French Polynesia Update: Marquesas & Tuamotus (plus adios from Chase)
Heads up that this post is ENORMOUS and filled with lots of silly words. If you’d just like to check out pictures, you can do so here!
Greetings from Day 50 in French Polynesia, it’s been a minute since we posted one of these. For anyone who had their doubts, we are still alive, still floating, and still stinky (some things never change). You won’t be reading this until we’ve settled in Tahiti and connected to some (hopefully) decent internet, but we are currently anchored on the island of Toau in the Tuamotus, waiting out some ‘sporty’ weather so that we can attempt the two-day crossing to the Society Islands.
Though our blog/Instagram sabbatical has been mainly due to a near-total lack of wifi (not to mention my busted phone and a computer that won’t hold a charge), we’ve also kept ourselves busy enough with hiking, snorkeling, and even a little sailing that it’s been hard finding time to squeeze in any writing. Over the last two months we’ve covered a lot of ground, made a buttload of new friends, and seen a lot of islands, which I’ll do my best to sum up below. As always, I’ll let Connor handle the technical/maintenance updates on how the boat has been performing.
On a personal note, the big news on my end is that I’ll be leaving the Sea Casa crew in Tahiti and flying back to the States at the end of June. It’s been a hell of an adventure, and I think Connor & I are both surprised that I ended up staying onboard for as long as I did. I’m not sure if or when I’ll have the opportunity to do something like this again; it took me further out of my comfort zone than I can ever remember being, and I’m thankful to Connor for letting me stick around. But I have a life at home that I’m ready to get back to, and Connor’s ready to take on some fresh crew, so it’s time to say goodbye and get my feet back on solid ground. Of course, I’ll continue following his travels on Sea Casa closely—right after I take a hot shower, pull some clean sheets out of the dryer, and fix myself something other than a bowl of rice & beans.
After making landfall at the end of April, it took a few days to sync our schedules up with the gendarmerie (customs & immigration folks), which gave us time to explore the port town of Atuona. Though Atunoa is the second-biggest town in the Marquesas, it consists of little more than a restaurant or two, a few small stores, a bank & post office, and a combination car rental/tattoo place (yep). Certain members of our crew arrived in the Marquesas fired up on the possibilty of an authentic Polynesian tattoo to celebrate a successful crossing, but excitement quickly waned after discovering that it required staying out of the water for up to two weeks afterward. Maybe next time, I guess. One highlight in Atuona was a hike we took in an attempt to reach the top of the tallest mountain we could find. One full day and nearly ten miles later, we found ourselves shy of the peak but still totally satisfied with the stunning views as well as the unending supply of ripe mangos found lying on the trail (I must have eaten my weight in ‘road mangos’ during our time in the Marquesas). Another huge treat in Atuona was being able to sit down in a restaurant and have a meal served to me for the first time in weeks (didn’t even have to do dishes). We stopped in twice for cheeseburgers, and even though everything in the Marquesas was as expensive as we had been led to believe, the burgers were absolutely worth it. The one cheap food available everywhere were the government-subsidized baguettes (after all, we are in France), so we loaded up on those and headed south to Tahuata.
