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Timing is everything when entering most islands of the South Pacific. You normally go in only during the morning hours when the sun is at a good angle so that you can see deep into the clear waters and avoid the coral heads. Coral is tough, and will rip the bottom out of a wooden or fiberglass boat.
Hiva Oa was our destination island for our first landfall in the tropical islands. All of the local island groups have one and sometimes two islands where you must check in and register with the Gendarmes. The French own French Polynesia, at least in the eyes of the French. The natives take a far different view of who owns these islands.
I had brushed up on my French. I had a couple of French-language textbooks, a good French-English dictionary, and a few learning aids and tapes. I had taken four years of French in High School, and with our many trips to France and Switzerland I was marginally conversant with the language. I felt I needed brushing up and had studied and reviewed, and this turned out to be a critically important move. My accent was always good, which goes a long way with the French. They don't care what you say so long as you pronounce it properly. Spanish is very close to French and many words in the two languages are spelled almost the same way but pronounced differently. When at a loss for a word in French, I would use a Spanish word and pronounce it in the French manner and that often worked.
We were now only three days from Hiva Oa and I was trying to time our arrival for the morning. That, however, is almost impossible to do. The variations of wind and current make it too tough to predict arrival times three days hence. Nonetheless, I thought we were right on and should arrive in the very early morning. The sailing was nice, comfortable and all was going very well. Perhaps too well; perhaps we should have anticipated that something would screw up the works. We sailed along in bliss as the excitement of seeing land grew.
Finally we were only one day away with about a hundred miles to go. Perfect. If we got there too soon we would simply heave to and wait until daybreak. We would rely on the radar to pick out Hiva Oa from among the many small islands and then to locate the entrance to the natural harbor of Atuana. The Marquesas Islands are volcanic. They have large mountain peaks of several thousand feet that emerge from the ocean out here in the middle of the Pacific. The water is about six miles deep, meaning these underwater mountains are over thirty thousand feet tall from the bottom of the ocean to their peaks a couple thousand feet above the water. Taller than any mountain on land. Taller than Mount Everest. We were tingling with excitement now, ready to make our first Polynesian landfall.
The nice thing about the height of the mountains is that they can be seen from fairly far away, even on a sailboat. We looked at the charts, which indicated that one could catch a glimpse of them from about fifteen miles away. Most Polynesian islands are low and cannot be seen until you are almost on top of them. Making first landfall at islands which are easy to see is a big advantage.
After you have been at sea for almost forty days, you feel a little nervous about going near the land. As anxious as you are to see land again, you know that hitting the land or coral is dangerous, whereas in the ocean you go wherever you want without that concern.
Suddenly the wind died down dramatically, as did our speed. We were down to two knots instead of six when I saw large thunderheads directly in our path. There is always a chance that the thunderstorms will move away before you get to them, so I didn't turn on the engine and we continued to move slowly. After a couple of hours the storms did move off to the side and we avoided them. We didn't see any lightening.
Just when I decided to turn on the engine the radar alerted us to more thunderheads dead in front of us. Being as close as we were to our objective, we didn't want to alter our course to avoid the storms. It probably wouldn't help anyway, as there appeared to be many thunderheads and storm cells in the area. Changing course could put us directly into the heart of one, so best to just keep sailing straight on. But we weren't covering many miles and we were not going to arrive before the next morning for the good time of entry. We discussed the various alternatives and decided to sail on and hope for the best. If at this point we motored, we still wouldn't get there in time, so there was going to be one more day at sea in any case.
One more day at sea was absolutely no problem for us. We still had lots of food and our water tanks were full. We went to sleep with the radar alarm set and had no storms during the night. It rained, but there was no lightening or thunder. The next morning was sunny and glorious. We had our usual morning routine. I ran a couple of extra navigation checks just to double and triple check our position and to know exactly where we were. We were doing fine, and would pull into Hiva Oa the next morning. We continued to sail slowly with the soft winds, which were beautiful and comfortable.
In the mid-afternoon I looked up and there was a mountain peak just coming into view over the horizon. I yelled out, "Land ho!" We jumped up and down, hugged, kissed, and were overjoyed that we had found this spot of land in the middle of such vastness of ocean and nothingness. It is difficult to describe the total joy and feeling of achievement. Barbara cried tears of happiness. We were euphoric and congratulated each other in outright glee. I could tell from the pictures we had on board that these were in fact the Marquesas Islands. They look very much like the Hawaiian Islands, and are in fact very similar in size. They were created sitting on the same deep ocean rift, which caused all of the volcanoes and created all of the thousands of islands. The difference is that Hawaii is well populated and the Marquesas have less than a thousand inhabitants.
We were giddy as we got out the trinkets to give to the natives upon our arrival. These are very primitive people who are living just as they have done for thousands of years. We had read up, as best we could, about the inhabitants of these paradise-like islands, but there was very little to read, and what we did read didn't seem credible. Much of the information was quite old and highly suspect. It was hard to believe that these people had made no concessions to the twentieth century and continued to live a tribal lifestyle that was unchanged from the days of their ancestors. Whatever we found, we were ready with Timex watches, tee-shirts, bottles of liquor, and beads to give away. We checked the anchor and its gear. There was little else to do at this point. Our speed was good and our time of entry should be perfect. One day later than I thought we would arrive, but so what.
