July 28, 2011

Real Cruising

The anchorage off of Nao Nao motu on the south end of Raitea might be the prettiest we’ve ever been in: crystal clear water with nice snorkelling, a barrier reef, a tiny palm-lined atoll and soaring peaks as the back drop. Miles from the busy part of the island it feels isolated and peaceful; the perfect place to get a few chores done.

And I’m almost positive that the couple of charter boats we shared the anchorage with were bewildered by the non-kicked back life of ‘real’ cruisers. We were there with Don Q and another Canadian family on a boat called Rhythm and while the charter boats swam, and read, and played, and relaxed we did all the normal stuff normal people do: laundry, cleaning, school, and fixing broken stuff.
cat country in Raiatea
I was recently asked how much broken stuff is normal, what part of a cruising budget should be applied to maintenance and replacement, and what strategies future cruisers can employ to avoid having to fix stuff when they want to be playing. I was also asked if the numbers of repairs we’ve had are typical.

As far as what’s normal—it tends to depend on the complexity of the boat, its age and the number of miles that are on it. The bones of our boat are over 20-years-old and in the past two years we’ve travelled nearly 10,000 miles. So we’re pretty normal for our age. I also (unlike many people we know) blog about everything that breaks. But budget-wise the ballpark seems to be double-triple your normal maintenance budget to make up for added wear and higher costs and expect 1-2 major systems to need replacing, or overhauling each year.
when the boat ain't being worked on life is sublime
In the past three months I don’t think we’ve met more than one or two boats that haven’t had at least one major replacement or repair. In this year’s fleet four boats had rudders fall off, several had outboards that died or dinghies that deflated. Others had sail drives and transmissions that went, sails that needed replacing, rigging that failed or generators that gave up. There were also main engine failures, lost propellers, auto pilots that quit, radios went on the blink and windlasses that died. And this doesn’t even include all the smaller problems including all those personal electronics that begin with an “i”.

As far as a strategy to avoid having something major break somewhere expensive and inconvenient—part of it is luck. We know people who try to cope with this by starting out with everything new—if you are only cruising for a year or two chances are most stuff will be fine (although we’ve seen enough people trying for warranty repairs in distant places to know this isn’t remotely foolproof). The problem with this strategy is if you cruise longer than two years you’ll reach a point where a whole bunch of stuff will go at once and it will never happen when you want it too.
working on boats in exotic places might be inconvenient-but baby, that's Bora Bora we're heading toward
The other strategy that most long term cruisers seem to employ is to simply accept stuff is going to break and then do the replacements when the need arises. The two strategies are actually pretty identical—the only difference is in the attitude. There will be those cruisers who don’t mind so much paying a premium to replace stuff in Tahiti—and simply consider it part of the deal. And there will be those who will go kicking and screaming to the bank…

July 24, 2011

I Came to Share Bananas

My tattoo, which I got when we arrived in the Marquesas, tells a story. It says that I travelled a long distance by boat with Evan and Maia, that I came with peace and love, and that I came to share bananas.

I questioned this last bit when the tattoo artist imprinted it permanently on my ankle. I thought perhaps I misunderstood. I thought of all the ways that it could be misconstrued. And then it became an anecdote; a story to go along the ones about being befriended by a Marquesan named Roo who took us on a hike to our first Marae and gave us bananas, and of diving with sharks, and meeting ukulele makers, and becoming fast friends with fabulous people.

following James...
 Sometimes there’s symmetry to travel; where the story may seem to meander but in the end the ending mirrors the beginning: I came to French Polynesia to share bananas is where my story started—and today I discovered this is also where it is ending up.

the Ceilydhs and Don Quixotes
 We set out this morning with the DQ family on a trip up the river at the head of Baia Faaroa on Raiatea. We motored along—enjoying pretty plants, and attractive birds, majestic vistas, and serene scenes. And I wondered why the dude in the kayak would chose to follow so close to the dinghies that he ended up sucking up our exhaust fumes.

