Race Rocks. Jim had checked the currents and tides before we planned our departure. But the best laid plans can go awry- we thought we'd get a nice push as we sailed out of Victoria, but the current was no help and we pottered along at our usual 5.5 knots. Shortly after entering Active Pass the current was against us, and we had to hug the shore and use back eddies to make progress. Our chances of making breakfast became increasingly slim.
Things didn't get any better as we made our way to the Fraser River. Herons, eagles and seals provided a much needed mental boost as we struggled along, rearranging social engagements and wishing we'd had more sleep. Finally we chugged into Steveston's marina, tied up and went to find Dan, Diane, Harold, Jenny and some much-needed caffeine.
Steak pie and coffee at the Buck'n'Ear soon perked me up, and Diane managed to sweet talk the waitress into bringing me a pre-birthday slice of sticky toffee pudding. The British pub grub left me feeling appropriately ship-shape and Bristol fashion, and we had a great catch up, reminiscing about the various ways Jim, Harold and Dan got in trouble back in the day (thankfully they have Diane, Jenny and I to help them behave themselves now).
Steveston was a great town, with charming buildings and lovely walking along the dyke trails. We ended up extending our stay another night so that Jim could go and get into more trouble with the boys and I could stop and sketch. The buildings were tempting but the dykes really caught my imagination, with beautiful wildlife, intensely-coloured plant life and wide blue skies. Mountains fringed the flat landscape and I was spoiled for choice of what to draw!
Casting off the mooring lines, we headed north to Vancouver. This time the tides were on our side and Prism reached 9 knots as she smoked along the Fraser River. From there we puttered through English Bay to False Creek where we would be anchored for the next few days.
Vancouver is a vibrant city. Like any place with a large population, there are places you don't want to venture on a dark night (or even a moderately gloomy day), and the signs of homelessness and drug use were heartbreaking. But Vancouver has a lot of good points. Like Auckland and Sydney, you're never far from the water and there are lots of charming, arty neighbourhoods. And art stores. Yes, I was happy. We moored Prism at Granville Island for three free hours, had lunch and found the art store.
All too soon, it was time for Jim to drag me out of Opus (an art store big enough to get lost in). We motored a little further and dropped the anchor just a short dinghy ride from the city. Perhaps not the quietest of anchorages, but the traffic noise was tolerable and we enjoyed watching the daily parades of water taxis, dragon boats, kayaks, seals and floating barbecues. It was easy to get ashore and the city has a great bus network, so our first expedition was to the Museum of Anthropology at the university. We spent hours in the Great Room alone, surrounded by incredible First Nations carvings and learning about the history of the west coast. It was a sketching paradise!
Jim's niece Katherine and two of her friends joined us for the Symphony of Fire. This is an annual competition where three countries explode things to music over three nights. We motored out to English Bay. There were hundreds of yachts already at anchor, and a number of people who thought they owned the entire bay (“You can't anchor there! Your mast will get in my photos even though I'm a huge launch and tower above your deck!”). Eventually we dropped the hook and fell back to a spot where we were not annoying the overprivileged too much. The fireworks were spectacular, ranging from exuberant to beautifully subdued depending on the music. My favourites looked almost like leaping fish, with pretty showers of glitter a close second. I've come a long way since I was a small child who used to cry at the noise!
I was also lucky enough to meet Bob Altwein. He's a local urban sketcher who had offered to show us a bit of the city- he's also a very kind and knowledgeable man, and fascinating to talk to. He introduced us to Jesse, who is 24, not at all Millenial and sailing his 19' sailboat round the West Coast. We enjoyed dim sum, then a leisurely drive around the neighbourhoods of Chinatown and Strathcona. Cantonese-style buildings made Chinatown feel like I was back in Hong Kong, and Strathcona had a great feeling of community. The residents have worked hard to regenerate this area, which is green and full of neatly painted heritage buildings. We had coffee and delicious bakery treats at the Union Market- and were amazed to find that this charming little cafe and grocery was also very reasonably priced. No wonder it was busy! Jim and Jesse talked about sailing whilst I drew the cafe and Bob drew me. We were having so much fun that we invited Bob and Jesse to help us move Island Prism over to the Vancouver Rowing Club, where we were going to enjoy two nights of hot showers and Stanley Park.
After mooring and a hasty change of attire, we met Diane for a pre-birthday dinner at Prospect Point. It was a lovely evening, the mussels were amazing and suddenly we were the last diners in the restaurant.
The next day was my birthday- the dawn of a new decade (I think I'm still in denial). We celebrated with an adventure to Whistler. The drive along the Sea to Sky Highway flew by with an endless procession of gorgeous views. In Whistler, we bought lunch from the grocery store to eat on the mountain. $58 let us explore the lofty heights by gondola and chair lift. The views from the top were stunning on such a clear day, and the suspension bridge at the peak emphasised quite how high up we were. The Peak to Peak gondola took us to Blackcomb, with a great vista of the lakes and little town nestled far below us. It's almost tempting to come back in winter- so long as I don't have to ski. Jim also wants me to tell you all about the white wine cocktail he bought me. Bright pink and in a glass as big as my head- I was merrily 'trundled' (to quote my hubbie) as we got the bus back to Vancouver.
