Scratching the Surface- Marquesas islands in two months
Global circumnavigators and long distance sailors we have met in the last few years agree that French Polynesia was a highlight and in some cases their absolute favourite place for its lush mountainous islands, translucent blue lagoons surrounded by coral and in many parts an ancient culture which has survived and is exotic and charming. One couple we met here who have been living onboard for 20 years and have sailed many miles urged us not to rush through as so many do. They reckoned there is nowhere more beautiful in all the world that they have seen. French Polynesia is spread across five very unique archipelagos and is around the same size as western Europe so there is a huge amount to discover here. It is a diving, kite-boarding, surfing, hiking and paddle boarding mecca, activities we both enjoy very much. With such a variety of landscapes and things to do we knew we would be happy to stay at least a year and still barely scratch its surface. Our first archipelago was the Marquesas islands well known for their break taking beauty, historic cannibalism and made world famous by explorers, writers, musicians and artists like Herman Melville, Thor Heyerdahl, Jacques Brel and Paul Gauguin.
After we arrived at the island of Nuku Hiva from our Pacific passage we decided to take about two weeks to just relax and explore. We hiked quite a lot and managed to find a local tennis court where they kindly let us play free of charge a few times a week. The town is parallel to the seafront at Taioha'e bay and has a few decent grocery stores, shops selling hardware and other essential amenities like a post office and town hall. There are also a few very casual snack places and one pizza restaurant as well as a hotel but nightlife is not what you come to the Marquesas for. We did of course enjoy having that first pizza and eating copious amounts of freshly caught, ridiculously cheap tuna at first but, after the novelty of having access to land wore off, we stopped going ashore in the evenings. In fact, being in French Polynesia has definitely proven so far that we don’t need to waste money on going out when more often that not we have a world class view of the sunset most nights from the comfort of our cockpit.
It took us about ten days until we felt fully recovered and rested after our Pacific crossing and so it was then that we began to turn our attention to addressing some of the issues and breakages we’d experienced on that passage. In addition to those, when we first arrived the anchorage was very deep which meant we had to use more chain that usual. We had to anchor in about 18 meters and so with a 5:1 scope we let out almost our entire 100 meters of chain. This was the chain we had purchased and installed in Malta in August 2019 which had become very badly pitted. We had previously removed it and installed it from the opposite end so that we were typically using the half which hadn’t become so deteriorated from exposure to the elements. But now with it all out the ‘older’ half had become so much worse since we had last seen it and we felt it could perish at any time. A new chain would be essential very soon. So, we had the Mainsail to remove and repair, the Gennaker halyard to re-splice and re-install and the Gennaker itself to remove and repair. We also had the sail drive seal to replace (which would necessitate hauling out) so that we could use both engines again and now the anchor chain plus many other important jobs including fixing the generator. With all those to do items on our list we felt it best to get ourselves down to the boat yard at the island of Hiva Oa and power through the jobs so that we could then properly relax and enjoy French Polynesia.
Leaving Nuku Hiva proved slightly difficult since we had deployed a stern anchor in addition to our main anchor. We never use a stern anchor but when the only available spaces in the bay are near other boats using them, you’ve got to follow suit or risk swinging into their boats which are being held in position. The Danforth stern anchor we have is over-sized for the job and having held us through up to 30 knots it had dug in very firmly making it impossible to pull up from our dingy even using a retrieval line. After a few hours of effort we gave up and decided we were not leaving after all. In the morning Jim untied the stern anchor line and attached a float to it and then threw it overboard. Free from the stern anchor we were able to pick up the main anchor. As the chain went back into the locker we could see that each and every link was totally encrusted with tiny barnacles and were very glad to be getting a new chain. I drove the boat to the float and from the bow Jim then hooked the line attached to it and finally the troublesome stern anchor which we are not keen to use again was safely back onboard.
The passage south-east to the Hiva Oa was a beat upwind which was uncomfortable but we made good time and even managed to catch but thankfully lose an enormous Marlin on one of our lures. To catch a Marlin is no joke and we weren't prepared to deal with such a large fish. Everything felt familiar about our passage routine except there was a smell of rotting fish whose location for the life of us we could not find. The stench seemed worst in the cockpit and so we searched every locker, crevice and corner where a squid or flying fish could possibly wedge themselves but, found nothing. We arrived early the next morning and enjoyed the spectacular peaks that surround the bay and of course there were dolphins waiting to escort us in. We anchored, had a short nap of a few hours and then got straight to it. We went to the Boatyard and bought 100 meters of new chain which we laid out, measured and placed markers on to indicate every five meters of length. We spent half a day removing the old one, and soon realised that the rotting smell had been coming from the anchor locker and the wind had been blowing the smell down through the channel for the lines back to the cockpit, making it most intense there. Gagging occasionally at the stench of the rotting barnacles as they fell off into the chain locker and using the stern anchor again (reluctantly) as a secondary anchor while we swapped the new chain onto our main anchor, at last we had a new chain installed. We vowed never to anchor in that bay in Nuku Hiva again or risk more of those horrible barnacles and green slime on our hulls.
