Heiva in Tahiti

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We leave our last atoll in the Tuamotus around 18h00, exiting Fakarava’s north pass at slack tide. The wind is light from behind at 10-15 kts, almost 180 degrees, and we fly the spinnaker the entire time, day and night, for two nights and two days.

We approach Tahiti on the third evening – a massive mountain rising from the ocean surrounded by a reef. We drop anchor in the first possible bay just behind the eastern corner- Tautira Bay or Cook’s Anchorage, renamed after Captain Cook, who landed here during his voyage. One other yacht arrives in the dark after us. There are no other boats. We spend the night here, in the calm of the bay, after two nights of sailing. Early the next morning we continue all the way to the west side of the island and at noon we arrive in Papeete – the largest port and heavily populated capital of French Polynesia.

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Tahiti is the biggest of the Society Islands archipelago with land area over 1000 square kilometers, where more than half of all French Polynesians live. The island was part of the independent Kingdom of Tahiti until its annexation by France in 1880, when it was proclaimed a colony of France, and the inhabitants became French citizens. French is the only official language although the Tahitian language (Reo Tahiti) is widely spoken, as in all other islands of French Polynesia.

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It’s full with sailing yachts- some huge super mega yachts- and we have two options- either go to the downtown Marina Papeete, where most of our friends are- right at the heart of the big capital city with all the shops and restaurants and the beautiful seaside park, or drop anchor for free further- much further- near Marina Taina- one of two anchorages near Papeete. We choose the free option, even though we have to hitchhike every time we go to Papeete. At least hitchhiking is great on the island, as everywhere in French Polynesia, and we never have to wait for more than 5-10 minutes for some super friendly local to pick us up. Also, the biggest and cheapest Carrefour shopping mall is within walking distance from our anchorage and cruisers are welcome to push their shopping carts all the way to the dinghy docks- an employee picks up the empty shopping carts stacked at the docks every day.

It’s great being on land again. After the low-lying coral atolls where the highest natural landmark is a coconut palm it’s nice to find mountains, forests, and rivers again. We put on our hiking boots and together with our friends from catamaran Runaway – Reinhart, Claudia and Launce start for the Fautaua valley and falls. First we hitchhike- six people separated in two groups. Reinhart is a blond German guy- very blond- and cars stop for him even before he sticks his thumb up, I don’t know why. So their group gets picked up first and 2 and half minutes later- our group gets picked up too, even though none of us is blond…

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Thank you for giving us a lift!

We get to a place in the city, where we pay for a permit to enter the trail for the waterfalls, and from there we hitchhike again to the actual trailhead, where no one wants to see our tickets…

We walk for a couple of hours through the lush jungle along the river, on a path covered with large red flowers, surrounded by massive trees. Tahiti is not just the largest, but also the highest French Polynesian island born as a volcano. Its highest peak is Mont Orohena at 2,241 m (7,352 ft).

We reach a river-crossing and then another one with a small pond at which point the group splits in two and some of us (the girls) return to wait for the others (the guys) near the gate, thinking that we have reached the falls. Turns out the falls are much further and the guys who continued actually saw them. Thanks to Launce, Ivo has some really nice pictures at the falls, and we have some nice photos from the hike too, where the entire family is present for a change. Thanks Launce!

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We spend a few weeks in Tahiti, shopping and stocking much needed products (good old forgotten Shopping, we missed you!), we visit the Museum of Pearls, the big market, and many of the sporting events taking place during the month-long Heiva festival each July.

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More than just a festival, Heiva has become the symbol of Polynesian culture and ancestral tradition. An iconic event for a people proud of their heritage and a showcase for traditional music, dance, sports and games.

The traditional sporting events are based on ancient athletic activities and include:

A stone lifting competition, during which very big Polynesian men lift heavy boulders up to 175kg. They have to be able to lift the rocks on their shoulders and hold them for a few seconds. The one who can lift the boulder for the fastest time wins.

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A fruit carrying competition- groups of women and men compete running for two kilometers carrying on their shoulders up to 50 kg of fruits attached at the end of a long wooden stick. The fastest runner wins.

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A javelin- throwing event- teams throw long arrows at a coconut on a long pole and try to hit it. Each arrow has color ribbons indicating its owner. At the end, the arrows are being counted and the team with most arrows stuck in the coconut wins.

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A copra competition- the tradition of breaking coconuts and making copra has been turned into a great competition during Heiva. Each team or individual has to break exactly 50 coconuts, to take out the meat from the shell and put it in bags. The fastest one wins.

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Climbing the coconut palm competition- this one is obvious- the fastest one up the coconut palm wins! This years’ record- 3 seconds!

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But the most important and magnificent part of the Heiva festival are the dancing shows featuring a war dance reminiscent of the Maori haka, and a way to revive the past and forgotten traditions.

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Music, choreography, and costumes are based on historical or legendary themes and are uniquely created for each Heiva, prepared for months in advance by the dancers. Each dance tells a story with many parts, in which the rhythm and costumes change a few times. The stories are legends about gods and volcanoes, ocean storms and sharks; or historical events like clashes and wars, or the arrival of the Europeans, and their influence on the islanders- the things they brought with them, the new fabrics used for sails, the new religion- all this can be featured in the story of each dance.

Heiva brings together thousands of Polynesians from all the islands of all five archipelagos, here to compete in the sporting events, dancing and beauty pageants.

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The main event is the dancing shows at Toata Square in Papeete- every night for many days dancing groups from the islands perform and compete for the first prize. Tourists from all over the world arrive to watch the most beautiful and sexy of dances performed by hundreds of dancers and musicians. Photographing and filming is not permitted; eating or drinking during the show is also forbidden and the rules are strictly enforced by the organizers of the event.

We buy tickets for the last night- to watch the winners and best groups perform- together with our friends from catamarans Invictus and Mercredi Soir.

The show is truly impressive. Groups of close to one hundred exotic dancers – beautiful young women with long dark curly hairs dressed in grass skirts and flowers in their hairs, and young energetic guys in colorful miniskirts perform in perfect harmony to the sound of powerful drums and wild rhythms. Ivo, Tobi and Gilles, as well as 14-year-old Tom, are very pleased to see the beautiful semi-naked Polynesian girls shake their hips with impressive grace and skill, like palm trees during a storm. In fact, the Polynesian dances are so sexy, they were once outlawed.

The pre-European Polynesian culture was an oral culture where stories, legends and knowledge were transmitted from one generation to the next by the ‘orero- storytellers, singers and dancers of great artistic talent and impeccable memory. The traditional rites and exotic dances reflected an isolated “sexually liberated” culture where the social constructs of the “civilized world” didn’t apply.

In the beginning of the 19th century, the first British puritan missionaries arrived and were shocked. They declared the dances, music and costumes “morally questionable pagan activities”, even “vulgar” and inducing “debauchery”. When the local king Pomare II converted to Christianity, he forbade dancing. For many years it became a marginalized and clandestine activity but the Polynesian people never stopped doing it “illegally” and kept the tradition though the ages, even though they did suffer a great loss of culture. Not until 1956 Polynesian dancing and music, costumes and traditions were once again legally celebrated. Today, Heiva is a way to revive the past and forgotten traditions.

Other than the restricted and expensive dancing performances at Toata Square in Papeete (but worth it), of which we have no photos or videos, there is the free-admission two-day event at the Museum of Tahiti, which happened to be much closer to our anchorage than to downtown Papeete. The museum’s backyard bordered by the sea covers large grounds with beautiful gardens, many big ancient tiki statues made of stone and wood, as well as a few vast lawns, perfect for dancing and sport competitions. The public consists mainly of locals and not so many tourists, sitting on the lawn. The atmosphere is chill and authentic. There are food stands selling local delicacies, ice cream and souvenirs. The weather is perfect, sunny and warm, no wind on the lee side of the island. The whole event resembles a massive pick nick or a fair. Here, we are welcome to film and photograph all the activities in day light. Spectacular, powerful, unforgettable.

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heiva

Watch our 20-minute video Heiva- Celebrating Polynesian Culture featuring the world’s sexiest dance, once outlawed by the European missionaries for being too erotic!

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The Wall of Sharks and Coconut Crabs in Tuamotus

Maya scuba diving with sharks

Maya scuba diving with sharks

We exit the Makemo atoll through the north pass at slack tide and sail to Tahanea overnight together with our friends S/V Mercredi Soir and S/V Invictus.

Tahanea and Fakarava atolls

Tahanea and Fakarava atolls

Arriving in the dark, we heave-to for a few hours in front of the pass waiting for daylight and for slack tide- the only safe time to enter any atoll. The biggest problem is finding out when exactly is slack tide, as the information we have from different sources doesn’t match.

Arriving at dawn

Arriving at dawn

We enter Tahanea successfully in the early morning with just one knot of current against us. It’s very stressful every time.