Stanley Park was our only real disappointment. On our previous visit I'd loved the totems and we'd spent a great day exploring. It seems like summer at 10 am is not the time to go- the tourist hordes had descended with selfie sticks in hand and all atmosphere had vanished. We cycled away from the crowds, but you're not allowed to pull over on the cycle path and take photos, even if no other bikes are coming (really- I got yelled at by a custodian when I tried). We didn't want to cycle the whole of the park but the entire cycle system is one way. Eventually we braved the custodian's wrath and peddled the wrong way to the Aquarium and its beautiful Bill Reid Killer Whale, before making our escape back to Prism and returning to the relative calm of anchoring at French Creek. At least the only people yelling at us there were the geese. A visit to the art gallery to spend a few hours gazing at Emily Carr's beautiful paintings was a good antidote to park insanity, and soon it was time to begin our journey north, up to Telegraph Cove.
On our final day in Oahu,we refueled Island Prism and sailed westwards along the south coast. Away from Honolulu, the steep hillsides became less sparsely populated and the strips of golden sand had not yet gained fringes of houses and towers. A small pod of dolphins cruised past us a little before dark, when we passed the most westerly point of the island and pointed the boat north.
Our first few days were rather rocky as we beat our way into the wind- the penalty for trying to cross the Pacific the wrong way! We were well-stocked with ice and I'd precooked our meals for the first few days, which made life in the galley much easier. Jim and I quickly fell into our usual pattern of taking turns with six-hour watches. There wasn't too much to see once we lost sight of land- in the beginning both days and nights were cloudy, the full moon occasionally visible through the haze. I didn't feel up to painting to start with, so decided to try a small watercolour sketch each day. Painting the sea and sky would let me play around with techniques and colour, and I'd build up a record of our passage.
I pulled out an old sketchbook which I started a couple of years ago and barely used. It's a Strathmore 400 series field notes book, with a sheet of thin cartridge paper between each watercolour leaf. Originally I felt like the cartridge paper got in the way, and the spiral binding got in the way of double page spreads. However, on passage the binding made the book more compact and easy to handle. I could use the cartridge paper to keep a log of each day and to make little sketches in biro. I also stopped being precious, and if a cartridge sheet seemed superfluous I just tore it out. As I regained my sea legs I was more inclined to paint, and began creating some full page paintings. There were also days when the light was constantly changing and one quick sketch didn't seem enough. I decided that my 'small painting a day' would be a minimum, and told the story of the weather using multiple boxes if I felt like it.
We motored for a day as we passed through the doldrums. The seas calmed down as we moved farther north, though we still had a good stiff breeze. Although we were still traveling upwind we were no longer beating into the waves, the gentle swells made life pretty comfortable and we cruised along at a respectable 6 knots. Prism seemed eager to get back to Vancouver Island!
We crossed a few shipping lanes, populated by ships journeying between Asia and the US or Mexico. The sea feels enormous and empty when you're floating alone, so we enjoyed our brief radio chats. The captain of Morning Margarita even found Prism's Facebook page and sent us a lovely message for when we reached port.
The only other signs of life were the sea birds who skimmed the waves in an endless, effortless glide. One night a small petrel decided that the cockpit would be a safe roost. It was rather disgruntled when Jim had to adjust the wind vane, and flapped off into the darkness. The waning moon faded to nothing, and rose later and later, so the nights were truly dark, especially when cloud obscured the stars- we could have been sailing through a pot of India ink. Cold and cloudy days made us really appreciate the GPS- with no sun to take sightings, we'd have been totally lost without modern technology.
16 days in, the wind vane broke. It's a wonderful, simple and effective piece of equipment with a sail and a water rudder which steers Prism using the power of the wind. Without it, we have to hand steer- which quickly becomes tedious in the open ocean. Initially Jim thought that one of the lines had broken, but longer inspection revealed that a bolt had rusted through. Thankfully Jim's Big Bag o'Bolts contained a perfectly-sized replacement (this almost never happens, even though he has enough hardware to supply a DIY store)! We sailed onward, snug inside as the temperature decreased daily and we piled on increasing layers of clothes.
Three days from Canada, the wind vane broke again. This time the welding on the quadrant broke. Jim lashed the offending join with twine, but the opposite side soon followed. As the seas grew rough, we were faced with days of hand steering and pounding into the chilly waves. A heavy stream of freighters poured out of Seattle and Vancouver, waves breaking over them and throwing up towers of spray higher than the ships. Prism seemed more sedate- whilst our ride was far from comfy, we rose up and down with the swell rather than cutting through it.
Then land came into sight and the wind and waves died down. We motored for the final day, as Vancouver Island drew closer. Some of the mountains were topped with blobs of snow, and I donned hat and gloves. Two Pacific white-sided dolphins cruised past, and I was excited to see a large white sunfish basking on its side, trying to absorb what little warmth was on offer. It gaped at me as I steered past it, close enough to see its beady eye and waving pectoral fin.
By evening, we were approaching Trevor Channel. Twilights here were long and lazy, and the russet sky let us see our way into Bamfield where we tied up to the Coastguard dock, ready for Customs in the morning. The stillness was delightful but disconcerting, and my body felt as if it was still rocking.
