One small breakage, one big adventure

Apologies for the length of this one but I have quite a story to tell …

Our latest passage has given us the opportunity to add a few more skills to our repertoire, as well as giving us the chance to experience Fijian kindness at its best.

Passage through the reefs

We had spent three days carefully navigating the reefs to the north of the largest island, Viti Levu, anchoring in secluded bays, and making the most of the cruiser-friendly Volivoli resort, before crossing Bligh Water (named after Captain Bligh, who was chased across this stretch by cannibals after the mutiny on HMS Bounty). Everything was going well and spirits were high. We were looking forward to seeing a different side of Fiji in Savusavu, on Vanua Levu island.

Then, on day four, as we were approaching Nasonisoni Passage, our narrowest pass through the reefs so far (of course it was!) the engine overheat alarm went off. A quick dash to the engine room revealed a shredded fan belt, so the engine was shut down tout de suite. Luckily, we were in very deep water and in no danger, but there was no way we could pass through the gap, heading into the wind, without an engine.

We were not keen on trying to anchor with so many reefs and isolated rocks around, so we did the best thing available to a yachtsman in that situation: we hove to. For those non-sailors out there, that means that we turned the bow of the yacht through the wind but left the sails unchanged on the “wrong” side. This has the effect of stopping forward motion through the water. It doesn’t, however, stop us completely as the wind and any current will still keep us slowly bobbing along sideways. In our case, we were bobbing westwards at around 1.6 knots. The next little reef to the west was 8 miles away so that gave us plenty of time to make a plan of action.

Our first call was to our intended destination – Copra Shed Marina in Savusavu. They were excellent, tentatively arranging for an engineer to come out to us the following morning. The next was a courtesy call to Fiji MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre) to let them know we were ok and that we had a plan. That was when the most bizarre chain of events started.

It wasn’t long before we received a call back from MRCC advising that the police were on their way to check on us. We weren’t sure what they could do, or when or how they would arrive (we were still 27 miles from Savusavu) so we just continued with our bobbing westward and sailing back, bobbing westward and sailing back …

Our track – the pink line

Darkness fell, and all we knew was that the police has been unable to find fuel for their boat! Suddenly a call came through. The police were just coming through the Passage. We looked out for navigation lights but saw none. In fact there were no lights at all. But then, a bright torch flashed three times. A short wait, then three times more. Notwithstanding that we were lit up like a Christmas tree, we grabbed a torch and flashed back. It felt like some illicit drug deal was going on.

We hove to again and this 18 foot dory occupied by 4 Fijian men, clad in what appeared to be running gear, drew close and tied on. Was this the police or was it the most gentle act of piracy ever? We weren’t too sure. They climbed aboard with the biggest smiles on their faces, and eagerly accepted our offer of tea and biscuits. After a chat about our plans, they kindly firmed up arrangements for an engineer in the morning along with a tow to a suitable anchorage for the rendezvous.

Then began the general “getting to know each other” chitchat, where we learnt that the dory was the first boat ever for the Savusavu police, and they had only been gifted it two weeks ago. We were their first shout. In our view, they were extremely brave coming out to us across almost 20 miles of open sea and through the reef in such a small craft with no lights, no life jackets, no VHF radio and no chart plotter. They thought nothing of it. In fact, it was fairly obvious that they were enjoying themselves. It was their first time on a yacht, and they jumped at the chance of spending the night on board, stretched out asleep in the cockpit and down below in the saloon.

Early morning, whilst waiting for help to arrive, we suddenly noticed that their dory had broken free and was making a dash for open ocean. Suddenly, we became the rescue boat. Jeremy steered us as close as possible and one of the policemen went for an early morning swim to reclaim it. It was fortunate it didn’t happen at night; the loss of their two-week-old police boat probably wouldn’t have gone down too well back at headquarters.

Next we had the tow to deal with. This had been arranged with Namena Divers, who appeared in their vessel which looked something like a WWII landing craft. As no one had done this kind of thing before (we certainly hadn’t), all heads were put together to work out how to construct a bridle for the front of Sapphire, which the tow rope could be tied to and which wouldn’t get in the way of the anchor being lowered.

