Saturday, 13 June 2015

Passage: French Polynesia to Panama, week 5 and 6 (09/05/15 - 22/05/15)

Day 29

Today was actually exciting for a change! I was trying to pull up some water to do the dishes with this afternoon when I looked down to find a huge fish swimming alongside us. It was unmistakably a Mahi Mahi, with a bright blue body and fluorescent yellow tail. Soon after his mate appeared, and the two of them just swam alongside us for hours. They weren't the biggest Mahi Mahi we've seen, but even the smaller one was at least 1m long.

We'd had the line trailing behind us all day with no luck. So Garth grabbed the rod and sat up on the bow, pulling our little squiddy lure along right in front of their noses. They lazily went for it a few times, but didn't commit to biting down on the hook. As Garth was sitting up on our dinghy in the sunshine with spray flying all around him and these two huge fish swimming alongside us, a massive school of flying fish appeared just in front of the boat and all jumped out of the water across our bow in one big group. It was pretty amazing just being out on the ocean in amongst all the action today. It reminded me how magnificent the world can be and how normal people don't really get to experience things like this.

As much fun as it is watching big schools of flying fish burst out of the water, they're probably why we ate tinned tuna for dinner again today. Our Mahi Mahi friends just weren't particularly hungry. They probably knew we didn't have a spear gun and were taunting us by swimming close enough for us to reach out and touch them. We haven't caught a single fish since we were in Australia, and it's getting ridiculous. Though after watching them swim next to us for a while I was kind of glad that they didn't want to be caught. They were just so beautiful flying along next to us, getting bored and swimming ahead when we went too slow and then coming back to us when we sped up again. They reminded me so much of dolphins, just wanting to hang out and play with us. I wonder if this friendly nature is why they're referred to as dolphin fish.

I'm not sure I would have felt too great about snatching one of them out of the water to leave it's mate all alone either. They swam together all day and were obviously a pair. Garth assured me that little fishy brains can't handle the concept of loss or sadness and that if we caught one the other would just go and find another fish to mate with. But it would still feel wrong. I'm hoping that this means we're getting closer to the normal route people take across this stretch of ocean though, which should be nicer than the bizarre upwind route we've been following. We were told that all you had to do to catch a fish here was hold out a net, so being followed by Mahi Mahi is definitely reassuring.

So that was the excitement for today. We really needed some excitement too, because the days are really dragging on. We eat, sleep, read and pick up the dead flying fish that decide to commit suicide on our deck daily. The sea has been horrible lately, with chaotic little waves everywhere. For a while the wind was coming from every direction as clouds all around us sucked up the air and got the wind all confused, messing up the waves. The wind should swing around further to the south in the next few days and we're both crossing our fingers that the weather forecast is actually right for once. I would absolutely love to stop sailing so tight to the wind for a while. I miss the days when everything was calm and we could bake bread and eat pizza and chocolate pudding for dinner.

I feel like we're nearing the end of the trip. Which is dangerous because we're at least 15 days away, though it's probably closer to 20. 1800 miles to go. As soon as I start counting days the end gets near and I start getting restless. Usually this happens when we're days out, not weeks. Realistically the rest of this passage will probably take longer than the total length all of our previous passages. Damn all these islands being so close together. I've been thoroughly spoiled when it comes to long passages.

Nothing else has broken yet. Though the fix Garth put on the boomvang didn't work for long, and we've lost a bit of diesel. No matter how tight we tie things down all this jerking around and bouncing up and down keeps dislodging everything. The diesel cans keep escaping from their rope prisons and tipping over. We're getting hit with so much water and rocking about so much that every time Garth manages to get them secure they get pummelled by waves again and the ropes break from the sheer pressure of being hit by so much water. Fun fact: the cheap jerry cans I bought in Fiji slowly leak diesel if you leave them on their sides for too long. Luckily we're still passing through squalls fairly often, so the rain should get rid of the smell eventually.

We changed time zones yesterday. It's a bit strange changing the time just because we feel like it. We've got nothing to base it on other than the fact that the sun seems to be coming up and going down earlier than before. It made sense when we went past Pitcairn and Easter Islands to switch to their times but we're not near anything now. Time is such a strange concept. We live by a 24 hour cycle of three hour shifts, so why bother changing it at all? It's not like we have to get to the shops before they close, or catch the news on TV. But for some reason we just can't deal with the idea of the sun coming up at 2am. Plus it's comforting to know that we're getting closer to the right time zone for Panama.

Day 31

This is the worst. The sea state just gets more horrible every day. Today we're bouncing up and down as the bow climbs straight over all the short, steep waves in front of us and then dips straight back down over the other side. It's like being on one of those electronic bulls that serve no other purpose other than to throw you off. At the same time we're being tipped sideways as big waves hit our windward side, occasionally crashing on top of us and filling the cockpit with water. The resulting mess is like being on some kind of crazy fairground ride. Except we can't get off. Repeatedly yelling for somebody to shut it down doesn't do anything either. We can't really stand up or move around without being flung around the cabin and the fact that we're only going 3 knots just rubs salt into the wound.

It was a little bit nicer yesterday though, which was a welcome change. We even managed to catch a fish! It's our first fish since Australia and it wasn't even big enough to bother keeping. We didn't even hear the rod tick out when we caught it because it was too small. Garth just happened to test the line before dark to find that we had a baby Mahi Mahi on the hook. We pulled him on board, so even though we threw him back I'm adamant that it counts. We could have eaten him but at about 40cm he wasn't even half grown, so we figured it was better to let him have a bit of fun reproducing before sentencing him to the dinner table. I'm not sure it's even worth the effort to try and fillet a smaller fish when the sea is this messy, because it would be more of a waste if we didn't get all the meat. And filleting it perfectly is almost impossible when we're being thrown all over the place. Garth would have probably ended up chopping his hand off. I can't help but wonder if that's how we keep losing our lures, by catching a small fish that eventually gets nabbed by something much bigger.

I found a boat yesterday. It's the second one we've come across in the last week and it was pretty exciting to have a reminder that we're not all alone out here. Both finds were just on the AIS without getting a visual, because they passed behind us about 20 miles away. The first one was headed to Chile and the second to Argentina. We have yet to see anything else out on the ocean since leaving Tahiti months ago, but I'm sure we'll get our fill of traffic once we get near Panama.

There's not much else to say. We're stuck indoors again because it's such a splashy mess outside. Today I slept, ate, watched a movie, slept some more and read a book, all amidst constant praying to the sea gods to just let us be comfortable for a while. I'll wake up in the morning and do it all again. Different book, different movie, but other than that it often feels like groundhog day out here.

Day 37

It's finally nice again! Well, bearable at least. We're still getting thrown about a bit but I can finally sit in the cockpit again for the first time since just after we left the Gambier. It took 37 days, but we've finally gone far enough east to be able to turn downwind a bit and head further north. Plus the wind has shifted a bit further south, the waves are a lot calmer and the squalls that kept messing up the wind direction have all dispersed and headed off to make somebody else's life miserable.

