10 July 2010
Approaching Tahiti after four months of seeing mostly open ocean was a sight not to be forgotten. The ancient volacano island rises almost 7,000 feet into the clouds spilling lush vegetation all the way down the the main port town of Papeete. French Polynesia and its islands cover an area of the pacific nearly equal to that of the continental US with only one international airport and big tanker harbor both of which are on the north side of the island. We nearly got ran over first by a huge Chinese tanker then a ferry heading to Moorea as we stared in awe at our surroundings. Hadn’t seen boat traffic like this since the Panama canal. Sensory overload lasted for the first couple days as we moored off of the busy strip downtown where cars and trucks rushed by at speeds we had only seen birds dive into the ocean at and the street markets bustled with black pearl vendors that we had seen harvested for the past month in the tranquil waters of the tuamotuan atolls.
After four months of greatness it was nearly time for the ‘old man’ Ross to head back to what some call the real world, but as there was strike going with the French working so hard to stack tires in front of government buildings and block roads and even closing the international airport we thought ross might stay with us for a bit longer. If the French could only work so hard at their normal jobs as they would with striking what a place France could be. Alas the strike was lifted the day of Ross’s flight and we went on one last surf that morning on a black sand beach break. There was jazz band set up in front of the megayachts at the marina that night and we spent ross’s last minutes drinking hinanu from a keg and gauking at the multimillion dollar yachts with masts so tall they needed aviation lights so airplanes wouldn’t hit them. We wished him off to the airport then bonged the keg dry in his memory introducing the Europeans on hand to our Midwestern drinking custom.
As much as Tahiti is a milestone and place to celebrate on a Pacific Ocean crossing it is as much a place to get badly needed work done on the boat. For the first time since Panama there was a proper chandlery for buying boat parts, a rigger, sailmaker, stainless steel welder, and countless shops to rebuild motors or fabricate the random piece that a sailboat might need. I started by taking off the autopilot which needed a piece welded and in the process found/broke three other issues that now also needed to be addressed. There was a regatta (sailboat race) of 70 sailboats, all who were crossing the Pacific this season, that was leaving the next morning for Moorea, the next island to the west, and with Bubbles discombobulated and with broken lower shroud I made the decision to ride on a friends boat and return after the regatta.
That night all the sailboaters in Tahiti were invited to City Hall for a welcoming ceremony and a debriefing for the rendezevous the next day. There was probably a couple hundred of us and the free beer, wine and food they served in the lavish marble building was promptly devoured. Half way through the ceremony all the captains were invited to step forward and a Tahitian chief came and gave us a traditional blessing followed by a dozen Tahitian girls dancing wearing grass skirts and flower headdresses. ‘Baby got back’ may be American but Polynesian women sure know how to shake it. Somewhere in the midst of the party with all the talk and excitement of the regatta the following day I decided Bubbles must go. The party went on into the streets and into the night and it was only when I woke up after a couple hours of sleep that I realized I told everyone Bubbles was going. Diego and I scrambled to put away all the tools and parts that were scattered around the boat. There were already several boats coming by us on the way to the starting line outside the pass when a bearded norweigen friend of mine, sven, from another boat approached and asked for a ride. Word was out that the winds were heavy that day and several boats had backed out of the regatta that morning including his. I told him to hop on and we cast the dock lines away and headed for the reef pass.
Excitement filled the air with the all the raising of sails and boat movement around us. Winds were forecast at 25-30 knots and with a bad stay holding up the mast I knew I would have to be conservative with my sail area. As we left the pass and approached the starting line, which was marked by a committee boat decorated with flags, we nearly collided with two other boats who were circling just behind the line trying to get into the best position possible when the start flag was dropped. It dropped and were off. Because we were still in the lee of the massive island of Tahiti winds were still light but the faster boats already were taking there edge. We saw boats in front of us heeling as much as 50 degrees meaning big winds were ahead. Diego, Swen and I looked at each other and knew we had to put another reef in. Diego went to the mast to control the main halyard and Swen took the reefing lines on the boom while I pointed the boat up into the wind so we could drop some of the mainsail. As I pointed up the bow crashed into a wave of the south swell that was coming up in between Tahiti and Moorea and Sven nearly went overboard. It was now blowing over 20 and increasing. Press boats were driving by and we posed for a picture which we later saw in the Tahiti news paper. We were slicing along the waves at hull speed between 7 and 8 knots. After sailing over 4000 miles of the pacific and with most time spent as the only boat in visible range to see now over 50 surrounding us, most under full sail, moving along at max speed through 12 foot waves was an amazing sight.
