A Tahanea coral (not sand) beach — a quintessential Tuamotu atollscape. Photo courtesy of http://www.panoramio.com.

The trip to Tahanea was a pleasant, easy 24-hour overnight jaunt. This atoll isn’t really a national park — we had heard that it was — but it is completely undeveloped save for a few simple buildings and shacks, none of which were occupied when we arrived.

Heartstoppingly, picture-book pretty: turquoise waters; coral beach mixed with volcanic rock; densely vegetated land area, with coconut palms and a couple of other types of trees and some bushes too. The outer reef is several hundred yards out, with a shallow lagoon between it and the motu itself. Very few flies or bugs ashore, at least in the afternoon. Very picturesque — a desolate paradise.

So where is this, exactly? Grab your atlas or fire up Google Maps or Google Earth and find latitude 16 degrees 50 minutes south, longitude 144 degrees 45 minutes west.

On the motu a couple hundred yards from where we’re anchored there’s a shack in a little clearing with a big water tank to catch runoff from the roof. Nearby is the stoutly built outer frame of what looked like a big rack for drying copra.

Sat 28 May – Still anchored in the SE corner of the Tahanea lagoon. A motorboat with two huge outboard motors, at least 100 hp each, and carrying six or eight locals came in yesterday and navigated very carefully into the shallow but broad and long tidepool that sits between the motu itself and the outer reef. A little while later the motorboat departed with only two people aboard. The guys ashore were all very friendly and welcomed us to walk around the motu, use it as we wanted, etc. They’re going to work here for a few days collecting coconuts and preparing copra, using the shack in the little clearing and the rack by the water’s edge. Copra, dried coconut meat that is pressed for coconut oil, is the main exploitable natural resource in these parts. Yes, fishing is big too, but that’s mostly for pelagic (open-ocean) fish. Ciguatera is enough of a problem that reef fish, while consumed locally (sometimes with harsh consequences), aren’t exportable.

Don’t know how the motorboat got here. Could they really have motored all the way from Fakarava (50-70 miles, depending on which pass you use)? Could they have come from one of the even tinier atolls lying only a few miles away? It’s not the type of boat you’d want to do any open-ocean traveling on in any sort of seas. Could they have been carried aboard the Stella Maris supply ship, which came through the pass the other day and anchored for a few hours? Maybe there’s a larger copra harvesting effort afoot elsewhere on the atoll as well?

Wed 1 June – About 12:30 or 13:00 we weighed anchor and motored up toward the Tahanea pass. We didn’t wait for the tide change or anything — it’s a wide, deep, easily navigable pass — we just blasted through it when we got there and pointed the bow northwest toward Fakarava.

Tahanea atoll_800x539

Tahanea, seen from the southeast and looking northwest. The pass to enter the lagoon is hard to spot — it’s about two thirds of the way up the eastern side of the atoll. You can see that the atoll is mostly reef — only the dark green spots are the motus. For some idea of scale, Tahanea is about 48 km (30 miles) long and 15 km (9.5 miles) wide, about middling in size relative to the other Tuamotu atolls. Photo courtesy of http://members3.jcom.home.ne.jp.

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Saturday evening – the supply boat has been here, the local alcohol stock has been replenished, and the work week is done. Thus, party time ashore. Thanks to a cruising couple aboard a boat named Silent Sun, who have been here for a while and know everyone, we and some other sailors were invited to join in with the locals. Someone roasted a pig; guests brought various side dishes pot-luck style.

First, a bit of drinking and sitting around with everyone, several local young men included. Damn, these Polynesians are stout lads, not overly tall but very broad, powerful builds. Even the guys who are shaped like huge basketballs look strong enough to flip over cars single-handed and have handshake grips that could crush your metacarpals if the guys weren’t careful.

The lads do seem to like their pakalolo and alcohol, like pretty much everyone everywhere. Manu, the pearl farm jefe, kindly shared his case of Hinano (FP’s mass-market beer, not half bad), which I took to be his personal party stash, with me. The music thundered – almost impossible to have any conversation at all. And of course my French is still so poor and halting that it’s hard to sustain any conversation beyond a comment or two even if we were in a monastery. I’ve noticed, though, that the locals are disinclined to pursue conversation with someone whose French isn’t quite up to speed. Latins, by contrast, will try to keep a conversation going, in whatever form of pidgin Spanish or English is needed. Perhaps Polynesians are simply more taciturn people.

