Always expect the unexpected

We had a beautiful one night stop in La Baie des Vierges in Fatu Hiva. That bay is so stunning. Concerned however that we would be boarded by the gendarmes looking for illegal immigrants (us, as we hadn’t yet checked in to French Polynesia) or our contraband garlic and onions, we set sail the next morning to complete the immigration formalities in Hiva Oa.

The 45nm sail across was fast, sometimes a lot faster than we wanted. We had several rain showers and one ahead of us looked particularly dark. Curious to know how much wind there had been in it, I radioed a yacht that had just emerged from it. The Aussie captain told me that it had been heavy rain but no more than 25 knots true wind and that none of the squalls they had had so far had been more than that. Good.
Feeling pretty relaxed about everything and enjoying the fast sail, Dietmar decided to shake out the first reef on the mainsail because the reefed part of the sail was full of water and the boom seemed unimpressed with this state of affairs. I took the wheel and pondered that it was a little curious that I could see an island on the chart plotter just two miles away to our starboard side but I couldn’t actually see it for what looked like cloud. Just as Dietmar had put the full sail up, I realised that the cloud was in fact a squall and a wall of rain was now only about 200 metres off our starboard side. “Dietmar, guck’ mal.” (Look)
“Wo?” (Where?)
“Da” (There)
The mainsail was now fully up. No reefs at all.
It started to blow and I had the wheel. CESARINA really wanted to turn into the freshening breeze and I soon struggled to hold her.
Dietmar said “I’m coming to help you” and came back to the wheel. The heavens opened. “Go inside”
I did exactly as my captain asked and he took the wheel.

I soon learned that CESARINA doesn’t particularly enjoy having a full mainsail up and a full genoa out when big squalls pass overhead, but that she heels like crazy and also seems to think it’s quite fun to give the unsuspecting person at the helm a serious work-out. She can be a properly high maintenance madam at times. She really wants to turn into the wind and the harder it blows, the more she wants to turn into it. Watching from inside the companionway, I could see that Dietmar didn’t appear to be having a whole lot of fun out there at the wheel. The rain was pelting horizontally across the cockpit and there was water coming from every direction as we crashed through the waves. He actually swore a couple of times, which I hadn’t heard him do before, and seemed to have somewhat lost his customary cool demeanour. Hmm.
“Do you need help, darling?” I ventured, as I realised that I couldn’t actually stand up inside. “Nein darling, bleib’ da” (stay there).
“Should we reef?”
“Bleib’ bitte da”
Thankfully for Dietmar, I ignored that command from my captain, strapped on a pair of cojones and my biggest arm muscles (and my lifejacket) and clambered out into the cockpit to reef the genoa. We were touching 9 knots of speed, and it was already gusting more than 25 knots apparent wind (for our landlubber friends, this means Force 7 on the Beaufort Scale, also known as Quite Bloody Windy) and I was in no hurry to find out what would happen if it blew harder. We were only two miles from the island to windward so there was no way we were going to turn into the wind to reef the main. We were on a helter-skelter ride through the waves. CESARINA appeared to be having a ball, it was just her humans on board who weren’t having quite so much fun. After all, the goal is always to arrive without breaking anything…
Carefully and slowly I released a few turns of the genoa sheet at a time and cranked the genoa in, taking care not to overload the gear. Leaving just a tiny handkerchief out, we were still heeling hard but Dietmar was finding it a lot easier to keep her going in a straight line. Painfully slowly, the squall blew over us. Drama over. Phew. Autopilot back on.
Almost immediately after we had breathed a sigh of relief about this, the fishing line clicked and started to run. Oh bloody hell. This time it was my turn. Dietmar put the brake on and handed the rod to me. Good thing I still had my biggest arm muscles on because the tuna on the end of the line did not want to come quietly
There’s an expression in German, something like: “Du machst auch erst die Tür zu wenn die Diebe schon wieder weg sind,” which Dietmar quoted at me as I suggested that we should now perhaps put that mainsail reef back in, once the tuna was safely on board and being bled into a bucket. Perhaps 2 reefs even? Even if I was now suggesting that we should shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, I still thought this was a good idea. We reefed.

