It's been a busy week here on Prism! We bought Jim a bike and left Papeete, initially for the Tahiti Yacht Club on the north west side of the island. There's a decent anchorage nearby, nicely protected by the barrier reef. It turns out that we dropped the hook near to the finish line for the outrigger canoe racing on Saturday mornings- so enjoyed a few hours of drinking coffee and watching the races. Of course, I pulled out my sketchbook and attempted the challenge of capturing the blur of limbs as the paddles moved through the water. We also enjoyed some great music from the drumming school on shore.
Our plan was to explore some of the sights of the north coast. There was only one problem- hills. Big ones. I will walk up hills if they are in my way, but am almost allergic to cycling up them. But if I was going to see anything of Tahiti, I needed to try, as weekend buses are only slightly more common than unicorns round here. Our first excursion was to Point Venus and Matavai Bay, where Cook went to help measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun and Captain Bligh and his soon-to-be-mutineers went gathering breadfruit. The call of history helped me up the hill when I thought my legs were going to fall off, and the views from the top and the freewheel down the other side almost made it worth it.
Point Venus was a pretty spot, with monuments to Cook and Bligh and an attractive lighthouse designed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s dad. We ate lunch on a shady picnic table, enjoyed the swathe of black sand and cooled off in the rain, which inevitably fell halfway through every sketch (my drawings now have an interesting speckled effect). It rained all the way home- which did make tackling the hill cooler- and Jim scored a haul of mangos from a roadside stall.
The following day we tackled that hill again, and found a few others beyond. This time, my motivation was the Three Cascades, a group of waterfalls 22km from Papeete- so about 20km away from us. This time my foldup bike and I complained less as we tackled the first hill, though by the time we’d gone 18km (up numerous hills and into a stiff headwind), I was wondering if my legs would fall off before we made it. Which was of course the sign for yet another hill to go up. Hills aside, the scenery was rugged and spectacular, the ocean bobbing with surfers enjoying the beach breaks on a Sunday, then warming up on the black sands.
Somehow I made it- to find that the sign for the turn-off was labeled ‘ferme’. A 20km cycle and our destination was shut? We pedaled up the road to the falls anyway, in the hope that SOMETHING might be visible from the road. We saw two falls tumbling down the sheer hillsides- and a steady trail of people ignoring the ‘closed’ sign and walking to the falls anyway. Normally I'm pretty rule-following, but I'd just cycled a very long way (with hills and headwind, in case you'd forgotten), and was in no mood to behave myself. And Jim never behaves, so we slipped over the low slung piece of bamboo barring the way.
It turned out that the falls I'd seen from the road were not the main attraction- they were shrimpy distant cousins. The Vaimahuta falls were 80 metres of tumbling water, sparkling in the sun, fringed with lacy ferns and dripping with moss. White tropicbirds swooped past, elegantly long tails gliding like banners behind them. Tourists came and went, I sketched, it rained, my ink ran, falling water on my waterfall. I wished I had the skill and knowledge to show how the sun made the rain sparkle like diamonds before it hit my paper.
I took the gently winding trail to the second and third falls, Haamaremare Rahi and Haamaremare Iti. Two different watercourses pour themselves down opposite sides of a huge rocky outcrop, both clearly visible from the viewpoint. I listened to the water, the birds and the falling red leaves. I drew, watched and listened. The rain stayed away and I absorbed the tranquility.
My legs made it to the nearby blowholes, then somehow got me home. A rest day was in order (I had paintings to finish), then we set sail for Moorea. We had a beautiful downwind trip and Prism flew along. We anchored at Cooks Bay (a misnomer as the famed Captain actually went to neighbouring Opunohu Bay), and went ashore for ice cream. A family were sitting in the beach, having a sing song, and invited us to join them. They played guitar, ukelele, drums and spoons, the adults teaching the children to keep the beat as they wove rhythms. Our musical talents are lacking but we added applause, and played with the puppy who chewed our toes. A thank you song as the sun dipped and we went our separate ways, glowing with the warm welcome.
I'd started this page by drawing Prism, then sketched the family, then decided to combine it all together. cross hatched shadows try to hide the fact that the legs had gone horribly wrong, and I ended up choosing a limited palette of cobalt teal and quin gold to try to bring some semblance of unity to the thing. I actually like the way the light turned out
The next day we sailed to Õpūnohu Bay- where Captain Cook visited Moorea. It's a spectacular anchorage, with a white sandy bottom and a fringing reef protecting it. We were greeted by a large pod of dolphins, who returned to see us every time we entered or exited the reef pass. Ashore is a lovely white sand beach with decent snorkeling off it. The mountains tower over it, changing colour with the light. I didn't need to leave Prism to get lots of inspiration for sketching!
