It was on our trip back from the dusty, dry and bustling town of Labasa on the northwest coast of Vanua Levu Island, Fiji that we contemplated the content for our next articles. As we bounced along on one of the local buses, enjoying the spectacular scenery, we decided that a comparison of customs and cultures would, not only take us on a trip down memory lane, but would provide our readers with an insight into these wonderful islands, many of which we feel in love with.
Having enjoyed our time and travels through the French Polynesian Islands with the World ARC “dropouts”, as we were nicknamed, we had already said our goodbyes to Do Over earlier in the month, but, as we set sail from Boro Boro on 6th July 2016, it was time to say our goodbyes to Nina and Kiwi Beanz as well, not knowing when our paths would cross again, given that we were heading on a northerly route to the Samoan Islands via Surwarrow, as they all headed on the southerly route via Palmerston and Nuie to Tonga.
Prior to our passage from Boro Boro, we had made the decision to stop in Surwarrow, a marine reserve of the Cook Islands, given the weather forecasts, but would continue on to American Samoa if conditions dictated. As luck would have it, the forecasted four-day break in the weather was holding, allowing us to make our scheduled stop and we were having one of our best sails since leaving Panama: Sunny blue skies dotted with fair weather cumulus, 5-7 Ft seas, 13-18 Kts of wind and a 0.5 Kt current with us. The wind did lighten though as forecasted, but we entered the lagoon of Surwarrow on 10th July 2016 in completely flat seas, under blue, sunny skies. Entering the pass was a little different though; a bit like swimming back up a flushing toilet. Being escorted by black-tipped sharks all the way to tiny anchorage area was also an odd sight.
Since we were the only yacht there, picking our spot to anchor was a fairly straightforward task and we were soon greeted by the Surwarrow rangers. After initial introductions, the formalities of clearing in were completed efficiently and professionally, following which we received a list of “don’ts” and advise on some of the possible “dos”. It was at this point that some disappointment set in.
We were not allowed to visit any of the other islands rimming the atoll, since the bird population had essentially been desecrated by an infestation of rats and the area was considered ecologically vulnerable, while the Cook Island conservation authorities worked to try and restore it. Also, lobster fishing was no longer possible as this had been over-fished and snorkelling or diving was considered risky, given the shark population that was now present in the lagoon. These were, in fact, all the primary reasons we had looked forward to visiting Surwarrow in the first place.
We did, however, have permission to visit Anchorage Island, where Tom Neale had lived and wrote the book, “An Island to Oneself” and was also the island believed to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”. Regardless of our disappointment, it was clear why. This little island, literally in the middle of nowhere, scattered with coconut palms swaying gently in the breeze, trimmed with the whitest sand we had ever seen and surrounded by the most magnificent shades of turquoise and blue waters, was indeed idyllic.
From Paw Paw we could see the entire circumference of the atoll with the small motos dotted along the reef. After five days at sea, although we were tempted to drop the dinghy and make our way to shore almost immediately, we decided to rather enjoy the scenery and explore the following day. So, instead, we floated just off Anchorage Island and watched the sea life, what was left of the birdlife and the most amazing colours of the water.
While the Society Islands have spectacular waters, the difference here was that the water changed to completely different colours as the day progressed. The sky was multiple shades of the clearest blues as well, making it difficult to distinguish the horizon. We had never seen anything like it. Then, add a turtle that just popped up to take a peek or all the fish that Roy found curiously examining our anchor when he snorkelled to check it and we knew we were in a very special place indeed! One could say we were enchanted by it. What made it extra special was the fact that we were two of only four people in the entire world who occupied it. It was a very strange feeling indeed to be totally alone!
Our first evening was one of the strangest as well. Being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with basically no one else around, there were modern day occurrences that we didn’t need to concern ourselves with. For example, locking up for the night or worrying about a possible theft during the night or having another yacht anchor on top of us or having noisy neighbours or dealing with loud music from ashore that goes on until all hours of the night. There were also thoughts about what one would do in the event of a medical emergency, amplifying the feeling of total isolation, which, while over-powering, was also very liberating.
Our decision not to go ashore on the day we arrived, however, turned out to be a mistake. We realised something was amiss the following morning when we spotted the rangers removing their tender from the water and tying it up to one of the coconut palms on the beach. Further investigations via the VHF radio revealed that they were expecting a storm that would last for at least the next three days. However, after re-examining our weather information, there was absolutely no indication of any impending storm. Needless to say, we spent the next three days trapped in an unprotected anchorage with poor holding - fortunately Paw Paw wrapped herself around a huge rock which held us – bouncing around and wishing we had undertaken our explorations when we had the opportunity, knowing in our hearts, it would not be presented again.
On the final day of the storm, while making arrangements to clear out, we asked the rangers if there was anything they needed; perhaps some food items from our ship’s stores like, flour, sugar or rice. We had a good giggle at the response: “Do you perhaps have any beers?” So, after rummaging around the bilges and uncovering a dozen beers and a bottle of rum, as well as baking them two batches of Irish soda bread, we headed ashore, finally.
Before working our way through the trees to the "house" of the rangers; a very basic, albeit functional open-air building, we stopped to enjoy a walk around the beautiful little beach, which we had been looking at longingly for days, swing in the hammocks and watch the millions of hermit crabs, following which we were warmly welcomed and given a short tour of the premises. This revealed the original building which Tom Neale had built and lived in before his death in 1978 and had been re-purposed as a "book exchange" library. After the clearing out paperwork was completed, we enjoyed a wonderful chat with the rangers and learnt that they were father and son, who spend six months of the year in Surwarrow, primarily to oversee yachts visiting the atoll. Then we encountered the first highlight of our visit to Surwarrow - The rangers showed us an enormous coconut crab. The second highlight didn’t happen until we had made our way back to Paw Paw, where we were greeted by our security detail - our newly adopted black-tipped sharks that had circled the yacht since our arrival.