A few days ago though I was going absolutely mad. The waves were all small and horrible, so we were bunny hopping over them like the boat was some kind of demented pogo stick. We would go flying over them and crash down with that sickening smack that I've come to know and hate. From inside it was easy to picture us flying through the air as we launched off the top of each wave, though realistically I'm sure the majority of the boat was still in the water. I have a really hard time sleeping whem I'm frightened though. Usually in bad weather I'm a messy high-strung ball of nerves, but it's not the weather that I'm scared of. I'm scared about everything breaking. Probably because everything always breaks. Lying under the blankets in my bed I can picture the gas tanks coming untied and flying overboard, the sails getting expensive rips in them, the jerry cans falling off... Things that won't kill us but will cost a lot to fix and leave us in a pickle if they actually happen. This time it was the dinghy I was worried about. The boat was coming down so quickly and with so much force, I could actually hear the dinghy becoming airborne. It's not secured very well because there's a rope going through the hole in the centreboard case which is attached to the deck. It can't go far and it's stuck in place. But every time the boat hit the water I would picture that rope breaking and the dinghy getting lost at sea. So that made for a few days of restless sleep. I know the boat is strong, but if you hit something with a hammer enough times it will eventually break into pieces. Which is the thought that woke me up every 10 minutes or so the other night, every time we hit the water hard enough to make me feel like we were living inside a jackhammer.

So thank goodness that's over. The only thing that kept me from completely losing it was the knowledge that no matter how horrible things get, time doesn't stop. It keeps going. So even though every minute feels like an eternity of torture, time will keep ticking away and we will keep getting closer to our destination. Which is kind of obvious. But I guess when everything is horrible it makes life easier to know that it will evetually end.

So now I'm sitting under the stars again. Today I actually got to lie out here surrounded by numerous shades of blue and sunshine. Which was amazing. We even managed to put the lure out again and we actually caught a fish! It was a small Mahi Mahi, but this one was big enough to eat. And it was insanely delicious. Now at least we can say we've caught a fish in the South Pacific. Garth's dad caught a few while he was with us, and we got something off the coast of Australia. But since then we've had nothing. We haven't been fishing much on this trip, which sounds ridiculous but has been unavoidable. Since we left the Gambiers we've had the line out every day that fishing was a feasable option and that's probably been less than 7 days all up. The waves have just been so rough that even if we'd caught something there's no way we'd have been able to get it on board and fillet it. Opening a tin and tipping it into a pot without flying all over the boat or losing it on the floor has been hard enough for chef Garth to handle.

We've started to see birds again. I hadn't noticed that they'd been missing, but when they started circling us a few days ago I realised we hadn't seen any since leaving the Gambier. Maybe this part of the world is just so rough and horrible that they couldn't be bothered venturing down here. But they're back! When you spend all day staring at sky, water and waves anything to break up the monotomy is a relief.

Yesterday kind of sucked. We got to open this weeks package of food, which Garth had stored under the stairs with next weeks bag because when we left we couldn't move for all the food stacked up everywhere. So he went to get them out and when he opened the cupboard we were blasted with the stench of rotten milk. Something must have moved around and popped a carton of milk, which had been sitting there for the entire trip getting more and more disgusting. The cupboard is right next to my bed and at the beginning of the trip I had mentioned that something smelled off. I looked everywhere but found nothing and assumed it was an old empty milk carton that had escaped the rubbish, which also lives behind the stairs. So after coating everything else in the bag and then spreading itself all over the container holding our food, the milk had just been left to fester for all this time. So. Gross. We spent an hour or so trying not to vomit as we cleaned off everything in the bag, which then got left out in the sun to dry off. The smell is almost gone today. However, we did have to make up a big batch of pasta sauce with the two packets of salami that got left in the sun to cook. And they really cooked. When I picked them up I nearly dropped them again they were that hot.

There's a lot of phosphorescence in the water here and it's really beautiful. It's always nice to look down and see sparkly dots in the darkness. I've been sitting out here just staring down at the water and watching the glowing wake spread out from the boat then slowly get darker again. Then the waves by the boat light up and the process repeats. It's mesmorising. I wish the dolphins would come back now that the water is all sparkly.

Before we left, I told Garth that the winches needed to be serviced. I gave him the option of cleaning the boat or servicing winches and he took the winches while I finished the cleaning. I didn't actually see him pull anything apart, but he swears he did it. Last time I serviced them it took me most of the day, but he seemed to be done in no time at all. I can't help but feel that if he'd done it properly he would have come inside asking for springs, rags or grease at some stage. He also would have made a massive mess of the cockpit which I would have had to re-clean. But he did it suspiciously quickly and I didn't see any evidence of the alleged maintenance even though he swore black and blue that he did all of them. On an unrelated note, the second speed on our one good winch for the port side is no longer working. To be fair, it's been under a lot of strain over a long period of time because that's the side our sails have been on for almost the entire trip. We've used it a lot from furling and un-furling and furling and un-furling as squalls constantly passed by. Even so, I find the fact that it no longer works so soon after it was "serviced" suspicious. Though I really should have smelled a rat when he failed to make a mess. If you follow the trail of destruction, you'll usually find Garth sitting in a pile of dirt at the end.

Now that the sea has calmed down we're moving a lot faster without having to bounce over the top of all the waves. We're averaging 4 or 5 knots now, but we got up to 7 yesterday when the wind picked up. Yay! We're about 11 days away if we can keep going at 4 knots, or 9 days if we go 5 knots. It's crazy what a difference 1 knot can make over time. Either way we're probably looking at another 264 hours. Not that I'm counting.

Day 39

Just 855 miles to go! That's 8 more days at the very least. Probably more like 10, seeing as the wind is supposed to die down as we get further north. Never in a million years would I have thought I'd be counting 10 more days of sailing as 'nearly there.' But here we are.

I'm sitting under a moonless sky tonight, with nothing but a scattering of stars to light up the darkness. Two birds have decided to join me and they're kind of freaking me out. They've been circling the boat for hours making clicking sounds. Occasionally some light falls on one of them, showing the great expanse of their wings. But for the most part they move silently through the night before sneaking over to a previously unoccupied patch of sky and making a scary noise. I feel like I'm being tracked by wild animals in the dark and I have no idea where they're going to jump out from.

Yesterday the sea got all bouncy again. The waves went back to being short and steep like before, with one important difference - we're no longer heading into them. The wind has finally shifted to the SE and we've finally started heading further north, which means we're almost downwind. It's lovely. We definitely noticed when the waves change though, as the boat started rocking back and forth and kept doing so all day long. It was too rocky to do the dishes and made cooking a lot harder for Garth, but the day was simply a bit uncomfortable instead of the crippling, unbearable horror of upwind sailing we've experienced for a lot of this passage.

