White-sand beaches, vibrant marine life, lush volcanic peaks and a colourful history. The World ARC Rally finds itself in Pacific paradise.
By Stephen Hyde, Oyster 56 A Lady
As part of the World ARC rally fleet we enjoyed a period of free cruising during our visit to the French Polynesian Islands. For us, that was from the date of our arrival in Porto Ayora, Hiva Oa, on the 24th March 2010 until we all gathered ready to leave Bora Bora on the 13th May 2010.
The Marquesas Islands are truly beautiful and, bizarrely, one of our lasting memories of the area are the cocks crowing all night, every night. They became part of our daily choir in the background and, on land, they run wild all over these beautifully maintained and manicured islands.
We spent a few days exploring the Island of Hiva Oa and visiting all the sacrificial sites, where they buried the skulls of their human prey or sacrifices amongst the roots of the adjacent Banyan trees. We also visited Paul Gauguin’s House and Museum and had dinner at the French operated Hanakee Pearl Lodge Hotel.
A few days later, we headed 42 miles southeast to Fatu Hiva. We had a great sail, a very stiff breeze on the port side made for a very different type of sailing to what we had become used to. We dropped anchor in ‘Th e Bay of Virgins’, a famously beautiful anchorage.
A small group of us from four different yachts booked dinner ashore, in what turned out to be a family home and one of the more interesting meals we experienced anywhere on the trip. Most of the food was raw marinated fish in coconut oil, with a variety of locally grown fruits, including the famous ‘bread fruit’. When dinner was finished, the owner, his wife and their children brought out their guitars and, with some of our own guitar players, gave us a great night’s entertainment. Refreshments consisted of homemade juices – no alcohol. It was definitely a night to remember.
Three days later, we set sail again, north this time to Tahuata where we spent one night before moving on to Ua Pou, a very mountainous island, which proved to be very different to the others in the group. It was Easter when we arrived and the churches of all denominations were clearly trying to out do each other when it came to church décor and singing. The choirs were simply wonderful! We discovered that church music and choirs got bigger and better as we sailed west through all the different islands throughout the Pacific. If these choirs represent a taste of ‘Heaven’ then we want to go there, but just not right now...
After three nights in Ua Pou we headed north again to Nuka Hiva, this is one of the designated islands for clearing in or out of the Marquesas Islands, and as we were about to head southwest to the Tuamotus Islands, we needed clearance and to fill up with diesel.
We spent a relaxing few days in Nuka Hiva and eventually sailed south on the 8th April. The weather for our three days at sea was simply perfect with a very light south easterly breeze and flat sea. We slept on deck most nights and enjoyed gazing at all those twinkling little stars dancing out all night especially for us (well that’s what we thought at the time).
We had never heard of these islands or ‘archipelago’ (a total of 76 atolls or islands) until we arrived in the Marquesas Islands. We soon discovered that they are beautiful and well worth a visit.
The first island we chose to explore was Manihi. However, the cruising guides that we read on the way there very nearly put us off. The book said that the sand bar at the entrance was only 2 metres deep (we draw 2.5 metres) and the current through the narrow entrance was so strong that most yachts would not get inside the lagoon. However, we never had less than 2.5 metres under our keel and the maximum current we encountered was a mere 3 knots as we sailed into the lagoon before rolling up the sails. And, what an experience! This huge coral reef, covered in palm trees surrounding a big lagoon was just perfect. We motored over and dropped anchor outside the ‘Manihi Pearl Beach Resort’ where all the guest rooms stand on stilts in the deep blue waters of the lagoon. We really felt we had arrived in paradise.
We had a number of cruising guides on board for the Pacific and the other oceans we planned to cross, but the Pacific in particular, as this was our first long distance trip and in some respects was a venture into the unknown for us. The books were a great support, but you have to make up your own mind about what to do and where to go. If we had taken the advice of the cruising guides, we would never have gone near Manihi and would have missed a near perfect paradise. Another thing the guides implied was that we would be devoured by mosquitoes and sand flies if we went ashore. In fact we hardly came across any of these pests and certainly not enough to bother us... if you want to see mosquitoes, then take a trip to Scotland in the autumn!
Everyday we went swimming in paradise, always being mindful of the strong currents that flow through all these atolls. The coral heads were great for snorkelling and there were plenty of these, usually surrounded by hundreds of beautifully coloured fish. However, great care needed to be taken to avoid getting the anchor stuck in one.
Our next stop was Rangiroa, another paradise where Donal and I took diving lessons. One evening we went ashore with some crews from some of the other rally yachts ashore, to a restaurant called ‘Les Relais de Josephine’, where we enjoyed an excellent meal of crab and lobster. However, it was as expensive as eating out in London. In fact, the whole of the French Polynesian Islands were very expensive. No wonder nearly all the cars on the islands are brand new!
From Rangiroa, we sailed 45 miles or so south in a very fresh breeze to the Island of Tikehau. Navigating our way through Tikehau was tricky with all the shallow corals, but they had plenty of markers, which made life much easier. We eventually dropped anchor at dusk and admired the beautiful pink beach of Tikehau Pearl Lodge.
