Chapter XIX – From Pitcairn Island to Mangareva

When we started the voyage to Gambier Islands, a group of islands in the south-eastern end of French Polynesia, the weather was bad, with 25-knots wind blowing steadily behind us and gusts of heavy rain. We could see the rain clouds on the radar and knew that when big spots with blue border were approaching the ship on radar’s screen, the wind would strengthen and slightly change direction as the cloud would pass the ship.

We were sure, therefore, that we are experiencing this kind of wind-and-rain gust when a big cloud approached us on the morning of June 6th. However, soon enough we saw something was wrong. Instead of stabilizing around 30 knots, the wind kept growing, and when Ziki, worried, sent us to trim the sails, it was already too late – by the time we reached the mast, the main sail was already torn to pieces and the genoa sail was fluttering hard in the wind, as the sheets snapped under the tension. While three of us tried to salvage the last pieces of the main, Alon and me were fighting hard to furl in the genoa. Rain was pouring on us, the deck was slippery, and the bow dived deeply into the waves that the gust generated, but we would hardly notice, trying as hard as we could to furl the sail fast and save it from breaking. We didn’t manage, though: mere two minutes before we managed to close the sail completely, a big gap opened in its rear end. We did the best we could to close and tie the torn part, and headed back to the bridge, drenched and exhausted. By that time, the wind had already subsided back to strong, but reasonable 28 knots. The storm had lasted for no more than 20 minutes.

Trying to fold the giant torn main sail took us all the afternoon.

Short as it was, the storm managed to inflict a lot of damage upon the ship – beside the ruined sails, worth at least six thousand dollars each, much damage was caused because of the tilt of the boat: during the storm, the water was waist high on the downwind side. All equipment unattached floated on the water surface, and some of it eventually made it into the ocean – among it, to my disappointment, was my bathing suit. What’s worse, some of the sea water got into our fuel tank through the tank air openings on the deck. We were grateful, however, that everybody was fine and we had no casualties during the storm – and retrospectively, we were risking a lot, working without lifejackets or any other kind of protection on the wet, rocking deck, which felt as if it was trying to throw us away into the ocean with each oncoming wave, so that sometimes we had to hold for our lives. Amazingly enough, the women inside the living room didn’t even feel the rolling so much, and after the wind subsided a bit were even were even able to cook a multipot lunch for everyone.

Though we hoped that the storm would make the crew forget their petty quarrels and unify us a bit, reminding of the things truly important, the result was quite the opposite. Some people were acting like the storm was the captain’s fault, and insisted we should have stayed close to the land instead of venturing into the stormy sea. As any experienced skipper prefers to be as far from the land as possible during a storm, their claimed could be easily dismissed. Some blamed the skipper for not reacting quickly enough to the storm. I have to admit, at this point Ziki and those who just wanted to help him were so tired from the hardships of the weather and the bickering of the people that we did not deign to go into discussion with the uncontented, and just went on doing the best we could to neutralize the consequences of the storm. There were five of us: Ziki, Anna and Evgeni, me and Pupi, who did her best to share the load of duties, challenging as it was for her. Danni and Kanni, still in open strife with Ziki and not allowed to do any ship operating duties, refused even to cook food, moving therefore to open mutiny, and were removed from any activity on the ship until their disembarking in Gambier Islands. Alon, who was their best friend on the boat, felt they were dealt unfairly and his own months-long quarrels with Ziki led him to join the mutineers, planning to leave the boat with them. Elena, due to her personal tensions with Ziki and the rest of us, kept distance from what was happening, but still on the other side of the barricades. Only the five of us were left to operate Lorraine-D.

Those were hard times. There was a lot of work to do on the ship even without the storm damages and the harsh weather – with the shifts divided between four people, each of us had six hours of watches to start with. Than, there was food preparation, and caring for the sails and engine – we needed to hoist our spare sails, which, though older and less efficient than the previous ones, could do the job of carrying us on. In addition to all this and the everyday ship maintenance, we had to focus everyday on some project to cope with the storm damages – pumping out the bilge, trying to revive the generator who stopped working as we found seawater in our fuel… Even though we rarely slept more than 5 hours a day, there was still work to be done, and the weather didn’t get better. Fortunately enough, the distance we had to pass wasn’t big, and the strong winds carried us at good speed towards Gambier Islands. In three days’ time, we saw land ahead of us.

