From Gibraltar Back to Sydney
November 1988 to September 1989
From Gibraltar back to Sydney
On Thursday 8 September 1988 we tied up at the Customs wharf in Gibraltar. On the passage from Tabarka to Gibraltar we had covered 700 nautical miles in five and a quarter days, averaging 5.6 knots including 29 hours under power. We had completed our two-year circumnavigation of the Mediterranean Sea, and would now have to get ready for some serious ocean-going.
We were finally leaving the historic Mediterranean and its amazing mix of cultures, nations, landscapes, seaways and anchorages. We would never forget the amazing two years we had sailed around it.
However, there were some aspects of the actual sailing that we had not enjoyed and would be happy to forget. Much was unrewarding; the old saw, there’s always too little wind or too much, is right. We’d had some pleasant afternoon drifts, but on passage nothing about the weather lasts for more than an hour or two. There is never a real swell, just a rotten little chop that kicks up in any breeze and hangs on through the next morning’s calm.
Ashore, with the starry exception of Venice and the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia and Greece, we have also had some disappointments. Part of the problem is probably that, rather surprising as it may seem, the people of the Mediterranean basin are not that keen on the sea. (Ulysses has a lot to say about that!) The main aim of fishermen in Greece and southern Italy is to make enough money to move ashore for good. In most harbours we were reluctant to leave the boat for any length of time so that, as in Central America, we did very little exploring inland. Culturally, therefore, we missed many of the pleasures to be found away from the coast, in these ancient empires. We resolved to return to Europe one day, for more extended exploration by land.
We cleared in quickly with some friendly officials, and because of all the work we would have to do, we took a berth at Sheppard’s Marina.
We picked up a pile of mail and booked flights for a two-week visit back to England to see our mothers and other family. Norma got stuck into washing, including the sails, and serious provisioning at the convenient Liptons supermarket. The little laptop was now keeping records of all the stores. After dealing with a lot of paperwork we purchased – duty free – a new Honda petrol generator, which would supply 240 V more steadily than our invertor, and would back up the engine alternator for battery charging. There was plenty of boat maintenance to keep up with, in hot, humid "Levanter" weather.
Then off to England for a couple of rather busy and fraught weeks, and although we started the process of getting Norma’s Mum out to Australia, it was sad to leave them both alone again.
Once back, we were quickly into more boat work and provisioning, and packing every spare corner with spare parts. We replaced the lower shrouds, as Norma had seen that one of the strands had broken. On October 1 we had a ringside seat for Gibraltar Air Day, a splendid air show including the Red Arrows, the Harriers doing their aerial acrobatics, and other aircraft including Tornados, Jaguars, Canberras and a Shackleton. The next day we had lunch with four of the RAF Jaguar pilots on Satisfaction, Jim (ex-USAF) and Judy, with whom we had spent time in Venice and Malta.
It had always been our intention to leave for the Canaries soon after we got back from Britain. For the first few days after our return to the Rock the weather was fine, and the pilot charts assured us of a continuing high chance of northerlies, so there didn’t seem to be that much of a rush.
Among many other friends we met up again with Mike and Karen on Tola. Their baby boy had successfully been born in Malta and named Falcon. They asked me to give him a post-natal check. After giving them the usual disclaimers - this was not exactly my field of expertise - I made the examinations prescribed in the textbook I carried. As a result I pronounced him healthy and with all joints in good order, and we wished them well for their continuing circumnavigation.
Contrary to our predictions, after a week a low-pressure system established itself to the west of Spain, apparently permanently, bringing sou-westers all the way down through Madeira to the Canary Islands. We began carefully tracking the weather and forecasts, waiting for a propitious time to start our trans-Atlantic passage to the Caribbean. Many in the marina, and several friends, were all waiting for the same. We moved from the marina out into the anchorage the north side of the airport runway. The weather continued to deteriorate seriously, with strong and gusty winds predominantly from the south-west, directly contrary to what we wanted and to what was supposed to be the prevailing wind at this time of the year. We took a few little local trips to kill the time, including over to La Linea in Spain and for a retrospective visit to Estepona.
During this waiting period there was continuing discussions among the yachts about when to go. Some were already leaving for Tangier in Morocco or Las Palmas in the Canary Islands and other take-off points for the trans-Atlantic passage. But the weatherfax maps I was studying several times a day continued to be pessimistic, despite often much more optimistic forecasts transmitted by the RAF station here.
Indeed, yachts who had decided to get on their way - including some friends who had left against my advice - were all reporting having a very bad time of it, with heavy headwinds. Some were already heaving to for days in gale-force winds, and being swept to the north by the ocean currents. Two boats took about a fortnight for the 700-mile passage to the Canaries, and at least two friends on the distaff side decided that they were done with sailing and flew back to the States from Las Palmas.
A month after going out to anchor by the runway we were also getting very sick of waiting and re-provisioning. However, after a particularly bad and sleepless night of vicious thunderstorms a weather window did seem to be opening. The upper-level low that was causing the trouble had finally filled and there was a chance that the wind would be shifting to the north. Also, the anchorage was becoming untenable as swells were rolling in following the gales. Therefore, on the morning of Friday November 11 1988 we finally decided to leave Gibraltar, under clearing skies and easing winds.
We motorsailed out of the harbour and round to the west through the Strait of Gibraltar in the expected choppy conditions. Then we picked up more bad news on the radio: a boat that had just left Tangier reported adverse conditions and that they were returning. Two other boats had decided to keep plugging on, but their reports were not encouraging. We were in agonies of indecision, but in lumpy seas to the north of the city we decided to cut back down to Tangier. We could see that two other yachts had already done so. Our good friends Tom and Maureen on Tilly Whim reported that they were in the harbour there and were having a good time! So the decision was quite easy in the end, although we were beginning to wonder whether we'd ever make it across the Atlantic at this rate.
It was an easy enough approach around the end of Tangier's big harbour wall and through a passage into the small inner harbour. It seemed that it was only for yachts. There were many already there, as could be expected, all rafted in several layers out from the wharf. We tied up to Tilly Whim.
We were greeted by friendly officialdom. The dock was cost free and was accessed only by a gate guarded by security men, very reassuring. That evening we had a big boat get-together with Tilly Whim and others, a barbeque on the dock: sardines, salads, various German specialities. We were all relieved to be waiting in these pleasant conditions rather than fighting with the ocean as other friends were. The popular saying was, "It's better to be in here wishing you were out there, than being out there wishing you were in here".
We returned to tourist mode and walked into the city with Tom and Maureen. Tangier is an ancient city with a complex history. In the early 5th century BC the settlement on this bay on the African side of the Strait of Gibraltar was one of the many Phoenician trading posts in the Mediterranean. It became a permanent Carthaginian settlement until 81 BC. The port (then known as Tingis) came under Roman control and later became the capital of the Roman province of Mauretania Tingitana.
In the mid-19th century the city was the diplomatic centre of Morocco, with a strong British political influence. From 1923 to 1924 it was part of an internationally administered zone and was returned to internal control following World War II, during which time it had been administered by Spain.
It is uphill into the city from the harbour, with layer upon layer of tightly-packed buildings. Some of the old buildings were very attractive and fronted wide open squares with ornate tiled features. Most men were dressed in Moroccan cloaks with high-peaked hoods like a monk's habit. We walked up into the "new" town and then back down to the older shopping area and the covered market. The next day we returned to the old town, the medina and the Kasbah, viewing the western strait from the heights. This (Sunday) was market day, with many women dressed in red-striped skirts and toped by wide straw hats. There was little hassle from stall-holders and would-be guides.
