Danger & Elation
27 June 2008 - 31 December 2008
Written 6th November and 26-31 December 2008
Oh my. To read those words again as I write this...
Alene and I have gone from voyaging across thousands of miles of open blue water, to threading between coral heads in Polynesian atolls.
From remote anchorages with not a boat or person in sight, to the freeways of Los Angeles.
From a world where finding an affordable fresh vegetable was a great surprise, to American supermarkets spilling produce into the aisles.
From feeling ashamed of my country’s policies, to swelling with pride and hope at her achievements.
What a voyage.
French Polynesia is big. Thousands of miles of open ocean dotted with volcanic islands and coral atolls. There are five island groups scattered over 2,500,000 square kilometers (965,255 sq. mi). That's about the size of the United States west of the Rockies.
The Marquesas are in the far northeast. The Australs in the south. The Gambier in the southeast. The Society Islands (Tahiti, Moorea, Bora Bora, etc.) are in the west central area. Lastly, leading northwest from the Gambier is a thousand-mile long archipelago comprised of scores of coral atolls: The Tuamotus, known for centuries as the Dangerous Archipelago.
You'll notice I said the Tuamotus consist of scores of atolls. It's an important point because atolls are a very unique type of island.
An atoll is a ring-shaped reef of coral left after a volcanic island has subsided into the sea. The ring encircles a lagoon that may be 1 mile, or 20 miles, across. There may be passes through the ring that allow boats or ships to enter the lagoon. Over millennia, sand (tiny bits of coral ground down by the waves) builds up on parts of the reef. This land then becomes home to plants, some few animals, birds, and people. These atolls are only a few feet above sea level and the tallest things on them are coconut palms. That makes them very difficult to see. Add complex currents to the mix and over the centuries hundreds of ships have been destroyed on the reefs. That’s why it is called the Dangerous Archipelago.
So, even with GPS, the Dangerous Islands are still, well, dangerous. But they are also one of the most amazing places we've visited. Danger and elation. To explain a little better I’ve made a chart:
On top of that, communicating with the locals can be challenging (well, for me, that is… my pronunciation of French was certainly entertaining to those we met – thank goodness Alene is fluent!), eating is challenging (the possibility of ciguatera from reef fish, high prices, few vegetables), relaxing can be challenging (we’re in the sometimes boisterous trade winds which blow 24 hours a day, there are often thunderstorms and squalls), and if you don't have what you need to repair the boat, you probably won't find it anywhere.
This is the world we sailed into as we left the Gambier in our wake on 26 June.
Pauline, a student we'd met in the Gambier, had invited us to her home on Tatakoto – a remote atoll with only 200 villagers. There’s no pass into the lagoon so the anchorage is on the coral shelf on the outside edge of the atoll. Not the best anchoring. That, and the atoll’s remote location 400 miles north of the Gambier on the eastern edge of the Central Tuamotus, is why the last sailboat visited Tatakoto four years before.
The anchoring did feel dangerous to us. So I stayed aboard while Alene swam ashore on a pool raft (to the great amusement of the locals). She spent the day meeting Pauline’s family, touring the island, and being showered with gifts. She returned to the boat with a whole tuna, an octopus, wood carvings, shell necklaces, woven handbags and hats. The tales of generosity of the Polynesian people are definitely true.
An overnight sail brought us to Hao; once the site of a large military base. It has a long lagoon with a pass big enough for ships. Still, it was exciting sailing against the outgoing tide—our progress sometimes slowed to less than half a knot with three-foot standing waves just off the beam. It wasn’t really all that dangerous, but, considering how slow we were going, it was surprisingly exciting.
Hao is not often visited by cruisers as it’s still a bit far south for most of the boats on the normal route through French Polynesia (which runs across the Northern Tuamotus from the Marquesas to Tahiti). We stayed at Hao for a week and a half and were the only boat there. We made friends with some fun locals: Tonino, Maimiti and Parua. We shared dinners at their home and waffles aboard Migration. We rode bikes, snorkeled and just kinda hung out.
