Rikitea in the Gambier Islands is that kind of place where you almost need to check your pulse to make sure you are still alive. We could have stayed there a very long time indeed, but our visas for French Polynesia are only for 90 days and this is a vast area of ocean with many interesting islands to visit. Our original plan was to travel northwest from the Gambiers into the Tuamotus, a group of dozens of atolls (lagoons surrounded by coral reefs). Some of the larger ones have passes into the interior lagoon. Without a pass you can only anchor in the lee of the island in the open ocean so we were looking at the former. The first of these islands that had a pass was Hao which was a bit over 400 miles from Rikitea. There is a problem with these passes though. Water can enter the lagoons when waves wash over the reefs which are most common on the southern half of the lagoons. Once in the lagoon the water tends to only exit via the pass so that even though the ride range is quite small – the currents can be fierce and you can even have periods of time when there is no flood, only continuous ebb. At Hao, the current can be 12 knots when there have been strong winds from the southern quadrants for a few days.
When we left the lagoon of the Gambiers we had pretty much given up on Hao because the forecast was for SE winds up to 25 knots and swells of up to 4 meters – all of which would really load up the lagoon with water. We were going to go directly toward Tahiti, a distance of something like 852 nautical miles. Once we got out we found the conditions were much more benign with winds of about 15 knots and waves more like a meter or so – as a result we headed toward Hao. But then the conditions worsened so that by the next morning winds were 25 knots and swells much bigger – so back to Plan A, Tahiti. There was an occluded front to the north, the remnant of a low pressure system in the Roaring 40s (we were at 22° S, so we decided to head due west to try to get around the end of the front. This decision had an interesting side effect – it meant we would be passing very close to the two islands used by the French for nuclear testing from 1966 to 1996. In this time there were 193 atomic and hydrogen bombs exploded here, both below ground and in the atmosphere.
On our second full day out, winds were even stronger, in the 30 to 35 knot range and we were running in the general direction of Tahiti with only a little bit of jib up. By afternoon, it really started to blow and the dinghy, which was tied to the foredeck started to play hovercraft so I went forward to add some extra lashings to it. As I was almost finished, sitting on the lee deck with the last knot half tied, we must have broached (swung sideways to the wind) and were knocked down by a particularly large wave. I was not in the best place to see all this and my take on the knockdown was that I was sitting in warm water up to my chest and starting to float away. I was not going to go far though since I had two tethers attaching me to the deck and two hands holding tight to a stanchion. When I got back to the cockpit it was full of water (to the top!) and there was dirt all over from a pot we had used to grow lettuce. June, who also had her harness on was bailing water with the pot – a process that went well even though it had four largish drain holes in the bottom. After the water was gone (did not take long), we could see some damage, while other damage appeared gradually. Our bimini was torn in several spots and we had to get it off since it was flogging badly. Some water had gone into the cabin even though the doors were closed and soaked seats and the like. The (heavy) chart table lid and flipped open and our digital camera had landed in the water and mud (it is DOA which explains why there are no pictures with this).
Once we got going we discovered that boat the Monitor vane and Raymarine electric autopilot where not working since the force of the water had driven the gears apart – horizonally in the case of the Monitor and vertically for the Raymarine. These were both fixable (for no cost!) but only once we arrived in Tahiti. The result of this was that we hand-steered the boat for 5 days – an experience that we never want to repeat (btw, this was two hours of steering followed by two hours of rest – the watches from 3 to 5 am and 5 to 7 were particulary hard). The next day we discovered that one of our solar panels had been destroyed by the wave – it bulged out from back to front and you had to look at it from the outside to really appreciate the damage.
As to wind strengths, I checked the Beaufort wind scale descriptors and I think we had Force 10 conditions for an hour or a bit more. An American boat not too far away from us had 45 to 55 knots for 12 hours. We certainly did not have these strong winds for so long, but can believe the 55 knots. During this time, the water had a bizarre appearance. It looked quite smooth, like some giant hand had wrapped the surface in Saran Wrap. At the same time, the tops of the waves were being blown off by the wind. Ainia did great. A lesser boat might have suffered structural or rigging damage but we were fine. After securing the boat and with lower winds (30 knots) we curled up inside until morning.
As must always be the case in such situations, the next days brought light winds so we went quite slowly downwind toward Tahiti. We only used the engine when necessary (ie no wind at all) since we had no new fuel after the Galapagos and finally arrived in Papeete after another 5 days. Anchoring opportunities near the city are very limited so we decided to go to Marina Taina in the western suburbs. This marina has excellent facilities and is well-placed for us getting everything fixed onboard. It is nice to have some luxury after a long and often trip from the Galapagos.
French Polynesia is a very costly place – perhaps the most costly I have ever visited. A beer in the supermarket is about $4 a bottle and going out for a meal in a modest restaurant will be $20+ at least, not counting a beverage. And yet, there are lots of big boats, nice houses, Porsches, and the like so there are some people here with money. It is like Bermuda in the sense that there is no income tax but high import duties.
We did find one cheap thing here – solar panels! So we have a new panel and much cheaper than the old one in the US. Adjustments fixed both autopilots and the bimini is out for sewing. We had a new stanchion made to replace one that was badly bent. Probably we could go in another few days, but we will likely stay for another week or so while we wait for delivery of a new digital camera from Canada. I checked cameras here and those that are $300 in North America are $800 here.
On the medical front, the boil I had is almost healed (after more than 6 weeks) but I had two other develop on the same leg. I went to the spiffy new hospital here and had them treated (one was infected) and it seems I have staph infections so I have given up ever scratching my leg and am using a special dermatological soap on my skin. June has several small infections where the infection might have come from treating me. Hers are slowly getting better and she is extra careful about washing her hands after changing any of my bandages. Going to the emergency department (‘urgence’) cost less than $50 and I was treated by two doctors and a nurse and likely had about an hour of direct attention. It was excellent care I think. We spent more than $100 on various medicines, chemcials, and dressings at the pharmacie. I was told it will be at least three weeks before everything heals.