Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Pity to Leave Maupiti

On our way out of French Polynesia, we stopped at the island of Maupiti. Maupiti is arguably the most stunning of the Society Islands; given the chance, I would return in a heartbeat. Although we had tried to arrange a longer stay on this island, the weather did not cooperate; so we were only able to make the briefest of stops. Our agent told us that most yachts call at Maupiti on their way out of French Polynesia, but that we should only stay a day or two if we chose to do that. As it turned out, our choice was to leave Maupiti just 24 hours after our arrival or be trapped there for a week, unable to exit the pass due to weather conditions. Personally, I would have loved to get “stuck” in Maupiti’s dazzling sapphire lagoon for a week; but since our visas were expired, we reluctantly hoisted the anchor and exited through the pass.  

Maupiti's anchorage and entrance channel:  Silhouette is at the far left
What makes Maupiti such a difficult place to visit is its narrow, reef-bracketed, south-facing pass (Onoiau Pass). When we finally did get a weather window to leave Bora Bora and enter the pass, we had ideal conditions:  winds less than ten knots blowing out of the east. Even with these ideal conditions, surf was breaking on either side of the pass and we could see the coralline shelf of the reef it was breaking on rising above the water. With any kind of wind or swell from the south, it was easy to see that this pass could be treacherous. Although we’d read much about the difficulty of the sinuous, winding channel into the lagoon prior to our visit, we found the channel well marked and navigation straightforward. Once you are past the entrance, the rest of the channel is not difficult. However, it is essential to use the first two sets of range markers to line up your entry into and through the pass.

Passing through the entrance channel at mid-day, we were led into Maupiti’s breathtaking lagoon. We were awed by the variety of colors and the dramatic basalt outcroppings looming above the anchorage. We anchored off the town of Vaiea, a picturesque town with a tidy seawall running its entire length. It looked as if every family must own their own small boat, because the seawall was punctuated with boat slings and small craft.

Basalt outcrop with sea wall and small craft at base
In the late afternoon, we took a walk through town. We immediately noticed the cleanliness of the village, along with the apparent pride people took in their gardens and landscaping. Everyone in Maupiti seemed happy and busy, and we were given a friendly greeting by all those we passed. I truly would have loved to stay longer and gotten to know the local people here.

Since I was newly arrived and shy about asking people permission to take their photos, I took more mental pictures than actual photos. I didn’t take a photo of the six or so young men with big grins hanging off a fork lift that was careening towards the dock, where a supply ship from Tahiti was being offloaded.  

Offload  complete:  ready to cast off lines

I also didn’t photograph the happy kids riding a bicycle in a totem of three:  the youngest child seated on the handlebars; the oldest child pedaling the bike; and a child in between the ages of the other two standing on the seat behind the pedaler. Of course, none of them wore a helmet as they rode down the town’s main street shining with smiles.

Frangipani perfumes the air with a scent you can smell from the anchorage
I also observed with pleasure some women who were selling bread from the open bed of a pickup truck. They had about a dozen trays of bread in rectangular baking pans instead of loaf pans. The bread looked like some sort of sweet bread---possibly coconut bread. As one woman drove the truck through town, she, another woman in the cab, and the woman riding in the truck bed cried out to their neighbors. If a neighbor wanted to buy bread, she hurried out when she heard the calls of the women in the truck. Sometimes, the bread pan was simply turned over into waiting upheld palms; other times, the bread was released onto a tray or platter a woman had carried out with her. The bread pans remained with the bakers. I really wanted to buy some bread, but I had brought nothing to carry it in. Since we were still touring the town, I decided not to march around town with a loaf of bread in my upturned palms.

From time to time along the street, we noticed what appeared to be communal fresh water taps. Reminiscent of a community well in the center of town, these spigots were instead placed at intervals throughout the neighborhood. We concluded that not all the homes had running water, although the city itself was plumbed. We also noticed gravestones and memorial plaques located in peoples’ front yards. Home burial is practiced in Maupiti, where family members are buried on the land they grew up on, which is passed down from generation to generation. 

White frangipani
When we returned to the boat, I could no longer resist the pull of the jade green water and headed off for a swim towards the motu. 

At the top of the steep sand slope where the water changed from blue to jade, the water was less than waist high. I could stand and rest whenever I wanted. As I swam along this shallow area (I had brought my snorkeling mask), I could see hundreds of hermit crabs scuttling along the sandy bottom.  

Our friends from Oyaragh had arrived in Maupiti one day before us. The next morning, we joined them and two of the crew from Big Fish for a hike up to Maupiti’s highest point, the summit of Mt. Teurafaatiu. We were all looking forward to great views of the pass and lagoon. The hike was steep and hot, but---although it contained some roped sections---it was much shorter and less challenging than our climb of Mt. Pahia on Bora Bora. 

Here we are part way to the top

Feasting on a blue-green palette:  the open ocean extending to the horizon, the barrier reef, and Maupiti's shallow lagoon

Cloud shadow over the lagoon

Patrick leads the way on a roped section of the hike

Soon we were all at the top enjoying the beautiful views. 

Crews from Oyaragh, Big Fish, and Silhouette on top of Mt. Teurafaatiu

View from the summit 
Plastics in the environment:  On both Bora Bora and Maupiti, we saw interesting uses of plastic on hiking trails. Clusters of empty plastic bottles were used as trail markers on Mt. Pahia, while on Mt. Teurafaatiu, plastics were incorporated into an informal summit flag:

One man's garbage is another man's art? Plastics are a known endocrine disruptor.

