An Artist Afloat
Sailing and sketching
Nuku Hiva has been well worth the tricky sail to get here. We've been anchored off the sleepy little town of Taiohae, which boasts a few stores, a craft shop, a number of wood carvers and a few churches. The place is charming, and very genuine. It's not unusual to see someone riding their horse to the post office. Shirts are optional, traditional tattoos are almost compulsory, and boar tusk necklaces are not just worn to impress the tourists. There are hardly any tourists in any case- the place becomes busy when the Aranui is docked, then quickly returns to its usual state of dozy tranquility.
The anchorage is rather rolly, but the holding is good and there's enough to explore that it's worth putting up with the swaying. There's a little quay where we can tie up the dinghy; it's also used by the bonito boats, and we often watch the fishermen unloading their catch. There's a snack, which serves good poisson cru, tasty pastries and delicious pomelo juice, and is always full of locals and yachties (the decent wifi is an added draw). A couple of doors down are the yacht services, where Kevin does laundry and offers assistance with paperwork and parts deliveries.
On Sunday, we went to church. The entrance belongs to a tropical fairy tale- an inviting gateway with turrets, leading to a garden full of tropical blossoms. The cathedral is built of stones brought from each of the archipelagos of French Polynesia, and filled with intricate Marquesan wood carvings. Below the roof are open sides, letting in the light and the breeze. Swifts and song swirl beneath the rafters, as the a cappella choir weave magic in French and Marquesan. Sometimes guitar, drums and ukulele are used as an accompaniment, but they just seem to dilute the whole effect- the magic is in the voices alone. After mass, the congregation retreats to the outer courtyard where pastries and bread pudding are sold under shady marquees. The small children who squawked, complained and pestered their brothers through the service are carted off home, and a few people remain to share gossip beneath the trees. I loitered and sketched until the sun became too hot and we retreated to the snack for a cold juice.
Tohua Koueva is an old communal site up in the hills, in the shade of towering banyan trees. Getting there involves a couple of kilometres of walking upwards, and those inevitable moments when you begin to wonder if the climb will be worth it. In this case- yes it was. The site itself was beautiful, shady, lush and green. The extensive meeting platforms have been restored, and huts have been reconstructed to give a feel for what the site was like a few hundred years ago. There was a film crew there; two intrepid souls had swam from the neighbouring island of Ua Pou to Nuku Hiva, and were now exploring their ancestral and spiritual roots. One of the film crew, Pascal, took an interest in my sketching and took some time to tell me a bit about the site. I was surprised there were no other tourists there, he answered that they don't often get this far. He didn't mind, it allows the local population to enjoy it and connect with their culture. We spent the whole morning there, sketching and exploring, searching for tiki sculptures and absorbing the ambience. I'd happily go back- armed with a small vat of insect repellant!
I've also been working on a series of sketches of tiki. You can find the series so far here!
What do you think of when you hear the words 'Bora Bora'? My mind turns to a kind of ultimate luxury- movie stars with cocktails, gourmet restaurants and white sand that you're not allowed to sit on unless you've paid a hefty premium and have a name that's appeared on film credits. So I has a few reservations about cruising there for long- would we be able to afford to do anything? Would we feel out of place? Would we be allowed within a mile of any of the flash resorts? Would they move us on as soon as we dropped anchor, as I'd heard on some of the other islands.
It turned out that private boat was the best way to see the island and the motu fringing the lagoon. We could move between anchorages, find great views and carry out a search for the best chocolate lava cake on the island. White beaches could be ours for the cost of a drink and we could enjoy sundowners without breaking the bank. Whilst I'm sure I would love the luxury of an overwater bungalow, they're generally built over sand- so don't necessarily offer the best snorkelling. We, on the other hand, could swim off the boat to nearby reefs or take the dinghy to find the best spots, and then spend as long as we liked in the water without being hauled out by impatient tour guides keeping to an itinerary.
I drew a map soon after our arrival- trying to integrate two different cruising guides and recommendations from the Lonely Planet. It helped us get our bearings and create a rough plan- a couple of days anchored off the main island, then down to Motu Tupua in the South West, followed by a journey up and over to explore the lagoon to the east and the south.