When we hit the rapids we learned the dude’s name was James and this was his valley and if we liked, he’d tour us through a plantation on the way back—no cost. And so we went (although we did make black jokes about being cooked and eaten because well, they did that here…).

James is an awesome tour guide—we learned what we could eat (good for you) and shouldn’t eat (not good for you). We learned the names of plants (especially the poisonous ones). We picked sour saps, passion fruit and papaya, green beans and taro. We drank coconut milk and collected pamplemous and all the way James told us stories that we may, or may not, have entirely understood (not sure if the dogs were an eat, or no eat, for example…).

Eventually we headed home. But then—not far from the mouth of the river he stopped us (as the DQ’s blithely headed on), “to get your bananas.” He cut us a huge stock. Enough for an army of banana eaters. And then he asked if we’d like to go to the Marae. The marae was not for today (after a visit to the firestation where we think James was trying to borrow a truck he suggested a different outing)—so we went for an afternoon hike and for a visit to a vanilla plantation.

 There is still some of that old sailor’s romance and mystic to French Polynesia. There’s an underlying adherence to old customs that are familiar to anyone who has ever dreamed of sailing off to a South Sea’s island. And this means there are people like James—who quietly follow you up a river so they can simply be hospitable. And they remind us that we sailed a very long way so we could share bananas.

July 22, 2011

Cruising Friends

We’re back at Raiatea—our sail is repaired (we were really happy with the price and service at Marina Apooiti, although now our dingy motor is complaining) and we had a great couple of days exploring Tahaa with the folks from Don Quixote.

Cruising is a funny thing. In the grand scheme of self-selected communities we’re not a large one. Estimates vary—but I’ve heard that somewhere in the range of 300-500 boats cross to the South Pacific each year, and of that number probably only 50-60 or so have kids, and of that number only so many are going to have the right combination of languages spoken and chemistry between both parents and kids.
yes, there are places in the world that do look like this

Which pretty much means all the kid boats eventually get to know each other.

But knowing the other kid boats through potlucks, parties and play dates isn’t quite the same as hanging out and really getting a chance to become friends. When you’re seven, or eight, or14 the process is pretty simple—you say hi, run off and play for a while then beg for a sleepover. Somewhere around 4am you’re bffs and by the time the pancakes roll around you’re unwilling to be separated. Ever.
traveling inside a barrier reef from Raiatea to Tahaa is dreamy... Especially after the trip here.
sunset on Tahaa
Adults need a slightly different form of bonding—typically a dinner, followed by a night of the local beverage (Pastis is the affordable option here), followed by a hangover hike (or other suitable excursion) will make it clear if you’re suited for each other, or not. Which is how we found out we rather like the DQ family.
Toast, pondering the local veggies. I can't repeat what she said. But we now wonder about Dean.

hiking in the hills

The funny thing about this is as two families our kids have been friends since Oa Pou. But while we’ve attended the same parties and chatted over drinks (and have several dozen good friends in common) we’ve never really hung out. But when we found ourselves stuck in the same harbour waiting for repairs (and didn’t have our normal buddy boats to hang with) we decided to take advantage of the opportunity and get to know each other.
visiting the turtles at a local preserve
 People who make me laugh, make me think and can provoke a good debate while serving yummy food and mixing tasty drinks pretty much make me happy. It makes me even happier when I know we’re heading the same way and will cross paths regularly—but the DQ’s and us are about to diverge. But the lesson learned (which we also picked up when we met and stayed in Tahiti for the fabulous Auzzie family on Connect Four) is that while the goodbyes suck, it really is worth taking the time to get to know new people.

Because sometimes there are new friends lurking where you least expect and in the most obvious places…

July 19, 2011

Eventful Sailing

Wishing, “fair winds and following seas” is a bit passé—the correct thing to say to a departing sailor is, “have an uneventful passage.” Fair winds are for wimps.

