Monday 30 March 2015

Marquesas, Hiva Oa

On a long ocean passage reality is suspended. As the days roll by, our mental image of land is framed by our previous destination; the endless vista of sea and waves suspends that picture in our minds, making landfall all the more dramatic when it appears. Whether the palm trees and beaches of the Caribbean after an Atlantic crossing or the soaring peaks and lush jungle of the Marquesas, our senses are heightened, the impact greater. We are moored in the bay of Tahauku on the island of Hiva Oa, our port of entry to the Marquesas where generations of sailors have dropped anchor after the long pacific crossing.  It is a spectacular setting in the shadow of the brooding Mount Temetiu, its steep sides swathed in thick jungle, plunging down to the murky green sea below.

Four boats of the ARC fleet have so far completed the Pacific crossing and we all go for dinner to celebrate at the restaurant Chez Alex, an ex foreign legionnaire who lives on a hillside so steep that taxi drivers dare not go. As he guns his four wheel drive up the unmade track it seems benign to me until we come to a bend so sharp that he has to brake abruptly then reverse back towards the cliff edge, executing a three-point turn before continuing up in first gear, loose stones and gravel flying from the spinning wheels as they scrabble for grip on the dusty surface.   He gives us a big toothless grin as he deposits us outside his house where there is a bar with a pool table and a floodlit swimming pool. Dinner is served on the terrace by his Marquesan family, all strongly built women, their sturdy brown limbs decorated with ornate tattoos.  It is our first dinner ashore for three weeks and with no night watches to contend with, unlimited cold beer and French wine, we are a loud and happy company until the lack of sleep catches up with us and we beg a lift back down the cliff edge to our homes on the water.

We have been advised to explore the highlands of Hiva Oa on horseback, so we call Patricia who collects us from the dock and drives us into the hills to her ranch.  Her husband Paco appears; a slightly overweight and muscular Marquesan dressed in blue jeans, bare chested save for an unbuttoned leather waistcoat, a battered cowboy hat on his head and a large machete in a scabbard at his belt.  He saddles up the small Marquesan thoroughbreds. Originally from Peru, they are part of his herd of twenty animals including four foals that were born on Hiva Oa.  Having been dragged off by Caroline and Nick on several hacks in the past I resign myself to an uncomfortable and nervous few hours in the saddle as we set off along the tarmac road towards the airport. However this turns out to be no ordinary hack and I am soon struck by the dramatic landscape around me; there are no signs of habitation, just thick forest, and as we leave the road and follow a track through the trees the heavy jungle closes in around us.

The vegetation is prehistoric; huge Banyan trees wound with creepers, outsized yukka plants, bamboo thickets, grapefruit trees heavy with fruit and occasional bursts of tropical flowers.  Hibiscus, Poinsettia, Frangipani and Bougainvillaea.  We climb out of the jungle to a plateau where the airfield has been scythed out of the hillside.  Paco warns us to lean forward in the saddle when we climb and with a kick of his heels he sets off up a steep bank and we blindly follow. Andrew is an accomplished and experienced rider having been a show jumper in his youth and is completely at ease. Caroline is poised and neat in the saddle; her riding lessons evident in her technique.  Then at the rear are Oliver, a friend from the catamaran Makena and me; we simply hang on, gripping the horses’ manes on the steep inclines and leaning back as our mounts pick their way at alarming speed down rock-strewn tracks through the trees. Despite my poor horsemanship it is a thrilling experience, riding through this Garden of Eden where open parkland covers the volcanic ridges with breath-taking views to the sea below.

We taxi into the little town of Atuona to provision the boat and replenish our dwindling supplies of fruit and vegetables. But first we visit the Gaugin museum and the home of the Islands’ most famous resident.  The impression we have is of a troubled man; none of his subjects smile and he clearly has a penchant for bare-breasted Tahitian women who appear in much of his later work. The little supermarket is well stocked with dry goods but the fruit and vegetables are scarce, the supply vessel from Tahiti not having visited for some time. We buy what we can and head off to the island of Tahuata, just a few miles south, visited only by cruisers and with only 600 inhabitants.

