Sailing into Rikitea

The seas subsided as soon as we entered the NW reef pass in Gambier. We eyed the beautiful scenery hungrily… we were just getting our first appetizers.

“Wow, that mountain peak is insane”

“Look at that schooner anchored in the turquoise water!”

“Oh this wind is soo nice.”

Aldebaran’s hulls sliced through the light chatter of the wavelets in the channel that ran between the islands of Mangareva and Taravai. As we got to the lee of the island, the wind dissipated and we took the opportunity to rig up our country flags on the shrouds.

At this point, the standard practice is to fire up Mr. Isuzu and motor through the channels into the anchorage. But Spencer, living up to his title of Master Mariner, was not about to make this arrival ‘standard practice’.

Despite the swirling wind, gusting and shifting, requiring constant movement of the sails, Spencer adjusted the sails with such persistence that we did not dare stop his efforts. Instead, Aldebaran kept sailing into the lagoon.

A brief reflection: sailing upwind in the open ocean ranges from bumpy to disastrous, depending on how rough it is. In the sheltered waters of a bay, however, sailing upwind can be pure glory.

And so, Spencer became increasingly ecstatic with each tack we made towards the north.

“Guys. This isn’t cruising. This is SAILING!” he hollered as we tacked Aldebaran for the sixth time upwind in the steady 20 knot breeze. “The reefing on the main sail is doing AWESOME!” he proudly proclaimed, looking up at the sail shape. He had been the mastermind behind our reefing setup, which we finally installed around Day 16 of our passage (ha!). A reefed mainsail has been reduced in size for strong winds, and the sail shape can sometimes look like a poor, baggy outfit; but this one looked like a fine summer dress on a lovely lady.

Another hurdle appeared: an increasing number of buoys from the pearl farms constricted our path, which turned into an obstacle course within an obstacle course.

“12 foot shallow spot coming up on our starboard… and see that black buoy over there? let’s get past it then we’ll tack again.”

As we approached the narrowest part of the channel, with shallow coral reefs on either side, Spencer did the responsible thing, and suggested we drop the sails and motor in.

“I think we’re fine… let’s keep sailing,” I countered, knowing it would please him to no end.

“Really??” he beamed.

We had developed confidence in the nautical charts, which seemed to accurately show the shallow areas. Sabrina and Michael kept an eye out from the bow. With growing boldness, Spence would eye the next tack angle and call the turns with the boat just feet from the buoys and channel markers.

“Who knew, this old girl can SAIL!” Spencer yelped as the winches got cranked in with the crisp sound of the bearings.

We eased on the sails and turned into the final channel leading to the anchorage with about 15 masts backdropped by the green island of Mangareva and red tiled buildings of the village of Rikitea. To our surprise, a grey, hard-chined sailboat had also lifted its sails and was sailing out just as we were sailing in, passing within 15 feet due to the narrowness of the channel. The stoic skipper of the boat was solo, and gave us a little nod as we passed. In our minds, we imagined he was a “Jean-Pierre”, an expat Frenchman who now lived in Gambier, and this was his commute between the grocery store and his lagoon-front hacienda.

“That is bad ass,” said Spence.

We were pleased to drop our sails just as we dropped the hook, which felt damn cool after sailing 3000 nautical miles. But we also realized this was no place for pride. Every skipper here was an expert sailor, every sailboat was dialed for the challenges of this latitude. We were just another fish in this big, beautiful pond.

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