I was just in the process of writing 'today was lovely' when a rogue wave splashed over the side and got water all over me and my tablet. I guess I can't win. For the most part it really was quite nice though. Garth left me to sleep in this morning and then I lazed around reading all day. It was too rough to try fishing yesterday, but we trawled a line all day today. The fish were fighting over the hook! We caught three Mahi Mahi over the course of the day, all of which were thrown back because they were too small to bother with at around 40 - 45 cm long. We lost our bigger lure at the beginning of the passage, so this must be the size of fish we're going to keep catching with this smaller one. All of our squid lures are around the same size, so our chances of landing something bigger don't look promising. We've tied a chunk of rope onto the lure which will hopefully churn up the water a bit more and beef up our squid to look more appetizing to bigger fish. I think tomorrow we'll stick out one of our bigger diving lures as well in the hopes that something yummy will go for it. I don't think it's a coincidence that we're just starting to catch fish now that we're going further downwind. We probably weren't going fast enough before. So I'm going to actively fish tomorrow by keeping a keen eye on both the lines all day. If we catch another small Mahi Mahi we'll probably keep it, even though rough filleting on the floor of a moving cockpit won't produce a lot of meat.

We're just 200 miles off the coast of South America, so we're expecting to run into some boats soon. Hopefully not literally. As Garth was drifting off to sleep tonight he piped up with "if I kited to shore from here it would only take 10 hours." It figures that's what he's thinking about in his sleep. Whilst it's kind of interesting, it's also a disappointing reminder of how slow this method of transportation is. It would take us at least 48 hours to sail there at a decent speed.


Saturday, 6 June 2015

Passage: French Polynesia to Panama, week 3 and 4 (25/04/15 - 08/05/15)

Day 17

I found some dolphins last night! At least I assume they were dolphins. The moon is only half full and there's no phosphorescence in the water, so they were hard to see. I came upstairs at midnight to check the horizon and adjust our course, which is an exercise in futility considering how much the wind seems to hate us. I saw a dark patch off our starboard beam that struck me as strange, but it just sounded like a wave. I watched that patch of ocean for a while, wondering if it was occupied by a whale. There were little waves popping up all around us, but this one seemed blacker somehow. Then I heard the same noise on the port side. I figured this was just confirmation that I was hearing waves. I popped across to look into the water anyway and was met with the sight of a dolphin jumping straight up out of the water, then diving straight back down. Soon the boat was surrounded by a small pod of happy dolphins, playing on the bow wave and swimming circles around us. They would ride a wave and then burst out into the air as the water broke, not wanting to follow the course of the wave back into the ocean. I wonder if they were spinner dolphins, as the ones we're used to don't usually jump straight up. They tend to prefer big arcing leaps through the air, as if they were painting rainbows everywhere.

So that was a bit of excitement to break up our otherwise dull days. It's so cold and we've had so much rain that we've pretty much just been living inside. Garth's in the saloon and I've taken the aft berth. We sleep through our night shifts, an alarm waking whoever is on watch every half hour to check the horizon. We haven't seen another boat outside of a lagoon since we left Tahiti. I think whoever is scanning the horizon when we finally do go past another ship will have a heart attack.

We've pretty much given up on Easter Island. We've been hit by constant south-easterlies, pushing us further and further north. We tried tacking back and forth in the hopes that we would still make it, but that just resulted in us wasting time and not getting any closer to either Panama or Easter Island. So that's really disappointing. But there's not much we can do about it.

We haven't opened week three of our food supplies yet, because we're not halfway there despite being well into our third week. We did steal the 3rd packet of flour to make cinnamon and raisin bread though... at this point it's safe to say that we'll definitely run out of flour before we arrive. We're both dying for pizza again so hopefully there's enough to spare for that. Thank goodness for Pitufa's stove top bread recipe! After they enlightened us about using the burners instead of the oven, we've been baking like crazy! Stove top bread, pizza, pudding... I'm going to try brownies next. It's so hard to light the oven, I can't believe we didn't figure this out earlier. Instead, we just stopped eating anything that required baking.

Day 21

Finally, things are pleasant again! We've been going tight to the wind for ages now, and I have not been enjoying it at all. Shocking. Aside from the obvious drawback to going upwind, which is the ridiculous angle we're always on, we've had constant squalls coming through. They don't matter as much when you're sailing downwind but heading straight into the wind as it picks up wreaks havoac on our boat. We're constantly pulling in the headsail, then letting it out, then pulling it in again so we don't get too overpowered. The constantly shifting wind speed was churning up the ocean as well. We lost the lovely ocean swell and were left with short, steep waves which tossed us around relentlessly. We were both beginning to get quite miserable.

We've finally found a system for doing the dishes over the last few passages. Garth passes them up to me when I'm on watch and I wash the handful of things he used to cook dinner. Then he puts them away when he wakes up. But with the weather so changeable the cushion in the cockpit is always wet and it's not safe to put up the shade cloth, so we both hide downstairs all day and night. And the dishes don't get done. Then when I do get around to them, dirty ones get tossed on top of the clean ones before they get put away, and there's so many they end up on the floor anyway. It's a shambles. But the weather is finally agreeable again and we've reached a point where we can point slightly more downwind without worrying about going too far and having to tack the rest of the way. So the dishes are sorted out, the boat has been tidied and the cockpit is clean. All ready for the next set of nasty weather which will ruin everything again. I'm just happy to be able to sit around in the fresh air under the shade cloth again without being tossed around or having water constantly splashing me. Plus it's a beautiful day.

We lost our new lure, which was inevitable but sad. It was yet to catch anything so maybe it just didn't look delicious enough to the tuna. We tie the hand line on with a strip of rubber as well as with the line itself, so that if we catch something big the rubber will break so there's less strain on the line. Our rubber tie hasn't broken, so whatever took the lure just snapped it off in one giant bite. Whatever it was we don't have the right equipment to be able to have landed something that big anyway. We're fishing properly now, with two lines out. We promised Garth's dad that we wouldn't, because it's dangerous if they get tangled. But we're hungry and we want fish.

Sorting out the lure

We've discovered a little blue fish living underneath us. He's about 30cm long, which is pretty big as far as boat fish go. Tag-alongs are usually little tiny things eating the algae off the bottom. This guy is adorable and he's been entertaining us constantly. Whenever we throw something overboard he chases it, then turns around and races back after us. Even a bucket of water brings him out from his hiding place, so we've just been throwing water at him. I was woken up this morning by Garth giggling at the back of the cockpit. He was putting out the lure and drawing it back in again, watching our little friend chase it repeatedly. Fish sightings are the highlight of our day, which I guess says a lot about what a six week passage is like.

The moon is amazing at the moment. It's full again, which is a bit strange because it was full when we got to the Gambier and we didn't stay there for long before leaving on this passage. It certainly makes night time a lot nicer though. One thing I really appreciate out here is watching the moon go down. You don't really get to see it get close to the horizon when you're living on land, and it's spectacular. It turns into a giant orange ball as it sinks down out of sight and it really feels special to be able to witness it so often. I wish i could take a picture, but the boat is never still enough.

