Bora Bora to Pago Pago

Posted by John

With each ocean passage we make, I feel less and less of a fraud and more and more of an actual offshore sailor. Before leaving home last year, we were in Fisheries Supply in Seattle. As we walked by a counter in the sailing department, I overheard the clerk say to a customer, “We sell a lot of these for open ocean boats” (or words to that effect). I don’t know what he was referring to, but I remember thinking that Mysticeti is an open ocean boat. However, it didn’t seem right to think of myself as an open ocean sailor then. I don’t necessarily feel that way anymore, especially after arriving safely in Pago Pago.

A document posted on the blog of s/v Soggy Paws, written by British Captain John M. Wolstenholme, of the yacht Mr. John VI, calls this area of the Pacific between French Polynesia and the Samoa/Tonga area the “Dangerous Middle.” It is the South Pacific Convergence Zone; the place where the equatorial winds and the southern trades meet. It is not to be taken lightly.

Except for the fact that our West Marine “Raiatea” model binoculars, which we had bought at a boat show maybe fifteen years ago, had just spontaneously broken in two, ironically on Bora Bora and not on Raiatea where we had been a couple of weeks earlier, the passage started out great. We passed Maupiti in late afternoon as the sun was setting. We were sailing comfortably at six knots with about a fifteen knot wind. We even seemed to have Isaac, our Saye’s Rig self-steering system, dialed-in to perfection. It seemed like we were just along for a nice ride.

Sometime during the long night it got weird. The northeast wind died suddenly, and after a few minutes of zero wind, it roared back from the southeast at twenty knots or more. Isaac was confused, and suddenly we were going almost 180 degrees from what we wanted. We got back on course and reset Isaac, which requires leaving the safety of the cockpit and scrambling across the top of the aft cabin to do so, but the ride was no longer so nice. The seas rose, and during the night something came loose, slid across the galley counter, and bumped the water faucet on. The replacement water pressure pump that we had wandered the back streets of Papeete trying to find did a great job of efficiently emptying our full 100-gallon center water tank down the drain before we realized that the pump was running.

To make it worse, one of our two side tanks was last filled with dock water in La Cruz, Mexico. All through French Polynesia we were drawing water only from the center tank, topping it off with the water maker whenever we were in a clean enough and calm enough anchorage, or from the dock in Papeete. Of all the marinas we stopped at in Mexico, we always verified that the water on the dock was potable. There was one marina where we didn’t ask. That marina was La Cruz. When we tried to use the water in that side tank, it had a yellow tint, seemed to foam up, and had black grit floating in it. We switched to the other side tank. We don’t remember where the second side tank was last filled, but we drank from it for the rest of the crossing, and are still drinking from it today. The water has a slight metallic taste. It could be that it has been sitting in that tank for a long time.

The next thing that went wrong was when we started the engine to flush the water maker. Every five days the water maker membranes need to be flushed with fresh (or maybe less-than-fresh) water. But when we started the engine to supply the power to run the pumps, we apparently again sucked up whatever had clogged the fuel line before, when we were on our way to Banderas Bay. Once again the engine quit. We switched tanks, did a fuel filter change (because it was really gunked up), and bled the fuel lines mid-ocean in rough conditions.

We originally thought about stopping at Suwarrow atoll, especially when we learned that we needed to refill the water tank. We can’t really run the water maker while underway in rough seas because the pressure fluctuations in the incoming seawater are difficult to handle. We were less than a day out from Suwarrow when we decided that the sea conditions made Suwarrow’s entrance channel a possibly risky proposition. We changed course for Pago Pago.

As we approached American Samoa, we started to look at our arrival time. If we got there too early, it would be the middle of the night. If we got there too late, it would be the weekend and we’d be hit with overtime charges for customs inspection, which you are directed to immediately after being granted permission by Port Control to enter the harbor. The wind was no longer steady, and had actually become quite light. We didn’t want to, because our autopilot is broken and Isaac will not work when we’re under power, but we decided to run the engine and proceed under power for twelve hours, arriving outside the harbor at first light. It would mean hand steering all night, taking turns every hour, bleary-eyed, trying to keep to a compass heading.

Sometime during the night our “steaming” light, which indicates our status as a power-driven vessel, burned out. Not that it mattered much since for the entire trip we had seen only two ships. But it was one more thing that would need fixing, and it’s seventeen feet up the mast.

