June 2000 : The Marquesas



We had viewed the prospect of the 3,000 mile passage from the Galapagos to the Marquesas with some awe – it is a huge chunk of ocean – a significant chunk of the world. In the event we had a blissful passage. The sailing was brilliant. With favourable winds and current most of the way, we made excellent daily runs and some stupendous ones – our best, 179 miles in one day! The seas, though not always entirely smooth, were never anything like as boisterous as those we encountered on our Atlantic crossing. The squalls were few, insignificant and benign. The dolphins were abundant and lively, leaping typically up to eight foot in the air. Flying fish abounded – we usually found several on deck in the morning, together with a few squid. We ate a couple of the flying fish – tiny but delicious. We also caught as many big fish as we wanted to eat – tuna and dorado. During the whole passage we encountered only four commercial vessels. Two were (Chris is convinced) Korean fishing boats, which appeared suddenly out of nowhere, on both occasions apparently heading straight for us. The second passed about three hundred yards behind us, turned beam on to us and simply stopped. Very spooky. A salutory experience – both appeared during daylight hours and we realised that our daytime watch keeping is not the rigorous routine it is at night. The only other potential danger in that huge and empty (apart from us) stretch of ocean was the American space station being brought down to earth at that time, in that area. This we also managed to avoid – or vice versa?

One of the more surprising features of the Pacific passage was its terrific sociability. We left the Galapagos with a dozen other boats over a six day period, and all kept in touch by radio a couple of times a day. Although between us we spanned around 1000 miles from first to last, we actually encountered two of these boats in the middle of the ocean, as we were passed by one, and overtook the other – Vagabond. It was an extraordinary experience to rendezvous right in the middle of the Pacific – 1,500 miles away from any land – with people we knew! Quite apart from the safety aspect of having other boats ‘nearby’ and knowing where we all were, it created a race - of sorts. A ‘race’ has been defined as any two yachts sailing within sight of each other. Radio contact effectively extended our line of sight, and we were all avidly recording each other’s positions at least once a day, calculating and comparing daily runs. This provided just the incentive we needed to keep up the pace, sailing the boat as fast as possible all the time – we certainly would not want to have been outdone by any other boat of similar size. We completed the voyage in just under 21 days, at an average speed of just under 6 knots – not bad we thought. Frustratingly, after a few slowish days towards the end, the wind picked up on the final day and we then had to slow down to avoid arriving in the dark. All in all it was a most delightful and positive experience. A final highlight for us was – halfway across - to hear news of the birth of Kate’s baby – Sam – via the radio and email from another yacht. Wonderful news to hear mid-Pacific!!

We made landfall in Fatu Hiva, the most easterly and remote island of the Marquesas group in French Polynesia. The bay of Hanavave is exotic beyond our dreams. We have never seen anywhere like it – a stunning reward for our longest ever ocean passage. Scenically it is breathtaking – a deep inlet with sheer sided hills and rock pinnacles and soaring palm trees. Going ashore, we found delicate outrigger canoes hauled up on the beach, a little church and road leading to the village. The village itself was actually quite a surprise – not that we knew what to expect – but probably not a well maintained concrete road, neat and colourful gardens and smart bungalow type dwellings, set incongruously in the spectacular and exotic landscape of the towering peaks of the narrow sided valley. Unvisited by anyone other than yacht people, the islanders were as interested in us as we are them and there was a great deal of contact between us. The island is extremely verdant and there was plenty of fruit for us to buy or barter for, although we found that our bartering skills left much to be desired. It was hard to get our heads around the concept of forgetting monetary value to focus on availability and need. We swopped a drill bit for several ‘pamplemouse’ – the huge and delicious sweet grapefruit grown on the island - and felt well satisfied – as did the stone carver on the other side of the bargain! We had an idyllic time in this idyllic place. It is hard to convey how the very remoteness of the place permeates its atmosphere – it is an incredible sensation just to be there - we have never experienced such a feeling of being in another world. It is not difficult to understand why Thor Heyerdahl chose this place as the location for his 1930s experimental island idyll - described in his book ‘Return to Nature’.