14th July is Bastille Day in France—loosely equivalent to the 4th of July in the United States. It’s celebrated throughout the French Territories, or so we thought. When we asked about Bastille Day, many locals didn’t know what we were talking about. But they did tell us about Heiva, their festival which, coincidentally, starts on 14th July.
On Hao, temporary restaurants are constructed on the quay for the weeks surrounding the Heiva celebration. We pitched in and helped Maimiti and Parua with their restaurant: weaving palm fronds, making signs on the computer, setting tables.
There wasn’t a great deal of danger here (except from eating too much poisson cru). However, the poor water visibility made it impossible to see where the coral heads were when we anchored. When we finally left, I had to scuba dive to untangle the chain which had ended up in a surprisingly complex tangle.
We spent most of Heiva at nearby Amanu, 15 miles to the north. Only 200 people live on Amanu and, because it isn't listed in any cruising guides, very few boats visit. If your boat draws less than 2 meters (Migration draws 1.5), you can enter the tiny protected ‘harbor’ at the village. It wasn’t the depth as much as the width that provided the excitement here. We had about a meter on each side to spare. But once in, we were well protected from the strong trade winds which blew hard across the lagoon for several days.
Heiva on Amanu was great. There was only one other boat: an adventurous fun family from France on the catamaran Casa Delmarre (Patrick, Pascale, Lèo, Carla, Fiona, and Nathan). The villagers were welcoming, inviting us to participate in the week of competitions: running races, sack races, tug o' war (ridiculously called, in French, tire a la corde—pull the rope), and the ever-popular pétanque, the French version of bocci ball. Every night there was dancing and singing. Etienne and his wife, Célestine, had us to their home for meals. Every other day we had a horde of kids aboard Migration, swimming, jumping and halyard swinging.
Dance & Music
After Heiva, we headed to Etoile Reef, known as the navel of Amanu; a star-shaped reef right in the middle of the lagoon. We anchored next to Casa Delmarre, snorkeled around the entire reef, had everyone over for waffles the next morning and then moved on for some time alone.
We spent days anchored by ourselves at the north end of Amanu. Exploring, snorkeling, riding out a crazy nighttime squall. It truly was exciting, and I have to admit, during that squall, a bit scary.
Then it was back to the village to say our goodbyes.
Elation! We had a good time on Amanu.
We stopped briefly at Makemo to provision. However, it had been over two weeks since the supply ship had come and there wasn't much of anything fresh left. The wind was blowing hard from across the lagoon making for an uncomfortable, and slightly dangerous, anchorage. The next morning we sailed on.
A day and night brought us to Tahanea where we anchored just inside the lagoon to wait for the strong trade winds to abate. We were alone and didn't see anyone for days.
One morning we heard a hail. I stuck my head outside and found a small motorboat with three guys aboard.
Parlez vous Frances?
Non. Mais mon femme parle Frances. (No, but my girlfriend speaks French.)
It's OK. I speak English.
Not only that, Joe was from Huntington Beach, California (right next to my hometown of Long Beach). Turns out he was with 13 people—mostly his Tuamotan wife's family—and they'd been camping a few miles away. They needed to get back to the neighboring island of Faaite to catch the plane to Tahiti but the winds were too strong for the small boats. We were heading that direction so the next morning at 7:00am, 11 people climbed aboard Migration for the 40-mile trip.
It was a beautiful sail. Unfortunately it was the first time on a sailboat for nearly all of our guests and there was a bit of mal de mer going around. Still, we arrived safe and sound and had a great dinner at their home on Faaite.
Getting back to Migration was an adventure. We'd come through the pass by dinghy to land on a little beach at the village. It was a bit confusing during the day and the night was dark, dark, dark. There was a winding route through the coral to return to the pass and we had no idea how fast the current would be, or if there would be standing waves. The supply ship had anchored just outside the pass and its bright lights partially helped us, and partially blinded us as we felt our way back home. Just a little danger to keep us on our toes.
A day's sail away was the large atoll of Fakarava. We ran into friends on the schooner Cocokai whom we hadn't seen since Ecuador. Diving with them in the south pass was amazing: lots of sharks and thousands of unicorn fish. Plus a family of rays swam slowly by. We had a nice long bike ride and visited a pearl farm.
