Saturday, July 24, 2010

Upoo Tahiti Sets Sail

On July 20, we watched the people in Huahine bless the repaired rudder of the traditional 15 meter outrigger canoe docked in the town of Fare. This special catamaran called Upoo Tahiti, which means “Head of Tahiti,” has a piglet, rooster and plenty of bananas and taro on board. She is one of many outrigger canoes sailing west across the Pacific to China. Captain and designer, Clement Pito, has been imagining this voyage for the past 20 years and his dream had finally come to fruition.

Pito, bare breasted with two bands of tatoos on his right arms and wearing a traditional skirt, hopes his sailing expedition will bring Polynesians closer to their ancestors who bravely left their homes in Asia and sailed east to settle in the Pacific islands. In the traditional fashion, Pito’s crew will navigate by the stars. They have an outboard Yamaha motor just in case, but they don’t plan on using it much.

Unfortunately, last week when Upoo Tahiti sailed 90 miles from Papeete to Huahine, the strong seas damaged the boat’s rudder and delayed their departure in Huahine. Five days later with lots of help from the locals, they repaired the boat and set sail again.

Before they untied their dock lines, the town gathered to give them a serious send off and to bless their repaired centerboard and rudder.

Exquisite dancers came to the dock, wiggling their hips in a sensuous manner all in sync with the musicians, who pounded their drums and strummed the ukuleles. Politicians, sailors and others showered the Upoo Tahiti crew with gifts and blessings, to make sure that the seas would treat them kindly and that their bellies would be filled with local food.

The numerous tikis (spiritual wooden statues) on board also served as guardians. My favorite was the fishing tiki who undoubtedly helps bring in the fish. The port side tiki on the bow was equally intriguing.

The ceremony was fantastic and made me a tid-bit envious of the send-off. The town of Sausalito didn’t gather on the docks and serenade us when we left more 22 months ago. They’ll have to study the Tahitian way.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

After Eclipse

So….after we saw the diamond ring effect and thanked Tim for his insistence that we leave beautiful Moorea and sail a mere 40 miles upwind in 20 to 25 knot winds to experience a total solar eclipse, and not just “a wish sandwich” where according to Tim you only have two slices of bread and wish for some cheese and salami to put in the middle. In our case, viewing the eclipse gave us a huge club sandwich, made of first grade bacon, smoked ham, succulent roast beef, slices of hot house tomatoes and a few organic lettuce leaves. In fact, the event was so memorable that we have now decided to revise our view of time. From now on, instead of 2010 AD our frame of reference is AE, after eclipse.

Three minutes AE, we turned Kamaya about face and sailed 40 miles towards Tahiti-iti. Tahiti and Moorea are known as the Windward Islands. Tahiti is a figure eight shaped island, surrounded by a barrier reef and comprised of the larger Tahiti Nui and the smaller Tahiti-iti. The lobes connect in the town of Phaeton. Most sailors overlook the less populated Tahiti-iti but the area is definitely worth exploring.

Entering anchorages means sailing through passes in the reef and into the protected lagoon. Our first land fall, Teahupoo, located at the end of the paved highway, meant navigating through Havae Pass, where the 10-foot tubular waves just south of the pass are home to the famous international surf contest. The waves are enormous and you’ve got to be really crazy or an expert surfer to ride them . Tim paddled the kayak out to the wave and watched one surfer split his board in half.

Alexis, the owner of the Billabong bungalows on shore told me that he takes reservations one year in advance, another reason to see French Polynesia by boat. We indulged in poisson cru (the typical Tahitian ceviche made with raw fish and coconut milk) served by the only restaurant in town and relished being the sole sailboat in the anchorage.

Next stop, 2 days AE, was through Temarauri Pass into the protected lagoon adjacent to the Gauguin museum and the Botanical Gardens, home to two dome-shaped Galapagos tortoises. Here, we planned on staying only one night, but in true cruising fashion stayed three nights, enjoying our days hiking in the lush Jardin Vaipahi, kayaking the river and celebrating the 14th of July with Jamie and Lucy from the boat Bamboozle. They were the only other boat in the anchorage.

