The Curse of the Black Pearl, part 1

Buoys from pearl farms dot the surface of the lagoon in Gambier. They create a slalom course for sailing yachts exploring the islands within the lagoon.

Mangareva – where we’ve been anchored doing boat work after our passage across the Pacific – is the largest in the archipelago, and is the local pearl farming hub.

After the storm passed and Deena arrived, we hiked across from the little town of Rikitea, where we are anchored, to the other side of the island. We walked along a scenic bay called “Baie de Gatavake” to meet Gabriel, whose father owns a guesthouse and pearl farm. At the end of a long wooden pier an aluminum panga greeted us.

Thanks to its privileged lagoon setting, the Gambier islands are home to one of the largest black pearl operations in the South Pacific. Black pearls are valuable because they are limited in range; they are primarily found in French Polynesia, Cook Islands, and Fiji.

The influx of cash from this industry has turned Gambier into a workhorse community. Pearl farming is a 7 day per week operation. Nearly everyone, as a local lady explained to us with a wry smile, “is a slave to the pearl”.

A young guy with wetsuit around his waist greeted us. He drove the 115 HP aluminum panga at full speed through a maze of coral reef channels. In the glassy turquoise water, we went by several little houses on stilts: these are the pearl farms. Gabriel’s farm consisted of a large shack on a wooden dock, about one half mile from the island.

To our surprise, when we entered the shack there was a ton of people inside! About twenty workers were crammed into the verandah, the floating dock, and the inner room. They each do a different job. There were guys with baseball caps drilling tiny holes in the baby oysters to attach on strings. There were ladies tying oysters to the ropes that hung in the water column. The workers buzzed around like an organized beehive, and we could scarcely move around without being in someone’s way.

Surprise Storm in Gambier

Spencer was trimming his beard on the back of the boat when the storm hit.

It was calm and cloudy a second ago. Then a vicious gust of wind barreled down out of nowhere and all hell broke loose!

We were at anchor in Rikitea. About 10 sailboats had left the day before, heading towards the Tuamotos with the SE wind (it had finally switched, after almost 3 weeks of northerly winds).

We had been monitoring the weather charts. They had indicated a “high pressure” moving in with strong winds and rain. We interpreted this as “clearing winds” after a low has passed, a phenomenon we are used to in California… but what of the rain?? We weren’t sure why there would be rain ahead of a high pressure.

Our friend Rick on the catamaran Duplicat (which visited Pitcairn for a day with us) left earlier that morning for Taravai island — which is next door to where we are in Mangareva island. Later they reported by satellite email they got hit by 40knot gusts and zero visibility as they were exiting the channel. Quite sketchy! So they said “screw it” and turned north toward the Tuamotos.

Meanwhile on Aldebaran, gusts hit us like bowling balls from the north, south, east and west. When the boat finally turned at anchor to face the last blow, another blow took us broadside. Sheets of pelting rain came down on Spencer like needles. Did he stop trimming his beard? Of course not! In some of the worst beard-trimming conditions known to man, Spencer laughed and hollered like the wild Captain Dan in Forrest Gump, hanging on to the mast in the storm. Until it got too bad.

“Uh-oh!!!” Spencer warned. A full minute of deceptive calm had just passed. Now behind us there was a stretch of smooth water, one of the 40 foot sailboats at anchor was heeling over at 40 degrees due to an incoming gust. The wind was blowing it over!

The wind line approached us like a marching army, kicking up frothy swirls into the air, ripping up the previously calm water into shreds. Next thing you know, our vynil windows were flapping violently as rain drove horizontally into the cockpit. Across the way, the neighbor’s skiff caught air with the katabatic-like gust, and flipped upside down, outboard engine in the water! What a bummer!

“Is that one of our surfboards in the water??” Spencer cried over the din of the wind. A white object floated 100 feet away. We jumped into the skiff and motored over there, covering our eyes from the stinging pellets of rain, but it was just the outrigger of a canoe, certainly owned by some locals. We secured it in Aldebaran, and side-tied the dinghy to keep it safe.