When we, the invited guests, all went to eat in an adjacent little house, the local fellows hung back. I wondered if this was in keeping with some protocol or social grace but learned later that their strategy is to eat as late as possible, so as to maximize the buzz achievable from whatever alcohol and pakalolo they’ve managed to round up, rather than kill the buzz by filling their bellies.

Dinner was good – the roast pig was tasty but very tough. Otherwise, lots of starch. Someone brought bananas that had somehow been cooked in their skins – wrapped in tinfoil and baked, probably. Very sweet and delicious. Not sure whose house we were in. The ladies all congregated there – very little interaction with the guys over in the drinking/smoking area. Maybe there was more mixing later. I think in Polynesian society in general social roles are pretty sharply defined and women and men do not intermix as freely as we in the US are accustomed to. Not sure if this is good social science; might just be a reflection of a small sample size.

The locals on Raroia all seem very friendly – everyone you pass in town either waves or says “bonjour” – and readily accept, even enjoy, the white visitors on the sailboats. I heard it was a coup that the party on Saturday had some cruisers attending, the white women dancing late into the night.

And the folks are generous to a fault – in Raroia at least you do need to be a bit careful of what you admire or compliment, lest the owner feel compelled to give it to you or at least give you some other gift. Even apart from that, the locals here and in the Marquesas have been generous – recall being treated to a big meal at Steven’s family’s house in Atuona.

Christianity in various forms from Mormonism to Catholicism is alive and well here – every town or village I’ve been in has at least one church.

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Tahitian black pearls, showing several variations. Photo courtesy of http://www.antique-jewelry-investor.com/Tahitian-Black-Pearls.html.

Manu, the young man running the pearl farm just north of town, showed a small group of cruisers around one afternoon. When we visited, the farm was grafting, meaning that the workers were introducing a foreign object into each oyster as the nucleus of a new pearl. The creature would then over time coat the nucleus with whatever it is that makes the nacreous coating. Voilà, pearls.

As you might imagine, pearl farming is very labor intensive, lots of manual piece work: first, workers in boats and in the water retrieve many dozens of strings of oysters from the lagoon, where they hang from floats in 5 or 10 meters of water. Then, other groups of workers have to get each oyster off the string from which it hangs, clean it up a bit, wedge it open, stick an implant into it, rewire it onto the string, and replace the string in the farm.

The oysters dangle ten or twenty to a length of rope that hangs vertically with a few others inside a plastic mesh cage, which in turn hangs from a float. Each oyster is attached to the rope with a slender wire, which passes through a man-made hole drilled in the shell.

Not every oyster pulled from the water gets an implant.  Some, after having the worst of the ocean crud chipped off their outer shells and undergoing a quick inspection, are deemed unready for an implant and are immediately rehung on a rope and replaced in the water. I couldn’t tell what qualifies an oyster as ready. This was just the first illustration of how low the pearl yield is compared to the number of oysters in the farm.

If an oyster is ready, a worker taps a small plastic wedge between the halves of the shell to crack it open. Then a skilled operator opens the oyster up a bit further, cleans out some goop from one particular area of the interior, deftly manipulates the creature inside and implants a spherical shell about 5 mm in diameter with a specialized instrument about the size and shape of a dental tool, adds a tiny dab of red goo, and closes the oyster up. With the grafting complete, another worker again wires the oyster onto a rope that will again be suspended with a few others inside a cluster that in turn gets heaved onto a panga so still other workers can take it out to the farm and reattach it to a float.

