Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Update from Dave 6-2-06

Manihi atoll

The most frequently asked question among cruisers is, “Where are you heading next?” and the most frequent reply is, “We’re not sure,” followed by a handful of islands they would like to visit. The reason for this is there are so many options that it basically comes down to which way the wind blows when you feel the urge to move along. Plans, however well laid, just don’t seem to work out if you don’t go with the wind. In my last update we were headed to Hiva Oa to check in to the southern group of the Marquesas Islands, where we attempted to break the rule of going with the wind. We had the itch to leave Ua Pau for several days and the weather was just not cooperating. When the wind finally did shift a bit to make the passage possible, we headed out into 25kt winds close-hauled to make our destination some 72nm distant on a quick overnight passage. We were making good time but getting our butts kicked with driving wind spray and lots of waves soaking the cockpit. In these conditions you have to keep the boat sealed up tight, which turns the interior into a sort of evil carnival ride crossed with a muggy sauna… conditions that will make the most seasoned sailor turn green in a hurry. The weather topsides had everyone feeling a little ill and any trips into the cabin were extra nauseating. As a side note, everyone on board feels a little ill for about the first 24 hours on any passage. This seems strange to me since many of the anchorages are really rolly, and I wonder how it’s possible to lose your sea legs while living on a boat that is always in motion. Anyway, we beat to weather with true wind speeds up to 30 knots for about five hours before deciding to bag our plan to see the southern islands and instead turned tail and headed for the Tuamotus.

The passage to the Tuamotus was a nice four-day sail once we had the wind behind us. Everyone instantly felt better as we opened up the ports and hatches and got some cool fresh air in the boat.

As soon as we turned downwind, I turned on the electric autopilot and shortly thereafter started hearing a strange cracking sound coming from the steering quadrant. Further investigation found the source of the sound to be the electric autopilot mounted to a not- so-structural panel in the stern of the boat. The plywood and fiberglass at the mount had delaminated and were very near critical failure. So for the remainder of the four-day passage we either used the Monitor wind vane or hand steered. Once we arrived at the atoll of Manihi, I sent the crew ashore to get them off the boat while I added eight layers of fiberglass and epoxy to strengthen and repair the damaged area.

On our final approach to Manihi, we drilled on what to do if the boat goes aground and practiced sending all the crew out on the boom to heel the boat, which worked pretty well as we could put 5 degrees of heel on the boat, which could help swing the keel off a shoal if we were to go aground. Hopefully we never need to perform this emergency maneuver, but the passes into the atolls are treacherous with strong currents at times and are poorly charted. Most of our navigation into the lagoon was via visual navigation with Karl up on the first set of spreaders conning. The water is so clear you can easily see the bottom when you are in 30’ of water, and when the water is only 8’ deep it appears little more than knee deep. As we slowly negotiated the channel, we were advised by local fishermen to alter our planned course and, following their advice, we nearly ran aground getting down to 0.3 meters of water under the keel, or about 1’. I quickly resumed my planned course and we found slightly deeper water and cleared the pass. Inside the lagoon the water is easily 100’ deep, yet coral heads the size of a tennis court dot the lagoon a foot or so under the surface. We temporarily anchored in front of the village (so I could send the crew ashore) in 100’ of water using all three hundred feet of my chain. A few hours later the crew returned just as I was cleaning up, and we went to haul the anchor and move to the more protected anchorage about a mile distant. Attempting to raise the anchor we found the chain to be fouled or snagged on coral. After about half an hour of maneuvering around, we were able to slowly untangle the invisible mess below and recover all the chain and anchor. In our current anchorage the water is about 45’ to 60’ deep, and while snorkeling we have seen two complete sets of anchor gear on the bottom, which were apparently severely fouled and were abandoned.

As mentioned, the underwater visibility is amazing and reported to be up to 200’ in the right conditions. It’s not nearly 200’ inside the lagoon, but still unbelievable. The lagoon abounds with sea creatures including manta rays, sharks - including the black tipped reef shark - and innumerable colorful reef fish. At least once a day we see the black tipped reef sharks swim by the boat. Apparently, they are aggressive and dangerous, but the locals say it is safe to swim. I personally don’t like the sharks as they are higher on the food chain than me once I’m in the water. No one else seems to mind too much and we all swim and snorkel frequently. They say 90% of shark attacks happen while spear fishing as the sharks get excited by the fresh blood in the water. Nonetheless, we’ve spent plenty of time in close proximity to the sharks while spear fishing and they just cruise around… I guess there are so many fish that the sharks are well fed.

The atoll of Manihi has about 400 residents spread out on the 13-mile-by-7-mile chain of motus (small islands) that make up the ring of the atoll. The main industry is pearl farming for black pearls and there is also one small resort. The resort is picture-perfect with the bungalows over the water on stilted buildings. It’s beautiful to be sure but of little allure once you have the freedom and unlimited choices of a sailboat.

