The last several weeks have been more eventful than usual – and the next several will continue that trend! We’ve left the Tuamotus for a while. We intend to return as soon as we can, but we have a few things on the calendar before then!
Here are a couple of paragraphs that I wrote for a friend about things that caught my eye while we were still in Rotoava:
We woke up early this morning, just after 5am, to go to a veggie stand that is set up every Tuesday & Friday. They have locally-grown produce, and we like the idea of shopping local whenever possible. The sky was still dark, but first-light was visible in the east. As we dinghied over to the tiny beach the sky lightened up continuously, adding pastel colors to the clouds: butter yellow, lavender, baby pink. Our route was to go parallel to the coast until we saw the landmark for our beach, then turn left, pull out our flashlights/headlamps to watch for shallow bommies and navigate our way to shore. But before we took that left, we noticed that the pickup which brings all the veggies wasn’t parked where we expected and there was no light coming from where the table would be set up. So we decided to wait a few minutes to see if they arrived. We bobbed peacefully along in the quiet water, watching the morning sky ripen and the town begin to come alive. No one showed up here, though, so we turned around and headed home. We heard the church bells ring, and as we passed the church we noticed a group of well-dressed people standing outside. Perhaps it’s a holiday? We don’t know. But it was a different kind of morning…
The last couple of days we’ve had a huge school of tiny fish clustered around the boat, silvery blue, constantly in motion, left and right, expanding and contracting, often synchronized but sometimes all chaotic. I’ve enjoyed looking at the boundary between Lungta’s shadow and the direct sunlight on these fish, reversing dark fish on light background with shiny fish on dark background – kind of Escheresque! Fish often congregate under boats – or other floating debris, like logs – presumably for some sort of protection from predators. But this protection is only partial. The schooling is also a protective thing, which protects only a portion of them, albeit a large portion. We’ve had an unusual amount of additional activity around Lungta these last few days: tuna fish coming in from the pass, which is about 5 miles away. Often when we see tuna while snorkeling, they are solitary or traveling in small groups, but this week we’ve seen a dozen, two dozen, perhaps even 30 at a time. Sometimes they seem to be herding the fry tighter together, before taking a run through the center of the school. When they’re herding they travel as a team, using their broad sides to create a wall of sorts; when they’re feeding it’s a free-for-all, each one zigging and zagging randomly on their own path. When they’re feeding they often break the surface, making a big splash, and occasionally leap completely out of the water in a shiny silver arc. The splashes at the surface attract the attention of a type of tern called a noddy, with a black body and a white smudge on their forehead which looks like another bird shat on his neighbor below! The noddies call out to each other with a sound like a squeaky door hinge, but cut off the instant it begins as if you didn’t want anyone to hear it in the middle of the night – ‘eh’, ‘eh’, ‘eh’. They swoop all over the area looking for fish and when they find some they make this sound to attract their friends. They dive down to the water’s surface but don’t want to get their feet wet; they delicately dip their beaks in the water to retrieve a fish that swam too close to the surface and then quickly change direction, swooping back up again. When there are a lot of them near the boat we’re hearing this melee of splashes and ‘eh’-calls, intensely intermingled for a few seconds or a minute, then it all dissipates again as the clusters of small fish, predators, birds all break up and regroup elsewhere. It’s pretty cool to be in the middle of all this LIFE! (Except, perhaps, for the individual small fry who get eaten!)
Almost exactly a month ago, our daily life changed. We’ve been setting up a major shipment of things that we need (or want 🙂 ) from the States, ordering all these items to be shipped to a company that has a warehouse in California and bundles them together onto palettes that are then put onto a ship bound for Tahiti. Our original plan was to have the stuff put on the weekly supply ship that comes to Fakarava, where we could sidle up to the dock and load our stuff on-board in the same way we got the washing machine. But plans have a way of evolving… With the delays to our friends visiting, we realized that we might have a nice window to make a trip back to the States before or just after our shipment arrived. So we decided to relocate to Tahiti, where we could leave the boat under the watchful eye of a friend for several weeks while we ‘disappeared’. The idea quickly gained traction, and we changed gears pretty quickly!