There was no shortage of people to assist. As well as the dive boat and the police boat, a third one appeared with the engineer on board, and the best thing, they all just wanted to help. Forget any worries about claiming salvage or whose ropes to use. They wanted nothing in return other than the cost of their fuel. Their philosophy: they might be in a similar position themselves one day and would hope that others would do the same for them. Not a bad philosophy in my view.

The tow and anchoring actually went pretty smoothly. Admittedly there was a bit of shouting involved and they did need the occasional reminder that we had a deep keel so passing over a 2m reef was not going to work. The engineer, Junior, came on board and ascertained that it was a breakage of a small “key” in the salt water pump that had caused all this hassle (water is pumped around the engine to keep it cool). This was then taken away to be fixed. Everyone else left and we spent the next day and a half totally alone at anchor, just down from the wreck of a 46foot yacht. Very reassuring!

Less than 48 hours later, Junior and a mate, Betta, were back on board to reinstall the repaired pump and accompany us through the Nasonisoni Passage, this time with us as the tow boat. Once through, the same dive boat came by to pick up Junior’s mate, providing us all with a bit of light relief in the process. Betta is not the slimmest of gentlemen and trying to transfer from their little boat to the larger-sided dive boat provided a “You’ve Been Framed” moment: the two boats drifting apart with him stretched out between them. How he didn’t fall in is anyone’s guess, but with a lot of kicking he finally got one leg over and was dragged on board by his friends. We could hear them in fits of laughter as they sped off back to base.

All that remained for us now was to complete our slow journey to Savusavu, and moor up at the marina.

But that wasn’t quite the end of our little adventure. Thirty minutes after tying up we hear shouts of “bula bula” (“hello, hello”) from the dockside. It was two of our policemen friends, who’d stopped by to welcome us in. What amazing people.

The Fijians really are the best.

Paradise

Our first month in Fiji has been spent in paradise, otherwise known as the Mamanuca and the Yasawa Islands. These island chains lie to the west of the mainland, extending north, and become more remote the further up you go. Rugged, edged by beautiful white sand so soft that you sink in almost up to your ankles, and surrounded by as many shades of blue as you can imagine, from aquamarine, azure, turquoise to the deep blue of the ocean. Below the surface are the reefs with wonderful corals of pink, blue and purple, home to a myriad of colourful reef fish. And in the evenings, the yellows, oranges and reds of the sunsets take your breath away.

The reefs here are amazing and are everywhere you look. They are also potentially very dangerous for the sailor. There were times when we were weaving in and out, making 90 degree turns to make our way through them. During the day, they are fairly easy to see in the direct sunlight as the shallower areas are light blue, but you need to keep your wits about you and a good lookout. You certainly wouldn’t want to be doing it at night.

The traditional practice of sevusevu is required at the villages in these islands. Basically, all the crew need to go ashore, ideally with everyone donning sulus / sarongs (men included – they all looked very fetching in their skirts!) to meet the chief and make an offering of the root of the yaqona plant (being held by Jeremy in the photo above) from which their mildly narcotic kava drink is made. It’s rather like us visiting a friend at home and taking a bottle of wine. After a chat and a tour of the village, we are then welcomed and permitted to anchor, swim, fish and explore.

At one of the resorts – Blue Lagoon – (yes, that film was made here in the Yasawa Islands), we took part in a kava ceremony. With us all sitting on the ceremonial mat – shoes, hats and sunglasses removed – the ground-up root was mixed into a liquid concoction in the ceremonial kava bowl. We were then invited, one by one, to partake of the kava, drinking from half a coconut shell, clapping with cupped hands before and after drinking, and all shouting “bula”. We were warned that it may make our lips and tongues go temporarily numb and that we would feel relaxed (it is a drug, after all), and I’m sure the good stuff works for them but I’m also sure that this was only tourist strength, rather like a cheap lager! And it tasted and looked revolting … like muddy water. It was good to experience once but I don’t think I need to do it again.

Visiting the villages was one of the highlights, although there was quite a noticeable difference between those able to make money out of tourists and those on real subsistence living. Yanuya village was a particular delight, mainly because of the children. Everywhere we went they would appear, all happy, shouting “bula bula” and making us feel so welcome.