We did spend a lot of time exploring on land. I got my legs in gear and we cycled up to the Belvedere for amazing views over both bays. My legs didn't like me much but my eyes were very happy. The route up winds its way through an agricultural college, where we stopped for home made ice cream and large glasses of mango juice to refresh us for the rest of the slog upwards. Above the college are a series of archaeological sites, sensitively restored. We found ceremonial sites, an archery platform and a marae, constructed out of round rocks and sacred to ‘Oro, the god of war. Nestled amongst the buttresses of mapē trees, the area was special enough to encourage me to cycle up again the next day and walk the Ancestor Trail, through beautiful forest scattered with ancient ruins and reconstructions of traditional Polynesian buildings- plus the occasional lovely waterfall and hundreds of chickens. Brought over with the Polynesians for food, these days they run free as most people prefer the tender chicken offered by the supermarket.
One morning we were awoken at 4 by the sound of an engine stuttering and stalling. I worried that someone was in trouble. Jim worried that someone was stealing the dinghy. We rushed outside to find humpback whales cruising through the anchorage, chatting to each other with broken engine sounds. Nobody needed rescuing and we watched them as they swam away through the middle of the busy anchorage in 5 metres of water. I couldn't get back to sleep, but really couldn't complain too much about the cetacean alarm clock.
The following day, I spent the morning painting a whale in the bay. Lunch time rolled around, with a small gaggle of whale watching boats floating not far from the bay. Following a tip from Cinnabar, our neighbours, we hopped in the dinghy and motored out to see if we could get a daylight whale sighting. One of the tour boats approached us, I was expecting them to try to shoo us away but they kindly offered to look after the dinghy so we could both swim. In the water we went, towards the snorkelers and the two humpbacks resting in the water. We watched them blowing spray into the air for a while, then they started to move- swimming right past me. The white underbelly, tail and fins of the nearest whale were clearly visible underwater as it dove and finned down into the depths. Ten minutes later they were back, quite a way off this time, but we were treated to a spectacular double dive. We saw them twice more, once at a distance and once close up. The boats and occasional visiting jet skis all kept well away, and had their engines off whilst the whales were nearby. We stayed on the land side of the whales at all times so they would not feel cut off from the open ocean. After the fourth surfacing, we all headed off to leave the whales in solitude for a while. I was impressed with how the encounter was handled, and awed at actually being in the water with these amazing animals.
The next day was Monday. The best way to spend a morning seemed to be with a visit to the Rotui distillery, where we tasted their excellent fruit juices and rum punch. We can't play all the time though, and spent the afternoon giving Prism’s hull a much-needed scrub. Some of the algae was very hard to remove- Jim tried using a tough, spiky seaweed as a bio-friendly scrubber but sadly results were below par and we resorted to one of the scoring pads from the kitchen instead. By the time we'd finished, hull, keel, rudder and propeller were all pristine and we'd earned ourselves a glass of the fruit juice we'd bought from the distillery as we watched yet another gorgeous sunset.
We've had a rather mixed stay in Papeete. Having Jim’s wallet stolen off the boat was a major frustration, as was being sent on numerous wild goose chases around the wider town as we tried to get Jim’s carte de sejour to extend his stay here (fyi- go to the Haute Commissaire, NOT border police). And waiting for the new bank cards to slowly make their way from Canada by courier was agonising. But there are bright sides- Papeete is a colourful town where one of the great pleasures is watching the world go by.
My highlight in the city has been the market. It opens every day, full of stores selling clothes, handicrafts, long skinny pods of Tahitian vanilla, tropical fruits and huge bunches of vibrant exotic flowers. Along one side are ladies making lei, beautiful floral crowns of bougainvillea, spikey leaves and fragrant cream tiare. They smell as wonderful as they look- a contrast to the fish section, where silvery trevally, emerald parrotfish and slabs of red tuna nestle on beds of ice, and the air smells of the sea.
On Sundays the market really comes alive. The vegetable stalls spill out from the covered market onto the surrounding streets, interspersed with stalls selling pain au chocolate, cinnamon swirls, and coconutty fried fiafia in their distinctive figure of eights. Chinese butchers weigh out portions of chopped pork, and tourist stalls are replaced with tables laden with dim sum, samosas, honey and passionfruit. The rest of the town is shut, and by 9 am the market too will have dispersed. The streets will be deserted, everyone either at home or relaxing with family in the Jardin de Paofai.
The gardens stretch along the waterfront, another city highlight. Paths link activities along the fitness trail, then wind past lily ponds and children's playgrounds. Shady benches are the perfect place for lunch, and if you're planning a party you can hire a covered picnic area- bring your own pizza or raw fish salad, get the cousins to bring their ukuleles and make sure that everyone sports a lei, or at least a flower behind the ear.