Miscellaneous bits:

  • It takes 9-14 months for an oyster to generate a pearl.
  • It’s very labor intensive to culture pearls, and the success rate is low. Roughly two-thirds of the oysters that come out of the water receive implants. About  50% of the oysters that receive implants generate pearls. Of those, about 25% generate marketable pearls. Thus, if a farm has, say, one million oysters, it can expect to harvest roughly 80,000-85,000 marketable pearls, a success rate of well under 10%. And of those pearls, only a fraction will fetch top prices.
  • The red goo the grafter inserts somehow affects (along with characteristics of the local sea water) the final color of the pearl.
  • Chinese workers do the grafting – apparently they are more dextrous, or something, and the local guys do the grunt work, the heavy lifting. All the work is manual and extremely repetitive and tedious.
  • Different atolls and islands produce pearls of different colors; pearl farmers add goo of different colors, whatever works best in each farm’s location.
  • The object stuck inside the oyster to stimulate development of the pearl is itself a shell, almost perfectly spherical; the shells come from the Mississippi River.
  • Factors affecting the price of the pearl include size, surface quality, shape, iridescence, and color. The larger, smoother, more perfectly spherical, and “deeper” (more translucent or lustrous) the finish, the better. White is the least valued color; true black is the rarest and most precious. The harvested pearls get evaluated one by one and color alone doesn’t dictate a price level.
  • So-called “black” pearls, for which the Tuamotus and especially the Gambiers are famous, aren’t necessarily black — they can be gray/silvery or have hues of green, pink, yellow, or blue. They all come from the black-lipped oyster.
  • In 2008, cultured pearls constituted about 55% of French Polynesia’s exports. The pearl industry has fallen on hard times since then, because of the worldwide recession.

Manu of course had pearls for sale, sorted into several small containers according to quality. His most expensive pearl, probably 10 mm in diameter, perfectly shaped and with a lustrous finish you could virtually see into, cost CFP 28,000 (about US $280). His least expensive, apart from the tiny little seed he gave to one of the kids in our group, was CFP 1,000 (about US $10).

If it is not illegal to buy directly from pearl farmers the practice is at least strongly discouraged (according to some mainstream travel book or other) because pearls are supposed to be officially assayed or tested for quality before going on the market, ostensibly to protect consumers from being cheated by the farmers. Not to be overly cynical, but I suspect it’s also because the government wants to impose some sort of tax.

I think it is also illegal to take pearls out of the country that are not mounted in some sort of jewelry – necklace, ring, bracelet, or whatever. Stories abound of individuals cannily buying choice pearls and having them inexpensively strung, then taking them to Paris and reselling them for vast profits. Maybe. Certainly the items for sale in Tahiti will be very expensive, at least twice the price that someone like Manu would charge – but those will be the choice pearls, all fluffed and buffed and mounted in some sort of jewelry and ready for the unknowing tourists. In any case and regardless of location, caveat emptor.

[Later: I happened to walk past Tahiti Pearl Market, one of the top-rated and most reputable pearl jewelers in Papeete, and ended up in a conversation with one of the representatives. I asked about a few necklaces in the store window. The most modest, consisting of 37 pearls all 11 mm in diameter, looking uniformly spherical and perfect to the untrained eye, in subtle hues of blue, yellow, silver, and pink, sported a CFP 2.2 million price tag. That’s not quite US $21,000, or about $567 per pearl. Another necklace ran CFP 3 million (a touch more than US $28,500), and the largest and most elaborate necklace, a thick braid of three strands of pearls, could be yours for a mere CFP 3.5 million (about US $33,335). Tahiti Pearl Market gets its pearls from its own farms, one in Fakarava and the other in <didn’t catch the name>.]

One of our crew bought $500 worth of pearls from Manu, of different shapes and at various quality levels, which she will make into jewelry when back in the States. Another cruiser opined quietly on the side that Manu’s prices seemed quite high compared to prices in the Marquesas. I don’t see how making that comparison is possible without having experts from the different places evaluate exactly the same pearls, as they vary so much in so many different ways.


Still more black pearls, variations and irregularities even more evident. Photo courtesy of http://www.sea.edu/spice_atlas/rangiroa_atlas/polynesian_black_pearl_industry.

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The center of town. The airstrip is a 10-minute walk to the left, the pearl farm a 10-minute walk to the right.

 Thurs 19 May – We’re now anchored in front of the only town on Raroia, called Ngarumaoa, on the west side of the atoll and on the other side of the lagoon. This would put us on a lee shore in strong (say, 20 knots or more) trade winds, which here blow from the E or SE.