The sun was well and truly up in the morning when we had a knock on the hull. The coastguard had arrived for work- and informed us that Bamfield was not, after all, a port of entry. It seems things have changed since the publication of our cruising guide. We were politely but firmly invited to depart, so made our way through the Broken Group- scattered shards of rocky islets and small tree-covered islands. They were lovely and almost deserted, except for the odd fisherman and a colony of somnolent harbour seals. Turning towards Ucluelet, bald eagles soared above us and as we moored a river otter hopped out from the water onto a nearby dock. Whilst we waited for the RCMP to come and inspect the boat, kingfishers swooped by and a Stellar sea lion swam past. It wasn't warm or sunny, but it was a kind of paradise, as was my long hot shower when we reached Ucluelet Small Boat Harbour. Our Pacific crossing was finished, and a summer of cruising Vancouver Island stretched ahead of us.
Waikiki is everything Kona wasn't. Big and shiny, large and loud, a land of white sand beaches fringed with palms and skyscrapers. ABC stores full of Aloha shirts rub shoulders with designer stores, and the nearby Ala Moana Mall is big enough that you could spend your whole holiday in there if you want to. I'm steering clear- I'd like to say it's because I'm not materialistic but really it's because I know there's at least one Barnes and Noble in the complex and I've been away from decent book stores for so long that I daren't walk through the door for fear of blowing my bank balance.
The designer stores and big hotels give the place a 'could be anywhere' edge, but the rolling surf, blue water and long expanses of sand are far removed from most major cities. Nestled at the edge, Ala Wai Small Boat Harbour feels a little out of place. It should be charging a fortune and be full of multi-million dollar super yachts. Instead it's home to local boats and cruising yachts- and, right now, Island Prism.
My first impressions weren't favourable. I started this blog post a number of times over the last few weeks and each time deleted it because it felt like I was complaining. After a few weeks it has grown on me and I'm ready to write. My initial impression was affected by the amount of rubbish in the water. We'd arrived after heavy rain had washed tons of rubbish from the Ala Wai canal into the marina. Most of it was wood and branches- natural detritus. However, there was also a huge amount of man-made debris, from bits of chairs to yoghurt cartons, shoes, flip flops, lost balls, syringes, broken toys and an endless supply of plastic straws, polystyrene fast food packaging, plastic cups, lids, bottles and boxes. It felt like fast food waste was quickly smothering us.
I spent a couple of days complaining. One lady, Christa, was getting her hands dirty hauling out the junk. I decided to help and spent a bit of time each morning pulling out rubbish, piling it on the dock and moving it to rubbish bins. After a couple of days I decided to start sketching what I pulled out- somehow it made me feel better. Within a week, the two of us had made a difference to a good sized section of the marina. Eventually the marina managed to organise contractors who completed the progress. Things look much better now, though the littering hasn't stopped and the canal continues to be used as a conveniently tragic rubbish disposal.
The noisy city with busy, badly repaired roads took me time to adapt to. My inner travel snob disliked the fact that I was more drawn to the glitzy touristy expanse of Waikiki rather than the urban jungle of downtown Honolulu. It took me a few weeks to shut her up. Waikiki was an easy walk from the marina, we could hang out on the beach with a picnic or occasionally indulge in happy hour with our friends from Kealana and Cheers (the boat most appropriately named for happy hours)! The sand was a manicured world away from the lovely beaches of Fakarava or Bora Bora, but it was still lovely and there were fireworks every Friday night.
Honolulu was also a great place to stock up on boat parts and get things done. We had some supplies meet us from the mainland and Canada, and took advantage of the well-stocked branch of West Marine. Jim made me buy wellie boots ready for the chill waters of Canada- I managed to find brown sailing boots with a cute floral print on the inside, which lifted my mood about the whole concept of being cold- at least I'd be cold with pretty feet. Though my feet still haven't got used to the idea of wearing socks.
One of the great things about Hawaii is how easy it is to get to. My friend Kate came out for a visit with her family and snuck me into the Hilton pool for an afternoon, and a bit of Canada came to us in the form of Brother-out-law Tim. We hired a car and toured the island, including the beautiful Foster Botanical Gardens- an oasis of calm in the middle of a buzzing city! The exotic and sometimes odd plants were fascinating- and who could stay stressed whilst sitting under a descendant of the tree where Buddha found Enlightenment? I can't say I was enlightened, but I was finally finding that there was plenty to like about this city after all.
Over on the Rainy side of Hawai'i, people speak of Kona as if it is some terrible, overdeveloped metropolis. Changing sides of the island, we were expecting unfriendly city people, heavy traffic and tall buildings obscuring the sun. We were wrong. But before we could explore, we had to get there.
The voyage was nothing short of spectacular. The weather cleared up enough to give me views of Mauna Kea as I sailed down the west coast, and I was entertained by breaching whales and frequent sightings of mothers and calves. My final count was four whales on the Hilo side and eight on the way to Kona. Swimming with the whales is forbidden here but they're always a breathtaking sight, especially when they launch themselves out of the water. One male was visible from miles away as he threw up huge plumes of water with tail and fins. I was so busy watching him I was taken by surprise when a mum and baby surfaced near Prism! We're meant to keep our distance but nobody told the whales that... I swiftly adjusted our course as they swam in front of us and toddled off out to sea. The distant male continued his antics for the next half hour- but I was careful not to get too mesmerised as I steered us up the coast!