We careened into Atuona Bay on Hiva Oa later that afternoon. Man, what a difference. Nowhere near as pretty and the water was murky. We had also heard, quite worryingly, that you need a stern anchor as well (a second anchor out the back of the boat, not a humourless one. Arf arf. I’m here all week) to counter the roll from the swell but our spare anchor is massive and hiding under 3 tons of other miscellany in the forward cabin. We had no desire to go locker-diving for it. Instead, we found a spot just outside the breakwater that didn’t seem so bad and our Russian/Ukrainian friends came to meet us from SY LADOGA. It was too late to go into town to check in so we packed a bag with our freshly caught tuna fillets, contraband onions and garlic and a bottle of rum. John and Evgenia picked us up in their dinghy and we had a delicious supper with them and their Polish boys on board. By the time they dropped us back it was hard to know whether it was the rum or the swell that was making everything feel a bit rolly. We still hadn’t set foot on land since the Galapágos…

Our dinghy was still flat, packed away and ratchet-strapped down to the foredeck the next morning. The SY LADOGA Water Taxi Service was luckily on stand by to pick us up and drop us on the ‘dinghy dock’ so that we could walk into town. I was sure that the dinghy dock was moving (it wasn’t). (By the way, the dinghy dock in Atuona Bay is a shocker. It’s basically a crappily-built, super ‘rustic’ wooden platform, under which your poor dinghy can easily slip – and get stuck and squashed by the rising tide, that’s if it hasn’t already committed suicide on the rocks first. Marvellous. If you ever come here, don’t forget your stern anchor – for your dinghy, that is.)

Atuona, the capital of Hiva Oa, is a 2 mile walk from the bay and boasts 2,000 inhabitants (allegedly), a gendarmerie (complete with charming gendarme with halitosis fierce enough to knock over a buffalo at 200 yards), a Post Office, a hardware shop selling a peculiar selection of random objects at astronomical prices, two ‘supermarkets’ that couldn’t sell us bread because the supply ship had not brought any flour to the island on the last delivery and an internet café with the slowest internet ever. Actually, it was just internet from about 20 years ago, much like everything else.
There’s a ‘Cultural Centre’ with some interesting tikis (carved stone statues) and traditional buildings with totem-like wooden supporting poles and also a museum dedicated to Paul Gaugin, the stockbroker-turned-post-impressionist-painter who left his wife and children in France and moved to Hiva Oa to paint and enjoy the fruits – mostly the women – of this remote outpost of the French empire. He died aged 52 of an accidental overdose of morphine that he was self-prescribing to manage the pain from his untreatable and virulent syphilis. He is buried in a hilltop cemetery above the town. His grave is quite simple and a little unloved. Jacques Brel (a famous Belgian singer) is buried 10 metres away and clearly has a more active fan club. He also has part of a museum dedicated to him and his plane ‘Jojo’ is apparently also there. I couldn’t identify a chanson by Jacques Brel even under significant torture so I didn’t bother paying the extra 600FPF (about 6USD) to visit that part. My apologies to all you diehard Jacques Brel fans out there. My musical knowledge is obviously lacking.

The next day was Saturday and we had tried – and failed – to get a rental car for the weekend. We hadn’t intended to stay so long on Hiva Oa as we wanted to see Nuku Hiva but we had committed to sharing a rental car and touring the island with SY LADOGA so we were now going to wait until after the weekend to leave. No transport notwithstanding, we had made plans to walk to an important archaeological site to see some ancient tikis in situ that day but in the morning we heard that John wasn’t feeling so well so Dietmar and I set out alone. It was really hot and we knew that it was quite a long way to Taoaa but we had seen the sign posts and Evgenia told us it was about 4km from the town. We figured we could thumb a lift into town and then walk the rest of the way if necessary. We bought a bottle of water and some juice for the price of a small car in England and started to walk. And sweat. Distracted by the many photo opportunities on the way, we didn’t really notice at first that there were a lot fewer cars around than on the previous couple of days. A couple of pick-up trucks went past and we tried to thumb a lift a couple of times (I would *never* do this at home, mum, don’t worry ;)) but no one stopped. ‘Oh well,’ we thought, ‘it’s not raining, we’ll just walk.’