Moorea, like Tahiti, is an old volcano island lush with tropical green jungle and spires raising from its base to over 3,000 feet causing the wind to funnel around the island and downs it slopes. We saw one boat’s sails hit the water as a wind gust overpowered the vessel causing its mast to kiss the top of wave. Winds were now up to 30 knots with gusts of 35. It was time to reef our jib. Diego and Sven climbed on deck and pulled together on the furling line but to no avail. The furler had been jamming up lately but now was not the time for it to happen as we approached the reef of Moorea and with too much sail up we would be sucked into the wind and onto the reef. I pointed the boat downwind, left the helm, and jumped on deck to assist. What should take one man took three but we got it in. We had to motortack into the pass and could see the anchorage already full of the faster boats. We saw our friends on the large ferro cement boat Infinity. We decided to raft up (tie along side without using our anchor) with them but with the winds still howling into the bay even they were having trouble hooking. We followed them to the other side of the bay where they were able to settle in and tied our lines on their port side.
Infinity is the coolest boat ive come across yet complete with its own library, workshop and laser lit dancefloor. At well over 100 feet in length it is the largest concrete sailboat in the world and has quite a colorful history. Scattered about its many rooms and hallways are wooden carvings and shells that have been collected over the years on its multiple circumnavigations. But it’s the people and not just the boat that really give the flavor, and Infinity has plenty. When I first met them there were 20 on board from all over the world that ranged from a group of irish lads building cell phone towers to a Harvard grad doing marine research to a German anarchist who hated clothing to a French film maker preparing a documentary on the upcoming solar eclipse. People were constantly coming and going from the boat with some having been there for over a year, others only a few days and even others that would arrive having been on the boat two years prior and couldn’t resist the lure to return. On Bubbles’ first day rafted I watched the departure of an American from Philidelphia. There was weeping, drinking, laughing, dancing and then came the dragging.
Anchoring your sailboat is like tying up your horse. You don’t want your horse to get up and walk away without you at the reins and when your boat does lose its hook from the bottom we call it dragging. The winds had been blowing a constant 25 knots out of the south when we first hooked and in the midst of the celebration clocked around to the north and was gusting at 40 knots. Several of us immediately came on deck as our senses to wind shifts had grown quite acute with our time on the water and sure enough we were dragging straight towards the rocks with only a boatlength of water between us and the shore. I jumped on Bubbles and with the help of others untied and motored with full power away from the shore. A wind gust hit and took the bow to port. The engine wasn’t enough to overcome and straighten out so I turned with it now trying desperately to get between Infinity and the rocks without hitting my keel on the bottom. Under full power and now sailing under bare pole we squeezed through and somehow avoided being smashed on the rocks. After some effort Infinity was able to hook again and I again asked permission to raft. Permission granted and this time I climbed aboard with a bottle Nicaraguan rum I had saved for a special occasion. I apologized as I thought that my extra weight from Bubbles had caused Infinity to drag but when they told me Infinity weighs 150 ton I realized that the little 8 ton Bubbles wouldn’t make a significant difference. Later that night, this time with everyone in full party mode and wind gusts of 45 knots, we drug again. Once again Bubbles was untied and disaster was averted. We rerafted in the middle of the bay and the partied continued into the wee hours of the morning.
