Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bora Bora

They say the best kept secret of French Polynesia is the lousy weather. It can certainly be exciting! Last night we got some of the hardest rain I’ve ever seen this side of northern Australia. Wind gusted over 30kts, heeling Misty over on her side at anchor and straining the anchor line snubber. Blue lightening seared the sky.

It’s been 4 months and a day since we arrived in the Marquesas, and we’ll be heading out of French Polynesia in a few more days. The hurricane season is at our heels and we have 2,500nm to go to New Zealand.

The last week at Bora Bora has been one of those slow, uneventful weeks that you look back on and are surprised at all that happened.

We ran aground inside the lagoon, within meters of a channel marker (on the proper side). We were headed into the sun and there was no other side mark. Just a reef. The GPS was utterly worthless inside the Bora Bora lagoon. Worse, actually. It inspired false confidence. But Misty’s steel hull proved its mettle here as we rested, embarrassed but unhurt, until a helpful local with a big motorboat pulled us back off. We weren’t the first.

In various excursions, I paddled almost completely around the main island of Bora Bora, and around some motus within the lagoon. We pulled our kayaks up on an old, sharp reef and drift-snorkeled through a waterscape of fantastic formations and colorful fish. We hung under our kayaks with masks on to look about at other reefs and at the hulls of some boats. Henrick is designing his next boat, and is perpetually on a mission to study hulls he likes.

I’ve concocted several uses for a stubby cooking banana. Our garden tour guide in Raiatea gave us a stalk of these, which we hung under the solar panels off the stern of Misty. They ripen at a rate of about 10 a day. The progression looks cool, but keeps the chef hopping. Breakfast smoothies, happy hour banana coladas, banana-coconut-chocolate cake. They must be cooked first, so I slice them lengthwise and fry them, then blend them with a little milk for smoothies, or oil for cake.

According to our tourist literature, Bora Bora is supposed to have a mini maritime museum of model boats. Its location differs on our various guide maps. We’ve asked nearby residents, fishermen, and outrigger paddlers. Only one paddler had even heard of it, and said it was somewhere between this point and that one. We looked about twice from our kayaks along the shore, which is where the road and the buildings are because the rest of the island is so steep, but saw no sign of a museum. Almost all yards have a collection of old boats. Fishing skiffs, solo outriggers, 6-person outriggers, open canoe outriggers. So we’ve experienced a museum of sorts anyway.

We did catch another performance of the sailing acrobats we’ve been playing tag with since Mexico. They are professional performers who now support themselves by doing shows wherever they go and passing around collection tins. The couple does two shows on board their yellow boat in an evening. One is a comedy. They are rookie sailors knocking each other overboard -almost- or ending up dangling on a boom out over the water, or stringing each other up by the rigging lines. Ignorantly working against each other to make everything go wrong. Very Tom & Jerry. Done to cartoon music and quite funny.

The second show is a romance, with breathtaking acrobatics done hanging from 2 thin sheets of fabric strung up from the backstay, among other stunts. In Raiatea, the shows drew cruisers, charter yacht renters, local families, and their energetic children. We happened to be tied at the dock on the far side of the island when we saw their poster up in the grocery store. For a couple of days we hunted around for a bicycle or scooter rental or bus schedule to get us there for the show since we were headed the other way with our boat and didn’t want to go back around. No rentals anywhere. No public bus system. Asking at a local hotel for nonexistent bicycles, we ended up carpooling with the owner, who was going to see the show anyway. We were thankful since we’d missed their show in Loreto, the Marquesas, and Tahiti.

On Bora Bora, we finally tasted the famous local Poisson Cru, or raw fish and veggies in coconut milk . Very tasty. We picked up more baguettes at the local grocery store. I wanted one of the outriggers for sale there too, but Henrick vetoed that. Baguettes and outriggers at the grocery store. I like this place more and more.

One of the reasons I like French Polynesia is also one of the reasons we MUST go. The French influence. Baguettes, brie, and red wine. Never mind visa limits and impending hurricane season, I’ll need a new, wider kayak if we stay too long.