Of course, at each village we were encouraged by the chief and our guide to purchase the women’s “handicraft”. One of the items they tried to sell us was a replica of an “ancient” fork. I knew what this was. I’d read about it. I smiled and said, “You mean one used by the cannibals?” “Yes,” our guide grinned back.

Cannibalism certainly used to be part of island life. We’ve been told that the bodies of enemies were often consumed, and one particularly hungry Fijian named Udre Udre is reputed to have eaten between 872 and 999 people! I’m glad to report that this is no longer deemed acceptable treatment of visitors!

One of our most memorable experiences was our visit to Monuriki Island, the location of Tom Hanks’ film Cast Away. This island is uninhabited but owned by the village on Yanuya Island where we had last done sevusevu.

What makes this island visit memorable is not so much the fact that it is stunningly beautiful but our method of arrival and departure. It was about 1.3 miles from where we’d anchored Sapphire and the swell resulted in a rather bumpy ride to the island. We had expected to be able to take the dinghy onto the beach, but the surf made that impossible. There was no choice but to tie up to a buoy and swim in. Only one problem: I was in a dress – no swimwear. There was no one else around, so all modesty was thrown out the window and my underwear became a makeshift bikini. … It’s funny how quickly tourists boats can sneak up on you. By the time I reached the shore, a large craft was disgorging its load of visitors! Fortunately my dress had had VIP transport ashore in a dry bag and within seconds I was covered up again. All modesty regained … at least until the swim back!

Having visited the island because of the film, it was obligatory to search for Wilson, but he had well and truly disappeared off to sea, never to be seen again. We did, however, find Tom Hanks’ “Help” spelled out with coconuts on the beach … and see it being collected in the evening by the boys from the village! No doubt that is what the F$20 landing fee pays for!!

We are now back on the mainland for a crew change (Brian is flying home and Helen is flying out) and for the new sail to be fitted before heading east to do some more exploring and, hopefully, a bit of diving on some of the world’s best soft coral reefs.

We will never forget how blessed we are to have had such fantastic experiences.

Fiji … at last

Finally the day had arrived. The day we’d been looking forward to for so long. The day we were able to escape Whangarei and it’s awful weather!

The new rigging was installed, we’d completed two very successful test sails, and there were no other jobs left outstanding. The riggers came by with cronuts for us (a delicious cross between a doughnut and a croissant, overfilled with cream – certainly not for anyone on a diet) and waved us off. I think they were all as happy to see the back of us as we were to leave them (in the nicest possible way, of course).

So, with smiles on our faces, we threw off the lines and headed out.

After a couple of days of pleasant sailing up the east coast of New Zealand, and a final weather report, we checked out in Opua, Bay of Islands. Almost two months to the day of arriving in New Zealand, we were finally on our way, accompanied by a lone orca. The sight of that dorsal fin is rather unnerving, but what a privilege to see such creatures in their natural habitat.

Watching New Zealand disappear into the distance was a great feeling. Morale on board was high. We were back in our own little world of blue. Just a small dot in a big ocean. The sails were out, seas were kind and we were all excited about the next stage of our adventure. If conditions continued we would have a wonderful passage to Fiji.

But the sea gods had other plans for us. On day three, they decided that we were enjoying life too much and sent us a strong reminder not to be complacent. We were hit by a 40 knot squall, which came out of nowhere, ripping the mainsail along a seam. It was nighttime and very dark. Of course it was! When else would it be?! We managed to furl most of the sail away, but it left two long streamers out at the mast head leaving us looking like a Tudor warship with huge streaming banners. What should we do? No way were we turning back to New Zealand. (Sorry Kiwis, but we’d had our fill of your beautiful country.)

Enter the Minerva Reefs – our lifesaver in the middle of nowhere. They are formed of two extinct volcanos, rising up from the floor of the Pacific Ocean 4,000 meters below; the crater rims forming two perfect circular reefs, providing a safe haven for those who have done their navigation homework, but a real danger for those who haven’t!

North Minerva Reef is the easiest to navigate, so we headed to the pass (small gap in the crater rim) and carefully made our way in, having timed it perfectly (luckily!) to arrive in the middle of the day, with the sun at its highest, so we could better see any bommies (coral heads rising in pinnacles from the bottom, which could cause serious damage to the boat if you got it wrong) and avoid them.