There was no one in Atuona ‘town’ besides 2 other sailors lounging lazily outside the Post Office, scrounging an internet connection. There could easily have been tumbleweed blowing down the main street. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a Polynesian version of John Wayne step out of the shadows, chewing a cigar and toting a six-shooter, but there was in fact not another soul in sight. Undeterred, we walked on. No clouds, just close-to-the-equator full-chat sunshine. Hot, hot, hot.

We walked. And we walked. And we sweated. No cars. No lifts. No mercy. ‘It can’t be much further,’ we thought. ‘Surely not.’

An hour later, we are wilting and there is still no sign of any archaeological site. And no cars. We saw a teenager walking down the hill (did I mention it was all uphill so far?) towards us, surfboard tucked casually under his arm. I asked him how far. He said “Oh, c’est assez loin” (it’s quite far). Oh. I asked him roughly how far he thought. About another half an hour walk, he said. Right.

We walked. And we sweated. And we walked some more. Another 45 minutes went by. Dietmar is not impressed. Had he mentioned to me that he hates hiking? No, he hadn’t. Oops. We heard the sound of a car engine coming up the hill behind us and I practically threw myself under its wheels to get it to stop. The German (!) lady who got out (Dietmar was so excited about this!) kindly offered to take us the rest of the way as they were going to see the church also in Taoaa, What luck! We chatted away happily and this extraordinary pair of women showed us photos of their 10 ton camper in which they had travelled through South America. This would already be cool, but both of them were over 75 years old! Amazing.

So we eventually arrived in Taoaa (4km my eye…) and there was… well, not a lot really. A church, which we couldn’t get into as it was locked, and a few houses. No signposts, nothing. I went to ask the only people I could see – a family barbecuing under a tree. The woman I spoke to confirmed that there is an archaeological site nearby – about 15 km up the track before the telephone box.

“Quinze kilomètres?!” I queried.

“Oui,” she nodded

“Merde…”

 

Crestfallen, and knowing that there was absolutely no way that we would get a ride back to Atuona any other way, I had to re-approach our German lady friends as they were getting back into their car and beg a lift back to Atuona, 300 miles away (OK, slight exaggeration…) I’m not sure they were overly impressed at their limpet hitchhikers, but graciously took pity on us. They definitely saved us from a walk back in the dark and I will always be grateful for their small kindness. We climbed into their little hire car and held hands quietly in the back.

 

(We learned later that the site was about 1500m up the hill, not 15km, but those tikis will have to wait for another lifetime before I visit them. They will still be there.)

 

We eventually got back to the bay, having walked the last mile or so. Our little tender had survived the whole day at the perilous Dinghy Dock of Doom (hurrah!) and we picked up the fruit and vegetables that we had ordered the previous day. We returned to CESARINA and I cooked an early supper as we were going to go up to the ‘Semaphore’ – a kind of shack on the hill – to listen to some guys jamming. I had even changed into a suitably folksy dress for the occasion (have to blend in, you know).

John and Evgenia dropped by in their dinghy shortly afterwards and we invited them to join us for our evening of entertainment up the hill but they wanted to shower first so I suggested they popped back to their boat and showered, and I would quickly make them some supper so we could go together. I cooked. It rained hard. After the rain had stopped, they returned and ate in the cockpit. By the time they had eaten and we had polished off a bottle of wine, it was dark and it seemed a bit late to bother going up the hill, so we opened another bottle and I got my little ukulele out. I softly played the three tunes I know and Evgenia and I passed the ukulele back and forth and sang quietly while the boys talked loudly about machine parts and fixed a play date for the following day to fly their drones together.

It was way past Cruisers’ Midnight (which is 9pm, by the way) by the time our guests returned to their floating home. We cleared up and washed up and flopped into bed and dreamed of black cabs on every corner and the smell of fresh bread. Ahhh…

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