It's been a great place to sketch. When I'm drawing lots I work through my little 40 page sketch books quite quickly, and it was time for a new book. The paper swiftly proved a terrible choice for watercolour, absorbing the colour and making a wash impossible. My Noodlers pen blotted as the ink was sucked out of it, and everything seemed keen to soak through and appear as ghostly smears in the next page. I didn't care about this book- in fact I actively disliked it- so embarked on a week of intensive sketching so I could finish it and move on to something with nicer paper. The book soon filed up with people- my ambivalent attitude towards it meant I didn't care if my blind contour went wrong, if I had to turn the page and start again. So when Wolfram pulled out his guitar and began playing, I drew pages of him, accompanied by song lyrics. I sketched in the park and at the market and drew the ladies working on their leis. A ‘rubbish book’ may need to become a permanent part of my travellers sketchbook- somewhere I can scribble and scrawl and practice, practice, practice.
People have reacted wonderfully to my drawings. Wolfram took a sketch home with him, the waitress at the roulotte where I drew as I dined was very excited and gave me little hugs through the meal, and a gentleman who saw me drawing at Trois Brasseurs presented me with his phone and asked me to draw his friend, a dancer (she's the lady in red below). He bought a pitcher of beer in thanks, which made me very popular with our cruising friends. My squiggly sketches of the dancer in yellow, done as she performed for a group of tourists off a cruise ship, were also well received (for the record, Tahitian dancers are amazing but they move so fast- drawing them from a photo is definitely easier! ).
Jim’s cards have arrived and we got his immigration paperwork sorted, so we're now free to cruise again. We're going to explore the northern side of Tahiti and probably head over to Moorea. I've enjoyed our ten days in a marina - the warm showers have been a definite bonus- and we've loved meandering down to the food trucks at the Place de Roulottes, but we haven't seen a shark in a while now and it’s time to be out at anchor! Off we go to the next step of the adventure!
From Tikehau to Tahiti was a two day passage. It started well, with smooth seas and dolphins, but as we pulled away from Tikehau the rolling swells from the last few days of strong winds made themselves felt. It wouldn't have been too much of a problem if the wind hadn't been so fickle, fading and leaving us to be rolled about by the waves. Jim caught a fish- a tasty looking tuna- but the swell and the smell weren't working for me, so the lucky animal was returned to freedom in the sea.
The first view of Tahiti is almost legendary- rows of towering green mountains rising from the sea. For me, it shall remain the stuff of legends- it was hard to see the island through thick cloud and pouring rain. As I steered the narrow pass to Teahupoo between pounding reef breaks, I caught hazy glimpses of sharp peaks in front of me. The atmosphere was almost eerie- not a South Seas picture postcard paradise, but somewhere mysterious and magical. The eeriness felt well-placed when we learned how Teahupoo got its name. Two tribes were fighting over land here, and the battle was bloody. The victors lopped off the heads of their adversaries and piled them up as am offering of thanks for their victory. ‘Teahupoo’ means ‘altar of skulls’.
Happily, Teahupoo is now famed for its surf break rather than its head hunting. We were here to catch some of the Billabong Pro, an international surf extravaganza. But the competition was over, finished in the first three days of the eleven day window, so we'd arrived in time to see viewing towers being dismantled and support crews saying their goodbyes.
The weather remained determined to be non-tropical, with a chilly wind accompanied by drizzle. We made the best of it, exploring beautiful lily ponds and roads towards the mountains where old men sat outside strumming their ukeleles. The up side of the rain is the lush greenery, with an abundance of flowers and flowing streams. Such a contrast to the lovely but dry Tuamotus. There are even butterflies flitting about. It's enough to make you forgive the lack of surfing and the dull weather.
We won't linger here too much longer- destiny is telling me I have a date with paperwork in Papeete. So it's time to head to the big smoke- whilst we still have our heads
Ile d’Oiseaux- Bird Island- lived up to its name. Noddys, fairy terns and red footed boobies all nest there, and wading birds scurry along the tide line. Squawks and chirps and whistles and grunts echo around the island from dawn to well after dusk. On the ground, scuttling, clicking and rustling hinted at the hundreds of crabs who make their homes amongst the leaf litter. The most extraordinary thing was how unconcerned some of the birds were. Whilst some sent out alarm calls and wheeled up into the skies the second they spotted us, others would sit confidently and just watch us. Bird photography has never been so easy, and a second shore party with my sketchbook was essential
Nearby was Ile d’Eden. A tiny Christian community from Taiwan, following the teachings of their prophet, they've transformed their dry, sandy atoll into a fertile garden, growing fruit, vegetables and vanilla, producing honey and sea salt, raising chickens and pigs. Manure from the animals and compost from the garden are dug back into the gardens, enriching the soil, creating a self- sustaining farm. We purchased papaya, lettuce and mint for a tasty salad- fresh fruit and veg are a rare treat out here in the Tuamotus, where few things grow. Looking at the farm, and smelling the rich, mulchy soil on Ile ďoiseaux, I did wonder why more islands don't try this, at least on a small scale. Could fertile little garden plots be in the future?
