Hiva Oa, and the Ups and Downs of Anchoring

Posted by John

May 30th turned out to be a day devoted to the ups and downs of anchoring. Here’s a little story to explain.

When we had gone into the bay on Tahuata, we were happy that the anchor had grabbed so solidly. We were tired, and the solid anchor meant we were done for the night. But something was different. It had never made a sound like that before. It had never dug in so quickly, either. Usually it drags across the bottom before sinking in and holding.

Over the next couple of days I had a nagging unease about it that wouldn’t go away. Our anchor watch showed that we were staying within one of the tightest circles I had seen us stay in. The anchor was just not moving. It was not dragging, or flipping and resetting. Nothing. Another boat came into the bay and asked us how deep we were because their depth sounder was not working. We told them, then added, “Great holding.” They ended up anchoring near us.

When the other boat left a few days later, we watched with curiosity as they spent a lot of time looking down in the water toward their anchor. My uneasy feeling continued, but they eventually got their anchor up and were on their way.

We were enjoying a nice Memorial Day (which, at the time, we didn’t realize was Memorial Day), when a voice—“Hey, Mysticeti!”—called up from the water. Looking over the side, we saw a snorkeler. He told us that our anchor was jammed into a crack under a rock and looked like it might not come out. Well, that was it, I guess. My uneasiness was now validated. Not that that made me feel any better.

In the conversation that followed, we told him that we were off in the morning for Atuona on Hiva Oa before taking off for Tahiti. He’d been to Atuona and said we’d need to use both bow and stern anchors there. Wonderful, I thought. Now I have two new things to worry about. We had tried to use a stern anchor at Ua Pou and failed. We asked about the fuel dock. He said we’d have to use jerry cans.

The anchor windlass that came with our boat is a nice one. At the time it was originally purchased in the 1990’s it cost as much as a compact car. It is almost guaranteed to bring up your anchor, or so the brochure seems to say. I decided to trust it, so I could get some sleep.

I woke up before sunrise and couldn’t wait to get the day over with. By 7:15 the engine was running, and by 7:30 the windlass was pulling chain up off the bottom. We were in 40 feet of water with 120 feet of chain out. Two years ago Robyn and I had laid all the chain out on the dock at Port Ludlow and attached markers (colored plastic zip ties) at 50 foot intervals. Now I knew that once the 50 foot marker was down the hole and into the chain locker the anchor would be well off the bottom.

Looking down over the bow I could watch the chain coming from quite a way down. It looked too tight to not have a heavy weight on it. I was pretty sure that the anchor had not been broken off and left behind on the bottom. I was optimistic, just looking for the first confirmation. But as the chain kept coming up, I saw what looked like a big ol’ sack of something draped across the anchor. It had brought the rock up with it. This, I was not prepared for.

With the windlass stopped and the rock just breaking the surface, I stared at it. It was an old piece of dead coral, covered with patches of brightly colored algae. (At least that’s my story.) I tried to push it off with a boat hook. Nope. I tried to pull up on it and flip it off with the boat hook. Nope. It was wedged tightly between the plow part of the anchor and the shank. The boat hook wouldn’t do a thing, we needed some ideas.

The first idea was to get a loop of rope around it and try to lift it off the anchor. That did nothing. The next idea was to get a big hammer, raise the rock up closer to deck level, and whack at it with the hammer until it broke off. We’d have to think about that idea a little longer. Next idea was to send someone into the water to run a rope through the lifting ring on the top of the plow part of the anchor, then winch that up higher than the chain end. That would both flip the anchor over, and change the forces on the anchor and maybe open the gap a little and let the rock fall out.

Since Robyn is the strongest swimmer of the three of us, she got the job. It was early still, before she normally gets up, so maybe she wouldn’t be clear headed enough to protest too much. She did a great job. Perfect. And not only that, the plan worked. The rock silently returned to the bay before I even noticed it was gone. We were off for Hiva Oa and the sun was barely up.

Hiva Oa and Tahuata are next to each other across a channel a few miles wide. We didn’t have far to go, but we don’t fall for that idea anymore. We were ready for just about anything. Then we went around the end of the island and saw a gray funnel cloud—a water spout. That was a new one. We weren’t expecting that. It was several miles ahead of us, and possibly on the other side of a ridge, maybe even in the bay we were headed to. We watched it dissipate, and thought sure we’d had enough excitement for one day. Of course, we were wrong.

