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Cruising French Polynesia

Hugh & Heather Bacon

Argonauta I
Beneteau 440
March 19th, 2018

In the last article from Memories of a Circumnavigation Hugh and Heather traveled 2909 NM from the Galapagos to the Marquesas islands.  Lets continue to follow the adventures of Argonauta I, from when they began their journey in 1997 in the Caribbean, until the completion of the circumnavigation in 2006, when they crossed their  1997 outbound Caribbean track.


In the previous article my Skipper described in detail the fine points of navigation and boat management necessary for a safe and successful long voyage. Although I was First Mate (and Last Mate at this point) I chose not to add my personal observations. I shall spare readers the whimpers from the bilge, and concentrate upon the cultural and sociological aspects of these lush islands.

Our first landfall, after a three week passage, was Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas. The sight was breathtaking! High basalt pinnacles soar dramatically skyward, above abundant tropical greenery. Cruisers anchored, tidied and organized boats and took down the dinghies to touch base with others, many of whom they knew only from daily radio contact. Bottles were retrieved from the hold, remaining snacks scrounged communally and we took turns celebrating our landfall on each others’ vessels. The camaraderie among cruisers was perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of the nautical life. We met, travelled with, reconnected and in some cases still communicate with people from all over the world. This Christmas, almost 20 years afterward, we heard from one of the Coconut Milk Run alumnae who have just sold their boat after 32 years of living aboard, and will now settle in a tiny town in Scotland!

Young islanders greet us at Fatu Hiva

Local people welcomed us with food and dance and we distributed the ubiquitous T shirts and showed photos of snowy Canada. Continuing my retired teacher persona, I nabbed a group of small children to listen to a story. Can you believe: sitting under a palm tree in Polynesia reading “Thomas’ Snowsuit” in French?! The kids were rolling on the ground with laughter. I must tell Robert Munsch that his humour is universal!

The Island of Ua Pou in the Marquesas was such a positive experience that we shall ever cite it as one of our warmest Polynesian memories. We arrived on a Sunday, without local currency. I met a woman who ran a restaurant, spoke to her at leisure and told her it was our anniversary. She felt that we should celebrate. Annette told us she would prepare a Marquesan meal, we could pay later, and she lent us money to shop. (Equivalent US$100: things aren’t cheap there!) The meal ranked among the best we’d had and she commandeered her grandson and his buddies to dance a truly professional performance for us. Later we met Annette’s niece, stumbling upon a home by accident when exploring ashore, Hugh saw a washing machine. He asked if they did laundry, they said, ‘YES, BUT NO MONEY’ and we were in that embarrassing and euphoric situation where people WANT to do you a favour, out of the goodness of their heart. We did give gifts. They told us to bring more dirty clothes, and “no gifts”. We learned that Landon Jones, the husband, was a recorded singer and borrowed his CD to play on the boat. Later in Papeete, a small load of laundry cost $45. We genuinely appreciated the kindness of this Marquesan couple. We stayed a week in Ua Pou and it was the highlight of our travels to then. We took an island tour with a Frenchman “gone native” (“Il est plus sauvage que les Marquesiens”) said the Belgian yachty with whom we travelled. We lunched in a village famed for its dancers. Later we were to marvel at their talents as they performed in town. Once again, we ate magnificently: the ubiquitous “poisson cru” tuna marinated in coconut milk, fried chicken, barbecued fish, “Chateau de Carton”, acceptable box wine, and fresh fruit. We gently turned down FARFALU. As we understand it, fish is marinated in salt water for some time. The fish is thrown away and the marinade is used to soak fresh fish. The smell is particular. One keen soul requested it. When we hit town, he left the vehicle and his girlfriend peremptorily and was not seen again!

In contrast to the Marquesas and the Society Islands, the Tuamotus are flat coral atolls, sometimes hardly visible in the distance and surrounded by dangerous coral reefs. Our first landfall was Kauehi Atoll. Passes through the encircling reef have strong currents and large standing waves, except at slack tide, so timing was important. We got the timing right and entering the pass through the reef, we thought we risked going aground. The water was like glass. Underwater life is prolific and the passes are favourite haunts of large sharks. We saw coral and fish twenty feet below. When we dropped the dinghy in the still water, we did not realize it had touched the surface, so clear was the water. Colours of aqua and turquoise were exquisite. I snorkelled right off our boat and closer to shore where every coral bommie had its particular denizens. A few days later, we did an overnight passage to Fakarava South. On shore I met Timi, a grandfather who had retired to this remote atoll. (He was a teacher in his former life!) He enlisted his grandchildren and their teenage friends to barbeque fish kebabs on the beach. The table was covered in colourful batik cotton decorated with a multitude of the fragrant tropical flowers so abundant in the islands. Once again we dined magnificently. We had to leave Fakarava South when the wind changed and we seemed dangerously close to a high bommie. I felt that we might never again be in such a beautiful and unique spot.

It was a two night sail to Tahiti. As we sailed past Point Venus approaching Papeete, we were reminded that indeed we were following in the wake of many of the earliest navigators. We imagined the feelings of Captain James Cook on his first voyage in the Endeavour as he rounded this very point in April 1769 to observe the “Transit of Venus”. History associated with these islands is fascinating.