After a full 45 minutes,
the chaotic, tornado-like wind finally veered to the SE, and blew like stink. A 30 foot sailboat rain aground on the reef, his mast stuck at an angle like the wing of a wounded eagle. A few powerboats came to the rescue and pulled the boat successfully into deeper water.

We later got a report from our friends on Pakia Tea that they had anchored in a bay in Taravai for protection from the strong SE wind that was forecasted, and then got hit during that chaotic hour by a westerly wind of over 40 knots which would have landed their boat on the reef, had the anchor not re-set properly.

The Gendarme (local police & port captain) said that at the weather station located at the top of Mangareva, a gust of 120mph was recorded. Crazy!

This was the storm that forced Deena’s flight to turn around. It blew steadily for two days with rain and poor visibility. Aldebaran remained comfortable at anchor, hanging onto Mr. Bruce, our 66lb hook with 230feet of chain. We collected rainwater and watched the new Kon Tiki movie inside our cozy cabin.

We now have new respect for strong winds that come with high pressures here in the tropics. Its not just low pressures that can bring fronts of rain and wind.

Deena’s Challenging Voyage to Gambier

Deena is a friend from San Francisco who has joined us aboard Aldebaran both in the Channel Islands and in Oaxaca, southern Mexico. Those were each short 4-day trips; now she is joining us for 4 weeks!

She is our first crew mate to fly into French Polynesia to meet us. The logistics were extra difficult because for her, because we are in one of the most remote locations that Air Tahiti flies to; and it costs US$400 each way from Tahiti. She spent a week in Moorea doing a SCUBA course before meeting us. I asked how her travels were so far:

….”Easy trip! Many hours door to door but all easy. Weather is tropical- humid, super breezy, not too hot. I’m staying with an older french woman, her four dogs and at least one cat, communicating in mangled french and spanish, riding around the island on a creaky bicycle, eating fresh tuna sandwiches and excited for my first diving lesson tomorrow 🙂 Slowly sinking into paradise, so happy to be here and be joining you soon!”

Then later in the week, we heard bad news: Air Tahiti wasn’t flying because of a firefighter strike! We feared the worst. Deena updated us:

….”I just heard about the ongoing air tahiti firefighter’s strike, which has cancelled lots of flights this week already. they can only fly to Tahiti, Bora Bora, Raiatea and Rangiroa – everywhere else is affected by the strike. fingers crossed that it will be resolved tomorrow, otherwise, i’m not sure when i will get to you! 😦 ”

It was a nail-biter. If she can’t make it, then what?? We have to sail north in a week! Thankfully, the day before her flight, the prognosis was good:

….”the firefighters have agreed to a minimum flight schedule this weekend. as of now my flight is supposed to arrive at Gambier at 13:55. if anything changes i will let you know. So how do i find you, where should i go from the airport? 🙂 ”

On Saturday, the day of Deena’s arrival, a sudden storm blew in and enveloped Gambier. Can you imagine that the plane wasn’t able to land due to poor visibility, and they circled back to Tahiti! Deena managed to read two books during the 10hrs in the airplane. Then she had to figure out where to sleep in Papeete:

…”I was lucky last night – the people I took dive lessons with were also in Tahiti and had an whole extra bedroom in their hotel room, so they let me crash one night of their honeymoon 🙂 Hanging out in Papeete today and will be at the airport at 5am tomorrow, all my fingers and toes are crossed that I can make it! I was inspired by your blog post and bought a pamplemousse at the market this morning. OMG it’s soo good!”

The flight was rescheduled for Monday, at which time the storm was subsiding. The plane lands in a tiny fringe of land on the barrier reef around Gambier, then transports passengers by shuttle boat to Rikitea for US$10. We saw the boat coming, and Deena was onboard! Along with two dozen people that had been stuck trying to fly to Gambier the last week. We were grateful to see her and begin our adventure together.