We're getting close to half way now, over three weeks in. We've got about 2200 miles to go. And we haven't been going that slowly either, keeping up an average speed of about 4 or 5 knots. Which isn't that fast either. But at least we're not floating aimlessly around in circles. Aside from Antartica, this is probably one of the most remote places to sail in the world. If something goes wrong here it's over 2000 miles to the nearest land that could dispatch a rescue crew. Easter island isn't too far away, but they're sure as hell not coming out here to rescue us. So that's a frightening thought. At least we can't get further away from civilisation at this point, either way we go now we're heading towards something instead of away from it.

Day 25

So I guess we've reached the point in the passage where things start breaking. It was going to start happening eventually so I guess it doesn't make much difference whether it was now or later. Luckily it's really calm at the moment, which makes it easier to do repairs.

The boomvang block broke last night, which Garth discovered this morning when he did a rigging check. It almost looks like the metal snapped after being heated up from overuse. Which wouldn't be surprising considering the strain our rigging is constantly under from strong winds and continuous sailing. Garth replaced it this morning, hopefully with something that will last.

The thick dynema rope we bought for Boris (Our windvane steering) also broke early in this trip. Dynema is pretty unbreakable and very expensive. Boris works by moving the wheel back and forth with two ropes running from the windvane at the back of the boat to the wheel. The rope on the downwind side of the boat is under a lot of pressure, so when we're on the same tack for ages that rope constantly rubs back and forth against a metal shackle whilst being pulled tight. So it actually melted right through from the friction. Yay for upwind sailing, where our rigging literally melts from overuse.

We also discovered that our mainsail needed a heap of maintenance today. There's straps attaching the sail to the boom at the front and back, as well as all the way up the mast. They've started to come off all at once. Garth spent all afternoon mending them, so our main is once again attached to the boom. There's lots more of them that havent come off yet so we'll see how long they last for.

The sea is really flat today. It's calm and lovely and we can actually see the horizon in all directions without having to wait for the waves to go down when we look around. The moon is still full and there was a beautiful sunset yesterday, so I'm happy.

We've been getting so many messages on the satellite phone and every single one has brightened our day. Our friends have been sending us jokes, riddles, and sweet little messages as well as the weather. Mark and Liesbet from Irie have sent us a message nearly every day, and every single one of them has rhymed. It's ridiculous how amusing something as silly as 160 characters delivered in rhyme form can be, but I absolutely love it. It's really lovely to hear what our friends are up to and to be reminded that we're not the only people in the world.

Our pet fish is still there. He got bored yesterday when the wind died down and started swimming circles round us. His name is now Alfred and he likes pasta.

Day 27

The last two days have been torture. We've been going at a decent speed in the right direction, which is good. But the sea state has once again reached the status of mental breakdown, which is bad. We're sailing on a close haul, which is usually bad enough in good conditions. But the waves are all steep and choppy. So every few seconds we get launched over the top of one and land back down with a sickening thud that reverberates through the whole cabin. I guess from down here we're not actually that far away from the water, so when we smack down on top of it we notice. It made sleeping pretty difficult and moving around impossible. I keep telling myself that it will eventually be nice again... but it's already calmed down a lot so it looks like we're stuck with this unpleasantness. Which is at least a lot better than it was before, but is a long sight off a nice day of downwind. The wind is supposed to shift to further south soon, so hopefully we won't be close hauled for the next two weeks.

We've finally reached the halfway mark distance wise! Though it took us nearly four weeks to get here. The trade winds have kicked in now, so the rest of the trip should be a lot easier. We actually get to travel in a straight line to our destination, instead of tacking all over the place. 2000 miles to go. If we go the rest of the way travelling at 4 knots, we're 21 days away from Panama. 16.6 days if we can manage an average of 5 knots, and our destination is only 13.8 days away if we can keep up the speedy 6 knots we're managing at the moment (which we won't). Not that I'm counting or anything. Every single upwind passage so far has taken us longer than we thought it would, so it will probably be another 20 days or so. Which sounds like an insanely long time. We've already been out here for almost a month.

Alfred has disappeared, which is very sad. Either he got bored and wandered off when we were going too slowly, or he got sick of chasing us now that we're going faster. He might even still be under there somewhere and we just can't see him under all the wake. Either way we need to find a new source of amusement.

We lost another lure on the hand line, so we've stopped using it unless there's somebody sitting right next to it. We need to figure out how to rig up some kind of alarm when we catch a fish, because at the moment you just have to keep checking it. Garth decided not to bring in the rod the other night so we left the line out overnight. We were disturbed at about 2am to the sound of it running, but by the time we both got upstairs and untied it we'd lost our fish. That was our first bite in a long time. I'm determined to catch something before we leave the Pacific. But whilst the fishing rod makes a good racket, it's a lot harder to actually land the fish. So maybe we'll just have to stick to the tinned stuff.

One thing we haven't been short of on this passage is power. With our new batteries, bigger solar panel and nonstop wind for the windgen our batteries have been maxed out since we left. Garth has even been running the laptop every day and can't put a dent in our power. Considering the batteries remember how nice you've been to them, this is fabulous news. I don't think I could deal with wrecking them straight away. They were so expensive and we put so much effort into installing them before we left Tahiti.

Passage: French Polynesia to Panama week 1 and 2 (10/04/15 - 23/04/15)

Day 8

This first week has been hell. Well, not exactly. I'm sure this experience could be made worse if the boat was full of water and slowly sinking or if we were both sick. But it has not been pleasant.

We left the Gambiers last Friday afternoon, only just making it out through the maze of pearl buoys before it got dark. As always, the forecast was wrong. We bobbed along on a glassy sea all night then awoke the next morning to the same view we'd had the day before with the mountainous backdrop of the Gambier behind us. Not a good start. But at least it was comfortable.

At least there was a beautiful sunset as we were leaving

That didn't last long. For the next two days we weaved our way in between thunderstorms. We would go around in circles for a while with no wind at all before being absolutely blasted by a squall every hour or so. It would rip through quickly, dumping as much rain as possible and lighting up the sky with sheet lightening before taking off and leaving us to drift with the current again as we waited for more wind.

Our track as we head towards Pitcairn Island... we're literally going in circles from the light wind constantly backing the sails and turning us around

The first one of these took us by surprise. We had both the main and our giant Genoa up as the squall approached. I was sleeping downstairs when I heard a little squeak drift down from Garth in the cockpit. His little "Could you come help me for a bit?" seemed so casual. I headed upstairs to find him gripping onto the wheel with the wind whipping his hair into a tangled mess as rain started to drizzle down. Not good. I furled the headsail, using all my strength to slowly pump the winch at the slowest speed. It took forever. Meanwhile the wind picked up and the boat was getting hammered. The low side where Garth was sitting was practically underwater we were so overpowered, with huge waves coming through the cockpit and almost washing him away. After a very long time we got the headsail in then dropped the main, with rain pouring down on top of us and thunder and lightening raging all around. That was the last time I saw the headsail in action. It's still tucked up in bed and the main is still double reefed a whole week later.