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!
It was a four day passage from Raivavae to Fakarava. We started off rocking about in a rolling swell, and ended up motoring on glassy seas. We arrived at night- not a good time to attempt to go through a pass, especially one fringed with coral. Prism was put to sleep until the sun came up and we could safely make our way in.
The journey through Tumakahua pass was straightforward. The current was with us, and the route was well marked. We entered the anchorage with five other boats and grabbed a mooring buoy as our welcoming committee approached. A host of surgeonfish and a grey reef shark were on meet and greet duty (probably hoping that we’d have a few scraps of breakfast left to toss overboard). A white-tipped reef shark soon joined the party, then Jim and I jumped in with our snorkel gear. The fish swam up to investigate and the sharks cruised beneath us. It was a great arrival.
Most of our visit to Tumakahua was spent in the water. The currents are strong, sweeping nutrients through the pass and attracting lots of life. There are plenty of brightly hued reef fish living amongst the corals, large schools of snapper, mullet and barracuda, graceful eagle rays and imposing Napoleon wrasse. But the biggest draw here is the huge population of sharks. We saw them every time we entered the water. They generally seemed to ignore us, going about their sharky business. Most of the denizens here are reef sharks, whose philosophy towards humans is ‘we’ll respect you if you respect us’. The more fearsome residents, hammerheads and lemon sharks, live outside the reef at greater depths- beyond my dive certification level. But I’m very happy hanging out with the reef sharks.
The torpedo-shaped white tips tend to cruise around by themselves, or lie on sandy gullies on the seabed during the day. The stocky cream-coloured black tips seem to like shallow water, swimming through the coral gardens and cruising around the resort, hoping to pick up scraps thrown into the water by the cook. They’re small but have a more traditionally ‘shark’ shape than the long skinny white tips. The greys grow largest, although a lot of the animals we saw were young, and we often saw them in the pass and deep channels. They’re impressive, especially when dozens of them congregate and they’re close enough to see the dot of their pupil staring back at you. It makes me wonder what they’re thinking.
We saw sharks on every snorkel, but the best way to see the greys was to dive. The site is known as the ‘Wall of Sharks’, with good reason- though if the naming were up to me, I’d pluralise the ‘wall’. I made five dives altogether, all on the incoming tide. We’d enter the water either at a buoy within the pass or, for a longer and deeper dive, outside at the mouth of the pass by the drop-off.
The reef around the drop-off was beautiful, full of incredibly healthy coral and teeming with fish. A large group of grey reef sharks cruise just over the drop-off, occasionally joined by the odd white tip. We’d then follow the reef into the pass, looking for marbled grouper lurking amongst the coral heads. As we’d ascend, we’d reach the second wall of grey reef sharks, and see more white tips snoozing on the sand gullies at the bottom. There would be huge schools of big eyes, their red scales appearing black as the depth filtered out their colouring, and we’d often find large groups of silvery snapper. Looking up, we’d often spot an eagle ray flying above us, or a mass of brass striped barracuda. Once I saw a great barracuda, fearsome and intimidating with its large teeth on permanent display.
The third group of sharks could be viewed from above the reef, or by dropping down to a cavern. They were often the closest, coming within feet of us. Occasionally we’d see one rear up, ferocious maw gaping, as it invited a cleaner fish to give it a wash and brush up. Others would stay almost stationary, barely moving as they kept their position against the current, whilst the more energetic and awake would swim up to the head of the group, then turn and run with the current until they merged with the school again.
We usually took our safety stop just outside the dive centre, with a resident group of bright yellow striped snapper to keep us company, and a good chance of seeing Napoleon wrasse or black tip reef sharks. Once, we ran with the current which swept us around the corner, through the coral gardens near the anchorage. We were almost at the first boat before we had to surface and wait for the dive centre’s own vessel to come and retrieve us.
Despite spending so much of my time in the water, I still found time to draw. We used the dive centre at Tetamanu Village- the largest of the three accommodations around Tumakahua- and would often stop in for a pre-dive coffee or pre-sunset beverage. The café was on stilts above the reef and was a great place for fish spotting and sketching. Schooling fish used the shade of the resort’s boats and the piles of the café as a refuge, and butterflyfish, damsels and tangs were drawn to the pretty reef. Sketching moving creatures who were underwater wasn’t easy, but it was good practice- and a rare opportunity for drawing sea creatures from observation. The staff were interested and very positive- good motivation to keep up sketching in public!