While floating on a mooring ball in Bora, Bora, the last of the Society Islands we will be visiting before setting sail to American and Western Samoa via Surwarrow, we decided that, providing a sense of all the islands and places of interest which we have had the good fortune of visiting, detailing some of our highlights and encounters with the people and cultures along the way, as well as the sailing limitations and influences which we have experienced, would provide a comprehensive picture of our circumnavigation to date.
It is hard to belief though, that it is 2nd July 2016, Log Day 175 and that almost 6000NM of our 8432NM sailed on Paw Paw since moving on to her in April 2014, has been completed with the World ARC after leaving St Lucia on 9th January 2016. Undoubtedly many of our experiences, both positive and negative, have been influenced by our participation in this rally, but there are just as many that have not.
One of the primary influences of our experience to date has been sailing in the South Pacific during an El Nino year, particularly the weather we have encountered, as well as the lack of general information and, in some cases, misinformation, regarding safe and comfortable anchorages; a matter which has become more and more prevalent with each passing storm.
While we experienced strange weather patterns in the Caribbean Sea this year, like light winds and completely flat seas rounding the Colombian Cape to gale force winds and high seas entering Santa Marta, approaching the San Blas islands, during our passage from Panama to the Galapagos and being woken in the night in the Santa Marta Marina with Paw Paw’s bow bashing into the dock, given the incredibly strong winds that had kicked up, delaying the start of Leg 2, we have certainly wonder “where in the world are we now” and perhaps have entered a parallel universe, where the South Pacific as we know it, is no more. It hasn’t helped matters that many of the sailors whom we have met and who have sailed in these parts for a number of years, have never seen weather like this during the sailing season.
Having crossed the Pacific Ocean, sailing thousands of miles to get to this part of the world, the last thing we were expecting in the Marquesas Islands, for example, was to find most of the anchorages were susceptible to a very uncomfortable swell and torrential rain showers which washed mud and debris down the rivers and into the anchorages. In Fatu Hiva so much mud was washed down that our depth sensor could not register. We battled for two hours to get a reasonably safe spot, but too close for comfort to rocks alongside. The small number of anchorages that were protected had a scattering of residents and no services.
Most of the Society Islands, particularly the leeward islands of Huahine, Tahaa, Raiatea and Bora Bora have very limited anchoring options due to the depth and rocky bottoms of the anchorages, resulting in yachts having to find a mooring ball, of which there are precious few and certainly even fewer on which one would be comfortable riding out a severe storm.
In many instances, the weather has dictated a premature departure from a number of our destinations, curtailing our respite, for example, in all, but one of the Marquesas Islands, Rangiroa in the Tuamotos and again in Tahaa and Raiatea. In other instances, like Huahine, we were storm bound and had no option, but to stay and settle for the best available anchorage with less than ideal characteristics. As the worst of this particular winter storm passed over us, the winds never turned E/ESE as predicted and which would have given us more protection behind the hills. Instead, we endured a night of sustained winds of 27 to 33 Kts, gusting to as high as 39 Kts at one point. Fortunately the sea state was not uncomfortable and Paw Paw held her ground, not dragging an inch. So too did the other yachts in the anchorage, thank goodness! However, just when we thought that this was probably the worst storm we would encounter, including a very rough four hour storm in Rangiroa, where, for the first time ever on Paw Paw, items were flung off the galley countertops and cockpit table, Mother Nature had other ideas.
On our first night in Bora Bora, known as the "Pearl of the Pacific ", we endured the worst storm that either of us has ever encountered. Worse than any storm in South Africa, that we can remember. Worse than any monsoon storm in Phoenix. Worse than tropical storm, Raphael, which we experienced while in St Martin. Worse than the one while in Deshaise, Guadeloupe or Gustavia, St Barths. Worse than the one we had just endured in Huahine two weeks before.
Besides the howling wind, the thunder and lightning could have woken the dead. The torrential rain was so bad we couldn’t see the yachts on the mooring balls next to us and, at times, we couldn't even see beyond the perimeters of Paw Paw's hulls. What made it the worst is that all of this lasted the entire night. It was never-ending!
With all our onboard systems shutdown and our battery bank isolated to help limit damages if we had a lightning strike, Elaine, unable to stand it, eventually went down to her cabin, closed all the blinds, crawled under the covers and prayed for daybreak. Roy, on the other hand, like a sentinel, continued to stand watch to handle the situation if we broke off the mooring ball, as some yachts did.
Additional challenges have included the limited number of passes one can safely use as an all-weather pass when entering, or more importantly, having the ability to leave, the various lagoons. For this reason, we have decided to skip Maupiti.
The weather we have encountered has, for the most part, been completely unpredictable and definitely not reflected or conflicting in the multitude of weather forecasting sources we access, adding another dimension to decisions on whether to stay or leave. On most of our passages we have had no wind, completely flat seas and have had to motor, while on others, we have been flying along at speeds of 12 Kts. We’ve arrived at new destinations like Tahiti just as the heavens opened about an hour after we were settled and didn’t stop raining for a week. On too many occasions, with the unreliable weather forecasts, the wind and the sea state has picked up unexpectedly, giving us lots of uncomfortable and interrupted nights of sleep.
While this point has been laboured, the weather, together with the ability to find safe and secure anchorage are paramount to any sailor and have certainly increased the stress levels aboard Paw Paw on more occasions than we care to remember during this circumnavigation.