Postscript from Deena to help other travelers:

…”I was told that strikes are common here (apparently it’s very French). Weather delays as well! There is only one airline that flies to the outer islands, so there are no options if your flight is canceled. 3000 passengers were impacted by the strike, even more by the weather, and AirTahiti does not give vouchers to help with costs. For international travelers, missing a local flight might mean being stranded for another week. I felt lucky to have days to spare. But I was also inspired by the reaction of the plane full of locals on my 10 hour flight to nowhere, when we turned around after halfway. Laughter, shrugging, resigning themselves to reality instead of getting frustrated, and smiles of recognition when we reunited two days later for our successful flight to Mangareva. C’est la vie, à la Polinesie! ”

Check out Deena’s pictures from Moorea on Instagram at @deenstagram

Photo: Shortly after arriving in Gambier, Deena wanted to adopt this adorable dog. She’s moving in quickly!

Food Patrol

Dealing with food in a cruising sailboat is (in general) a huge task; and reviewing our food stocks is one of the first things to do after a passage. We often purchase cart-loads of food, which we have to sort and store in awkward compartments that can sometimes get wet or damaged by motion underway, or infested with moths.

So upon arriving in port, the task is to remove and review all the items from food benches, bilges, and pantries; and re-pack it all. This is equivalent to unloading everything from your attic, via the tiny trap door, in order to sort it. Not necessarily that easy!

Sabrina tackled this food review with enormous diligence. Our strategy to save money & have good provisions for quality meals on Green Coconut Run has been to “pack the boat to the gills” with food from Ecuador (and Pitcairn, once we realized what a good deal it was there!) This was in preparation for the exorbitant costs and limited supplies in French Polynesia.

Walking around the stores here in town, we are almighty pleased that we took this approach! A bottle of rum: in Ecuador $6, in Rikitea $80. Kingston cookies (my favorite!): in Pitcairn $3, in Rikitea $4.50. Olive Oil: in Panama $30, in Rikitea $60. The supply ship only comes to Rikitea every three weeks, and even then people say: come the next day at 7am, or else everything is bought up! So we are very glad we’ve packed as much as possible into Aldebaran for this coming season in French Polynesia, but the downside is that we have to review our stocks to check for damage or spoilage once a month or so.

Aloft! The Work Push Continues

My friend Jay once said, in his special tongue-and-cheek way, “I love work. I especially love watching other people work.”

So I figured you might enjoy knowing all the work we’ve been doing, as it offers some appreciation for the behind-the-scenes of running a sailboat; or at least some perverse satisfaction from reading about it from your computer desk!

Here’s the list of what we did in Rikitea during our week of work, between Michael’s departure and the arrival of our next crew member, Deena. It has

– Fixed the chainplate

– Reviewed all the food

– Re-wired the camera and Iridium chargers, as they got disconnected during our solar installation

– Serviced Mr. Isuzu: new oil and filter, new fuel filter, new transmission oil, washed off engine from belt wear, shop vac bilges

– Built shelves to install new camera gear

– Sorted medicine cabinet with additions from Pitcairn (more gifts from Bountiful Bay!)

– Troubleshooting the water maker, which hasn’t been working properly, with help from tech support

Spencer also led the charge on a number of places

– Repaired the sails (working jib, genoa, reacher) with the sewing machine

– Climbed mast to inspect rig and fix chafe problem on headsail

– Installed no-see-um Mosquito Nets in main cabin

– Fixed window that broke during our last night at sea

– Fixed dishrack that fell apart

At this point, our friend Jay would have said, while nursing a beer in the comfy chair: “God’s work. You guys are doing God’s work out there.” Indeed — keeping your own boat ship-shape (and preferably, afloat) is as divine a job as it gets!

Field Repairs: fixing the Backstay chainplate

One of the first questions that cruising sailboat owners ask each other when meeting is, “So… what’s broken on your boat?” Cruising is also known as “fixing your boat in remote places” and you better learn to enjoy it! In this case we had the delightful backdrop of Rikitea, which during the 2nd week of our stay, we had the good fortune of several calm days as placid as a lake.

It always makes me feel better seeing how much work it takes to maintain new, half-million dollar boats — it’s not just old boats from the 60s like Aldebaran that need elbow grease! Owners of expensive yachts reported there were leaks in the pumps; gaskets were broken; engine belts worn off; paint in aluminum sailboats wasn’t adhering; lights that wouldn’t work, and the list went on. Of course, our work is a little more non-stop because of the age of our vessel 😉

The backstay chainplate with new caulking

The first major task on Aldebaran was the leak in the 7 year old backstay chainplate, which had been getting worse during our passage. Everyone uses this as a support to enter the boat from the dinghy, so water eventually found its way in, and had damaged the wood backing plate. Fortunately, our boat has two backstays (a spare, right Michael?) so we could remove one easily while the other held up the mast.