Once inside the caldera, we anchored in 12 meters of water. It is so remote and we are honoured to be among the very small group of people who can say they’ve visited. It felt quite unbelievable to stand on deck in calm, relatively shallow water and look out at the reef. The thundering roar of the huge waves of the Pacific Ocean crashing all around was rather humbling. Jeremy took it one step further, jumping in for his first ocean swim of the year.

We stayed two nights as everyone was tired and needed to rest. Whilst there, the mainsail remnants were dealt with as best as possible, with Simon being winched up the mast three times to cut away those streaming banners, and Jeremy getting a good workout grinding those winches! At least when we arrived at the next port we wouldn’t look such a sorry sight!

I would dearly love to erase the next part of the passage. The winds were strong (regularly around 30 to 40 knots), the swells were big (4 meters) and on the beam, the sea was confused, we rolled around … and, inevitably, I was badly seasick. Enough said about that!

Arriving at Port Denarau Marina at Nadi was a relief for us all. We’d finally made it. Just formalities to complete, a bit more work to do on Sapphire, a new crew member, Brian, to collect, reprovisioning for 3 weeks in the Yasawa Islands, and a visit to the markets to buy kava for the island chiefs (more about that next time), and then we were ready to explore.

I am so looking forward to some gentle island cruising! This is what makes it all worthwhile.

Kia Ora from Aotearoa

Hello from New Zealand.

We arrived here five weeks ago, very excited to be rejoining Sapphire II to take her on the next stage of her adventure to Fiji, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and Queensland, Australia. So far, we have moved her all of 100 yards from one end of Port Nikau marina to the other!

We left the yacht here in December last year with some major (and minor) work due to be undertaken before our return. Unfortunately the curse of the long-distance cruiser struck again, and we arrived back in Whangarei six months later to find the yacht still without a mast and in such a state that we were unable to move back on board for a few days. Needless-to-say, there was an immediate rush of activity to make her liveable but since then the weather has hindered progress.

Port Nikau is not really a marina in the normal sense of the word – there are no shower blocks, no launderette, no shops – so we have filled our time with daily trips to the supermarket, chandlers, coffee shops etc in the hire car (which we’ve probably bought by now!). Oh, and we did go and see the new Top Gun film, which we would highly recommend to anyone old enough to have enjoyed the first one.

Over the past couple of weeks, things have begun to pick up pace. Jeremy and I have been very willing assistants to the riggers, measuring and cutting new wires, resizing and polishing up stainless steel fittings, hoisting the guys up the mast, helping to lift the boom back on and keeping them sweet with cups of tea and tiffin. They have been superb, working long hours in the most awful conditions (it’s mid-winter here and very wet). We now look like a sailing yacht again and have completed one test sail. Further tuning and tweaks are needed, then more test sails, but we’re getting there.

It has actually been very interesting watching and helping with a re-rigging, but we are now past being ready to leave the torrential rain behind. Initially I was delighted to see so many rainbows (up to five in a day), but I’m afraid that novelty has now worn off. We need to get off to a bit of sunshine and leave Whangarei (aka Whanga-rain!) in our wake.

We have everything crossed now for further successful test sails and good weather conditions, but as I lie here in my bunk listening to the wind howling, the boat shuddering, the mooring lines creaking as they strain against the pontoon, and the rain beating down, I fear we may not be going anywhere anytime soon. I swear I will never complain about rain in the UK again!

Rainbows are a promise of better things to come and we can still see that dot of light at the end of the tunnel. That light is called Fiji. We just need to get there!

Tae noa ki te wā i muri mai / Until next time

The Pacific – a recap

I’m very excited that my first full-length article is being published next month in the Ocean Cruising Club’s magazine. They have kindly agreed to it also being published here, so I hope you enjoy it (hit the download button).

Jeremy and I are off back out to New Zealand shortly to rejoin Sapphire II of London and take her on to Australia via Fiji and, hopefully, Vanuatu.

New posts to follow soon.