Over the next few days the sheet lightening turned into fork lightening. I'd come upstairs to check for boats and we would be completely surrounded by chaos. It was like some kind of terrifying rave, complete with loud noises and constantly flashing lights. I found it hard to watch, because one storm would light up the sky and I'd swivel around to look at it just as the lightening would stop. Then it would start up in the direction I'd just been facing. Watching a lightening show at sea is so different from watching it on land. When I was little I used to wrap myself in a blanket and curl up on a chair on our verandah to watch the lightning that came along with a good Australian summer storm. The whole sky would light up and I would just sit there watching the lightening strike in front of me from the safety of my chair. At sea you can see the whole storm and not just the lightening. The clouds form a big dark patch on the horizon and during the day you can see the grey patch of rain coming down underneath the clouds. So at night time, instead of just seeing a brightly lit sky I knew where all the clouds were and exactly how many storms were raging around me all at once. And we were just a tiny dot in the ocean, completely surrounded.

So that sucked. But then the storms stopped and the real chaos started. We're out of the nice cosy trade winds this far south, which apparently makes everything mental. A front came through with the squalls and the sea started getting a bit crazy. Then it totally lost the plot. The waves were about 4m high on average, which is scary enough on its own. But they were everywhere. Waves were hitting us from all directions, smashing into the cockpit and making their way around the dodger to land on our companionway. Or they'd just crash into each other and we'd get hit by the splashy mess left behind. The whole ocean looked like a spa pool. Everything inside was a bit damp, including me in me bed by the companionway. There's a reason they make dodgers the way they do. Water is supposed to hit the boat from the bow as you head straight into the waves, and that little protective wall of plastic is supposed to stop the spray from pouring into the cockpit. There's no protection from the back, because the waves aren't supposed to hit you from behind. With this in mind, the hatchway wasn't designed to be completely waterproof. It even has an air vent! So if you dump a wall of water on top of our hatch it makes its way through the cracks and comes pouring inside. Not fun (Note: it actually has to be a wall of water to bother us. A splash here or there is fine and will be stopped by security. But when a few bathtubs full of water get dumped on the companionway all at once, its like an entire army storming past one little guard with a guest list and a baton. He gets trampled).

On top of the leaky water situation, the boat was being tossed around like a cork. Every ten minutes or so a giant wave would dump on top of us and we'd be flipped over sideways. You could track the progress of the wave by sound alone, as the roar of breaking water made its way down the boat starting at the bow and ending with a crash in the cockpit. The noise was enough to terrify me, but then it was accompanied by water pouring in and the boat balancing precariously at an unbelievable angle. Everything inside made it onto the floor. We'd filled piles of water bottles with water before we left, so they were floating around everywhere just to torment us further. We were actually lucky it was the beginning of our trip because we start big passages with a huge stew to use whatever meat we have. If we hadn't had a pot of food permenantly ready, cooking would have been impossible.

This went on for four or five days. Every day I woke up and couldn't believe that the sea hadn't calmed down, but it was still a mess. We stayed inside for a whole week, cowering in our bunks and holding onto something so we didn't get flung around. We went past Pitcairn island just as the waves started to calm down. Unfortunately the wind didn't follow suit and was blowing hard from the south for a few days. We didn't think it was worth beating into the wind to try to get to a place where we might not even be able to land, so we had to keep going. Sad, but not surprising.

Day 12

The last few days have been amazing. If this is sailing, I'm not sure what we've been doing all this time. The horizon has reappeared from behind the mess of waves. We're downwind. The boat is flat. Life is easy. We even managed to make bread a few times! We're cruising along at 5 knots towards Easter Island and crossing our fingers that the weather will be nice enough to stop there. We left on this passage not expecting to be able to stop anywhere along the way, but it would be pretty awesome to go to some really amazing out of the way places that not many people get to see. Easter is similar to Pitcairn, in that if the weather isn't perfect there's no point trying to stop. I was told that you can only go to shore if you're carrying a handheld VHF radio, so if the weather changes you can be contacted to move the boat to a different anchorage. Despite Garth's efforts our anchor winch is broken again, so we're a little skeptical about going to a place where we might have to move quickly. But we'll just wait and see - we're about five days away now.


Before we left French Polynesia we took all our food and divided it into six bags, for the six weeks we're expecting this trip to take. Snacks, cereal, milk, flour - everything got divided up. The tins were left on the shelves but we numbered them for each week. Then Garth drew up a complicated graph to figure out how far we had come and the bags get opened according to distance rather than time, to make sure we won't run out of food if we run out of wind. This was a brilliant idea. We just opened the bag for week two and it was like Christmas. Instead of feeling like we're rationing food it feels like we're getting extra treats. There were nuts in this bag, along with salami and chocolate and a heap of other things. It makes it easier to decide what to eat, and we don't feel bad eating special things like sun-dried tomatoes and crackers, because they've been put there specifically for us to get through this week. Next week there'll be something new! We haven't touched the eight tins of Cassoulet I bought though... Maybe I shouldn't be allowed to buy provisions on my own. At least we know there's always Cassoulet if we manage to run out of food.

After a week of gliding through the night in absolute darkness, the moon is back. I can't believe how grateful I am to see it. I also can't believe how long it dissappears for. Sailing through a moonless night is never much fun.


The only thing I've taken photos of is the sunset as we left the Gambiers, so here's some more pics.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

French Polynesia, The Gambier Islands (Pearl Farm) 10-04-15

Once we'd said our farewells to Birgit and Christian we headed over a nearby island to visit Rikitea, the only town in the Gambiers. So many islands! The were lots more boats over by the shops and we managed to anchor next to the cheerful yellow boat belonging to Juan, our BBQ buddy from the other night.

We only stayed there for one night, which gave us 1 1/2 days to prepare for our six week passage. That really doesn't seem like much...

It was a cute little town. Birgit and Christian had already told us what time to go and get baguettes, which is the most crucial piece of information for all the small towns in French Polynesia. They usualy only bake bread once a day and it disappears very quickly. So the bakery was our first stop, where we loaded up with the first baguettes we'd had in almost two weeks. Then we spent the rest of the day running around town stocking up for our trip. There were actually lots of stores, but most of them were just little counters that you walked up to and asked for what you wanted. Then they went and fetched it from out the back. This only works if you speak French... I did run round to all of them repeating the phrase 'Avi vouz chocolàt noir?' over and over again. By doing this I ended up with seven blocks of dark chocolate, which will hopefully last me the whole trip. Except that the first one didn't last me the day. Whoops.

We did find two stores that you could walk into though, and we managed to get meat, flour, butter and baked beans. There wasn't really much else to provision with. Our fresh produce consisted of 6 moldy onions, a small bag of wrinkly old potatoes, three carrots and a handful of manderins. I got the sense that the manderins were a special treat, as the shopkeeper was really excited about them and kept trying to make me take some. I assumed they were really expensive (the last bag of oranges I bought ended up costing $2 an orange). But they were surprisingly cheap, so I grabbed a few. And that is all we have to cover us for the next six weeks, aside from a leftover papaya and three more plantains from our garden raid. I also have some breadfruit in the fridge that I've boiled up, ready to bulk out our passage stew.