With the skies clearing and the sun rising we now had a full view of the majestic Moorea. A rainbow appeared over the jagged peaks and it was now time to go exploring. We rounded up eight of us took the dingy to shore. Represented in the group of four girls and four boys was Germany, Ireland, UK, Canada, France and myself as the sole American. Our first stop was at a shrimp farm where we asked directions to the mountain top. Along the way, Jean Claude, a Frenchman who had been living in these islands for 7 years stopped and showed us a passion fruit tree. We ate our fill and hadn’t gone five more minutes then he showed us a papaya tree. This continued with a multitude of fruits, many of which I don’t know the name in English, until we arrived at an ancient marae which is where the Polynesians had made human sacrifices up until only a couple short centuries before. There he introduced to a bush with an inedible fruit that looked like a small plumb with soft spikes. Inside the fruit were red seeds that when smashed made a bright red paste. Within 10 minutes all of us had our shirts off with red war paint on from head to toe. The girls did a great job around my nipples and Tobias, the 6’4 german, had the anarchy symbol proudly painted on his chest and had found himself a spear. Bubbles also provided its four machetes to the group to weild as we hiked through the bush. Any Polynesian we passed along the path was all smiles to us as we hooped and hollered in any language but one he could understand.
Reaching the first viewpoint we could see the very bay that Captain Cook had anchored in over 200 previously and where now sat the speck of Bubbles tied to the much bigger Infinity. We posed for a group a picture with some Philipinos we had met when we heard a crash. Tobias had jumped out of a tree with a branch coming down onto a wild chicken. The ‘Lord of the Flies’ mentality was starting to set in. We starting running wild through the jungle trails reaching a waterfall.
Being the first one there I stripped down to my whity tities and began to climb the falls using vines that like the water cascaded from the top down to the base. Tobias was close behind and one-upped me getting completely naked. We were now deep in the wild of Moorea being hours of hiking from the shore where we had left the dingy on a beach. When we got to the top of the falls we could already hear another one around the corner. I ran back to the ledge to see if the others were coming. They didn’t want to risk the climb so Tobias and I proceeded. The jungle was dense and without the path of the stream and inviting vines of the falls to climb them there would be no way up through the thickness. The falls continued one after another each more inviting than the last. We walked on moss that was softer than carpet and stopped to bathe in water so fresh your skin could drink it. We never looked back and only ahead for the next set of falls straining our ears for how far ahead it was. We could only see a few feet in front of us so immense was the life there. Surely no one had been there before for there were so many logs across the stream a body couldn’t fit through and as we climbed through them they would break with the slightest touch showing the fragile time capsule they protected. It felt like a different time. A time where nothing mattered except being there and alive in nature. One triple cascade in particular I remember we stopped at had natural stone formations that were perfect for reclining. I cant remember how long we layed there letting the water run over our bodies; it could have been 5 minutes or two hours. I wanted to sell Bubbles and stay there forever exploring each waterfall. If this was but one stream there must be hundreds more waterfalls all over the island. We would lay on our bellies and open our mouths letting the water rush in drinking as much sweet water as we desired. We continued on and came upon a small clearing where we could see the side of a cliff up ahead. We knew we were now close to the source and determined to reach it pushed on at a faster pace knowing that we would have to get out of the jungle before dark or be stuck there until the next day. The vegetation seemed to grow greener and the vines now all spiraled around themselves like huge sticks of licorice. The water was now diverging into separate paths and we always followed the larger stream until suddenly it disappeared at the base of huge boulders. We climbed the large stones and Tobias waved me over to a crack in the rocks where he was kneeled down with his ear to the ground. I did the same and could hear the sweetest sound of water gurgling up from somewhere deep in the mountain. We had found the source and growing out of it was the largest fern I have ever seen. It was 30 feet in diameter and each stalk was the size of small tree trunk. Tobias and I high fived at our discovery, then realized that the others were still waiting at the first waterfall. We rushed back down the path we had conquered sometimes jumping and sometimes sliding down the string of waterfalls that we had just recently marveled at on the way up. When we got close to the original falls we began making tarzan calls to alert the others of our return. One of the French girls covered me in mud, which I thoroughly enjoyed, for making them wait nearly three hours in a cave beneath the falls. The rest of the hike back I felt what I would imagine someone on cocaine might feel like with a boundless amount of energy I felt like I could run up and down the mountain 10 times. That was a good day…