The bay at Atuona is pretty small. It is a potato patch of water; shallow, muddy, choppy and rolly, with a river flowing into it at the end of the bay. The edges are solid rock with the occasional blowhole shooting water high into the air with a “boom” when the surge hits. It is also packed with boats trying to get at least a little shelter from the swells. Lovely. But there is a fuel station there. We’d have to jerry-jug it. There is no dock except for the supply ship wharf, which is not fit for a recreational boat. We knew the supply ship had just been there and so shouldn’t be back for a while. That meant we should be able to anchor just about anywhere.

We decided on a spot next to another boat about our size. We set our bow anchor, but to keep from swinging into the boat next to us we’d definitely need a stern anchor too. We learned from our last attempt that we can’t just drop a stern anchor on a chain. First, the anchor has to be set; and second, a chain scraping along the rudder is not a good thing.

Julie’s plan was to remove the chain from the anchor and attach a long rope rode instead. Then the dinghy would be launched and rowed around to the stern, where the anchor would be lowered into the dinghy. The the anchor would be rowed out in the dinghy, at an angle behind the boat, and lowered to the bottom. Then it would be winched back toward the boat until it set, and then the stern would be pulled so that we were parallel to the boat next to us.

Okay, first, launch the dinghy the fastest way by hoisting it up by a sail halyard and swinging it over the side of the boat. Since the dinghy was upside down on deck, we’d just attach the halyard to the tow rope already fastened to the bow of the dinghy. We’d raise it to a vertical position, twirl it around so it was right side up, then push it out over the water and lower it in. We’d done this many times before. Apparently, this time was one time too many.

The tow ring on the dinghy is held by a hypalon patch glued to the front of the dinghy. This was the day that the glue decided to let go. Down came the dinghy on top of me. Okay, okay, I’m okay, but it’s time for another plan.

Julie can make this big, old full keel Westsail turn around in its own length. It’s taken a lot of practice, but people notice. When we left the La Cruz Marina in Banderas Bay, a local marina employee in mirrored sunglasses watched her turn the boat 180 degrees completely around in the fairway between the docks. When I looked at him, he smiled, gave a thumbs up, and said, “Bueno.” Now, while Robyn and I were getting the dinghy in the water, she was using these skills to keep us, with the bow already anchored, from swinging into the boat next to us. It took two tries, but she also got the anchor, long rope rode attached, rowed out and onto the bottom, while I winched the stern straight. It seemed to hold on the second attempt.

As the afternoon wore on, we watched as more, and bigger boats came in to join the crowd. This takes the record for the closest and biggest crowd of boats we’ve ever been squeezed into. I hope it works out. Definitely enough fun and excitement for one day.


Posted by John using SailMail

One thing about sailing to Tahuata is that it is upwind from Ua Pou. The trade winds blow east to west and we’d have to sail west to east, into the wind. We thought about this a lot. Weather information was minimal. We hadn’t been able to hold a connection with SailMail long enough to send or receive an email for two weeks so we couldn’t get any GRIB files or other weather data. The only thing we could get was an intermittent and painfully slow phone data connection to It showed the wind shifting around a little to the northeast, which we hoped would be enough of an angle to allow us to sail southeast to Tahuata. The supply ship was coming, we had to leave.

I suppose that after sailing 6,000 miles to get this far, you might get a little complacent. We were only going about 60 miles, after all. The engine had been working great. I didn’t even bother to look at it. We didn’t want to arrive at Tahuata in the dark so we planned to leave late in the day and get out beyond the rocks in daylight, then sail all night and arrive at first light the following morning.

Just before we departed, the sky turned ominous. Dark clouds, strong wind gusts and torrential rain showers descended on us. The girl’s canoe team, in the big double canoe from the school on the beach, let out shrieks of protest. It would pass over in a minute, we thought.

Once out of the bay we could see that the rain was much more widespread than just a passing shower. The seas were high, steep, close together and confused. The wind was 25 kts, gusting to over 30. We put up just one sail, the staysail, but we were leaving the engine running until we got past the rocky point. It got dark, really dark.

The rocking and rolling of the boat was severe. Like a mechanical bull in a 1980’s Urban Cowboy bar, it was best to hang on with both hands. It was nearly impossible to stand up. Our course was southeast, but we had to go north first in order to clear the point that we could no longer see except on radar. It took much longer to get past the point than we had expected. The AIS let us know that we were on a collision course with the supply ship. As we were leaving, it was coming in. We stayed on our current northward course until it was behind us, then we turned southeast. The engine sputtered and coughed. We shut it off immediately and set about figuring out what was wrong. It didn’t take long to understand once I had crawled down to the engine room. Ever since we had switched tanks after the engine quit on the way to Banderas Bay, we had never switched back to the center tank. We were still running on the starboard tank, which was now empty. Even after removing the clog from the fuel line, and refilling the center tank with all those jerry-jugs of diesel brought out in the dinghy, I had forgotten to switch the tanks back. The engine restarted. Luckily, we didn’t need to bleed the fuel lines.