One thing I noticed about this town is that the people are much friendlier than everywhere else we've been. Everybody in French Polynesia has been nice, but here they were trying really hard to be as helpful as possible. Somebody tried to give me a lift back to the boat when they saw me walking past, but I was nearly there so I politely declined. We could never get a ride anywhere else when we actually tried to get picked up, The shopkeepers corrected my French and kept repeating it until I could say whatever I was trying to say properly. When it comes to French, either you say it perfectly and people understand or you mispronounce something and they stare at you blankly. Mostly they stare at you blankly, even when you're saying it properly. I even managed to have my first conversation in French with a nice man on the street. He asked me how my day was going, and I told him it was very well and I was sorry but my French wasn't very good. Then he said that it was fine and asked if I was on a boat. I said yes, and he told me to have a nice day. Longest conversation ever without throwing in any English! I was pretty happy about that. And slightly annoyed that I'm starting to get better at speaking the language just as we're leaving. Though most of the time I've just been trying to ask for things in shops or ask directions from people, which ends up being just short sentences or questions instead of actual conversation. Nobody else has wanted to stop and talk to me in broken French before. If I can't talk to them properly they mostly don't want to try, even the really friendly people. They just use hand motions to try and show me what they mean.

So the Gambiers are lovely. I'd really like to stay here for a bit longer, but we have to get going. I went to fill up all our water jugs today just before we left, only to discover that the last of the cheap jerry cans I bought in Vanuatu for our passage has now got a hole in it. That was disappointing seeing as I bought them specifically for this passage, but we actually got a lot of use out of them so at least they didn't go to waste. We were slightly worried about water knowing that we had 50L less than we had intended, but Juan came to the rescue by loading us up with water bottles. He must have given us at least 30L more in loose bottles, which was a big relief.

I was the lucky one who got to ferry all the bottles and jerry cans to shore and fill them up from the tap across the road. This took several trips and was a bit of a mission. I had tried to find a pamplemousse for our passage while I was in town, but nobody sold them seeing as everybody had their own tree. One of the times I went over to the tap to fill up with water there were two guys there already, one sitting in the shade and the other filling up mass amounts of water bottles in the back of his truck. I swapped pleasantries with them in French, but one of the men spoke English so we were able to chat for a while. I asked if they knew where I could find a pamplemousse, and the guy in the truck was all like 'oh, here's one,' and retrieved one from the back. Yay! Then he said he had lots of fruit back at his house and offered to go get some for me. Water gathering was the last thing I had to do before we took off, so I had to decline his offer. He didn't understand and insisted he come back later with some fruit. I said we had to leave soon, so he asked which boat was ours. I told him and then he said he'd come by the boat later with the fruit. It took me a while to get them to understand that I was actually about to leave the country and couldn't meet them later to receive their free food. I really can't believe how friendly and generous these people are. Even to offer me anything at all was really sweet, but they were going to go to all the effort of loading it in a boat and then delivering it to me via the water, which is ridiculous. Birgit was right about how nice everybody is and how easy it is to get pamplemousse here! If only we could stay a bit longer.

But we really had to go. I was refusing to leave French Polynesia without some of the black pearls that the country is famous for. Everybody seems to have some and you see all of the cruisers sporting at least one pretty pearl necklace. We hadn't been able to visit any pearl farms yet and I had made an effort not to buy any from Tahiti where they were overpriced and not as nice. We were going to get some from the source. So before we left the country we were going to make a quick stop at the pearl farm on the other side of the Gambiers.

Our plan was slightly ambitious, considering how far away the pearl farm was and that it was close to midday by the time we managed to get away. But I was either going to go back in time to all the opportunities I'd had to buy pearls that I passed up because they were too expensive, or we were going to visit a pearl farm before leaving. It took us a few hours to get across the lagoon. This travelling time was partly due to the mass amounts of pearl buoys we had to avoid on the way. They were scattered absolutely everywhere! Garth went downstairs and left me in charge for about 10 minutes, during which time I nearly had a heart attack. I was standing up in the cockpit in order to see all the little buoys scattered through the water. Then one would creep up on me and appear right in front of us, so I'd run back to change the direction the autopilot was taking us in. Then I'd stand up again and there would be another one right in front of us. So the boat weaved in a jerky, panicky, zigzag pattern as I made my way in between the buoys. Finally I was relieved from the stress when Garth came back and took over again. I don't know how he stays so calm.

Then when we got closer to our destination we had to cross a very shallow patch of water. So we had to slow right down and carefully watch the depth, which was only just deeper than the boat. After we spent ages dodging coral heads and shallow bits, we eventually dropped the anchor into crystal clear water and headed to shore. Phew!

When we got to the beach I was seriously sad about forgetting to bring the camera with me. It was one of the most beautiful anchorages I've ever seen, and without pictures to reflect upon I can't' decide if it was nicer than the pristine water we stayed in overnight in the middle of Fakarava or not. We walked to the pearl farm along the beach but our walk took a lot longer than expected bcause I kept turning to look back at the boat, almost stopped in my tracks by how pretty it was. Garth almost had to drag me.

When we arrived we met Eric, who was the man in charge of the whole operation. He showed us around the farm, encouraging us to stand behind the workers so we could get a proper look at what was going on. Unfortunately they had just harvested all the pearls the day before so we missed seeing them get taken out of the shells. But today they had to put them all back in the water. They were inserting tiny little balls into the shells for the pearls to grow around and grafting a tiny bit of shell on with it, which determines what colour the pearl will end up being.

This was all done by a handful of people, mostly girls with tiny hands. The shells were opened by less than an inch and then held in place by a little clamp. Then the balls and the graft were put in with long pointy tweezers, the clamp was taken away and the oyster was ready to grow another pearl. The pearls in French Polynesia are typically a gorgeous shade of black, but they actually come in lots of colours. In the Gambier especially they manage to produce pearls with a slight golden, red or green tinge to them. Eric had a big sack of shells from the recent harvesting, and he insisted 2 take some as souveniers. You can see the ring of colours around the edge of the shell, like a dark metallic rainbow that changes colour depending on how you look at it.

There was also a room closer to the water where people were tying the oysters up. They put a small hole through the shell which is used to zip tie it onto a kind of plastic mesh that goes back in the water laden with oysters. I'm not sure why, but the oysters have to be pulled up and cleaned regularly or the pearls won't end up quite so pretty. It all seems like a big mission for a tiny little pearl!

After we'd looked around and I'd sufficiently mourned my absent camera, we headed back along to the beach. Eric's house was at the end of the Motu in front of where we'd anchored and that's where he was going to meet us so we could browse through his pearls.