We met a Tahitian family on shore and asked them what kind of bait they use for fishing. They suggested everything from chicken to hermit crabs and just as we were leaving, they handed us BBQ tuna and tasty unicorn fish – just in case we weren’t successful with our fishing. Throughout our journey in French Polynesia, we’ve been amazed at the hospitality and friendliness of the people.

Now, 6 days AE, we’re back in Marina Taina just south of Papeete. Our journey south of Tahiti for the solar eclipse and into the tranquil anchorages in Tahiti-iti gave us an appreciation of Tahiti, and an understanding of why Gauguin and the other famous folks like Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London enjoyed their time here. Next stop Huahine.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Total Solar Eclipse

“You’re doing what?” asked Chris of Stray Kitty, a catamaran cruising with three kids while we were together in the Galapagos talking about our navigation plan. “Sailing out of your way, just to view an eclipse?”

“So the sky gets dark and stars come out during an eclipse, that happens every night, what’s the big deal?” piped in Joanie of Pickles, sailing with 4 kids.

“Make sure not to blink,” advises Guy from Pickles.

“I’ve seen one and thought it was no big deal.” adds Ruth. I thought I’d get a little more support on this plan from my own wife, but she agreed to go along with it, saying sailing 60 miles out of our way would be my birthday present.

Solar eclipses occur nearly every year or two, but they’re not always total, meaning the sun gets entirely blocked from view by the moon and you can only see this natural wonder from a strip about 100 miles wide. This one happens to be passing across the South Pacific a mere 30 miles south of Tahiti and directly over some of the Tuamotus and Easter Island.

From the moment I heard about this eclipse, nearly one year ago, I’ve been planning our sailing itinerary around being in the right place to view the eclipse. I considered Easter Island, but July is not the right month to be sailing there. I considered Hao, an atoll in the Tuamotus, but it was more than one hundred miles out of our way. So we chose to see the eclipse by sailing south of Tahiti in the middle of the night. We needed to leave by 1 am or 2 am, to make it in time by 8:30 am when totality begins.

The trouble was we had already sailed downwind of Tahiti to Moorea and this meant that we had to sail back upwind to Tahiti the day before, July 10th. We began our eclipse journey with 25 knots of wind gusting to 30, typical San Francisco Bay sailing, so Ruth’s Dad, Poppa Nate, was right at home. Our first 15 mile leg to Tahiti, was not turning into a pleasant sail. The seas were big and slowed us down quite a bit as they crashed over our bow.

When we finally got back to Tahiti, we considered the prospect of doing this again at 2 am, but trying to cover 30 miles this time.

“Maybe we can find a big cruise ship heading out to view the eclipse,” suggests Ruth, voicing some of my own doubts about putting the family through this ordeal.

I recall Kim from Victoria echoing most cruisers view, “We’ll just watch it from Tahiti and see 94% of the eclipse, we’ll miss the 2-3 minutes of totality, so what”

I wanted to tell her that she was going to miss everything. Those few minutes of totality are the best part of the eclipse. To me, she was opting to eat a wish sandwich…two slices of bread and you wish you had something to put between it. She was opting for a cone without ice cream, a swimming pool without water, or a bird without wings.

I’ve never seen a total eclipse and I know I’ll never forgive myself if we’re this close and don’t make the extra effort. The kids are keen and supportive and Myra and Nate are still eager despite a little mal de mer.

I found a slot in the reef where we could anchor for the evening and be protected from the rough seas. We leave a bit early at 11 pm after just a few hours sleep. Ruth’s up because she’s nervous about where we’re anchored, and I’m awake because I’m anticipating the big event.