But Mother Nature wasn’t immediately on-board with the new plan. 🙂 We ended up waiting almost two weeks to find a weather window that we liked for the passage. The wait was long enough that it made the decision for us whether our trip to the States would happen before the shipment arrived – or after. But it was worth the wait, because the big waves we were unenthusiastic about riding did eventually calm down and the sea was pleasant for our entire trip. There was one unfortunate event that affected our whole passage, though. Just as we got out of Fakarava’s pass and turned our sights west towards Tahiti, the autopilot started to make some funny choking sounds, and shortly after that it coughed and went silent. The motor that drives the hydraulic pump of the steering had given up the ghost at an inopportune moment! The steering wasn’t broken, just the convenience of having it actively controlled automatically. In practical terms, what that means is that someone had to be sitting at the wheel constantly fine-tuning our direction every few seconds. If an adjustment didn’t get made in time, then the boat’s momentum would overshoot – and often that means that it would overshoot in the other direction after a correction, making for a series of oscillations before being squarely on track again. This active steering takes more focus and effort than just watching to make sure all is well, which we were unable to keep for more than an hour or two. Usually during passages we take 3-4 hour shifts, trading off when the person at the helm can’t keep their eyes open any more. But with the autopilot out the shifts were much shorter, and so were our “off-duty” naps. We were very short on sleep for a few days! So we decided to run the motor for the entire trip, speeding up the journey enough to knock off one full night of travel from the 3 day trip.
The first night was a bit magical because it was the full lunar eclipse, which happened between about 11pm and 1am. At first the full moon rose in a spectacular orange display, and later it was fun to watch the “bite” out of the disk become a little bit bigger each time one would dart outside to take a peek before running back inside to correct course. The night got eerily dark, after having been so bright just a short while ago, and there was an odd reddish-brownish glow to the area where the moon belonged. Then the process reversed itself, and in a few short hours the bold spotlight of a full moon disavowed that anything unusual had ever happened. 🙂 As the sun was going down the next night, we were surprised to realize that we were already seeing the profile of Tahiti appearing on the distant horizon, made easier to find because of the bank of clouds that often gathers near the tall mountains of the Society Islands. The second night, of course, had a virtually full moon to keep us company, and in the wee hours of the early morning we enjoyed seeing the outlines of Tahiti progressively getting closer.
As we rounded the top of the island and then pulled into the pass, we began to breathe easy that we would soon be able to rest after our tiring journey. But there was one more wrinkle to face! We arrived at the anchorage and began to search for a large enough ‘hole’ to drop our anchor in between all the boats that were already there, with enough distance between us and our neighbors to assure that we wouldn’t collide when the wind changes direction. Sometimes this process can take a while! 🙂 We had found a place that seemed marginal, and paused next to one of the nearby boats, calling out to ask him how much anchor chain he had deployed – when our engine suddenly just turned off! So we lowered the anchor immediately – but this is a slow process, taking roughly 4 minutes to get 100 feet of chain deployed, as we drifted back slowly but steadily during that time, ending up uncomfortably close to another boat behind us. Amid some uncertainty of exactly how much fuel our engine consumes and how much was now left in our tanks, we were concerned that we had run out! We first dropped the dinghy in the water to assure our neighbor that we were not intending to stay so close to them, and would move as soon as we got our problem resolved – and they told us that their engine was also out of commission and they were actively working on it at that moment! 🙂 When life feels complicated, it is often a surprise to find that everyone else is fighting the same sorts of problems as you are!
