Hiva Oa & Tahuata – A Taste of The Marquesas (and Internet)

Hey Zack, it’s your brain. I think we should start moving west?! You caught a fish and hiked to the waterfall, and now it’s time to get a move on. We need to make it to New Zealand before December. Count it; that’s ... how many months? Wait, what month is it!? My brain was harassing me more with every passing hour I spent in Fatu Hiva. My party in the Pacific has an expiration date that is punctuated by hurricane force winds, and I arrived to the fiesta too late to diddle around one South Pacific island for any considerable amount of time. The idea of staying on only a handful of islands for only a handful of days looked much better on paper while I was sitting comfortably in the Americas. Hiva Oa was my next planned stop and one I had been looking forward to for a long time. During my crossing to the Marquesas, I considered skipping Fatu Hiva all together and heading straight for Hiva Oa, but opportunity is a rare bird and must be captured. I was now more excited than ever to visit Hiva Oa, because it dangled the most perfect proverbial carrot – the internet.

When I left for this trip last October, I was working for Apple retail in Oakland, California and was connected to the internet 24/7. I spent my workday showcasing/selling/troubleshooting devices where internet was a crucial tool. I spent my breaks browsing the net. And when I got home, I spent my evenings watching media content from the internet. Internet Internet Internet! Between my three roommates and I (all of whom worked for tech in some way or another), a typical night looked like a scene from the movie Hackers. I was so “connected” I was sure I would slip into a withdrawal-induced coma once the ocean replaced the web. I didn't. I was actually totally fine. But today when I enter a port with internet, it no longer represents a way to pass the time or find information; it represents a vital connection to the friends and family I love. It also allows me to download the latest music, movie or podcast, so I can stay sane while underway. For a single-hander like myself, the internet is a vital utility. It sounds like I am describing an addiction, and the internet is the closest thing I have to one. On Fatu Hiva, I was so close to Hiva Oa that I thought I could hear the faint tickle of people tapping away at keyboards and smartphones in my ear. I couldn't take it anymore. My addiction took hold, and I pulled up the hook.

Leaving the bay was a little tricky because of the variable strong wind that surges through the anchorage. With only one boat to avoid, I had an easier departure than Rancho, who was further in the anchorage and had more obstructions to navigate. Even with my engine churning at 2,500 rpm, the wind pushed me in strange directions and the whole departure felt a little like guiding a lunar lander to the surface of the moon while heavily intoxicated. Passing the northernmost point on Fatu Hiva, I was met with a fresh 20-knot wind and 4-foot swell from the east. It took me a good 15 minutes to get accustomed to not running with the wind. I hadn't heard the crushing sound of fiberglass smashing waves in over 3,000 miles, and it made me realize how much I don’t really care for passages. I just want to get to where I am going. I love sailing, and I love the ocean, but something has changed that makes me appreciate the place more than the passage. I guess long passages will do that to you, and Rancho assured me that some island time would bring back my sailing libido. Good wind and weather used to put a smile on my face, but now my smile gets larger and larger the closer I get to my destination. Are you becoming a landlubber?

In route to Hiva Oa

The passage was short, only 45 nautical miles, but I left in the late morning and it consumed all the light the day could legally provide. I eagerly watched Hiva Oa transitioning from a barely visible silhouette to a black, bulging mound of rainclouds. A salt-and-pepper cloud of terns accompanied me between Tahuata and Mohotani, and I was sure they were following some kind of bait fish that was being followed by some food fish, but I didn't manage to catch anything of note. I was sure my trolling lines were cursed. It was dark by the time I was on my final approach, and several rain clouds passed by giving me an impromptu shower. No time to strip naked or do laundry, but it was refreshingly warm and welcome. My sunburnt skin evaporated the water almost as fast as the droplets made contact. Looking behind me I could barely make out Rancho Relaxo before their boat was rolled into an oncoming squall. As darkness became darker, it took me several minutes to get my bearings straight despite looking at two chartplotters. The navigational aids were nestled in the background lights of the main city of Hiva Oa, Atuona, making them difficult to see until I was only a couple miles away and could hear the waves bashing against the shore. I motored in cautiously to Baie Tahauku, found an abandoned patch of water among the other cruising boats and dropped my anchor. I love day sails.

With the motor still cranking amps into the batteries, I opened up my MacBook Pro to see if the anchorage had access to an open wireless network. In the middle of an anchorage with nothing in sight but a gas station, unassisted by an antenna, my Mac picked up two open networks! Unfortunately both were pay-as-you-go services, and I wasn't about to shell out four euros an hour for internet. Or so I thought. I would have to wait until morning to cruise Atuona and sniff out the free internet. Is there a Starbucks on Hiva Oa? Now that’s a Starbucks mug I have to have.

Rancho called me over the VHF and was preparing to enter the harbor. Their engine wasn't working properly and could only be run for a couple of minutes before it fell victim to some kind of fuel obstruction. They spent a good hour tacking into the harbor, and when the entrance became too narrow, they turned on the engine and hoped it would last until they dropped their anchor. Hiva Oa was the promised land for fixing things. I watched David slowly weave through the moderately full anchorage, circle Panache once like a dog approving a snooze spot and drop his anchor. “Cheated death again!” I yelled. I adopted this victory cry from Richard Spindler while racing his boat, Profligate, in Banderas Bay, Mexico. After a day sail or a sail across an ocean, it never ceases to make me smile.