Due south of Hiva Oa, Tahuata was lush, quiet, and home to the best (and nearly only) snorkeling we saw in the Marquesas. It was also where we got to celebrate Stuart’s birthday, which became an anchorage-wide event after our new friends onboard Brisa sang to him and everyone else over the radio. At his request, we dined on Spam & mashed potatoes for dinner (the crew remains easy to feed) and spent the day exploring the sea life near shore. A few days later, I was walking along the shore when the sole local who lived in the bay we had anchored in called me over. Though my French is as bad as my Marquesan (I’ve lasted two months with “hello,” “thank you,” and “do you sell eggs?”), he quickly made it clear that he wanted to trade ammo, tobacco, or batteries in exchange for fruit. I was fresh out of .22 shells and cigarettes, but after bringing over six AAA batteries I proceeded to follow him around his property as he used a machete and a 20’-long bamboo pole to bring down bananas, limes, coconuts, mangos, and pomplamousse. I returned to the boat with enough food to feed a small fruit-loving army. The bananas wound up in bread, the limes wound up in cocktails, and the coconuts wound up taking a hacksaw, a power drill, and my whole damn afternoon. Have you ever tried opening one of those things? It’s like trying to hack through a wooden bowling ball. An extremely unsatisfying effort-to-reward ratio, and an extremely stupid fruit. However, I did gain a load of respect for all the three-fingered guys we saw in Mexico who could open one with a machete in under 15 seconds. Tahuata is also where we first met Defiance, a trimaran carrying our new friend Annie and her parents. Annie is one of the few cruisers we’ve met who’s our age, so it was great sailing together through most of the Marquesas and Tuomotus. Annie and Defiance served us everything from aged jack cut from their 16” cheese wheel to gin & tonics made with homemade tonic; we served Annie everything from shelf-stable bagged pork to Tang (assorted flavors). After a week on Tahuata, it was time to make the two-day journey south to Fatu Hiva.
Instead of sailing directly from Tahuata to Fatu Hiva, we thought it would be easier to break it up by anchoring off the small island of Mohotane for a few hours, sleeping a bit, and then continuing south in the wee hours of the morning. Because it is still actively used by the French military, nobody is allowed to set foot on the island, and there is only one small spot to anchor. This small anchorage was filled with coral heads (something we would become very familiar with), and to keep from damaging the coral or getting the anchor wrapped around something, we had to float our chain over the ground by tying lines between the chain and fenders floating on the surface. We then proceeded to get rolled around for the rest of the day, since there was no protection from the incoming swell. Everyone lay wide awake until 2a and we were ready to pull up the anchor, only to discover that the lines used to float the chain had become completely tangled, which is just what you want when trying to depart in the middle of the night under a heavy swell. Connor & Stuart were thankfully able to get in the water and untangle it all, and after a while we were finally on our way, no better rested and no closer to Fatu Hiva. There’s probably a reason the guidebooks don’t mention Mohotane.
Fatu Hiva is famous for one anchorage on the west side of the island in the small town of Hanavave. Although it used to be known as the Bay of Penises due to the huge phallic rock formations at its entrace, the Catholics quickly put an end to that and gave it its current name, the Bay of Virgins (clearly the Catholics did not share a sense of humor with the Sea Casa crew). Many boats who are sneakier than us will make first landfall on Fatu Hiva and spend a few days here before heading north to Hiva Oa to officially check in. The law-abiding boys of Sea Casa don’t play that way, which meant visiting this island required a serious detour, but it ended up being worth it for the stunning scenery and new friends we met while there. Friends like Franco and Kath on Caramor, a 36’ fiberglass boat that sailed from South Georgia on the tip of Antarctica; and Daniel on Neorion, a gleaming 111’ yacht with a full crew and an industrial deli slicer in the galley. It was great being able to socialize with so many other cruisers and hear about their experiences with the crossing, both positive and negative. Fatu Hiva is home to a gorgeous waterfall that’s supposed to be an easy hike for anyone who wants to check it out, which we did. However, after some unclear directions, our first attempt put us deep in the jungle at the end of a long trail that wound up being not a trail but someone’s driveway. Oops. We tried again the next morning, as eager as before but with no clearer sense of which way to go. We asked directions from the first locals who drove by, and instead of going to the trouble to explain, they pointed to the back of their pick-up and gave us a ride straight to the trailhead. Something tells me we weren’t the first tourists to ask them diretions to the waterfall. The waterfall was as beautiful as promised and we took full advantage of the opportunity to rinse in some fresh water. We were even lucky enough to not hear about the giant eels living at its base until later that night… One of the highlights of our time in Hanavave was an afternoon spent with the local football team (don’t you dare call it soccer). The team was preparing for its match against the two other Hanavave teams, and the winner would be sent to play the winners from the other Marquesan islands. Connor and Stuart did an excellent job holding their own on the field, while I stayed back to take some pictures and eat some ice cream. This blog post has taken me long enough to put together that we’re in Tahiti as I’m writing now, and a few days ago we actually ran into one of the guys from the team; turns out they won the whole thing! It was fun for us to hang with some locals, and they seemed excited to have some unwitting victims on whom to unleash their fancy footwork. All things told, Fatu Hiva ended up being well worth the detour.