After sailing all night and enjoying a whale-filled cruise in the morning, we pulled into Honokohau Harbor and were instantly baffled by the mooring system. They call it 'Tahitian mooring'- but it is unlike anything we ever saw in Tahiti. The maneuver involves catching a mooring buoy on the way past and then stopping the boat just off the dock so the deckhand (Cap'n Jim) can get a line ashore. Powerboats with bow thrusters and the ability to make fine adjustments in reverse make this look easy. On a more classic sailboat, it's more of a challenge.
Prism doesn't do well in reverse. It's very hard to steer her and if there's a current or a puff of wind, things can get messy. So we decided to go in forward. Our berth was on the end of a row, so we only had a boat on one side- initially this seemed like a blessing as the clear side gave us more room and less things to try not to hit! I turned us in to the dock, and Jim prepared a line to lasso the mooring buoy. By the time we did it, the wind had blown Prism's bow round into the fairway and no amount of steering would bring her back in towards the dock. So we had to throw Jim into the dinghy to tow a line ashore and pull us in, Mediterranean mooring-style. The marina staff were highly amused- and we didn't know whether to be glad that we were given an end berth or not. Our fellow cruisers weren't much help when it came to technique- using fenders and the boats next to you to move forward seems to be accepted procedure! And Google was no help. Any suggestions from anyone who's tried it?
Once we were safely moored, Kona turned into a social whirl. We caught up with long-time cruisers Jim and Joy, who are sailing their way to Alaska. Jim soon met Will, an Alaskan cyclist with an infectious sense of humour and a lovely wife, Carline. They were great company, shared great stories and told us all about their fascinating friend Teri, who is known as the 'gecko whisperer" for her incredible photos of geckos surfing, painting, ironing and modelling Easter bunny ears. The next day we went into Kona to see the monthly hula at the palace. The afternoon involved great dancing, beautiful music, torrential rain which flooded the roads and cocktails at Gertrudes with jamming ukuleles all around us as the flood waters rose. Between tasting samples of Kona coffee and catching the performance, we saw a lady selling cards covered with geckos. I seized the day, introduced myself, swapped cards and followed up with an email- and a friendship was born. Teri is one of those people who has a story for every occassion. Her husband Gil is great company, makes excellent fish tacos. We even got to meet Teri's gecko models- who are totally wild and pose for the fun of it!
The kindness of strangers in Kona was incredible. Chuck and Linda invited us to their home for dinner after deciding Jim seemed like a reputable sort, and Gail and John, two ex-cruisers who had thrown out the anchor, understood the value of a hot shower and the use of a washing machine. It was fascinating to trade tales, and we really appreciated being welcomed and looked after.
John and Amanda arrived from Hilo on Mahina Tiare, and I got the chance to go out paddling in a wa'a with the Waikaloa Canoe Club. This outrigger canoe holds six people- a steersman and five paddlers. Ohana Day meant that we weren't racing, but were still expected to pull our weight. Paddling in time and changing sides became an exertive but meditative experience- though I had to make sure that I didn't fall out of sync every time was saw a humpback (watching breaches from a va'a? A truly spiritual experience). We crossed the bay to Mauna Kea resort, stopped for a glass of water and then made our way back out through golden clouds of yellow tangs, passing the occasional whale and turtle.
Jim got man flu, I met watecolourist Jean Haines at a workshop at the local art shop and Amanda saw my Month of sea Monsters and commissioned me to her illustrate her latest book about marine diesel engines. It's been a fantastic experience as we trade ideas and inspirations and build something together. I've been learning all about the systems that keep Prism going and honing my Photoshop skills at the same time. You know you're doing the right job when you get up early, full of ideas and ready to go. My only complaint is I need more hours in the day so I can work on the commission and my book, sketch the local area and practice the new watercolour skills I've learned!
The Kona Coast is relatively flat which makes it great for biking. Hawai'i isn't really a beach destination, but there are patches of white sand if you look. Magic Sands is one of the most unusual beaches. Storm waves regularly sweep away the sand, only for it to be replaced later. It's small and full of both locals and tourists- a fun place for people watching. We liked to get poke from Da Poke Shack (delicious Hawaiian raw fish salads with rice and seaweed or edamame), and spend an hour enjoying the vibe. Nearby was another beach with great snorkelling and numerous historical sites. The beach was salt and pepper pebbles, comfy enough for me to doze off in the sun.
Cruise ship day was Wednesday, which always led to extra bustle in Kona. The Pride of America runs on a precise schedule, and I built up a mental picture of cruise director Crystal from her impossibly perky and peppy event announcements (25, blonde, ponytail, short shorts and white socks with tennis shoes). It all seemed a bit too much like floating 'Hi-de-Hi' for my taste, but the tourists all seemed happy and liked to stop and chat to me when I was sketching in town. The Princess line ships visit on a more occassional basis, dwarfing the town. But even on cruise ship days, Kona feels real. Which is hard to explain- but there's still space to walk, still room on the little beaches, no designer stores just for the rich tourists. The older buildings, full of character, have not been swept away for glossy glass and steel confections. I loved the labyrinthine board walk and the century-old Kona Inn tower, built from lava rock and looking quite medieval. When you're in Kona, you're definitely in Hawai'i- not in an identikit city which could be anywhere between London and Dunedin.