With just the staysail, and winds topping out at 40 kts, we tacked back and forth for much of the night. We went north, then south, then north again, trying to make headway upwind. At one point while winching in the staysail sheet, the pull cord on my self-inflating life jacket (which I wasn’t even wearing) somehow got wrapped up in the line and got yanked on by the winch. It inflated. (OK, it does work! Or, at least it did.) In the dark it was difficult to understand what was happening.

By daylight we were completely disheartened. We still had more than 40 miles left to go. Ua Pou was still clearly visible right behind us in the morning sun. Instead of wasting all that jerry-jugged fuel trying to motor-sail and tack, we could’ve just powered straight into the wind all night and been a lot closer to the destination. We had never shut off the engine, anyway.

We furled the staysail and motored on a course direct to Tahuata, and directly into the wind and 10 foot swells. It was slow going, with each swell bringing us to a near stop. I’ve never seen the bowsprit spend so much time underwater, plunging into the bottom of nearly every swell. The inadequately secured anchor on the bow bounced in and out of its roller, grinding into the teak cap rail.

We hand steered, trading off every hour, and finally arrived at Hanamoenoa Bay on Tahuata when we hadn’t wanted toat 11:00 at night. We’ve anchored in unfamiliar bays in the dark before, but it is never fun. The anchor set on the first try. We broke out the beer we bought at the first store we’d found on Ua Pou, talked for a few minutes, then went to sleep. If we keep making trips like this, we should be veteran ocean sailors in no time.

Ua Pou

Posted by John using SailMail

From Nuku Hiva we crossed the 25 miles to Ua Pou, the theory being that if the swells were coming into Taiohae bay on the south side of Nuku Hiva, then they should not be going into Baie d’Hakahau on the north side of Ua Pou. Besides, they had built a breakwater there that we could anchor behind.

When the sky was clear, we could see the mountains of Ua Pou from Nuku Hiva. As we got closer, the mountains became more clearly defined as impressive rock spires, conjuring up all kinds of exotic images, including hordes of flying monkeys descending from the clouds. The seas were up uncomfortably, but the distance was relatively short.

Where the Nuku Hiva anchorage had been huge, with dozens of boats and plenty of room for more, the Ua Pou anchorage was tiny and shallow. I can’t think of anywhere we’ve been anchored more closely together, with more danger of swinging into another boat, than here. At one point we were squeezed between an Australian, a Belgian and an I don’t speak English, French boat. We tried using a stern anchor to keep us from swinging, but not only did it not do so, it may have contributed to causing our bow anchor to drag. To make things even more stressful, the supply ship wharf is right there and the ship was due any day. We would be in its way when it came in.

We met Dan, off the boat My Dream from Kirkland, WA. He rowed over and we all sat in the cockpit and talked for a while. He had single-handed it all the way from San Diego and had stories to tell. He said he’d been through some stuff and had a tough time with the crossing. We said we understood completely. His wife was flying down to Tahiti and was going to meet him when he got there.

We stayed in Ua Pou three nights. At first light on the final day we did an excursion to shore in search of beer, bread and other supplies. It was not as easy as we had expected. What had looked like an inviting beach cafe from the boat, turned out to be a school for swimming and canoeing. We found the bank, and the Air Tahiti office, even the post office, but no store. We asked around. Magasin? But we got sent in different directions. Finally, we found a small store. They had beer but no bread. They tried to direct us to the bakery. We never found the bakery but we found another store that had bread. So, hot and tired but satisfied, we made our way back out to the boat.

Our next planned stop was Tahuata, about 60 to 70 miles away. We thought we would leave late in the day, sail all night, and arrive in the morning. Too bad it didn’t work out quite like that.

Nuku Hiva

Posted by John using SailMail

We are disappointed in the quality of internet access we have. Perhaps it’s because after two weeks in Nuku Hiva (where Wi-Fi was bestand freeat the outdoor snack cafe at the dock) we departed for a couple of smaller islands where Wi-Fi, English speakers and good cell phone connections are hard to come by. In order to not fall too far behind, we’ve decided to make posts by radio email (when we can connect to the SailMail stationnot always a given, especially within the islands). Posting by radio precludes pictures from being included, but when we do get internet with enough bandwidth, we’ll do some picture catch up.