Rainbow over Tahanea

Rainbow over Tahanea

Once inside the atoll, the lagoon is calm and beautiful. The small uninhabited islands near the southeast corner are waiting for us.

Invictus, Mercredi Soir and Fata Morgana at anchor in Tahanea

Invictus, Mercredi Soir and Fata Morgana at anchor in Tahanea

Another boat family aboard catamaran Moby is here to join our group and now we are four families with eight kids in total, ages from four to fourteen, speaking English, French and German.

On the beach in Tahanea

On the beach in Tahanea

The men decide to provide the food for tonight- they are off spearfishing in the lagoon, while the women are preparing salads and side dishes. We are planning a big bonfire on the beach.

Sunset in Tahanea

Sunset in Tahanea

Bonfire on the beach

Bonfire on the beach

Besides the pile of tasty groupers Ivo, Tobi and Gilles speared in the lagoon, the guys also promised coconut crabs for dinner. They say that you can find coconut crabs- the world’s finest delicacy- at night in the bush on the small motus.

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Sunset, the fire going, we split in two hunting parties armed with flashlights and a machete. Off we go searching for coconut crabs. Operation “Ambush in The Bush”.

The Coconut Crab

No luck. Coconut crabs might be the largest of all land crabs in the world reaching giant proportions, growing up to one meter and weighing up to 4 kilograms, yet, they proved to be rather hard to locate and capture. After a few minutes of searching, our group with Ivo in the lead raises false alarm. Tobi starts:

“Wow, it’s huge, Ivo don’t kill it!” (But there is no coconut crab.)

The rest of our group quickly joins in:

“Wow, it’s big! We got a coconut crab and it’s massive!”- everyone is screaming, wonderstruck by the humongous (imaginary) creature.

The second group, with Gilles in the lead, are somewhere on the other side of the motu but can hear our excitement. Anxious to see our “catch” they rush towards us, running through the forest of coconut palms and jumping over the low bushes in the dark. By the time they arrive, we are all laughing.

“Were is the crab?”- Tom is asking.

“There is no crab”- I am laughing.

“But where is the crab?”- it takes a while for Team Two to realize- they have been pranked.

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At this moment, Ivo spots a strange creature skillfully crawling up a rotting tree. It looks like an armored extraterrestrial the size of a small dog- blue, with long antennae, massive claws with human-like teeth on the edges, three pair of legs divided in sections and another pair of legs with smaller tweezers-like claws- the mighty coconut crab!

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This time no one believes that Ivo actually found a real coconut crab, and even after we saw it with our own eyes, the reaction is much milder than the previous one.

Coconut crabs have the most powerful claws capable of cutting not only through the hard shells of coconuts, but also through wooden crates, buckets and metal enclosures of all kinds. Easily, he could cut through flesh and bones too. So picking up and transporting a coconut crab is a dangerous task.

Luckily, the crab grabs onto Ivo’s machete and won’t let go, holding fast, letting us bring him to the fire.

Maya holding the coconut crab

Maya holding the coconut crab

It’s Red Carpet time and everyone is taking pictures of the celebrity.

“How are we going to kill him and how are we going to cook him?”

After a short debate, we release the captive back in his forest, where “his family and babies are waiting for him”.

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We let him go free for three main reasons:

  1. We grew fond of the crab and no one wanted to kill him. We named him George.
  2. We thought he might be the last one of his species on Earth and we didn’t want to be responsible of his extinction.
  3. But mostly, we didn’t have a big enough pot to boil him in, and even if we did, one crab, no matter how huge, wouldn’t feed 16 people…
The kids and the coconut crab

The kids and the coconut crab

Read more about coconut crabs 10 Ginormous Facts About Coconut Crabs

Fakarava

Next stop- Fakarava- the second biggest atoll in French Polynesia, located some 245 NM northeast of Tahiti, 60km long, 21km wide, with 16km² of emerged land and a 1121km² lagoon.

We sail carefully through the narrow south pass and drop anchor in one of Tuamotus’ most popular atolls.

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Here, another French catamaran S/V QuatrA joins us and we are now 5 families with 10 kids playing on the beach, organizing dinners and epic parties.

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But we are here for one main reason- sharks.

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The Wall of Sharks

We have been seeing more and more sharks since we are sailing in the atolls of Tuamotu, but in Fakarava they are famous. Here is one of the best places on the planet to see and swim with sharks.

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The Tamotus are atolls. An atoll is a string of low-lying coral islands and reefs in the shape of a necklace, enclosing a shallow blue lagoon, with water between the islands called passes- some navigable, some not. Here, because of the strong tidal currents bringing nutrients inside the lagoon from the ocean, the amount of fish is incredible. The passes are as colorful, decorated by corals, and as populated by marine life as a shopping mall at Christmas time, making for the most spectacular drift-diving ever.

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Thanks to our friends in Colombia- Cata and Sebastian @DeepCoral, Ivo and Maya got their PADI diving certificate and diving equipment, ready to dive the famous Wall of Sharks in Fakarava’s south pass.

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Every summer a spectacular event takes place here – thousands of groupers gather to spawn attracting hundreds of sharks: grey reef sharks, black tips, white tips, lemon sharks and many other species of sharks gather to feed in the nutrient rich current of the pass.

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Thanks to this abundance of underwater life, Fakarava has been classified as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

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There is a dive shop near the pass, for organized guided dives, but if you have your equipment you can go diving anytime, unaccompanied, as many time as you want, for free, without a guide. Which is exactly what Ivo, Maya and our friends form Invictus and Mercredi Soir decide to do- freelance drift-diving with hundreds of hungry sharks!

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Sharks are known as the sea’s ultimate predators and bloodthirsty killing machines. So finding yourself surrounded by all kinds of sharks in overwhelming numbers is a scary surreal experience, impossible to imagine, impossible to believe.

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Maya with sharks

But the sharks’ reputation of killing and eating people at first sight is greatly overrated. They prefer fish. You don’t believe me? Here is what Ocean Service NOAA has to say on the subject:

“Only about a dozen of the more than 300 species of sharks have been involved in attacks on humans. Sharks evolved millions of years before humans existed and therefore humans are not part of their normal diets. Sharks are opportunistic feeders, but most sharks primarily feed on smaller fish and invertebrates. Some of the larger shark species prey on seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals.

Sharks have been known to attack humans when they are confused or curious. If a shark sees a human splashing in the water, it may try to investigate, leading to an accidental attack. Still, sharks have more to fear from humans than we do of them. Humans hunt sharks for their meat, internal organs, and skin in order to make products such as shark fin soup, lubricants, and leather.

Sharks are a valuable part of marine ecosystems, but overfishing threatens some shark populations. NOAA Fisheries conducts research on shark habitats, migratory patterns, and population change in order to understand how to best protect and maintain a stable shark population.”  (Read @ Do sharks eat people?)

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The sharks in Fakarava, once hunted for shark fin, have always been friendly and are today protected. There haven’t been accidents, except during the night dives- when the sharks feed and are much more excited.

So our group of divers sticks to day-diving. They return to the pass every day for almost a week. Here diving with sharks can become addictive!

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Maya with sharks

“Drift-diving, propelled by the strong current of the pass with hundreds of sharks all around me, getting closer and closer, has become the most thrilling experience of my life!”- said 12-years-old Maya.

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Kids and Coconuts in Makemo

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The Tuamotus are wonderful.

Spectacular remote lagoons and tiny coconut motus (islets), warm clear waters, healthy corals and tropical fish, relaxing atmosphere and friendly locals. Sailing from lagoon to lagoon, from island to island, snorkeling and scuba-diving, making huge bonfires on the beach in the company of dear friends became our most favorite times in French Polynesia.

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After Raroia- our love-of-first-sight atoll, we sail to Makemo- the fourth biggest yet rarely visited by sailors or tourists atoll in the Tuamotus. Makemo Atoll measures 69 km in length and 16.5 km in width, with a land area of 56 km² and a lagoon of 603 km² in area with two navigable passes and an airport.

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It is the best place to spend a few days with very strong winds announced- up to 35-40 knots, because the main inhabited island of the atoll has a neat little village Pouheva with very welcoming people (population of about 600), good internet access, a bakery selling fresh hot 60-cent French baguettes, a decent pizza place, and a free public dock big enough for three catamarans, where S/V Invictus, S/V Mercredi Soir and S/V Fata Morgana are welcome to stay as long as they like.

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Pizza with friends

Pizza with friends

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Besides the small one-story houses with lush flowering gardens and clean streets, in Pouheva there is a church, a lighthouse, a boarding school where kids from neighboring atolls come to study, and a big football/basketball court, covered with a high tin roof, protecting the court from the tropical sun and rain. Here the locals gather every day to practice for the Heiva Music and Dance Festival in the beginning of July.