Local pearl fishermen are eager to sell or trade for their pearls and we get a visit about once a day to review their offerings. We still know little French so the language barrier is tough but we stumble along and our efforts are appreciated by the locals who are really friendly. One afternoon we were visited by two pangas (fishing boats), and we welcomed aboard Michael and Perry to check out their pearls. They had some nice ones and wanted to trade for whiskey of which we had none, and in hindsight we should have brought a few cases of cheap Mexican whiskey costing about $5 a bottle in Mexico. The local rot gut costs at least $45 a bottle so it is highly coveted by the locals. Nonetheless, we were able to do some trading for the wine and beer we had on board. Perry and Michael ended up staying for the better part of the afternoon and generously shared some of the beer we had traded to them.

We floated through the reef pass with our snorkel gear making the half-mile run very quickly in a 3- or 4-knot current. It was amazing to see the bottom whip by so quickly with so little effort. Back eddies allowed sections of the pass to be repeated and we ended up staying in the 85-degree plus water until we were all cold, which had to be a few hours. As we drifted through, Karl was busy spearing fish and throwing them in the dinghy as it floated with us. I shot at and missed about eight fish which was okay with me as I had a fresh scrape on my arm and was pretty sure I was already shark bait without the addition of fish blood further tempting the sharks.

The anchorage is pretty deserted with only two or three other boats, and we’ve run into friends on two of the boats which is always fun for sharing dinner or adventures.

Yesterday, we went on a mission to buy some gasoline for the outboard engine, which turned into a day-long expedition taking us on an 8-km walk down a neighboring motu to a visiting supply ship, to both local stores and the resort, all to no avail. We were offered 200 liters, or a 55-gallon drum, but no one would sell just 5 gallons. We met the manager of the resort, went to his home, discussed sailing (he sailed to the S. Pac), He gave us a chart, but would not sell us gas as it would be an exception to his policy. On the way back to the dinghy, we walked past the air strip and met the local firemen who get out their fire truck each time a plane lands. They were friendly and when we asked about gas, one said he was the son of the president of the island and would help us out with gas. We met at his home which was easy to find since it was the only two-story building on the island, and his mother helped siphon gas out of a drum and filled our tanks. The gas cost $5 a gallon ($6 in the Marquesas), but without it we would be pretty restricted in our adventures.

Today has been rainy off and on, so I’ve been working on a few little boat items inside, and Julie has been up since 5 a.m. collecting water and is doing laundry out in the rain. Kitty and Karl are off SCUBA diving with our friends Jim and Eva from S/V Serenity.

So it is now evening and we have a few more adventures to report. Karl went for two dives and Kitty for one. On the second dive Kitty and Karl and their dive master did a shark dive, where they attracted the sharks with some fish and then had twelve plus sharks 4’ to 6’ in length swim all around them. Once the dive was over and everyone was in the boat, the dive master Raphael tried to retrieve the small cage that had the fish inside to attract the sharks. He dropped the boat hook in the process and decided to jump in the water to retrieve it. This was a dangerous move as the sharks knew it was feeding time and they were in a bit of a frenzy. All of a sudden Raphael was swimming to the boat at full speed and lashing out at trailing sharks. He quickly climbed into the boat with a three-inch gash behind his knee and scrapes on both legs. Raphael was jacked up on adrenaline and said he made a stupid mistake of going in the water during feeding and said he was lucky not be killed by the frenzied sharks. He was also quick to point out that sharks are beautiful creatures and the mistake was his, as the sharks would never attack under normal circumstances.

I also had some adventure late in the afternoon after a nice half-mile snorkel from the boat. Once back on board I noticed a small boat next to S/V Serenity (Jim and Eva’s boat), which is several hundred yards away from us in the anchorage. Knowing they were not on board, I took a look through the binoculars and noticed a person get on and off their boat twice. The boat then sped away. I jumped in my dinghy and gave chase to the small boat that had a substantial head start. It took several miles to catch up to the boat, and when I was within a few hundred yards, I saw some dive fins floating in the boat’s prop wash. The suspected thieves had thrown their booty overboard. I took no pause and continued the pursuit. Finally, the thieves succumbed to the fact that my boat was slightly faster and they could not escape. I motioned them to stop and found two young boys maybe 11 or 12 years old with guilty looks written all over their faces. They halfheartedly made the motion as if to say, “What? We didn’t do anything.” I laid into them pretty good with some stern words and sign language since they spoke only French. I then motioned that they should turn around and find the fins that they had jettisoned. Amazingly, we found the fins and then continued back to the anchorage to return the stolen items. Unfortunately, Jim and Eva had still not returned, so I led the boys back to my boat and wrote the word “THIEF” on each of their forearms and then left them to think about their crime as they sat in their boat while we waited for Jim and Eva to return. About a half hour later they returned, and by then I also had two men from the village who were paddling their outrigger canoes and stopped by to see what the boys were doing. Jim and Eva then led them back to their boat to inventory what else was stolen that might not have floated. As it turns out, a diving weight belt was missing and it was decided that the boys’ parents would be visiting the next morning to make amends. The locals are super nice, so we hope this taught the boys an early lesson that crime does not pay. Tonight we are having dinner with Jim and Eva to rehash the adventures of the day.

Where we are going next is still to be decided, but we expect to be in Tahiti in about two weeks.

S/V La Vie

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