Back down on the wharf we were hailed by a yachty who knew (like most of the others) that I was a doctor. "There's one of the guys flat out on the wharf", he exclaimed. We soon found the invalid lying there, being attended by an attractive young woman. I said to her, "maybe I can help - I'm a doctor". "Thank heavens", she replied - "so am I"! It was our professional agreement was that our invalid was simply heat-stressed and dehydrated, and simply told his friends to keep him cool and plenty to drink.
The doctor was a young anaesthetist, Lilian, and with her husband Rudy - both Swiss - were preparing to sail the Atlantic and the Caribbean in their sloop Shiva. They were to become life-long friends.
In Gibraltar and here, we were getting a reputation as weather gurus, reinforced by my constant studying of fax weather maps. During our second day in the harbour we were approached and asked, "are you leaving tomorrow?' "No", I replied, "but maybe the day after". "OK, we'll go shopping today," was the reply. We got the same enquiries the next day, and my report was that the offshore weather systems had appeared at last to be returning to normal and the outlook was good.
Accordingly, after three nights in the harbour we motored out into light easterly winds, closely followed by ten other boats! Soon afterwards we were sailing well, on a broad reach under full sail, south-west down the coast of Morocco in beautiful conditions. By evening we were sailing wing-and-wing with the wind dead astern, over slight seas, and only being overtaken by a racing yacht under spinnaker. The skies were clear enough for star sights. It then became calm for a while, but we caught a nice tuna; out of practice, we did spray more blood than usual over the deck.
The wind settled nicely into the northern quadrant, gentle for a while, then rising to allow for a splendid ride under spinnaker for much of the way. In beautiful conditions we hardly had to touch anything, and were lying in the sun on the foredeck to get out of the shades of the headsail.
Las Palmas, Gran Canaria
We came into the anchorage in Las Palmas after a sail of 680 nautical miles in just under six days. I recorded in the log that this had been a "benign sort of passage, having waited so long for it".
Las Palmas is a major stopping and provisioning port in the Canaries, and the starting point for the many yachts in the annual Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC). This is a group and shepherded passage that had become a popular event since its first one two years previously. We had always vowed to avoid this event if we could, because we preferred to be on our own at sea. But because we had been so delayed by weather we arrived just as the huge fleet was gathering. The marina was packed out, but in any event we had planned to anchor outside the walled harbour and off the adjacent beach.
In any event we did need to call into Las Palmas to be assured of refills for our gas bottles and provisioning for the long passage to the Caribbean. We had several friends in the Rally, and it was good to catch up with them. Checking in was very easy, just a wave from the official on the wharf, and in the evening we had Rudy and Lilian over for dinner to help us to eat the small dorado we had caught on the way down.
The newer parts of Las Palmas were not very attractive, backed by blocks of high-rise apartments, but the older parts of town to the south displayed some very attractive Spanish-style facades, with courtyards to be viewed through arched front doors. In the heart of the old quarter sits the twin-towered Santa Ana Cathedral, the first church in the Canaries, which was built on the orders of Los Reyes Católicos, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, after Gran Canaria was conquered by Spain in 1478. Construction started around 1500 but was not completed until almost four centuries later, the result of which can be seen in its differing architectural styles: Gothic, Renaissance and Neoclassical.
Rudy and Lilian had rented a VW Polo, and we shared with them a great little trip round the island. It's basically a dormant volcano, and from the coast we were rapidly into the foothills with nice views over the town and harbour. It was then up to Cruz de Tejeda at the very peak of the central mountain and well into the cloud base. From there we took a lovely road through impressive canyon country with volcanic craters, jagged rock gorges and rifts. An amazing variety of plants and flowers were growing everywhere, including a wide variety of cactus. Through more green and pleasant hills we came to a small roadside restaurant for lunch and then a short distance further stopped at the lovely little town of Teror. Its fine church façade overlooked a charming square, rimmed by Spanish houses with wooden balconies.
While up in the mountains Rudy ran over a large rock in the road, which he couldn't avoid because of an oncoming car. It punctured the fuel tank and caused some disruption to the gearchange linkage. Luckily, a Shell service station was only a kilometre further down the road. We rapidly persuaded a morose and incommunicative mechanic to hoist us up on a lift while we assessed the extent of the damage. It was a small hole in the tank, which we plugged with a screw sealed - traditionally - with chewing gum. Fortunately both Rudy and I were pretty experienced at making on-the-road repairs! We then fuelled up and got going again.
After this good little exploration we spent the next day doing yet more provisioning - we were never going to starve at sea - using the car to get to a good general store and supermarket. It was showery, but the forecast was good and we planned to leave the next morning.
A trade wind passage to the Caribbean
We had been just a week in Las Palmas. We had much enjoyed our day in the mountains and done some good provisioning, but the town was not much to speak of and the anchorage was exposed to the sea and was very rolly at night. Norma took to sleeping in the saloon.
So we were quite glad to put to sea early on November 26, 1988, completely coincidentally the day of the start of the ARC. We got going as soon as possible to avoid the crush, and by the night we were booming along in a firm NNW wind. It was quite rough, and the crests of the wild-looking waves were glowing in the bright moonlight. It was a very good start to the passage, and we made 143 miles in the first 24 hours.
It’s an unattractive place, but we were only there for five days, loading with yet more provisions, and left on November 26th, the same day as the ARC start.
We had a good run down generally south towards the Cape Verdes, following the traditional trade wind route for sailing ships across the Atlantic, but after we had eased our course towards the west the wind gave up on us, and we had a few days of calms, squalls, and headwinds as a series of fronts trailing winter storms in the far north passed over us. On one of these calm days we swam to clean the bottom (the low price of the Turkish antifouling should have warned us of its effectiveness!), and scraped off a forest of goose barnacles. These were even growing up the topsides where the quarter wave washed the hull.
We were successful with the fishing, with fish nearly every day we wanted it, culminating in a monster of a dorado which took an hour and a half to get aboard, fed us for three days, and filled six preserving jars. By the time we wanted to fish again it had got too rough and the trades too strong, conditions which we then carried for the rest of the passage.
In fact, the seas were very uncomfortable for most of the trip, much more so than we had anticipated for this supposedly idyllic passage. The problem is the swell generated by the north Atlantic storms hundreds of miles away; these sweep down from the north at right angles to the west-going swell driven by the trades, confusing the seas something rotten. Fortunately, Cera is not inherently a rolly boat downwind, but even so things got tossed around a bit, including us. We never had more than about 25 knots of wind, but the seas looked much worse at times, and we were conservative with the sail area – no spinnaker on this run!
Islands of the Caribbean
We arrived at English Harbour, Antigua, on 18 December, the 22nd day out, having sailed just under 2,900 miles. We were delighted, and rather surprised, to find plenty of room to anchor in Ordnance Bay, one of the most romantic-sounding places for all those who have read the writings of the Hiscocks, Pyes, and other famous sailors who used to meet here at this time. Incredibly, we were the only “real” cruising yacht anchored in the bay. There were plenty of boats in the vicinity, of course: the vast majority were charter yachts, sail and power, of great opulence, tied up to the wall at Nelson’s Dockyard and running powerful generators to keep up with their air conditioners and other modern necessities. There were some cruising boats around, of course, but most were anchored further down the bay and nearer the sea, where the wind is fresher and the water a bit clearer, or round in Falmouth Harbour, again where the swimming and beaches are better.