French Polynesia, a huge compound of islands occupying the big part of East South Pacific, consists of five different island groups: Marquesas in the north-east, Gambier on the south-east, Tuamotu in the middle, Austral in the south, and to the west – the more famous Society Islands, one of which was Tahiti, the capital island of the country and probably the biggest hub in South Pacific. Of all these groups, Gambier were the smallest and the most remote archipelago, with a population of mere 1300 people and, so it seemed, nothing to interest the tourists. The biggest and most populated island of the group was Mangareva, a comb-shaped island surrounded by a reef making access to the island quite challenging: to approach the only port on the island, one must pass in a channel of deeper water, straight and narrow. The reef, though complicating the life of those who tried to reach the island, was a crucial key to the local settlers, who fed from the fish who swam among the coral.

Spending the night in one of the numerous lagoons of Mangareva, we entered the port near Rikitea, the archipelago’s capital village, the next day. As our outboard motor sank to sea during our Pitcairn troubles, we had to tie ourselves to the dock – after months of anchoring, it was like sleeping in a proper house instead of a tent. We were glad to say goodbye to Danny and Kanni, and never to see them again – their behavior on the ship was unnerving, and we hoped their departure would improve the grim atmosphere. We then planned to stay a few days, buy some fresh fruit and fuel and head on to Tahiti.

Mangareva was the most quiet and isolated island I had a chance to encounter during my travels, except of course Pitcairn. Its small population of a bit more that a thousand people lived quiet village life, interrupted by occasional boatees, and once-a-week flight from Tahiti, but other than that, nothing much happened on the island. The only service facilities were a post office, a police stations, and too small grocery stores; a food place nominally existed, serving the clients ready plates of food for a small price, without having any tables to sit by. There was one inn on the island, which held probably the only piece of beach that could be used by tourists, as most of the shoreline was occupied by private estates. There was absolutely nothing for tourists to do, so the community lived its small, private life, without showing itself off to anyone, on this beautiful piece of land.

All shades of blue of Gambier waters. The small white dots are pearl farms.

And beautiful it was: from the Momotomo peak, I could see a gorgeous view of the forest-covered spurs, with lagoons between them filled with water of all colors. The color of the water depended mostly on how high the reef rose, and most of the waters around the island were too shallow to navigate with a boat bigger than va’a, local outrigger canoe; from the mountain, you could see clearly the access channel that we came through the day before. All inside the lagoons were spread small houses, built on the shallow waters over the reef: those were the pearl farms. The famous Tahitian black pearls are actually farmed mainly in Tuamotu and Gambier, and sent over to Tahiti for sale. The pearls are grown by inserting an implant of Missisipi River mussel inside the shell coat, and it takes about three years for a pearl to form.

Our Mangareva friends

The contact with the locals proved to be very fruitful this time: the local young guys, who helped us to buy the fuel, turned out to be exceptionally friendly, and after sharing our meal, they brought us all kinds of fruit, including a sack of local-grown pomeloes, and the famous breadfruit. As we didn’t really know what to do with it, they also showed us how to fry bread fruit chips. Curiously, most of their families didn’t come from Gambier: the Polynesian population of this part of south Pacific was quite mixed, and migration between different groups of French Polynesia, Cook Islands and Hawaii was quite common. One of them actually has spent some time very close to Israel: he used to serve in UNIFIL, Lebanon UN peace corp, in 2006 during his French Army service, and had his own stories about Second Lebanon war.

In the evening, an unpleasant event happened that urged us to leave Gambier on the next day: a drunk local came to the boat looking for Danny. Turned out, between the shows Danny made his living growing and selling marijuana, and he brought quite a stock with him to Mangareva to sell. That made Ziki very worried: if Danny was arrested and could be traced back to Lorraine-D, this could have gotten the boat into big trouble. This is why, even though we had an insufficient amount of fuel, we arranged ourselves to leave. Before the departure, we had a very pleasant surprise: the Polynesian guys we hosted yesterday came to the dock to say goodbye and to bring us a farewell present – real black pearls of local produce. After mere two days on Mangareva, we were on to our next port – Tahiti.

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