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.
Our Pacific Crossing definitely provided us with a major sense of achievement, but it was a lot like “groundhog day” or an endless “slumber party” once we got into the rhythm of it. Days were spent lounging around in our pyjamas on the saloon bed, which we make up for our passages, or in the cockpit. We thought we would have plenty of time to indulge ourselves with our favourite pastimes, like playing the saxophone and writing for Elaine, fishing and reading for Roy and refining our Celestial Navigation skills together, but reading was the only activity we managed. We realised very early on that preserving our energy for our watches was in fact the more prudent thing to do, so downtime was spent catching up on sleep, undertaking normal hygiene activities, cooking / baking and eating.
The beautiful sunny skies and deep blue, flat seas that we were expecting definitely eluded us though. What we got instead was, for the most part, overcast, dull days in a very high south-easterly swell which gave us plenty of challenges around which sails to fly. With our main sail continually slamming in the swell, we eventually had no choice, but to take it down to prevent breakages.
What helped break up the monotony were the dolphins that stopped by from time to time to play in Paw Paw's bows and the excitement around Roy catching the yellowfin tuna on the few occasions he was able to fish, Also, solving the mystery around the very strange lights we kept seeing at night over the horizon, at first thinking it was the moon rising or a cruise ship, only to discover they were associated with huge Chinese fishing vessels trawling with huge fishing nets.
Another highlight of our days at sea were calls to family and friends as far afield as in the USA, England, Ireland and South Africa just to say hello and put their minds at rest that all was well aboard. Our daily contact with the other World ARC yachts via the midday and evening SSB radio net broadcasts helped as well. Although we didn’t see another yacht or the comforting lights of another yacht for days, it was always lovely to hear the familiar voices out there and know that we were not alone is this huge ocean. Add to that a splash of humour during the evening net like Elaine indicating, when prompted, that the only wild life she's seen that day was "Roy running around the deck" and the day ended with laughter.
Our celebrations at sea were numerous. We celebrated everything from St Patrick’s Day to various milestones; the quarter way mark, the halfway mark, the 2000NM line, the 1000NM line.
For our celebration of the 2000NM line, a third of the way, Elaine cooked up a hearty full Irish breakfast including freshly baked soda bread to mark the occasion. For our halfway mark celebration it was the meagre toastie - Toasted cheese sandwiches at lunchtime, followed by a celebratory cocktail at sunset accompanied by smoked mussels, stuffed grapevines, brie on crackers, olives, assorted nuts and the last of our pineapple, to be sure, to be sure we had celebrated the milestone appropriately. For St Patrick's Day we enjoyed a movie night with a hearty homemade chicken soup to warm the cockles of our heart, accompanied by freshly baked soda bread to add some Irish flare.
It's also fair to say, that if anyone had told us 27 years ago, on the day our wonderful son was born, that we would be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in the midst of a circumnavigation, instead of celebrating his birthday with him, we would have said they were smoking something, but indeed we were!
On Elaine's Dad's birthday, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we needed to slow down in order to ensure a daylight arrival and accepted another night at sea, albeit our last one for the crossing. With less than 60NM to go, we sailed under a moonlit sky, in the company of Waterman, another World ARC participating yacht, in order to arrive in Hiva Oa at daybreak. Our sense of achievement mounted with every new mile sailed and we definitely look forward to "Land Ahoy".
With the full moon dipping behind Hiva Oa, Marqueses Islands, to the west, the sun rising to the east and dolphins frolicking in Paw Paw's bows, we crossed the finish line and arrived in paradise. Our first ocean crossing completed in less than 22 days. It was a very emotional time indeed, although somewhat surreal, which was further emphasised when we discovered the most stunning and dramatic scenery as we entered the anchorage of Atuona - Not at all what we were expecting.
We were presented with garlands on our arrival and, during all the officialdom, we had time to catch up with folks from the other yachts who had already made landfall. We then decided that a nice long walk into town to stretch our legs was the next order of the day.
The following day we decided that the Hotel Hanakee Pearl Lodge for some R&R was not only deserved, but definitely needed. A day, high up in the mountains, in a beautiful hotel sporting the most spectacular views, a cool breeze blowing, an infinity pool to relax in and a delicious lunch was just what the doctor ordered, before getting stuck in to give Paw Paw a much needed clean inside and out.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Hiva Oa, visiting the Paul Gauguin Art Museum and his gravesite, perched high on the hillside with spectacular views overlooking Atuona. Elaine also enjoyed her swim with some local children, much to their delight, in a rock pool of the river we had to cross when walking to and from town. The Easter Service at St Anne's Catholic Church which we attended was the most unusual service and it was lovely to hear the singing.