This night the weather gods seem to be smiling on us and we’re sailing along with a very comfortable 15 knots of wind right on course for the eclipse zone. The night is clear, the stars are shining brightly and we even see many shooting stars. It’s a magical night of sailing. We take turns getting a bit of sleep and arrive at the eclipse zone about first light.

Unfortunately with first light comes a few scattered clouds. I think of the story told by Guy of Pickles and the French team who wanted to record the transit of Venus from India in 1769 just like Captain Cook did from Tahiti. They met delays in sailing to India and arrived too late. But they knew another transit would occur 7 years later and just decided to prepare and wait. Seven years later under cloudy skies they still had no view of the transit and upon returning to France in disgrace their families had given them up for lost, even taking other spouses.

At 7:26 am Maya tries on her special solar eclipse goggles that I ordered almost one year ago and says, “A little bite has been taken out of the sun.”

“Are you sure it’s not a cloud?” I ask.

“No, it’s a bite and it’s getting bigger,” she says.

“Wake everyone up!” I shout as I see the same bite through our special viewing glasses.

Soon we’re all out on deck watching the bite grow bigger and bigger over the next hour. The sun gets dimmer and dimmer and smaller and smaller. People viewing the eclipse from Tahiti also see this natural phenomenon. But it’s the next part that is supposed to be even more interesting.

The clouds come and go. I’m worried that they will cover the sun during our precious two minutes of totality? Will we be able to see anything? The crescent of visible sun gets smaller and smaller. About 8:30, the clouds move out as if swept aside by some mystic hand just in time as the sun is blocked completely by the moon.

“I can’t see anything with my glasses” says Maya.

“This is memorable,” says Poppa Nate.

We remove our glasses and witness the fabulous diamond ring effect. There’s a jet black circle in the sky where the sun used to be. This circle is surrounded by a spectacular ring of fire, with one very bright spot where the last glimpse of sun is peeking through. It looks like a flaming diamond ring in the sky. This beautiful ring is temporary. We catch a fleeting glimpse as the sky goes dark. All that’s left is the black circle of the moon with its ring of fire. It’s not quite like night time as there’s still some blue in the sky, but we’re able to see several stars and planets, including Jupiter and Alpha and Beta Centauri near the Southern Cross. The sun has become a black circle with an awesome ring around it. Sunspots shoot jets of fire out the side of the moon. It’s a magnificent sight. Even Ruth is glad that we made it all this way.

This too is quite temporary. We look at the moon shaded sun and sky for a couple of minutes watching solar flares flash brilliantly out from the moon. Then we get another diamond, this time on the other side of the moon as the sun peeks its bright face out again. The whole thing happens again in reverse. With the first splash of bright light we put on our glasses and watch the crescent sun slowly grow back over the next hour into its full warm usual self.

We set sail back for Tahiti-iti while watching the sun grow and all of us are inspired by the alignment of the sun and the moon and the earth.


“There’s puppies onshore, they’re really cute.” Mommy said as soon as she got back from exploring Toau.

“Puppies!” Kai and I thought, and we cleaned up our stuffed animals with soap and water.

Soon we were ready to go ashore. As we came into the dinghy dock, a small poodle like dog came over and kissed us. Later we learned that her name is Motu, and she has a twin sister called Lulu. But neither of them are the mother.

We walked along the beach and heard a big dog barking. Sure enough a huge golden retriever was sitting down and barking fiercely, but he gave the whole act away with wagging his tail and walking up to us in a friendly manner. The big guard dog / sweetheart is named Bobby. I scratched him behind the ears and he let his head rest.
Then Kai and I found a cardboard box with five little puppies all curled up. They were adorable! There were two girls and three boys. The five didn’t want to go past their little shelter. There was a coconut shaving machine and a seat. The shelter was all under a roof, and the puppies definitely didn’t want to go past it.