We were so happy there that when it became time to leave we extended our stay, then extended again. We got to go aboard the Hokule'a, which circumnavigated the world using traditional Polynesian navigation techniques, explored the galleries in the lovely little town of Holualoa (where many of the buildings have been owned by the same families for over a hundred years) and visited Greenwell coffee plantation, which put Kona coffee on the map- and still makes a great cup! We had other adventures too- but I'll leave them for my next blog post.
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Does offbeat and off-grid mean off your rocker? I was going to find out when we decided to take a few more days away from Prism and visit Puna, a sprawling region in the south of Hawaii. It’s where people go when they reject the groove of Hilo and want to find a new rhythm entirely. The locals are collectively known as Punatics, and Jim was itching to meet them. I fancied the arty vibe, yoga classes, hot pools and snorkeling, so we set about trip planning.
The first thing we learned is that being a hippie is expensive, at least if you’re travelling spontaneously. We wanted to find somewhere to stay on the coast, but the place with the home-built huts was full, the one with the shared bathrooms and hot tubs was ridiculously expensive and the clothing-optional one just seemed weird. We ended up booking another Air BnB at Black Sands- which is not a beach at all, but an off-grid development up the hill from the coast. Our room was delightful, with views over the rainforest and a happy population of bright green day geckos outside. Our lovely host, Susan, was very welcoming and it was worth the steep cycle and interesting bus journey to get there.
We’d taken the bus from Hilo to Pahoa, popping our bikes on the rack on the front. I’d watched the world out the window, whilst Jim broke the cardinal rule of public transport- Do Not Make Eye Contact. He spent the one-and-a-half hour bus journey being regaled with the near-death experiences of an aging musician whose brains seemed pickled by too many illegal substances. Getting off the bus and on to the bikes was quite a relief!
The scent of marijuana hung over most of Pahoa. There wasn’t much to the town- a health food store, a few restaurants, some shops selling second hand books and tie dyed clothes. It seemed like smoking was all there was to do. We had lunch at a bar, and got chatting to a glass blower named Tom who seemed very sane, then hopped on the bikes and took on the rolling hills to Black Sands.
Kalapana used to be a village. Then the lava came, slowly burning down forest and destroying homes. The flow is still active today, and people cling to the edges, making the most of the fact that the authorities don’t care what you build on land which could become a lava field in a couple of years. Potholed roads can be a worthy exchange for freedom if you’re happy with tank water and solar power. Uncle Robert’s Awa Bar has turned its end-of-the-road location beside the old flow into a thriving business. There’s a market there every Wednesday, full of local vendors selling everything from clothes to woodwork, jewelry and glass. There are also dozens of food stalls and a live band. We grazed our way through green papaya salad and watched some hula dancers take to the floor for an impromptu performance. Then the band turned to classic rock and roll, and even Jim’s ankles wanted to get moving. The clientele were a fun blend of tourists and locals, the atmosphere was amiable and the coffee cake was amazing. Outside there was fire dancing, and that unmistakable scent again.
Jim and his ankles don’t like walking, but he was willing to give it a go to stand on the edge of the lava flow. The viewing here is totally unregulated- once you get past all the warning signs, you are on your own. No signs, no barriers, no path. The landscape here is still being born- always changing as the flow switches direction and changes in intensity. The start is a moonscape, though houses have already begun springing up, their unique architecture reflecting the quirky personalities of their owners. With no soil, gardening is impossible, though tubs of grasses or hydroponic arrangements gave splashes of green.
The rock beneath our feet was iridescent in places, covered in shimmering gold or patterned with rainbow strands. It was also sharp and brittle. We had to take care not to fall- no mean feat on the tortured ground. Lava had hardened in rope like coils and enormous domes, often shattered in the middle. Some areas were smooth and others looked like they had been bulldozed. What on earth could turn huge chunks of rock over like that?
The temperature rose as we got closer to the flow. Between the lack of path markers and the uneven ground, taking a direct path was impossible. Some walkers returned having never found the flow, others pointed us in the right direction. Steam vents became more frequent and the air stank of sulphur. And then- finally- we found the lava.
It was constantly in motion, red-hot syrupy rivulets. One cascade would harden and new one would start to run. Cracks glowed and grew; hardened patches were pushed aside as the pressure increased behind them until a new wave of molten rock bowled them out of the way. The landscape behind us began to make sense as I watched it being formed. I was mesmerized.
I had the flow to myself for a while, perched on a very solid slope a few feet away. The ground was still too hot to sit on, and a melted shoe nearby reminded me to keep checking the soles of my trainers. Jim soon joined me and we must have spent half an hour watching the earth being born. A group of tourists came, venturing beyond the slope and walking on the flow, treading on rock that had been liquid a few minutes before. Not the safest place for that Instagram-worthy selfie. We left them to it, and Jim had great fun complaining all the way back to our bikes (it gave him something to do).
The wind howled all night, and in the morning Jim called the harbourmaster to check up on Island Prism. Good job he did- her anchor had dragged and night security found her up against the university dive boat. Details were vague- she’d been moved and the fire brigade may have been called. They thought everything was ok- but our heads filled with thoughts of damaged stanchions and gouges in expensive dive boats.