We’re in Raiatea. It was a bit interesting getting here—especially because we weren’t coming here. We were going to Huahine—which we won’t see. I’ve decided to stop reading up about destinations because whenever I do that, and when I get excited about going somewhere, we don’t make it.  I think it may be better to be surprised. Raiatea can now surprise me. Hopefully in a good way.

The harbour suck in Tahiti was far stronger than we expected and kept our anchored swallowed for longer than planned. We have loads of great reasons for not leaving: met some awesome Auzzies, had to have dinner with Piko and Britannia, had to work, the weather was sucky.

So we didn’t leave until yesterday. It was still windy when we left but wasn’t supposed to be too bad, but it picked up to 20+ when we got near the southern end of Mo’orea. Before we could react to the rising gusts (it was flat calm leaving Tahiti) it had torn our mainsail nearly all the way across. Fortunately the tear was below our second reef (which is the one we almost always use—unless the wind in less that 15 knots or so) so we pulled the bits together and reefed down. Meanwhile the seas built to alpine and the wind increased to wailing and I just wanted to tap my red heels and go home…

Instead (as we were reefing further—because it was windier) we saw a flare just off the reef of Mo’orea. We called Tahiti for help and had a boat we know translate a relay to ‘Emergency Papeete’. As we called we tried to reef further in an effort to get upwind and around the reef to the flare site but with dusk falling and a reef strewn lee shore ahead (not to mention big seas and strong wind) we were pretty reluctant to try and asked Papeete if there was a closer more maneuverable boat that knew the coast that could help.

There was a whole lot of back and forth in French and eventually we learned that somehow (still can’t figure the logistics of this out) a boat with a wife aboard drifted out to sea while her husband was on shore (tricky because she’d have to drift out a narrow pass against an onshore wind). I guess she didn’t have a working radio so she shot off a flare. Her husband got aboard a ferry and was going to get her. But at this point I guess she saw us moving away and shot off another flare—can’t think she was having a good night, but we had no way of assisting her…

As Toast says there are just so many things wrong with this scenario, I don’t know where to start. I’m hoping that something intelligent was lost in the translation… Anyway—we had to sail on and can only assume there was a positive outcome. It settled through the night and we arrived here to find a dingy-motorless DQ (who have Maia’s shoes aboard—which we had written off because we thought we had parted ways…)

Now we need to fix the sail-which is why we diverted to Raiatea and its repair facilities. Which I have to admit I feel pretty okay about. Just about every boat we know is/was recently/or is putting off being stalled by one high-dollar repair or another. I thought, perhaps, we had avoided this by simply sailing around with our broken daggerboard, but it seems we’re not getting off that easily.

July 17, 2011

Goodbye Tahiti

The fruit carrying races in Papeete--the largest bundles weighed 55 kg
 I really thought Tahiti would be one of those get stuff done, get out kind of stops. I never heard many raves about the place. Heck, even the tourism PR staff seemed surprised that I wanted to learn more about the island—it seems that Mo’orea and Bora Bora are the typical places that tourists flock too.

fire dancing in the park
 But honestly, I love the place. Papeete is easy to manage and incredibly friendly and the landscape (if you get yourself out of the city and get exploring) is stunning in its diversity. And as we get ready to go today I’m grateful for what we’ve seen and done but (probably like everywhere we’ve been…) I can’t help but wish we’d seen more: Like the orange groves high on a plateau that Captain Cook had planted to help rid sailors of scurvy and later were exported to the US (before the California and Florida groves were even imagined), or the central Papenoo Valley with its volcanic crater, waterfalls and ancient Marae (where many Tahitians can trace their ancestry).

There is never enough time to see everything and do all we’d like. When were lucky we get to intersect with local people at the edges of their culture and community before we move on—but so often we just get to catch glimpses.
 And the glimpses are enticing.