Boat chores must be done before we head out. We cleaned the hull with a green kitchen scrubby to remove the mini ecosystem of slime and crusty things and restore a hydrodynamic surface. Little fish take great interest in the particles we set free in the water. We dive repeatedly and try to swim close enough to the hull against the current to get some good scrubbing leverage. One day when I jumped in for a scrubbing session, the visibility was less than 6ft. A cool current moved through, and within half an hour, the water was crystal clear. I could see the anchor and its chain coming off the bow when I swam behind the 36’ boat.

We don’t mind the occasional “lousy” weather. When it’s windy and rainy, we call it good “cozing in” weather, and enjoy the excuse to curl up with a writing project or a boat model to work on.

Henrick has some great photos of our Bora Bora adventures at

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bora Bora Crossing

Puzzle: How can you launch and land in the same place and paddle in just one direction in between, other than around the north or south pole?

I think Taha’a to Bora Bora was the longest open water crossing I’ve done without stepping stones, 20nm from reef pass to reef pass, but 25nm from launch to land. I set out at 7am, stepping off Misty’s deck down into my Romany.

The forecast was mellow. It had to be or Henrick would disown me. “You’ll have to find another ride to New Zealand if it’s rough and you paddle anyway.” He was worried about not being able to help if something did go wrong.

The hairiest moment came within the first 2nm, before I was out of the Taha’a lagoon. I glided lazily around a point in flat calm water to see the orange freighter headed my way. Since I was already in the channel, I pressed onward, but with more focus. Little did I know that freighter and I would meet again.

White breakers curled over the reef on both sides as I paddled out the pass. A grey form caught my eye in the clear water. A 5’ black tip reef shark ghosted up along the kayak, then undulated away. Brown and red-footed boobies picked off fish that the dolphins drove to the surface along the outside of the reef. I caught a good view of one leaping dolphin, and it had 2 pink patches on the side of its belly.

The faintest breath of wind patterned the water, moving with me, offering no relief from the heat. I paddled slowly and deliberately. Even so, my body temperature rose until I felt sluggish. Bora Bora’s volcanic peak beckoned in the distance. Sun lit the neon blue water all around. The skirt lay bunched up in my lap. I unzipped my PFD but left it clipped. Dipped my arms, my hat. Drank water. At 16 degrees south of the equator, the tropical sun can be brutal. Air temperatures were somewhere in the high 90s.

Eventually I developed a routine. Six minutes before the hour, give or take, I slipped into the warm water and floated, holding onto the kayak. It cooled my temperature down, let me stretch, and have a pee break if necessary. Back on the kayak, I had a snack and turned on my radio to listen for Henrick’s hourly call.

I did finally take off my PFD and set it between my knees or clipped it on the front deck, depending what I was doing. I understand the risks, and hesitate to provide rationalization, because it’s not something I recommend. Solo paddling a 25nm crossing eliminates many safety nets. On one hand, solo crossings, like many indigenous paddling traditions, relies heavily on personal skill and the judgment of whether or not to go. Gizmos to prolong life may just prolong suffering, and the outside help you call in has a good chance of never finding you. This encourages one to manage risk with heavy emphasis on prevention.

I know personal skill and judgment have limitations and can both fail. It is with humility and awareness that I set out. I did carry a VHF and have a regular communication plan with Henrick. Not that I relied on this as a safety net. More of a comfort and a way to revise the meet-up plan on the other side. Why not a safety net? It has many weaknesses. It was nearly impossible for him to see me at any distance, especially without my sail up. I could see him from perhaps 4 or 5 miles away in the calm seas. I started with about a 7nm lead, so we did not have visual contact at the start, and later there were several sailboats on my horizon. Even if I told him I was in trouble, and my compass bearing to the sail I thought was his, he was not guaranteed to find me. He certainly couldn’t find me if I couldn’t guide him to me.

Another weakness was that my VHF was clipped into my PFD. This is not a weakness when my PFD is clipped to my person. When it’s clipped to my boat, losing them both was my thin veil between here and the next realm.

Body temperature wasn’t just about comfort. It was safety too. In 6 or 7 hours of steady physical work, one can dehydrate, sweat a lot, lose electrolytes, and make it difficult for the body, to complete its mission, or the mind to make good judgments. Hence the hourly swim and snacks as well as frequent drinks and easy pace.