My laptop display went out on Nuku Hiva so we’ve had to install all of the Airmail software on Julie’s and get everything working again. If these posts don’t come out right, have patience until we come back up to speed. Many of my notes were written on my laptop and I must now remove the hard drive, dig out a set of cables I have stowed somewhere, and set it up as a USB drive so that I can access my notes, photos and other stuff. At least I brought along those cables, I think.

The fuel dock (concrete wharf designed for ships) on Nuku Hiva did not work for us so we refueled the boat by renting nine jerry jugs from Kevin, who with his wife Annabella, run Yacht Services in Taiohae. With those nine and our two jugs loaded in the back of Annabella’s pickup, she drove us to the gas station where we filled them and then shuttled them out to the boat in the dinghy. It took most of the day, but we were almost completely topped off with diesel. Ocean swells had infiltrated the bay with no let up in sight and made everything difficult. Just adding the 221 liters of diesel to the tank was an exhausting process. Working too much on repairing our sails, etc. was pretty much impossible while the boat was continuously rolling 25 degrees side-to-side. It was also difficult to sleep at night.

One day on the way to the ATM we passed a street market where a woman was selling bananas. Sure, we’d take some bananas, but we couldn’t carry them with us to the bank. We paid her and she said she’d leave them with Kevin. When we came back later Kevin had two stalks of bananas for us, as well as a box of several pamplemousse (grapefruit). That’s somewhere around a hundred pounds of fruit, which would all be ripe in a couple of days! We ended up leaving half the bananas with the cafe next to Kevin’s office, but still, I couldn’t stop thinking of Banana Boat when we made the long dinghy run across the bay to our boat. We ate lots of bananas, but not even half of what we had on deck.

In the Marquesas you buy cell phones from the post office. At the post office you take a number and wait for service. It took an hour to get the SIM card in the phone and make sure it was all working correctly. The one and only clerk was very nice and wouldn’t give up until she was sure it was all working properly. I’m not so sure you could say the same about the amazing number of people who came into the post office, took numbers, and sat on the benches to wait during that hour. Hopefully, the next person in line just wanted to buy some stamps and not a phone. We got the heck out of there.

Our last night at Nuku Hiva I was feeling more as if we were camping than boating. Julie and I had started the trip sleeping in the aft cabin, but by the time we got to San Diego and bought the water maker, which came in large boxes, we had put so much stuff in the aft cabin that we started sleeping in the cockpit. It was warm and dry enough and we were more aware of what was going on around us. But heavy rain showers have made it seem like camping. The blue canvas cockpit cover could very well be a blue tarp. The dripping rain coming in around the edges, combined with the wood smoke from the many small fires that people have here, brought back a lot of camping memories. Our last night was like this until suddenly it sounded like our tarp was collapsing in the wind. I sat up and said, What was that? Not seeing anything out of place, I closed my eyes again and started to go back to sleep until Julie called out that she thought there was a fish flopping around in the cockpit. We both got flashlights. It was no fish, but a bird trying to stretch its wings out and fly. It was startling to have a seagull-sized bird on our bedroom floor, jumping around and trying to fly. We helped him on his way. And, in a way, he helped us to move on from Nuku Hiva.

On May 20th, after two weeks on Nuku Hiva, we made a 25 mile, very bumpy crossing to Ua Pou (pronounced Wapoo). Ua Pou has spectacular rock spires rising to 4,000 feet, extruded up out of the volcanic slopes like Play-Doh through a template of a Play-Doh Fun Factory. Ua Pou will be the subject of the next post.

Over the Rainbow – Arrival in French Polynesia

Posted by John

Approaching Baie de Taiohae, Nuku Hiva, French Polynesia. May 7, 2017

It was most likely 1962, the year of the Seattle World’s Fair, when my parents took me to tour a visiting sailing yacht tied up on the Seattle waterfront.
I didn’t expect much.  It was just another thing I got dragged along to see.  That happened a lot with my dad.  But once onboard the boat, there was something about the coils of rope and the rigging, the blocks and pulleys and all the lines angling up toward the top of the masts that stuck with me. 