This was a three day job removing rotten wood with a hammer and chisel, drying the soft wood with penetrating epoxy, cutting new mahogany on a diagonal with our skilsaw, and installing the new backing plate. Finally, we caulked and bolted the chainplate with new nyloc nuts we had on hand. Every step was done with great care, since keeping the mast upright while sailing is an utmost priority!

The new inside backing plate. Should look nice again after we paint it!

Luckily, we’ve been able to talk by satellite with our good friend in the U.S., expert rigger Ian Weedman, to ensure we’re doing the right thing. He also advised us along the passage about our reefing installation, sail chafe, and many finer details for which we are super grateful! For anyone doing a rig installation (or a tree house, which he is also famous for) please contact Ian at { iweedman at yahoo dot com }

Mr. Payne returns home


Well, it was time to say farewell!

Michael was with us 5 weeks, from Galapagos to Gambier islands, and we got him to his plane back to LAX on time. As a 72 year old, he was an inspiration to all of us for his keenness to do things, positive attitude at all times, and courage for joining us in the first place!

Folks are still talking about him in the Rikitea anchorage after his hike up the tough Mokoto Peak the day after our arrival – not for the faint of heart! Michael was a great crewmate– always ready to do his midnight shift (even if we had to shake him to wake up, he sleeps like a log!), unfailing in the precision of Tea Time (steep the tea bag for exactly 5 minutes, at 4pm), and never complained about the vegetables rotting near his bed (a major advantage to having a reduced sense of smell, we discovered). 

Michael brought many gifts to our frugal vessel, not least of which was his desire for real milk for his tea, and so we packed dozens of cartons of milk in the boat. Same with wine boxes, which he is always game to indulge during dinner. 

Despite the trimaran’s great comfort and stability, admittedly it is quite noisy when banging into the waves. Once reassured that the boat wasn’t falling into pieces – being the stolid Englishman he is  – Mr. Payne never complained about the noises in the boat, or anything for that matter. Until one of our last nights, when there was a waterfall of salt water coming down next to him at 5am through the damaged hatch. 

“Yes, a bit rough last night, wasn’t it?” He then asked. 

We’ll miss you Michael! 


Rainbows, Rain, and some Surf

While the “fleet” of sailboats was weathering the north wind in Rikitea, in between the drizzle and rainstorms, we were hoping to go surf.

“The wind is calm tomorrow, do you want to try to get waves?” Asked Marieh from Silverland, the 1957 Brig.

“We’d love to come too!” Said Camila and Helge, from the Norwegian boat. They have been “stuck” without surf as their captains don’t like to anchor near waves, so they jumped on the opportunity.

We did two trips to the southern Islands in Gambier, which get some exposure to swell. The waves a bit poor. but some long rides were had and it was fun being in the water.

Each time we navigated the hour long trip through plenty of rain and sun. This is one advantage of the finnicky weather here in Gambier: there are a lot of rainbows!

Pizza at Silverland

We got a special treat tor Michael’s last night with us: a pizza party in an amazing 1957 brigantine sailboat called “Silverland”. 

Photo: The Brigantine “Silverland” illuminated at the night of our party. By Camilla Penderson. 

The owners are a Dutch couple (Marco and Marieh) with a 9 year old son (Matis). They are avid kitesurfers and Marieh is also a keen surfer. They literally rebuilt the boat in the Netherlands and are now sailing the world and doing charters along the way, ranging from scientific trips to cruises around islands for a few days. 



The pizza place in Rikitea is only open Friday thru Sunday nights, at which time they are flooded with orders. So we went early at 5pm and waited 45 minutes for the pizza, and took the dinghy ride back to Silverland. 

Nobody could help but be impressed by the ship, with its incredible array of lines, old school bronze windows, and a 6 foot tall engine that sounds like a tractor. 


Photos: by Camilla Penderson.   