The mountains came closer and we could see their verdant green color indicating the dense vegetation. They had rugged, rough peaks, indicating their young age. These heights were probably still growing. We were very excited about landing. We were anxious to explore the South Pacific and its peoples. We ate dinner joyfully. We had crossed thirty four hundred miles of open ocean and found a pinprick of a spot on the map with direct accuracy. We felt a great deal of satisfaction and accomplishment and we felt that we had every right to celebrate.
The radar alarm went off. I ran to the radar thinking that the edge of one of the islands had come into our range. Instead I saw one part of the screen starting to go black, showing a very large, bad storm coming at us from the north. This was terrible news, as we were so close to land. Oh well, we will deal with it, I thought, with a large knot of fear building in my stomach.
I went up on deck to pull in some sail and tie down lines. When I looked toward the horizon I could see the largest, blackest storm I had ever seen in my life, and it was coming straight at us. The wind was starting to pick up - it went from five knots to ten knots very quickly. Then it increased to fifteen knots, and then to twenty knots, and then to thirty knots in what seemed like just a few minutes. I took in all the sails except the staysail up front on the bow. The spray began to drench us, and the rain started coming down hard as the wind continued to grow in speed and force.
I was now deeply worried. We were very soon going to have little or no choice about which way we would go. If we hit one of those islands, that was the end of our boat. We had already closed all the hatches and stowed everything below. The radar screen was now useless, overwhelmed by the storm. I knew where we were, sort of, as the wind continued to push us wherever it wanted. I went back on deck and reduced the staysail to just a small piece of cloth to act as a storm sail, which is what we now needed. The wind was now forty or fifty knots. The wind speed indicator said fifty knots and going up, but at these kinds of wind speeds it is not very accurate. It could be more or less than that. The wind direction gauge was also starting to fail due to the force of the wind. It was swinging around uselessly. I could no longer tell which way the wind and storm was coming from, or where it was pushing us. I was beside myself with fright. There was nothing I could do to further protect us or to lessen the danger. We were at the total mercy of the raging storm and sea.
Magellan was quickly turning into a bucking bronco. We were moving up and down and side to side all at once. Barbara was frightened, too. We discussed turning on the engine and decided against it, as we didn't know which direction was which, or which way to steer or motor. We could motor right into an island. Why couldn't this have happened to us three days ago, in the wide open ocean, when it wouldn't have mattered as we wouldn't have been anywhere near land? We were now so near to our destination that it might kill us.
The wind was howling and screaming. It was clearly over sixty knots and might have been eighty knots or more. The noises of the wind going through the rigging changed as its speed increased. All of the sounds were terrible and portended ill. We looked at each other very much in shock and at a loss of what to do now. We were at the whim of the storm, and it would do with us as it wanted. Nature was in total control. We had zero choice; there were no alternatives; there was nothing we could do. Strangely the realization of this fact was calming.
Suddenly there was a huge boom and explosion sound. I thought we had lost the mast. I had to go and take a look. Barbara was very upset and didn't want me to go on deck since there was nothing I could do about anything in this weather, but I wanted to know what had happened. I then did a very stupid thing: I ran up on deck without my harness and mountaineering gear. I had nothing to strap and hook myself on with. I could have easily been washed overboard and gone forever. Barbara couldn't have possibly found me or retrieved me in these extreme winds and seas.
The wind was far stronger than any wind I have ever seen before or since. This was a full hurricane force wind. My estimate is that it was well over one hundred knots, maybe one hundred and twenty knots. The wind made weird moaning sounds. I was half way to the bow of the boat when I realized I didn't have my harness on, and I knew I was in serious trouble. I now experienced an apprehension of imminent death. Interestingly, it was not a panicked feeling; I assume it was the acceptance of knowing I was going to die soon.
I could see the pieces of the staysail hanging in the rigging. The sail had exploded. It was shredded and torn into small pieces. This was a very strong multi-layered sail designed to withstand strong winds, but obviously not for wind such as this. I crawled along the deck on my hands and knees, and tied up a few lines, which were slapping around in the wind. There was nothing I could do about the staysail. It was on the bow, and I wouldn't dare go up there and try to deal with it in this wind. Magellan was pitching, rolling, and swaying.
I worked my way back into the cockpit, crawling and holding on to anything I could grab a handhold on. I rolled up the now useless staysail as best I could. I took a final look around and went below. I was physically shaking and unsteady. Barbara wanted to know about the situation, and I told her. We are totally without any control. We don't know which way is north, south, east or west. We do not know which way to steer. We can't motor, as we don't know which way to go. We have no clue where the land is. The autopilot won't work in this storm, so I have secured the rudder in a neutral position amidships. The wind is well over one hundred and forty miles per hour. Visibility is zero. The staysail is destroyed, gone, and useless. Waves are crashing over us. The radar is overwhelmed and useless. No gauges are working. We are in the grip a full hurricane. We are totally at the mercy of this storm. We have no choice but to ride it out.