At Papeete we went through obligatory paperwork, succumbed to the temptations of a Gallic supermarket and arranged flights to Canada. But the island of Moorea beckoned, a few scant hours away. Finally we pulled up anchor and made the four hour crossing.  On the way we saw a French navy ship firing practice flares. Suddenly there was a splash quite close to our boat and I thought they had overshot. Then we saw another splash and a huge silver shape leapt out of the water.  It was a whale!  It breached, it showed its flukes, it blew…we were ecstatic. The last definite whale sighting we had seen was on our passage from the Galapagos to the Marquesas, just off the coast of Isabella. That was exciting and a little frightening in retrospect because it was pretty close and you imagine the consequences of hitting one.  But we are told that whale sightings are common in this stretch; it is a regular route!  It looked like an Orca to me, and some locals call it “false Killer Whale”. My dive master said it was a Humpback and indeed we heard a whale sounding when I was diving off Moorea.  Well, actually I didn’t hear it as I was too busy listening to my bubbles. I did wonder why the dive master kept making strange twirling motions above his head. PADI didn’t teach me those signals!

Moorea dance group

Yes, I dove in Moorea and, despite my reservations, I DID go on the shark-feeding special. (And Yes, I bought the video!) Here’s what happens: divers descend and obediently position themselves on the bottom. The dive master descends carrying a large dead tuna in a plastic bag. He is immediately surrounded by hundreds of brightly coloured little fish. But on the periphery, circling ever closer, are the black-tipped reef sharks. They are only two or three feet long, you don’t have to worry! As sharks home in, smaller fish part ranks and leave lunch to the stronger and meaner. This lasts for at least fifteen minutes. Would you ever have believed that one can get very used to the presence of sharks? It was fascinating and no one was apprehensive. Something gave me a little butt, but it was a smaller creature. Towards the end, however, the big ones began to cruise in. The last remaining tail portion was seized by a large lemon shark, which sped off to enjoy it at his leisure. The divers drifted off in crystal clear water to examine moray eels, lion fish, anemone and clown fish and all the colourful little fish of the reef. It was wonderful and I am really glad I did the dive.

Anchored in Cook’s Bay, we looked out daily at one of the most beautiful vistas in the world. Remember “South Pacific”? The sacred mountain we saw is “Bali Hai”! The last version of “Mutiny on the Bounty” was shot mainly in the adjoining Bay, where we anchored next: Opunohu Bay. We shopped and lunched, saw still more dance performances with delightfully enthusiastic and graceful young people, met some international travellers, some on mega yachts and some off 747s, forged warm friendships with yachties, hiked a bit and swam a bit and built up still more positive memories of Polynesia. We also managed to foul our anchor on a sunken mooring, but a pair of good-hearted mega yacht crew donned scuba gear and freed us.

Cyclone season was approaching, so we needed to secure the boat. We had chosen to leave Argonauta I on the Island of Raiatea. The Island is located in the Leeward Islands Group to the west of Moorea. It was just an overnight passage away. First we sailed to Huahine, where we cruised in 1995 when we chartered with friends on our way to my teaching exchange in Australia. At that time, we had only Arecreational@ boating experience, and there were some tense moments, as, for example when we were anchored in the path of a fast approaching ferry! Lonely Planet told us that residents of Huahine were known for their practical jokes, so when we asked what side of the road to drive on, we should not have been surprised at the response! Nevertheless we enjoyed returning and, as always, sought provisions in busy colourful (and expensive) local markets.

Hauling out in Raiatea

We planned to fly back to Canada from Raiatea. On September 30, 1999, Argonauta I went up on the hard at the Raiatea Carenage. From the deck, we could see Bora Bora, legendary tropical Island of great beauty.

Once off the boat, we stayed in a small cottage in a coconut grove. We passed the next few days watching little chicks evade large and predatory land crabs. Then it was back to Canada until April 2000. We had covered 5181 NM from Panama in that leg.

The plan for the following season was to continue to Australia. Many cruisers remain with the boat always, seeking safe shelters during hurricane season. Others leave the boat and travel on land, visiting places to which one could not sail. We did both of these things and were able to explore South and Central America, as well as Vietnam and Cambodia.

That is why the circumnavigation took ten years! But, for myself especially, it was important to keep up ties with friends and family back home, even though we would leave the warmth and splendor of a tropical country to don winter clothes and shovel snow. We returned to Canada with a heap of video footage to edit, which would later be material for presentations at Boat Shows and Yacht Clubs. When we watch them again ourselves, they bring back memories of the special places we have seen and people we have met.

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  1. blake says:

    Thank you for such a brilliant and informative article on a “Voyage Well Lived” with Argonauta I !!

    1. H & H Bacon says:

      Hi Blake, it was so much fun to pass on our experiences and we appreciate your generous comment. Hugh & Heather

  2. Corinne Whelan says:

    This is a wonderful and inspiring journey…thank-for sharing your adventures!