But we liked Ordnance Bay, very peaceful and encased by mangroves, and the oily calm was a great relief from several weeks of rolling anchorages and seagoing. Antigua is a fine landfall island, with good facilities in English Harbour, including a reasonable supermarket, laundry tubs, and a cheap and frequent bus to the main town, St Johns. We made one foray by bus into the hinterland and to St Johns. The local people are pleasant and friendly, living in simple dwellings for the most part. The older women look as though they have stepped out of photos of the old slave times, singing along with the gospel music played on the bus.
There are lots of good anchorages around Antigua, but our plan was to move fairly rapidly down the chain of the Lesser Antilles, visiting only the main islands and seeing the highlights rather than cruising them with any assiduity.
So, soon after Christmas, we left Antigua to sail down the Antilles chain of eastern Caribbean islands. Especially in the northern half, sailing down the chain was a very rough and windy business in the well-established 25-30 knot “Christmas trades”, which got us wetter than we had been since the north Atlantic. The anchorages were interesting and surprisingly different one from the other, but our enjoyment of the anchorages was also limited by the persistently strong wind that blew through them day and night. The waters very choppy and at the exposed ones like the Tobago Cays the wind howled in the rigging and through our nerve endings. The best protected places were very crowded, as expected, with many chartered bareboats being handled – as in the Mediteranean – by very inexperienced tourists who put us under threat every late afternoon by anchoring too close and in an unsafe manner.
But some of the well-known places were very attractive. Marigot Bay in St Lucia and Admiralty Bay in Bequia come especially to mind and generally lived up to their reputations. The model boats they build in Bequia are among the only artefacts we have ever wanted to buy as souvenirs. But they were much too expensive, unfortunately. The “prettiest” islands (blue waters, coral, sandy beaches, small green islands, waving palms – that sort of thing) were in the Grenadines, but that wind made life on board bouncy, dinghy trips wet, and snorkelling impossible. The tourist brochures go pretty easy on descriptions of this wind, and one girl on a charter yacht we asked whether she was enjoying herself replied, “I think so”.
Grenada was, with Antigua, another particularly pleasant island, with a safe and highly convenient anchorage in the lagoon near the town centre. The “supermarket” was right by the wharf where we could take the dinghy, a rare convenience. There is also a string of beautiful bays along the south coast. We didn’t think much of the first and best-known of these, Prickly Bay, but a mile or two further along there were some of the quietest and prettiest anchorages we found in the Antilles. In one, behind Hog Island, we could lie in lovely surroundings and with good protection from surrounding islets, without the wind howling in the rigging. It was here that we really started enjoying ourselves again.
The people of Grenada seemed friendly enough, and despite tales of annual muggings and raping we never felt real friction anywhere along the chain. But there were undercurrents all right; the contrast between rich and poor is always a potential problem where yachts gather, and the sort of people who cruise the Caribbean, including the one- or two-week charterers, are far less sensitive about such issues than the average long-distance cruisers. For instance, after one approach and a light hearted brush-off, the kids waiting on the beach to “look after” our dinghy would leave us alone; but they would pester the charterers unmercifully, ending either in friction or the extortion of more cash than their parents would earn in a day.
Venezuela and the ABC islands
By the time we sailed from Grenada for Venezuela, we were back in relaxed cruising mode, and this South American country lived up to expectations. Surprisingly few boats were around, probably because it is a hard beat back to the Antilles from there, so that most of the sailing visitors are spending an extended period or, like us, passing through on their way to the Panama Canal. We divided our time between the mainland and the offshore islands, and made one bus trip to the interior, visiting Cuidad Bolivar and part of the Orinoco Delta.
“Tours” were too expensive or fully booked, so we used local transport, including the rickety buses as well as the shared taxis known as “por puestos”. Living was cheap, but the quality of produce poor. Fortunately we left just before the new government raised the (absurdly low, 150 litres of diesel for about $1.50) price of fuel, along with other austerity measures, which caused dangerous rioting in some areas.
The highlight of the mainland was Gran Laguna del Obispo, blue enclosed waters backed by a wild landscape of red and brown rock, speckled with cactus and fringed by mangroves, with a multitude of deserted little bays. In the outer islands, the Islas Roques were pretty but rather exposed to the continuing winter trades, and the Islas Aves Barlovento was a beautiful coral-and-mangrove group, the nesting place for billions of tame boobies. We had some grand sailing along this coast, dead downwind for the most part.
The Dutch “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) are lumps of Holland in the southern Caribbean and lie off the west end of Venezuela. The main one, Curacao, was our last call in the region. This is a well-developed place by Caribbean standards, with a superb anchorage in Spanish Water, about six miles from the big port of Willemstad. There, we did some making and mending in we thought the last good opportunity for a long while, being a bit suspicious of the present situation in Panama.
We regarded the six or seven hundred miles of sailing to Panama with some trepidation, as both the pilot charts and the experiences of several before us gave rise to thorough pessimism about matters such as wind speed, sea height and adverse currents. This is a reputedly formidable passage that had a lot of people worried, as the winter trades really barrel round that corner of the coast of Colombia. And this is not to speak of worries about those whom Norma calls “nasty men” hiding along this coast, which led us to sail without navigation lights at night.
Panama: the San Blas islands and the Canal again
As it happened we had a good, fast run to Panama, with only the last night being a bit uncomfortable before pulling into a truly gorgeous anchorage in the San Blas group, off the north coast of the isthmus. These islands, and the adjacent mainland, are the territory of the Cuna Indians, one of the only three remaining tribes of northern South America.
Surprisingly few yachts make this minor detour to these lovely islands, and we had most anchorages to ourselves. There is practically no way of getting to the Cuna territory on the mainland via land, let alone the islands, and the people have a good deal of autonomy. Most of the islands are uninhabited, with some idyllic hideaways in those further from the mainland, and the locals paddle over in their dugouts offering fish, simple veg – and the inevitable “molas”, the reverse appliqué embroidered panels that are used to decorate the national costume they all wear all the time. Buying molas is what Norma calls the anchoring fees for the San Blas! Actually, we did buy several, as they make good presents as well as attractive souvenirs, and are easy to stow.
In one case we sailed down to one of the villages – which are all near the mainland – didn’t think much of the anchorage, and went on a couple of miles or so to a hole amongst the mangroves. We had hardly got the anchor down before being beset by swarms of local women and children, clambering aboard and laying out molas until the whole boat was covered with a solid mass of them. Gentle and friendly, they showed no inclination of being in a real hurry to leave, and when we were warned by an English-speaking missionary that this was only a preliminary invasion, the evening being the time when real numbers would come to visit, we pulled out for somewhere more peaceful!
We were only a few days in the San Blas, the prettiest bunch of islands we have seen in the Caribbean, but we had to press on down to the Canal, to deal with official hassles and the challenge of the transit. When we entered Cristobal Harbour at the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal, we had completed an almost exactly five-year circumnavigation of the north Atlantic, including the Mediterranean in both directions. This was, I might say, a cause for some celebration.
We called the authorities to find out what the current formalities were. Once upon a time, it was compulsory to go to the yacht anchorage in “the flats” and wait for the boarding officer, but we were pleased to learn that we could go straight to the Panama Canal Yacht Club and clear in from there. The club has a marina which is usually full of local yachts, and a stern-to wharf for visitors, costing us about $9 a day. Anchoring out is free, but we knew from experience that setting up the transit and doing the other things we needed to do in Colon – we didn’t want to stop at the other end – would entail a lot of toing and froing, and it’s a fair dinghy ride from the flats in the trade-wind chop. And the club is a friendly and helpful place, unlike its counterpart in Balboa, recently voted one of the worst yacht clubs in the world.