Heading back north brought us to Ua Pou, prounouced either ‘poh,’ ‘pow,’ or ‘poo,’ depending who you talk to. Though we stopped at a few different anchorages on the island, the highlight was Hakahetau Bay, home to Manfred the German Chocolate Man. Manfred moved to Ua Pou years ago, following an illustrious career as a masseuse in Germany and a helicoptor pilot in Tahiti, and has been making chocolate out of his home ever since. Getting to his house involved trekking pretty deep into the jungle, and the only indication we were headed the right way was a small sign nailed to a tree when we were 1.5km away. Before continuing on to his home, we took a short detour to visit another waterfall and squeeze in a quick swim (as well as take batting practice with some sticks and rocks). On our way back to the main trail, the strap on my left sandal completely snapped, leaving me with only a right sandal. No more than 200 meters farther down the trail, the strap on my RIGHT sandal completely snapped, leaving me shoeless for the remaining 1.5km walk to the Choco Man himself. Thankfully I was able to buy a cheap pair of sandals in the village before heading back to the boat, but not before spending three hours in Manfred’s kitchen, listening to his life story, learning about his chocolate, and meeting his 23 cats. I regret not taking pictures, as he was quite the character and his property was an eye-opening example of what off-the-grid living can look like; he had diverted the local creek into a pipe that ran through his shed and was using the pressurized water to generate electricity for the property. If you visit, be sure to try his homemade ganache. He keeps it in a half-empty tub in his fridge next to a communal spoon that he will use to personally feed each member of your party before returning the used spoon to the tub and putting everything back in the fridge. You’d better believe we bought some chocolate.
Our last stop in the Marquesas was the island of Nuku Hiva, home to the largest town in the whole archipelago (with a hardware store that sold cooking alcohol!). We spent the first few days in Taiohae Bay, where it felt like a giant reunion running into all the boats who came across from Mexico that we had not yet seen. Of all the folks we saw, I am most indebted to our friends Jon and Kristi on Caesura, who helped me pull off one of the best birthday presents I have ever given Connor. If you remember our daily updates as we crossed the Pacific, a huge issue was our snapped toilet seat hinges that resulted in more slipping and sliding than three young men should ever have to deal with. After making landfall, we tried everything from buying replacements to carving our own, but nothing seemed to work. Miraculously, Jon and Kristi carried a spare pair of hinges that they gave us in exchange for nothing more than some movies off our hard drive, and we will forever be grateful to them for hooking us up with the firmest toilet seat in all the land (thanks Jon, thanks Kristi!). We spent Connor’s actual birthday a few miles down the coast at Daniel’s Bay, where we hiked to another waterfall, ate some more road mangos, and even baked a shredded coconut cake with the help of Stuart’s new machete (and nobody lost a finger!). After celebrating two successful birthdays in the Marquesas, it seemed like it was time to pack it in, so we headed off on our five-day crossing to the Tuamotus.