When we went down into the cabin below I recall the three of us sort of standing in a corner waiting for our eyes to adjust to the dim light.  Looking back now, I think my parents probably felt a little out of place, like being at a party where you know no one.  There were many people—not so much gawkers such as ourselves, but men and women somehow more knowing of each other and of that particular boat.  They were sitting and standing around a table, many drinking from bottles.  I remember it clearly, I think.  There was something about the way they laughed and told stories in the dimly lit and smoky space that made them seem extraordinary to me.  It was as if they had been somewhere beyond the horizon, over the edge of the earth, and were somehow on a different plane than the rest of us.  They not only knew what was beyond the edge, but they had been there and back.
I can trace my desire to sail off beyond the horizon to places unknown all the way back to that day and that moment more than fifty years ago.  My interests went in many different directions over the following years, but somewhere in the background that desire was always there as a “someday.”
In the pre-dawn hours of May 7, 2017 we arrived at the Marquesas Islands in the vicinity of Nuku Hiva and Ua Huka after sailing 33 days and 2,894 nautical miles non-stop from Banderas Bay, Mexico.  My first view of these islands was not as dark protrusions slowly rising on the distant horizon as I had always imagined, but as small smudges on a radar screen in the middle of the night, thought at first to be rain showers. 
The trip wasn’t easy.  A 42-foot boat can be a confining space for three people.  Even though the boat was moving, the scenery didn’t change.  The horizon looked the same in all directions, and no matter which way we pointed the boat, we never got any closer to it.  The sun went down and came up again, over and over, and the horizon was still out there in the distance. 
The ocean is never flat.  Even when it was calm with no wind waves the surface still undulated.  We went up and down on these constant undulations.  When up, we got a view; sometimes looking across the swells was almost like looking across the rolling hills of wheat country.  Other times we just got slammed by the force of an energy that had traveled a great distance, it seemed, just to whack, roll and spin us before passing under the boat, laughing as it came out the other side.
The sky was full of fluffy cotton ball clouds that constantly morphed into whimsical shapes, faces and animals.  The clouds were very good at it.  They didn’t expect anyone to be watching and so they didn’t care, trying as many new shapes as they wanted.  The rising and setting sun colored these shapes, sometimes spectacularly.  But again, they didn’t care.  Who was this show for?  Just us? We were a thousand miles from the nearest land and hadn’t seen another human in days. 

The birds would sometimes hitch rides with us, even spending the night. Did they have a clue where we were taking them? One poor guy got a little too complacent. A big swell knocked us, and he fell off into the water, bouncing through the bowsprit as he went down.
The stars were there at night.  When there was no moon, Jupiter and Venus were the brightest objects.  They reflected off the water like moonlight.  Once Venus came up behind a cloud and it was so bright its light lit the edges from behind.  The glow of the Milky Way was startling to see when looking up from the cockpit while alone at night. More than once I mistook a star just rising above the horizon for the light of a distant ship. But no, it was a star.
It is hard to think of Nuku Hiva as just another stop in our tour.  I think we truly went over the rainbow.

After weeks of blue—suddenly green.
The moment we crossed the equator.
Distant rain.
Taiohae anchorage, with boats from all over the world.
The dinghy dock is a little rough. The concrete stairs are the easiest way to get in and out, but there can be surge forcefully tossing the boats up and sucking them back out. Timing is everything.
You never know, someday we just might find that little house at the end of the road that calls out “Live here forever.”

Note: with all the things that broke, ripped, shredded or fell apart on this trip, one victim was the computer (and related software) used to create these blog posts. We are hoping it is just a humidity issue, but could mean new laptop time. Another was our Wi-Fi extender that allows us to leisurely do these posts from the boat at our convenience. We are currently making do, but perhaps more slowly than we’d like.

The Crossing – Week Four

Posted at Sea

If this is a marathon (and it is) then in week four we hit the wall.

The sun comes up; the sun goes down. Every day could be any other day. Sometimes the wind is up, and sometimes the swells are up. Sometimes both the wind and the swells are up. Huge forces are constantly acting on the boat. We hear them and feel them, and we see the results in the things that break; the screws that haven’t moved in years that now unscrew themselves; the head door that unlatches itself and swings open at the most inopportune of times. But we know that if we just keep putting one foot in front of the other (so to speak) the miles remaining will eventually reach zero.

We are hand steering the boat. The Saye’s Rig doesn’t work well (or at all) when sailing downwind in swells. The autopilot is also acting up. Either it can’t handle the heat (constant 90 degrees inside the boat), or the swells, or both. We do not have a good downwind sail. We’ve sort of poofed out the jib in front and are using that to pull us along. We’re not the fastest boat in fleet, but we are doing all right.

The mood became a bit more animated a few nights ago when a flying fish flew into the cockpit and right into Robyn, who was steering at the time. She calmly picked up the flopping fish and tossed it back into the ocean. Things were more lively and upbeat for a while after that.