Colon itself was a sad sight. Five years ago, despite a fearsome reputation for muggings, we found it a clean and pleasant place, with lovely old French-style colonial buildings, a legacy of the French attempt to build a canal before the Americans took over. It has since fallen into dreadful decay, with appalling poverty and unemployment contributing to its present lawlessness. Those who are not crooks or thugs are the sort of charming people who make Panama our favourite Latin-American country, and all expressed great concern at even our limited forays by foot into the town. But the decrepit taxis are cheap.
Politically and economically, the Panamanians are in a right old mess. The locals we talked to – taxi drivers and the like – seemed universally to hate Noriega and his cronies, but were resigned to his staying in power whatever happened in the election (then soon to some). They seemed surprisingly unwilling to blame the Americans for the dollar shut-off, which only made things a lot worse for the poor people and didn’t budge Noriega an inch.
It’s a bit easier to deal with all the authorities at Colon than Balboa, because they are closer together, but even so, two complete sets have to be dealt with: the Panamanians for clearing in and out and for a navigation permit, and the Panama Canal Commission for the actual transit. Most of this is the usual stupid pain, right down to the completion of identical forms for each gang of officialdom. The only thing we avoided, having been through before, was the actual business of being measured. We used to think that the Commission was at least efficient; as you’ll see, not even that’s true. But the transit fee is still low, at $55 for us. Beats going round the Horn westward.
The actual return transit of the Panama Canal posed no special problems, after an initial panic when no “adviser” turned up for us. We had got everything arranged, including the pile of paperwork and some necessary people to help with handling the lines in the locks, and were fully provisioned for the transit and for long after, because we were not intending to stop at Balboa (at the Pacific end). But when the appointed time came, no pilot turned up for us! While the other yachts moved off from the yacht club at Colon, I rushed frantically to the office and got one down in time to catch up with the group before the first lock at Gatun.
Transiting the other way five years ago, we used the locks individually, sharing them with the ships; now, the yachts are grouped into a pair of two-day transits each week and do not go down with a ship. This is much safer and easier, with far less turbulence and a lot more space in the locks, but there are fewer spare yachties left over to help with line-handling on each others’ boats. This has made an opening for the locals, but they charge $50 each. We were lucky, meeting a charming American lady living on a boat there, whose two sons were down from Oregon on holiday and wanted a trip through. They were great company as well as being good crew.
After rising through the Gatun Locks we then had about 21 miles of motoring through the lovely piece of water that is the manmade Gatun Lake, formed when the Chagres river was dammed in the early part of the century. Since the whole system was started up in 1914, enough rain has fallen to keep the lake full and supply all the water needed to operate the locks. The lake is scattered with little islands, very pretty, and we were able to take a few scenic short cuts off the main shipping channel, a headsail set in order to help us along.
At the end of that first day we came to anchor off the main channel opposite a settlement called Gamboa, and our advisers left us for the night, in our case with our profound gratitude for helping us out of a situation which was not our fault. Apparently, the man filling in our form had left the office in order to attend to some personal business, and never filled in the box saying when we were to go through!
The lake is, of course, fresh water, and we all went in for a very welcome swim, because it was hot. As the sun went down we had a few rums, and later Norma made us all an excellent dinner, with our three crew as splendid company. We don’t really have room to sleep three guests (we never have done, before!), but the boys decided to sleep in the cockpit, under the awning. Ships slipped by in the night like ghosts, leaving surprisingly little wake at their moderate speed.
The next morning was again fine, hot and steamy, and once again we had the wait for our advisers. This time, I was resolved to press on with the group regardless, if nobody turned up for us! But we got our adviser all right, an absolutely charming lady of Chinese descent (like many in Panama, which is a real melting-pot of the races). Sharp as a tack, she is a graduate of the Marine Academy in New York, currently a senior mate on the Canal tugs, and studying for her Master’s ticket. She was even kind enough to come on board bearing a great bag of ice!
And so, off again, immediately into the Gaillard Cut, the narrowest part of the canal, where the original construction called for the carving of a great slice through the hills of the divide. This is where most of the some 20,000 deaths occurred during the Canal’s building, from injury, yellow fever, and malaria. At the end of the cut we came to the first of the down locks, Pedro Miguel, where we had to wait for some ships to come the other way before our bunch of yachts got in. After this lock, we motored in our rafts across another small lake to the last pair of locks, Miraflores, where there is a little turbulence as the salt water of the Pacific rushes in and mixes with the fresh water that had brought us down.
All we had to do then was to motor a few miles to the Balboa Yacht Club to let off our adviser and three crew, who were unmatchable company and had become good friends. We didn’t stop at the club, instead motoring on to an anchorage at a small island about seven miles away, Taboga, for the night. And so to bed!
After the transit, we enjoyed a return visit to the Pearl Islands in the Gulf of Panama. We careened on the beach at Vivienda Island, allowing the boat to rest on her side, high and dry at low tide. We antifouled with Venezuelan paint. Although labelled as “International”, this has proved to be totally useless, and we are snorkelling to clean the bottom daily, four months later.
While in the Pearl Islands we noticed a diesel small, which warned of our first engine problem in the entire voyage. One of the diesel fuel injection lines cracked. With no prospect of getting a replacement anywhere else we sailed back to the anchorage at Taboga and took the ferry over to Panama City. There, with the friendly and welcome aid of a taxi driver we found a place that could make up a new line in just a few hours. After fitting it the next day we were on our way again, and on 31 March 1989 we left Panama and headed for the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
The Galapagos Islands
It’s a substantial battle to get to the Galapagos Islands, and even more of a battle to get permission to cruise around them in your own boat. We did however manage to do both. In April 1988 Norma visited the office of the Ecuadorian Consul General in London. The lady there was really very helpful, and gave Norma a pile of material, including a set of instructions on how to go about the application, and a pro-forma letter in Spanish. We complied with every request to the letter, and attached copies of our passports, ship’s papers, certificates of competency and any other piece of paper that a really comprehensive bureaucratic mind could dream up. Allow plenty of time for permission to come, they said. So we did, but in October we got a letter from the Consulate, informing us that indeed the Ministry of Agriculture had given us permission to stay for up to 15 days in the islands.
Straddling the equator and in the Doldrums, the Galapagos lie in a particularly windless part of the Pacific. We had a slow, drifting sail to cover the 950 or so miles to the islands, very reluctant to burn diesel fuel because we had heard that supply of more fuel in the islands could be “a problem”. Just what the problem was, none of the material we had read made very clear.
We just made Puerto Ayora, on the shores of Academy Bay on the island of Santa Cruz, before nightfall, and cleared in the next morning. Puerto Ayora is one of the only two ports of entry, the other being Puerto Baquerizo Moreno (Wreck Bay) at the south end of the island of San Cristobal. The time limit for a yacht without necessary authorisations is only 72 hours on the islands, and those clearing in at Wreck Bay were told that they were not really supposed to go on to Academy Bay, but that if they did, they would have to convince the Port Captain there that they had a good enough reason. Amazingly, most yachts developed a variety of minor and major problems in Wreck Bay, necessitating a visit to Puerto Ayora to get the necessary parts and service.
Sure enough, fuel was found to be a problem. The problem actually is that there are no private fuel supplies on the islands. All fuel is state owned: by the Navy, Electricity Commission, public works or whatever. Fuel needed for private cars has to be imported from the mainland by the individual concerned, and he is not allowed to sell it on. Basically, therefore, there is no fuel for sale.