A passage of two halves

We’re here! After 14 and a half days at sea and another 2472 miles under our belts, we have arrived at Opua, New Zealand (The Land of the Long White Cloud) – a country we never expected to visit by yacht, but one we are looking forward to exploring once formalities, cleaning and reprovisioning are out of the way.

It’s been an interesting passage and not without its challenges, but throughout it all, we’ve remained a very happy crew on board. We left Tahiti and headed southwest straight towards our destination. Other than a few short course changes to keep the wind in our sails, that is the path we stayed on, passing through the Cook Islands (with a little sadness, as we should have visited them last year) and south of the tiny Kermadec Islands (a nature reserve and area of volcanic activity, part of New Zealand).

Our main challenge came at the end of day two: the generator was not charging the batteries due to an overheating regulator. Even the engine was only topping up tiny amounts. It looked like we were going to return to “rough and ready” sailing far earlier than Jeremy and I had anticipated. And actually, far worse. We would have to turn off all electrical items other than the absolute necessities (navigation lights and comms etc). Freezers and fridges would have to go meaning ditching much of the home-cooked pre-prepared food and living off pasta and pesto, and all the other little niceties would disappear. But that wasn’t all. I didn’t mention last time that we have electric heads (toilets), and no manual ones. Talk came round to using buckets and “slopping out”. Yuk! Not exactly what we’d all signed up for! Despite all this, there was a unanimous decision to carry on. This may sound madness but the idea of returning to Tahiti after the disappointment of last year was just less appealing. Fortunately it was the right decision as the problem was resolved in 24 hours and we were back on track… flushing loos and all.

The first part of the passage was rough – strong winds on the beam, the yacht heeled over in short, choppy seas. It was very uncomfortable and I felt dreadful. Seasickness returned with a vengeance. I have never had such a prolonged bout of it. Every time I went down below I was hit by a wave a nausea. My stomach felt like a punchbag. It wasn’t helped by the fact that we have the front cabin which is where the boat’s motion is felt most keenly. In all honesty, it was like being stuck on a rollercoaster, unable to get off. We were tossed around the bed and even found ourselves lifted clean up in the air at times. I can just hear my mother now: “Good grief, Nicole, why on earth do you do it?” Believe me, Mum, by the end of day 6 I was asking myself exactly that question.

And then it was day 7. A miracle had occurred. I woke up to gentle rocking. Cautiously I stuck my head out into the cockpit. All change. The wind was lighter, the temperatures cooler and we were closer to downwind sailing. The waves and white horses had disappeared to be replaced by steady ocean swells (large at times but still gentle). The skies were blue and the sun was out. And, best of all, my stomach was completely healed. Had I dreamt the last week? It didn’t matter. I was back to enjoying cooking in the galley, completing the log, showering without feeling sick, being mesmerised by the seas and staring in awe at the night skies. Life was wonderful again.

Last year, with the World ARC, we were very much sailing in company. 30 boats left on each leg together, expecting to arrive at the next destination within a few days of each other. We may not have always have been able to see each other but there was an occasional sail on the horizon, someone would show up on AIS/radar, and rarely was there a day when you didn’t hear at least one other boat on the twice-daily radio call. It was comforting to know there was someone else out there. This passage couldn’t have been further from that. We saw no sign of human life for 14 days – until we were within sight of New Zealand itself. Nothing. Even our “all ships” radio calls were met with … silence. Not even a crackle in response. Not even an aircraft in the sky. We were all alone. Total solitude.

There was one unique occurrence on this passage: crossing the Date Line. Two days away from New Zealand it took us a nanosecond to lose 24 hours of our lives. Very weird. It was a first for all of us. There had been talk of stopping the boat and taking a dip in the sea, but conditions had become quite rough again, it was raining and the sea temperature (a pleasant 29.5 degrees when we left Tahiti) had dropped to 20.5 degrees, so we just raced on at 7-10 knots to our destination. We had also planned to celebrate with watermelon champagne (Ok, also weird) but that would have to wait too. It became our arrival toast instead … as well as a few Dark and Stormys, beers, ciders etc.

I must admit, I was more than pleased to arrive. The conditions for the last 36 hours were horrendous – gale force winds, gallons of water over the boat (and some leaking in) and, inevitably, a return of the seasickness. But that was soon forgotten when we were met by super-friendly customs personnel and escorted in to the quarantine dock with strict instructions not to leave the boat until negative results of Covid tests came through. Hopefully we’ll then be released to explore the beautiful Bay of Islands.