The boardwalk to reach the café provided the perfect position for watching- and drawing- black tip reef sharks. There would always be a few cruising through, and the whole local population of about twenty would pay a visit before meal times. The kitchen threw fish scraps and chicken bones into the water, and I’d sit on the boardwalk and try to draw the elegant shapes that slid through the shallow water beneath me. Once, I put my camera in the water and got some video of the feeding frenzy- sharks darting around and making the water froth as they sped towards the bones. Most surprising of all was the huge Napoleon wrasse, which muscled its way across shallow coral to get into the middle of the action. It was not afraid to get into the thick of the sharky mass- and with a huge mouth just made for hoovering up tasty morsels, it quite often won the spoils.
The underwater scenery isn’t the only draw here; there are some gorgeous beaches too. We took the dinghy on the long ride round to les Sables Roses- the Pink Sands. This is a series of motu (islands) over in the UNESCO area. We’re not allowed to take Prism over there, but tenders are fine. We threaded our way through the reef as the tide fell, and chose a likely looking island trimmed in white and pale pink. Jim selected a spot under a shady palm tree, where he remained for the rest of our visit, and I set off exploring. The island was small, but it was easy to wade through the channels between motu, keeping my jandals on to protect my feet. I was rewarded by having islands all to myself, filled with lush greenery, surrounded by powedery white sand and fringed with pink sandbars, which were revealed as the tide retreated further. The contrast with the turquoise water was gorgeous, and I felt like we’d found a bit of paradise. Our only companions were dozens of hermit crabs and a baby black tip reef shark, which was entertaining itself by catching waves and surfing into the shallows, turning outwards and repeating the process.
That afternoon was a treat. We enjoyed sundowners with Afif, a lovely gentleman from Lebanon who we’d met diving. Then April and Harley from El Karma were planning a beach fire with a few of the other cruisers from our anchorage. As the sun set, we motored ashore for a picnic around a roaring fire, with more good company and surrounded by huge hermit crabs, who lumbered around the motu and seemed intrigued by the bright lights of the invading humans. The moon was a perfect crescent and the Milky Way was strung out across the sky. It doesn’t get much better than this.
A few more dives and a couple more snorkels, then we heard that the wind was due to change. Lovely in a south easterly breeze, Tumakahua becomes very uncomfortable in a northerly wind, which fetches up water from right across the long lagoon leading to a very uncomfortable swell. Midway through our visit, we’d experienced one night of northerlies, leading to a smashed jar of sundried tomatoes and very little sleep, and we were not keen to repeat the experience. We cast off the mooring buoy and headed north through the lagoon. Prism was ready to go, zipping along at six knots through the channel. We stopped at Tahao, a lovely anchorage which we had to ourselves. Today we called at Pakakota, where Micheal, an ex-cruiser, has set up a restaurant, mooring buoys and strong wifi (comparatively anyway).
A few days after reaching Fakarava, I finished the sketchbook I’d started in Raivavae. Unusually for me, I’d stuck with the same media- watercolour and brush pen- for the whole of the book, which does give it a nice continuity. I was struggling with the brush pen for the sinuous shapes of the sharks- in theory it should be perfect, but I found it hard to get the speed necessary to draw the fast-moving fish. For the new book, I decided to start off with my Derwent Inktense pencils. I’ve often used these for colour washes, but haven’t used them much to actually draw with. They let me be a bit ’sketchier’ than the brush pen, building up lines as sharks came past and repeated poses. I liked the effect of going over the coloured lines with a waterbrush- it gives the slightly blurry impression that the fish are actually under water. Wetting the page before I used the pencil let me get an interesting variation in line and a good depth of colour. The pencils can’t be erased once wet, so this method was permanent and gave a spontaneous feeling. They did bleed through a bit in my Hahnemuhle cartridge sketchbook when I used them on top of a wash- I think I’m overloading this book beyond its capacity. .
Back on the boat on a rainy day, I pulled out my Noodlers ink bottles, and used dip pen and water brush to draw sharks from a photo. The brush blurred the ink lines, creating interesting blurs and shading, especially when the inks were made from mixed colours which separated when the water was added. I followed up with a drawing of the reef, experimenting with using ink wet-in-wet and adding salt, creating wonderful textures which were perfect for coral. The colours were very vivid, leading to highly saturated images. Much too bright, but fun to do! My poor paper struggled with the amount of ink, and suffered from bleed-through in places. This wasn’t helped by the salty spots. I had to resort to blotting a few places with kitchen paper when they were still wet the next morning. When it had finally dried out, I pulled out my Posca pens and added details and patterns to suggest polyps, and drew in a few reef residents too. The poscas did add to the bobbliness of the paper- was it still damp or just overworked? Again, the cartridge paper is struggling.