A couple hours into the paddle, a swell reached around the north end of Taha’a and crossed the south swell I’d been feeling since the pass, making combined seas a gently undulating 1.5 meters. After three hours, the SE wind tried a little harder. The texture on the blue, blue surface lumped up and almost made whitecaps. The sail held its shape when I put it up. Barely. Extremely slowly, the wind increased to about 10kts with lazy whitecaps. I took every advantage of it.

I couldn’t see a sail behind me on the horizon yet, but a cream-colored blob seemed to be approaching.

“I don’t see you, but do I see a freighter?” I asked Henrick the next time we talked.

“Yes, there’s a freighter in front of me and headed your way,” he affirmed.

Not again! The freighter grew an orange hull beneath the cream-colored bridge as it neared. I kept an eye over my shoulder, and it passed uneventfully about a half mile to the south.

I saw a faint white smudge on the horizon back in the direction of Raiatea and Taha’a. Then I saw 2. Henrick reported that he was motor sailing and gaining on the boat in front. It’s bad form to motor sail past a boat that’s just under sail when there is enough wind to sail. So he cut the motor and took it as a sailing challenge. Besides, the motor is loud, while sailing is peaceful.

Bora Bora’s peak got closer, and the hills of Taha’a faded away behind. The white breakers on Bora Bora’s reef appeared when I was on top of a swell. Then they were visible all the time. From the SW corner of the reef, it was still another 3.5nm to the only pass, in the middle of the west side. A post marked the reef’s SW extension. Some current compressed itself around that point, against the wind and my traveling direction. This made conditions lumpy but delightfully surfable.

Several motorboats patrolled the outside edge of the reef, fishing. One red boat motored over, approaching cautiously. I slowed down to talk. A lone Polynesian fisherman greeted me in Tahitian and asked in English if I just paddled over from Taha’a.

“Yes,” I replied. Counting on my fingers, I added, “5 hours.” I still had another hour to the entrance through the reef. Any respectable outrigger would have beat me to that point by at least an hour.

The fisherman smiled broadly and said, “Congratulation! Welcome. Do you want water?” He held up a bottle.

I reached behind my seat and brought forth my own bottle, my third one. “No. Mauruuru. I have water.” I pointed to his boat and asked, “Good fishing?”

“Oh, yes!” he replied. We took our leave. I caught a little swell to ride, and looked back to wave goodbye. He flashed his broad white smile and raised a hand.

At one point I contemplated surfing over the reef into Bora Bora’s lagoon for a short cut. There was a section where the breakers were less than 2’, while all around they broke at 4 or 5’. I dropped the sail, sealed the skirt around the coaming, and zipped up my PFD. I eased closer to watch. What I couldn’t tell from the outside was whether there was enough water over the reef to float once I was inside the waves. Sometimes I just saw a rust-colored berm after a breaker passed.

Chances? Seventy percent says no problem. Just ride over with the swell. Twenty percent says I lose significant gel coat on the reef, or crack the kayak between the force of the breaker and the resistance of the reef, probably on the second breaker if I don’t make it completely through on the first. Five percent says I lose some blood in the process. My home is still an hour and a half behind. I’m meeting him near the pass. Inside the lagoon will be no swells to ride. And I still have time to kill.

In the end I decided the thrill of conquering the reef wasn’t worth the risk, and that the subsequent paddling would be boring, negating the thrill anyway. So I continued to the pass.

Once inside Bora Bora’s lagoon, I dawdled downwind for half an hour to explore the motus (outer islands along the reef), then tacked back and forth up to our meeting spot at the old yacht club, in a cove on the main island. I tied the little Romany up to a mooring ball, went for a celebratory swim, then sat sideways in the cockpit with my feet in the water to have a snack and watch Henrick expertly negotiate the pass under sail.

I released the mooring ball so he could tie up. I climbed onto Misty and we pulled the Romany up, landing on the very same sailboat I had launched from in the morning. Thus answering the puzzle.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

More Birds!

Since I posted the bird stories, a kind Tahitian contacted me to let me know the more common name of the bent-nosed reef poker is Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis), teu'e in Tahitian. It breeds in Alaska and winters on tropical Pacific islands.

He also identified some other birds I’d photographed but not written about. The Tuamotu Reed-warbler (Acrocephalus atyphus) is pictured to the right. It lives only in French Polynesia and was photographed on Tahanea atoll. Thanks Yvan.