Being on a lee shore (having dry land or reefs or rocks or other sailing hazards close behind you and strong wind and waves on your bow, trying to push you onto the hazard) isn’t good anchoring practice in any case; here the situation is compounded by the presence of bommies (coral heads). In other words, if conditions deteriorate and you have to get your anchor up in a hurry and get out of danger, you could find yourself trapped, with your anchor chain wrapped around or caught under a bommie and no or very limited ability to maneuver and free up the chain.

But for us, no problem. The wind is backing around the compass and when it settles in the E or SE is only 15 knots at most.

Reggie’s place. His magasin isn’t the large building with the sloping roof, it’s hidden behind the boxy little structure to the right of center. The spindly-looking rack to the left of center is a little lift with a short dock attached, for pulling a 15- or 20-ft motorboat out of the water.

Went ashore yesterday and walked around the tiny town, population perhaps 200. Met Régis (“Reggie”), who owns one of the magasins (small grocery stores) and seems a bit of a wheeler-dealer. No beer – the supply ship hasn’t been here in at least a week, so many shelves are bare – but we did buy a couple of matchbox-fuls of pakalolo, Marquesan grown, 4000 CFP, about US$38, each. Small matchboxes, not US kitchen-match sized. Quality so-so, but reasonably effective.




Reggie was a bit drunk but was very friendly and convivial; he treated us each to a Tabu, a tequila-and-lemon-scented Tahitian beer, not half bad actually, and we hung out on the beach in front of his house with him and a few dogs and two or three of his buddies. Very pleasant, the more so that we didn’t stay overly long.

Then we walked up to the other end of town (which took perhaps 15 minutes, walking slowly), to the pearl farm there, where there is also a magasin. Out of beer. Hung out there for a little while chit-chatting with other cruisers who drifted in. More about pearls and pearl farming in a later post (I’m looking for the photos I took).


Yaay — the supply ship is in! A red-letter day, and a foreshadowing of partying to happen in the evening.

Scuttlebutt around town is that the supply ship, which normally comes in on Thursdays, won’t be here until Saturday. Also, the plane that usually comes in (yes, there’s an airstrip here) on Thursdays won’t be here ‘til Saturday, if it arrives even then. Air Tahiti is on strike, for the first time in seven years, so services are greatly curtailed for the time being.  [Later: the Medevac plane is still flying — it had to come in and evacuate a seriously ill or injured resident.]

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black-tipped 1 crazygallery.info

A better look at a black-tipped shark. Photo courtesy of crazygallery.info.

The snorkeling in the lagoon here is good in places – many varieties of coral, a marvelous mix of brightly colored and oddly shaped fish, clams, crabs, eels. And sharks. Predominantly black-tipped sharks, but also gray sharks and at least one other species as well. Thus far I’ve seen only black-tipped, the largest being about four feet long and the smallest being foot-long babies swimming in the rivulets that connect the outer reef with the lagoon.

One book described black-tipped sharks as “usually not aggressive.” Usually? And Jess, a local cruiser and diver with much shark experience, explained that black-tipped sharks aren’t aggressive but what with last year’s powerful El Niño having warmed the water and diminished the local food supply, they “might be a little hungrier than usual these days.” They seem to hang out in groups – if you see one, look around a bit and you’ll likely see a few others as well. And when you step into one of the rivulets, the baby sharks, shy though they reportedly are, rush over to see what all the commotion is.

Hmmm. Gives a person, at least this person, pause. I’ve done a bit of snorkeling here but find that seeing sharks, even 3- and 4-footers that usually aren’t aggressive, in the water with me makes me nervous enough that I’m not able to enjoy the coral and reef fish. My fear is strong enough to get me out of the water straightaway and leave me with not the slightest interest in working to overcome it. If that makes me a weenie, oh well, then I’m a weenie.

black-tipped 2 c Mary O'Malley

Another good portrait of a black-tip. Photo copyright Mary O’Malley.

Un requin (shark) -- the dorsal fin doesn't show up well in this pic, but its tip is black, in contrast to the sandy tan color of the shark's body. Hence the name black-tipped shark.

Un requin (shark, in French) — the dorsal fin doesn’t show up well in this pic, but its tip is black, in contrast to the sandy tan color of the shark’s body. Hence the name black-tipped shark. You can see a bit of  black at the tip of the ventral fin, in the lower left corner.