We spent two nights at Tikehau, before sailing southwest to Papeete, the capital of Tahiti and a mere 188 miles away. We had 25 knots of wind on our port beam and it was a sheer pleasure to sit on the transom seat and soak up the silent power of our beautiful boat as she surged through the seas, with only the sound of the babbling water as it rushed out from under the transom.
Papeete was the same as any other capital, but nonetheless, very enjoyable. We spent a couple of weeks in Tahiti whilst the boat was lifted out, cleaned and antifouled. Donal looked after this task while Aileen and I spent a wonderful weekend in the Hilton Hotel on the adjoining island of Morea. A wonderful lush green paradise island that I would highly recommend.
It is worth mentioning that Aileen and I chartered a boat roughly 14 years ago and sailed around the Society Islands, therefore it was interesting to look at all the changes that have taken place since then. Back then we had felt it was the most expensive place in the world, now it is only as expensive as London or Paris!
We departed Tahiti and sailed overnight to Raiatea, where we had entered A Lady in the Tahiti Pearl Regatta. The place was buzzing, full of excitement for the event. Unfortunately, a local boat, on loan to some French sailors for the event, caused some damage to A Lady, however this didn’t dampen our spirits and we enjoyed the few days racing and the prize-giving in Bora Bora.
We sailed onto Rarotonga in the Cook Islands and then to Niue. The one thing that will stick in our minds about Niue were the nights, the starry nights in the Pacific were spectacular, and in particular the Milky Way which was always a pleasure to study. On the way to Niue we had a full moon which shone down the mast like champagne fizzing down the side of a glass.
Niue was very interesting in that there was only a pier sticking out into the bay, so when we went ashore in the RIB, we had to use the crane on the pier to lift the RIB out of the water while we explored this interesting island. We enjoyed our brief stay, where we even managed a game of golf on what must have been the roughest golf course in the world! We also had some interesting food here, mostly marinated raw fish, it all tasted great and was really healthy, however we were disappointed to learn that these people do not live any longer than us Europeans, so much for a healthy diet!
On the 4th June we arrived in Vava’u (Tonga) a perfect spinnaker run all the way. Our first impressions of the main island... a very poor place and very untidy in comparison to the French Polynesian Islands or the Cook Islands.
The island was the first place we saw fruit bats, although they looked more like flying cats than bats and it was fascinating to watch them devour the fruit. This was one of the best cruising grounds we ever sailed, a sailor’s paradise, hundreds of small sandy islands surrounded by coral reefs, which made them very attractive anchorages for swimming, diving, snorkeling and generally relaxing. Of course, we had to be extra careful with navigation, as well as being a sailor’s paradise, it could easily turn into a sailor’s nightmare if one hit one of the thousands of corals scattered throughout the islands.
We spent about 10 days in Vava’u and in some respects this was just not enough, however we did manage to stay overnight at six different islands or locations, and we only explored a small portion of this beautiful place. There was always a lovely cool trade wind blowing about 20-25 knots day and night across and through the boat. Snorkelling in the corals here could be compared to floating through Gaudi’s cathedral in Barcelona in a vacuum… the gleaming and colourful corals, all set close to the surface in Prussian blue warm water, with all different chambers of various sizes, together with thousands of equally colourful fish.
We sadly had to say goodbye to this wonderful place and headed northwest towards Fiji, a distance of 420 miles, the sailing was great as usual as we scooted along our merry way. However, we did get a fright early one morning as dawn broke, we could see the hulk of a ship sitting almost in front of us. It soon became obvious that this ship was sitting on a reef and, as we were sailing close by, we made a few alterations to the course to avoid meeting with the same fate. They say about Fiji, that there are two types of boats here, the ones that hit a reef and sink, and the ones that are about to hit a reef and sink!
The entrance to Savu Savu (the island we selected for our inward clearances) was very narrow and through a right angle bend surrounded by coral reefs on all sides. It was 22.00, pitch black with 46 knots blowing up our transom and breaking waves running along the decks.
Everyone on board loved the excitement, except the skipper, who was having a nervous breakdown. We relied totally on the E120 and sure enough we got into the lagoon without a hitch.
Eventually, as always, things have to come to an end and so the fleet of 23 rally yachts set sail westwards towards a small island called Tanna in Vanuatu. This little island has one of the few live and active volcanoes in the world and, of course, we all had to go there at dusk one evening to view the fireworks for ourselves – spectacular!
The island was very definitely the poorest place we visited. We had a meal ashore one night, the food was the usual raw marinated fish, but this time it was served on banana leaves as plates and we used our fingers to do the eating. Dinner cost about one Euro each. It was so different, that we really enjoyed the whole experience, before being led back the two miles to the harbour through the jungle by locals carrying flaming torches to light the way.
From Tanna, we sailed north to Port Villa. This seemed a popular spot and has the world’s only underwater post office, (or rather a letterbox). We visited some beautiful resorts and restaurants here and fattened ourselves up ready for the next leg to Australia, a 1,200-mile trip.