There was another boatload of people hanging out on the beach already. The were from Wigwam, who we met briefly the other day. We chatted for a while as the family got a BBQ going for their dinner. There were kids everywhere, which was lovely to see. They had the most gorgeous accents and the young ones were doing all the translating for us. I really wish I'd bothered to learn French when I was young and impressionable - kids seem to soak up other languages so easily.

Eric eventually arrived and we headed onto his verandah. He had two bags - one was chock full of very pretty, perfect round pearls. The other was what he called an 'unsorted' bag and it was filled with lots of random ones. He laid out a big cloth and upended them all onto it, then invited us to pick through. It was hard to figure out what I wanted. I was hoping for a few nice round ones in different colours and a small bag of cheap reject pearls. He priced the nicer ones of these for us at $2 each, and I got a whole heap of them. They all had defects of some kind, so nobody really wants them. I was really interested in these ones though.

They have perfect lines around them. It looks like they'd been engraved into the pearl, but the oyster does it on its own. Birgit had a necklace made out of them and I love how different they are. I also got quite a few round ones as well as two really pretty pearls shaped kind of like teardrops. My final pearl was a really big guy I'm hoping to turn into a choker, which cost more than double all the little ones at $50. It's huge though, and nice and round. We spent the rest of our French Polynesian money, which was around $200. I also traded two pretty pearls for a small bottle of alcohol, but I left Eric the rest of my Vodka as well. We weren't going to drink it before we got to Panama and alcohol is so cheap there anyway.

The oysters produce a few lots of pearls before being retired, because each time they get re-grafted the pearl will be a slightly lighter shade the next time around. So eventually they lose the gorgeous shade of black and become a much lighter colour which makes them much less valuable. Garth fell in love with the silver one, which has lost all the dark pigment from the oyster being reused too many times. So that one is for him.

We had to go back to the boat to fetch the alcohol, which gave me an opportunity to grab the camera. Unfortunately the sun had moved and was now shining right on the water, so it had lost the pretty turquoise colour. The sun is determined to drive me crazy. It always shines on the water in the afternoon so you can't see where the reefs are from the dinghy and the water loses its colour because of the reflections.

Anyway, now we're off. We've said goodbye to French Polynesia, which has been our home for the last five months. We're heading south towards Pitcairn Island, dodging more pearl buoys and hoping we get clear of them all before the sun goes down. And so begins the longest passage we'll ever have to do.

Xxx Monique

French Polynesia, Gambier Islands, 08-04-15

After yet another week long passage we finally arrived in the Gambier. Unlike the other island groups in French Pol that we've seen, this one is just a few Islands all huddled together. The Tuamotus and the Society Islands are spread out over massive areas, but here the islands are all in one place. You can pick which one you feel like anchoring at each day, just ducking round the corner if the wind changes or you want a change of scenery.

Another sunset under way

Approaching the Gambiers

We pulled up next to the island closest to the pass when we came in. There were two boats already nestled in a little bay between the main island and another tiny island but our charts all said it was too shallow for us to venture in. We were losing the sunshine and didn't want to run aground quite so soon, so we went past them to the other side to look for some sand. We eventually found a patch and as we turned the engine down to drop the anchor we heard our name on the radio. We hadn't heard anything on channel 16 for weeks and didn't even have the cockpit speakers turned on. The mysterious callers were friends with Mark and Liesbet on Irie, who had emailed them so we'd have some friendly faces when we arrived. They'd been calling us since we came through the pass, ready to hand out waypoints that would lead us safely into the bay. Doh! We stayed put seeing as the day was getting on and it was incredibly calm, but Birgit and Christian informed us that there had been breaking waves in our anchorage a few days earlier and that the water was never calm enough to hang around where we were. We lucked out because the water was completely glassy.

We were rewarded for our nautical adventures with a beautiful full moon that night. It was so bright that it felt like it was day time we I was sitting out in the cockpit. I had to change the settings on the camera to take a picture. But I was trying to make it darker instead of lighter like you normally would at night. No matter what I did it still looked like it was day time and the moon still looked like the sun.

11pm and it looks like daytime

Our new neighbours came to visit us the next morning, accompanied by a tray of fresh fruit. Fruit! They were both so lovely and welcoming, which was amazing after the month we'd had getting there from Tahiti. After we spent some time tidying up they led us in a convoy to the outer reef so we could go snorkelling. It was ridiculously calm. Christian and Birgit told us that over the whole cyclone season it had only been calm enough for them to get out there once before.

It was so much fun swimming in amongst real coral again! We've had a great time swimming in the crystal clear waters of French Polynesia, but the coral has all been the same. It's mostly scattered coral heads littered with reeds. There was a solid reef here though, littered with gorgonian fans and other interesting corals. There wasn't an abundance of aquatic life, but we did find lots and lots of brightly coloured parrot fish. They don't usually let you examine them up close for very long as a general rule but these ones were fat and friendly, ignoring us completely as they munched away on the coral.

Pretty little parrot fish

We also came across two white-tipped reef sharks and neither of them seemed too bothered by us. The second one showed up as everybody was climbing back into the dinghy and I was the only one with my head in the water. The others were above the surface discussing our previous sharky friend and so didn't really catch on that we were being circled by another one when I yelled out 'Shark!' This meant that by the time they figured it out and replaced their masks he was already gone. I hate being alone in the water with sharks and I'm glad he wasn't too interested in us.

They always want to play with Garth

So we had a lovely swim. In the end we didn't get to take in any of the other beautiful snorkeling spots the Gambiers are famous for, so I was really grateful for the escort out there. We would have had no idea where to go. After we got both boats organised, Christian and Birgit led us to another anchorage on the other side of the island we'd been behind the night before. It was a little bit rolly but we were so happy not to be enroute to somewhere that we thoroughly enjoyed throwing the anchor down and chilling out. They had us over for dinner that night, as well as every single night over the last week. It took us so long to organise the boat after all our passages that by the time we had it tidy and ready to receive guests, it was time to go again. Unfortunately Birgit wasn't feeling well on our last night anchored away from the town and we didn't get to repay their hospitality. But we felt thoroughly spoiled the entire time we were there.

The next day we did some boat work before following Christian and Birgit out to the next bay over. There were quite a few boats there already but everybody was so friendly. Birgit said there were only a few boats in the Gambier for the entire cyclone season (I think she said eight), so they've got a nice little cruising community here. Everybody knows everybody.

That evening the fun continued with a BBQ on the beach. We were joined by a nice German guy on a catamaran and a young guy called Jan, who has sailed his tiny boat across the Pacific all on his own. He's the first person we've met on a smaller boat than ours. Its really tiny for a liveaboard, 28 feet I think. His boat is also the first we've encountered that was designed by Bianca as well, just like ours. It has a similiar racey feel to it but is much smaller. It rocks back and forth like a dinghy if you move from one side to the other, which means he gets absolutely slammed by waves as well as from the wake as other boats zip past.

It was a lot of fun to just head over to the beach and light a fire. We sat around until quite late in the evening, drinking and being social. Birgit even made stick bread to put over the fire. I've never encountered anything like it before but Garth was quite familiar with the concept. We each got a stick and wrapped our bit of dough around the end of it in a spiral pattern. Then the stick went over the fire as if there were a marshmallow on the end. It quickly went crispy and golden on the outside and was an amazing addition to our dinner. I wish we could cook more things on sticks over fires.