Sat 7 May – Shortly after we had the anchor down and well set a little to the north of what cruisers call Kon Tiki Island, a couple of cruisers came over in a dinghy to greet us and invite us to a pot-luck beach barbeque on Kon Tiki beach later in the day. We didn’t have much in the way of BBQ material on board, but Matt put together a huge pot full of chicken and rice stuff. The gathering proved most pleasant and convivial — good company and conversation around a nice little fire — and we saw some people we had met in the Marquesas and also met several other boats.

Sun 8 May – Had some good snorkeling in a shallow little lagunita a little south of Kon Tiki Island and just to the north of the next motu down. Several coral colonies, each with several types of coral growing, and quite a few different kinds and shapes of brightly colored fish. I don’t know the names of any of the coral or fish species but could easily identify at least six or eight different types of coral and a dozen different fish. And, of course, black-tipped sharks, the biggest about 4 feet long. I’ve been told black-tipped sharks, which abound here, are among the least aggressive shark species, nevertheless, I decided to bring that snorkeling session to an end.

On the to-do list is snorkeling the pass, where the coral is more abundant and the fish population is much larger. The technique is to figure out when low-water slack occurs, that is, when the water is not moving through the pass in either direction, then dive/swim just as the incoming tide starts to create a little current moving from the ocean into the lagoon. You can tether yourself to your dinghy or not; either way you just drift through the pass on the current, move around a bit to see what you want to see more closely, then once in the lagoon clamber into the dinghy and head back out to the upstream (ocean) end of the pass for another lap. Three or four laps usually is plenty, and after a few laps the current typically picked up to a couple of knots or more anyway.

I did pick up a few coconuts from the beach. Man, is it a lot of work to get the husk off!

This is a really a pretty spot, a good anchorage, especially in SE winds (which we haven’t really seen any of yet). Unclear how long we’ll stay in Raroia. I’m wondering how different one atoll could be from another, in the same way that after a while many of the San Blas islands in Panama start looking like one another. Our FP visa expires on July 12, so that’s the hard stop.

A day or two later: Moved south along east side of lagoon to the southernmost motu. Someone at helm; someone standing lookout on the bow. Just to the south it looks as though you could sail right through and out to the ocean, but that would be a big mistake: the reef is continuous though there are no motus along that stretch and would quickly destroy a boat.

Walked around the reef, from the lagoon out to the edge of the incoming tide on the ocean side. Perhaps 500 yards across lava rock and coral at that point. Looks completely barren, like a Mars-scape, but it’s anything but barren. Far more biomass there, where the ocean meets the rock and coral and where trees and vegetation grow to within yards of the salt water, than on land. Saw lots of eels, seemingly the first wave of visible marine creatures to ride the tide in.

Found some strange white waxy stuff – smells and feels just like wax – speculating that it might come from a whale. Whale barf, other whale excretion? Who knows? Speculation is that it could be ambergris, possibly worth tens of thousands of dollars. [Several weeks later: The stuff was conclusively determined to not be ambergris. Tant pis (more’s the pity).]

Lots of sharks here – sometimes as many as six or eight at a time swimming around the boat. Once when I was working the dinghy off shore, a curious black-tipped shark, about 4 feet long, came right over to investigate what was going on.

It’s a very powerful, primal setting – I had the same feeling at the edge of the reef here as I had in a few places in the Galápagos during my 2010 visit: with the tidepools and sun and vitality of the ocean, these are the sorts of places where, billions of years ago, life could have originated.

A few days later still: Moved anchorage again, a mile or two farther along the same shore, on the eastern edge of the lagoon. Slightly different beachscape/coconut grove setting and reefscape, but nothing dramatically different. We’ve had a pleasant amount of breeze, in the 10-15 kt range, for the last two or three days. Despite our having moved around some at anchor, when we started hauling in the chain it came up with only one extra maneuver – at one point we had to let a bit back out and maneuver the boat slightly to one side, to move the chain away from a bommie and ensure that it wouldn’t snag.

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The so-called Kon-Tiki Island. A small, simple monument to Heyerdahl’s expedition sits in a small clearing in the middle of the motu.