Magellan could handle the wind and waves with its cocoon construction, unless we were rolled over, which was unlikely as the waves were not large enough. Atlantic Ocean hurricanes build up for days or weeks and have the time to build large waves. This hurricane was created quickly by the heated waters near the surface, and the waves wouldn't get enormous, so probably a rollover was not a concern. The problem was hitting an island. That we would not survive. We had no idea where the land was, and we couldn't do anything about it if we did.
Barbara said, "OK captain, what do we do now?" The answer that came out of my mouth, by itself it seemed, was, "I guess we should pray." Then I had a better idea. I told her to get out a bottle of champagne, open it, and to put a movie on the VCR. I struggled to put up the lee cloths to hold us into position on the couch. "Let's enjoy ourselves as best we can, because we can't do anything else until the wind dies down." My feeling was one of surrender and defeat in the face of this cataclysmic event. I thought it was probably all over, but I didn't want to talk about it because what good would it do.
So I said to Barbara, "Make that two bottles of champagne." I had a couple of shots of whiskey. Then we got onto the couch and used the pillows to prop us into position so that we were moving with the boat instead of against it.
We watched "Being There," and drank the champagne. And then from the fear or the alcohol, or the combination of the two, we fell asleep holding on to each other tightly, in spite of the sound and movement and terror.
The next thing we were aware of was that it was morning - sunny, quiet, and calm. We looked at each other with astonishment and happiness that we were alive, well, and afloat. I had truly believed we were going to die in that hurricane. I thought we would be thrown against the lee coast of one of the islands and killed by being drowned, or by being dashed against the jagged volcanic rocks by the murderous pounding of the surf. I couldn't believe we would survive the hurricane unscathed.
We just sat there for a moment or two collecting our thoughts and our composure. I got up nervously to see where we were, and to decide what to do next. Barbara quickly followed me up on deck.
The sight that greeted us took our breath away. It is not often that I as a trial lawyer have been speechless in my life, but this was one of those times. Barbara was equally unable to speak. It was fantastic and surreal.
We were floating about two hundred yards from the entrance to the harbor of Atuana and our destination anchorage at Hiva Oa. The water was calm like glass. The sun was in the perfect position for making an entry into the natural bay. Aside from the shredded sail, Magellan seems to be in fine shape with nothing else missing or broken.
The islands were breathtaking - the perfect vision of paradise. The water was so clear and clean you could see down to the bottom, which had to be a hundred feet or more. You could see the colorful fish swimming about. And there was that idyllic bay rimmed by a perfect white-sand beach. The palm trees and jungle came right down to the beach. The waves were gently breaking on the sand. The mountains were even prettier close up than they had been from some distance. There was a beautiful fragrance in the air. We stood there mesmerized and drank in the sights and smell silently for some time.
My first words were, "Thank you God. Thank you for bringing us here safely, and for saving our lives from that storm." Barbara said something similar. I knew at that instant that God had saved us. God had brought us from where we had been before the hurricane, through narrow passages, between several islands (see map), around Hiva Oa to its other side, and placed us right next to the entrance. There was no other rational explanation.
Rational? Yes. There is no way that we could have gotten to this exact spot in that hurricane without some kind of divine intervention. It was simply impossible and went way, way beyond "lucky coincidence." This was spooky stuff. I now knew there was a God and that this had been an act of God. Standing there in the gorgeous morning sun, we knew God had shepherded us and taken us under his wing. We felt this way sincerely, intensely and truly for a few minutes, but then it dissipated and went away. It's true, we had been saved from death and destruction, but yesterday was yesterday and now was now. We had to move quickly to take advantage of the position of the sun, the light, get into the harbor, and anchor. Barbara took her position on the front of the bow and guided us in between the coral heads as I steered. It was simple due to the clarity of the water and the position of the sun. We had read of the horrors of entry into South Pacific harbors, but this was a piece of cake.
Once inside, we relied on the chart, and picked a nice spot not too far from the beach with a sand bottom. We dropped our hook, and we had arrived. We were ravenously hungry and had a large breakfast that tasted particularly good. We did not talk very much, which is not our style. I think we were a little embarrassed about the God stuff.
We quietly went about launching the dinghy into the water. It is necessary to check in with the Gendarmes just as soon as you land. If they have to come and find you before you check in with them, they are not understanding and will make you leave more quickly than you might want to leave. The SSCA told many stories of people forced to leave one of these islands on the same day they arrived. We didn't want any of those kinds of problems, and intended to follow the local regulations.
We were alone in the anchorage. No other boats. No dinghies. There were no signs of human habitation whatsoever. The water inside of the bay was even clearer than the water outside. We were fascinated by the schools of fish swimming all around us. They were of all sizes and shapes. These were tropical fish just like you have in your aquarium except for their large sizes. There were giant angelfish. Most of the colorful varieties we had never seen before, and we had no idea what species they were.