Lighthouse in Makemo

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Maya and Sam watching the kids practicing for Heiva in Makemo

 

The entire island population is busy preparing for the festival, making decorations and costumes. Tiny seashells collected on the shores, palm leaves and flowers are the main materials used to make the dancers’ costumes. These guys also collected the empty flour bags from the bakery and are using them to make the skirts.

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I spend hours helping with the costumes together with a few women, a man and one shy rae-rae (a transvestite- very common throughout French Polynesia, and respected “third gender” believed to combine the best male and female qualities), in a tiny shed where the floor is covered with crushed corrals. My job is to prepare the flour bags for the skirts by removing the horizontal threads one by one.

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(read more about the RaeRae and Mahu: third Polynesian Gender.  Similar to Fa’afafine of Samoa )

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We are welcome to watch the music and dance repetitions. The music and dancing are so wild and contagious, it’s hard to resist. Soon Ivo, who is really good at dancing, joins one of the groups, impressing the locals with his grace, beauty and beard.

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He also impressed the many local kids who hang around the public wharf and the boats all the time with another skill- kiteboarding. 30-40 kts winds are ideal to practice some jumps while the boat is safely attached to the pier.

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The barefoot kids in Makemo are curious cheeky little fellows, always ready to help. After school, running or riding their bicycles, they come to check what we are doing. Jumping from the pier and swimming between the boats, admiring Ivo’s kiteboarding performances, but mostly- spearfishing in the shallow reefs, are their favorite activities.

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“Aren’t you scared of sharks?” I ask Kura, a 12-yers-old boy and two of his friends who are constantly in the water chasing fish.

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“No. But my dad was eaten by sharks,” says one of the boys laughing, so I don’t know if he is joking or telling the truth.

“But sharks are not dangerous. They usually don’t bother you. What happened with my dad was an accident, because he was drunk. He went to one of the motus and didn’t attach his boat, so the boat started drifting. He was very drunk, but he jumped in the water swimming after the boat, trying to get it back. He drowned, because he was really wasted. They found his body in the lagoon a couple of days later. The sharks had eaten his arms and legs and his head was missing. We couldn’t bury him like this. He was half-eaten. So we ate him…”

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My jaw drops. Did I hear correctly? The other two boys are smiling. One is interrupting the story, telling to the orphaned kid not to say this. “We don’t say this!”

I scream covering my mouth with both hands “WHAT???”, but the kids are running away laughing.

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In a place surrounded by miles of ocean, where the tiny pockets of sand only yields coconuts and the sea- fish; where food, fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and any other products are difficult and expensive to get, especially for people with limited means, protein is the islanders’ main daily concern. Fish makes up for 90% of the locals’ diet. Here (it is not a secret), ever since before the arrival of the first Europeans in the 18th century, dogs have been on the menu and are still part of the Polynesian peoples’ protein source (we’ve been told repeatedly by the locals themselves), along with local chickens, pigs and sea birds. Why not human meat, if it’s already half eaten by sharks?

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I don’t know if this story is true or the kids are just trying to joke with us, the foreign visitors: “Watch out, we are cannibals.”

One thing is for sure- they respect the sharks profoundly- rulers of the sea- and would never kill or eat a shark.

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One morning, during my 20 minutes jogging routine, I met Teva Tuku and Taai Tuua. Teva and Taai are in their sixties. Their many children are all grown up and have families and kids of their own, and have left Makemo to live and work in Tahiti and France. Teva and Taai live alone now in their small yellow house and produce copra. They invite me to talk about the Islands, the Ocean and Nature and the dangers they face today with over-fishing, illegal whale trade and climate change. But mostly, they explain to me all about the process of copra production and coconuts in general, while Taai is making a palm-leaf bag for me.

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Copra is dried coconut used to extract coconut oil by collecting fallen coconuts, breaking them, removing the shell, and sun drying the kernel. Every family harvests coconuts from a certain amount of coconut palms on the main island or the motus from the atoll. First, the coconut is split in two and left in the sun for two days. After two days the meat can be removed from the shell with ease, and the drying process is complete after three to five more days (up to seven in total). Copra is then exported to “Huilerie de Tahiti” –the copra processing plant built in 1968 in Tahiti where the coconut oil is extracted. The copra industry is the main agricultural resource of the islands of Tuamotu and for many of the other islands of French Polynesia, and contributes to a large part of the local economy. In these isolated islands, copra remains the only source of income besides pearl farming and fishing.

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(Read more about The Coprah industry in Polynesia. )

I go back to the boat loaded with presents: coconuts for drinking and coconuts for eating, a palm-leaf bag and a palm-leaf trey. But the biggest gift I got from these smiling, generous, beautiful islanders is their story full of wisdom, goodness and knowledge.

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Sailing to Raroia- The Kon-Tiki Atoll

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French Polynesia is an overseas collectivity (or territory) of France, composed of 118 islands and atolls in the South Pacific Ocean, of which 67 are inhabited. These islands and atolls are divided into five island groups: the Marquesas Islands, the Tuamotu Archipelago, the Society Islands archipelago, the Gambier Islands, and the Austral Islands.

The distances between the islands within one group are small- usually a few hours or a day sail. But the passages from one island group to the next are hundreds of miles and can take many days.

 

Marquesas-Tuamotus Passage

tuamotu-marquesas

We stage our passage southwest from the Marquesas Islands to the Tuamotu Archipelago from Ua Pou together with S/V Invictus and S/V Mercredi Soir. It is a 450NM passage which will take a few days. Fata Morgana is the smallest and slowest of the three catamarans, so after the first day of sailing our friends are already way ahead of us and we have no radio contact. Last time we heard from Invictus, they had some problem with the steering and the head sail, and Nicole got really badly rope-burned on the right hand.

We have checked the weather forecast. A convergence zone with strong winds and squalls is passing south. According to the GRIB files, the bad weather will remain 200NM south of the Tuamotus, so we should be fine with 15kt winds predicted for our area.

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On the third night of the passage a storm hits us with 40 kts winds from east. It’s 8 p.m., pitch black, clouds, rain, the waves building up- the horror. We drop the mainsail leaving only a bit of the jib sticking out as a storm sail. We hope this is a squall and will pass in a few minutes.

The sea’s fury is awesome. The thunder of the waves and the howling of the wind sound evil, like death approaching. And it’s not about to end. Not in a few minutes, not in a few hours. The night becomes a nightmare.

Ivo is dealing with  situation, hand steering. Maya is surprisingly calm and unafraid. She is trying to reassure me too. I, on the other hand, am losing it.

“If I survive this, if I ever get to dry land, I will walk away and never set foot on a boat again!”

I am sending messages on the IridiumGo satellite to Mel and Krisha with our position, preparing a water-tight survival bag with hand-held VHF radio, crackers, bottle of water, knife, submergible lights in case the mast snaps, the boat flips and breaks to pieces and sinks, and we are left floating in the dark ocean raging around us, full with sharks. What chance do we have?

The boat is now surfing down the waves, hard to keep her stable; we are getting pushed off course to the west. We have to slow down. From the stern Ivo deploys our improvised drogues- the Galapagos beer crates, this time prepared and ready to use. They are so good- work miracles!

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Still getting pushed west though. We decide to try something we have never done before. We heave-to. The boom is open all the way to starboard, mainsail down, the jib is sticking just a bit, maybe a square meter surface, parallel to the boom, the wheel is turned all the way to port and locked, the wind and waves are hitting us from port at about 45 degrees. The boat is trying to turn port because of the wheel, like when you are tacking, but cannot, because of the boom and jib. So- miracle! She is stuck. Cannot turn port, cannot tack, cannot turn starboard, cannot jibe. She stops smoothly the waves lifting her up and posing her down slowly at a very comfortable angle.

It’s 1:00 a.m., storm raging, but it feels fine, even smooth. We are still getting pushed west a bit, but only about 1 kt an hour. And guess what we did for the rest of the nightmare? Exhausted, we slept! Not like babies, but we slept, and if someone has told me that I will sleep during a storm, I would’ve never believed it. But I did.

6:00 a.m. the sun is pushing the night away and with it- the storm is dying out as well. We survived it.

Yet, more scary times awaited us.

Arriving in Raroia

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The Tuamotu Archipelago is also known as the Dangerous Archipelago. These low lying atolls have claimed many boats wrecked on their reefs, which you cannot see at night. Even entering through the turbulent waters of the narrow passes can be disastrous. Navigating in and out of the atolls has to be done with lots of care, at slack tide, when the current in the cut is not too strong.

Raroia is our first atoll ever, so naturally we are anxious and worried about entering through the narrow cut. We arrive in the evening and heave-to again not far from the atoll entrance. This time we do it not because of bad weather but because we have to wait out the night and only enter in daylight and at the precise moment when the tides change direction, the currents reverse and the water in the pass is at its calmest state.