However, the officials of the various authorities found it possible to bend the rules far enough to supply yachts from public supplies, if they were available. Doubtless the not inconsiderable sums requested for this service went into some worthwhile charity. The Port Captain (an officer in the Ecuadorian navy) suggested that we simply leave our containers with him, and he would see that they were filled. However, his enthusiasm dimmed somewhat when we said we needed only 20 or 25. Thousands, he asked? Tons? No, gallons. Oh. We retrieved the empty containers from his office three days later. Slightly desperate, because we hadn’t enough fuel to motor round these windless islands as well as retaining enough to get us in and out of Tuamotu passes and whatever on our way to Tahiti, we took the containers out to a big tuna seiner lying outside the bay. Could they help us? Indeed, like most fishermen, they were delightfully happy to do so, shrugging aside my proffered dollars to buy the crew a few cervezas.
So that was all right. But what of our permission to cruise the islands? The first difficulty, it seemed, was that the Port Captain wanted to see a letter from the Ministry of Defence, his bosses. What we had was not what he wanted. Could he check, please? Ah. On a list sent to him from the mainland, it seemed, was indeed the name of our yacht, one of the two or so a month that work themselves through the bureaucratic maze to get this far. Another hurdle crossed.
One of the conditions is that a guide is taken along on the yacht, to make sure you comply with the rules of the National Park: no staying on the islands after sunset, staying on the marked trails, not smoking ashore and so on. Private yachts are, it was apparently feared, potential destroyers of the environment. So, we went to the office of the park authorities, adjacent to the Charles Darwin Research Station, one of the published tasks of which is to control the movements of private yachts.
We thought that they could provide advice on where we could get a guide. No. Try the guides’ cooperative in town, and come back when you have one. It turned out then that every man, woman and possibly the dogs represented themselves as guides, complete with encyclopaedic knowledge of yacht navigation round the islands. Unconvinced, we sought advice from a crewed yacht charter operation working out of the bay, and finally ended up contracting for the services for five $40 days of Veronica, a pretty girl with good English who had lived for three years in Massachusetts. Her husband was away on a cruise ship, so we also agreed to bring along her two-and-a-half year-old daughter Daniela, who became the first child ever to spend a night on our boat.
Meanwhile, there were mutterings among the handful of visiting yachts in the anchorage. Immigration and port fees were being charged that were clearly not in the regulations. Day trips were falling through, necessitating further entreaties to the Port Captain for extension to the 72 hours. So it was in a rather defensive frame of mind that we trudged back to the park office, a hot walk through cactus forests, black rocks bouncing the tropical sun.
Proudly, I flourished my letter, indicating the approval of the Ministry of Forests (the park bosses) for our 15 days in the islands. No, not good enough. What we needed was a letter actually from the Ministry, on Ministry letterhead. Without that, no go.
We appealed to the park boss. He then contacted his bosses in Quito, on the mainland. Give them three days, they said. No good, said Veronica, representing us strongly by that time, with her fee riding on the outcome. How long does the Ministry of Defence say they can stay? Fifteen days. Then give them a set itinerary for 15 days, including land trips. No, no, that’s not what they want. So, finally we had approval for our planned five-day trip. All we had to do was pay the $40 each for our park entry tickets (payable by anyone who enters national park land, even those like the short-stay yachts taking day trips already costing at least that much), plus another $20 each for the privilege of taking our own boat to the visitor sites.
Those two twenty dollars had to be deposited in the town’s only bank. A new catch: the bank neither changes nor accepts dollars for depositing. The only change possible is at a poor rate in the street. Another anguished call to the park authorities brings agreement that they will accept whatever we can get. And thus, after three days labour, we finally received the authorisation we thought we had before we had even arrived.
Clearing out, to get the zarpe required for our short cruise, was comparatively easy, once we had winkled the Port Captain out of a restaurant, filled in a form relating to port dues (legal, small ones), gone over the street to a shop to buy copies of the actual clearance forms (only used by the Port Captain), and taking these back for more laborious typing. We were free to leave.
We had planned a shortish trip this first day, correctly suspecting that the clearance procedure would be other than quick and easy, and motored most of the way to the island of Santa Fe, about 18 miles to the south east. At last we could experience what we had come for.
Santa Fe is a dry island, old by Galapagos standards, covered by tall prickly pear, so tall that the plants have developed trunks like trees, complete with a brown bark. The anchorage is a slot protected by a rocky outcrop, and as we turned in, sealions came gambolling out to see us, showing great interest in the anchoring procedure, and barking with delight as I hefted the outboard down on to the inflatable. The noise they make is something between a dog’s bark, a cow’s moo, and a donkey’s anguished moan, but when one shouts at you from behind, a few inches from the dinghy as you get things set, it is a shock, it is.
We took the dinghy over to the rocks, but on trying to tie to them, we were accosted by an apparently angry and certainly extremely outspoken male sealion, loudly defending his territory. So we moved along a bit, and anchored the dinghy. In we went for a snorkel and swim, to the huge delight of both the sealions and us, as they twisted and turned around us, joyfully showing us how to somersault and dive, and playing chicken as they swam at top speed towards us, turning away just as we thought they would collide, I swear with grins on their whiskery faces. Of especial interest was the dinghy anchor and painter, which they worried at like dogs with a stick, gently nibbling the rope and chain. Even more fun, they found, was to lift the anchor from the sand and make off with it, towing the dinghy and all, a game which we had to stop a few times, not knowing their final plans in the matter! Norma has spent years dreaming of swimming with the sealions in the Galapagos, and for her in particular, this was a dream fulfilled.
The next step was to tackle one of the trails, one that led up a rocky escarpment, in order to try to see one of the species of land iguana unique to this island. First, the beach. Sealions sprawled all over, with males grunting and complaining at each other, mock fighting and biting. The females mostly lay sweetly recumbent, with one or two showing special interest in us, approaching up the beach in a sidling, grinning, shy manner like a faithful soppy Labrador. Up the trail we did see our iguana, a big one, of a uniform shade of browny yellow, as he lumbered slowly into the sharp cactus and undergrowth. Worrying away at the ground were pretty little Galapagos doves, with blue-circled eyes and pink fronts, unconcerned by us; tiny lizards scurried away so late that we watched where we walked in case we trod on one. One of the magical things about the Galapagos is the way the wildlife simply doesn’t care one way or the other whether you are there, unless you are trespassing on their territory, and in the case of the sealions and boobies, they all seemed very pleased to see us.
After a hot and steamy night we left early the next morning, already awake from the noise of sealions playing tag round the rudder, honking and blowing bubbles which washed up round our ears as we lay in the after cabin. No wind to speak of, as usual, so we motored in order to make sure we made our next anchorage in plenty of time for more shore-type activities. On the way we caught a superb “sierra”, or Spanish mackerel, as we came through the channel between the Seymour islands; great eating, with firm, white flesh.
In the early afternoon we motored round the north side of the small island of Bartolome, with its dramatic and much-photographed pinnacle rock, an outcrop of this extraordinary volcanic island. We tucked in round the corner and anchored off the west end of the island out of the northerly swell. Taking the dinghy back to the pinnacle we passed groups of small penguins, the only ones in the world to live anywhere near the equator, the rocks under their feet red with “Sally Lightfoot” crabs, so named because their delicate movements were supposed to mimic the movements of a Jamaican dancer known by the same nickname. Snorkelling round the rocks Norma found herself in among a large group of the penguins, which swam and dived around her, popping up and confronting her from inches away in a typically unconcerned Galapagos manner. A huge stork wandered along the beach behind us.