Drying things in the tropics can be harder than you’d think. Watercolour washes dry in a flash in full sun- it’s causing a problem with my sketchbook as I have to use more water and the cartridge paper goes bobbly. Time to switch to my pricier but sturdier watercolour books, I think. Some of the paints themselves seem reluctant to ever dry. I knew this could be a problem with my Senneliers, which have honey as a binder. I was given my Senneliers in pannier form a few years ago, and they’ve been fine through New Zealand summers, but now the viridian and helios purple are just one step short of being liquid, whilst the other pans I have remaining are all slightly on the squishy side. It’s not just the Senneliers, however. Most of my pans now hold tube paint from Windsor and Newton or Daniel Smith- honey free and therefore, I thought, tropic-safe. I filled them all before we left NZ in the increasingly chilly Autumn, but many of the colours have returned to a rather soft state- they just don’t seem to totally dry out. It means that getting juicy colour is never a problem, but also means that colours sometimes ooze out of their pans. My Daniel Smith cobalt turquoise is a particular offender, closely followed by the W&N indigo- although maybe they’re just trying to tell me to paint another sea scene.
Beautiful sea scenes are easy to come by here and my inner critic keeps telling me I should be painting more (although it might be the paints talking). They’re probably right, and rethinking my ‘make every drawing a double spread’ approach might help me with this- a series of small sketches each day would be more manageable, and would fit in with adventures more effectively, plus encourage me to draw the little things which I feel like I’m starting to overlook (local drinks, fruit, flowers, hermit crabs etc). I’m taking lots of photos too, and although I prefer to draw from life, reference photos don’t hurt (especially when I’m tackling subjects under the sea!). Good fodder for rainy days! Perhaps I need to consider how I use my travellers notebook, as it can hold multiple sketchbooks inside- is it time to start using two sketchbooks- a ‘best’ book with good paper for when I have lots of time to sit and observe, so I can keep the cohesive look I enjoyed in my last sketchbook, plus a ‘scrappy’ one for experiments, quick doodles, journaling? This might also be a way to get me drawing people more…
I will mull on this as I finish the second half of this cartridge book- do you use one sketchbook or multiple books?
The voyage from Marsden Cove to Raivavae started well. We’d loaded Island Prism with fuel and water, loaded ourselves with coffee and carrot cake and finished customs formalities. Our journey down to the mouth of the Whangarei River was choppy and slow, as the wind and tide were against the flow of the river, but once we were out to sea we enjoyed low swells and a good breeze to set us on our way.
We quickly fell into our 6 hour watch rotation. Days were uneventful, and the clear nights gave us spectacular views of the Milky Way and the waxing moon. There seemed to be a different treasure each night for the first few nights- moonbeams reflecting in pale gold off the ebony sea, a moonbow circling the full moon like an otherworldly halo, as light refracted through the thin hazy covering of cloud. One night Jim saw a swarm of bioluminescent jellyfish glowing with an eerie blue-green light- other than a couple of freighters, they were the only life we saw during the passage.
About five days in, the weather changed. The winds picked up and the swells grew. Headwinds saw us pounding into large waves- not a comfortable experience, especially for days on end. Changing course let Prism take the waves on the beam. It was a smoother course, but very rocky- something like being in a washing machine strapped onto a funfair rollercoaster. We stopped using the front bunk and set up the lee cloths in the main cabin so that both settees were usable as berths. I grew very attached to whichever bunk was leeward, as the higher side gave a nauseatingly corkscrewing view which oscillated between sky and waves.
For the next couple of weeks, we seemed to alternate between rough seas and high seas, with the occasional moderate day to give us a breather and let us catch up on sleep. We tacked a few times as wind and waves dictated, and alternated between the main sail and the small heavy weather trysail. I tried drawing on the calmer days, but the angles made my head spin more and there was no way I was going to manage to use watercolour without painting the boat as well. I stuck with sketching thumbnails and impressions, to fill in and work from when we reached Raivavae. Most of the time, I buried my head in a book and was very thankful for my well-stocked kindle.
Cooking was a bit of a challenge too. I’d cooked up batches of chili, Bolognese and Israeli couscous salad before we left Marsden Cove. When they were gone, we made curries and minestrone soup if the sailing was smooth, or pasta and boil-in-the-bag meals when things were rocking. Every so often a rogue wave would launch things from the galley- a plate from the rack, tins and Tupperware, the entire kitchen drawer and, spectacularly, an open tin of pasta sauce which was in Jim’s hand when a wave decided to smash against the boat and jerk it from his grip. It managed to lavishly baptise the floor and our wet weather gear, and of course clean-up becomes complicated when the things you are trying to clean are moving too.