Tahauku Bay, Hiva Oa

Panache at rest in Hiva Oa

My time in Hiva Oa was spent doing three things: interneting, repairing, exploring and more interneting. Sounds familiar to any cruiser. Internet was ongoing. I discovered to my disgust that there was no such thing as free internet in French Polynesia, and that if you wanted it you would have to buy it from one of three main providers that had a brutal price structure I am convinced the devil himself devised. I don’t even want to tell you how much money I spent on internet while in FP, but I will tell you my internet budget eclipsed my food/drink budget dramatically. Tip: If you are in FP and spend any reasonable amount of time on the net, do yourself a favor and buy the 100-hour package. It’s stupid expensive and looks like too many hours, but you will use it. Buying 10-hour packages at a time will only cost twice as much. Panache—learning the hard way with confidence. While there is nothing better than an internet connection, there is nothing worse than a slow one. The internet in the anchorage was dreadfully slow. Glacially slow. I could probably carrier pigeon a handwritten letter to my parents faster than this internet could deliver an email. Even so, being without internet for so long I was surprisingly okay with such a slow connection, since announcing my arrival to the masses was such a good feeling.

Me and Bruno

With my thirst for the internet satiated for the time being, I could focus on another pressing problem: repairing my self-steering system. Three days into the crossing from the Galapagos, I noticed a clicking noise that turned out to be my self steering system deconstructing itself. I jury rigged it, but needed new stainless steel bolts and new backing plates to fix it properly. The repairs were not difficult, but finding the right parts was. Many places in Mexico claimed to sell stainless steel hardware, but many of those places either lied or sold such a crappy quality of SS that it was pointless to give it such a label. My fears were put to rest when I found a full-fledged hardware store chock full of A2 stainless steel. A4 is the grade that dominates Panache, and it has lasted a good 30 years, but A2 was good enough to get me to New Zealand. The price wasn't ideal, but having a bulletproof self-steering system was priceless.

Bolts in hand, I rowed back to Panache. My dinghy was definitely on its last legs. I discovered a small air leak but paid it no attention – as long as the sun was hot, the air inside the three tubes kept it firmly inflated. However, in the evening the dinghy wilted to a pitiful pile of rubber. The sun was on my side at this moment. The anchorage was dirt brown due to a river feeding it sediment. Allegedly this anchorage is a breeding ground for sharks and swimming is discouraged. I had this idea in my head that every anchorage ... correction, every square inch of waterfront in the South Pacific was like all the pictures and postcards I coveted my whole life. Don't believe this. Hiva Oa was indeed paradise, but the anchorage wasn't. It confused me that the warning existed in the first place, since the water looked poop brown. Who in the hell would swim in this water!? But the warning remains. As my two dissimilar oars waddled me towards Panache, I watched locals fish off a concrete pier catching baby sharks, solidifying the rumors, and at night I could hear some pretty big swishes in the water. I’m guessing it was the baby sharks’ big brother, Jaws.

I didn't have any plywood to replace the backing plates for the self steering, so I decided to jigsaw a couple circles out of my composite plastic cutting board. A white powder coating of plastic sawdust covered my cockpit giving panache a very Christmasy feel, but because the look was out of season, I cleaned it up. To unscrew and re-screw the new bolts required help from David, so I enticed him with the promise of a rum and Coke from my virgin bottle of Flor de Cana. Even with two people, the job took an unexpected amount of time. I should have expected this, though, because all boat projects are this way. We both washed the work down with a “cruiser cold” (almost warm) rum and Coke. As the alcohol slowly trickled into my bloodstream, the pinching feeling that Panache was hurt dissolved. I still had a shopping list of projects for Panache, but I am a firm believer that it’s bad luck to cross every item off one’s boat project list. The one boat I heard of that actually checked every project off the list got struck by lightning the same day. It’s a bold thought to think you are ever truly done with anything on a boat, and Poseidon will straighten you out if you think otherwise.

I finished as much work as I was comfortable with and was ready for a little exploration. My first priority was to explore the local restaurant that was bellowing out clouds of fatty oils – the beautiful byproduct of a deep fryer. Glorious. Burger, fries and a cold Tahitian beer. I almost asked for French Fries, but I guess they don't call them that. It was better than almost calling them “Freedom Fries.” Waiting for that food was on par with waiting to make landfall in Fatu Hiva. Moving from a diet that was almost void of meat to eating a burger was slightly overwhelming for my taste buds, and even more so for my stomach, but it was worth it. Filled with hollow calories, Rancho and I roamed the town and bought fresh provisions with our newly acquired handfuls of Polynesian Francs. By this point, my coin purse (a recycled Crown Royal bag) is filled with so much exotic currency that it has become difficult finding the right form of payment. I pride myself on resisting souvenirs, partly because they just clutter your life, and so the only souvenir I seem to obtain is foreign currency. But now all that change is cluttering my ability to buy things. Typical. I could tell the woman at the market was trying her hardest to repress laughter, probably from my silly pirate bag of booty.