Our hostess Susan leaped to our rescue and drove us all the way back to Hilo. We found Prism tied up securely against the strong winds which were sending whitecaps over our previously calm little anchorage. Tom, who works on the University boat, joined us to inspect them. Both vessels seemed scratch-free, and we thanked him for his help the night before as he’d been called in the early hours to wrangle our misbehaving yacht. We moved Prism, with two anchors out this time, glad that no expensive boats were damaged and our home was ok.
We’ll never be sure exactly why Prism dragged. Our Bruce anchor is twice the weight it needs to be, we let out 20 metres of chain in the 3 metre deep anchorage and most of the seabed in Radio Bay is mud, which offers good holding as the anchor digs in well (it’s also a pain to clean off the chain when you haul it up). We always reverse the boat to set the anchor, and try again if we’re not sure it worked. All I can think of is that the bed may actually be a mix of mud and rock- once we hauled up the second anchor and it was suspiciously clean. It’s possible we were just resting on hardpan, rather than being dug in. Or maybe the strong gusts were simply enough to move the boat despite the heavy anchor and extra chain. Perhaps Prism just had abandonment issues and wanted a hug from the dive boat. Thankfully no harm was done and everybody was remarkably nice about it.
Our Puna adventure cut short, we decided it was time to think about moving round to the west side of the island. Another boat came to join us in Radio Bay for the last few days- Mahina Tiare, owned by John and Amanda, who cruise the world training up blue water sailors. Their numerous circumnavigations have given them a host of fascinating stories, and we were lucky enough to catch up with them for coffee before we left.
Then it was time to raise the anchors and head up and over the north of the island, to the sunny side of Kona.
Our first few days in Hilo, Hawaii were pleasant. After checking in with customs- who were very pleasant and easy to deal with- we made our way to Walmart to buy me a cheap bike. Wheels opened up the city, and we began to explore.
The waterfront is beautiful. Devastated by two tsunamis, the locals didn’t want to move back in so it’s now mostly parkland. A string of parks run along the coast, some with wild surf and other more sheltered and suitable for paddling amongst the rock pools. We fell in love with Banyan Drive, dotted with trees planted in the 1930s by figures such as Amelia Eaheart and Babe Ruth. Jim insisted on pedaling through it any time we went to or from town- and Suissan restaurant and its excellent raw fish salads- known as poke- was a draw as well. To celebrate our wedding anniversary we cycled north to the gorgeous tropical botanic gardens, and pedalled the lush rainforest and tumbling waterfalls of Four Mile Drive. The people were friendly, and slightly offbeat. We were invited to join in an anti-nuclear sit-in, and saw downtown bustling on the day of the women’s march. The anchorage was calm and secure and we only shared it with a couple of other boats. There were even warm showers ashore.
And then it rained. Not just showers but ten days of constant downpours, and so humid that everything on the boat felt sodden. Drying clothes was impossible, and even clean things from the wardrobe felt moist. The intense humidity had my computer going haywire, and watercolours took all day to dry. We even fired up the diesel stove as I shivered in my jeans and jumper, feeling damp and not at all as if I was I the tropics. Despite ten years of disuse, the stove fired up well and heated the boat nicely. We opened a tin of duck and roasted some carrots and potatoes- very tasty, but not how we’d envisioned spending our days in this island paradise.
By day ten, Jim and I were fed up of being cooped up. There is no public access to the mooring area at Radio Bay, which is next to the cruise ship terminal and container port. Cutting through the port was forbidden, and so any trips ashore involved rowing the dinghy to shuttle the bikes to the nearby public beach. Keeping the bikes ashore was not an option due to the high risk of theft. We ventured through the rain to the Astronomy Centre, feeling near to hypothermia under their blasting air conditioning, then dripped our way round galleries and museums. We were about ready to give in and endure a soggy sail to Kona, reputed to be the sunny side of the island.
Then I checked the forecast- a single solitary sun icon for the following day! We decided to seize it, hastily booked accommodation and woke up bright and early the next day. And it truly was bright- the sky was free from clouds and for the first time we saw the full bulk of Mauna Kea- highest volcano in the world- towering over Hilo. Shouldering our backpacks, we pedaled down to the bus station and loaded ourselves and our bikes on the bus to Volcano National Park.
The bus dropped us off at the visitor’s center on Mount Kilauea. It was a very short cycle to reach the first viewpoint on the rim, looking down into a huge caldera of black, red and ochre with smoky plumes rising from it. A sickly yellow cloud hung above, to be blown down the mountainside as ‘vog’- volcanic fog which often obscures large parts of the south of the island, even when the weather is clear. Vents puffed away around the crater rim, giving a sulphuric tinge to the air. The most prevalent plants were ferns and the ‘ohi’a, with red flowers almost identical to New Zealand’s endemic pohutukawa. This clever plant was able to close the pores on its leaves, holding its breath whenever the vog became stifling. Between the ferns, vapours and scarlet blossoms, we could have been in Rotorua.