I didn't put the engine on the dinghy as we were only a short distance from the beach and it was easier to just row in. I was wearing my swimming trunks, a Magellan-monogrammed golf shirt, and deck shoes without socks. This was to be my wardrobe for the next couple of years. The only variation was the color of the shirt, which I had in every color that Lands End sold.
I was operating like I was on autopilot and wasn't paying attention to what I was doing. I had performed all of these tasks many times and didn't have to pay much attention. I think I was in shock. The scenery and its beauty was dreamlike. It was hard to believe that we were actually in this glorious place, so far removed from civilization.
Etiquette and French law require that the captain goes ashore alone to check in before anyone else goes ashore. I had our passports and documents in a waterproof case, and had applied sunscreen protection and bug repellent. It took only a couple of minutes to row to shore. I stopped just outside of the surf line to time my entry into the waves. The waves were not large, and I was not too worried about them. At the same time, I did want a smooth passage onto the beach. I was being cautious and watched the breaking waves carefully. When I thought I had the timing down, I pulled hard on the oars and entered into the surf.
The next thing I knew I was flying through the air along with the dinghy. My timing had been terrible. I landed hard on some coral rocks. I was in great pain, and I was bleeding from my hip and thigh. I was unable to get up. The wind had been knocked out of me and my leg was injured. I didn't see Barbara on deck, and I assumed she was down below cleaning and organizing, so she didn't know that I was in trouble. I called out but it did no good because of the sound of the crashing surf. We were running the generator to cool down the freezer and refrigerator, which caused additional noise that blocked my cries. My leg was becoming numb very quickly. The great pain was now being replaced with numbness. In addition to the numbness, I was bleeding profusely. I couldn't believe that I was in another crisis so soon after the hurricane.
I took off my shirt and tried to tie a tourniquet around my leg, but it wouldn't work. The sand was getting red around my leg from the blood. At that point I thought of preceding night, the storm, and of how God had saved our lives. I began to feel ashamed about the very few minutes our acknowledgment of what God did for us had lasted. And now, in such a short time, here I was again in serious trouble, again with no visible means of helping myself.
I thought to myself, I really deserve this. God made a miracle for me and I dismissed it as quickly as I could. So here I am again at His mercy, with no way to help myself. I couldn't get up and walk with my leg numb. I couldn't think of swimming back to Magellan, and in my condition I doubt I could have made it even had I wanted to try. I would have to just lie here until Barbara came up on deck and could swim to me, but then what?
It was clear to me that the coral which I had landed on was toxic. The only question was how toxic. Would it kill or paralyze me? I had read about the deadly toxins of the corals and of the stinging and biting things found in the South Pacific. I knew that I was in serious medical trouble. Given the way my leg felt, or rather did not feel, this toxin was bad. Even if Barbara came to shore to help me, I was not certain that we had any medicine on board to deal with this problem. The cuts and abrasions we could deal with, but I wasn't sure at all about the poison.
I did not know what else to do, so I prayed to God. I called out over and over again: "God please help me, God please get me out of this." I didn't promise God that I would do anything for Him in return for saving my life. We were finally on the brink of a dream come true and I didn't want to have to change my life in exchange for God's help. I wanted His mercy and help, and that's all. "Please help me, God. I'm in trouble. I need help right now, please help me now. Please."
I was starting to feel dizzy and nauseous. I knew the next step would be unconsciousness. As I was thinking that at least Barbara was safe, I saw two aborigines coming out of the jungle. They had painted faces and bodies, wore loin clothes, and carried wooden spears. They were big - well over six feet tall and each had to weigh at least three hundred pounds. They came directly toward me, laughing.
When they came close and stood over me I could see bones in their noses and ears. They also wore bone necklaces around their necks and bone bracelets around their wrists.
One of them leaned over me and took hold of the Star of David I was wearing around my neck. They nodded to each other. Then one said to me in beautiful French, "White man, you want to die, or you want to live?" Then they started laughing again. I answered them in my best French, "I would like to live, please help me." They smiled, nodded, and said oui. Then they left and went back into the jungle.
Moments later, they re-emerged from the jungle with two enormous women. The women seemed to be just as large as the men, and they were both very pregnant and wrapped in pareaus. They were similarly painted. Now there were four of them leaning over and looking and laughing. Without any further words the two women took off their pareaus and stood there stark naked standing over me. One at a time they squatted over my wounds and urinated on them. Almost at once the feeling started to come back into my leg, which meant pain. But the numbness was going away quickly as was the dizziness in my head. Within a minute I felt I could stand up. I did, and was walking. I was still bleeding a little, and very sore, but walking.
I was embarrassed by what had just taken place, but very grateful that I was ambulatory again. They helped me turn the dinghy right side up again. I retrieved my document case and thanked them over and over again. They just passed it off with a shrug. I asked them where the Gendarmerie was to check in Magellan. This was very funny. They told me to follow them and they would show me. Confused and still in pain I followed them into the jungle.
We entered the dense jungle and trudged along a winding jungle path. It was muddy and your entire foot sunk into the mud in places. My feet and shoes were covered in gooey mud. The jungle was lush and verdant. There were flowers everywhere. There were orchids, trees with flowers growing on them, and flowers on the grass. It was like being in a greenhouse, very warm and very humid. My leg was feeling better as we walked, and walked, and walked.