In the days that followed we spent some hours removing and folding up our fully battened Mainsail and our 82 square meter Gennaker so that we could deliver them to the sail maker where together with him we would forensically inspect the damage and agree the repairs to be done. We also removed our now fraying, tatty-looking dingy chaps to be reinforced. While we waited for those repairs to be done, we booked in our haul-out for some time the following week. In the meantime, we went hiking to and from the nearby town and up and down the valley too. We hiked up above the main town to the graveyard where both Paul Gauguin and Jacques Brel are buried. Hiva Oa is lush and green with tropical plants and many trees bearing all kinds of fruit. There are chillies draping over fences begging to be picked and honey bees buzzing around overhead. Horses can be seen all along the roadsides and we would bring them carrots to eat sometimes. The bay itself where we were anchored was full of liveaboard boats and we would often swing very close to them with so little room. Because of the high peaks, huge gusts would barrel down the hills and send boats spinning unless you could find a space deep in the bay near the shore of the black sand beach.
The water in much of the Marquesas is not clear and especially in Hiva Oa, since there is often a mud bottom and a lot oáf nutrients in the water too. We were desperate to go somewhere with crystal clear water and so while we waited for our haul out date we decided to sail to the nearby island of Tahuata which conversely has the clearest water in all the Marquesas. We went to the north western most bay and enjoyed perfect conditions for swimming, paddle boarding and watching the ten or more Manta Rays that frequent the bay all day every day. In fact, because they feed on plankton, we could attract many Mantas to swim underneath Polaris at night by putting our dive torches in the water on the end of a line of a few meters in length. This became an almost nightly activity and Jim even did a night dive with some friends where the divers all just sat on the bottom holding torches while the mantas mesmerisingly danced rings around them enjoying the plankton the light was attracting. On another occasion in the same bay a large pods of Spinner Dolphins came in and swam around playfully including doing their famous spins out of the water and along with our friends onboard RaLa we were able to swim with them only in so far as we could keep up. They swim fast! What they seem to most like is to swim with things of equal speed and so on two different occasions they accompanied us on our way to the other bay in our speeding dingy when we went to have lunch and get provisions. A delightful experience and one that is so common place it is almost guaranteed and the island has become well known for these dolphin encounters. Our idyllic morning routine spent paddle boarding was rudely interrupted one day when each of our 4 year old paddle boards literally exploded 15 minutes apart from one another. And so that was the end of that.
Back to Hiva Oa
It was eventually time to haul out and although we could hardly believe we needed to haul again in June having only just done so in January it was unavoidable. The haul out and boat yard in general was very professional and the whole experience was excellent. The people working there were capable, organised and genuine. With such an incredibly bad experience in Shelter bay marina Panama we had come to expect the opposite and so this was a very welcome surprise in the middle of the remote islands of the Marquesas. Our sail drive was found to have been totally butchered by Shelter Bay Marina upon their insertion and so we had now replaced the brand new damaged one with a new one that did not need to be damaged on installation. After just two days on the hard we were ready to go back in the water again and that too went without a hitch. They used a hydraulic trailer method which is the best option for a catamaran such as ours. The moment of truth came and both engines were again running beautifully with no water to be found in the sail drive oil and plenty of cooling water running from each exhaust. We could manoeuvre again properly. Our two sails and dingy chaps were also ready and after a lengthy inspection of the work and a few minor adjustments they were ready to be re-fitted.
It was now late June and we were very keen to get to the Tuamotus archipelago because June until October is windy season and we had ambitions to kiteboard within the remote unspoilt lagoons of these coral atolls in the middle of the Pacific ocean. However, we did not want to leave the Marquesas without visiting Fatu Hiva, said by many to be the most beautiful of them all. With another tough beat into the wind, we sailed there and were astounded by the view which greeted our arrival. Layers upon layers of craggy peaks and unusual mountain formations fringed with skinny palm trees and undulating hills rose up sharply around this deep and narrow bay. I couldn’t disagree with those who said their first view of this bay made them emotional. It was another anchorage with depths well over 25 meters and so with our shiny new chain we confidently set our anchor and went exploring ashore. Walking the dusty road past little houses on gardens full of fruit trees was a lovely experience and the local people greeted us with warm smiles offering us spare fruit and asked us if they could help us find what we were looking for. Eventually we found the waterfall or ‘cascade’ after a few wrong turns and dipped our toes in the cool water beneath it.
We spent about six days in Fatu Hiva and were fortunate to be there during the time the whole island was preparing for their huge Marquesan Arts and Dance festival which takes place only every three years and in which people from all across French Polynesia come to represent their respective island. And so, we were able to watch their rehearsals; the beat of drums, spellbinding chants, the powerful voices of women resonating across the entire bay, the twist and swing of hips, the warrior like stance and sensual dance. The rhythmic way it all worked together. Even only as rehearsal it was moving and exhilarating to bear witness to. We also dined at a local house along with six other liveaboards. We paid a small amount per head and were seated at a long dining table in the house of the family who owned it. We were served large plates of delicious tuna sashimi, tuna carpaccio, breadfruit chips, pork stew and oven baked chicken and rice. We walked back to the dock with the other sailors with full bellies feeling satisfied and better for the experience. It was the perfect way to end our time in the Marquesas and we left a few mornings later to head back to Hiva Oa to stock up on provisions for the last time before setting out for Raroia in the isolated Tuamotus. So impressed were we by Tahuata though we made a pit stop there for a few days to say our farewell to the Spinner dolphins and Manta Rays.