After living in the boat yard on Raiatea, we felt like we had earned the incredible dinner and views at the Bora Bora Yacht Club. Fresh bread with melting butter, delicious tuna and of course that lava cake- my taste buds were in ecstasy. We also had the pleasure of watching the sun set behind Island Prism- and watched the other diners taking photos of her. We were pretty happy she'd been scrubbed up for the occasion!
We then moved a little farther south to Mai Kai. They offered mooring balls for $30 a night, which included use of their infinity pool. It seems very silly to enjoy a pool so much after months of world class snorkelling- maybe the relaxing poolside loungers helped, maybe it was the fact I could just float on my back and gaze up at the sky. The wifi was good enough to catch up on a few internet jobs, and we splashed out on dinner again (the lava cake wasn't quite as fluffy as the one from BBYC, but went very nicely with a glass of St Emilion). And the sunset really came out to play.
The anchorage down at Motu Tupua was lovely, The snorkeling was ok, and although the condition of the coral wasn't great, I saw lots of fish. The real draw was the view of the peaks of Bora Bora and the colours of the water in the lagoon. I pulled out my acrylics to try to capture the wonderfully intense shades or turquoise and blue. They're an interesting choice for a sketchbook- they can stay slightly sticky when dry, so it's not a great idea to use them on both pages of a spread, but the rich colours were exactly what I needed. And my beloved luminous watercolours found a home on each facing page.
The east side was one of the highlights of Bora Bora. The motu were home to some very exclusive hotels, so we didn't go ashore, but we loved the view and the amazing snorkelling just a short dinghy ride away. We spent hours swimming with manta rays- up to seven in a group- and clouds of up to thirty eagle rays. The underwater ballet held us mesmerised. The coral was beautiful and there were plenty of fish, including the majestic Napoleon wrasse, but the rays were the stars of the show. Every day we emerged from the water after hours of swimming, exhilarated and with fingers like prunes.
Of course, the rays appeared in my sketchbook, and were recreated in watercolour form. The patterns on their back reminded me of the swirling koru patterns of Maori art, so each of my mantas got a little Polynesian twist- as did some of the landscape!
We negotiated the route between coral heads to reach the very southern tip of the lagoon. We anchored off the Sofitel Private Resort and used the dinghy to get through the little pass to Matira Point. The resorts here were very nice, and a little less exclusive than the overwater bungalows out on the motu. We visited the Sofitel bar for happy hour, and were shown to a table that would have a great view of the dance show later that evening. I drew my drink and was soon asked to draw the bartender, who was very pleased with the sketch I gave her. The dancers were amazing- with their sinuous movements, I'm sure they have joints in places I don't. I tried some gesture drawings- the only way to try to capture the rapid motions of the dance, and snapped some reference photos to attempt some more colourful sketches later.
On the way back to Prism, the channel lights guided us and we thought we'd gone far enough into deep water to avoid the reef. Sadly not- we struck coral, I managed to lift the engine before any harm was done but we had a gash in the bottom of the dinghy. Thank heavens for our new dinghy pump- Jim spent the last portion of the journey bailing out. The next day we moved back round to our anchorage near the manta rays. Our friends Trish and John on Lumiel joined us and we snorkeled, followed by delicious coffee and bacon butties on their catamaran. They even let me use their warm shower. As the sign on their boat says, 'It doesn't get any better than this!'
So after my initial reservation, it was hard to leave. I hope I'll make it back one day- those manta rays and the chocolate lava cake at the Bora Bora Yacht Club are calling.
(If you're a fan of the manta rays, they're appearing over on Redbubble with some of the other wonderful creatures I've met through Polynesia. Take a peek at Redbubble, or contact me for information about the originals!)
I'm sitting outside on deck at Huahine, the first of the Leeward Islands. Someone ashore is playing the ukelele, there's some beautiful singing and the sun is coming up, making the water glow teal and gold. We arrived here from Moorea yesterday after a fast but rocky overnight passage- both seasickness and the number of freighters to dodge increased after dark.
Jim’s brother Bill has come to stay with us for a fortnight. We're enjoying having someone else on board, and he's being very tolerant of the cozy conditions on Prism and my tendency to draw lots!
We took Prism round to Haapiti, a gorgeous anchorage with a renowned surf wave breaking on the reef by the pass. Prism anchored on a spit of white sand near a sharp slope, surrounding us with every conceivable colour of blue, and had an incredible view of Moorea’s towering peaks. Eagle rays and sting rays cruised past the boat regularly, and in the pass we snorkeled with turtles and reef fish, and regularly sighted the resident pod of common dolphins, numbering about 50.