Veronica was much more interested in looking after Daniela than monitoring our movements, so once we were ashore she left us to our own affairs, which was fine by us.
Across on the mainland of the island of Santiago (”St James”), we walked across the lower reaches of an extraordinary flow of volcanic lava, hardened a brittle black, ooze which has solidified into a rocky mousse with a shining shell, whirled and twirled with rope-like patterns, solidified pools of once-boiling mud. Hardy little “pioneer” plants were establishing a tenuous foothold in a landscape akin to the world at the beginning of time. At the water’s edge, in a lava cove, a family of female sealions cavorted out to meet the dinghy. until ordered peremptorily back to the shore by a large and noisy male, which then made his displeasure at our presence very obvious by torpedo passes under us.
The next morning, before it got too hot and before the tourists arrived on the day-trip boats, we walked to the top of the steep little mountain on Bartolome. Up a dusty trail we toiled up the side of this volcano, a new one in geological terms, with jumbled lava all around, ruddy-brown small craters. From the top we could look down upon our boat, anchored off a yellow beach backed by green mangroves, the only colours in the scene which were not black or brown.
We returned then to the island of Santa Cruz, anchoring on its north shore after a good sail by Galapagos standards. Into the dinghy again, we nosed our way in to a deep but shallow inlet, Caleta Tortuga Negra (”Turtle Cove”). Again, we were surrounded by black lava rocks fringed by mangroves, and as we drifted in silent calm, blue-footed boobies dive-bombed fish around us. In the inner reaches of the inlet, shadows in the water revealed themselves as turtles by the score, lazily paddling round us and periodically poking their heads above water for a look at us and taking a huffy breath of air. In a brackish lagoon behind an adjacent beach three pink flamingos stood peacefully on one leg.
We had a gentle sail up to North Seymour island and anchored off a sandy beach on the islet of Mosquera. Sealions reclined in the sun, from time to time playfully rolling down the sand dunes towards the sea. Within a few minutes of starting our walk around North Seymour we encountered our first nesting blue-footed booby, sitting unconcernedly on two eggs held between its colourful feet. Further along the trail we saw scores more such nests, some even built on the trail itself, and we had to walk carefully around them as the booby on the nest at the time looked up at us in a manner which said “watch out, but I’m not worried unless you step on me!” As the equatorial sun arched high over us the boobies turned to keep their eggs in the shade, spraying guano in a starlike spray around them, and fluttering the membrane under their beaks in order to keep cool. A couple of boobies went through their entire courtship ritual at the side of the trail as we watched from a few feet away. In a stately dance, they lifted one blue foot after the other in unison, and in culmination set the “sky-pointing” position, beaks, tails and wings all pointed skyward as they squealed and squawked at each other.
On another part of the island the boobies gave way to the frigatebirds, with most of their nests in scrubby bushes high enough to give them a chance of getting launched; stupendous flyers, they are not so good close to the ground. The brilliant red throat membranes of the males were mostly inflated as they displayed and preened before the females. Many more soared overhead, sometimes whooshing down past us on their way to their nests. A surf was breaking along the shore, and in it yet more sealions played, body-surfing in towards the rocks, their brown, streamlined forms luminescent in the transparent, curling waves. The harmless snake of the island slithered past us as we walked back to the dinghy, as unfearing as any other of the creatures all around us.
Our next destination was the rocky islet of Plaza Sur, where as we anchored we were again welcomed by mobs of sealions, as they spiralled their way up the anchor chain and snuffed their way round the dinghy. Over our sundowners we listened to the amazing variety of their calls: an old man coughed bronchitically, a sheep baaed, cows mooed, children whined . . .
Ashore early the next day, our first encounter was with a big bull sealion, well known to the guides as a vigorous defender of his territory against invaders, which certainly included curious tourists. Only the week before he had caught and taken a bite out of one of the guides. So we waited until he was finally shooed clear and persuaded to watch and complain about us from a few feet away, leaving the dingy at the tiny landing to the attentions of the playful females, which climbed in and out of it and worried away at the painter like playful kittens.
This is the island of the land iguanas. Once genuinely tame, and fed by visitors, they sidled down to meet us, but as in the case of all the creatures of the islands we were under strict instructions not to feed or touch them. These iguanas, indeed, were at one time in danger of rapidly dying out, as with all the human attention they were getting they were forgetting how to eat for themselves (tasty, but prickly, cactus) or even reproduce.
Along the cliffs, swallow-tailed Galapagos gulls were nesting, some with tiny chicks clamouring for a feed. Tiny, colourful lizards scurried under our threatening feet. At the other side of the cove sealions were under the attention of a less threatening male, and we again swam with them, more magic, loping, twisting, diving with them.
That was the last, memorable experience we had with the creatures of the islands, and it was back to Puerto Ayora for us, for some provisioning – as far as was possible in these poorly-supplied islands – to try to get a little more fuel from someone, and to clear Customs. Fuel, we were sold by a friendly owner of a charter boat we had met in the islands, who lived with his English wife in a lovely house overlooking the bay. Customs and Immigration procedures were about par for the course, with another $15 to pay for the privilege. And thus, we were ready once again to put to sea, this time for the long passage towards Hiva Oa, in the Marquesas islands of French Polynesia.
We will remember the animals and birds of the Galapagos long after we have forgotten the problematic officialdom.
Galapagos to French Polynesia
The passage from the Galapagos to the Marquesas was the last of the mammoth 3000+ milers for a while, thank goodness. After a calm day to start with the trade wind steadily built and we settled in to the way of life of two people at sea in a small boat for about three weeks. We had to adjust sails and trim maybe twice a day because the trades normally strengthen during the afternoon for some reason, or when overtaken by squalls that swept through every now and again. We fished quite successfully, with enough tuna attracted to our towed lure to keep us fed. Norma baked bread every few days. We read, listened to music, navigated, kept up with sail and boat maintenance and followed the weather patterns on the weatherfax. We had to keep an eye out for other vessels even in this very remote part of the world – at one point we were about as far from any land as it is possible to be on this globe – because we came across a few big Korean-style fishing boats. These are not known for their avid watch keeping. A whale followed us for a while, but that was about the peak of the excitement.
Approaching the Marquesas the weather became a lot less pleasant, with heavy black overcast and squally showers. Landfall was the bay at Atuona, on the island of Hiva Oa. There were about a dozen yachts there, all surging and rolling in the Pacific swell, typical of most anchorages in the Marquesas. Black rocks surrounded us, and there was surf on the black sand beach at the head of the narrow bay. Over us loomed precipitous green cliffs, because the bay was actually a volcanic crater, now open to the sea. While I started cleaning barnacles off the topsides Norma went ashore for water and to do the washing. Unfortunately she was not well protected, this first exposure, from the notorious “no-nos”, “no-seeums”, tiny biting flies, which brought her up in an all-over rash. They continued to be a pestilential problem all the time in the Marquesas, and Norma took to wearing an overall lightweight “Noddy suit”.
We soon sailed round to the north side of the island to Hanamanu Bay, which was rather better protected and allowed a decent night’s sleep. The next morning local fishermen were catching lobsters and fish from around the boat, and I speared some reef fish for dinner. Ashore, we husked some coconuts on a convenient spike, and had a swim in a clear fresh pool fed by a waterfall streaming from the steep, green hills all around. Later, we joined a pig feast put on by some locals who had set up camp for a few days hunting for feral boar, and enjoyed pork with spinach, breadfruit, sweet rice and poisson cru.