“You guys run this boat alone??” We asked, flabbergasted. 

Marco and Marieh are quite energetic and manage the ship on their own, apparently. Meanwhile, their 9 year old son Matis runs around. It must be quite a spectacle at sea! 

Cruisers from around the world in Mangareva

“There’s quite a few boats here! During the cyclone season there were only 3 boats,” said Marco, a Dutchman who had sailed here with his wife and 9 year old son a few months prior.

Around 20 sailboats were now anchored in the village of Rikitea, on the east side of Mangareva. The boats hailed from 12 countries: Germany, Finland, Norway, France, Israel, Poland, United States, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Austria, Australia.

Most sailors are couples in their 60s and 50s, and a few are solo sailors. There is also a surprising number of cruisers in their 40s and 30s (like us!).

“Gambier is off the beaten path, and it’s more challenging sailing in these higher latitudes. I think this attracts some younger sailors,” reflected Andreas, our Norwegian friend.

Andreas, Maggie, Camila, and Helge on Stella Polaris

An overview pic of the beautiful Stella Polaris, an “OVNI” aluminum sailboat.

Despite the several calm anchorages in Gambier, this spot in Rikitea seems to be best for the strong North wind currently blowing- hence everyone is waiting around until the wind switches direction, so they can all head north to Tuamotos. So basically there’s a slight traffic jam of sailboats waiting for the wind gates to open!

Usually cruisers will meet for drinks in each others’ boats, but since there are so many at this moment a Cruiser Happy Hour was organized at the beach. A “parking lot” of skiffs with outboards lined the sand. Frisbees and soccer balls were played on the lawn, and the beer selection that people brought came from all the countries previously visited: Panama, Ecuador, Chile.

This is Birgit and her garden in Pitufa; along with partner Christian, they are Austrians cruising French Polynesia for four years already. Each of their plants comes from a different archipelago, it seems!

At the end of the evening we migrated to the next door gymnasium where the nightly Drum & Dance practice is being conducted. They are preparing for the Bastille Day festival in Papeete, where they will represent Gambier (more on this later!)

Dance and drum rehearsal for the Gambier group.

It was a fascinating group of sailors to talk to- all are able to repair just about anything on their boats, and come from interesting backgrounds. The older folks usually have rental property and retirement income to support their sailing lifestyle. Meanwhile, the younger folks are scrapping it together with savings, writing articles, visiting crew contributions, and crowdfunding (like us! …if you enjoy our updates, you can support our trip on …thank you! )

Many people were interested in Green Coconut Run’s model of cooperative sailing, but ultimately didn’t think they could make a timely plan to accommodate visitors like we do.

“People need a schedule so they can take vacation from work,” Sabrina mentioned to the Germans. “We actually really enjoy having a plan and hosting visiting crew. Everyone brings new energy to the boat. Plus, they bring us chocolate and spare parts for the boat!”

With our new sailing friends, we made plans to visit another island, for Michael’s last day here in Gambier, before he flew home to Los Angeles.


Background on the typical approach to sailing to South Pacific:

The vast majority of sailors going to the South Pacific – I heard it’s about 200 boats or so – go first to Marquesas, coming from Panama or California. This includes some “Round the World Rallies” where some 25 boats are traveling together (strength in numbers?).

The cyclone season in South Pacific is between November and April, so everyone tries to arrive at the very end of that period. The result is that the anchorages in the Marquesas, which are already narrow due to their depth, can become downright crowded. Weird huh?

We chose to come to Gambier first in order to avoid those “crowds” – and because we can sail to Marquesas from here, but the reverse is much harder, due to the predominant easterly trade winds.

Furthermore, the anchorage here in Rikitea doesn’t feel very crowded (despite the number of boats here) because it is very large and calm. Everyone is super friendly – there’s a camaraderie and respect as everyone here has gone off the beaten track, which can build to great friendships. We’re happy we came this way, despite the weather challenges (See our blog posts by searching “Gambier storm tactics).

(Post uploaded with wifi in Gambier)

The views from Mokoto Peak

This was one of the most breathtaking places I’ve hiked to. The color of the water surrounding the islands was like a painting. Or maybe I’m still just getting used to the surreal landscapes of French Polynesia?