It was scary walking into the jungle with these people. I felt like I was going to end up in a pot as dinner, which, it turns out, is not very far from the truth. We must have been walking for twenty minutes and I was now sweating heavily. The natives seemed cool and did not appear to be sweating at all. We finally came to a clearing in the forest which was a native village. There were no stores or commerce of any kind. There was a sort of road, a wide path, down the center of the village. At the far end there were two wooden buildings. One was a Christian church and one the police station.
I walked up to the Gendarmerie and knocked on the closed door. There was no answer. I tried the door, and it opened into a one-room shack. There was a counter in front and a desk and chairs in the back. It was otherwise empty and it didn't look like anyone had been there for some time. The church looked equally vacant. It had a sign on it saying, Seventh Day Adventists. I was confused and curious. Where is everybody?
I went back and found the two men who had helped me, opened my waterproof case and gave them each a Timex watch and a bottle of Tequila to share. They were very happy. I asked about the whereabouts of the Gendarmes, but they just smirked and grinned and wouldn't say anything.
I then asked if I could buy any fresh produce. After much conversation between themselves and with the women in their native tongue, Marquesan, they decided sure, just wait a minute. A young girl came out of a house made of palm leaves. She handed me a hand-made basket containing some very small bananas, and an assortment of strange root vegetables. There was a large grapefruit, which I would later learn was called a pampelmouse. They refused any payment for the food as they pointed to the bottle of liquor. Everyone was smiling as I headed back to the jungle path and to the beach.
It took even longer to get back than it had taken to get there. I was very hot and feeling miserable as I emerged from the jungle and back onto the beach. I had to struggle a bit to get the dingy into the water and then back to Magellan.
Barbara was shocked when she saw the extent of, and depth of, the cuts on my leg. She spent some time cleaning the wounds and putting on bandages. We ate the small bananas while she worked on me. They were excellent. The roots were a different matter altogether. We didn't have a clue what to do with them. We cooked a couple like you would cook a potato, boiled in water. They were very starchy and had a strange flavor.
We relaxed on board for a couple of days just decompressing from the crossing, the hurricane, and my most recent experience and injury. When we felt a little better, we began to swim in the crystal clear warm water of the bay. We swam ashore rather than take the dinghy through the waves because we didn't want to get dumped again. The natives would come by from time to time, say hello, and walk off. After a couple of these brief visits, they stopped by and asked us to come for dinner. We went to their village for lunch, which is their main meal of the day, to eat a vile mixture of pasty, starchy vegetables served on large leaves. You eat with your fingers. There was also roasted meat which was very good, finished off with fruits, most of which we had never seen before. Most of them had strong perfumed flavors which we didn't like.
We learned that there were about four hundred people who lived on this island. There are also, from time to time, representatives of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Our hosts told us that they hate missionaries. We were welcomed because they knew the missionaries hate Jews, the people with the Star of David. If the missionaries hated us, then we were OK as far as they were concerned. This explained their interest in my Star of David during that first encounter on the beach. I did not normally wear a Star of David, but had been told by someone that it was a good idea to wear one to the South Pacific. I hadn't thought to ask why.
The man who seemed to be the leader here told us how they deal with the Seventh Day Adventists. He said, "We get rid of them." He told us that they kill and eat the missionaries, whereupon everyone (except Barbara and me) burst into laughter. One guy added, "We kill 'em we eat 'em." At the time, we didn't believe them. We thought they were joking with us, and hence their outbursts of laughter. We were wrong; they do kill 'em and eat 'em. It turns out that their favorite food is Seventh Day Adventists. These people are active cannibals. It has been a tradition in the South Pacific for as long as their history goes to eat enemies, and they have no intention of giving this up.
They were quite candid about the details of their religion and the cannibalism. They don't view people as food per se, but rather as sacrificial offerings to their gods. Their religion requires that they go to war from time to time. They define war as getting all dressed up in war paint and war outfits. They then go to another island and raid it, kidnap someone, bring him back to their island, ritualistically kill him, and then eat him. We also didn't believe this story and again thought they were having fun with us. It turns out that the stories they told us are in fact true and correct. They cut out the person's heart while he is still alive and breathing, and eat it while it is hot and still pumping. The theory is that you acquire the spirit and power of the person you kill and eat. This is their religion, and they also practice witchcraft and black magic.
The missionaries come and try to convert them to Christianity. How would you like it, they asked, if someone came to you with a totally foreign religion and wanted you to do things which you considered ridiculous and wrong? These Polynesians are outraged that someone should want them to worship a white man. Their argument is that gods are gods, and men are men, and never can a man be a god or be worshipped. The beliefs of the missionaries have convinced them that the white man is totally crazy. They think white men are evil and bad and worshipping one is totally out of the question. The harder the missionaries push, the quicker they become dinner. The interesting thing is that the church sends replacements, knowing the last guys didn't come home. What do they tell the replacements?