Two and a half days’ trip to get here from Omoa, Fatu Hiva. We skipped a final provisioning and beer run in Omoa, as once inside the bay we could see formidable-looking breakers pounding the shore around what looked like the town, and a powerful-looking swell surging onto the ramp that probably serves as the general-purpose dinghy landing. To boot, the landing was much farther outside town than would be possible to walk with an armload of supplies, and there weren’t a bunch of taxis, or any vehicles for that matter, milling around waiting for scruffy cruisers to take their chances getting ashore. So, no beer. Life’s tough all over, no?

We had 10-15 kt wind at the start, but within five or six hours we were motorsailing. The wind dropped off quickly, though; at one point we saw 2 kts or less. Then on the third night out (we left Omoa in the afternoon, aiming to time our arrival outside the pass at Raroia to occur at about 0800) in a spell of light and variable breeze after a sequence of squalls, we suddenly got hit with a 30+ kt blast from dead astern. Another squall.

Some background: In contrast to the massive volcanic peaks and crags and lush vegetation of the Marquesas, the Tuamotus are atolls. An atoll is a collection of reefs and small, low-lying islands (motus) forming a ring that represents the rim of a volcanic crater that barely pokes up past the surface of the ocean. Inside the rim is a lagoon. Many atolls have a navigable “pass,” or entryway, into the lagoon; some have two or three passes. Similar to navigating some spots in British Columbia such as Seymour Narrows, to get through safely you figure as best you can when slack water will occur, figure where the pass is deepest, and aim to get through at slack or preferably, with a slight current against you. (Motoring against a slight counter current allows for much better control of the boat than would be the case if the boat were being carried along by a following current.)

Once inside the lagoon, you still need to pay close attention – coral reefs abound, and while the lagoon might look completely open and hazard-free, you still need to wind your way around. Having a spotter or two on deck and having the sun reasonably high in the sky are essential. At least in this lagoon the reefs are obvious in good light – the water takes on a much lighter, turquoise color, making the reefs easy to spot.

And when you get ready to drop the hook, you need to do your best to avoid anchoring where many coral heads, or “bommies,” dot the bottom. You don’t want to foul your anchor chain on bommies, partly so as to not damage the coral and partly to make sure you can get away quickly at any time of day or night should the need arise. And it does arise – abrupt and strong wind shifts do occur, and you can suddenly find yourself on a lee shore or dragging down on one hazard or another.

Anyway, we made it through the pass just fine, powering through against about 3.5 or 4 knots of current, and crossed the lagoon over to near what’s known as Kon Tiki Island. It’s a motu (islet) on the southeastern edge of the atoll, known as the spot where Thor Heyerdahl’s raft came aground in 1947, ending his famous Kon Tiki expedition. He had sailed from the Peruvian coast to demonstrate that Polynesians could have migrated from South America, a contrarian notion to the more commonly held idea that Polynesians originated in Asia. No one really knows.

The Raroia lagoon measures about 7 miles across by 20 miles long. It’s entertaining to try to imagine the magnitude of the volcanic event(s) that occurred here x million years ago, given the size of the crater.


These were really the colors — I didn’t edit or alter this photo in any way. Nope, no green flash (I was watching closely for it).

Anchored for a few days in the southernmost of the Marquesas, in Baie Hanavave (the Bay of Virgins). Made a 40- or 45-mile motor trip to get here – wind was 12-15 knots from the SE, but our course was to the SE, thus right on our nose.


Crazy geologic formations forming one wall of the anchorage.

It’s easy to lose track of the days. Hanging out on the boat, taking it easy, doing minor boat chores, swimming now and again. Not much to the town – it appears to consist of a church, a soccer field, and a very small grocery store that does not sell beer. We did trade a few old fishing lures to a local kid for a few pamplemousse (pomelos, or grapefruit) and a small stalk of bananas.

There’s another, larger town, called Omoa, four miles down the coast (ten miles by road), where we will probably stop tomorrow for a few provisions and some beer. We’ll see what’s available – everything depends on how recently the supply ship was here.


A carved post in the meeting grounds, Atuona

Then the following day we’ll be off for the Tuamotus, about 450 miles to the southwest, a relatively short trip. Looks right now as though the wind will be OK for the first day or a little more, then will go light and get lighter and lighter as we approach the first atolls. Matt’s already said we’ll fire up the iron genoa (start the motor) when the wind gets light, even if that means motoring the last day or so. In any case we should be there in two and a half or three days.