So, we have done it. We have sailed across the Pacific Ocean. Well… almost. Technically we should get to Australia to claim that but what’s a few hundred miles between friends. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve achieved it, and we are proud – and privileged – to add our names to the small number of people who have done so. It’s been an amazing adventure, on both Next Step and Sapphire.

Meet Sapphy

Our home for the next month or so is this beautiful yacht, Sapphire II of London – or “Sapphy” as she is affectionately known.

As far as Jeremy and I are concerned, this truly is sailing in luxury. Our cabin must be almost as large as our small spare bedroom at home and, joy of joys, I can actually sit up in bed without cricking my neck. There are electric winches, air conditioning (I have been complaining of being cold at night – you really can’t please some people!), a washing machine (no more 5-day-old sweaty, smelly clothes), a freezer, an ice maker and a beer fridge! What more could we want? We’re spoilt. How will we ever be happy to go back to “rough and ready” sailing?

We’ve had a few issues to deal with, which is to be expected in a yacht that has been laid-up in a marina for the past year or so. Probably the most concerning was a fault with the engine alternator wiring. But we had spares and a friendly electrician, so no worries. Who needs an engine anyway? … we’re a sailing boat. The watermaker needed a repair, the bottom needed a scrub (all clean now courtesy of Jeremy in his rented scuba gear), and the new rib needed the batteries sorting (the one it came with was definitely not powerful enough to start the 40hp engine!). There have been some stresses and frustrations but nothing that a Dark and Stormy couldn’t put right at the end of each day.

On Wednesday we had our Covid tests in Papeete. There was a bit of a panic when Simon went to get his and Helen’s passports from his jacket pocket only to find that the jacket was missing. He’d left it – and the passports – in the airport taxi. No one had added that to the list of reasons as to why we might not be able to leave. Covid – yes … lost passports – no way!

The Covid test centre was rather interesting: efficient but a little worrying at the same time. We were asked to take seats in the two rows of chairs labelled “voyagers”. No problem … except that these chairs were placed immediately next to two more rows for those people who were … symptomatic! Welcome to Covid Central! I would also say that never before have we had such brutal nasal swaps – the nurse had either had a bad day or been instructed to take small brain samples as well.

But here we are now, finally ready to leave. Everything has been checked (and fixed), provisions bought and stored, meals pre-cooked for most of the passage (what are we going to do with our spare time?), negative Covid tests received, and passports retrieved. Today we throw off the lines, say “goodbye” to Tahiti and start out on our next 2,200-mile passage. To be totally honest, I’m a little anxious as she’s such a large yacht and it’s nearly 15 months since I was last at sea, but I’m sure those worries will all fade away once we get back out into the vast open ocean and the starry, starry nights.

New Zealand: here we come… See you in 14 days or so.

Return to Tahiti

Fourteen months ago our circumnavigation on Next Step was brought to an abrupt halt by Covid. After four brilliant months in French Polynesia, hoping to get the green light to sail west, we finally realised that the pandemic was not going to come to an early end. Australia and virtually all the islands in between were not going to open up to us. So, homeward bound it was.

We arrived back in the UK with high hopes of returning early 2021 to rejoin Next Step (and the new friends we had made) to continue our world tour. As time passed it became clear that this was not to be. Sadly, Chris took the decision that he was unable to fulfil his dream, and shipped Next Step back home. She has now been sold and last we heard she was in Portugal with her new family aboard.

There are actually only a few of the 2020 World ARC boats still in French Polynesia. Some were shipped back to the UK, others made their way home to Australia, New Zealand, the USA and some decided to try their luck by sailing on to Fiji. Two of the boats in Fiji are still in hurricane pits awaiting the return of their owners next year (hopefully).

As for us … we have, once again, been extremely lucky. We were invited to join one of the few remaining World ARC yachts still in French Polynesia to help sail her to New Zealand. We didn’t need to be asked twice. How could we turn down such a wonderful opportunity, particularly on such a beautiful yacht – a Discovery 67 named Sapphire II of London.