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In the morning, we still have a bit of a current in the pass flowing against us, creating turbulent waters with sort fast river-like waves and whirlpools, but with full sails and both engines we enter in the lagoon successfully.

To find ourselves in Paradise, after surviving the horrors of Hell.

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Not a single hotel, not a single tourist. A lagoon just for us with calm turquoise waters surrounded by a string of little uninhabited islands with coconut palm trees and pink beaches. Like in the postcards, but real!

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An atoll is a coral reef enclosing a pool of water called a lagoon. Atolls form from a volcanic island circled by a coral reef.  First, a volcano pops up from the sea. Then corals start to form around the edges of the crater. With time the volcano starts to sink back down into the sea and eventually- disappears. But the ring of corals formed around it remains and even keeps growing, because the corals keep accumulating. Small flat coral and sand islands appear here and there on the edge of the lagoon protected by a reef. An oasis in the vast blue ocean desert.

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With about 80 islands and atolls, the Tuamotus (meaning the “Distant Islands”) form the largest chain of atolls in the world.

The oval-shaped Raroia is one of the westernmost smaller Tuamotu atolls, measuring 43 km by 14 km, with a land area of 41 km² and a navigable central lagoon with an area of 359 km². We sail across the lagoon and drop anchor in front of one of the small uninhabited motus (islets), where our friends are already waiting for us.

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We celebrate our arrival with a huge bonfire on the beach, food and drinks, music and stories.

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Kon-Tiki Island

Not far from here, just a 10-minute kayak paddle away, is  the Kon-Tiki Island. Here Thor Heyerdahl and his crew arrived after sailing across the Pacific Ocean from Peru on a replica of an ancient raft. This is one of the most epic sailing adventures ever. It is a humbling awe-inspiring experience standing on the spot where Thor Heyerdahl once stood after surviving 100 days of storms, sharks and uncertainty. Imagine the joy he and his men felt landing on this very beach!

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The passes or cuts between the islands in the atolls with their strong currents can be dangerous for navigation but they can also be lots of fun for the kids.

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The smaller cuts between the motus are like warm shallow rivers, changing direction,  flowing in and out with the tides- a roller-coaster for the kids carpeted with corals like blooming flowers. The Coral River.

The bigger deeper passes are even more stunning with underwater coral canyons. Here the currents are massive, bringing nutrients from the ocean inside the lagoon and this is why these passes are packed with fish- some of the best diving spots in the world. But also dangerous, mainly because of the currents, but also- because of the sharks.

 Diving Raroia

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On the other side of the lagoon, near the only village with about 200 inhabitants and near the main big pass (he lagoon’s entrance), we meet Jessica and Chris-a young couple from the USA  cruising around with their super old but still very adorable dog named Martini. They are professional divers and underwater photographers who offer to take us to an awesome diving spot.

Ivo and Maya learned to dive and got their PADI certificates not too long ago- back in Colombia thanks to Cata and Sebastian from DeepCoral. They got diving gear and bottles, but we have no compressor on board to fill the bottles with air, so since Colombia, they never had the chance to dive. Until now. Invictus has a compressor on board and Tobi is happy to fill Ivo and Maya’s bottles.

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Diving is permitted everywhere in French Polynesia, and you don’t have to go on a tour or have some instructor or guide with you if you don’t want to (unlike Galapagos). Plus, there are only a couple of dive shops in Tuamotu, none in Raroia. If you have diving gear- you can dive as much as you want anywhere you like. And thanks to Tobi and his compressor and dinghy, Ivo and Maya had the chance to dive all over French Polynesia, starting in Raroia. And thanks to Chris and Jessica S/V Silent Sun, we learned where the best diving spots are in Tuamotus. In exchange for one pamplemousse and one papaya they guided the first awesome dive in Raroia’s main pass.

The Pearl Farm

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Also here, there is a real pearl farm, where real black pearls are produced and harvested in the lagoon.

After the dive, we go ashore to meet the young owner of the pearl farm. He is third generation pearl farmer, after his grandfather started the business with oysters and his father developed the black pearl industry.

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“I am the Last Pearl Farmer. The climate has changed, Global Warming has had devastating effects on the pearl industry and soon, there will not be many pearl farms left in Tuamotu.”

He explains about the process of pearl-farming and how the pearls are produced. We are allowed to walk around and watch the works but we are not permitted to film or take pictures. After all, this is a million-dollar industry and the professional secrets must be guarded, as every pearl farmer has his own particular methods. But the main process of pearl production is the same everywhere: a piece of a “donor” oyster is implanted into its “recipients”. A small artificial ball with special chemical composition is carefully introduced inside the oyster by a specialist. This is the most sensitive part of the process and if not placed correctly, the pearl will not form.  After this the oysters return in the water, floating attached on small fishing buoys which are also attached to the bottom and can be easily destroyed by storms. With time a pearl forms inside the oyster around the small ball. Within 6 to 12 months the culturing process is complete, and the pearls are ready for extraction. But not all oysters survive, and not all pearls turn out good. Only those that meet specific standards are sold.

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In the evening, the pearl farmer invites us and our friends for diner at his house. We all bring a dish and a bottle to share. My fresh fruit salad is greatly appreciated. There are not many fruits and vegetables on the island where everything is hard to get and has to be ordered and delivered from Tahiti, except fish, coconuts, and black pearls.

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We fell in love with this place and we didn’t want to leave it ever. Remember how I wanted to walk away from the boat because of the storm? What storm? I forgot all about it after a couple of days in Raroia, plus there is nowhere to go really, except a small village with 200 people or a few uninhabited islands with coconut palms.

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Back on the boat and let’s sail to the next atoll!

*Watch our 14-minute YouTube video The Kon Tiki Island Raroia– hooking a marlin, surviving a storm, arriving in our first atoll. Having fun, meeting the last pearl farmer, and visiting the place Thor Heyerdahl crash landed with his raft.

Find us on Facebook @The Life Nomadik
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Since you’re here …

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… we have a small favor to ask. More people than ever are regularly reading our stories, but far fewer are supporting us. We have no regular income. And unlike others, we haven’t made our content private – we want to keep posting free stories for everyone. So we think it’s fair to ask people who visit our blog often for their support. Our efforts to research, write and post pictures take a lot of time and hard work. And it’s even harder to do it from a boat with limited internet and electricity. But we do it because we believe our journey and way of life matters – because it might inspire you! If you regularly read and value our hard work, consider becoming one of our patrons for as little as $1 or $5 dollars a month and help us in our future travels. Thank you!

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Happy People in Nuku Hiva

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After Tahuata Island, we sail to Nuku Hiva- the biggest Marquisan island (330 sq km) and the second largest in all of French Polynesia after Tahiti. Like all the other islands of the Marquesas hotspot, Nuku Hiva is a young volcano, between 4 million and 400 thousand-years-old, without a barrier coral reef formed around it yet. 400 thousand years make it a baby of an island in geological terms (the Caribbean islands, in contrast, are about 50 million-years-old). Its dramatic jagged pinnacles and strangely shaped volcanic peaks haven’t been made smooth by the effects of weather and time yet.

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Taiohae is the capital and most populated city in the Marquesas, which we decide to skip, and sail instead to two of the island’s most secluded bays.

The first one, Anaho Bay, is on the north side of the island, not far from the place where Robert Louis Stevenson- the author of Treasure Island– first landed on his voyage in 1888.  And Herman Melville  (author of Moby-Dick) wrote his first book Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life based on his experiences in Nuku Hiva.

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This is one of the most beautiful bays in Polynesia we have seen, with sandy beaches, palm trees, sharp rock formations and volcanic ridges in the background creating a dramatic breathtaking landscape.

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It takes us an hour to enter, slowly tacking in the deep bay, with the wind stopping completely at times, changing direction or suddenly descending accelerated from the mountains.

We spend there only a couple of days snorkeling, walking around the beach and looking for coconuts before sailing to Hakaui Bay on the south side, bringing a big yellowfin tuna with us. The waters around these most isolated South Pacific islands are rich with fish- catching large tunas, wahoos, dorados and marlins is not a rare exceptional event.

Once again we sail into the bay without turning on the engines, and drop anchor on sail. We are used to this now, after three years of practice.

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First, we slow down the boat by opening the sails (wind angle) or unclutching and letting out the main sheet completely if the wind is too strong, so that the mainsail catches lass wind. We choose the spot where we will drop the hook and slowly approach it. Ivo furls the jib quickly as we are close to the chosen spot and we turn towards the wind a few meters before we reach it. It takes some time before the boat stops completely. Maya drops the hook and we leave the mainsail up for a while so that the wind pushes it and the boat back- to set the anchor. Then we drop the mainsail. It’s almost the same like dropping anchor on engine, except that there is no margin for errors and maneuvering depends on the wind direction and force.