July 15, 2011

La Fête Nationale

There is nothing that says Bastille Day better than a celebration of Polynesian Sports. Sure, it might seem a bit Orange March-ish (that’d be an Irish reference) to encourage your conquered nation to parade their traditional sports on a day that celebrates your own independence. But then again, we come from Canada—a place where Quebec gracefully (bwahaha) accepts Canada Day.
 I really have no idea of the politics of Bastille Day in French Polynesia. We do know there is a very distinct separation of the two cultures. The Polynesian culture—which is heavily influenced by the French and truly there are no ‘pure’ Polynesians left—has adapted and reclaimed many of its traditions. While the French, most of whom are here for short ‘hardship’ postings, remain stubbornly (maddeningly?) French. And we also know that what we attended today isn’t called Bastille Day locally—it’s called Heiva, which pretty much just means festival.

But the point (yup, I may have one…) is La Fête Nationale is celebrated here by husking coconuts, hurtling javelins and eating poison cru. It reminded me of our first summer of cruising, the first time. When we spent Canada Day (community day) in Bella Bella and rather than a parade there was a potlatch.
There were a variety of events going on yesterday. In downtown PPT there was a sparsely attended military parade (the women got to march at the back…) and some canoe races but the highlight was the Heiva Tu’aro Ma’ohi.
 The skills displayed were ones that must have been vital to the culture during its heyday. The stone lifters were hoisting rocks that were 160kg—one look at an area marae and it’s clear the stone lifters were important. Then there were the coconut huskers (the winning man husked an entire sack of coconuts in under eight minutes), while the teams of three women split and removed the copra (the meat) from three sacks in about the same time frame.
 This afternoon there are fruit carrying races—not sure if we’ll make those or not. We’re sort of planning to leave tomorrow.

July 13, 2011

Tahitian Ukulele part two

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a little bit obsessive. If I find something that intrigues me I kind of want to go to the source and ask questions. Which is how I found myself at the home workshop of Mr. Jean Henri Teriipaia learning how he builds Tahitian Ukuleles (well I was also there to interview him for a an article…).

The first thing I wanted to know was exactly what a Tahitian Ukulele is…
Most people are pretty familiar with the Hawaiian version—the story there is that a small guitar-like instrument was taken to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in the 1880’s. The Tahitian version is supposed to be based on those little guitars and according to Wikipedia it came to French Polynesia quite a bit later.
 But, according to Jean, it probably wasn’t that much later that they showed up here—he recalls his grandmother talked about playing the Tahitian version as a little girl. And he’s pretty sure they predated her. Because by the time she was going to parties pretty much everyone played the ukulele…
 Jean's theory is that some sort of early ukulele arrived on one of the French Polynesian Islands around the same time they were spreading through Hawaii. Because the sound of the ukulele is a good match for the natural rhythms of the Polynesian songs and dances it was quickly adopted. But because most people made their own instruments using basic hand tools, and the original ukulele would have been difficult for amateurs to reproduce, the instrument was adapted. And at some point, way back when, it took on its current easier-to-build form.

Jean has been making ukuleles for about ten years. He started after seeing his neighbour making them. He watched the process and realized he had a few ideas of his own—so he modified the sound by changing the bowl shape, then he changed the way they appeared. By gluing several different local woods together he developed both a new look and sound—his style of ukulele quickly became so popular that he became locally famous.

Jean can only produce about 10 ukuleles every two weeks. Because he’s involved in every step (from finding and cutting down the trees!) to hand carving the bowl, to doing the finish work he’s not able to build any quicker. This means he doesn’t keep any ukuleles in stock and he sells everything he produces by advanced order

I got the impression he wouldn’t produce faster if he could—his two sons help him, but he says he’s not yet taught them all his techniques. He’s saving a few tricks to show them later.

It was obvious by his modest home that the ukulele business is not a lucrative one—in fact, his most elaborate hand-carved instruments don’t cost much more than $150. But he seems to really love matching people to the right instrument—which I discovered, when I unexpectedly left his house with a little beginner ukulele of my own.
one of Jean's children holding what became my ukulele
 It’s awfully cute and with only four strings it has a very different sound than Maia’s uke—but together they sing a little harmony that will let us take Tahiti with us. Where ever we go.