We arrived here in Tahiti on Thursday, bags weighed down with a ton of paperwork (vaccination certificates, negative PCR tests, visas, passenger location forms, immigration forms, Canadian visas (transit), train tickets, boarding cards, passports … have I forgotten anything?) and now have a busy week ahead of us checking the yacht over, cleaning and reprovisioning before setting sail for New Zealand, with a second ton of paperwork in hand.

All being well, we leave on Friday. For those superstitious sailors among you … yes, we know, but it’s also been deemed bad luck to have women aboard, so we’re already doomed … twice over!

It will be wonderful to get back out on the open seas again. Just the small matter of (another) negative PCR first. Fingers crossed…

Decision time

We spent most of July in Huahine, one of the Society Islands 100 miles northwest of Tahiti. We were back in volcanic mountain territory surrounded by amazing reefs and blue, blue water. Definitely one of my favourite islands so far. It has a gentle beauty to it; very green, covered not so much by coconut palms (although they were still around) but more by banana plants and graceful umbrella-like trees (I still haven’t been able to find out what they are) and a whole host of vibrant flowers – gardenia, hibiscus, trumpet flowers, bougainvillea… The friendly locals take a pride in their home making it one of the best-kept islands we have had the privilege to visit.

As elsewhere, the waters around Huahine are simply stunning. The sea is so clear and pristine that we could easily see our anchor 10m down on the seabed as well as the bommies (coral heads) which sometimes felt just a little too close for comfort. That said, we did miss the fact that our chain had become tangled up at one anchorage, only noticing when we hauled up an old motorbike when weighing anchor!

The reefs are abundant with life, giving us one of our best snorkelling experiences to date: the “Nursery” at Motu Vaiorea in Bourayne Bay. As soon as we entered the water we were surrounded by hundreds of the most colourful and varied baby reef fish. Initially we were surprised that they seemed to be “nibbling” on us, but it soon dawned on us that they were used to being fed. On our second visit, we took some old bacon along and delighted in them eating out of our hands. I’m sure there are mixed feelings about this, which I understand, but such close interaction with nature really was a thrilling experience.

On day three, seven of us decided to do the 60km circumnavigation of the island by e-bike. We had perfect weather for it and, as there is basically only one road, there was little chance of us getting lost. The bikes were brilliant; there is no way I would have made it up those hills without the assistance and the views from the top were well worth the small amount of effort required to get the bike’s battery to kick in. Half-way round the pull of the sea got too much for the boys and they insisted on a “John Smith” bombing-style entry into the lagoon (one, in particular, in his underpants! Has he no shame? Apologies for the next photo.)

To our surprise (and contrary to seasonal norms), there was a lot of rain during our time in Huahine, but that did nothing to stop our fun. Being a small island, we had ticked off all the “must see” attractions on our bike ride: the ancient Marae (temples), the ancient village meeting hall, the ancient stone fish traps (still used to catch fish today) and the sacred blue-eyed eels (which can bite, as one of our friends discovered to her detriment). This left food and drink as our entertainment for the rest of the stay, and the yacht club, local café, Izzy’s burger bar and the local hotel (complete with pool which they allowed us to use as they had no other guests!) got to know us pretty well. Probably too well! And when we weren’t ashore, we had each other’s yachts to socialise on. What more could we ask for?

The weeks flew by and before we knew it, it was the middle of July. Time to make a decision. Do we continue to hang around in French Polynesia in the hope that the way west opens up before the cyclone season or do we leave the yacht in Pape’ete, fly home and hope to return next year to continue the circumnavigation? It was looking less and less likely that Australia would allow us in and, although Fiji had opened up, it would be a big risk to sail there and find ourselves stuck. Fiji is very much in the cyclone belt and, without a secure pit for the yacht, the risk of damage was much greater than in Tahiti. There was also the question of limited flights out of Fiji; at least French Polynesia had a direct link to Europe. Our decision was quite easy: fly home. We were lucky. We at least had a choice. Our American friends, on the other hand, found themselves in the unenviable position of expiring visas and being told they had to move on. Several are on their way to Fiji now, still hoping that New Zealand or Australia will open up to them later this year. We wish them well.