Another day's sail brought us to Toau. This atoll does have a pass but we continued on to Anse Amyot—a false pass on the north side. Here, two families had installed some moorings (welcome relief from having to clear the anchor chain), and ran a small restaurant. We had a lot of fun with Valentine and Gaston, and their dogs.
It was the 19th of August. Our visas were going to expire in a few weeks and we needed to make sure Migration had a safe home when we left. We dropped the mooring and headed west.
Two nights at sea and in the morning, there she was.
We sailed first to Taravao to talk to the small boatyard there about hauling Migration. It turned that it wouldn't be possible. After looking at the tiny "marina", we decided we would leave Migration in the water. We provisioned up and prepared to enjoy our last weeks in French Polynesia.
After checking in with the officials in Papeete, we sailed the 10 miles across the channel to Moorea.
Moorea and Tahiti are not atolls. One day, in a couple of million years, they will be when their main islands erode away and the fringing reef is all that's left. But for now, these islands provide soaring pinnacles and peaks; vistas we never tired of.
We spent several days in each of the main bays on the north shore of Moorea: Opunohu and Cooks.
One of the hotels near Opunohu has been feeding sting rays for many years. As we stood in waist-high crystal clear water, they gathered round letting us pet and hold them. They were a bit disappointed as we only had bread scraps and no fish. Though they refused to eat the bread, the dozens of trigger fish had no qualms.
We bicycled, snorkeled, and hiked. Nothing particularly dangerous, just lots of fun.
Our time was running out so back to Tahiti we sailed. And then, back to Taravao. It was a week of work to strip all the gear, running rigging and sails from Migration and prepare her for the (unlikely) possibility of a cyclone.
There is so much more to write about. But, due to multiple requests, I'm trying to make these updates shorter (even though this one covers 7 months... not that I'm bitter...)
I haven't even discussed the cost of living, the strange economy, copra farming, the treatment of dogs, French gendarmes, living with no ATM's or banks or stores that take credit cards.
And this doesn't even cover the almost 4 months we've spent in the United States. Though we always miss our home at sea, seeing family and friends refreshes our souls. At the same time, being in the U.S. makes us appreciate the life we live. It is truly a crazy life here in the U.S.—when you are immersed in it everyday it's hard to see the absurdity of it all.
Yet, to be in the U.S. this year, of all years. To be able to work to elect Barack Obama. To be able to vote for him! To be able to jump up and down on election night! And later, to listen to him speak from Grant Park. That, my friends, that is elation!
Yet, there is so much danger everywhere. Everyone asks us about pirates and storms. There are reefs and rocks. Sharks and sharp coral. But it is nothing compared to the danger of not caring. Of getting stuck in a culture of acquisition and numbing blandness. Of not working for what you believe—not against what you fear—but for what you believe and love in your heart. Of not taking the time to love this planet. This sea. This life. The danger of never facing danger. The tragedy of never feeling elation.
Henry Van Dyke said it well: Be glad of life because it gives you the chance to love, to work, to play, and to look up at the stars.
Look up at the stars. And if you can't see them, go someplace where you can. It gives you hope. That's a good thing to have right now.
Be good. Be glad.
So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility, where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves but each other.
And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces, to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of the world, our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.
That's the true genius of America: that America can change. Our union can be perfected. What we've already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
America, we have come so far. We have seen so much. But there is so much more to do. So tonight, let us ask ourselves—if our children should live to see the next century; if my daughters should be so lucky to live as long as Ann Nixon Cooper, what change will they see? What progress will we have made? This is our chance to answer that call. This is our moment. This is our time, to put our people back to work and open doors of opportunity for our kids; to restore prosperity and promote the cause of peace; to reclaim the American dream and reaffirm that fundamental truth, that, out of many, we are one; that while we breathe, we hope. And where we are met with cynicism and doubts and those who tell us that we can't, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes, we can.
Barack Obama, 4th November 2008
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