The entry into the country was the first we’ve done without the help of an agent. We were directed to tie alongside a motor vessel which we couldn’t find at first because another ship was already there. This was pointed out to us by a fellow cruiser already anchored in the bay. On clarification with Port Control, we were directed to tie to that second ship. Fortunately there were crew on board to take our lines. After waiting for a long time, we were finally boarded by what seemed like an excessive number of officials, including police, health department and customs. We had just sailed over a thousand miles in less-than-smooth seas. The cabin was a mess. They seemed most concerned about any contagious diseases we might have, and where our guns and prescription medications were kept. We had none of either on board. One inspector even opened and sniffed a jar of parsley. I don’t know how many times I was asked where we kept the guns, and if any of us were sick. Not being able to find anything, they finally hit us up for a $100 certificate proving we had no rats or mice on board. One of the inspectors was apparently qualified to make that determination. Either that, or we’d have to be fumigated, which would likely cost more. When told to go ahead and take down our “Q” flag, we untied from the ship and motored over to the anchorage and dropped anchor amongst Puddle Jump boats we knew: Slow Flight, Me Too, Terrapin and All Day.

During this crossing through the “Dangerous Middle,” we have seen what are likely the biggest waves we’ve sailed in so far, some of the highest sustained winds (in gale-force range), heaviest rains, and been rolled over the farthest yet. We also saw our highest surfing speeds (more than 12 knots) and took the most water on deck, at one time flooding the starboard deck between the cabin and the bulwark with six-inch deep water that seemed to take forever to drain off through the scupper. And during all that, we dealt with the above problems, even gluing and duct taping the right-side objective lens assembly of our binoculars back together with the rest of it. It actually works all right.

All things considered, this was actually a fairly fun crossing. We had several days and nights of good, low-maintenance sailing with the boat steering itself, the sun crossing the sky by day, and the stars and waning moon crossing by night. It’s a little strange seeing the familiar constellation Orion appear upside-down at this latitude, but his belt still points to Sirius.

So go ahead and call us offshore sailors if you want. I’m okay with it.

Note: Apparently someone has tripped over the cord that connects the American Samoa internet to the rest of the world. I guess there will be no pictures until they find it and plug it back in.

Bora Bora

Posted by John

I don’t know when I first heard of Bora Bora, but I do remember seeing someone with a Bora Bora T-shirt at Greenlake Park in Seattle during the summer of 1983. I wanted a Bora Bora T-shirt too. I don’t think I knew exactly where Bora Bora was then, except that it was an exotic place far away in the Pacific. And okay, I know for sure that it was summer, but I admit it could’ve been ’82 or ’84. Memory is a funny thing.

Now, all these years later, my thoughts were not so much about Bora Bora’s exotic nature as that it was generally the end of the line for French Polynesian cruising. All of the Puddle Jump and Oyster Yacht World Rally boats would be stacking up there like floats at the end of a parade. Oyster Yachts are a high-end sailing yacht. I can’t imagine many of them cost less than a million dollars each. Since they all arrived in French Polynesia at about the same time as all of the Puddle Jump boats, we’d all be faced with the same 90-day visa limit.

Although not far from each other, we wondered if Bora Bora could be as nice as Tahaa. I keep remembering the smile on that woman’s face in Papeete as she coached us on the proper way to say Ta’ha’a. It was like she was laughing and saying “ha-ha.” She had fun with it. We’re glad we spent time there. But we also needed Bora Bora for diesel fuel and groceries (“provisions” in yacht-speak) for the long road ahead. We also wanted good Wi-Fi (one could only hope), and to re-supply our beer cooler. And we wanted to find a cheeseburger and/or pizza. These were all things we’d been lacking lately. And of course, we needed to fill out forms and check out before our expiration date. As they say, “Thank you for coming, and thank you for leaving.”

Although I imagine relatively few have heard of Tahaa, Bora Bora is a tourist destination with hotels and restaurants and fleets of Sunsail, Moorings and Dream Yacht Charters that people fly in from all over to rent for a week or so. The two main anchorages in town are too deep for us but have a few fixed mooring buoys. When we arrived we found what we had been afraid of: all of the mooring buoys were occupied, and our anchor chain was too short for anchoring in the 100-foot depths. We cruised slowly and hopefully through the mooring fields at both the Bora Bora Yacht Club and the Mai Kai Marina, passing Puddle Jump boats we knew: Fandango, My Dream and Sweetpea; and Oyster Yachts we had been crossing paths with since Nuku Hiva: Calliope, Dalliance and Miss Tiggy. Many of the Oysters speak with British accents, and it seems that their boat names are intended to be spoken with such as well. They sound so sophisticated that way, like an expensive yacht should. We ended up anchoring in about thirty feet in a quiet bay on the far side of one of the small islands inside the lagoon; too far away, and too much intervening bigger boat traffic (choppy water), for us to make a dinghy trip to town.