Kilauea’s most unique point is best visible at night. It is the world’s most active volcano, and at night its lava lake can be seen spitting molten rock up into the sky. Once, visitors were allowed onto a lookout right above the lake. A great experience- but one night the volcano went ballistic and the lookout was destroyed- what wasn’t instantly burnt was hurled across the park, with lava bombs literally hot behind it. Thankfully, being 2am, the park was deserted and nobody was hurt- but if the eruption had taken place in the daytime it could have been a very different story. Crater Rim Drive was soon truncated to avoid barbecuing visitors. Definitely a safer choice, but I was disappointed that I could not gaze down into the turbulent heart of Pele’s realm. After the up-close theatrics of Mount Yasur in Vanuatu, Kilauea felt like a distant show- the difference between standing front row in a stadium concert and being so far back that the main act is little more than a dot on a stage. But it was still much better than watching it on YouTube the day after- so I’ll be happy with what I got. After all, you don’t get to see flying lava in Rotorua (for which the locals are probably very grateful).
We spent three full days up at Kilauea, exploring lava tubes, cycling the wel-named Desolation Road and enjoying countless breathtaking views over the craters. I walked across the caldera Kilauea Iti whilst Jim attempted a strenuous uphill bike ride towards Mauna Kea. We extended our trip by a day, met some local artists and found a fabulous Air BnB to spend our final night. Rather reluctantly, we eventually loaded our bikes back onto the front of the bus and headed back to Hilo, to return to the banyans and contemplate our next adventure.
Our cruiser friends Shelley and Mike affectionately refer to Atuona as ‘the city’. In reality there’s only just enough of it to constitute a town, but we were delighted to find a cluster of well-stocked grocery stores, a couple of restaurants and two museums. The town is perched just above a sweeping black sand beach with a constant rolling surf. It’s very beautiful, with mountain peaks rising above the bay and horses galloping along the tideline. However, it’s hopeless as an anchorage, so cruising yachts congregate a twenty-minute walk away in a more sheltered spot.
One of our priorities was finding internet access, so we called in to ‘Eliane’s Salon du The and Cybercafe,’ featured in our Lonely Planet and on the little map we picked up at Tourist Information. The long driveway was a little tricky to find and the cybercafé part seemed shut up, but the teahouse door was wide open so we bowled on in. Inside looked cozy and homely, just like someone’s living room. It was a cute idea, though the proprietor seemed very surprised to see us. We asked if it would be possible to use the internet. No, it wasn’t- the teahouse was closed, permanently, and we’d just invited ourselves in to his lounge. He was very nice and calm about it really. Retreating from our impromptu home invasion as gracefully as we could, we backtracked to Snack Make Make on the mainstreet- after ensuring that it really was open for business.
Our other priority was to get petrol- unleaded for the dinghy engine and diesel for Prism. But the gas station was out of unleaded, and there wouldn’t be any until Saturday when the Toporo came in from Tahiti to deliver it. Diesel was available, so we commenced a morning of shuttle runs with our 20 litre jerry can, keeping carefully tally of the number of times we refilled so we could pay at the end. Initially I was on heavy lifting duty to save Jim’s ankles, but I was released from service whilst he did the last few fills so I could go to the Musee de Gaugin.
Paul Gaugin spent the last few years of his life here in Atuona, in search of ‘the noble savage.’ His paintings here, scorned at the time, helped to revolutionise art. His Polynesian paintings are fantasies of colour, as he didn’t paint what he saw but what he felt. Green horses wade through tumbling steams in the shade of purple trees, whilst women laze alongside pink beaches. Sinister figures stand in the forests- guardians? Spirits? Demons? Strange as some of his choices are, they make sense when viewed here, surrounded by the landscape and culture that inspired them. Many of the scenes- women in colourful pareus (sarongs) and men in white singlets riding stocky Marquesan ponies- haven’t changed much in the last century. Paul probably wouldn’t approve of the satellite dishes and 4x4 vehicles, but I think he’d appreciate and recognise the rich and vibrant culture, and would be glad that missionaries and French ultimately failed in achieving cultural homogenisation.
The paintings in the museum are all replicas of works hanging in galleries through Europe and America, ordered chronologically from his early works in Brittany to his vibrant canvases from Tahiti and Hiva Oa. Hanging under traditionally styled high pointed roofs, they feel real enough, and the geckos calling from the eaves and scuttling along the tops of the artworks just add to the atmosphere. Outside is a reconstruction of the House of Pleasure, a two-storied hut with shutters that lift up to let in the breeze, looking down on the well that provided Gaugin with the cold water for his absinthe. The museum has a cabinet full of objects found on the site; chunks of paint, absinthe bottles, morphine ampoules, broken pottery. A time capsule of junk that sheds light onto a life which ended a century ago, and helped change art forever.
One of the highlights of Hiva Oa is its wealth of archaeological sites. We organised to hire a car with our Belgian friends Geert and Cindy, and their visiting friend Tim. The car turned out to be a truck, an enormous tank of a 4x4, and I was very happy when Geert said he would drive. The Toporo was unloading, and half the island was there to receive crates and packages- everything from speedboats to kids’ bikes to planks of wood emerged from the hold. Geert negotiated the chaos and we were soon on the road, heading northeast to the archaeological remains at Iipona. The road meandered along ridges and saddles with stunning views of teal-blue bays, then zigzagged up and down mountainsides in snaking switchbacks. We rose from rich jungle to arid scrubland, kept scrubby by the munchings of wild goats. The road changed from concrete to dust and rocks, and herds of wild horses trotted across the track. We rattled our way along, keeping an eye out for wild bananas and cheering whenever our bouncing backsides were spared by an all-to-brief concrete section.