Here, we find once again our new friends from S/V Mercredi Soir and the German family with the two cute little girls aboard S/V Invictus and we share the big tuna with them aboard Fata Morgana- first of a series of epic parties.

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Hakaui Bay is a river delta and the staging point for hikers to the world’s third highest waterfall. Ivo and I take our awesome orange kayak for a spin, while Maya is in the dinghy with her friends Tom and Sam an hour behind us.

Entering the river from the sea is like entering a different world in the shadow of a green mountain. The kayak sliding silently, the river is dark and still. Large yellow flowers floating over their perfect reflections, a row of palm trees guarding the shores. We disturb a heron on the river bank and an eel beneath the water surface.

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The river flows slow, full and deep for a while until it reaches the garden of a small house and becomes shallow. We leave the kayak here attached to a tree. This land with all its fruit trees and large flowers, and this house surrounded by coconut palms, banana plants and shrubs with tiny red chili peppers belong to one family- an ever-smiling Polynesian woman, her over- hyper Polynesian man with tattooed face and their 12-years-old son.

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The path to Vaipo waterfall cuts through their property and they welcome hikers all the time, guiding them through the mountain, organizing dinners for cruisers and trading fruits.

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It’s late in the day and the path is muddy from the rain in the mountains so we, together with our friends, only hike to the first viewpoint from where we can see the waterfall- thin and tall- cascading down the mountain. To reach the waterfall, you need a guide, the path has to be dryer, and you have to start in the morning, as the hike is long and difficult. We are happy to see the fall from a distance and go back to talk some more with the extravagant locals at their river-farm.

Vaipo Waterfall

Vaipo Waterfall

The Marquesian people are closely and proudly related to the Maori people of New Zealand. In Polynesian mythology, their common ancestors come from Hawaiki – the original home of the Polynesian peoples. The Hawaiki people disperse across Polynesia, to the islands of the Pacific Ocean in open canoes, called waka. This is why even today the Maori and the islanders have so much in common- music, dancing, traditional tattoos, beliefs and mythology.

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The Polynesians are also the most welcoming people who meet strangers with open hearts and smiles on their faces, without prejudice or reservation. It is surprising to find such people after traveling halfway around the world and meeting all kinds of people- we didn’t believe they really exist- honest, open and warm, like happy children. They made us happy too.

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The crazy farmer and his wife are preparing dinner for a group of cruisers. Among them- the Muktuk Family with two boys born and raised on the boat- never lived on land. Their life is an epic never-ending adventure worth of a book.

The Muktuk kids

The Muktuk kids

All the ingredients the local farmers use for the cruisers’ dinner are stuff grown in their own garden or caught in their own backyard, which are the river, the ocean and the mountains. Fish and sea food prepared with fresh coconut milk, roasted chicken and goat meat marinated in fresh coconut milk, and a heartbreaking fruit salad containing unbelievable variety of local fruits soaked in fresh coconut milk.

These guys live off the grid in the most beautiful place on the planet. They have all sorts of fruits and vegetables in their huge garden right next to the river, they have coconuts which they use in all recipes and to make copra; they have pigs, goats, horses and chickens; they fish in the ocean and hunt wild boars and wild goats in the mountain; they organize traditional dinners at their house for cruisers for a few dollars; and they trade.

The next day we return for a visit bringing a few gifts for them and their son. They give us in return a bucket of pamplemousse – which are humongous super tasty grapefruits, piles of star fruits, coconuts, papayas and bananas which we pick from the trees ourselves. Stocked up with a mountain of fresh fruits, we are ready to sail again.

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We stage our crossing from the Marquesas to the blue atolls of the Tuamotu island group from Ua Pou- our last Marquisan Island.

Jilie and Lena S/V Invictus showing Maya the drawings they made for her.

Julie and Lena S/V Invictus showing Maya the drawings they made for her.

 

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*Watch our 12-minute YouTube video Off Grid in Nuku Hiva  – beautiful river delta and a waterfall, and meet our friends, the Muktuk kids, and the local Polynesian guy with face tattoo who lives in paradise. 

Find us on Facebook @The Life Nomadik
Support us on Patreon @The Life Nomadik
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Since you’re here …

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… we have a small favor to ask. More people than ever are regularly reading our stories, but far fewer are supporting us. We have no regular income. And unlike others, we haven’t made our content private – we want to keep posting free stories for everyone. So we think it’s fair to ask people who visit our blog often for their support. Our efforts to research, write and post pictures take a lot of time and hard work. And it’s even harder to do it from a boat with limited internet and electricity. But we do it because we believe our journey and way of life matters – because it might inspire you!

If you regularly read and value our hard work, consider becoming one of our patrons for as little as $1 or $5 dollars a month and help us in our future travels. Thank you!

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The Blue Hanamoenoa Bay in Tahuata

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Across from Hiva Oa, only 2.5 NM away, is Tahuata- the smallest of the inhabited islands in the Marquesas.

We sail to Hanamoenoa Bay- a pretty little bay just for cruisers with a nice glittering beach once visited by Captain Cook. The bay is shallow with white sand and warm, completely transparent turquoise water, like liquid glass. A few other boats are already here and a few more are coming behind us. It’s the time of the year when cruisers are crossing the Pacific Ocean and the Marquesian bays are full with arriving yachts.

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It has been months since we have last anchored in a bay of such clean warm water. I am trying to think… Las Perlas in Panama or San Blas? More than one year? We jump in as soon as we drop anchor and first thing’s first- Ivo starts scrubbing the hulls from all the nasty stuff – algae and barnacles- which have colonized the bottom of our Fata Morgana.

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The boat arriving shortly after us drops anchor and the guy jumps in the water with a spatula to clean the hulls too. EVERYONE with no exception comes to Hanamoenoa Bay on Tahuata to clean the hulls. Spontaneously, this place has become “the cleaning station” for all cruisers.

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While Ivo is busy working, Maya and I snorkel around. It’s such a pleasure to swim in 31C waters. There are a few corals near the rocky shores and colonies of tropical fish. But mostly the shallow bay is covered with white sand. Perfect holding for yachts. We swim to the beach.

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While Maya is joyfully playing with the waves I walk around. We heard that a really friendly guy named Steven lives here alone in a shack on that beach but he is not home. Maybe he gets really bored spending all his life on the beach with cruisers coming and going, so he went to visit his friends in the village further away. In any case, he didn’t come back the entire time we were in Tahuata.

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His house is just a basic wooden construction with open veranda raised from the ground about a meter. There is an outside table, a kitchen area with open fire, containers for storing water and other household stuff.

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There are also lots of fallen coconuts lying around. With a friend from Lithuania- Rugile sailing aboard S/V Moonshine, we decide to try and open a few. But these coconuts are Steven’s and he is not home. Maybe, he wouldn’t mind if we open a few, especially if we leave something in exchange? We bring canned beans and tomato paste which we leave on the property and with clear conscious we begin operation “Girls with Machetes”. Rugile hacks away pretty skillfully for a girl. Four of the big coconuts fill a 1.5L bottle. We stock up on delicious coconut water.

Rugile S/V Moonshine

Rugile S/V Moonshine

Tahuata bacame Maya’s favorite place in all of the Marquesas. Not only because the water is like a swimming pool and she spent more time in the water than outside the water- playing on the beach or snorkeling around, but also because here Maya met a couple of boat kids from Belgium- Tom and his sister Sam, cruising aboard a Catana catamaran Mercredi Soir.

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Here, we met another family aboard a 52 lagoon catamaran Invictus. With S/V Mercredi Soir (Belgium) and S/V Invictus (Germany) we became pretty inseparable and cruised together as a community from one island to the next, sharing fun and beautiful moments and helping each other in times of need.

Maya

Maya

Here, we also met for the first time S/V Moby and S/V Excalibur- two cruising families from France. We became good friends with them too and kept meeting them here and there on the Polynesian islands all the way to New Zealand.

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We shared our most beautiful memories of the South Pacific with our friends- stories and adventures in beautiful places I can’t wait to tell you about.

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tahuata*Watch our 10-minute YouTube video The Girl With The Machete in Tahuata for more beautiful views of the Hanamoenoa Bay and our time there snorkeling, playing on the beach, jumping from the rocks and KILLING COCONUTS WITH MACHETES!

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Since you’re here …

.

… we have a small favor to ask. More people than ever are regularly reading our stories, but far fewer are supporting us. We have no regular income. And unlike others, we haven’t made our content private – we want to keep posting free stories for everyone. So we think it’s fair to ask people who visit our blog often for their support. Our efforts to research, write and post pictures take a lot of time and hard work. And it’s even harder to do it from a boat with limited internet and electricity. But we do it because we believe our journey and way of life matters – because it might inspire you!

If you regularly read and value our hard work, consider becoming one of our patrons for as little as $1 or $5 dollars a month and help us in our future travels. Thank you!

