[090718, 2340 UTC, Rotoava, Fakarava, Tuamotus, French Polynesia; 16°03.54'S / 145°37.26W]
Oa Pou (wah-poh) in the Marquesas Islands is a small, physically-gorgeous mountainous island with a whole flock of Rio-like spires reaching beyond the clouds, and only a dispersed rural population. From a distance, its numerous narrow spikes look like something conjured up by some mad sci-fi artist, a backdrop, other-worldly, floating on the sea.
The most populous port (and village), called Hakahau, is a tiny harbor facing NE made tenable only by its breakwater. We arrived at Hakahau and nearly surfed around the breakwater into the harbor and were surprised at how miniscule it actually was. At anchor were four other vessels and we wiggled our way in and ended up anchoring and then moving three times as swell and gusting catabatic winds and bizarre currents made all of the boats dance a wee bit too snuggly. To our west was a steep mountain with cliffs and skyscraper sized rocks and just outside of the breakwater westbound waves were smashing against these cliffs sending waves up to amazing heights. Disconcerting too was that inside the harbor, along its west edge, young men hooted as they caught the curls of waves and surfed 100 yards away from Carina almost right up to the concrete seawall.
The second morning there, we shared the harbor with not just 7 vessels but also with the immense cargo/cruise ship, the Aranui 3. The arrival of this ship is a big event on an island like Oa Pou and the quai was filled with dozens of 4WD vehicles of all vintages, awaiting cargo. The ship's crane was dropping containers, pallets and cages of mixed boxed cargo as fast as the sweating forklift drivers could move them clear. Private vehicles zipped amongst the dozens of tourists who swarmed off the ship and into the village. Customs officials wandered around with clipboards amongst containers which sat open awaiting inspection. Clouds of frost poured onto the concrete from the holds of refrigerated containers as lists were checked and checked twice, despite the imperative for a speedy conclusion to formalities imposed by the intense tropical sun. A pair of casually dressed gendarmes (who we recognized from our visit to their office the previous afternoon) wandered through the crowd, observing all. The whole process seemed to us incredibly chaotic but within six hours the immense piles of cargo moved off the boat, onto the quai and disappeared into the hills of Oa Pou and the Aranui 3 weighed anchor and steamed off to another island.
We honestly didn't see much of Oa Pou other than from our incredibly gorgeous front row seat aboard. We worked on our departure list and must-do chores and anticipated with just a bit of anxiety our first long passage in two months. Hakahau was lovely, clean and organized and quite verdant, despite the relative dryness of the vigilant mountains above. People we met while walking about (generally looking lost) always smiled, waved and often extended a sincere "kaoha" in our direction. The village consists of modest but neat homes which are surrounded by lush vegetation such as immense breadfruit trees with their deep green monster-hand-shaped leaves. We carted a jerry can to a magasin (grocer) that sold gasoil (diesel) and hunted veggies with little success, though lovely curly leaf lettuce seemed to be widely available.
We had studied guidebooks, charts, tide tables and weather information and we knew we should leave Oa Pou no later than Wednesday July 8 if we wanted to be in a port in the Tuamotus by July 14, the date of La Fete celebrations for the most important national day in French Polynesia which coincides with Bastille Day in France. Right on schedule and with the weather (supposedly) cooperating, we hauled anchor and headed west from Hakahau on July 8. Immediately after clearing the headland, we picked up a screaming easterly which shoved us west until we cleared Oa Pou's channel with Nuka Hiva, dumping us into the immense Oa Pou windshadow. Soon, the trade winds (l'alizes) became dominant and we were propelled towards the our destination in the Tuamotus, almost 550 miles to our southeast.
Our passage of 5 days continued to be spirited and we enjoyed strong winds, though we did have nasty squalls most nights and some days where mixed large and confused seas tended to make Carina corkscrew down 10' waves. (This didn't make Jake very happy.) Our last night at sea, within the dangerous low lying atolls of the Tuamotus, was uneventful but we were both a bit edgy, trusting our instruments and our old French chart to keep us off these low coral islets that have meant disaster to many boats throughout history, even very recent history. (We developed waypoints from electronic charts but even these are not classified as compatible with a GPS.)