After the murky shark infested waters of Hiva Oa we are on the hunt for a beach where we can swim and clean the boat. In the three week passage from Galapagos our hull has become thick with weed, particularly on the water line where the combination of warm seawater and hot sun combine to create a fertile bed for all manner of marine life.  Working our way down the west coast of Tahuata we spot a beautiful beach at Hanamoenoa Bay. It is mid-afternoon when we drop anchor, and to keep us facing the swell I also set a stern anchor from the dinghy, attached to a long line.  It is a beautiful evening and we are alone in this remote and beautiful bay enjoying the moonlight when there is a loud bang. I check the stern line only to find that it comes loose in my hands, no longer attached to the anchor; it has snapped under the load of the swell and our big Fortress anchor is buried somewhere under the water, no longer connected to the boat. We are in no danger as our main anchor is securely attached to Juno with 100 metres of heavy galvanised chain, but I wonder if we will ever find our second anchor.

The next morning our friends on Makena arrive and they join the hunt for the anchor with gusto. We use the snapped anchor line to establish the arc where we think the anchor lies and then we start the search, using snorkels, scuba gear and anything else that comes to hand; however as the day wears on the swell is churning up the bay and I am starting to lose hope when there is a shout from Dave, an ex RAF navigator with 20:20 vision. To my immense surprise and delight he has spotted the anchor in around four metres of water; the shank barely visible, protruding from the shifting sand, the remainder all but consumed by the elements. I swim to the bottom wearing my scuba tanks and dig the anchor out with my fingers, bringing it to the surface by inflating my BCD.  I make a mental note to buy a stronger warp in Tahiti and I stow the anchor safely in the lazarette.

The other issue that has been troubling me is our water maker. After years of loyal and faultless service, the motor that drives the high-pressure pump has started to make an alarming surging noise. We are heavily reliant on our water maker; with no marinas here in the Marquesas, the only fresh water is a tap on the dock in Hiva Oa, ten miles away, and the only way to fill up is by ferrying jerry cans, twenty litres at a time, in the dinghy. However, there is a widely respected marine engineer in Nuku Hiva, 80 miles to the North and I email him and ask for his help. Luckily I also email Eddie Scougall, the support manager at Oyster and I receive an email by return.  He tells me that these motors are almost indestructible and that the fault is likely to be with the electronic control box. Fortunately I have relays and capacitors in my spares box and by replacing the run capacitor that controls the current to the pump the problem is fixed and the motor reverts to its reassuring monotonous hum.  It has been a good day; two problems resolved, and the prospect of vegetable curry and cold beer on Makena.

We wake early to a cloudless morning.  Caroline, Andrew and I swim to the beach. It is a good swim, about 300 metres, and the big surf deposits us heavily on the steeply shelving beach.  There is a small bamboo shack set back from the water under the palm trees and a young Marquesan comes out to greet us. ‘Ka-loa’ he says with a wide smile and a strong handshake. He sits on the beach with us, under the shade of the trees, chain smoking and clearly keen to chat in his native French.  He is a bit frosty at first, territorial and anxious to protect his borders until he has the measure of us. Slowly he thaws and he tells us about Marquesan life, their traditions and his solitary existence in this paradise. He disappears briefly, returning with coconuts and sweet grapefruit that he cuts with a machete. He repeatedly uses the phrase ‘la nature is genereuse’, describing how he lives off the land, eating fruit that grows in his wild garden, fish that swim off the rocks and wild pigs and goats that wander into his traps. There is a fresh water spring that brings water via an aqueduct, his only concession to technology. His aspiration is to have some solar panels to charge his mobile phone that allows him to keep in touch with his family on Hiva Oa.   His Anglo-Saxon name is Stephen and he offers to cook for us; can we eat on the boat? Of course we say and arrange to return in the early afternoon to collect him - and the fish.

Makena and A Plus 2, two other yachts in the rally that we have become friendly with, are joining us for Stephen’s lunch and we set off for the beach in a dinghy, just avoiding capsize as the surf propels us at high speed onto the beach. We help Stephen to prepare the food then we return to Makena where we enjoy a late lunch of raw fish, marinated in coconut milk, accompanied by salads and wine from three well-appointed galleys.  As evening approaches, we risk life and limb dropping Stephen back to the beach and we prepare for the 80-mile overnight sail to our next destination, Niku Hiva.   It is a glorious evening as we set sail on a gentle beam reach, in convoy with Makena and A Plus 2, the setting sun illuminating the scattered clouds, its red hue seeping across the night sky until darkness falls and the white light from the stars light our path through the water.

Ed: Thank you for all your comments on the blog. Up until now we haven’t been able to see these while we are at sea. This has now been rectified so please keep them coming. We love to hear your feedback.


  1. Very envious... this si the bit we missed last year... More photos please.. :-) Enjoy guys. xx B&D

  2. Who's this Caroline hussy you seem to have picked up along the way?

  3. Fantastic descriptions - quite envious.