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Checking-In in Hiva’Oa. The Island of Paul Gauguin

Atuona Bay, Hiva'Oa

Atuona Bay, Hiva’Oa

From Fatu Hiva we sail to the next Marquesian island some 45 nautical miles away- Hiva Oa.

Hiva Oa is one of the largest and most populated islands in the Marquesas, and the Port of Atuona is one of the official ports of entry for yachts and ships. Here we check-in officially in French Polynesia. The checking-in procedure for French Polynesia is different for different people. If you are traveling with a European passport- it’s free to check in at the local Police station and you can stay 6 months (or forever if you are French). You go to the local Gendarmerie with your passport and boat papers and you sign a form- it takes 15 minutes.

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If you are traveling with Canadian, American, South African and other not so lucky passports- you have a few options: to pay a deposit at the bank (which will be returned to you months later when you leave French Polynesia; payable ONLY by credit card) and show that you have funds (around US$5,000 for a family of three) in case something happens to you and you have to be put on a plane and flown out of the country; or you have to show that you have bought a return airplane ticket- even if you are sailing with a yacht; or you have to hire an agent who will become your guarantor. Americans and Canadians can stay for maximum 3 months, while South Africans- 2 weeks only!

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You lose money in all cases. In the first one (security deposit)- you lose mainly from the money exchange fees and bank fees (over US$150, depending on money exchange rates at the time of the transactions). In the second option, if you buy a ticket for a plane- you can cancel and refund it right after you check-in with a cancellation fee (this is the cheapest option- about US$20-25 cancellation fee). If you hire an agent- you have to pay US$300 for his service and you have to have a valid health insurance.

Aranui

Aranui

Ivo and I are born in Bulgaria (Europe) and Maya is born in Canada, but our Bulgarian passports have expired and we couldn’t renew them, because there were no Bulgarian embassies nowhere on our way. We tried in Panama- at the Bulgarian Consulate, but they don’t have passport service there- so no luck. We are traveling with our Canadian passports.

The guy at the Police station in Atuona tells us, that they cannot recognize our European citizenship which we have by birth right, unless we present a valid European passport (not expired). So we need to go to the bank and pay a deposit, buy a plane ticket or hire an agent.

Our ordeal begins. We start going between the bank, the police and the agent; friends are trying to help us with the many issues that come up.

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At one point, about two weeks later (still not checked-in), I ask at the Police station what will happen if we don’t check-in at all and keep sailing from island to island? Will they arrest us, confiscate our boat? Put us in jail? – No, says the police officer, I don’t know what will happen…

Nothing will happen, most probably. Later we met a couple from the United States who have never checked in and have remained for three years in French Polynesia planning to stay for at least two more.

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Finally our only option is to hire and agent. But we don’t have health insurance. So we get DiverDAN for the family- recommended cheapest option. And we pay the agent fee which is killing us… For a second time we regret not having valid Bulgarian passports- the first time was in Colombia.

More than two weeks after our arrival, we are finally legally checked-in and free to keep sailing and exploring the rest of the islands and atolls of the South Pacific.

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We use our time while stuck on Hiva’Oa to walk around the island and chill.

We hitchhike from the port to the village almost every day. Everywhere in French Polynesia hitchhiking is the best, fastest and free way to go from one place to another (if the island is big enough to have roads). Friendly people on all of the bigger islands gave us rides all the time.

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In the village of Atuona, we marvel at some awesome sacred wood and stone  carvings called tikis. Tiki in Maori and Polynesian mythology, is The First Man- half human half god- created by god Tumatauenga.

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Tikis are protective statues considered the “patron of sculptors”, with huge head, symbolizing power and big eyes representing knowledge. Every tiki has its own personality- some are evil, others are benevolent.

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Tiki is a powerful icon of Polynesian culture, symbolizing spiritual strength, and visitors of the islands buy small tiki figurines or pendants as souvenirs- to protect them in their journey.

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The largest ancient tiki ever discovered is on the island of Hiva’Oa in the Bay of Oipona Puamau.

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The Moai- monumental stone statues on Easter Islands- is a variant of the Tiki.

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As we walk around Atuona marveling at the majestic scenery all around us, we hear music- wild rhythms that make you want to start jumping and dancing around the fire. The kids in the local school are practicing for a school celebration and they let us watch. This is our first glimpse of Polynesian dance and music- savage, sexy and full of stories.

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How awesome is that these kids get to learn to play the drums and belly dance in school since age 5!

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A short hike away through the outskirts of the village at the foot of the volcano is the old cemetery.

Old cemetery, Hiva'Oa

Old cemetery, Hiva’Oa

But another cemetery attracts far more visitors.

Paul Gauguin's grave on Hiva'Oa

Paul Gauguin’s grave on Hiva’Oa

On a hill overlooking the bay is the grave of post-impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. Calvary cemetery  has become a major tourist attraction, besides the Gauguin Museum down in the village with reproductions of his paintings. All tourists coming here climb the hill in heat or rain to pay homage to the famous painter who “escaped western influences” and returned to nature to find paradise lost. Yet, the locals are not too sure about Gauguin and his legacy. What were this French man true motives to buy a house and live in Hiva’Oa?

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The Marquesan islands became famous shortly after their discovery by early European explorers as “haven of free love”. The islanders’ unique culture and way of life included a very different attitude towards sexuality. Children and parents shared quarters and it was OK for kids to witness their parents having intercourse. The adults even found it amusing and funny when children simulated sexual acts, and encourage them to do so from very early age. This explains why European ships were met with swarms of young girls, for whom virginity or chastity was not a social construct, climbing aboard to have sex with the sailors. It also explains why a middle-aged painter whose many Marquesan lovers were barely adult girls, died of syphilis in 1903.

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.*Watch our 10-minute YouTube video More Sushi in Hiva’Oa for more stories from the island- meeting a guitar maker, the arrival of Aranui, looking for an ancient petroglyph in the forest and sharing some MORE SUSHI with friends!

Find us on Facebook @The Life Nomadik
Support us on Patreon @The Life Nomadik
Watch us on YouTube @Fata Morgana


Since you’re here …

.

… we have a small favor to ask. More people than ever are regularly reading our stories, but far fewer are supporting us. We have no regular income. And unlike others, we haven’t made our content private – we want to keep posting free stories for everyone. So we think it’s fair to ask people who visit our blog often for their support. Our efforts to research, write and post pictures take a lot of time and hard work. And it’s even harder to do it from a boat with limited internet and electricity. But we do it because we believe our journey and way of life matters – because it might inspire you!

If you regularly read and value our hard work, consider becoming one of our patrons for as little as $1 or $5 dollars a month and help us in our future travels. Thank you!


 

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Back to Nature in Fatu Hiva

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We sailed 3000 nautical miles across the Pacific Ocean.
Our average speed- about 5-6 kts- the speed you have when you go jogging casually in the morning. We honestly thought that upon our arrival in the first of the Polynesian islands, we will have “crossed the ocean”. Not really.

After 23 days of uneventful sailing, a few squalls, too much sushi, and the most spectacular sunsets, we arrive in the middle of the ocean- a tiny speck of land that you can’t even see on the map without a magnifying glass. Fatu Hiva- the first land on the path of sailors doing the Pacific Crossing from Galapagos- a place beyond reality.

Bay of Virgins, Fatu Hiva

Bay of Virgins, Fatu Hiva

We arrive at night and drop anchor between few other sleeping boats in the Bay of Virgins. The moon is full and bright and we can make out silhouettes of tall cliffs all around us. The smell of flowers and green earth. For the first time in almost a month we sleep at anchor, the boat still, land right next to us.

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In the morning we wake up in the shadow of a strange Jurassic world. Maya says it looks like the Khajiit Realm from her favorite game- Skyrim. The Khajiits are cat people who live in a place called Elsewhere and their king has three sons who are the three moons of this magical world. Fatu Hiva is much like Elsewhere of the Khajiits.

Jagged cliffs of frozen magma plunging into the sea; jungle-covered mountains bathed in pink morning mist rising over a thousand meters; soft folds of green valleys carved by rivers and ancient waterfalls.

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We won’t be surprised if a bunch of dinosaurs pop up from the forest. Actually, a velociraptor just swooped over the palm trees and we saw King Kong climbing up the cliffs on the west side of the bay!

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Right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 12 degrees south of the equator, Fatu Hiva is the southernmost island of the Marquesas island group at the north-eastern extremity of French Polynesia, and the most isolated one. It is only 85 square kilometers in territory with two small villages of a few hundred people and there is no airport. The island is accessible only by boat and tourism is virtually non-existent and limited mainly to cruisers, like us.

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We jump in our three-person awesome kayak and paddle to shore. Land feels strangely new and shaky. It’s hard to keep the balance. Our knees are startled. Our joints awake with disbelief. Our legs are utterly surprised at the forgotten act of walking.