Lacking a board, we couldn't surf the wave, but Jim enjoyed swimming round the edges whilst I floated in the dinghy and watched the surfers. Huge waves leave me a bit wary, but I was very happy swimming through the more tranquil turquoise waters to get back to Prism.
Once again it all seemed idyllic- until a man decided I really needed to see his private parts when I was on the dock. He made it very clear what he'd like me to do next, and though he never tried to touch me I was very happy when the dinghy engine started straight away and I could get back to Prism. The dock was secluded and I was nervous about going back by myself, so poor Jim and his ankles were forced to make the traipse to the store with me, in between applying paint and new anti-skid to the cockpit floor (and playing in the waves whilst we waited for layers to dry).
Our cruise back round to Opuhonu Bay brought back Moorea’s wow factor. The pod of dolphins were out in force as we left Haapiti, and we saw a pair of humpback whales not far from the entrance to the pass. We were watching them when a huge whale breached near Prism, in an amazing explosion of water and animal. He remained airbourne for a surprising amount of time, reentering with a huge plume of foam. And then he floated, serene after his huge expulsion of energy. I hopped in the water and he slowly swam towards me- and started singing. He looked at me as he swam past, then dove down into the blue. I stayed, hanging in the water, listening to his song long after he had vanished from sight.
Rounding the northwest corner of the island we found more whales - a mother and calf this time. It was Jim’s turn to swim, so he joined a group of snorkelers from one of the commercial tour boats. The baby was in playful mode, waving flukes and fins out of the water, totally unconcerned by the little creatures floating nearby. It was enchanting to watch, even from the distance of the boat. Eventually mother stuck her tail above the water and gave the sea a gentle slap- a sign that playtime was over. She and her little one dove and we continued on our way, buzzing from our amazing encounters.
We stocked the fridge with ice and relaxed for a few days before we returned to Tahiti to collect Bill. Our whale adventures were not over, however. As we cruised east, the mother and baby appeared again. Jim got Prism out the way whilst I swam over. The little one eyed the swimmers with curiosity whilst mum hovered nearby. They made a short dive and returned to the surface, where the calf had a short rest on mum's nose before flopping off and playfully flapping his fins in the air. He swam close to check out this strange creature in the water with him, before returning to mum’s side to play some more. We decided to leave them in peace and continued on our way- to meet another individual who greeted us with a spectacular breach, followed by a massive tail lob. We admired the theatrics from a safe distance- tail lobs are probably warning behaviour- and continued to Tahiti where laundry, bike shopping and supermarkets awaited us.
We reprovisioned, collected Bill and returned to Moorea. The whales gave him a brilliant welcome- a mother and calf were resting under the water, occasionally popping up to breathe. They were shallow enough to be visible from the surface, and weren't worried by our presence during their surface intervals. Taking turns to keep Prism at a safe distance, we hung in the water and watched them relaxing, the calf feeding and snuggling up to its mum beneath us.
Our attempts to go hiking were impaired by rain, and in the end we decided to attempt the Ancestors’ Trail despite the regular showers. Sometimes it felt like we were walking through a stream, and the cascades alongside the trail were swollen, but the path was well maintained and safe so we had no difficultly reaching the marae and the lookout up at the Belvedere. The fickle weather chose that moment to give us a sunny spell, with the clouds fringing the dramatic view over Cooks and Opunohu Bays.
We restocked the fridge with ice, bought some of the delicious fresh fruit available on Moorea and pointed Prism towards Huahine, an overnight sail. Jim extolled the wonderful trade winds, but wave trains from the south and the easy threw Prism about and created an uncomfy ride. Luckily a bout of seasickness did not impair my ability to keep watch- a freighter approached and changed on to a collision course, but did not seem to notice us or respond to our hails on the radio. We can only assume that the crew were asleep or lazy, and we'd turned on all the deck lights and should have been showing in their AIS system. A gybe took us out of harm's way, and we continued on course when the snoozing vessel had passed. More freighters and cruise ships followed, all maintaining a healthy distance. The sea calmed a little around dawn and I managed to get a little sleep before Jim brought us through the pass to anchor near the little town of Fare, where we have a whole new island to explore.
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.
An Artist Afloat- Painting the world one anchorage at a time.