Friday, June 15, 2012

Landfall at Hiva Oa

June 13, 2012:  The day started off with a dolphin escort. While Patrick and I were having bowls of cereal in the cockpit, 100 or more spinner dolphins showed up, approaching the boat from both the port and starboard sides. Spinners are famous for their acrobatics, and we soon saw why. Some of the dolphins were joyfully leaping clear of the water by at least ten feet, traveling in a long arc through the air before submersing themselves back into their water world. Some of the dolphins were practically doing cartwheels in the air. It was as if the dolphins were saying, “Today is the day you make landfall. We’re here to help you celebrate!”

12:00 p.m.:  After about half an hour spent studying a cloud on the horizon and trying to discern whether it was a cloud or land, I decided land would show up sooner if I lay down for a nap. My strategy worked, and at 1:00 p.m., I was rewarded with the call of “Land Ho!” from Patrick. I hustled out of the pilot berth and into the cockpit. Now before me was the definite form of an island:  Hiva Oa. We faced its eastern end, a massive rock buttress---though we couldn’t tell that at the time---and could see the northern side of the island extending back into the distance. The island was still 28 miles away.

At the same time the previous day, the chances of making landfall during daylight hours the following day seemed slim. The wind had lightened to the point where we were only making three to five knots instead of five to seven knots. During the night, however, the wind speed rose dramatically to 14-20 knots. The next day the hearty wind prevailed with an invigorating 16-20 knots. I could feel Silhouette’s spirit surging onward, renewed by the fresh breeze.

Even with all that wind, the chances of making it to the anchorage at Atuona before nightfall were nil. We had lost too much time the day before. We didn’t want to take Silhouette into an unfamiliar anchorage---one that we knew was small and crowded and required both bow and stern anchors---in the dark. We discussed our options. Stay offshore and tack back and forth all night? Heave to and wait until dawn? Circumnavigate the island and approach Atuona from the opposite end as it got light? None of these sounded appealing in the building wind and seas. Then we hit on this option:  the anchorage at Puamau. On the lee side of the island, there is an anchorage that is closer than Atuona. We could make it there before dark. We couldn’t officially check in to the country at Puamau, but we could anchor there for the night and head for Atuona in the morning. Our South Pacific Anchorages book said the anchorage at Puamau is “impossible” with swell from the east, so it was a bit of a gamble. The wind and swell were predominantly southeast, but the wind had tended to shift more to the east during the nights of our passage. We decided to give it a try and if it didn’t work out, to continue on around and circumnavigate the island.

Rounding the east end of the island in massive swell, the day closed down with perfect symmetry, ending as it began. We were met by another huge dolphin escort! They were spinners again, this time leaping out of the water and spinning through the air in barrel rolls before diving back under. One dolphin whose dorsal fin was damaged did the move made famous by the old “Flipper” TV show, in which it stood on its tail and traveled some distance that way, standing vertically out of the water. “Welcome to Hiva Oa!” the dolphins seemed to shout with their movements.

The “lee” side of the island was not very sheltered from the wind, despite the massive volcanic walls rising above us. As we made our way to Baie Puamau, the wind was blowing 17 to 20 knots with gusts to 24. Watching the whitecaps sweep into the entrance of the bay, it was difficult to imagine that sheltered water lay within, but we continued on.

The scenery around us was jaw-droppingly beautiful. The entrance to Baie Puamau is flanked with dramatic rock formations on either side. The bay extends a long way back into a lush valley whose steep slopes are a verdant green. It wasn’t until we got close enough to anchor that we realized that the foliage on these volcanic slopes was almost all palm trees. Nestled behind a lava breakwater, was the small village of Puamau, and, we knew, also an archaeological site that was currently hidden from view. We would have to come back to visit the archaeological site because we couldn’t go ashore until we were officially checked in.
There was calmer water within and we did drop anchor at sunset. In 23 days---exactly the same amount of time  it took us to get from Mexico to the Galápagos---we had made landfall at Hiva Oa. The only difference was that in this twenty-three day passage, we had traveled over 1,000 miles more! We sailed 2922 miles, in total, from Isla Isabela to Hiva Oa. It’s amazing what a little wind in the right direction can do.  

We were even fortunate enough to stay the night at Puamau without having to pick up our anchor and leave due to the swells created by the high gusts of wind from the east. Luckily, the gusts remained periodic and not sustained; nevertheless, we spent a rolly night there. It wasn’t a comfortable anchorage, but we certainly got more rest than if we’d spent the night trading watches at sea. It was also much more satisfying to be anchored at Hiva Oa than standing offshore at Hiva Oa waiting for daylight. In terms of scenery, Puamau was stunning, evocative of myths and legends we have yet to learn.

We are now safely anchored on the other side of the island near the town of Atuona. In this anchorage, we are again surrounded by spectacular scenery, and hopefully, in a day or two, I will let some pictures speak for themselves. Although we are in French Polynesia, the Marquesans have their own language, and I learned my first word today:  Ka-oh-ha. “Hello.”


  1. 'Ka-oh-ha.'

    The island sound idyllic. Can't wait to hear more...

  2. Fantastic! I'm trying to imagine the feeling of seeing land after so many days of just the ocean's horizon. Only experienced something similar once when crossing the Gulf of Maine to Nova Scotia. Made harbor in the dark (understand that decision) and was met by a fisherman who we had talked with on the radio. Was fortunate because he came down to the harbor to meet us only to find his boat hung up on the dock - the tides in NS are huge. He was able to power off and happy ending. Looking at the map it's pretty amazing to see that you're only half way across the Pacific. I guess it will be island hopping the rest of the way. More beautiful tropical paradises to explore - I'm jealous. Funny, the Gauguin exhibit was just here at SAM and I read that he's buried on that island. You get to make your own interpretation of Marquesa life. Cheers, BF

    1. Hi Bill,

      Nova Scotia is one of the places I want to visit if we ever do any high latitude sailing. Good story about the fisherman. Yes, Gauguin is buried on Hiva Oa, but he ended his life as a bit of an outcast...turns out Gauguin was a bit of a pedophile.

      Our interpretations of Marquesan life in upcoming posts...