The next day we were just sitting there, when we heard an outboard approaching. It was Dan from My Dream. He and a friend were out looking for the manta rays that hang out nearby. He also said that he was leaving at first light in the morning, on his way to Palmerston in the Cook Islands. We told him we wanted his mooring, and we’d be over there very early in the morning, circling like a vulture until he let it go. We were. He did, eventually. And we swooped in and snagged it.

A little while later the guys from Sweetpea dinghied over and talked for a while. They had been there for several days already and filled us in on what they knew. We could pay for the mooring at the bar in the restaurant that was right over on shore. There was a dinghy dock, but its connection with shore was “sketchy” and not recommended if you stayed too late in the bar.

So with that, we launched our dinghy, took our remaining French Polynesian cash, and went in search of answers to our questions. The dinghy dock, one of the few floating docks we’d seen in French Polynesia, was indeed a little rough. For one thing, it floated like a bobbing cork in the wind and waves, making it difficult even to just stand up on. It was held in place by a large rope tied to something on shore and a few more anchoring it to the bottom. It made no physical connection to the wooden deck in front of the restaurant and there was a gap of three to four feet. Not only were the steps up to the restaurant’s deck on the far side of this gap, but the first step was up higher and at a right angle to the dock. There were no railings of any kind; nothing to grab or lunge for. After trying to stand and stare at the problem for a while, we were finally spurred on by the two large boats tied to one side of the dinghy dock. Every time the gusting wind bashed one of them into it, the dock gave an extra lurch. We couldn’t keep standing there all day.

Interesting digression: there are only a few inches of “sun tide” in the Society Islands, with high tide at noon everyday. Due to a fluke of geography, there is virtually no “moon tide.” Docks don’t need to float up and down with the tide because there really isn’t any.

We rented the mooring for a week, and it came with use of the pool and vouchers for two free drinks. There was a laundry down the street somewhere, if we could find it. The best part about our first Bora Bora shore trip, however, was the couple of hours we spent having a cheeseburger lunch while sitting at a table just inside the open wall of the restaurant, above the wooden deck, with a sweeping view of the boats in the bay. There was a gentle cooling breeze making its way inside, but it was blowing twenty knots outside. It would’ve been rough trying to anchor that deep in that wind. Thanks Dan.

Within a day or two the Oyster yachts began departing. This opened up several moorings, but instead of quieting down the bay, the extra space seemed to give the local boats more room to drive faster and put up bigger wakes. In addition to that, we have been plagued by what I call “Air Balls.” These are sudden blasts of air, coming from seemingly random directions right out of a gentle breeze, and with a ferocious, even frightening intensity lasting mere seconds before a return to the previous conditions. They come without warning, and go just as quickly. They spin and toss the boat and tear at things aboard trying to suck them away, even the dinghy with outboard attached.

So while we had idyllic days on Tahaa, things were more boisterous on Bora Bora, especially with it being the last week of the month-long Polynesian Heiva festival. But although not so idyllic, we found everything we needed to prepare for the next leg of the trip.

With the departure of Fandango, My Dream and even Sweetpea, which was a surprise when they came to say goodbye, we are the last (as far as we know) of the Puddle Jump boats that departed from Mexico and California all at about the same time. From here our plan is to head to American Samoa, with a possible rest stop at Suwarrow. In American Samoa the rumor is we can get mail and packages sent from home as if it was just another destination within the U.S. Then, depending on how bad the Pago Pago harbor is, we may hop across the dateline to regular Samoa (formerly called Western Samoa?). We’ve heard it’s really nice there.

So, next up, I guess it will be Bora Bora to Pago Pago. Total distance to Pago Pago by way of Suwarrow: 1,140 nautical miles.

The island of Bora Bora as seen from inside the lagoon of Tahaa
Coming into the lagoon of Bora Bora
Only time will tell if we run across any of the boats from the Oyster Yacht World Rally again
Mai Kai Marina restaurant on Bora Bora
Surf breaking on the fringing barrier reef of Huahine
We woke to a muddy bay on Tahaa after heavy rain overnight
Black pearl farm on Tahaa
Polynesian houseboat above the reef on Huahine
Supermarket in Fare on Huahine
Churches like this one on Tahaa are all over French Polynesia
French Polynesia still has lots of phone booths, some of which are oddly placed
Julie snorkeling on Huahine
Fish and coral on Tahaa
Bora Bora, after the sunset