But the puppies themselves; the littlest, a girl, had a dark brown face, and slightly lighter body. The second smallest, the other girl, had a dirty blonde, brown fur. On her head was a small white vertical stripe on her forehead. The smallest of the boys, was a puppy colored like a mountain lion pup with smooth fur. He had a very distinct white mark on his head. the second largest, had the strangest coloring. He was gold, dirty blond, yellow – ish brown, all the colors swirling around his body, they were not blended with each other. Then, the largest, was a black puppy with a cute black face and curly hair.

We played with them for a while, before going back to the dinghy dock. Kai and I talked to the owner of the puppies, Valentine, and she said we should make up names for the puppies. I wonder what we should call them?

The next day our friends on Tyee arrived. They have two boys, one ten, and the other seven. The boys came ashore with us to visit the puppies. Together we decided what to name the little ones. The small brown one we called Coco. Then my mom thought the second biggest one with the swirl of colors should be called Moca, like the coffee. After that we agreed about the largest one, Chewy. Later we named the mountain lion one Puma, and Kai and I felt so lucky because we have a stuffed animal named Puma. Last of all we named the remaining girl Luna.

Turns out Moca is the most adventurous, and he’s also obedient. We started by teaching all of them their name. then we took them exploring. We call their name and say “Moca, moca, come here boy, lets go, come on!”

And we walk backwards facing them and talking excitedly. By the end of the day everyone had learned their name.

The day after that Simi and I came in. we walked over and heard the barking of the big golden retriever, Bobby. Then a strange thing happened, and I heard him whimper. “come here big boy.” I said.

He gratefully padded over and leaned against me, still whining. I decided he was scared of the black dog, Tiger. I hugged his big head in my arms, and told him it was all right, I understand. The poor dog must have been terrified, and desperate to make friends, because he slid down onto my lap, and cuddled. I comforted him, and soon he seemed to feel better. He got up, and stood in front of Simi and I, as if saying, “don’t worry, I will protect you.”

I trusted him. So I set his head back in my lap. Bobby leaned against me but continued sitting.

Then he put his front paw out and into my hand. We shook hands. This is a very intelligent dog, I thought.

Simi was almost crying. He had a golden retriever like this one before he started the boat trip. The dog and him would play games together, and when their dad was baking pop corn, the two of them had grabbed the fallen pieces and ate them. That dog was like another sibling to Simi. But a few months ago, he died.

Poor Simi, I thought. Then I released Bobby’s hand. I hugged the big dog, and we continued walking towards the puppy litter.

Moca was in a really excited mood. He jumped around, pouncing on his big brother Chewy. I called his name, “Moca, Moca, come here Moca.”

And the gold puppy pounced after me. He ran at my shoes, but I jogged faster and he followed me. I ran around the house and the puppy raced along with me. We came back to the other puppies, and Moca jumped excitedly. So I took him on another track, and we went towards the grass. Soon Moca got tired and I carried him back.

I called Chewy and Puma and brought them to the little bush so they could play. I left them there and brought Coco and Luna to the bush. Moca followed them. I watched the five little puppies make themselves at home in the tree. A few ripped at the leaves, and other puppies tumbled around.

Today they had gained double their previous territory. I knew they could find their way back to the sheltered area. And I watched as Puma and Moca jumped along and walked back. The others slowly followed, and came to their little shelter.

A man came up and shredded coconuts. He gave some shavings to the puppies, and their mother, Ruby. They certainly were growing. Ruby, who had been quite skinny when we first met her, had gotten slightly larger. The puppies were bigger too.

But Simi and I had to say goodbye for the day. We walked back, and I said hi to my friend Bobby.

The next day, Kai, Theo, and Simi, and I, all came ashore. We walked over to the Puppy place to find that Luna was the energetic one today. I brought her to the bush, and she ran after me. But that little girl didn’t want to stop there, so I brought her around the house. There was a little ditch on the other side of the house, and Luna stopped there. I told her, “come here, come on girl, you can do it Luna, come on.”

She slid down the five inch gutter, and tried to get up the other side, but she couldn’t. So Luna turned around, and climbed up the way she came. I patted on the ground around the ditch. And Luna walked along it. She made it across.

