An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
6th June: We were sitting at a covered table overlooking the lagoon when the gendarmes pulled over in their truck. The two police officers got out and walked over to us. Jim was worried- we were enjoying a baguette with roqueforte and a bottle of Hinano Tahiti, the local beer. Were we infringing some unknown bylaw? Were we about to get slapped with a fine or dragged away into what ever passed for a dungeon on this little island? No. The officers merely wanted to know whether we were enjoying the island, and to give us a bag filled with fish and limes. The experience pretty much sums up Raivavae- an island of cheer and generosity.
Raivavae lies just south of the Tropic of Capricorn. Days here tend to be warm, with a delicious cool breeze at night. It’s warm enough to grow tropical fruit, but cool enough to spend a day cycling in the sun without melting into a sweaty puddle. Describing it as a paradise would be clichéd but accurate.
Our first step here was to check in with customs. This is done at the gendarmerie, and was the first time we met our friendly local police officers. The forms were all in French, but Prism’s registration papers were a good cheat sheet- being a Canadian registered vessel, her paperwork is in both English and French. Between Jim’s and my limited French and the gendarme’s limited English, formalities were completed and we were set loose upon the island.
Jim had been dreaming about cheeseburgers for the days prior to our arrival, but it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to happen. We found a small internet café with a tempting menu of crepes and other delicacies, but all that was available were soft drinks and ham and mayonnaise baguettes. After 23 days at sea, the cold sugary beverages and huge sandwiches still felt like a treat, and sustained us for long enough to arrange bike hire for the following day, and to explore the little village of Rairua (which takes about five minutes).
Bikes are the perfect way to explore the island. The coast road is a flat and easy 22 kilometer ride around the circumference, manageable in a few hours even with stops. We cycled past colourful houses with orange trees and coconut palms in the gardens. Pigs rested in the shade of banana plants whilst butterflies flitted through the sunny spots, and chickens and cockerels were omnipresent. The lagoon was rarely out of sight, a pale turquoise with huge white foamy waves breaking over the surrounding reef. The shores owe their tranquility to the fringing reef, which absorbs the angry impact of the Pacific so that only gentle waves lap the coral sounds. One of our first stops of the day was a lovely stretch of white sand with seats, benches and hammocks- a beautiful public park. We debated lazing there for the rest of the day but managed to delve deep into our reserves of motivation and continued our cycle adventure. We found brightly painted churches, vibrant against the green vegetation, and a shop selling baguettes and French cheese, which made a delicious lunch.
As well as pretty houses and sea views, the island has a bit of history to it. One old survivor is a stone tiki, standing on a stone platform at the bottom of a garden fringed with banana plants and the ubiquitous chickens. One ear and arm have been lost in the war against time, and his eyes are soft beneath mossy eyebrows. Scatters of white lichen adorn his body, but his broad smile seems as sharp as the day it was carved. Across the island, we found the remains of an old marae. Most of whatever glories there were are long gone, but a cluster of stones remain, including one tall standing stone. Legend says that the notches on the stone record the height of warriors- although as the stone is shorter than I am, I assume that it must have sunk a bit over the ages.
There is a second marae on the island, but our bikes were not allowed on the dangerous traverse to get to it. Although the coast of Raivavae is flat, the interior is rocky, with spikes of mountain peaks towering over the gardens and villages. This made for some very dramatic scenery on our journey.
There are only four pensions on the island, of varying sizes. We stopped in at one and negotiated to have some of our laundry done. One of the bolts going through the deck had decided to spring a leak, along with one of the portholes above the front bunk. This was enough to ensure that most of Jim’s clothes and our sheets and duvets were doused in salt water, and it hadn’t taken long for mildew to start appearing. The cost meant that we only gave them the items in most dire need of a machine wash, and I resigned myself to washing the rest by hand. A few days later we were glad of this- our laundry ladies turned out to be over-generous with the bleach, giving some of Jim’s t-shirts an interesting but unwanted tie-dyed effect. They also happily sold us two pomelos and a very large cucumber. I had wondered why Jim had got so excited about the cucumber- he’d thought it was a papaya. He was rather disappointed when he cut into it and was met with rather dry pale green flesh instead of the succulent orange he’d been hoping for. On the bright side, the pomelos were delicious- juicy and tangy, related to a grapefruit but sweeter and, in my opinion, far more enjoyable.
Considering they grow everywhere, obtaining fresh fruit and vegetables can be harder than you’d think. There isn’t a market, and we’ve only found one shop that sells anything other than onions, potatoes and garlic, all imported from New Zealand. Most people grow their own produce and are pretty self-sufficient. Luckily for us, people are extremely generous and we’ve been given oranges, bananas and limes. It’s tricky to get people to take any money in exchange- a fellow cruiser, Colin, has taken to carrying round small packets of pasta to gift in return.