Barbara and I sat there in this jungle clearing with these cannibals feeling very ill at ease. What kind of meat had we just had for dinner? Evidently it was animal meat because we did not have the "rights" to eat an enemy, which must be earned. The killing is highly restricted. A person is killed while he is attacking their island, or to fulfill an obligation on certain religious holidays when they go to another island to capture the sacrificial offering. The festivals are the crowning of a new king or prince, birth of a prince, and similar events. We would later learn that there are other situations where someone is killed as a matter of course.
Every island has its own king and language. The next island over has a slightly different dialect and recognizes their own king. Every island is the enemy of every other island. This is one reason they live inland and not on the beaches; it would be too easy to be kidnapped if you lived on or near the beaches. All of the islands have very similar customs and religions, all of which require human sacrifices. They actually look forward to the French coming on shore for any purpose as they regard this as an invasion of their island, which justifies the killing and eating of the invaders. They believe that every sacrifice they eat strengthens their souls. They also believe their gods send them the missionaries and the French as a gift to be killed and eaten. Each sacrifice that comes their way strengthens their belief in their system.
We asked about the Gendarmes who were not there. They laughed roundly at the question as they explained that the French had given up on the Marquesas Islands. They will not admit that they have no power and still claim they own the place, but they no longer come on shore. The natives kill the Gendarmes, eat them, and then disappear into the dense trackless jungle. When the French sent in troops, they too disappeared. Dinner. They are actually very sad that the French are too chicken to come ashore any more. They are ready for them if and when they do come again, but the French finally came to understand it would take a large army to vanquish these natives.
We did not learn all of this at one time, and at first we didn't believe them. We were sure they were kidding. As it began to dawn on us that this was all true, we were appalled. Now it seems like the normal thing to do would have been to immediately break off our association with them, but at the time that wasn't at all clear. For one thing, I felt beholden to them for saving my life. In addition, we were enlightened people, we were multi-culturalists, and we did not judge others. They dealt with their enemies as they saw fit; was it any of our business? This was their land, and they were entitled to their customs. Weren't they?
It is difficult to comprehend how dense a tropical jungle is. Once you go into it a hundred yards, you are totally lost unless you are on a path. You cannot tell which direction is which and you cannot find your way out. I was given a couple of demonstrations of this fact. I consider myself a savvy person, and I was totally lost and totally frightened, even though I knew that the guy I was with knew his way out and would take me out. Just knowing how truly lost you were was the scary part. I had this experience on several islands. The second and third times I went into the jungle I had devised systems to find my way out, none of which worked. And to make matters worse, these islands have some of their own magnetic sources because of the volcanoes, and compasses often lie to you.
We enjoyed Hiva Oa, but our time was somewhat limited due to weather constraints and we had to move on. We loved swimming in the fantastically clear water of the bay. As clear as the water was in Mexico, it was dirty compared to the South Pacific water. It was so clear that is almost didn't seem to be there. You have the illusion that you are floating in the air. There were thousands of beautiful fish and dramatically colored coral everywhere. This was indeed what a paradise island should look like.
There is a hurricane season in the South Pacific which is dangerous. You have no choice; you must get out of French Polynesia by a certain date. We wanted to be in Tahiti by that date, as there are airplanes to the outside world from Tahiti.
We told the natives we were leaving and thanked them for their hospitality. They had been very nice to us and we had enjoyed their company. They asked us to stay a few more days and they would have a feast for us. We agreed and they went out and hunted a wild boar and then roasted it over an open fire. It was much like the first meal we had, except there were more of the root vegetables. Some were white, some yellow, and some purple; in fact there was a whole palette of colors, most of which tasted pretty much the same.
They strongly advised us to go see the very small island across the channel from them. It was called Tahuata, and one man lived there by himself. They also told us whatever we do, don't depart during the next two days before eight in the morning. They were insistent so we listened to them. We were preparing to go visit the island they suggested when another yacht pulled into the bay. We met the people and decided to stay another couple of days, as we liked them. Robert was an architect who designs prisons and his wife Annie was a great cook. They had us over for dinner and we swam and socialized together.
The next morning at exactly eight in the morning several very loud explosions startled us. We ran up on deck to see a French Destroyer just outside the anchorage firing their large guns in salvo into the jungle. This is the French method of letting the people know who is the true owner of these islands, and who is really in charge. True gunboat diplomacy. That term had a new meaning to me now. They dare not send people ashore, but once a month they come by and fire their guns into the hillsides. They do no real damage, except that they knock down some foliage which grows back quickly.
The natives look at this as another example of the stupidity of the white man. It fuels their hatred of Christians as the French are virtually all Catholic and the natives know it. If the French do damage to something the natives consider sacred to them, or actually kill someone, the next missionaries will spend a very short time on Hiva Oa before they are dinner.
We sailed the few miles to Tahuata Island. It was much smaller than Hiva Oa and has only hills and no mountains. It was gorgeous. We anchored in its beautiful lagoon and swam ashore. We left a gift on the beach for the one man who lived on this island. The next morning there was a large chunk of meat on a stick pushed into the sand. We built a fire on the beach and roasted the meat. While we were eating, the lone occupant showed up and shared the meal with us. He was educated in Paris, under some educate-the-natives program, spoke several languages, and had a Ph.D. in philosophy.