Jim was having a whale of a time. I would love to say the same, and to be the kind of sailor who relishes in taking on the elements- but really I just wanted to get to our destination. I wasn’t sick, but the rocking and rolling made me feel like I had a constant bout of vertigo, and I was happiest when curled up in the bunk. Prism was making good speed though, and it was satisfying to watch the miles tick by. Even our tacking to handle the waves didn’t slow us too much. Jim’s brother Bill sent us regular detailed weather updates, we usually managed to receive the weatherfax broadcasts issued by New Zealand, and had weather guru Bob McDavitt on the other end of the satphone for when we really needed an expert opinion. We especially appreciated his advice when an ominous low pressure was heading towards us, and we weren’t sure whether to hold back or try to run in front of it. We’d just come through the tail end of a high with 50 knot winds and 5 metre swells, and the low looked like it had potential to give us an equal battering. Instructions came to ‘go!’ and we shot north- avoiding being trapped in a ‘squash zone’ between the two pressure systems.
Eventually the morning came when land was in sight. Rocky peaks rose out of the sea, surrounded by a turquoise lagoon. Waves beat against the fringing reef, sending up huge plumes of spray. We tacked towards the channel, Jim lowered the sails and we motored into the sheltered waters of Raivavea. The anchor was retrieved from one of the cockpit lockers, the chain was fed through the windlass and we dropped the hook. The wind was strong but it was wonderful to have the rolling stop, to catch up on sleep and to sleep in the front bunk again. The following day we would go ashore to start immigration proceedings and to explore the island we’d travelled over 2000 mile to reach.
It's looking like we'll have a good weather window on Friday or Saturday. Departure is getting near, the boat is well-provisioned and leak-free (for the moment anyway), and all that stands between us and French Polynesia is a load of laundry, a last shop for vegetables and rather a lot of sea.
I started drawing places I'm saying goodbye to. It's the people who are important, but the places are all tied up with the memories of the special souls I go there with and so it seemed a good way to approach leave-taking. So I've been sketching Pacific Bay and Schnappa Rock, a great little restaurant here in Tutukaka, and remembering fun sailing trips, swimming, post-dive beverages with Jill and delicious birthday dinners.
Then along came Brian Butler. He's teaching a class on Sketchbook Skool this week, and shared lively sketchbooks filled with busy drawings of concerts and road trips. He collages images together and paints enormous murals on the side of buildings to celebrate the communities he's painting in. His style is different and original, and you can find him at www.theupperhandart.com/. He challenged us to draw our own collected images of our favourite places. It seemed a perfect way to remember them and say goodbye.
His quirky style got me thinking, and gave me permission to be silly. (Why do I feel I need permission to be silly in my artwork? I don't have much problem being silly any other time. Does it all stem from the art teacher who just never got my drawing of the whale weigh station?). The result was an exploding Rangitoto spewing out Auckland landmarks, my running shoes, wine from Mudbrick vineyard and coffee from the shop across from the school where I taught. It's totally daft, it didn't matter that I can't draw a straight line and I had a whale of a time playing with bendy perspective. If I ever redraw it, I'll try so I'm looking into the volcano. I enjoyed it so much that as soon as I was finished, I started drawing a fish-eye view of the Poor Knights. I challenge you to see how many fishy puns you can find.
I used coloured pencils, which take a lot of layering but are very relaxing to build up and blend. I wasn't happy with the first shark I drew on the Poor Knights, so obliterated it with a cooler version in Posca pen. One of those mistakes that turns out for the best- I like the solid colour on the textured coloured pencil.
There may be more towns and regions to come- it's certainly a great way to reminisce! I'm not so sure about trying to create a mural a la Brian- I'm not much good with ladders- though I could always decorate the side of the boat!
I've posted my more sensible watercolours down below too (pretty happy with how the shadows are working out- a big thank you to Natalie Renotte on the Sketchbook Skool Facebook page for her advice on the dark foreground Schnappa Rock sketch)- now I'm off to distort some of the beaches on the Tutukaka Coast,,,
I've been neglecting my sketchbook lately. I haven't stopped drawing altogether, but had let the daily drawing- which makes me so happy- slip. I think it's been a combination of things- the work in my current sketchbook just didn't seem to be up to standard, I wasn't happy with a number of the drawings and flipping through it made me feel lacklustre. I've still been drawing, but using A4 sheets instead of my book, aiming for a more polished finish- nothing wrong with that, but it brings in a bit of perfectionist pressure. I've also been sharing a lot of my drawings on social media, especially Instagram- another source of pressure. And then of course my shops round out the list of reasons to Have To Get It Right. I'm excited but nervous about the big trip coming up, and I think the swirl of emotions attached to saying goodbye to New Zealand and spending three to four weeks at sea has been adding a touch of creative block to the mix.
So I'm reclaiming my sketchbook. Remembering that it is my place to play, to make mistakes, to explore. And also remembering that, whilst I would like to be an Artist whilst we cruise, it is more important to be an artist- using my sketchbook as a way to record things I see, to look more closely, to engage with my surroundings. It doesn't matter if not every page is Instagram-worthy or good enough to post to my Facebook art page. It does matter that I practice, explore and play every day- the sketches I do are often the things that fuel the finished pieces, sometimes years down the line, and sometimes something I hate at the time takes on new meaning with a bit of time and a little perspective.