If you are in Tahiti and want a hand built uke: Mr Jean Henri TERIIPAIA  Ph: + 689 73 49 89

July 12, 2011

Tahiti Time

Between a broken daggerboard (snapped clean off at the foil), work-work for both of us, ukulele classes for Maia and a variety of miscellaneous repairs the days have been disappearing in Tahiti and our French Polynesian visas have almost run out.

Although it’s obviously not an idyllic atoll and pretty much the anti-thesis to what people imagine when you say South Pacific (afternoon rush hour traffic is just one clue we’re not in Tahenea anymore)—we’ve been enjoying Papeete. Part cosmopolitan city, part seedy port town and part small village (which takes an extra long lunch then shuts down at 4:30 pm…), Papeete is about the same size as La Paz, BCS and as friendly as a Polynesian town gets. Hardly a day passes when we aren’t offered a ride back to the marina, a papaya or some sort of assistance.
 Town itself is a haphazard collection of shops which mostly sell pearls, fabric, cheap Chinese goods and (if you look hard enough) most of what you need to get. There is also the best stocked hardware store we’ve seen since the US and the famous Carrefore grocery store—which comes complete with an entire aisle for chocolate and another for cheese—was worth crossing the Pacific for.

Most boats spend longer in Tahiti then they plan. Part of the reason is when you are doing errands, by bus, in a foreign language, with people who don’t have the same sense of urgency as you—stuff just takes a while. The other aspect is that by the time you’ve come this far you’re part of a close-knit community and if you’re not working on your own broken stuff, you’re helping someone else work on their broken stuff. Which means a 3-day stay morphs quickly into a two-week stay. And before you know it, you know Papeete really well.

All is not work though—there is a reason that Tahiti figures in fantasies of paradise—and between taking a day off to dive a plane wreck, or wander the shops and sit in a side-walk café, or go for a hike in the near-by hills the days trickle away.

July 6, 2011

Tahitian Music

Maia ran her fingers over the instrument’s carved wood body and plucked the strings. It rang out with a sound not unlike laughter or a waterfall. The owner of the shop took the little lute from her and his fingers started to fly. “So you like the Tahitian Ukulele,” he said as he played one of the songs that I’ve come to associate with French Polynesia.

Finding an instrument is not unlike finding a husband. Or so I’ve been told. You can spend your entire life moving from flute, to piano, to guitar yet never find the one you’re meant to play. And as a boat schooling kid Maia has a few extra challenges when it comes to making music—she needs find a mobile instrument that’s small enough to fit on the boat, that’s tough enough to withstand the conditions and that’s easy enough to learn without constant instruction.
It also needs to have the right cool factor.

But the ukulele, with its image problem (it sort of brings to mind oversized men in flowered shirts and silly hats strumming on toys—sort of like a tropical Shriner’s convention with music rather than motorcycles), never even entered my mind as an option. Yet here we were—learning how this cool little electric guitar-shaped sibling to the traditional ukukele is made (by hand of local wood) and played (very fast).

As John played (we were in the shop long enough to exchange names and life histories) and showed us the variations between instruments, Maia’s mood shifted through giddy excitement to something approaching awe.

This was our third, or maybe our forth, stop on our hunt for a ukulele. The ubiquitous instrument, which originated in the Marqueses and only vaguely resembles its Hawaiian cousin, is one of the top souvenirs in Tahiti (up there with pearls, tikis, tapa and pareos). And like most souvenirs it comes in a few different levels of quality: there are the kind you buy on the street then take home to hang on the wall and the kind you buy from a master craftsman that you play for a lifetime.

I was sort of hoping for something in between the two options. I wanted an instrument Maia could learn to play and take to shore for jam sessions with fellow cruisers (many of whom use cruising as a time to finally learn to play an instrument). But I wanted something affordable.