From the top of Mokoto peak, the second tallest in the island of Mangareva, we could see the island of Taravai to the south. The channel between these two islands is where Aldebaran first sailed into Gambier and we tacked our way to anchor. 

The four crew on Aldebaran hiked up with three Norwegians from the aluminum sloop Stella Polaris, who we had met in the Galapagos.  Recall we shared their “Storm strategy” for sailing into Gambier. It was great to see them here.

You simply can’t get enough of this view… it’s like an amazing dessert you can’t stop eating. 


We’ve been dreaming long time about this, it’s cause for Celebration!!

 I’m pointing at the anchorage of Rikitea on the right side… Aldebaran is anchored on the far inside with 15 other sailboats. 
Sabrina’s reaction to the “Pamplemousse”, which is like a big sweet grapefruit, was priceless. We grabbed one from a tree during our hike and cut into it. She was giddy with excitement over the smell, the taste, everything! Andreas from Stella Polaris was enjoying it, “you’ll get used to it after a week or two!” He said. The pamplemousse trees grow rampantly all over the island. 

One last view… check out the channels in the reef on yhe left side of the island. Many pearl farms are located there, which we will go visit once our friend Deena arrives. Ahhh… it is just so pretty here!!

The first hike in Gambier

Whoa pine trees! Look at the giant grapefruit… and check out the view!!!

These were our impressions during our first hike in Mangareva, to Mokoto Peak. The Gambier Islands are special because the whole archipelago is within a protected lagoon and there are multiple islands with nice hikes.

The temperatures are also cooler which means there is quite an array of tropical to temperate plants, including cathedral-like groves of pine trees that we saw during this hike. When we got to the top, an astounding view was had…

Note: This is our first attempt at posting by email from Rikitea’s wifi, let’s see if it works. Their internet is ultra slow but occasionally we get lucky…

The Official Check In

Arriving in each of the 7 countries we’ve visited on Aldebaran has been a distinct experience. Just like arriving by airplane, our crew must to go through customs, immigration, and the air traffic controller, which in our case is the port captain.

In Mexico, this involved driving in the back of the marina’s pickup truck to different offices scattered around town (Ensenada). In El Salvador we were greeted with machine guns (Acajutla)! In Nicaragua the corrupt port captain fined us for going “off course” (Marina Puesta del Sol). In Costa Rica it was free, but I had to trek to the airport, 40min by bus, to go through customs (Playas de Coco). In Panama we had to navigate a hair-raising 26 miles up a river (David). In Ecuador it was easy, just had to pay a bundle (less in Bahia Caraquez, more in Galapagos).

The arrival after a big ocean passage is particularly sensitive, as we are frazzled from many days at sea, and feeling of culture shock from being back in civilization… In this regard, we couldn’t have asked for a kinder reception than those by the Pitcairn Islanders on May 1; it felt like the whole town came to the launch ramp to give us a hug, fresh fruit, and handmade shell necklaces.

In contrast, many of our friends made their first landfall in Easter Island, and they reported an efficient but rigid greeting from the Chilean quarantine officials, which along with the naturalists in the island exhibited an even higher level of “control” than in Galapagos; if such a thing is possible.

Now to our experience arriving in Gambier, French Polynesia on May 9. We called the “gendarme” or police on the VHF once we were anchored. (There are no docks here – in fact the last boat marina we saw was a year ago in Golfito, Costa Rica).

“Yes, come to our office when you like,” they said in French.

After taking the dinghy to shore, we walked down the one road street in tiny Rikitea with hibiscus flowers and clean manicured lawns. A car would drive by every 30 minutes. At the Gendarmerie, we were greeted by a Tahitian lady and man in uniform. They were incredibly mellow.

“Which is your boat?” they asked, matter-of-factly.

“The trimaran, the one with three hulls,” I answered.

“Ahh, c’est bon.”

Since I doubted they would actually go look, I gave them our card with a photo of the boat.

“Uuum, merci!” The lady said.

We had a nice chat, filled in some forms, and were on our way; we were grateful to arrive in such a pleasant, unassuming place as Gambier after being away from all manner of bureaucracy for 30 days.