The plunging hillsides made bananas hard to access- all too often they dangled just out of reach over a sheer drop, and the bunches which were easy to get to usually had a house lurking in the background- not so wild after all. Eventually we spotted a papaya tree in the middle of nowhere. A machete-wielding Geert balanced on Tim’s shoulders to reach up to the top. The ripe fruit were rotten or munched by rats, but he managed to get some green papayas, which we hoped would ripen in the tropical sun.
After a couple of hours of rutted roads and postcard-worthy photo stops, we reached Iipona. We’d been instructed to pay a small fee at a snack near the waterfront, and were then given directions to get to the archaeological site. The grounds were very well kept, with mown lawns and pretty plantings. It almost felt too pristine, and I was most drawn to the outer edges where ruggedly cuboid rocks rested beneath the shady bows of banyan trees. Somehow the glorious sunshine burned off the mystery of the place, and I wondered how it would feel on a misty day.
There were five tiki altogether, in various states of repair after their encounters with warring tribes and Christian missionaries. They were the biggest I’d seen, the largest standing at 2.6 metres, staring sternly over the gardens. I was most drawn to a female tiki in a horizontal pose. The regular interpretation is that she is lying down to give birth, and is a symbol of fertility. With her arms stretched out in front of her, her toes pointed and a beaming smile on her face, to me she appeared to be flying, adventurous and free. Birth or flight- either way she has a new world ahead of her.
Geert, Tim and Cindy drove back to the village to try and find some lunch, and Jim and I stayed to draw then have a picnic amongst the tiki. A small French tour group came through, deciding that wherever I was sketching was obviously the best angle for a photo so could I please move. Or else I would be in their photo so could I please move. I retreated to the spot where Jim had spread out our crackers and cheese, and sat down for lunch. Of course, this turned out to be precisely THE best spot to take photos- so could we please move. We were glad so see them go so we could finish lunch in a single place. The next arrivals were a couple from New York along with their guide. As the couple set off exploring, the guide stopped to talk to us. He explained that there are dozens more tiki scattered across the island, many only known to the boar hunters who know the forests well. He saw missionaries and archaeologists as the enemies- missionaries break the tiki and archaeologists spirit them away. I hoped his opinion was a few decades out of date, but loved the thought of an army of statues scattered through the jungle. On this sparsely populated island I wondered how many are as yet totally undiscovered, their weather-beaten faces seen only by boar, goats and ponies.
The guide paged through my Tahuata sketchbook as his tourists rejoined us, and I was excited and gratified when he recognized the lead dancer from Fatu Hiva. He also identified a tattooed warrior as being his cousin. We all chatted about travel and he drew our attention to a carved animal beneath the glorious flying tiki. It’s usually interpreted as being a dog or goat, but it looks exactly like a llama. Not impossible- Polynesians quite probably made it to Peru, bringing back with them kumara (sweet potatoes) and really confusing Thor Heyerdal, who assumed that it was the point of origin for the entire Polynesian migration. It is not inconceivable that Marquesan sailors saw llamas and came back home to carve them, although I draw the line at believing the guide’s story that his ancestors built Macchu Piccu. Of course, it’s also not inconceivable that the carving is just a badly done goat.
The New Yorkers departed and the Belgians returned. We piled into the ute to rattle our way back round the mountains to Atuona. With an hour or so of daylight left, we drove round to Taaoa and the multileveled platforms of Tohua Upeke. Soft golden light filtered through the dangling tangles of the banyans, kissing the wild undergrowth and the platforms of dark volcanic rocks with a magical light. I’d found the primal wildness that had been missing from Iipona. Wandering farther into the site took us to a collection of banyan trees, where we discovered a squat square tiki with round eyes and a wide smile. The path to reach him was overgrown, we had the site to ourselves, and I felt a little like an explorer as I paused a few seconds for a very quick sketch. Then it was back to ‘the city’, stopping to photograph the sunset over the rocky coastline as we headed towards civilization and dinner. The restaurant had a Christmas tree and fairy lights, the wine was cold, the pizza delicious, and the service surly after Jim switched his side order from rice to fries shortly before it was due to arrive.
The following day was Christmas Eve, and stalls of toys had sprung up outside the largest supermarket. Disney gardening sets and robotic dinosaurs competed for space with fairy castles, and Christmas had come early for one little boy delightedly sitting in a small electric car. Our Christmas day itself was quiet. Cindy, Tim and Geert had left for the Tuamotus and the anchorage was thinning out. We celebrated with a bottle of St Emillion, good cheese and a tin of roast duck we’d bought back in New Zealand. I sung Christmas carols, somehow forgetting two lines from every song, and illustrated the letters that Jim wrote to family and friends. We enjoyed the peace and reflection as our time in French Polynesia drew to a close. Within a few days we were heading out into the ocean, accompanied by dozens of melon-headed whales who zoomed around the boat, leaping in a joyful escort as we sailed beneath another gorgeous sunset.
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.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.