So we checked out our fuel situation, and found that we did still have plenty of fuel, but that it was not evenly distributed between our two tanks and the one where the engine was drawing from had been sucked dry. It’s good news to find an explanation and have a clear course of action to address a problem, but that doesn’t always mean that course is going to be easy. 🙂 The first step, to transfer fuel from one side to the other was straightforward, but the next step of getting it to the engine was a bit more challenging. When the fuel lines are all bled dry, the air in the lines needs to be completely eliminated before the engine can start again. There are 3 different stages in the system that need to have the air “bled” out before the fuel can be reliably sucked into the next. It took a couple of hours to accomplish that work, during which lots of tools were deployed, a few parts were broken and replaced, and Dan gradually became covered with oil. (Our engine is 50 years old, and is not a place you’d want to spread out your lunch.) It took persistence and a bit of innovation to recover the fuel supply to the engine, but we succeeded. We relocated the boat a little further from the neighbor behind us and dropped our anchor again 200′ away, where we’ve been ever since. Our thoughts of an afternoon nap were gone, but our efforts to navigate and steer manually and to replenish our fuel system were eventually rewarded with a good night’s sleep!
Back in Tahiti, in the crowded anchorage near the Taina Marina, we’re able to get lots of tasks done more easily. There are many shops and services here that we can’t find in a tiny remote community, and internet is faster and more reliable. We can take a 20 minute bus or dinghy ride into the city for shopping or office visits. The day after we arrived, we dinghied into town and straightened out our visa renewal. (We had sent in our applications and supporting documentation via email, which they don’t usually accept but we’ve heard that they have sometimes during Covid. We got an automated acknowledgement, but never a direct reply to our request, and our current visas expired on June 13th. They accepted our paper application, but never actually said whether they had been working on the email version of the request. Regardless, we now have an official document that says we’re good to go, which is all we really care about!) The next business day (Monday) we went to a local vaccine center and got our first Pfizer vaccine. (We tried a few times in Fakarava, but kept getting different stories, from “we’ll put you on a list and call when we have some supply” to “we’re not going to do boaters here; go to Tahiti” to “we’ll do boaters, but only with any doses that are available after locals have been taken care of” to “we’re switching from Pfizer to Janssen and are only doing second doses this week”.) We’ve visited a dentist (to restore a crown that popped off), gotten motor oil for our big old boat, and brought our generator’s ‘frozen’ motor to a machine shop.
‘Our’ ship arrived in Pape’ete last Thursday and we dinghied in to see it being unloaded. Although only a small fraction of one of the many containers was filled with our stuff, it was fun to see it! We went into the office of the agent who is managing the customs process, and learned that it take *at least* a week for that processing. We’re excited! We’re doing what we can beforehand, so the important projects can be done as quickly and easily as possible. We’ve been brainstorming where and how we can get our stuff delivered. We think it will be 3 or possibly 4 palettes stacked 3′ high with boxes and odd-shaped items, but have no idea how heavy the whole collection will be! Our best plan so far is to have it delivered to the dingy dock at the nearby marina and take one dinghy full of stuff after another back and forth out to the anchorage. We have some friends on another boat who added some stuff to our order (including an *anchor*!) who will join in, so it should be a fun day of moving things around. 🙂
The anchorage is about 5 miles from the city, passing right by the airport. When we have the big boat, we have to call the airport tower and get permission to transit underneath the flight path. It’s not unusual to be told to wait a few minutes until a plane takes off or lands. There’s actually another anchorage alongside the runway, a ways offshore, but they’re only trying to protect the region directly along that flight path. On our last trip there, we saw a couple of specialized catamaran-like boats which were floating restaurants moving around near the anchorage. In good conditions, it takes us about 20 minutes to get to the city’s port, and as we enter the pass we have to watch carefully for ferries coming between Tahiti and the nearby island of Mo’orea. The newest ferry travels more than 30 mph, and can approach much more quickly than we normally expect boat traffic to move! The harbor also serves a few cruise ships, the country’s navy, and a big marina. It’s a pretty heavily used space!