It’s tropical France!

At 4am, the smell of baked baguettes wafts through the air in the anchorage of Rikitea. We are in a French territory after all!

For Sabrina this is especially welcome because her dad Jean-Claude is himself from a French territory: Martinique, located in eastern Caribbean. She grew up going to Lycée Française and eating brie cheese like it’s butter (which is itself consumed in vast quantities).

It’s a special treat for Sabrina to re-live a bit of her heritage, and give her family a first-person look at the famous Polynesie Française… anything you’d like to know, respond in the comments below 🙂


The most beautiful Zig Zag ever

This is what sailors geek out over. It is quite intangible but it can say a lot — kind of like capturing the excitement of a moon landing with a chalkboard full of math formulas.

This is our “track” as we entered Rikitea, in Gambier islands, under sail with a fresh NNE wind. As we got closer the zig zags had to get tighter, as we navigated the narrow channel… with slight course corrections to avoid the pearl farm buoys.

After a 3000 mile long broad reach – sailing in trade winds across the Pacific – where we never even turned the boat once, we had to do more than 10 turns to get through the final mile.

Of course, we could have motored in a straight line, and would probably do that in the future! But the stubborn romantics within us rejoiced at “earning” that last mile, after a month at sea.

Under the Californian Flag

The flag at the stern is supposed to be from the boat’s homeport. So we put up a California flag, much to the delight of all the cruisers in the anchorage who have never seen it before.

“Vaaas is das thing ünder dis bear?” Asks the german couple.

“Well, you know, bear poop!” Sabrina responds.

Besides connecting us with our home state, flying the California flag is also informative because we are coming down from the West Coast – which so far has been a minority of the sailors – not coming from the East Coast via the Caribbean and Panama canal.

Of course, most West Coast sailors are heading straight to Marquesas from California or Mexico. We expect to run into them once we head back north to the Marquesas (it is an 8 day passage) when we leave in the next week or two. For now, it is wonderful to be in the calm sheltered anchorage of Gambier!

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.

An Overview of Gambier

The Gambier archipelago consists of a diamond shaped reef, 15 miles across, located in the south-easternmost reach of French Polynesia. Within the reef is a calm lagoon with 6 islands and several islets.

There are 2 main reef passes to enter the lagoon. In the south, the reef is actually submerged to at least 30 feet, which means access into the lagoon can be made anywhere in that quadrant. Furthermore, waves enter the lagoon from the south.

In the north, the barrier reef is well-formed, with areas that are very shallow, and other areas containing strips of land called “motus” — these are sandy islets with occasional vegetation. There is a “false pass” in the NE corner (too shallow) and a “real pass” in the NW corner (good depth).

Since the wind was blowing from the north, we chose the pass in the NW corner, which is well marked by navigation buoys. Naturally, this being a territory of France, the color indicators on the buoys were backwards! Whereas in the United States, the adage is “Red-Right-Returning” – keep Red buoys on your Right as you’re Returning from Sea – here the red buoys must be kept on the left.

According to the lore we heard (from our Master Mariner Spencer) this reversal occurred during the war of 1812 when Britain attempted to reclaim America as theirs. The willy Americans flipped the buoy colors leading into all their bays, which caused the British battle ships to flounder on the rocks. America kept this reversed buoy system, which was adopted by many countries, whereas the original system is still used in many parts of the “Old World”.

Because of Gambier’s latitude (23 degrees south), it is influenced by the low pressure systems moving in the “Roaring Forties” (around 40 degrees south). The easterly trade winds are common in the summer, but currently we’re in the autumn (April-May), leading into winter (June-August). During winter there are many fronts with rain and cool weather, including northerly and westerly winds.

The cooler air of this latitude means that a mix of tropical and temperate trees are found on the islands, including pine trees, as we saw earlier in Pitcairn. In comparison with Adamstown’s 40 inhabitants, we heard that around 1400 people live in Gambier. The main industry appears to be pearl farming; tourism is very minor.

The photo shows the rough outlines of Gambier and a satellite view of Mangareva and Taravai islands, the two largest in the archipelago. The main village and anchorage is Rikitea, where we will go first to check in to the country.

