10 May 1996-Papeete,Tahiti
During the last couple of months we have made a big dent in the westward progress necessary to get round the world, so the theme of the letter is “If those are the Marquesas Islands it must be April”. Indeed, it took us 30 days of continuous sailing from the Galapagos Islands to the Marquesas. To backtrack a little, we made it through the Panama Canal in one day, unusual for a yacht, which usually take two days. After last minute shopping in Balboa we sailed to Taboga Island in the Gulf of Panama for a couple of nights. A charming island with a picturesque village. We then spent three nights at anchorages in the Las Perlas group. At Contradora Island a blond German lady called Claudia came over in her dinghy from a nearby yacht and offered to bake us some German bread, a list of the selection available, with prices, included Weissbrot, Dunkelbrot, Muesilibrot, Zwiebeibrot and Schwarzwalderbrot. She must have been a model and was clad only in the skimpiest of bikinis, so of course we enthusiastically ordered a loaf for delivery in the morning. The Las Perlas seemed idyllic and it was only later that Walter noticed a letter in the SSCA bulletin about a yachting couple whose boat was seized in the Las Perlas area by escaped convicts from the maximum security prison which is located on one of the islands. The couple were forced to take the men to Columbia and the husband was shot for his pains. Good job we read about it after we left, on the way to the Galapagos Islands, a leg which took only six days. It is considerably easier to enter the Galapagos Islands than it was during FIONA’s first visit in 1990. Then, you had to bribe the port captain. Now, they take about the same amount of money, but it’s all official and we easily got permission to stay for five days. We anchored in Academy Bay where there were a considerable number of boats from a British yacht club who were sailing round the world in twenty months. This enterprise is called the Tradewinds Rally, it comprises over forty yachts. In the Galapagos there is constant struggle between conservationists and settlers from Ecuador. I think the settlers are winning; sea lions were common in Academy Bay when we anchored there in 1990 but this year I saw only one. We visited the Charles Darwin station where they are breeding the giant Galapagos tortoise and we took a one day tour of the preserve on Plaza Island.
When we left most of theTradewind Rally yachts were scattered in a thousand mile-long swathe between the Galapagos and Marquesas Islands. This 3000 mile leg was a three week downwind run for FIONA in 1990 but this time we were unlucky with the winds for the first ten days which were mostly light, on the nose or simply zero. After seven days we had made good only 380 miles towards the Marquesas and I began to worry about our food supply if the same conditions persisted. We did use the engine a little to edge south as the meteorologists predicted better winds down there. But I had not refueled in the Galapagos because when I was there in 1990 the fuel was so dirty I had persistent problems with clogged filters for years afterwards. The rally people had a morning roll call on the SSB radio in which each yacht reported its position and weather conditions. We were not becalmed alone-only the yachts five or six hundred ahead had any wind. Being becalmed on the open sea is not pleasant- there is always swell which rolls the boat. The sails, which must be set to catch what wind there is, slat violently from side to side. It is a good job the mainsail was new, for the old one would have surely torn in these conditions. As it was, both upper battens were broken and we broke half a dozen nylon sail slides. One morning I was so fed up with the wear and tear I wrote the following poem in the log book:
The great swells slide across the ocean, Wind-pecked ripples mottle the sea.
Sullen, the boat rises to the motion
And the sails slat, angrily.
Only when the wind-curved sails fill out
Will she rise and the wheel stiffen.
The captain will scan the rigging and shout,
“Harden sheets-set course again!”
And would you believe a nice breeze came up for a while? Ultimately it took us thirty days to make the passage, just about all of March. You might think time dragged but it is surprising how quickly it passed. After breakfast comes elevenses- tea and cookies. Then lunch, afternoon tea follows, then happy hour with hors d’oeuvres and rum and juice. Supper follows just before nightfall. After we ran out of bread bought in the Galapagos we baked a loaf every morning.
At 8 p.m. (ship’s time) we go onto 2 hour watches, followed by four hours off. All this routine makes the time pass very quickly. We have lots of tapes, BBC and VOA on the shortwave and a couple of dozen trashy paperbacks, traded with other yachts. An odd thing, which I have noticed before on long voyages, is that I become very bothered by the typical modern shoot-em-up violent novel. I can only read a page at a time and I absolutely have to peek at the ending, just to avoid nasty surprises. Modern life, with the constant overwhelming TV, radio and other sensory inputs leaves one emotionally desensitized. At sea, one’s emotional threshold level sinks, perhaps that’s why nothing seems to happen in Victorian novels-the genteel readers would have been shocked if it did. We also had a good supply of the Manchester Guardian Weeklies, sent by my daughter Brenda to Panama. We hoarded these and opened them one a week, to be read over again and again. We also did innumerable crossword puzzles, especially Walter who had several volumes of collected puzzles. Evgueni seemed to be writing a book. Finally, each day I usually had a number of maintenance tasks as it seems everything on the boat is the process of corroding, chafing, peeling, cracking, or just plain disintegrating.
We did have contact with the outside world, however. I was plugged into two radio nets, one operated by other cruising boats and an excellent net run by amateur radio operators. These fellows had directional antennas and powerful transmitters, so communication was much more reliable than the cruising net. Each boat registered with the net was called at a specific time each evening. After reporting position and weather a number of services were available such as a doctor and phone patches to the U.S. I called home several times. Towards the end of March we had a glorious view of comet Huakutaki for two evenings, probably better than most other viewers in the world because of the intense darkness at sea once the moon set.
We made our landfall at Hiva Oa in the Marquesas. The village is about a mile and a half from the dinghy dock- we needed the excercise, one’s legs tend to atrophy on a long passage. We walked up a hill to a cemetery overlooking the beautiful bay. In it was the grave of Paul Gauguin, despised by the French during his life for his loose morals but now revered (he is safely dead) as the original portrayer of Polynesian life. We then cruised to Fatu Hiva, where I traded some five minute epoxy for tapa cloth. Then we sailed to Tahuato and to Nuka Hiva; the administrative center of the Marquesas Islands. We were able to get plenty of fresh fruit, especially the delicious pamplemousse, the huge Tahitian grapefruit, which were literally lying on the ground in Nuka Hiva. The bay was full of Tradewind Rally yachts, and we made a number of friends among them. There was general surprise at the Stars and Stripes on the stern of FIONA when they heard my strong Lancashire accent. Unfortunately a heavy swell developed due to bad weather to the south and several dinghies were capsized at the dock. Some anchors were lost by several boats, including our stern anchor, on which a shackle worked loose. Despite a search using scuba gear and probing with a long rod we were unable to recover it. The last island group we visited before arriving in Tahiti was the Tuamotus. This group comprises about forty low„lying coral atolls. We visited three, at Ahe our anchor got caught on coral but fortunately a Polynesian with scuba gear was nearby and freed us. The natives use scuba to tend the clams hanging in long strings below the surface; they are producing cultivated black pearls. At Apataki we were able to tie up to the dock, the first time we had been alongside since we were in Martinique in early January. We took the opportunity to take all the chain out of the forward locker and lay it out on the dock. We were then able to repaint the marks at 50, 100 and 150 feet and turn it end for end. We arrived in Papeete on April 21st, and within a week Evgueni left the boat and returned to Russia. Walter and I are flying back to New York in early May. Walter will return with me in June. We will have to find a new crew member to replace Evgueni. The boat is at a mooring in the lovely Maeva Bay, about five miles from Papeete. Since leaving Patchogue in July FIONA has sailed over 14,000 nautical miles.
There are all kinds of spare parts I will have to bring back, and while I am home, there is the annual vintage Bentley rally, so I will have to get my old machine fired up.