We sailed on overnight in miserable rainy weather to Nuku Hiva and the Baie de Taiohae, veiled in rain, and set anchors fore and aft to keep us bow on to the swell. We were able to get some provisions here and check in with some friendly officialdom. We aimed to move on after a day, but while recovering the stern anchor the boat surged and I disrupted a fingernail, which was very painful and put paid to any thoughts of leaving for a while. But after another couple of days we sailed round into Anse d’Hakatea, known as “Daniel’s Bay” after the friendly Polynesian who, with his family, are the only people living there. This bay is well protected from the swell by Marquesas standards, and we enjoyed a relatively calm anchorage. With some Canadian friends we hiked for miles up a canyon to the foot of a sky-high waterfall, tumbling over the lip of a plateau at the knife-like top of the lush, precipitous cliffs. On the way back to the boat, passing ancient Polynesian ruins, Norma collected mangos, guavas, lemons, coconuts and breadfruit.
On 22 May we left Daniel’s Bay for the 490-mile, four-day passage to our first anchorage in the Tuamotu Archipelago, Manihi Island. At dawn of the day of arrival I was lucky enough to observe an incredibly rare phenomenon, a “green flash”. At the instant the very last edge of the sun disappears at dusk over the horizon, or its first edge appears at dawn, its rays are refracted in a way that turns the orange colours to bright green. The conditions have to be perfect: absolutely clear skies and a flat, sharp horizon. At sundown most voyagers routinely look for a green flash, but some never see it. At dawn it’s much harder to catch, because you have to be looking in exactly the right place as the sun appears, and the flash I for only a second or so. I felt very privileged to see this but some sceptics believe there is no such thing!
The Tuamotus were previously known informally as the “Dangerous Archipelago”, because of the wide scattering of about 78 low-lying coral atolls, extending across the ocean for a thousand miles and swept by swift ocean currents. Up to quite recent times most yachts have avoided the group because when celestial observations became difficult or impossible, position-fixing was vague and risk of striking an invisible reef very high. However, in these days of satnavs and radars – and very few long-distance yachts now have neither – the Tuamotus are not the threat they used to be, and everyone we know visited at least one of the islands.
In remarkable contrast to the high islands of the Marquesas, they are all flat, bright coral atolls. The pass into the Manihi lagoon is deep but very narrow, and the tidal stream runs at about five knots, so that careful conning of the vessel through the clear water is necessary to keep off the coral sides.
We heard Polynesian music from the village meeting house as we approached, and it turned out that the district administrator was being welcomed, having arrived on a small trading ship at the town dock. The village itself was showing signs of unrepaired damage from a cyclone in 1983, a few years previously, but the two small shops had ample provisions. The anchorage was rather uneasy, becoming choppy at times when the trades perked up, and the anchor chain was being sagged on coral heads and assorted rubbish on the sea bed. So, we only stayed a couple of nights before making our way safely out of the pass – with some relief – and enjoying a pleasant day sail to Ahe.
The pass into Ahe has a bad reputation, but we found it easier than at Manihi. It was a beautiful approach to the village, across the bigger “outer” lagoon and into a smaller inner lagoon near the shore. Again we heard music, this time we were told, “just practising”. The pretty village had been completely restored since the 1983 cyclone, which had totally covered the little island with water. It was a pleasure to explore the friendly village, its island and the small motus around it – all part of the string of little islands which, with the coral reef, enclosed the huge main lagoon. The anchorage was well protected, we were the only boat except for a trading ship for a few hours, and we were more relaxed there than we had been at any time since the San Blas islands in Panama!
But to some extent we were sailing to a schedule by this time, and we had to press on to Papeete, the Big City of French Polynesia. Actually, it’s not that big, but it seems that way in contrast to places like Manihi and Ahe, with a four-lane highway running behind the yachts moored stern-to to the quay or (a cheaper option, which we chose) the shore further along, near the prominent Protestant temple that can be seen on many postcards.
Crossing the road to the shops can be a dangerous nightmare, clutching in your bag the piles of money you will need to buy anything. The prices are outrageous, impossible to justify even by the tax structure of the territory (no income tax, only import duties). French and Australian wines are both $25 a four-litre box; Australian beer, brewed in Britain, is less expensive than the local Hinano. That said, everything in the shops is of excellent French-style quality, including the marvellous food. We’ve had nothing like it for a long time, and never previously experienced the “trucks”, which serve excellent and affordable meals barbequed on a roaring wood fire built over the cab.
One reason for this illogical high-cost structure must be the cash poured into the economy by the French government, who have found that large sums of money will keep even the most radical antinuclear activists quiet – or at least, without a public voice. But one effect of the high prices is that tourism is being badly hit, with the number of visitors way down, as the big tour operators can place people in a similar ambiance far more cheaply in places like Fiji, or even Australia and New Zealand. There are very few French cruising boats in the area; they are famed for their ability to sniff out the bargains, and here there aren’t any. The poorer of the local people simply don’t buy much, because subsistence cultivation is so easy that there is always plenty to eat, services such as roads and schools are free, and devices such as solar generating panels are highly subsidised.
We only stayed a week in Papeete, long enough to get the usual cruising business done – mail, money, gas, stores, clearances – and organise the notorious bond, a bank deposit which is supposed to cover the air fares home for all aboard. Air NZ quoted nearly $1,600 each for one-way fares to Sydney, but the immigration authorities accepted a fair bit less than that without question. The banks charge heavily for their “service” in this matter. Curiously, having gone through all the palaver of clearing in at Nuku Hiva and getting the cruising permit with green “yacht’s passport”, then depositing the bond in Papeete, we had to clear out completely when we left “with permission for the Iles Sous Le Vent”, the main area we had come to cruise! The only commitment is that we can’t get our bond back until Bora Bora. The convolutions of the bureaucratic mind continue to defeat me.
Before leaving Papeete we rented a car to be shared with another cruising couple, and enjoyed an interesting circle-island drive. This basically follows the coast, and along the way we visited the excellent Musee de Tahiti et des Isles and the reconstructed ancient Polynesian Marae Arahurahu. Te latter was in a lovely setting, surrounded by high green cliffs, thick with trees. Further round, on the opposite side of the island to Papeete, we toured the Gauguin Museum and learnt about his rather unhappy life here, searching for a paradise unspoiled. All the island roads are lined with colourful shrubs and flowers, beautifully tended, real features of French Polynesia.
After leaving the city harbour we moved a little way round to the west, lee side of Tahiti island to a clear, open and very pleasant anchorage between the outer reef and the shore. Among the joys of cruising Polynesia are these calm, clear anchorages, watching the Pacific swell pounding the protective coral in a long white line of surf. There are few flies and other bugs, the wind cuts the heat, swimming for pleasure and to clean the bottom of the boat is safe and easy, and the island scenery never less than spectacular.
All this and more is what we experienced after sailing over to Moorea, close to Tahiti and one of the loveliest of all. We first anchored just outside the famous Cooks Bay, and then moved in to the head of the bay, off Paopao village. This is one of the world’s great and most photographed anchorages, where petals from flowers ashore were blown over the boat and floated past on the water. Green and red ginger plants added to the shoreline colours, and behind it all, typically shaggy green growth carpeted the hills. Black basalt spires thrust upwards high beyond the green, tops in the trade-wind clouds.