View from the summit 2

A close-up of Onoiau Pass:  the blue gap between the white surf at the end of the snaky entrance channel.

Colors to die for:  reef patterns in the lagoon

Of course our last day in French Polynesia had to include a hibiscus!

The starting point for this hike is on the left side of the main road, a quarter mile or less from the church. Look for some wide cement steps that lead to the beginning of the trail. The trail basically follows the ridge, and there is cover from vegetation most of the way.

After we returned from the hike, Patrick and I stowed the boat and got ready to get under way. We had hoped to stay one more day and visit the manta ray “cleaning station” in the lagoon, where small fish swim in and out of the manta’s great basket strainer feeding apparatus, picking off bits of food. I had also wanted to walk around the entire island, a trip which reportedly takes only three hours. However, the latest weather report showed the wind both increasing and shifting to the southeast, which would make it dangerous or impossible to exit the pass. Winds in the 20-25 knot range were forecast, and the pass would not be navigable for close to another week. As we exited the pass at 3:00 p.m., the winds had already begun to shift to the southeast.

The picture below shows the surf breaking to port as we exited the pass. The opening is just 150' wide at this point, and the surf was breaking the same to starboard. There is zero room for error here even during the "ideal" weather conditions. 

Surf breaking over the reef as we exit the 150' wide pass

Passage to Niue

We had a gentle start to the next leg of our journey, the 1,034 mile passage from Maupiti to Niue. This was to be our longest passage since the voyage from the Galápagos to the Marquesas in late May/early June. We watched the lovely isle of Maupiti fade in our wake and enjoyed a sunset supper in the cockpit. The weather was so calm, we even allowed ourselves a glass of wine.

Leaving Maupiti behind

By the wee hours of the next morning, the forecasted winds had arrived. When I awoke to replace Patrick on watch, I found him hand steering in winds between 25 and 30 knots. We continued to hand steer while we reduced sail. The wind blew a steady 25 to 30 knots for the next 24 hours and we ran under stays’l alone. When the wind fell below 25 knots, we put up a double-reefed main with the stays’l, and when it fell below 20 knots, we dropped the stays’l and raised the headsail. 

Big swells rushing off for an appointment with other latitudes

A much better day:  the wind is down to 20 knots
I had taken an unexpected dip in the salt water when I slipped getting into the dinghy prior to leaving Maupiti. After two days at sea in high winds, my salt-filled hair was so matted, it was "almost dreadlocked."

Self-portrait with almost dreadlocks
I find it amazing that after twelve years, my face still shows the residual effects of a Bell's palsy---particularly when I'm tired, as during interrupted sleep patterns created by watches. If you first cover the left side of my face with a piece of paper, and then cover the right side, it's like seeing two different people. The right half of my face still has a dead expression and a lopsided smile. I guess we have to embrace who we are though; thus, the self-portrait:  paralyzed features, dreadlocks, and all. 

Most of the remaining passage was spent alternating between a beam or broad reach and running wing and wing downwind. The wind made frequent shifts back and forth from the east to the southeast. With the exception of one day of light air (which we took advantage of to take showers and bake bread), the wind was generally in the 15 to 20 knot range, and we made a fairly speedy passage. We were happy about our good progress because the weather was overcast, dreary, and drizzly---or downright rainy. We even experienced some lightening at night, though luckily, not at close range. The boat and our clothes constantly felt damp, and it was chilly enough that we had to break out our foul weather gear (which we thought we wouldn’t see again until our passage to New Zealand!) With the exception of the warmer daytime temperatures, I felt like I was back home in the North Pacific instead of on a dream cruise in the South Pacific.

We didn’t even attempt to fish on this passage because we were rolling in a beam swell much of the time, and neither of us felt like cleaning the fish (or the cockpit afterwards) once we’d caught it. We were also trying to start using up some of our canned food, which may or may not be confiscated in New Zealand. (At first we thought only fresh meats and produce were quarantined, but lately we’ve heard reports that they take canned meat and vegetables too---even their own canned meats and butter!---along with anything that has the potential for sprouting like dried legumes and grains.) Thus, meals on this passage took on the tone of comfort food staples such as tuna casserole, canned New Zealand corned beef and cabbage, and split pea soup with canned pork, as I made a game of trying to see how many canned foods I could work into one meal.

The wind came in fits between calms during the last 36 hours of the passage, and we did whatever it took---sailing, motoring, or motor sailing---to keep the boat moving along. We picked up a mooring buoy outside the harbor of Alofi on the island of Niue between squalls as we were nearing the end of our ninth day on passage.

Approaching Niue

Niue's limestone cliffs represent the boundaries of an upthrust former coral atoll
Alofi is not a “harbor” in the true sense of the word. It’s merely an indentation in the coastline of the island. When you are moored outside Alofi, you are basically moored at the edge of the ocean on the outside of an upthrust coral atoll. There is no sheltering barrier reef or protected lagoon. That’s why boats here have to take a mooring:  because the water next to the island is so deep. Silhouette is currently moored in 139 feet of water on a mooring provided and maintained by the Niue Yacht Club

Rainbow over Silhouette with Niue in the distance (left)

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