If you would like to comment on any entries, or edumacate me on any factual errors you’ve caught me at, my email is

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Tahiti to Moorea

This is how most nautical disaster stories begin—it wasn’t quite the weather we wanted, but we had to go anyway.

When we sail I often watch the sea and imagine paddling in it. However, 2,500nm crossings are more than I want to tackle in a kayak. The Tahiti to Moorea crossing, at 17nm, was finally within reach.

In an area of SE trade winds, it was an odd forecast: winds ENE up to 20kts. Swell east, turning south and building to 3 meters. The following days forecasted bigger swell and more wind, plus we’d checked out from Tahiti and needed to leave by Sunday. The forecast really wasn’t THAT bad, we reasoned, and the day dawned calm.

I started out at 9:30 and Henrick was to follow an hour later in Misty. If I kept a 3.5 knot pace with breaks, and he 4.5 to 5 he should catch me about 3 hours into what, for me, should be a 5 hour crossing and him around 4 hours. We could adjust to each other for the last hour, or pull the kayak on board.

I carried a VHF radio and a GPS so I could know my speed and read Henrick my coordinates so he could find me if we didn’t see each other. I didn’t expect him to see me, but I should see his tall sail. However, it’s a big sea out there.

Leaving from the western side of Tahiti, we’d be sheltered for a little while. But this wasn’t just shelter; there was NO wind. A long 4ft south swell crossed a shorter, steeper 3’ NE swell, making for gentle, non-rhythmic lumps.

When I called Henrick on the radio at 10:30 to tell him the conditions and my progress, it was a pleasant morning leisure paddle, full of daydreams and watching for seabirds and occasional motorboats. When I called him the next hour, he could barely hear me. He’d gotten a late start and I a 5nm lead. There was marginally enough wind to put up my Flat Earth Kayak Sail. South, the wind was, not even creating whitecaps. It soon turned west in my face, light enough to just be refreshing.

I took down the sail, and entertained my self by surfing the NE swell, which had gotten steeper. Warning sign, but still no wind line in sight. Speaking of sight, there wasn’t much but water and sky in sight much of the time because the combined swells were bigger out of the lee of Tahiti, and obscured all but the tops of the mountainous islands. I heard three motor boats coming up behind me long before I could see them. I remember thinking that, while these big seas were fun now, a strong wind could raise the excitement factor exponentially, perhaps too much.

As long as the sea conditions allowed, I ate the food and drank from the water bottle stashed in my day hatch, leaving the snacks and hydrator in my PFD for when I could no longer access the hatch without risk of flooding it or capsizing. I had just climbed back into my kayak from a refreshing dip when the sea got splashy. Little chop. I looked up from getting myself situated, and there wasn’t just a wind line to the NE, there was a mean whitecap texture to it, and it was approaching fast. Just enough time to seal myself up and hoist the sail. Now I was cruising--5 to 6 knots. The wind built fast, achieved all of the forecasted 20kts in a belated rush, and soon I was catching uninitiated surf rides of 9 knots. Henrick wouldn’t catch me at this rate.

The third time we talked by radio, I was bracing with one hand and keying the radio with the other when I could, still flying along. New plan: I would continue ahead and we’d talk at 1pm. I could already see the streaming spindrift from the giant breakers on the Moorea reef about a mile ahead, when I was on top of the swell enough to see anything.

Ten minutes later I almost surfed into a motorboat I hadn’t seen over the swells. Three Polynesian fishermen wore surprised looks as I zoomed by under my little kayak sail, and waved. Whenever I rose to the top of the swells, I’d check the line of reef break to my right and search to the left for Henrick’s sail. I thought I saw a thin vertical line of white. How I wanted that to be Henrick’s sail! Flying along was fun, but I wanted the company, and the security. And photos!

I turned upwind and dropped the sail. Ate a bite of snack and had a sip of water. It’s essential to keep the engine fueled before it runs low in these conditions, this far out. From the near corner of the Moorea reef, we had 6nm to go to the pass, and then probably another half mile into the lagoon to anchor. With this wind direction, the final push would be upwind, after potentially 2 more hours of paddling.

I felt great. Energized by surf. I thought if I can keep that pace, I could match Henrick, even have to slow down for him sometimes. I could paddle back to meet him and enjoy the rough stuff together, before we rounded the reef and maybe lost the surfable waves.