I ran with her the rest of the way, and congratulated the puppy. She, the second smallest, had done what only Moca could.

“She’s just like her brother.” Simi said. I agreed.

Then we took Moca on a little exploring mission, as Kai and Theo played with the other puppies. Moca walked all the way to the grassy place, and almost to the beach. Then he whimpered and I carried him back.

But finally the time came for Kamaya to leave. I hugged each of the puppies in turn, and promised them that I’ll come back some day. I know they’ll continue to explore, and they will all be big, sweet dogs.

Then I said bye to Ruby, and told her to keep a good eye on her pups. She’s a good mother, and she knows it.

Next we all found Bobby, who was at the end of the dock. I told him that he would win against Tiger, the black dog, and that he’s the nicest dog. I hugged him to me.
Then we left the island of dogs, which I really will revisit someday.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Feasting in Toau

Charles Darwin is not only known for his work in the Galapagos and evolution, but also for being the first to classify tropical reefs into three distinct types: fringing reefs, barriers reefs and atolls. A fringing reef, like the reefs in the Marquesas where we just came from, contains a coral reef connected to the shore. Eventually the reef breaks free and turns into a barrier reef that surrounds the land, the most famous being the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Then when the land erodes completely and disappears, leaving only the coral reef surrounding a blue lagoon, you get an atoll. The Tuomoto Archipelago contains 76 atolls and we've been exploring a few of them during the month of June.

A first glance at life at an atoll makes one wonder how people can survive amongst the coral and the coconut trees, especially compared to the lush Marquesas where fruit ferments on the fertile ground, but a glimpse of Gaston and Valentine’s life here in Anse Amyot, in the northwest corner of Toau, shows that they have plenty to eat.

Gaston and Valentine’s family installed 13 moorings outside their home for boats that enter their false pass, false since the area is a cul-de-sac where one cannot sail all the way into the lagoon because there’s a coral barrier blocking further entrance. Yet just inside the cove, the water is flat and protected from the rolling rough seas of the Pacific.

We arrived at Anse Amyot on winter solstice, June 21, the shortest day of the year. Our entry was more dramatic than I like as it took us longer to sail 40 miles here from the neighboring atoll, Fakarava, which meant that we were arriving at sunset (5:26 pm), a time when it’s difficult to spot coral heads plus to further complicate matters, a rainy squall struck us us at the entrance, hindering our visibility. So we relied on the range beacons placed at most of the passes of the atolls, our Raymarine charts and the GPS coordinates for anchoring (all the moorings were taken) given to us by Soggy Paws, a boat that called Toau home for the month. Though a dramatic entry, we were happy to be here and excited to see a less inhabited atoll.

The strong Maramu (that’s the Tahitian term for southern tradewinds) winds continued the following day with gusts up to 46 knots. In the late evening, one of the boats, Pursuit, snapped her mooring line and ended up on the reef in just 30 seconds. Fortunately, they were rescued quickly and suffered only minor damage, a broken blade on their propeller. Tim helped them out, lending them our spare propeller.

Since then, the winds have calmed down and we’ve enjoyed the crystal clear water where we’ve seen the gorgeous but dangerous lionfish hiding in the coral caves and watched octopus swim and change colors. Maya and Kai have been enamored with the five puppies on the island who they named and thoroughly socialized. We’ve also been privy to Gaston and Valentine’s hospitality as they’ve been welcoming yachts for more than 30 years. They live here with Valentine’s sister, step-father and a few other people. They built a small church and every Sunday, Valentine serves as the minister. I experienced a memorable service filled with her contagious laughter as she literally interpreted Moses’ journey out of Egypt.