The current situation in the world has meant that we have possibly seen French Polynesia at its best. There were very few cases of Covid, we were in lockdown for less than two months and normal life returned very quickly. We have seen the sights without the crowds and had the seas to ourselves. We were so lucky to be where we were.

So, thank you / mauruuru French Polynesia. It’s been fun. Goodbye / nana / au revoir for now. We hope to visit more of your beautiful islands next year.

Sailing in company

When we arrived in Tahiti back in March and it became evident that we would be stuck there for many weeks, we were dismayed, to say the least. What about all the plans to explore the Pacific Islands – the jewel in the crown of a circumnavigation? Maybe that would just be delayed by a few weeks …. Maybe not! Time dragged on, and even though French Polynesia began to open up, we were still allowed no further west.

Being part of the World Arc we had already been sailing in company, but, as is typical of human nature, we all tended to socialise within our own little groups. Lockdown changed all that. Being stuck in a marina brought us all closer together. We gradually started having nightly sundowners on the pontoon, arranging card afternoons, quiz nights via the VHF radio, reef snorkelling trips and hosting dinners or drinks on each other’s boats. We shared information on weather, sailing plans, news from home and on border closures to the west. We helped each other with boat issues, provided spare parts and advice and made several refuelling trips (to help, of course – nothing to do with the fact that it was a great excuse to get out of the marina). We had built up such a good camaraderie that when the World Arc was suspended, we had a competition to rename ourselves and become known as the SOLA fleet (Sailors Of the Lost Arc).

By mid-May, we were permitted to sail anywhere in French Polynesia. It didn’t need to be said twice … we were off. So much to explore. And this is where sailing in company really came into its own. Although we split up into smaller groups, we still all stayed in contact and supported each other. There is something rather comforting about knowing that friends are with you on a passage, even if you can’t actually see them, and heart-warming to know that others are waiting for you to arrive safely the other end.

The social side of sailing in company has been amazing. Dare I say, better than back home in London! We rarely have a day without meeting up, whether ashore or on one of the yachts. One night I won’t forget was on Domini, a 47 foot catamaran, large enough, would you believe, to have a full-sized keyboard on board! What fun! With Julian (our own lyricist) on vocals and keyboard, making up songs about Fakarava (one of the Tuamotu atolls) accompanied by Richard on harmonica, and the rest of us as backing vocals. We hadn’t laughed so much in ages. I’m not sure what the other boats in the anchorage made of it though – I don’t think we’d have made it into the charts!

We’ve met some wonderful people – not all in the SOLA fleet – and the best thing is that we all treat each other as equals, no matter what our backgrounds. We have neuroscientists and company owners in the fleet but they are just as happy to mingle with mere insurance brokers (and non-boat owners, at that!) as anyone else. People are generally pretty humble about what they have done in life. My favourite example of this is our new Aussie friend – Pete – sailing single-handed (literally – a mining accident has left him with a badly damaged arm) from Tahiti to Sydney, having only learnt to sail about a year ago! When he left Tahiti he was given such a good send-off from people who had only met him two months previously – everyone out on the pontoon, waving and sounding their horns. It was pretty emotional. But back to being humble … Pete happened to mention in passing that he’d done some BASE jumping. After he left, we “stalked” him on-line. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that he is known as the “Godfather of Australian BASE jumping”!! We had no idea. But that’s my point. No one holds themself up as being better than you because of what they’ve been or done in life.

Sailing in company also brings out the best in people. Helping each other out is par for the course. When Kari had problems getting their anchor up, Jeremy, Chris and Julian jumped in dingies to add a bit of muscle to lift it manually. When our water maker finally broke down for good, we rafted alongside Domini (the “Mother Hen”), who filled us up from their tanks. Nobody thinks twice about lending a hand.

I am writing this sitting on the bow of Next Step at anchor in Kauehi (another atoll in the Tuamotu Archipelago). Amari have just left to head up North to another atoll and the rest of us will follow over the next day or so. I feel a little sad that we will not be sailing in company for this next bit (we’ve sailed in convoy for the last week or so) but I’m sure we’ll get back together again soon.

We have made some good friends here, from all four corners of the globe, and hope that camaraderie will last for many years, even when we are no longer “sailing in company”.