The twin bay to Cooks in Moorea is Oponohu Bay, and again we spent several nights behind the outer reef, looking up the length of the bay to the spire known as the “sharks tooth”. In neither bay were there many yachts, so we soon became friendly with those that were there. We shopped at the little village of Papetoai, anchored in a mini-lagoon we came to regard as “ours”, and then moved to the head of the bay to an anchorage close to another one of the world’s most famous, Robinson’s Cove. Ashore, we walked up Oponohu valley past shrimp farms and other experimental farming areas, again enjoying the sight of flowering trees and shrubs with co loured leaves. Further up the hill we came across ancient maraes and archery platforms and while studying these we were joined by a friendly American expat with a car, who gave us a lift up to the top of the saddle between the mountains, at the Belvedere. From there we had a splendid view of both our bays to the north, and more green, old, volcanic craters to the south.
We sailed overnight to the next island in the chain, Huahine, anchoring by ourselves in a channel behind a small motu. We swapped a jar of coffee for an enormous bunch of bananas brought by a fisherman from one of the tiny settlements along the motu. From there we sailed round the north of the island and re-entered the channels between the reef and the mainland. We stopped for shopping at the simple town of Fare, then worked further down the west side to a lovely typically South Pacific anchorage in a big sandy bay which we shared with only five other yachts. This of course led to extensive socialising. We walked the beach and took rides on the bicycles, trying to avoid the holes in the crushed coral road dug by sand crabs as we went exploring some tiny villages and an ancient sacred marae with a history of human sacrifice.
In rather unsettled but improving weather we moved back up to Fare where, on the fourth of July, we joined a big group of Americans (and others) for a celebratory party on the beach.
The following day we sailed to the next island in the chain, Raiatea. Our first anchorage was in another beautiful bay, Faaroa, a long inlet with a river at its head. We took the dinghy up the river and were loaded up by a friendly local who waved us ashore with bananas, taro, pawpaw and cassavas – and a family of geckos and a large spider, we found later! We were able to circle Raiatea inside the reef through channels that were sometimes narrow, conning our passage from up the mast at times. Perhaps the prettiest anchorage was at the southern end of the main island, inside the small motu of Nao Nao, but unfortunately this was one of the few places in the Society Islands where mosquitoes were to active and forced us to move.
The island of Tahaa shares the outer reef with Raiatea, and there we anchored once again at the head of a long winding inlet. It was well protected and with good holding, which was fortunate, because another band of unsettled weather kept us there for a few days. We did some more cycling ashore and then, from anchorages nearer the northern end of Tahaa, we explored more villages, very Polynesian, with smiling people who were more friendly than in areas of the Societies more commonly visited. Pigs, ducks, chickens and cows wandered the gravel streets, and large sheds sheltered the copra as it dried. From our final anchorage in Tahaa, having almost completely circumnavigated the island, through the necklace of motus along the reef we could see Bora Bora waiting for us to the west.
Bora Bora is one of several islands with the reputation of being the world’s most beautiful, and by our rating it would certainly be up there with the greatest. The approach is spectacular, with black spikes pushing up through a curtain of green visible all the way over from Tahaa, and the foaming white reef grows from the horizon in the last few miles. The pass is easy, and the first anchorage on the right, by a lovely little motu used by Club Med when it’s not shut – as now – has one of the world’s most gorgeous views. Around the other side of the island, via shoals over coral which put most people off the trip, there are more outstanding views of this lovely place, moods changing from hour to hour as the moist trades build layers of clouds with the passing day.
We got a rude reminder that the world is a cruel place, not just a three-dimensional postcard, when on the beach adjacent to one of the loveliest anchorages we have ever enjoyed some local children were tormenting a screaming baby goat which then, as Norma rowed ashore to remonstrate with them, had its throat summarily cut by their parents. It spoiled the idyll, somehow.
We were nearly two weeks in this most dramatic and beautiful of all the islands in French Polynesia, and it was a fitting climax to this part of the voyaging. During the lulls in changeable weather enjoyed several more anchorages and much socialising with the many friends any yacht inevitably makes when transiting the same waters and the same islands on the same route.
We seemed to enjoy the Society islands of French Polynesia more than some others. We heard lots of complaints about deep anchorages, unfriendly locals, poor snorkelling and diving, and lack of fish. Well, OK; but there are still lots of places to anchor which are not deep (13 metres was our absolute maximum, with only a poor apology for an anchor winch, and mostly we were in five to ten), enhanced by surroundings of exceptional splendour. The people in some islands have simply seen enough of tourists, including yachties, and just want to get on with their lives in peace. This was fine by us. And in the more remote spots many of the locals overwhelmed us and others by gifts of fruits and vegetables.
We didn’t do much in the way of snorkelling, because nothing can really match such places as Belize and Honduras; anyway, swimming around coral and marvelling at the pretty fish have always been secondary activities for us, rather than the primary reason for cruising it seems to be for some others. On the plus side, there are few or no frighteners in the way of sharks and barracuda in French Polynesia.
We sailed directly from Bora Bora to Tonga, because we had been to many of the best of the Cook islands during our previous sojourn in the south Pacific in 1982; further, we had what turned out to be well-justified doubts about the reliability of the easterly trades which need to stay from that direction to make most of the anchorages and harbours safe and comfortable. And we were looking forward to our return to the Vava’u group, a compact set of islands which make for almost perfect cruising: good winds in flat water for enjoyable day sailing (something we rarely do), lots of great anchorages, exceptionally nice people, and very good provisioning by the standards of islands of the Pacific. We found it essentially unchanged, to our delight, and we explored many favourite anchorages of old as well as the few places we had not been to before.
The weather in the south-west Pacific passes through in waves, and for passages of less than a week or so it is possible, by watching the weatherfax carefully, to time departures to make the best of the trade winds. This we did with great success on the legs from Tonga to Fiji, and Fiji to Noumea. Boats that got their timing wrong, or who never thought about it, were often faced with non-existent trades or even headwinds. We heard an English boat congratulate some Canadians on leaving Vava’u along with us: “You chose the right boat to go with. They never have bad weather!” If only that were so!
Our calls to Suva and Noumea were only to break up the passage-making, as “cruising” in the strict sense of the word, was over for us by that time. We were simply heading for home, like a hungry horse with the scent of his stable in his nose. But they were both enjoyable stops, sociable among the many boats with whom we had made friends during the ill-dubbed “milk run”. In both Fiji and New Caledonia, the current political problems were only too apparent, sad to say.
We had for many months regarded the last long leg of the voyage, across the Tasman, with great trepidation, not helped by the fact that the previous year our very good friend Julia Hazel, single-handing her way home after an awe-inspiring engineless circumnavigation, had been capsized just a day or two out of Sydney. So when we got the inevitable cold front, bringing the equally inevitable foul seas despite a southerly of below gale force, we just hove to and sat it out for half a day before pressing on to Coffs Harbour.
Entry procedures there were as easy as we had hoped. There are still many who think that after more than five years away, duty is payable on the boat. The situation – which we clarified years ago – is this. Sure, the regulations say that a vessel is liable for duty after this period. But as long as you can show that the yacht has remained in your possession and use while away there is no time limit, and it is re-imported free of duty as a “personal possession”.
In review, our voyaging has been undramatic by the standards of so much we have read. We have been to no place we have really disliked, battled no survival storms, have had no serious sail, engine, rigging or gear failures, and no crew problems (no crew!).
Coffs was a good place to ease back into the real world, with a convenient marina which is cheap by world standards. We sat out some wet and windy weather there while getting adjusted to the fact that in a few days we would be back in Sydney, anxious to see our daughter, other relations and friends, but not so anxious to tackle the logistics of re-establishment ashore. Back in Sydney we were happy to stay aboard for several weeks while tenants continued to keep us solvent. Leaving Cera would see the end of an eight-year period that we were sure would be the highlight of all our years together.