I do have a little help. Sketchbook Skool have released a new course (or kourse, as they would spell it). It's called Exploring- which seems very appropriate in my case. It's been just what I needed. The first week has been run by Danny Gregory. Before the making art began, we engaged in dialogues about what it is to be creative, how we are creative, what our creative goals are and what hampers them. I think most of the questions have been posed before, but considering them again helped. After all, our circumstances and positions are constantly changing, and so are our challenges and goals. By the time I got to the drawing demos, I'd done a bit of introspection and felt fired up. Sure, I'm not happy with a lot of the drawings in my current sketchbook- but every page is a new start. And the more I draw, the more likely I am to do things I'm happy with.
So this week I am working hard on my homework, practicing hatching and stippling and coming up with some stuff that I actually kind of like. Even if drawing on the boat does make some of it a little wobbly. How better to record the pod of dolphins that came and played around Prism on our way to Whangarei yesterday?
I won't be finishing the course before I go- and am not sure where I'll have the internet to be able to watch the final weeks of videos- but the teachers are a brilliant bunch and having a few weeks in reserve may give me a creative shakeup if I suffer another creative restriction farther down the track.
If you want to join in too, you can find Exploring here. In the meantime, I'm off to do some more hatching, in between boat jobs of course.
(Associate link- Danny has also written an excellent little book called 'Shut Your Monkey'. It's about silencing your inner critic, and I probably should reread it!)
Sometimes life comes round in a circle. Right now we're anchored at Port Fitzroy, Great Barrier Island, which is where we spent the end of January last year. I know it's mid February now, but the time and place feel right for a bit of reflection.
I started my first class in Sketchbook Skool a year ago. It was called 'Beginning' (a very good place to start, as Julie Andrews/ Maria would agree). The first week was taught by Danny Gregory, and the homework was simply to draw, every day. It would be the perfect way to start forming a habit. So I drew Great Barrier- anchorages, birds, waterfalls, the store here at Port Fitzroy. Cups of coffee, the dinghy engine, kids playing and my husband mending the sail cover. My sketchbook changed from an occasional companion to a constant friend. I photographed my sketches, posted them and gathered inspiration from the other students as well as from the sketchbooks of our tutors.
A year on, I'm still drawing. The habit I started with Beginning remains, consolidated by half a dozen other classes taken through Sketchbook Skool. I've learned new techniques and, I hope, improved. So I pulled out my sketchbook from a year ago.
Have I got better? In some ways, yes. My inner critic wonders if I've lost a sense of delicacy, but I can still draw this way when I choose to, and my line work these days feels more confident. It's good to look back and see lots of things I like in my older work- the page with the birds and Jim stitching the sail is one of my favourites. But my more recent sketches feel more distinctive, more confident, more 'mine'.
The most obvious change in my work is the scale. My sketchbook of a year ago had numerous tiny drawings littering a double page spread, with copious notes about the weather and the day. Now I mostly have single images across a double page spread. Words have taken a back seat, though I do like the diary style of my older work.
My ultra-fine liner has been exchanged for a brush pen, at least for the moment. I love the expressive lines of the brush pen, and have been determined to actually stick with one medium for a while. Looking back, I like the delicate lines of my fineliners too, but the brush pen is working for me right now. I still can't draw a straight line, but my lines are less sketchy; they flow more and I think they give the drawings more presence.
My greatest improvement, I think, is in my use of colour. I've got better at shading with watercolours, introducing a sense of depth into my sketches and bringing in the dark darks that I've struggled with for so long. I mostly use watercolours alongside pen, but I'm making the watercolour do part of the work, giving value (light and darkness) as well as colour.
So what next? I'm sticking with the brush pen a while longer, and I'm going to keep improving my watercolour techniques. I'll try and bring back some of the written elements, and drawing the little details in life as well as the big exciting things. My older sketchbooks remind me of techniques that I enjoyed and haven't used for a while- such as sketching in coloured pencils or with ballpoint pens- and I'm keen to pull these out again a little further down the line, perhaps see how I can make them work alongside my brush pen and watercolour. I'm sure there will be more Sketchbook Skool, but it's good to have consolidation time.
My collection of filled sketchbooks is supposed to get exiled off the boat soon- it takes up valuable space and may suffer from the humidity of the tropics. But I might keep a couple of books with me- or at least scan them in, as a reminder of what I've learnt and a source of inspiration for the future. And I'll certainly try to keep up daily drawing, whatever form it takes.
Do you ever look back at your old sketches? What have you learned from them? Do you ever find yourself returning to old styles and concepts?
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.