The next morning there were a couple of fresh fish on our deck. We never heard anyone come or go. We had fish for breakfast with the last of our eggs. We stayed almost a week in this bit of paradise. During the week the friends we met in Hiva Oa came into the bay. We enjoyed their company and shared dinner with them every night they were there.
These few weeks that we had spent in the Marquesas Islands were exactly what we thought South Pacific cruising was going to be. It certainly didn't disappoint us in any way. It was well worth the ocean passage, the hurricane, and the time and preparation it took to get here. We can't describe adequately the combination of the beauty of the islands, the serenity, the peace, the quiet, and the apparent perfection of nature, which exist there. The place overwhelms you and puts you into a sort of suspended animation from the outside world. You must actually pinch yourself from time to time to confirm that this is not a dream.
As we were limited to one hundred and eighty days in French Polynesia, we had to keep careful track of the days we were spending there. We wanted to spend time in the Tuamoto Archipelago and in the Society Islands. It would take a month of sailing time to travel between the various islands and island groups, so we knew that we had to move along soon. If not for the French hurricane limits on our time, we would have spent more time in the Marquesas Islands.
The other islands of the Marquesas are very similar to the ones we had just visited, but with far less friendly natives according to the SSCA and other guides. So we decided to pass on them and move on to the Tuamoto Archipelago. This is a very large group of islands. The Marquesas have a dozen islands. The Tuamoto has literally thousands of islands, which are all atolls.
An atoll is the top of a volcano that just barely rises above the ocean. Most of them are not more than six to ten feet above the sea level. Some have palm trees and some vegetation, and others have nothing. Many hundreds are inhabited. Thousands are not inhabited. Many are just large rocks. There are also many which are just below the surface of the water and invisible. This makes sailing these waters very dangerous.
The locals are very similar to the natives of the Marquesas. They are closely related and look alike. Yet they speak different languages and hate each other. As similar as their languages are, they can't speak with one another. Their mutual hatred is the French; on that one point everyone agrees. Their second shared hatred is for the missionaries.
It was a six to seven day sail to the Tuamotos. We were going to the largest and best known of the atolls, Rangaroa. This island is very famous for its sea life, the manta rays in the lagoon, and the sharks outside of the reef. This is heaven for naturalist photographers. We were anxious to get there for the activities and also for the five-star hotel. They love to have yachts parked out in front on the same terms as Las Hadas in Mexico. The over-the-water rooms are five hundred dollars a day. The restaurant is world class. Scuba divers fight for the couple of cheaper rooms at three hundred dollars a day. We would pay ten dollars a day to be hotel guests.
We were ready for the good food and service. Our ship's stores were running short in certain areas. We had no fresh fruit or veggies we wanted to eat. The starchy tubers we collected in the Marquesas were not to our taste. We had no more eggs. We were starting to run out of canned goods. We were tired of rice, beans and pasta.
Because the islands are so low, they often do not show up on radar. Many are unmarked with any lights or buoys. They are marked on the charts, so with very careful navigation you can wind your way between the atolls and be fine. This means being on watch most of the time. I ran a plot on our location every two to three hours for a very exact fix on our position at all times. This required that we pay very close attention at all times. We carefully watched the detailed charts and noted each rock and atoll we passed.
I was still worried about the tropical storms, but we were out of the ITCZ far enough that they should not be a threat at this time of the year. During the hurricane season sailing in these waters is like playing Russian Roulette. The chance of being washed up on a reef is very great. The French Navy tries to keep everyone out of here and off the sea during that period. The natives row their dugout canoes among these islands and navigate by the direction of the currents, the stars and the moon. They go out to fish or to kidnap someone from another island for their religious rituals. It's amazing to imagine where they go without a compass or any navigation tools other than that which nature supplies. A few times we saw dugouts go past us, usually with two or three men in the very rough-hewn hand-made vessel. The top edge of the boat is only inches above the water and it's amazing that they aren't swamped.
It took us six days to sail from the Marquesas to the Atoll of Rangaroa in the Tuamotos. The seas were flat and calm with a very long swell that was only discernible when we were in the troughs or at their peaks, and then only when you were actually trying to see them. It was sunny, humid, warm, and breezy. The fifteen knots of steady wind allowed us to put out full sails making over seven knots per hour almost the entire way. This was a lovely sail with virtually no problems at all.
On the day we arrived at Rangaroa the main pass into the lagoon was too rough to go into due to the direction of the waves. Most lagoons in atolls have only one entrance. When the tide comes in, the water gushes into the lagoon with force and you are sucked in. When the tide goes out the reverse happens. This is dangerous because you do not have good steering control when the flood or ebb tide is running strong. This can cause you to run into a coral head, which can destroy the hull of the boat. It is necessary to enter when the tide is slack, that is doing sort of nothing, or on a slightly flooding tide. When the tide is just starting to go in or at the end of the flood it is not dangerous, but not as good as going in when it is slack.