Hinano Beer! Cold!

Rancho connected with a local woman who runs a laundry service for cruisers and who also happened to give car tours of Hiva Oa’s archeological sites. When an Australian boat opted into the package, the all-day tour became very reasonable. The next day we packed a full picnic and hopped in the back of the woman's covered pickup. Ideally I would have a month or more to explore every nook at my own slow pace, but I would have to settle for the 30-mph drive-by version. It felt good to go so fast. We wound up to the top of mountains, wove our way to the lowest valleys and snaked our way along steep coastal roads. The vistas on Hiva Oa are dramatic; large-scale scenes of mountains and sea that left my camera brimming with pixels. Every once and awhile I realized how remote all this is and it made everything more beautiful. We would stop the car when someone spotted a guava tree on public land and we would get out and do our best to strip it of all the ripe fruit. I hated guava until I had one here. So sweet with a nice texture and crunchy seeds in the center. They taste the way you would think the tropics should taste, making them fulfill an almost unreasonable expectation in my mind. Fruit picking rule: If its not on someone’s land, pick it, because it’s probably going to spoil if you don't. Hearing this just made me hungry.

Pine trees in the tropics!

Coastal Road, Hiva Oa

Bees like Guavas too!

Banana man David.

David, Guillermina, Bruno, and Viola. The Los Locos

Burning palm scraps

Hiva Oa and Tahuata in the background

red mystery bush

The archeological sites were cool but a little too static. I enjoy history from a safe distance of never studying it, making the subject a perpetual interest. Part of the problem was the language barrier, since I don’t speak French beyond the word croissant. Context aside, the huge Tikis were impressive but only held the attention of our group for an hour before our hunger steered us to a beachfront park area for lunch.

fossilized skull.

Tuna steaks, steak steaks, sausages, carrot salad, a variety of fruit, bread and cake was the complete menu. We brought too much food, and I ate way too much. The bumpy ride back was a little challenging with such a full stomach. At one point we were behind two other trucks and discovered what traffic was like in the Marquesas.

Beach front picnic

Archeological something

Hiva Oa seemed to be completely out of propane, and I was left using Rancho’s little camping stove. It worked, but it was completely inadequate for meals requiring more than hot water. I found myself eating on Rancho’s boat most nights. My lack of cooking fuel and my drive to put miles towards New Zealand pushed me onwards, a whopping 10 miles to Tahuata. Apparently Hanamoenoa Bay has one of the few white-sand beaches in the Marquesas. The islands are young volcanic rock and fall steeply into the ocean, making coral, and consequently white sand, a rarity. Hanamoenoa had it. Hanamoenoa had so much that it was like stepping in quicksand. My feet would sink a full foot into the gritty muck. It was a nice feeling and a nicer challenge to attempt to run. My brief dabble in civilization was over, back to sand, salt and coconuts. I was happy the scenery was straight out of a Cruising World article: Finding Bliss in the Marquesas.

On the way to Tahuata

Hanamoenoa Bay, Tahuata

My fishing dry spell was officially over after catching a delicious monster that was chasing the bonita I was about to catch. Ciguatera poisoning was a slight worry, but I had heard nothing of the toxin in any of the fish in the Marquesas. Rancho left for the Tuamotus a day before I did. I wasn't looking forward to the 10-day passage to Tahiti, especially with only the little camping stove I borrowed from Rancho to cook my meals. I spent one more night in Hanamoenoa and enjoyed the evening with an Australian boat named Anaconda. This family has named all their boats this after their grandfather, who escaped being killed by some Pygmies in Papua New Guinea by slaying an anaconda, blowing air into it and floating down a river to safety. Ridiculous, but stranger things have happened I guess. When they picked up the boat on the East Coast of America, they also picked up some fireworks, and we used them onshore as a post July 4th celebration – or at least that was my intent when lighting them. I wore my Old Navy American flag shirt and saluted towards the States. The 4th is one of my favorite holidays, one I find people universally enjoy. I have met people who hate firework displays, but they obviously have some serious problems. I can understand dislike of light-ur-own fireworks, they can blow off your finger and all. But professional fireworks displays!? Seriously!? Are you a nervous chihuahua!? I digress. It was dark and you couldn't stand in one spot too long or land crabs would inspect your toes for food. The crab molestation forced an awkward dance and, coupled with the non-indian reservation fireworks, made our trio look more than special. Our finale was throwing the remaining fountain fireworks into a small fire and watching the fizzles. It was strange to celebrate the United States’ independence in the Marquesas in late August. I’ll take what I can get.

July 4th celebration in late August

It was time to leave. Sliding away from land is always a little unnerving at first. I am a land creature that wishes I had gills. Or at the very least a blow hole. Just think about it like this, it’s only a 10-day passage. You just crushed a 24ish day passage. This is going to be a piece of cake. Just hunker down, read a book and enjoy the ride. It’s my brain so I have to listen, and looking at my options I found no other choice than to follow suit. To the next step.

Panache at rest in Tahuata

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