I paddled back towards the fishermen, which was also in the direction of Tahiti and where I thought I saw Henrick. Io ora na, I greeted them in Tahitian. They spoke no English, so I mimed to ask if they see a bateaux in the direction of Tahiti. Three necks craned from a higher vantage point than I had, and one man cried out and pointed. They agreed. Bateaux. French is the trade language of these parts. Thankfully, “boat” is among my limited vocabulary. Maitai roa! I exclaimed. Good! And thanked them in Tahitian. The smiled and waved, looking a little concerned.

I paddled back in the direction of a pointy mountain on Tahiti, since I only rarely saw the thin white line of the sail. Ten minutes later, the wind died. I could see it to the north, sparkling the water. But here just swell and wind chop. I took the excuse to jump in again. It gets hot when the wind isn’t blowing. And I rethought my impulse to paddle back to Henrick. If the wind died and he motored, I’d never keep up with him by just paddling. Sailing my kayak was my only chance. So I conserved energy by waiting. Stretching. Looking about. The strong wind returned and I paddled slowly into it and the big swells to hold position.

The fishermen motored by to see if everything was OK. I gave them thumbs up and a big smile. One pointed at the sailboat, and mimed a question if it was coming here. I nodded enthusiastically. Then they motored away towards Misty, passed close enough to see Henrick wave, waved back and motored away. This Henrick told me later.

One pm and the radio crackled. “I see you!” I replied. Over one swell, I actually saw the red hull below the sail. Relieved that it was the right sailboat I was looking at.

“I don’t see you” came the reply. No surprise there, since I’m a lot smaller. I looked at my compass and pointed my kayak at the boat. 90 degrees.

“I’m 270 degrees from you, less than half a mile out.” I said. “I’ll put up my sail.”

I snapped photos of him coming closer, then turned and surfed along, taking photos with one hand and bracing with the other. He snapped photos of me too. When even one swell came between us, I couldn’t see him at all, just the sail. Directional control for both of us was challenging enough not to want to get closer. Misty’s mast swung in all directions in the crazy swell. Waves would pivot the boat and the wind-steering would slowly bring it back. The kayak sometimes took off in a direction not completely of my choosing, and once at speed, capsizing was my only option to stop quickly.

Now I had a speed to match. Henrick still had full sail up on Misty and was doing almost 7 knots. The wind dropped slightly and I had to paddle full out between surf rides, and sometimes during the surf. After a half an hour or so of the intensity, he pulled ahead and I could feel my energy waning. I took up my radio to call him and ask if he could reef the sail or turn upwind to let me gain a little on him. In the moment of releasing the paddle with one hand and glancing down, a wave knocked me over. Under water. Tired, not wanting to get left behind. Wit’s end. Time to exit. I reached for the loop on my skirt.

I did what?! Stop the music!

Suddenly my mind turned back on and talked reason to me. “Bailing out of your kayak will make a bigger mess. Don’t exit, just roll up. You have plenty of air. Be calm and do it.” So I did.

The sail flopped to the side, the radio dangled from its tether, Misty pulled ahead. I gathered the sail and bungeed it. Picked up the radio and heard it crackling. Henrick asked if I was OK.

“I’m fine,” I panted, still out of breath from the long sprint.

“Do you want me to wait?”

“Yes, please!”

From here my world got calmer but Henrick’s went a little wonky. Motor on, turn upwind to reef, crazy lumpy sea. He took 2 reefs in the sail and went back on course. Somewhat protected by Moorea’s coral reef, we could travel near enough to shout to each other over the engine which he left running so he could help me if needed. At one point the preventer line from the mainsail flopped into the water and caught in the propeller.

We paused so I could clear the line from Misty’s propeller, a good excuse for another swim and a little break. For Misty, a critical repair before she could go by engine again.

So it wasn’t really a disaster story, just moments of excitement. Both nearing our limits of skill and coping, both pulling through in the end.

We cruised along in the slowly calming sea and dropping wind. I could keep up, even maneuver about and take photos of Misty with the verdant spires of Moorea in the background. Eventually, the wind died altogether and my sail flapped. I took it down. Henrick motored along at 4 knots for the last mile and I focused on paddling technique and breathing. Mantra: one more mile.

We entered the pass together, snapping photos of each other in front of perfect , peeling Polynesian waves.