One morning while we sipped our coffee off Rikitea, we watched a small boat sail into the anchorage. Three guys scampered about, setting their anchor and launching their rowing dinghy. French citizens are able to remain in French Polynesia indefinitely, so we assumed the crew were from France and had, at most, sailed from Tahiti.
There’s nothing better than having an assumption blasted out of the water.
That afternoon, we saddled up next to three 20-somethings at Snack JoJo, the crew of s/v Sparrow. They weren’t French; they were British. They hadn’t sailed from Tahiti; they’d sailed all way from the bloody United Kingdom! Many people think that living aboard Red Thread is confined, but at 44 feet she’s in the upper end of average for a cruising vessel. So, when I say “small”, just imagine Red Thread minus nearly 15 feet. The intrepid sailors of tiny Sparrow hadn’t even taken the more popular and arguably less challenging route to French Polynesia (often called the “Coconut Milk Run”). They had departed Panama and sailed for Rapa Nui and even managed to stop at Pitcairn! As Mike from s/v Romano would say, “They have a good fairy.”Best friends, Jesse and John, had bought Sparrow together and sailed from England, cutting ties from families, significant others, and work for the adventure of a lifetime. They reminded me of Katie and Jessie on a boat, two bad ass women in their early 20s who sailed the Great American loop on a small boat with a big dog. Jesse and John were, perhaps, the male, across-the-pond version of Katie and Jessie. The third guy was Dan, their childhood friend, who met them in Easter Island to embark on his first ocean passage. Can you imagine your first ocean passage being the 1,100 nautical miles from Easter Island to Pitcairn?!
Time was passing quickly, and we soon began monitoring weather and watching for a window to sail for the Austral Islands. For as much as we were enjoying Mangareva and loved our pearl farm experience, it would be a massive disservice not to visit any of the other islands. With time of the essence, we decided to sail for nearby Taravai. The flock of sparrows, if you will, were housesitting on Taravai for a French couple who was traveling abroad. In exchange for an island abode and the option to not use the ole “bucket and chuck it” method (toiletting in a bucket is what you do on a very small boat!) for a few months, the trio was tending to the couple’s farm and gardens. The only other human inhabitants were the lovely Tuihani family, whose path we’d already crossed.
The morning after we arrived in the Gambiers, Herve Tuihani motored up to our stern in his panga selling freshly slaughtered pork with a big grin. We find it impossible to turn down meat related to bacon, so of course we were interested. Unfortunately, we hadn’t yet cleared into the country, let alone converted US dollars to Polynesian francs. Poor as our French is, we conveyed the dilemma. No Polynesian francs, no problem! Herve urged us to select what we wanted and trusted us to pay him…eventually. Trust given, not built. Good faith toward strangers. No questions asked. The spoils of a small island community!
Exchanging currency turned out to be a bit of an adventure. Little did we know that there are no banks in the Gambier Islands, and the closest ATM is 700 miles away. Currency exchange occurs at the post office, which had recently stopped accepting US dollars because American yachties are a rarity in the Gambiers. Lucky for us, a postal worker said his friend was interested in getting his hands on some US money, and we were happy to wait until said friend came in to do some business. That’s when we met Herve’s wife, Valerie and their son, Ariki.A South Pacific funny farm
Taravai would make for an excellent staging point for our passage to the Australs, and fulfill our desire to experience a bit more of the Gambiers’ charm. The afternoon entry was a bit nerve-racking, as the charts weren’t especially accurate. We navigated using waypoints from the Soggy Paws Guide (download FREE here), and I stood watch on the bow trying to watch for coral heads, which wasn’t easy beneath late-afternoon gray skies. Ever thankful for our shoal-draft sailboat, we sailed in smoothly and set the anchor.
Dawn broke on an overcast day; the type that somehow makes all of the earthly colors more vibrant, rather than lackluster. Jesse and John appeared and invited us to go spearfishing. I was quite content to stay put for the morning, but Neil couldn’t get his gear fast enough! He wanted to learn how to spearfish, but thus far, the opportunity hadn’t presented itself.