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The dry warm air full of exotic smells is overwhelming.

The village near the bay is but a cluster of a few neat houses almost hidden behind drifts of bougainvillea and hibiscus. Lush gardens with papaya, banana and palm trees, large flowers the color of fire. Pigs, goats and chickens looking at the ground in search of goodies, a sleepy dog walking aimlessly under the bright tropical sun.

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The first Polynesian we meet is a woman sitting on a low concrete fence near the road. She looks like a mixture of Latin-American and Asian race, yet distinctly particular for the Marquisan islands. Dark long very thick hair, a large red flower behind the left ear, she smiles “Bonjour, bienvenues a Polynesie Francaise!” and asks us if we have some perfumes or makeup to exchange for fruits from her garden. Her French has a distinctive islanders’ accent. On these remote Pacific islands with small populations and no shops, where all goods arrive by boat a few times a year, people need all sorts of things, so easily obtained in continental countries. Anything basic- from makeup, clothes, household objects, food and spices- is difficult and expensive to get, and cruisers are always welcome to trade whatever they can spare in exchange for local fruits, vegetables and fish. But we didn’t bring anything to trade.

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We keep walking up a steep road looking for a small waterfall in the forest. Right before we left the boat, a fellow cruiser told us how to find the waterfall. You take the main road and walk up until you reach a curve. Keep walking on the path to your left, past the school and the bridge, through the forest. The path will get narrow and steep and difficult at places. You can’t get lost.

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We got lost. We keep walking on the road up the mountain under the burning sun and it feels the wrong way. There is absolutely no one to ask if we are on the right way to the waterfall. Maya is tired, complaining that her legs hurt. My legs hurt too, and the pain is intense- it has been 23 days of sitting on our butts most of the time and zero walking.

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We reach the top of the hill overlooking the village and the Bay of Virgins. Fata Morgana and her friends look like toy-boats in a calm blue lake below us. The view is spectacular. White birds with long tails like bridal veils soaring among majestic cathedral-like volcanic pinnacles gathering clouds in their crowns, dramatically shaped red and grey cliffs, lush green forests and valleys, and beyond- the endless blue of the ocean.

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Here, in 1937, Norwegian explorer and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl and his wife found paradise. Here, they lead for one year and a half “a primitive life in the wilderness, away from the artificial civilization, independent of everything except nature”, as he wrote in his book “Fatu-Hiva: Back to Nature”- an experience for which I envy them.

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To our left, far in the distance on the opposite side of the mountain we spot the waterfall. We have been walking away from it for the past one hour and a half but the view from this hill is worth the detour. And now we have a better idea where it is. We go back down and meet an old guy walking next to an old horse carrying heavy bags full of dried coconuts. He tells us how to find the way.

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An hour later and one more time getting lost this time in some farmlands, we are finally on the right path.

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It has been a wild dream to see this place, to walk among a jungle full of flowers, to reach the waterfall. And now we are here. Bathing in the cool sweet waters of the deep green pool of our dreams.

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There are not so many places left in the world- awe-inspiring places of extreme natural beauty, unspoiled by civilization and mass tourism like the remote island Fatu Hiva and its elusive waterfall.

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*Watch our 10-minute YouTube video Fatu Hiva- Back To Nature for amazing views of the island and the waterfall!

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Pacific Ocean Passage Days 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 & 23

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Pacific Ocean Passage Day 1
Pacific Ocean Passage Day 2, 3 & 4
Pacific Ocean Passage Day 5, 6, 7 & 8
Pacific Ocean Passage Day 9, 10, 11 & 12
Pacific Ocean Passage Day 13, 14, 15, 16 & 17

Day 18

May 15, 2016 – S 09 21’ 50’’ W 127 05’ 28’’ Dist to Dest 690 NM, GPS heading 265, wind E8-10 kts, cloudy, air temp 28 C

Very calm sea. Slow progress with 3-4 kts. No fish.

I cook potatoes with corned beef for lunch. We wish we had some fresh fruits and vegetables. Some fresh meet. Almost nothing left to eat, except canned and dried foods. Most of the 100 eggs we got in Galapagos have gone bad, even though I kept them in the fridge. I think, half were already bad when we bought them. Who knows how long they have been traveling before reaching the small stuffed shop on Isabela Island. The fresh stuff finished after about 10 days of sailing, except the potatoes. We love potatoes. But they are starting to go bad too- soft, wrinkly, with dark spots and some stink like hell- these go in the ocean.

Cabbage, carrots and onions keep the longest, as well as apples and oranges. In the fridge, they can easily last for over a month, but outside the fridge, when the air temperature is 30 C day and night- couple of weeks is the max. Too bad there is not enough space for all fresh provisions in the fridge. Our boat fridge is not the same as your fridge at home. Our boat fridge is a box half the size of normal fridges and you have to open it horizontally. If you need to take out something from the fridge (like a block of cheese), you have to remove all the stuff that’s on top (like cartons with eggs, bottles, salads, tomatoes, open jars with olives or strawberry jam) to reach the thing that you need on the bottom. Because the thing that you need is always at the bottom of the fridge.

Good thing we have tons of flour- I make pretty good bread.

No fish.

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Day 19

May 16, 2016 – S 09 27’45’’ W 129 03’42’’ Dist to Dest 573 NM, GPS heading 265, wind E8-10 kts, a few clouds, air temp 28 C

Another beautiful night with bright moon. Calm sailing. It’s getting too hot.

Ivo pulled out a nice tuna! Sushi is once again on the menu today! And tomorrow…

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It feels kind of lonely in the middle of the ocean, yet, we are never alone. We’ve been seeing birds- day and sometimes even at night- almost every day of this passage. We thought there will be no birds in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but there are. Not many- just one or two at a time. And they don’t seem lost or tired. They fly low, looking for fish, or float on the water and rest; they even come to check us out with curiosity before flying away to wherever they are going.

Even when there are no birds in sight, we know the sea beneath us is alive with creatures. Dolphins come up for air every now and then and play around the boat, even whales occasionally. Entire schools of flying fish suddenly emerge with panic from the sea surface all around the boat. They fly in long curves sometimes up to a meter high like huge dragonflies making helicopter sounds and splash with tiny belly flaps as they enter the sea again. We find dead flying fish and squid all dried up on the deck almost every morning. And then there are all the fish and other sea creature which we never see but we know they are there, right under the boat- fishes of all kinds and sizes, and sharks too. Deep underneath us.

Hostile environment in which humans are unable to survive, the sea is vastly unexplored. It’s unnatural for people to be in the sea- we need air and land. Yet, here we are.

Day after day- in the sea.

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Day 20

May 17, 2016 – S 09 45’09’’ W 130n52’47’’ Dist to Dest 464 NM, GPS heading 260, wind E6-8 kts, clear, air temp 28 C

Slowest progress since the beginning. It has been 19 days. Alone in the ocean. With only birds and sea creatures around us.

We’ve been moving the watch adding an hour every few days a few times already.

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It somehow doesn’t feel like we’ve been moving at all, or going somewhere. Not because of the slow speed. It’s as if we are staying in one spot- at the center of a big blue never-changing circle defined by the horizon. Never getting closer to or further from anywhere.

The blue circle around us doesn’t move; remains the same day after day. Sometimes it feels as if the Galapagos Islands are just behind the eastern horizon, and it was yesterday we last saw them. Or that the Marquesas Islands are just behind the western horizon and we will spot them any minute now. And sometimes it feels like there are no islands at all and we are sailing forever on a planet made entirely by oceans. We have lost the sense of time and distance.

Imagine… Some things are hard to imagine- watching out of a window of a slow-moving train crossing an endless desert.

If it’s not the GPS to determine our position on the chart, we would be completely confused about time and space.

The art of determining your exact position by looking at the stars have been almost entirely lost our days. And many other arts… The connection Man-Nature has been replaced by Man-Technology, and sailing has become so much easier, but also- we have become so much more dependable on gadgets that can break any minute.

Maya finally finished her math book and all 23 tests at the end- a huge accomplishment! It’s been two years of torture with this thick boring math book we got in Trinidad and Tobago and now it’s finished. No math for Maya for the next few weeks.

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Day 21

May 18, 2016 – S 10 02’37’’ W 133 05’40’’ Dist to Dest 332 NM, GPS heading 265, wind ENE 12-14 kts, clear, air temp 29 C

Good progress with 5-6 kts and smooth sailing. Spinnaker day and night.

We are washing the boat, cleaning, doing laundry (by hand in the big orange buckets). Our freshwater tanks hold 800L and the Catalina MK II Spectra Watermaker desalinates 42L drinkable water per hour. We keep the water tanks half full in order to reduce the weight on the front, but we still have enough water for cleaning, washing and showers. The solar panels produce enough electricity for the watermarker and all other electronics aboard, so we haven’t used the engines at all, not for a single second.