There is a baker on the island, who delivers baguettes to order, and supplies the little shop where we’ve been buying our bread. Some house have long thin post boxes outside- just the right side for their daily bread delivery. Other ladies sell their wares outside their houses. Our favourite is a delicious tarte chocolat, sold in generous slices to be eaten perched on rocks or tree stumps by the sea. We’ve also enjoyed sweet fiafia, which are like doughnuts shaped in a figure of eight. The most interesting food experiment has been poi. This is a doughy concoction of taro and lemon, and is apparently wonderful when eaten with ice cream. Having no fridge or freezer, ice cream becomes impossible, so we tried it without accompaniment. I enjoyed the citrusy flavor, and got used to the doughy texture when I decided it was like unbaked cookie dough. The taro makes it fairly heavy, so I found a dessertspoon or two at a time was enough- a bit like licking a bowl out after cooking. I’d only managed a few portions before it succumbed to the heat and needed to be thrown overboard. I hope the fish enjoyed it, though they may be stuck to the bottom of the sea under the weight of the taro.
We’ve met the local fish life up close during our snorkel adventures around the lagoon. With a bit of searching in the dinghy, we can usually find a new pretty patch of coral teeming with reef fish. Each spot seems to offer something new. We’ve found gardens of giant clams covered in complex patterns of amethyst, ultramarine and emerald, bright yellow boxfish which look like swimming dice, elegant Moorish idols trailing their flowing dorsal fins like banners and rainbows of butterflyfish, parrotfish and surgeonfish. The highlight came yesterday, when we entered the water and were greeted by a two meter-long shark. It cruised past us, rounded a coral head and returned for a second glide-by- either to let me get a close up or to decide that we weren’t going to be good to eat. As it faded into the blue, I was happy that I’d got a couple of good photos and Jim began to release his death grip on the side of the dinghy. This may be one of the few occasions when he is more sensible that I am. My first feeling was that our visitor was a bronze whaler shark. The only other contender seems to be a bull shark- if any fish id experts read this, I’d love to know what you think!
We’re intending to spend a little longer on the island, and are thinking of taking Prism round to the other side, where there are some coral islands that are rumoured to have good snorkeling. Yesterday Colin took us along in his dinghy to scout out the route as the charts of the area range from vague to inaccurate. We found a clear pass and will head round tomorrow if the day is sunny- we want to make sure that we will see any coral heads. Until then, I’ll continue to enjoy the pleasant rhythm of laundry, snorkeling, painting and watching beautiful sunsets.
12th June: Island Prism had a good trip round to Motu Piscine. Jim perched up on the spreaders to watch for coral, I helmed and we were tailed by Colin, single-handing on his boat ‘Amy’. After a couple of hours, we were anchored near the coral island in 8 metres of water.
It was a picture-postcard spot. Motu Piscine had soft white sand, tailing to a swash of sandspit at the northern end. To the west was shallow turquoise water, turning abruptly indigo at the drop off, to the east, the huge swells of the Pacific pounded on the outer reef, sending towers of white spray up into the air. We took the dinghy ashore and wandered amongst the palm trees and spikey pandanus plants. Jim’s ankle was sore, so he paddled the zodiac in the shallows.
All the coral bommies offered the promise of some good snorkeling. There was a current running, so we towed the zodiac along with us. Our initial plan was to swim through the pass, in the hopes that the swiftly flowing water would be home to a rich array of fish. The pass wasn’t marked though, and we found it hard to locate amongst the wall of breaking waves, so pottered amongst likely coral heads. There were large schools of fish and lots of giant clams, and the health of the coral improved as we swam back towards Motu Piscine. We ended up in pretty coral gardens not far from the shores, filled with fish. Swimming past some large coral rocks, I turned around and found a giant moray right behind me. I hastily swam back a little, just in case he took exception to the invasion of his personal space. He stared at me for a moment, his tooth-filled jaws gaping in typical moray style, then swam towards me. I worried for the safety of my fingers- but he rippled right past and vanished into a rocky hideaway. He was probably more scared of me than I was of him, but my heart rate took a few moments to slow down!
The next day the weather changed. The switch was innocuous enough at first, a blustery breeze, grey skies and a cloud hanging low over Raivavae for a day or two. Then one afternoon the wind picked up, and we started to worry about the dinghy engine, which was still bolted on the zodiac and in the water. A lull came, so we shoved on our rain jackets and set about hauling it out. Not a moment too soon.