As we wandered and strummed we kept returning to Pedron music. The floor model uke was available and John—who has not only taught all over the world, but has also worked with a bunch of cruising kids (several who still email him) had space in his lesson schedule.
 Maia was ready to commit. And as she learned her first four chords and played through her first song I saw a small smile peak out from behind her concentration. And on the bus on the way home she said she couldn’t wait for tomorrow, and her next lesson.

July 3, 2011

Surfing at Anchor

surf breaking on the outside reef (see the Canada Day post to see this view on a typical day...)
The swell outside the harbour has reached almost four meters. The forcast maramu wind (a strong south wind) never materialized but the swell is crashing into the reef then rolling right on over the barrier. Inside the harbour the currents are swirling and the lumpy seas are bouncing us around. It's like being at sea in bad weather--except the wind is calm.
boat on the otherside of the reef. Inside the reef is rough but out there is??

We're trying to decide whether to stay here or look for somewhere more protected. The benifit of here is there is plenty to do onshore while mother nature does her thing. The benifit of somewhere else is calm seas. But to get there we have to go out there... And so we bounce.

Touring Tahiti

 Our tour guide Ruth shops with kings. She told us this as we stood outside the tomb of Pomare. The Pomares are the royal family of Tahiti and are commonly credited with the dubious distinction of being the guys who gave Tahiti and her islands to the French. Not surprisingly the Tahitians aren’t completely enamoured with their royal family—especially because, according to Polynesian history and culture, the Pomare family were never really royalty. They were just mid-level chiefs of an unimportant village where it happened all the navigators pulled in: Wallis, Cook, Bougainville, Captain Bligh and the Bounty and us…
Point Venus lighthouse and Cook's monument
The navigators wanted to talk to a king, so Pomare I signed up for the job and history took over and by the time Pomare V had drank himself to death the French owned the place. So now Pomare X does his own shopping at the local magasin.
the lovely Ruth

We’re touring Tahiti with our tourism provided car and guide. As far as guides go Ruth has to be one of the most entertaining I’ve had. Not for her encyclopaedic knowledge (although she has that) or her keen political observations (she has those too) but because as the mother of fourteen kids with far too much on her plate she can’t hold a thought for more than two minutes without getting distracted. It took the entire 6 hour tour for her to finish a story about why there are very expensive ($20 for 8) locally grown oranges on the island (Captain Cook brought them and had them planted high in the hills on his second voyage).
the famous black sand and just one of the dozens of surf spots

So rather than a tour that included canned observations and set facts we travelled around the island enjoying a boisterous conversation. The sites—the waterfalls, beaches, lush foliage and flowers were all rather secondary to Ruth’s comments about life in Tahiti.

The botanical gardens, for example, brought a story about how Polynesian families don’t punish their kids in a typical way. Instead they try to balance bad behaviour with positive actions and a common punishment is for a child to have to buy and plant a tree. Truly bad behaviour earns the kid a banana tree—which, because they require a very deep hole, are hard to plant. So a house with a lot of bananas (like Ruth’s) is a sign of a few parenting challenges.

Tahiti is beautiful—the black sand beaches are pristine and nearly empty, the parks are well-maintained and lush. My favourite stops included Maraa the fern grottos that once inspired Gauguin, and the Faarumai waterfall with an ancient Marae at its base.
Maraa Grotto

But each stop: where we sped in and learned about how flora & fauna intersected with culture (those cool, blurry looking trees that look like pine trees are ironwood and were used to make voyaging canoes and no one can cut down a banyan tree without a permit and an archaeologist present because early Polynesians ‘buried’ their dead in the tangled trunks); or where we simply gazed in awe at a rugged beach or towering waterfall made me wish we could spend hours rather than minutes exploring.

By the end of our day I wanted nothing more but to do it all again, more slowly and more in depth. Or perhaps even more than heading to another waterfall I wanted to go shopping with Ruth and maybe meet the king.
Like the Marquesas, Tahiti has loads of archaeological sites