His Hawaiian sling required a level of precision and proximity that made it very difficult in the hands of a novice in a lagoon full of skittish fish. Jesse and John had proper spearguns. Neil returned empty handed but determined. The guys lent him one of their spearguns, and after lunch, he set out for a snorkel ‘n spear with the Romanos. He returned all smiles, bragging about the spectacular snorkeling I’d missed (I stayed behind to bake a sweet, silly me) and flaunting proudly two beautiful surgeonfish to add to those speared by Jesse and John during the morning. We’d have plenty to eat at the barbeque that night!Ashore, we wandered the paradise that Jesse, John, and Dan got to experience as their own for a few months. The hubbub of modern life is bustling and demanding, but living in an undeveloped location commands a schedule of its own. The guys stayed busy clearing the land so nurtured by the climate that the endemic foliage could hardly be kept at bay; maintaining the house and learning new life skills, such as how to make coconut cream by hand; and trying to keep up with a comedy show of animals they’d inherited. The opportunity came with a host of rib-tickling challenges. Like the horse, Dior, who had been shipped to the Gambiers on a ship from Australia. Her desire for interaction was very apparent. She is, after all, the only horse on the island, but her social skills are sorely lacking. She refuses to be touched and she is not ridable, but she will come if you offer her a banana. She was also more than happy to try to steal nips of grilled fish and baked breadfruit over our shoulders at the outdoor dinner table!Others in Taravai’s cast of characters included a dog in the midst of a phantom pregnancy. Go ahead, suggest this is absurd (it is!), but seriously, she is one of only two dogs on the island, both female! They were also bequeathed a herd of wild pigs, several dozen bush chickens, and an orange cat. You can’t make this stuff up.The Tuihani family’s paradise
Herve and Valerie live a short walk down the beach, on the other side of the church of St. Gabriel, another of Honore Laval’s creations. The couple are her caretakers, mowing the grass, dusting the pews, and keeping fresh flowers upon an alter that is rarely used for services nowadays. The church is a beautiful neogothic structure, with a steep crimson roof, baby blue accents around lancet windows, and mildewing shading that speaks to the structure’s 148-year existence in the tropics.
Theirs is truly a paradise. Pigs run wild through the tropical forest and along with a few fish, provide their protein. The gardens give them more pamplemousse, coconuts, bananas, lemons, breadfruit, and avocados (a rare delicacy in the South Pacific!) than they can consume themselves. For a modest price, they sold us fruit and vegetables for our upcoming passage. For as simple as it is to grow food in the nutrient-rich soil in the Gambiers, making money is not easy unless you are in the pearl industry. As an overseas collectivity of France, French Polynesia receives hefty financial subsidies; nonetheless, making money is still necessary for day-to-day life and for education.
Children remain in the Gambiers for elementary (primary) school, but at the tender age 13, they are sent to live a thousand miles away in Tahiti (and I thought living 30 miles from my high school in Utah was a long way!). Herve and Valerie’s oldest son, Alan, had come of age and left his family home a few months prior. It goes without saying that we were quite happy to pay a few francs for their produce!Herve and Valerie invited us into their home, two one-room structures for living (i.e., kitchen and eating area) and sleeping. Valerie showed us the art she creates with colored sand, and four-year-old Ariki presented his toys and storybooks. Kids in the islands don’t have the excess of toys most kids possess in the States. They have a few precious items and imaginations that make their environment their greatest plaything. Ariki (“king” in Polynesian) ran wildly down the sand, chasing his dog, leaping from a palm whose trunk arced over the sand, its fronds forever reaching for the sun. A lovely afternoon was cut short when we realized that the bright day had grown dim. A massive squall was on the horizon. We hugged our new friends, draped our bags of vegetables o’er our shoulders, and waded down the beach through knee-deep water toward our dinghies. The tide was rising. We stopped for a quick farewell to the crew of Sparrow, who were quite happy to be able to watch the storm from their oceanfront home, rather than their stout little ship. We hastily rowed back to Red Thread and Romano, just before the sky bent with 35-knots winds and a torrent of rain so thick we could no longer see Romano three boat-lengths to port.Goodbye, Gambiers
A few days on Taravai was simply not enough. We had not had our fill of the Gambiers, and what a pleasure it would have been to spend more time with the Tuihanis. Alas, weather dictates our movements and the cyclone-free season when boats can safely cruise the South Pacific is finite, no matter how deeply we might long for it to extend year-round. In addition, our friends, Mark and Helen, who had also visited us in Costa Rica (see this post and this one and this one and this one) had just booked flights into Tahiti. Mother Nature said it was time for us to boogie west.
We strongly recommend you follow the waypoints found in the Soggy Paws guide (link above) and enter at high tide in good light. If you draft more than 2 meters, be extraordinarily careful, as you may very well bump your keel. It took us a couple tries to get our anchor to set to our satisfaction, primarily because we were conscientious about our position in relation to the reefs that surround the anchorage. We wanted to be sure that we had ample swing room should the winds shift. We were glad for our position when the massive squall struck during our final afternoon at Taravai, as it whipped us about with a fury.
Taravai anchorage waypoint: 23°08’.932S 135°01’.409W