If the seas are running against the direction of the tide you can get standing waves. These are large waves that just stand there in one place and don't move. The power of the movement of the water under the surface and at the surface in different directions is not something you want to experience in a sailboat. It is fantastic fun in a rubber dinghy with a big powerful engine. You position the dinghy just right, and it is non-stop surf down a wave where you are surfing, yet you don't move and the wave doesn't move. It is very weird and lots of fun. Doing this trick requires that you pay very close attention to what you are doing, and that you have a large powerful engine to get into and on the wave, and then to get off of the wave.
Rangaroa is large enough to have two entrances. Often when you can't get into the main pass due to the direction of the swells, you can get into the other pass. We hoped this was one of those occasions as we motored around to the other side. This pass is much smaller than the main pass and much more dangerous with its twists and turns. Barbara took her position on the bow and shouted directions to me as I steered our way through the pass. We came very close to a couple of coral heads, which might have scraped our bottom paint, but that was about it.
Once inside the lagoon we motored across to the Hotel Rangaroa and dropped our anchor in about twelve feet of water. Which means we only had six feet of water between the bottom of Magellan and the sea bed. This was the shallowest place we had been since the Sacramento Delta. We put out fifty feet of anchor chain to give us a four to one scope. This ratio of chain to depth was more than enough to hold us firmly in a total hurricane. The bottom was white sand marked with deep grooves in beautiful patterns caused by the constant incoming and outgoing tides. We hadn't been there five minutes when we saw dozens of huge manta rays flying underneath us and next to us. The water was so clear that you felt you could just reach out and touch the bottom. The water almost didn't seem to be there it was so translucent. When we got into the dinghy to go to shore and looked back at Magellan, she looked like she was just hanging there in mid air.
We both went ashore and Barbara sat at the pool of the hotel while I checked in with the Gendarmes and the hotel desk. As far as the Gendarmes are concerned this was our first port in French Polynesia. We had been warned not to tell them of our stops in the Marquesas unless we had a Gendarme stamp from there. So the story was we came straight from Mexico. This also helped us with the six months in French Polynesia rule of the French. We picked up an extra month in French Polynesia because there were no Gendarmes in Hiva Oa and the Marquesas. The date stamped on your boat passport is the date from which the six months starts to run. The boat has its own passport just like people do; it looks about the same and does the same thing.
The dealing with the Gendarmes was very easy because of my ability to speak French. Anyone arriving in these islands who does not speak French is given a tough time and often a run-around by the officials. My dealings with them were pleasant and smooth. The checking into the hotel was warm and friendly as they were anxious to have yachts anchored in the lagoon. All the guests wanted to visit the yachts. We were happy to have a couple come on board for a quick tour. If we liked them we would invite them to stay and have a drink, and talk. We met many famous people because of this. There was a well-known rock star, the owner of the Hyatt Regency Hotels, and a US senator. There were also many non-famous but lovely folks.
We had a five-course gourmet lunch with wine and the works. This tasted particularly good after the canned salads of the last six weeks. We were happy to get rid of the tastes of the paste-like foods of the Marquesas. We ate virtually every meal at the hotel the many weeks we were there.
To go snorkeling, you just climbed off of Magellan and starting to swim around the boat. You could quite easily touch the manta rays that are filter feeders and totally accustomed to human companions. However, you could not touch the tropical fish no matter what you did. There would be dozens of them inches from my face but if I reached out to touch them, they moved quickly and were gone. I tried for weeks to touch one with no luck.
Up to this time in our travels, Rangaroa was our favorite location. It had the facilities of Las Hadas but added to that was the fabulously clean and clear water. The fish, manta rays, and coral reef were far more spectacular than Mexico's. And the water, being flushed twice daily from deep ocean water, was very clean and free of pollutants.
We had discovered in Hiva Oa that the best shower or bath you could take was in the ocean using Joy dish washing soap. When you get out of the water, you wipe yourself down quickly with a very dry towel to get rid of the salt from the water. Your body feels better than it has ever felt, ever. It is amazing. Everyone who tried this didn't stop raving about the feeling; it was truly special. I have never again felt so clean and my skin so wonderful, as after those baths in the ocean.
While we were inside the lagoon a couple of other yachts arrived. Rangaroa hosts up to one hundred boats a year in a busy season. Sometimes they get as few as twenty. It is a long way to come across the ocean and not very many people are crazy enough to chance it. Once you are there, there is no question in your mind that you did exactly the correct thing. Our daily swim in the lagoon with the fish and the rays was special and wonderful every day. It didn't get old or boring at all!
One of the main concerns of the day was when to go snorkeling. Most days I went twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Barbara and I were already good swimmers, but now we became even better. I could dive down twenty or thirty feet without any problem and stay down more than a minute with ease. I couldn't do this when I was twenty years old and in much better physical condition than I was at forty-six.
This truly felt like living in paradise. The five-star hotel certainly added to the enchantment of the place, and it was nice not to cook for a while. We looked forward to meeting the natives.