Sailors who stop here have the option to either pay 500 francs a night for the mooring or dine at the family restaurant. Of course, we took the second option: dinner. Last Saturday, Tim and Jamie from the boat Bamboozle, went fishing with Gaston at 5 am and brought home 42 lobsters and one large tuna. Gaston was the most skilled and caught 98 percent of the lobster. Tim said Gaston’s hunting technique reminded him of Golum in the The Lord of the Rings as he possesses a 6th sense for the lobster. He'd glance at a section of reef and announce, "beaucoup langouste." Then he'd get on his hands and knees, reach in all the way past his elbows, and pull out lobsters with both hands. Sometimes a lobster would try to escape the hole and head out to sea, but Gaston would leap after it, before it got very far.

"Don't stick your hands in unless you're sure there's lobster or an eel may bite you", Gaston warned novice Tim and Jamie. Tim said he had a hard time trying to see the lobsters without being knocked down by the waves and then he feared sacrificing his hands to an eel. Tim and Jaime returned with huge smiles, happy that Gaston led the way as they knew their families would starve if they were counting on just the two of them to bring home dinner. Both did manage to catch a few lobsters and Gaston told them that with practice, they would improve.

Gaston has another way to gather fish: via the fish traps inside the atoll. They’re large metal cages that use the outgoing current to funnel fish indiscriminately into the traps. Every day, I snorkelled over to the traps and look at the various captured sea creatures, including huge Napoleon Wrasses, moray eels, parrot fish, groupers. Even some of the trumpet fish and sting rays managed to get caught. It was satisfying to watch Tova, an Anse Amyot inhabitant, grab the trumpet fish by the nose with his bare hands and throw them outside the cage. He also tossed the sting ray out with his hands. He played tug-of-war with the octopus but it won. I think he was hoping to have that one for dinner.

Fortunately, none of the fish here are contaminated with ciguatera, a toxin generated from microscopic algae that has deemed many fish in most of the other atolls off limits for eating. As soon as one eats a fish poisoned with ciguatera, one’s lips, nose, even hands and feet can turn numb. Symptoms may intensify depending on the amount of ingested poison, but one usually recovers.

To supplement our Saturday night dinner, Gaston visits his fish trap. I watch him work his harpoon and stab a parrot fish in the head. No blood but a frenzy in the cage. The fish know to stay clear of the spear, but the odds are in Gaston's favor. I watch with fascination, impressed at his skill but also a bit horrified at the kill. I remind myself as I do constantly when we capture a fish, This is food no longer an exquisite creature.

Dinner is a fantastic feast. The tuna became poisson cru, a Tahitian specialty of raw fish soaked in lime and coconut milk; the parrot fish’s white meat breaded and fried into tiny morsels; lobsters halved and cooked on the BBQ and an entirely new taste for me: coconut crab, boiled perfectly in half salt water and half fresh water. Surprisingly, the crab meat is sweet and tender and I find it even tastier than the rich, delicious lobster.

At dinner, I sit near Valentine’s step-father, Phillippe, who speaks only French so I must think hard during our conversations. He described the fierce hurricane in 1983 as if it just happened. During that El Nino year, the family hid for two weeks near the bunker a few buildings behind our dining room. Many of the buildings were completely destroyed. They haven’t had a hurricane since then, yet the winds can be strong as we had experienced the other night.

Phillipe also tells us about his time working at the French nuclear test site in Moruroa, an atoll in the southwestern Tuomotos. From 1966 until 1996, the French government sadly decided to use the area for nuclear tests. Phillipe said he needed the money, but he did wear a protective suit at work. I hope that was sufficient to shield him from any fallout of the nuclear tests. I wonder what damage the tests had on this area – it must have destroyed and contaminated so much.

We set sail for a 225 mile passage to Tahiti tomorrow morning as the winds have subsided slightly. The glimpse of Valentine, Gaston and Phillippe’s lives on this scenic atoll will stick with me and remind me of the simpler yet fantastic life, filled with great food.

Looking Back

It took me more than seven years to turn our blog into a hard covered bound book. At first, I was leery of wrapping up our adventure because...