The last stretch to Gambier

At 11pm, Sabrina was at the helm. Aldebaran was skimming along as though on ice skates, with the low satisfying vibration of rhythmic speed.

This was like the trade winds! Where the boat felt like a sleigh being pulled by huskies, eerily quiet over the crests of waves and pulsating with power down the troughs; creating a contact “high” from the speed and flow. Yet we were long out of the constancy of the trades, and things change quickly.

“Kristian, the gusts are now over 20 knots… We want to drop the reacher.”

Spencer and Sabrina were harnessed on the foredeck in our yellow safety lines, and rigged the 110 genoa headsail. With their headlights shining surrounded by dark ocean, they dropped the large reacher sail and hoisted the smaller genoa – the boat was back under control without any loss in speed.

At 4am I took the helm from Spencer. The wind strengthened to 25knots from the North, the wind chop was smashing regularly onto the starboard bow, and occasional cascades of water were flying down the main cabin hatch.

At first I rushed down and re-tightened the hatch, mopping up the floor. But with the growing seas, the waterfalls continued. Our leaky hatch gasket had decided to bite the bullet and now water splashed onto the cabin sole like a mischievous fountain – much to the dismay of Michael and Spencer who were sleeping a few feet away.

I surveyed the sails from the cockpit: perfect trim. Aldebaran galloped like a horse in an overgrown trail, occasionally bursting through bushes and branches without hesitation, heading home to the stable. She is a mare going to her first truly sheltered anchorage in 30 days, and she knew it was within reach.

As the darkness lifted and grey light washed over the horizon, I saw a black mass ahead: Gambier. An impressive mountain lay like a sleeping bull, its granite peaks angled like horns that cut into the air. We were at the easternmost reaches of French Polynesia –and who hasn’t dreamt of visiting this place of tropical fantasy; and especially by sailboat?

Which makes me wonder: Why should it be any more satisfying to reach this place by sailboat, after 30 days at sea, than flying in by airplane? Is it the struggle and the buildup of expectation that brings satisfaction? Or is it something else?

I stood with hands on the cockpit coaming and watched the island for a long time, growing more distinct in the dawn. Aldebaran heeled in the wild gusts, the sails quivered with power. We had left Galapagos a month prior, at 0 degrees latitude. Now we were at 23 degrees latitude. We had sailed across the entire trade wind belt – the width of America – crossed four time zones, and watched the full moon rise at the beginning of the journey and again at the end as it began its new cycle. By sailing here, we hadn’t traveled to French Polynesia; we had gone down Earth’s elemental highway and emerged on the other side. I relished in the moment as our boat got us closer and closer.

Underway to Gambier Islands

The wind was due to pick up. It had been light NE for two days which we enjoyed to the maximum in the dreamy paradise of Oeno Atoll. Now the N wind would strengthen in anticipation of a series of small fronts heading to our latitude. So it was time to go!

We were still at anchor in Oeno when I awoke at 4am with the wind blowing moderately from the NW. This would mean a bumpy and slow “close haul” to Gambier. Oh no!

Luckily, by 8am when we raised anchor it had veered back to the N at 10 knots, and we were delighted to raise the reacher and mainsail and get under way at 4 knots of boat speed, in smooth seas and partly sunny skies. Nice!

Sabrina got inspired and began a culinary extravaganza in the galley. From the chickpeas she had begun soaking the previous day, she made from scratch falafels and humus, shelling each chick pea with Buddha-like patience to ensure smoothness in the humus. She also made pita bread and fresh yogurt. We chopped the gigantic cucumbers from Pitcairn Island, and voila! A delicious falafel feast was had that night.

Along with a glass of sauvignon blanc, motivated by Mr. Payne, we were eating in true style. We felt blessed as Aldebaran sailed smoothly under the starry night, once again stretching her legs, heading straight to our destination. The passage from Oeno Atoll to Gambier Islands is 250 nautical miles, which we could do in two nights usually. However, given the uncertainty of the conditions, we expected to complete this transit in three nights…. at which time we would reach our first truly sheltered anchorage in 30 days… and finally arrive in French Polynesia.