Stone figure, probably two meters tall, in the Atuona meeting grounds

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Paul Gauguin’s grave. His is the only one in the cemetery made of the local red volcanic rock. Also, you can see that instead of a cross his grave is marked by a statue of a Polynesian figure to the left of the grave and a painted block of rock (hard to see) on the back right corner.

Alert: short but somewhat nerdy art history interlude follows.

While in Atuona (see previous post) I took in a couple of cultural attractions. On a hillside overlooking Atuona sits the cemetery where the French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin lies. He lived here for the last two or three years of his life, at the end of a prolific career and rather a stormy personal life. He never met with material success or artistic acclaim in his lifetime; only a decade or two after his death did the art world come around to embracing the primitivism and duality of savagery and sensitivity he explored in his work and recognizing the influence he had on painters such as Picasso and Matisse. In Gauguin’s own words, he strove to live “in art and for art.”

Aha Oe Feii Aka What Are You Jealous - Paul Gauguin - www.paul-gauguin.net

Aha oe feii, image courtesy of www.paul-gauguin.net

You may well have seen a poster or repro of Aha oe feii (What? Are you jealous?), the famous oil of two Tahitian nudes on a beach. Gauguin also worked as a sculptor, writer, printmaker, and ceramist.

Also in Atuona are Gauguin’s house, a basic but light and airy one-room bungalow of about 600 square feet (roughly 60 square meters) and next to it a small, completely unpretentious museum. It has no Gauguin original paintings but rather shows copies, some of them perhaps digital reproductions of copies, of a great many paintings. It also offers much explanatory and historical text, quite a lot of it in English as well as in Tahitian and French, that does a good job of straightforwardly surveying the artist’s career and personal life, and conveying a sense of what the man strove for artistically as well as the personal demons he battled.

OK, it wasn’t quite the Louvre or the Hermitage, but visiting Gauguin’s grave and seeing where he lived and worked for a couple of years was a thrill for me, a bit of real-world perspective added to what had been just college-kid art history readings and glimpses of a few paintings in museums here and there.


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The beach at the foot of the anchorage in Hanamoenoa. Just to the right of center on the beach you can see an aperture in the beachfront palms — that’s where Steven makes his home. Yes, I know this photo really needs to be cropped.

After a few days in Daniel’s Bay, Nuku Hiva, we made an overnight sail to Tahuata, a small island just across a channel from Hiva Oa. It was a sailing trip in name only – although we ever so slowly sailed off our anchor in Daniel’s Bay, the wind came around onto our nose only a few miles offshore and we motored all night in 10-20 knots from the southeast. Splashy, somewhat bouncy but uneventful trip here; we got in about 0700.

Specifically, we anchored in Hanamoenoa Bay (in French, Baie Hanamoenoa). I guess that’s redundant; apparently “hana” (or “haka up on Nuku Hiva) means “bay.” Very pretty and popular anchorage – large enough for a dozen boats without undue crowding, generally quite clear water and usually enough breeze to keep the temperatures quite pleasant. “Clear” means that the bottom is clearly visible in 25 feet of water. Perhaps more water – we’re anchored in 25 feet and can easily see the end of the anchor chain.

Turns out a local guy named Steven lives on the beach at the foot of the anchorage. One afternoon Steven mentioned that the “ferry” – a 25-foot cuddy cabin motorboat – would be coming in the morning to take him over to Atuona, and we could get rides too, if we wanted. Atuona, which is on Hiva Oa, has a gendarmerie and thus is a secondary port of entry into French Polynesia. So bright and early the next morning Ryan, Meaghan, and I headed over with Steven to see what was what.

We did get to see the town, but the big adventure was that Steven, in addition to getting his mother or auntie or someone to give us rides hither and yon around town in her little pickup truck, invited us up to up to his father’s house, where we were given a nice lunch and hung out for a bit while Steven collected various cuttings and seedlings to bring back to his beachside garden. The family, as open and friendly as could be, invited us right in and treated us like guests rather than the perfect strangers we really were.

That evening, when we were back on the boat in our anchorage, Steven came over for dinner. We had been advised by other cruisers that busting out lots of alcohol wouldn’t be a wise move, so everyone indulged only very moderately, and a good time was had by all.

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