From there, after a brief stay on the island of Tahuata - more pastoral than Fatu Hiva – we moved on to the larger island of Hiva Oa. We anchored off the town of Atuona (population 1,500) the official eastern port of entry into French Polynesia. Formalities were simple. Luckily for us, the previous requirement for visiting yacht crew to post a bond of a sum equivalent to their air fare home, had just been abolished for EU nationals. All we had to do was to give the very French gendarme a few basic details – an amusing experience on two counts. Obviously not a yachting afficianado, he solemnly recorded the make of our boat as ‘Albert Grassy’! More entertaining was his uniform – very smart above the waist – crisp blue shirt with epaulettes, gendarme cap – the effect hilariously ruined by ridiculously miniscule official-issue shorts! The sight of these gendarmes continued to entertain us throughout French Polynesia! Hiva Oa – another island of spectacular rugged mountain ridges - was somewhat more sophisticated than Fatu Hiva - the French colonial presence more obvious. We weren’t quite the novelty we had been and enjoyed the more westernised facilities of the town – in particular gorging ourselves on astoundingly expensive hamburgers – to satisfy a craving for real meat which simply could not be denied after so long without. French Polynesia is unfortunately wildly expensive. Strange to have come straight from the cheapest place we have ever visited – to the most expensive. Fuel and meals are both more than ten times as expensive here as in the Galapagos. How these economies work is quite baffling.

We spent a happy week there engaged on the usual mix of cultural and domestic activities. The former included a long walk to the archeological site at Ta’aoa. Hidden in the jungle overgrowth it was quite hard to find – but when we did, quite stunning, with its stone platforms – ‘pae pae’, altars and ‘tiki’. The locals apparently don’t much like to come to such places – some are ‘tabu’. They certainly exude a mysterious and eyrie atmosphere. Poking around the tree roots, fruit trees and exotic ferns growing up amongst the ruins, it was as if we had discovered the remains ourselves. We also enjoyed a look at the tiny museum devoted to the artist Paul Gauguin, who spent his final years on this island.

From Hiva Oa to Oa Pou, the highest and most spectacular island of the Marquesas, with its dramatic volcanic ‘plugs’ – fantastical pinnacles of rock sticking up out of the centre of the island. Oa Pou is noted for its culture and sport. Our stay there fortunately coincided with a couple of events giving us the opportunity to see something of these. The supply/passenger ship the ‘Aranui’- of Paul Theroux ‘Happy Isles of Oceania’ fame - arrived in port from Papeete the day after us. This was quite a village event, with a special welcome for the passengers and a dancing display. Even better, we were there for the final dress rehearsal of the Oa Pou dance troupe’s entry for the 14 July celebrations in Tahiti – a memorable event attended mainly by the performers’ parents – with dancing ranging from a ferocious ‘haka’ type war-dance, to the girls’ captivating ‘bird’ dance, accompanied by chanting, huge drums and a strange wailing horn.

Now we are in Nuku Hiva, the largest island of the group. The anchorage, like many of the others here is deep and rolling – but we are surrounded by more majestic Marquesan mountain peaks – in the caldera of a volcano. We are off tomorrow for a tour of the interior where there are more archeological remains of the former Marquesan civilisation

– Tikis, stone carvings and the remains of houses and ceremonial buildings. The disappearance of this civilisation is tragic. The population of the Marquesas Islands has diminished from some 80,000 in the days of Captain Cook to only 8,000 now – having at one time fallen as low as 2,000 – the deaths caused by introduced diseases and weapons. This sparsity of people is very evident today – the population of Taiohae, the largest ‘town’ and capital is under 2,000. It all adds to the unique and remote feel of these islands – so far away from anywhere else.

Here we are anchored in Baie Taiohae, Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas. We can still hardly believe we’re actually in the South Pacific. We love it – it must be the nearest place to heaven – we might never go home!