Our crossing from Nuku Hiva to Kauehi ended up being one of the most pleasant trips we’ve had since leaving Los Angeles; we made great time with pleasant weather and comfortable sailing. Once you reach the Tuamotus though, the strong currents through the narrow passes into the atolls mean that you need to time your entrace with the tides, and we made such good time to our first atoll that we ended up having to wait outside all night until it was light enough to enter. Unfortunately, our timing was a little off, and we ended up battling a standing wave and a strong outgoing current that slowed our forward progress to ~.5 knots, even with the engine running at full speed. Along with the pouring rain it was a little frightening, but as always, Connor handled it like a champ and Kauehi ended up being one of the best spots we visited. The weather cleared by the end of the day, and we soon found ourselves inside a tropical atoll straight out of a desktop background photo. The next few days were spent snorkeling the reefs on both the inside and the outside of the atoll; we saw everything from turtles to sharks to rays, and even took three hermit crabs back as pets (as much as Connor would like them off his boat, they are still with us in Tahiti). We were treated to some delicious pancakes from our new Danish friends on Ella, and overall had a really wonderful time in such a stunning place. I think we had been looking for the stereotypical beautiful and secluded South Pacific island since we arrived, and for me at least, Kauehi felt like the first time we found it.
Though the towns were certainly more built-up than Kauehi, our next stop in the atoll of Fakarava was no less beautiful. We had an easy entrance through the north pass where the main town is located, and settled in for a week of world-class diving and snorkeling. For our first dive, we were taken out to the entrance of the pass for a drift dive; you’re dropped off outside the pass, you descend to the bottom, and then the incoming current takes you over the reef to see all there is to see. This was my first real dive since getting my certification back in Mexico in January, and it was much more intense than I was expecting. Our dive master didn’t really wait around to check on anyone before dropping down, and I soon found myself at a depth of 90’ (the deepest I went during my certification was something like 29’). Thankfully the water visibility was incredible, so it was easy to acclimate myself before drifting into the current where we began to absolutely *fly* over the coral along the bottom. The views were unreal, we were completely surrounded by sharks, but the most thrilling part for me was simply feeling weightless and breathing underwater; you could’ve put me at the bottom of a dang concrete pool and I still would have had a blast. We spent the rest of our time at the north pass renting bikes and trying a few real restaurants, and then we made our way down to the south pass, stopping for two nights along the way to visit with more friends we hadn’t seen since Mexico. As wild as the coral was at the north pass, it couldn’t hold a candle to what we saw after we got south; it was far and away the best snorkeling I’ve ever done, I feel like I don’t need to get in the water anywhere else ever again. We did two dives while at the south pass, an afternoon dive and a night dive. The dive instructor insisted that we do the afternoon dive with him before he would take us out at night, just to make sure we knew what we were doing. Luckily, we passed! The night dive was insane; you can only see where your dive light is pointed, and every time you point your dive light, you realize you are absolutely *surrounded* by sharks. I was able to get a few crappy GoPro photos, but Google ‘shark dive fakarava south’ to get an idea of where we were. I was terrified before going down, but so glad that I ended up doing it. Between the 90’ drift dive and the shark-infested night dive, it felt like the beginning of my diving career was kind of a trial by fire!
Toau was the last atoll we visited in the Tuamotus, though not entirely by choice. Instead of entering the atoll, we were able to anchor inside a little protected bite that was still on the outside. We dropped the anchor in 50’ of crystal clear water and spent the first two days enjoying some more fantastic snorkeling. We were preparing to head either into the atoll or somewhere else to find surfing, but the winds picked up and kept us stuck in Toau for six whole days. The winds were strong enough that Connor was wary of leaving the boat, especially since we were anchored so deep, and the current made it difficult to swim off the back of the boat without getting sucked out to sea. It ended up being an extremely relaxing few days (at least for Stuart & I), which consisted of watching plenty of movies and burning through my reading list.
Okay, that's pretty much the whole rundown of everything that's happened! I think this will be my last post, but I've had such a blast holding this website together; I'm going to miss writing for an audience (I won't have anything as cool as Sea Casa to write about once I'm home). If any of you are hiring marketing or event production people in Denver, my job search begins today! Connor and crew are still getting email forwarded to them at firstname.lastname@example.org, so drop them a line and follow along with me. Thanks everyone.