Stick bread!

The only thing I didn't love about the beach were the centipedes. We rocked up bare-footed like we always do, to the surprise of everybody there. Apparantly there's centipedes everywhere in the bushes. I had a brief brush with one when we were building our dinghy on the dock in Bora Bora, but it was quickly destroyed and forgotten about. I did not love the idea that the mat we were sitting on could at any time be overrun by dangerous bitey things with lots of tiny legs. Luckily Birgit has a keen eye for the little buggers and she both spotted then removed a few babies from our circle before they bothered anybody.

We were also shocked to find out that it was Easter. How on earth did that happen? We had absolutely no idea. Our new German friend passed around chocolate to celebrate the holiday, which was more than welcome. He also supplied us with some fresh pamplemousse juice which was absolutely amazing. I'd only just tried my first Pamplemousse in Hao when our French neighbours on the dock next to us handed one over as a parting gift. The're giant, sweet grapefruit and they're as big as a small melon. In France i'm sure a pamplemousse is just a regular grapefruit, but here in French Polynesia they're giant and awesome. I hadn't even thought to juice it before and now I'm really disappointed that I've missed out on them the whole time we've been here. Every single house has a tree laden with the fruit. Both Juan and Birgit said that to get free pamplemousse in French Polynesia all you have to do is compliment somebody on their beautiful tree. The people here are so nice that they then force you to take some of the fruit. If only my French was better I could try this out.

We moved to another anchorage the next day. You really don't have to go far here to be surrounded by completely different scenery. There's so many bays and they're all gorgeous. This next anchorage was around the corner from where we spent our first night. There was a shallow channel in between two islands where the wind was funneling through, which was nice for our wind generator. It would have been a lovely spot to go kiting but the wind died by the time we wanted to give it a go.

There was a nice house with a concrete dock to tie up to nearby. Christian and Birgit know the owners, who were on holiday for a while. So we were able to go ashore to try and find a path up the mountain for a nice view. The Gambier used to be heavily populated, with thousands of people living on the island we were trekking over. I think Birgit said there's only something like four people living there now. All the houses are long gone but some of the tracks remained. They led us through the forest over an invisible path - there was no way in hell we would have been able to find the way on our own. All the mountains here are populated with pine trees, which is really bizarre. It was like stepping into another world. One minute we were climbing through soggy dirt in amongst the tangled roots of old trees and stepping over rotting coconuts, and the next we were engulfed by the unmistakble scent of pine trees as we made our way over all the needles scattered on the ground.

We headed up and up, clinging onto trees as we tried not to slip over on the nasty combination of soft dirt and loose pine needles. We eventually made it to a ridge where we had a nice view of the Gambier islands and the water down below. But the sun had run away so it wasn't exactly picture perfect. Birgit suggested we wait for the sun to come back, but the boys disappeared into the woods like a couple of mountain goats. Garth found some animal tracks leading up the mountain, so up we went. The reeds we were walking through were deadly, slicing through your hand if you slipped and grabbed for them. They whipped at our arms and legs as well, leaving me covered in tiny cuts. We had been warned about them though so at least I wasn't surprised. Birgit and Christian had obviously done this before. They came prepared with a machette to hack the path and a lemon to squeeze onto Garth's hand when he got bitten by a paper wasp. Four months surrounded by the cheeky little buggers and that was our first attack. I think we got off pretty lightly... probably because I'm not the one who got bitten.

The goat tracks through the reeds were annoying. Because the wild goats are goat height, their paths were little tunnels through the reeds instead of sensible human sized paths. We got down on all fours to crawl through them, which made life a lot easier. Eventually the path disappeared completely and we were left with some tricky steep bits of soft dirt to clamber up and some big rocks to scale. I would have ended up at the bottom of the mountain a few times if Christian hadn't caught me.

But we finally made it to the top, and the view was well worth the hike. It's been ages since we've made it up a mountain! The last one was probably in Moorea, but we didn't really hike up it. The view is always more rewarding if the walk is a bit of a mission. We all hung out taking pictures of the pretty islands for a while before trekking back down, tired but triumphiant.

I stole this one of all of us from Birgit 

When we got to the bottom again we spent some time raiding the garden that belonged to the house. Because the owners were on holiday and Christian and Birgit knew them we weren't bothering anybody. Their garden was huge. There were several big lemon trees all heavily laden with fruit and we each gathered bags of lemons from off the ground to make lemonade with. Christian found a big pole to knock some green papayas down and I stood at the bottom with Birgit trying to catch them. They also cut down some green plantains to share with us and we all got into the green coconuts. I even managed to score the only ripe breadfruit, which i acquired by sitting on Garth's shoulders.

Our anchorage from the top of the mountain. You can just make out the house next to the water

I was interesting to see how these two seasoned cruisers did things. They've been living aboard for a long time and have systems in place to make life as easy as possible. They do washing every morning in the water from their shower the night before (everybody out here washes in the ocean and rinses the salt water off with fresh, so it's essentially fresh water that would otherwise go to waste). They bake fresh bread every morning. And they collect coconuts by taking a machete, a spoon and a heap of jars to shore and getting stuck in. The water gets poured into a jar to drink later. The jelly gets scooped out and saved to cook with in leu of coconut milk. And the bits of husk and shell get left on shore while Birgit and Christian escape back to the boat with nothing but a few jars. All this time I've been dragging coconuts back to the boat and making a slow mess in the cockpit, for fear of cutting the boat. It obviously makes more sense to deal with all the mess away from the boat!

We've been seeing things like plantains and breadfruit all the way across the South Pacific, but had never tried to cook with them. I hate bananas and no matter how many people tell me that they're not the same as plantains it's hard to believe when they look so banana-y. Neither of us is too fond of papaya either, so we've avoided those as well. But Birgit and Christian had us over for dinner yet again that night and made a curry from the green papaya, plantains and the coconut jelly. And it was delicious! They explained that whilst green, both can be used as generic vegetables in pretty much anything. Birgit fried up some plantain chips as well, which were also amazing. So now we're a lot less scared to cook papaya and plantains at least. I even had a go at cooking breadfruit for the first time after they told me how to figure out if it was ripe. I cut up and boiled the whole thing like Mark and Liesbet had told me to and now we're putting it in pretty much everything. So that was exciting, both because we learned a lot and because we had fresh food again for the first time in a long time.

They told us that we could go round to the village where we anchored the first night to get vegetables. For $10 the lady there sells mixed bags of whatever fruit and veges she has to cruisers. I absolutely loved the idea of just being handed a bag of unknown produce and putting it to use. But unfortunately we didn't have time. After two days in that beautiful spot the weather started looking promising for us to leave, so we had to say our goodbyes to our new friends and head over to the town to stock up for our big passage. Eep!

Xxx Monique

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