We had the engine stowed and I was looping the main halyard around the boom to secure it when Jim shouted “Look out!” Racing towards us was what appeared to be mist coming off the sea, obscuring the horizon. It seemed surreal. I held onto the halyard and gripped the boom as the blast of wind hit. The mainsail cover billowed up around me as I hugged it and held on. Once the gust was over, Jim hopped into the dinghy to finish emptying it and I fastened the halyard around the sail cover then moved forward to the mast to cinch it tight. I’d cleated it off and was wrestling with the mainsail cover when the next blast of wind came. I had to abort my futile attempt to zip the cover and just hold on as the ferocious gust whipped round me, throwing up spume from the water. I looked back to the cockpit. The dinghy was up in the air, plastered to the rails by the wind. There was no sign of Jim.
I rushed back to the cockpit, Jim was in the water some way off the stern, trying to reach the fuel can from the dinghy that was floating near him as he drifted away. I threw the life collar, its neon orange line snaking behind. Jim grabbed the cord and I pulled him in. He hauled himself into the dinghy, passed me the fuel and the dinghy bucket and then clambered aboard. No rest for the soggy- the katabolic winds swirled towards us again and we were worried about the gear that we store between the cabin and the mast. Jim scrambled forward and passed me the ladder and dive gear, which I hastily stowed in the cockpit locker. The next blast of wind hit us from behind and the dinghy took flight again, this time raised up onto the foredeck. Tying it down there seemed a great idea but there just wasn’t time, so Jim tossed it back into the sea and let out the painter so it would hopefully stay away from Prism. After that, the dinghy was left to take its chances as the next williwaw laid Prism down. We could only cling on as the jerry can of water and our large can of fuel slid across the foredeck to come to rest against the wooden rubrails. Another laydown followed, the wind heeling Prism so far over that the water came over the rubrail and floated both jerry cans away. I tried to get the boathook to catch them but fumbled with the knots, and was wary of losing the hook too. The next swirl of wind solved the problem- by the time it passed they were too far away.
Although the confused katabolic winds came at us from all directions, confused as they tumbled down the mountainsides, at least our anchor was holding well- a blessing with all of the coral around. Amy also seemed to be anchored firmly. I’m not sure how long it took for the winds to die down, but we were all very relieved when conditions calmed and we could retreat below. We found chaos- we hadn’t had time to pack up ready for such heavy weather, and the cabin was littered with cushions, art supplies, clothes and tools, with grapefruit rolling around amongst it all. Jim peeled off his salt-laden clothes and poured a well-deserved whisky. We had an easy dinner and an early night. Jim was out like a light, but sleep wouldn’t come to me, so I read and watched the flashes of lightning. Sheets flashed across the sky, forks stabbed the sea, highlighting the crests of the waves. I counted the seconds- one elephant, two elephant, three elephant, four- until I heard the rumbles of thunder that told me the distance between us and the electrical storm. Sometimes the flashes were so close together that I lost track of which set of lightning and thunder belonged together. By my count, the closest the storm got was about 5 elephants- one mile away. Lightning and boats are not friends- the masts make perfect lightning rods, and whilst a strike doesn’t usually compromise the hull, it will fry the electronics on board. Having lost a dinghy pump, cans of fuel and water and a fishing rod, smashed by the flying dinghy, I was very happy not to add the boat’s navigation systems to the day’s casualty list.
The morning dawned blue, with a few fluffy clouds and the odd sunbeam. Following the harrowing day before, the crews of both Island Prism and Amy were rather slow to get going. Rest and relax was the order of things, though we did manage a shore party in the afternoon, accompanied by slices of Colin’s very tasty lemon drizzle cake. The rain began again at night, and in the morning we decided that it was time to go back to the village, take on supplies and head on to the Tuamotos. Our plan started off well, the anchor came up easily and although visibility wasn’t great, we could see the large coral heads and I could follow the track from our journey to Motu Piscine using the wonders of GPS. Things proceeded without a hitch until we were nearing the trickiest part of the track- a narrow passage between two rocks. The wind was coming up, the rain was getting heavier and I was getting concerned about the slight lag between my position and what the GPS showed. I got knocked off course if I slowed down, and I didn’t want to do this stretch unless I could take it carefully. Jim and Colin both agreed with my concerns, so we turned both boats around and entered a nearby bay. We were glad we did, as the rain gushed down in torrents and the winds grew stormy. No katabolic winds this time, but we were happy to be down below, peeling off our sodden wet weather gear (which isn’t as waterproof as we’d like it to be) and waiting out the storm.
Things continued to be blustery for the afternoon. As the light fades, we’re hoping for a calmer day tomorrow, and good winds to carry us north to Fakarava in the next day or two. We’ve really enjoyed it here on Raivavae- it’s a sleepy spot, and a great place to recharge, but the current spell of inclement weather is a little too inclement for our taste, and we’re hoping things might be a bit calmer to the north (right now, the four day ocean passage feels like it might recharge our batteries!).
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.