Our instrumentation, including our radar and GPS, proved reliable and we flew through the night as squalls often obliterated our moonlight and caused us to continually reduce sail in order to stay under control. We saw little sea traffic though one day, as we were finishing our breakfast in the cockpit, Philip looked up and said "Hello!? There is a ship heading for us". Les said "where?" "Directly in front of us!" An 80-100' steel motor vessel was heading right for us at a distance of about 2 miles. We altered course 20 degrees to starboard and the boat, pitching heavily in the 10' swell, passed our port side at only 100 yards distance, obviously under auto pilot with no one on watch. We thought it strange that you can be sailing in the wide open Pacific with so much room and that you might have a near collision.
The word motu in Tahitian means islet and each Tuamotu is actually a series of islets which are the remnants of the fringing reef of a volcanic island that has, over millennia, eroded or sunk into the sea. Inside the ring of motus is a lagoon (sometimes very large) of clear water whose far horizon is invisible, giving you the sense of being on a totally calm sea.
Fakarava, our first landfall in the Tuamotus, is a relatively large motu at 30 miles long and 10 miles wide. It's northern pass, called Garuae, is the largest pass in the archipelago and allows for visits by both supply and passenger vessels. Despite this, Fakarava still has a small population of about 600 people and the largest village at Rotoava is tiny.
The people of the Tuamotus are Paumotu and speak French and either Tahitian or Paumotu. Historically they have lived off the lagoon's resources and - in a way - continue to do so. We read that fishing within the lagoons is limited by the presence of ciguatera toxin (though we saw many young boys fishing off the concrete dock), but there is bounty in the surrounding waters and fast fishing vessels are common. Now the lagoons are being used to provide the perfect environment for the cultivation of pearls in black oysters, which produce "black" pearls in a wide range of colors from white to pink to green to, of course, black. In addition, the amazing sea life of the clear lagoon water brings divers, especially those seeking the thrill of diving with hundreds of sharks or millions of grouper. Still, though the airport is served by Air Tahiti flights, there are no large resorts and relatively few tourists. Its amazing wild beauty appeals to only certain types of tourists who care not for posh accommodation or dozens of restaurant choices.
We arrived on July 13 just in time for the July 14 "fete" in celebration of Bastille Day. The July 14 fete is only one holiday of the entire Heiva or Tiurai celebration of Polynesian culture held during the month of July. Music, dancing, costumes, plays, crafts demonstrations and sporting competitions (such as outrigger or pirogue racing) are held in an atmosphere of joy and the overpowering scent of tiara flowers. These celebrations are critical for the people to preserve their unique culture and it is clear that Fakarava's people are serious about this.
What was thrilling to us and the few other tourists there that day, was the true hospitality we were shown. We were welcomed by name ("visitors"), given gorgeous leis and asked to share in the food, music and joy of the day. It's impossible for us to recount the entire day's events and we invite you to visit our website which will - soon - have photos of these warm and generous people and their amazing cultural celebration.
Our plan du jour is to travel the 30 miles to the south end of Fakarava and snorkel with sharks before heading on to Tahiti. The last couple of days we've had strong adverse southerly winds that have kicked up serious chop within the lagoon and we'll wait for these to abate so that our conning for coral heads is unimpeded. At Papeete in Tahiti, we'll need to officially check in (and out) and determine our cyclone season plan. This year is predicted to be an El Niņo year which potentially expands the region of risk and the severity of storms and cyclones. No decisions, yet.
Vos amis du bateau Carina,
Philip, Leslie et le beau chat, Jake
At 7/13/2009 and 23:37 UTC (GMT) our position was: 16°03.54'S / 145°37.26'W