Last time we used the engines was in Galapagos, during the tsunami alert. There was a major earthquake in Ecuador- about 500NM away and we had a tsunami warning just after sunset one evening, so we had to evacuate the anchorage in a hurry with all the rest of the boats- about 20-30 vessels of all sorts- and wait for a few hours in deeper waters away from land. The tsunami never reached us, or was so insignificant, that we didn’t feel it, so we all motored back to the anchorage, and went to bed. That’s the last time we used the engines.

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Day 22

May 19, 2016 – S 10 21’07’’ W 135 11’38’’ Dist to Dest 207 NM, GPS heading 270, wind ENE 14-16 kts, cloudy, air temp 29 C

We are getting really close to the Marquesas, it’s exciting.

Six squalls one after another. We call it “the squall tournament”. They are not too strong and now we have the beer crates ready, so we are not worried.

After the “big squall”, we attached long ropes to the two yellow plastic beer crates we got in Galapagos- big and sturdy , for 1-litre bottles- and we used them as drogues deployed from the stern in strong wind and waves to prevent surfing and stabilize the boat. We prepared them after the big squall a few days ago and we tried them already in one squall. They perform amazingly. I wish we had them ready earlier.

It’s extremely hot. Suffocating. The thermometer reached 31 C. it’s not much cooler at night. We are cooling ourselves pouring buckets of seawater on our heads.

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Day 23

May 20, 2016 – S 10 26’52’’ W 137 56’08’’ Dist to Dest 44 NM, GPS heading 275, wind E6-8 kts, cloudy, air temp 30 C

At noon, there are only 44 nautical miles left to the first island of the Marquesas.

A strange thing is happening with the three of us. We are kind of nostalgic, rather than excited. Instead of happy and ecstatic, we feel profoundly sad and reluctant at the thought of land and civilization. Maya even cried a tiny little bit. We wish we could just keep sailing. Maybe there is some scientific explanation for this unusual psychological state of mind.

Ivo pulled out another tuna. Two others got away.

The wind is dying out. We are slowing down. We can see a mysterious, almost transparent silhouette of an island slowly emerging from the western horizon. Our perfect blue circle has suddenly changed to become a diamond ring. We are staring at Fatu Hiva shining not too far away.

Sunset. We will arrive at night.

In a place beyond reality.

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Watch our newest YouTube video: Pacific Ocean Passage

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Pacific ocean Passage. Days 13, 14, 15, 16 &17

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Pacific Ocean Passage Day 1
Pacific Ocean Passage Day 2, 3 & 4
Pacific Ocean Passage Day 5, 6, 7 & 8
Pacific Ocean Passage Day 9, 10, 11 & 12

Day 13

May 10, 2016 – S 07 55’40’’ W 115 40’34’’ Dist to Dest 1373 NM, GPS heading 245, wind ESE 16-22kts, clear, air temp 26 C

We are in the middle! Maya released the bottle with the messages (in four languages) shaped as a scroll wrapped in a fake 100-dollar bill to attract attention, in case someone finds the bottle and decides not to open it.

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The wind and waves have picked up a lot. We are sailing with 7-8 kts. It’s bumpy now with 4-meter waves and it’s getting uncomfortable.

When it’s bumpy and you try to sleep, bouncing up and down in your bed, you wake up and your whole body hurts and it feels bruised, as if you have been in a fight, and lost. I can’t sleep well in bad weather; I wake up with panic at every sound and I tend to dream a lot if I fall asleep at all. There is so much happening and so many people visiting me in my dreams; I wake up exhausted.

When it’s bumpy and you try to cook, you have to be really careful not to spill things or cut yourself, as the whole galley becomes alive and everything is in motion- the dishes, the food, the stove. Making soup or anything liquidy is impossible and ridiculous. Even poring water in a glass is a challenge. Once, an entire bottle of oil fell down and the floor became deadly for a long time.

When it’s bumpy and you try to go to the toiled, you have to be really careful and skillful too, or you might hurt yourself. I have developed a strategy. First, I stand outside the tiny toilet with my back propped on the wall opposite the open door. Now, with both my hands, which until this moment I have used for holding on while walking towards the toilet (you can’t stand up or move around freely on a shaky boat without holding on to something), I pull down my pants without falling. With my pants down, I use my hands for holding on again, and I make the step inside the toilet. I flush while I am still sitting (we have two electrical toilets and flushing is easy enough with a push of a button), and I step outside to pull my pants up with my back to the wall again.

Ivo decided to restart the Iridium Go Satellite and now it works just fine! We can finally not only receive but also send messages!

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Day 14

May 11, 2016 – S 09 01’54’’ W 118 18’32’’ Dist to Dest 1210 NM, GPS heading 230, wind E 20-30kts, cloudy, air temp 27, barometer dropping

The wind picked up even more and worse is predicted for tomorrow. The waves have built up and are coming from all directions. The main is reefed and we are moving with only 6 kts.
Squalls. Gusts to 32 kts. I am scared. In such moments I think I should stop sailing.

The sky is dark, covered in thick low clouds and there is a strange glow in the distance- some orange-pink light. Looks like fire on the water. Could be some opening through the clouds and the sun playing tricks on the sea, but I don’t know…

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Day 15

May 12, 2016 – S 10 11’57’’ W 120 36’54’’ Dist to Dest 1068 NM, GPS heading 275, wind E 20-26kts, cloudy, air temp 26

We are tired. Didn’t sleep much last night and the night before. The sea keeps building up; we are kind of used to the constant movement now.

At 05:00, still dark, a squall hits us with 40 kt winds and rain. We ride it with the main and jib reefed. The waves are huge- they are the scary part. The autopilot fails and Ivo is hand steering through the shit. A few times he thinks the boat will turn over and cannot hold her. Surfing with 12 kts.

The boat is too heavy on the front. It’s filled with books. Hundreds of books, which I couldn’t throw away (because I love them too much- pathetic) and we are carrying them around the world like idiots for four years now. And now we are in big trouble. When the boat is heavy on the front and the waves and wind are pushing from the back, the bow could dive under the water and we could turtle. We need something to stop us from surfing and going so fast, like a drogue or sea anchor, but we don’t have anything.

We decide to drop the main and leave just a bit of the jib out. But this means turning against the wind and waves quickly. Big waves, as big as the boat. We do that successfully.

I send messages to Mel and Krisha with our position, in case of search and rescue. 40 knots wind for one hour is not a huge deal, but for me is supper scary and seams like a deadly storm. For a more experienced sailor 40 kts is “a fresh breeze”.

One hour later, the storm has passed. Sunrise. We are OK. Ivo is fixing the autopilot.

Squalls all the rest of the day, but nothing over 25-30kts. We prepare two big plastic yellow beer crates we got in Galapagos (now empty) attached to long ropes and we use them as drogues in the next squall. They work perfectly, stabilizing the boat and prevent surfing. Now it feels much safer.

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Day 16

May 13, 2016 – S 09 22’58’’ W 122 35’33’’ Dist to Dest 955 NM, GPS heading 305, wind E 16-20kts, clear, air temp 26 C

A fishing boat 11 NM north! Yahatamaru. GPS heading 182. We are not alone for a few minutes!

Finally smooth sea and gentle slow sail. Spinnaker is up again. (It took a while to lift it, but we are getting the hang of it.)

Ivo and Maya are fixing the old jib (16-years old, original sail), which got another 40 cm gash during the big squall. This is the eightieth time we are fixing the jib since we got the boat so the sail looks like an abstract quilt now- patches all over it. Definitely need a new jib.

Another day in the Pacific.

We need fish again.

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Day 17

May 14, 2016 – S 09 23’22’’ W 124 36’13’’ Dist to Dest 836 NM, GPS heading 265, wind E8-10 kts, cloudy, air temp 27 C

Ivo slept all night, exhausted after the storm and squalls and bad weather in the past few days.

I stay behind the wheel trying to remain awake for 6 hours. I don’t mind staying awake; I just don’t want any more storms and squalls. We are moving slowly, the wind is calm and that’s OK.

The night is spectacular. Tiny organisms explode with green light around the boat and in the foam behind it, flickering magically among the reflections of billion stars. We are in space, suspended in the center of a black glass sphere filling with bioluminescence, when you shake it gently.

The moon in this liquid universe is bright and friendly. When the moon is round and big like that it feels like there is someone watching over you and you are not alone. The moon is also the saddest most tragic of faces I’ve known. I have always talked to the moon, since I was a kid and my dad was away on a big cargo ship for a long time, somewhere on the other side of the Black Sea. I used to send messages to the moon and she would relate them to him. That’s how we used to communicate, me and my dad. With the help of the moon. That’s how we still communicate, me and my dad, now that he is no longer with us…

“Tell him, that I miss him…”

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DAY 18
To be continued…

Watch our newest YouTube video: Pacific Ocean Passage

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